The argument from poor design, also known as the dysteleological argument, is an argument against the assumption of the existence of a creator God, based on the reasoning that any omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity or deities would not create organisms with the perceived suboptimal designs that occur in nature.

The argument is structured as a basic modus ponens: if "creation" contains many defects, then design appears an implausible theory for the origin of earthly existence. Proponents most commonly use the argument in a weaker way, however: not with the aim of disproving the existence of God, but rather as a reductio ad absurdum of the well-known argument from design (which suggests that living things appear too well-designed to have originated by chance, and so an intelligent God or gods must have deliberately created them).

Although the phrase "argument from poor design" has seen little use, this type of argument has been advanced many times using words and phrases such as "poor design", "suboptimal design", "unintelligent design" or "dysteleology/dysteleological". The nineteenth-century biologist Ernst Haeckel applied the term "dysteleology" to the implications of organs so rudimentary as to be useless to the life of an organism.[1] In his 1868 book Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte (The History of Creation), Haeckel devoted most of a chapter to the argument, ending with the proposition (perhaps with tongue slightly in cheek) of "a theory of the unsuitability of parts in organisms, as a counter-hypothesis to the old popular doctrine of the suitability of parts".[1] In 2005, Donald Wise of the University of Massachusetts Amherst popularised the term "incompetent design" (a play on "intelligent design"), to describe aspects of nature seen as flawed in design.[2]

Traditional Christian theological responses generally posit that God constructed a perfect universe but that humanity's misuse of its free will to rebel against God has resulted in the corruption of divine good design.[3][4][5]


Natural selection is expected to push fitness to a peak, but that peak often is not the highest.

The argument runs that:

  1. An omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator God would create organisms that have optimal design.
  2. Organisms have features that are suboptimal.
  3. Therefore, God either did not create these organisms or is not omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent.

It is sometimes used as a reductio ad absurdum of the well-known argument from design, which runs as follows:

  1. Living things are too well-designed to have originated by chance.
  2. Therefore, life must have been created by an intelligent creator.
  3. This creator is God.

"Poor design" is consistent with the predictions of the scientific theory of evolution by means of natural selection. This predicts that features that were evolved for certain uses are then reused or co-opted for different uses, or abandoned altogether; and that suboptimal state is due to the inability of the hereditary mechanism to eliminate the particular vestiges of the evolutionary process.

In fitness landscape terms, natural selection will always push "up the hill", but a species cannot normally get from a lower peak to a higher peak without first going through a valley.

The argument from poor design is one of the arguments that was used by Charles Darwin;[6] modern proponents have included Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, and Nathan H. Lents. They argue that such features can be explained as a consequence of the gradual, cumulative nature of the evolutionary process. Theistic evolutionists generally reject the argument from design, but do still maintain belief in the existence of God.[citation needed]


In humans

Fatal flaws

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Artist's representation of an ectopic pregnancy. Critics cite such common biological occurrences as contradictory to the 'watchmaker analogy'.

American scientist Nathan H. Lents published his book on poor design in the human body and genome in 2018 titled Human Errors. The book ignited a firestorm of criticism from the creationist community[7][8] but was well received by the scientific community and received unanimously favorable reviews[9] in the dozens of non-creationist media outlets that covered it.

Several defects in human anatomy can result in death, especially without modern medical care:

Other flaws

Other life


Specific examples

Intelligent design proponent William Dembski questions the first premise of the argument, claiming that "intelligent design" does not need to be optimal.[30]

While the appendix has been previously credited with very little function, research has shown that it serves an important role in the fetus and young adults. Endocrine cells appear in the appendix of the human fetus at around the 11th week of development, which produce various biogenic amines and peptide hormones, compounds that assist with various biological control (homeostatic) mechanisms. In young adults, the appendix has some immune functions.[31]

Responses to counterarguments

In response to the claim that uses have been found for "junk" DNA, proponents note that the fact that some non-coding DNA has a purpose does not establish that all non-coding DNA has a purpose, and that the human genome does include pseudogenes that are nonfunctional "junk", with others noting that some sections of DNA can be randomized, cut, or added to with no apparent effect on the organism in question.[32] The original study that suggested that the Makorin1-p1 served some purpose[33] has been disputed.[34] However, the original study is still frequently cited in newer studies and articles on pseudogenes previously thought to be nonfunctional.[35]

As an argument regarding God

The argument from poor design is sometimes interpreted, by the argumenter or the listener, as an argument against the existence of God, or against characteristics commonly attributed to a creator deity, such as omnipotence, omniscience, or personality. In a weaker form, it is used as an argument for the incompetence of God. The existence of "poor design" (as well as the perceived prodigious "wastefulness" of the evolutionary process) would seem to imply a "poor" designer, or a "blind" designer, or no designer at all. In Gould's words, "If God had designed a beautiful machine to reflect his wisdom and power, surely he would not have used a collection of parts generally fashioned for other purposes. Orchids are not made by an ideal engineer; they are jury-rigged...."[36]

The apparently suboptimal design of organisms has also been used by theistic evolutionists to argue in favour of a creator deity who uses natural selection as a mechanism of his creation.[37] Arguers from poor design regard counter-arguments as a false dilemma, imposing that either a creator deity designed life on earth well or flaws in design indicate the life is not designed. This allows proponents of intelligent design to cherry pick which aspects of life constitute design, leading to the unfalsifiability of the theory. Christian proponents of both intelligent design and creationism may claim that good design indicates the creative intelligence of their God, while poor design indicates corruption of the world as a result of free will that caused the fall of man (for example, in Genesis 3:16 Yahweh says to Eve "I will increase your trouble in pregnancy").[38]

See also


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  3. ^ Harry Hahne, The Corruption and Redemption of Creation: Nature in Romans 8, Volume 34
  4. ^ Gregory A. Boyd, God at War: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict
  5. ^ ed. Charles Taliaferro, Chad Meister, The Cambridge Companion to Christian Philosophical Theology, pages 160-161 - "Fundamental to the position is Augustine's view that the universe God created is good; everything in the universe is good and has good purpose [...]. [...] How did evil arise? It came about, he maintains, through free will. [...] some of God's free creatures turned their will from God, the supreme Good, to lesser goods. [...] It happened first with the angels and then [...] with humans. This is how moral evil entered the universe and this moral fall, or sin, also brought with it tragic cosmic consequences, for it ushered in natural evil as well."
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Further reading