Argument from Design Busted!

How DNA is like a Rube Goldberg machineThe Argument from Design (the Teleological Argument) says that life looks designed. We marvel at the cell’s tiny protein-building machines. Some bacteria have flagella that propel them at twice the proportionate speed (body lengths per second) of a running cheetah. A single microscopic cell is able to divide and differentiate into a full-grown oak or bear or human.

William Paley famously said over two centuries ago, “The marks of design are too strong to be gotten over. Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is God.”

We must avoid the temptation, however, to imagine that complexity implies design. Elegance might, but mere complexity (especially unnecessary or sloppy complexity) doesn’t give much support for design. The cell, marvelously complicated though it is, may be more a Rube Goldberg machine than the elegant product of an omniscient designer.

What Does the Argument from Design Mean?

The Argument from Design imagines that we see the hand of a designer. All right, then: what would that look like? The only designers we know are human designers. (Let’s ignore the possibility of animal designers.) The Argument from Design then says: life looks like it would if made by a human designer with sufficient capability.

Consider the design criteria human designers use. A bridge might be designed for unusually high loads, so strength would be most important in this design. Or maybe speed of assembly is an important criterion. Maybe the bridge is remote, so it should have a long life or be maintenance free. Maybe transportation is difficult, so it must use local materials. Maybe it’s in the middle of a town or city, so beauty is important.

These goals—strength, speed of assembly, durability, limits on materials, beauty—are just some of the criteria designers might follow. But a criterion you never find in a human design is that the finished product should have added junk.

You may not like the Art Deco decorations at the top of the Chrysler building, but they were put there deliberately to follow the criterion of beauty. You may find a design that was poorly built or left unfinished, but that was never a goal of the designer. Useless junk is never in a design on purpose.

Contrast this with the crap DNA has in it (as discussed in a recent post). Human DNA has a broken vitamin C gene in every cell as well as 20,000 other nonworking pseudogenes. Eight percent of our genome is composed of nonworking junk injected by viruses over millions of years. Atavisms (archaic genes that are accidentally switched on, like human tails) and vestigial structures (such as eyes in cave fish) are flashbacks to body features from species in the distant past. Onions have much more DNA than humans do, as do lots of other plants and animals.

The Christian Response

Creationist responses such as Jonathan Wells’ The Myth of Junk DNA argue that we keep finding new uses for fragments of human DNA that we previously thought were nonfunctional. Okay, so the fraction that we think is useless will decrease. Will it go to zero? Will we find that onions really do need five times more DNA than humans? There is no reason to imagine this, and junk DNA lives on.

The Design Argument says that life looks as if an omnipotent human designed it. It’s clearly wrong. DNA, the marvelous molecule that apologists point to as evidence of a designer, looks unlike anything that any sane designer would make. DNA alone is enough to sink the Design Argument.

Note that you can’t just say that life is impressive or amazing or marvelous or complex. True or not, that would be irrelevant. These attributes could apply to lots of things—crystals are complex and snowflakes are amazing and rainbows are marvelous, but they weren’t created by a designer. You must show how life follows design rules that a designer (and the only examples of designers that we have are human ones) would have followed.

Another Christian response: I guess that just shows that God has a broad palette. Tidy DNA or sloppy DNA, clearly these organisms work. I’m not complaining.

Yes, they work, but don’t make the Designer Argument to explain then.

Intelligent Design proponent Stephen Meyer said, “DNA functions like a software program. We know from experience that software comes from programmers.”

Not really. Some software comes from programmers, and some comes from random processes. Genetic programming evolves software like evolution evolves life forms. Competing versions of a program are randomly mutated and then selected for fitness, all within a computer. The winning programs in such an evolutionary process are the sloppiest software imaginable—not at all what a human would design, but reminiscent of DNA.

God’s design was perfect initially, but the Fall—that whole snake-and-apple thing—caused the imperfections in life that we see today.

Why would a human failing cause sloppiness in non­-human DNA? Anyway, this is irrelevant. It simply accepts that life doesn’t look designed, and the Design Argument fails.

Ah, but God is inscrutable. We don’t understand his ways. He designs in his own way that might seem bizarre to us.

If God’s handiwork is so bizarre that it doesn’t look like the work of any designer, then don’t make the Design Argument!

Does God exist? Maybe, but the Design Argument, which says that we see in life the attributes of design, is no tool by which to make the case.

There’s one thing the Bible makes clear:
The biblical God is a sloppy manufacturer.
He’s not good at design, he’s not good at execution.
He’d be out of business if there was any competition.
Contact by Carl Sagan

Clueless John the Baptist
Two Sizes Too Small: For What Social Errors Will History Condemn Us?
25 Stupid Arguments Christians Should Avoid (Part 8)
10 Skeptical Principles for Evaluating the Bible (2 of 2)
About Bob Seidensticker
  • Reginald Selkirk

    Creationist responses such as Jonathan Wells’ The Myth of Junk DNA…

    Wells is a member of the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, i.e. a “Moonie.” It is questionable whether that counts as Christian or not.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Fundamentalists might well question his Christian credentials, but they will be happy to accept his scholarly credentials–he is one of the few anti-evolutionists who actually has a degree in biology.

  • Makoto

    This reminds me of a story of a few programmers who sought to make battle-AI within a given framework. At first, each of the programmers tried to design the best battle AI to win the game, or to beat one specific AI that was winning before. Then one person hit on the idea of using genetic algorithms.. and no one could touch his AI after that in battle. Each week we battled, his would win, then he’d run his genetic AI through hundreds of thousands of more battles against all known AIs, leaving him with something even better.. unless the environment changed, of course.

    Yeah, evolution is still superior to human design, even when humans are doing both the design and the evolution. It often ends up with weird stuff that we might not understand at first, or might be useless in the grand scheme of things, but it works.

  • Kodie

    I don’t really want to ignore the animal designers. We already know humans are fantastic at creating stuff, and yet imperfect. The all of all is so much more than that we might pause to consider someone so much more than us had to do it. That’s the ego of the animal that invented god. I guess if we’re talking about DNA specifically, then you’re excluding animals shaping that particularly. It’s not like other animals to put these things in a laboratory environment and create, like, an ear on the back of a mouse, or something. But animals are designers. When an animal needs shelter, they look for resources they can use, sticks or mud or hair or paper towels or regular towels. The male bower bird tries to impress the females with a real pad, color coordinated and sound-optimized and everything. Squirrels say this looks safe and comfortable, I’m going to stuff a bunch of leaves in it and hide from the world up here. It’s not just diversified species, it’s how they make a home. If a squirrel can do for themselves, why do we need god?

    Anyway, I don’t know why it’s not as simple as saying, I yawn and my cat yawns; I need to eat and my cat needs to eat; animals mate, they poop, they have skeletons like we do, or we do like them. Where in the “designed” DNA is the soul? There are two different arguments here. There is the mystical stuff of the soul and the mind (not the brain), with magical stuff like resurrection and an invisible location known as hell where you go after you die, and there is this need to make that preposterous argument legitimize their angle by appearing to be science. I don’t even know how to make that reconcile, but it seems people are so eager to prove their worldview that they have to puff it up with nonsense. I thought we were supposed to be more intelligent and special than other animals that to insist we descended from apes is to insist that we are “no better than apes.” Well we have a lot of the similar behaviors prior mentioned. Why, if we’re not related to them, do we behave an awfully lot like them? But we’re not them, we have our own special behaviors. We don’t throw poop, but we have lousy tempers sometimes and fling bad words or even draw guns. We build houses, birds build houses, bees build houses. If you’re doing a report in school about bears, you know it’s not going to be the same as the other kid’s report about lions. But it’s impossible not to notice a housecat acts a lot like a lion, while still having its own behaviors that are dissimilar to a lion. Nobody ever says to say such a thing means cats now have license to behave like lions!

    And then if you’re looking at cells. We eat eggs from a chicken. We know other birds lay eggs, and so do turtles and some snakes and lizards. Wait – humans also have eggs. Chickens have skin, and humans have skin. Chickens have feathers and we don’t have feathers. Chickens have wings but they also have fingers, useless ones, but they’re there. Say we are close enough to a chicken but quite different. A lot closer to apes, but still different from apes! Nobody is saying we have to act like apes if evolution is true – evolution means we are a different animal! Who can deny this except if you are totally not knowledgeable about science and still need to feel up on things? They know all the magical stuff is going to lose a lot of people unless they come up with something that appears to be just as intellectual as their foe, science.

    It’s not that DNA isn’t impressive to behold, but it’s really hard for me to wrap my brain around the concept that “it couldn’t just happen that way without a designer” without considering that means that it did just happen that way. A thing proposed to exist caused all the other things. Yes, that’s what happened. Why does that mean gay people can’t get married, or what does that have to do with why I’m in special need of salvation while my cat is not? ID is another one of their parlor tricks. “Prove it to yourself and you will then be compelled to interfere with other people’s lives and give us 10% of your income.” Would anyone sell their soul to Jesus for any other illusion? I thought we were the superior intelligent beings here.

  • arkenaten

    “It looks like its been designed therefore it must have a designer and this designer must be God. Case closed, Yer Honour.”
    “Thank you, Inspector Christian. But may I ask where you came up with the notion of a god?”
    “Sorry, Yer Honour that’s God with a capital G. I could hear the lower case. ”
    “Will you please answer the question, Inspector Christian.”
    “Well, Yer Honour, God’s in the bible, so it must be true.”
    “Ah, I see. And it never crossed your mind that this god….sorry, God might have been made up; that without the bible in the first instant you would never have stumbled upon the notion of a god or God?”
    “No, Yer Honour it’s in the bible y’see.”
    “Yes, Inspector Christian, so you keep insisting. And , yes, I think I do see. Case dismissed.”

  • avalon

    The argument from design assumes that a design preceeded the object or organism in question. It says that the parts came together in a certain way in order to fulfill a certain function to obtain a certain goal.
    In the case of a household thermostat this is true. Someone had a goal of regulating the temperature of a space by cycling a heat source on and off. They designed each part to function together as a whole to acheive that goal.
    But parts can combine accidentally and function as a whole where the goals are merely emergent properties of the random combination of elements.
    Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park works very much like a household thermostat. The temerature (and pressure) of the water underground is self-regulated by the interplay of geo-thermal heating, steam pressure, and the weight of a column of water. When the maximum temperature is reached the water is pushed upwards thru the vent and more cold water fills the column where the heating process begins again. Like a man-made thermostat, Old Faithful keeps the water temperature and pressure within a certain range. But this function and design emerged by accident. Unlike a thermostat, there was no design or function in any mind prior to the formation of the geyser. The parts just happened to come together to form a very regular pattern.

    The appearance of design (functions and goals) can be an emergent property of a system which comes about randomly by accident. This is what the theory of evolution proved. Old Faithful is an example of an inorganic system where this happened. An organic system (single cells) is more complex but still possible as a random combination of molecules.


    • Bob Seidensticker


      Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park works very much like a household thermostat.

      Makes me think of chemical clocks that will change after a certain period or even oscillate between two states.

    • Kodie

      And using Old Faithful as an example: it exists as a wonder of the world. If it serves a purpose, it’s really local and not really for humans, except to marvel at. “What god can do”. Water is necessary to life, and yet, people live far from water and have to irrigate from farther sources of water. Why are there so many climates, many of them not favorable or habitable to human life – if we’re in the “sweet spot,” why do humans have to compensate in order to live most places? If the earth were made for human life, I think it would have the same resources spread evenly for all the people. We’re obviously in competition for those places and their advantages, which tends to incite wars.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        And if you look at the universe as a whole, it’s pretty much all hostile to human life, or life of any kind.

        • avalon

          Not to mention the fact that the sun is “designed” to burn out eventually, killing any chance that any life on earth will survive. (It actually swells up in size before it burns out, frying earth to a crisp).

        • Kodie

          The argument from design seems to suppose we’re special because we’re unique in the universe. But what you’re saying is interesting too. Why would god make so many places and no people to live there or ways to get there? We have to do everything ourselves, and on the one hand, it’s ok to build your house on stilts if you live in an area where water rises (instead of face “the consequences”); it’s ok to ride in a boat across the ocean to see if there is somewhere you can live, and it’s ok to massacre the people who already live there, but science is fake and humankind was never meant for inter-stellar travel so we should just stay put and be happy where we are and use up all the oil and clean water, because it sounds like something god would do is make the earth’s resources into a bottomless box of cookies and just the right amount of milk. That is so weird that they believe the earth replenishes itself for humans and nothing has ever gone extinct before. They’ve never experienced taking a full tank of gas, even when it’s expensive, for granted when the needle hits E, and they seem to think things like marriage equality and abortion rights have something to do with having our resources possibly taken away from us. If Islam is wrong, why do they have all the oil?

  • ConradB

    I think you missed the most obvious solution. Clearly god is a postmodernist.

    • Bob Seidensticker


  • Patrick

    Bob Seidensticker: “Creationist responses such as Jonathan Wells’ The Myth of Junk DNA argue that we keep finding new uses for fragments of human DNA that we previously thought were nonfunctional. Okay, so the fraction that we think is useless will decrease. Will it go to zero?“

    I’m not an expert on this issue, but the following contribution seems to show that the idea that there is “Junk DNA” has been seriously challenged by recent scientific findings:

    • Bob Seidensticker


      First, let’s flag that reference with an asterisk because it comes from a biased source. That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, just means that we need to proceed with caution.

      Second, my point is not, “Human DNA contains junk.” It obviously does, but I focus on the far stronger, far more easily defended point: DNA contains junk.

      I used human DNA examples to bring it home, but the problem is most easily seen with the onion test: why would the onion actually need 5 times more DNA than a human? Indeed, Jonathan Wells himself has said as much. I asked him about this at his book launch, and he admitted that his focus was simply “Human DNA doesn’t have junk” (probably more precisely: Human DNA doesn’t have much junk). Broadening to take in all DNA shows how limited that claim is.

  • Virginia Fitzpatrick

    The reason for the DNA junk is obvious. The natural world was not created by God but by a committee and their version control program crashed.

  • Jerry Doerr

    For the onion DNA argument to work strongly for me, you need to show that an onion doesn’t really need 5 times our DNA. After all, we are only the pinnacle of evolution in our own eyes. Maybe onions are supremely adapted to … something … and so need all that DNA.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      The whole “junk DNA” issue is a bit up in the air as new uses are found for noncoding DNA.

      We should keep in mind though that the original label was supposed to bring to mind a junk yard, not a garbage dump. Sometimes you go to a junk yard to retrieve something you didn’t know you wanted.

      Yes, maybe onions really do need 5× more DNA than we do. And some protozoa need 200× more. If Creationists wants to go down that path, I’m happy to let them.