The argument from poor design, occasionally referred to as the dysteleological argument, is an argument that takes sub-optimal (sometimes seemingly egregious) design in nature and uses it as evidence against an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator deity.
It is important to note that this post is purely an explication of the argument, not a positive defense of it. I will take a stance on whether the argument is successful or unsuccessful in future posts in this series. This first post is simply meant to lay the groundwork for the argument and to briefly characterize some of the reasons one might find it initially plausible.
First, I will provide the argument from design to give some context. A popular version is as follows:
(1) Living things are too well-designed to have originated by chance.
(2) If (1) is true, then life was created by an intelligent creator.
(3) If (2) is true, then God exists.
(4) Therefore, God exists.
The argument from poor design runs as follows:
(1) An omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient creator deity would not create organisms with suboptimal, poor, and egregious design.
(2) There exist organisms with suboptimal, poor, and egregious design.
(3) Therefore, God either did not create these organisms or is not omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient.
It may be evident to most that this is a valid conclusion drawn from the premises (because it is modus tollens), but I may as well provide the reasoning. Let O=omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient, let G= creator deity (God), and let D= organisms with optimal design. 1. (O^G)=>D 2. ~D 3. ~(O^G), or ~O v ~G (by DeMorgan’s law). However, the validity is not the thing we want to examine, but rather the justification of the premises.
Let’s turn to the potential justification for premise one.
Premise one is based on a version of the argument from design, which states that organisms are extremely complex, intricate, and well-designed, and that these facts imply an intelligent designer. If this designer is intelligent, omnipotent, omniscient, and essentially morally perfect, it seems we would expect such a being’s design of the universe and the organisms contained within it to be optimal (after all, optimal design seems indicative of significantly more intelligence than clearly suboptimal design).
Imagine you are designing a computer. If you were intelligent, you would arrange things that work optimally for the functioning of the computer. You would create a fully functional and even exceptional hard drive, and you would want to minimize the amount of energy it takes to maximize the amount of work you want done. So, if you were intelligent, you would design the computer optimally. If you were inept, impotent, incompetent, or negatively limited in some manner, your computer design would be slapdash and disjointed. It would be very suboptimal.
The aforementioned analogy (one may argue) justifies the proposition that suboptimal and poor design are not to be expected under the hypothesis of a perfect and intelligent designer. Thus, blatant suboptimal design would seem to constitute evidence against a perfect and intelligent designer.
It should be noted that any information constitutes evidence for a hypothesis if that hypothesis explains that evidence better than other hypotheses. This seems to be the case with evolution and intelligent design. Evolution can only mold pre-existent biological diversity, but a designer can go back to the drawing board. The dysteleological argument, then, can rightly be interpreted as an attempt to justify that our observations are precisely what we would expect on a non-designed evolutionary model of the universe instead of an intelligently designed one.
Let’s turn next to the potential justification of premise two.
The clearest justification for this premise is simply pointing to vestigial structures, wisdom teeth, gill slits and fur in fetuses, pseudogenes, junk DNA, and the enzyme RuBisCO.
RuBisCO, for instance, has been described as a “notoriously inefficient” enzyme, since it is inhibited by oxygen, has a very slow turnover, and is not saturated at current levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The enzyme is often inhibited because it is unable to adequately distinguish between carbon dioxide and molecular oxygen, with oxygen acting as a competitive enzyme inhibitor. However, RuBisCO remains the key enzyme in carbon fixation, and plants overcome its poor activity by having massive amounts of it inside their cells — making it the most abundant protein on Earth.
Other cited examples include the common malformation of the human spinal column (leading to scoliosis, sciatica, and congenital misalignment of the vertebrae), the scaphoid carpal with only one blood vessel, and the cells of the retina facing backwards (thus causing a blind spot where the optic nerve protrudes).
Other cited instances run as follows:
- The sympathetic nervous system, when malfunctioning in people with anxiety, constantly exposes us to the deleterious effects of the prehistoric mechanism.
- The scrotum is one of the most vulnerable parts of the male body, and it completely lacks adequate protection, especially given the fact that it houses the means by which we propagate our genes.
- Energy economy seems wholly suboptimally designed.
- All the trees in a forest are an example of this. If an intelligent designer could design a forest, the trees, in order to be economically profitable, would all have to be the same length and would all be very short. Under a non-designed natural selection process, by contrast, one would expect the trees to constantly compete with one another higher in higher — despite the fact that they are wasting energy in the process. This is highly economically unprofitable.
- The sun’s energy is profoundly wasted; every tier you climb on the energy pyramid/ecological pyramid, only approximately ten percent of the energy is available to the consumers.
In addition, in retrospect it seems much more advantageous, healthy, profitable, and intelligent to create humans who craved nutrients, vitamins, and vegetables rather than just calories. But over the millennia during which our ancestors evolved, calories were scarce, and there was nothing to anticipate that this would later change so rapidly — creating massive epidemics of obesity, heart disease, and death (burgers, doughnuts, cookies, hot dogs, fat, and sugar at the tips of our fingers).
In the future posts of the series, I will consider various criticisms of the argument.