The Case for a Creator: Dysteleology

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 4

In the last section of his interview with Stephen Meyer, Lee Strobel brings up the dysteleological argument, asking how intelligent design can account for the faults and imperfections in the natural world that would seem to cast doubt on the wisdom or benevolence of the designer. He begins with a classic argument, the inverted retina. Quoting Ken Miller:

“We would have to wonder why an intelligent designer placed the neural wiring of the retina on the side facing the incoming light… This arrangement… produces a blind spot at the point where the wiring is pulled through the light-sensitive retina to produce the optic nerve that carries visual images to the brain.” [p.86]

Meyer waves this off, claiming (without further explanation) that this arrangement is “a tradeoff that allows the eye to process the vast amount of oxygen it needs in vertebrates” [p.87], which Strobel accepts without qualm. He admits that this arrangement produces a blind spot, but “that’s not a problem because people have two eyes and the two blind spots don’t overlap”. I’m sure the families of people killed in car accidents because they didn’t see the other car in their blind spot will be relieved to hear that.

Although Meyer doesn’t go into any more detail about what he means, I’m assuming it’s the same argument as given here by Michael Denton. But even if one accepts the creationist argument that the retina needs extra blood supply, that still doesn’t explain why there has to be a hole in it for those vessels to pass through. (It also doesn’t explain why octopuses do just fine with a non-inverted retina and no blind spot – unless the designer liked them better than us.)

Moving on from this point, Meyer tries to ward off the dysteleology argument by claiming that all design has “inevitable tradeoffs and compromises”. This is true, but misses the point. We’re not faulting adaptations for being less than theoretically perfect, but for being demonstrably suboptimal, such that they could have been unequivocally improved by an intelligent designer without making any tradeoffs. The inverted retina is one. Another, possibly even better example is the human appendix, which in the absence of modern surgery results in about 1 in 15 people dying slowly in great pain from peritonitis. If this is the result of design, one shudders to consider the intelligence of the designer.

We move on to another classic evolutionary exaptation:

“For instance, Gould claimed the panda’s thumb looks jerry-rigged and not designed. Well, experts on the panda say it’s a pretty efficient way of scraping the bark off bamboo.” [p.88]

Again, Meyer has obscured the argument here. It doesn’t matter how efficient the panda’s thumb is: the point that matters is what the panda’s thumb is.

Like most vertebrates, human beings have five digits – in our case, four non-opposable fingers and one opposable finger, the thumb. Pandas have the same five digits, but they are all non-opposable. The panda’s “thumb” is a sixth digit, a pseudo-finger created by enlarging and extending a wrist bone called the radial sesamoid.


The panda’s thumb. On the left is the hand of a modern giant panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca. Note the five digits and the enlarged radial sesamoid. On the right is the hand of an extinct carnivorous mammal, Simocyon batalleri, a possible panda ancestor (source).

The panda’s thumb is not an example of dysteleology in the sense that the inverted retina is. It’s an example of evolutionary tinkering – the haphazard, jury-rigged kind of adaptation that we see again and again in the natural world, what led Richard Dawkins to call evolution a “blind watchmaker”. Because of the random nature of mutation, it’s to be expected that evolution would sometimes solve the same problem in different ways. On the other hand, if there is an intelligent designer, why didn’t he just give the panda four fingers and an opposable thumb, the way primates have?

The jury-rigged, ad hoc nature of adaptation is just what we would expect from evolution. ID, on the other hand has no explanation for this, other than postulating a capricious, whimsical designer who repeatedly reinvents the wheel rather than reusing his own solutions from other lineages. In other words, ID advocates have to assume a designer whose work looks like the product of evolution.

To close out the chapter, Meyer resorts to another all-purpose excuse to explain any examples of dysteleology he might have missed:

“The Bible says there has been decay or deterioration because evil entered the world and disrupted the original design… Based on the biblical account, we would expect to see both evidence of design in nature as well as evidence of deterioration or decay – which we do.” [p.88]

In other words: everything good can be credited to God, everything bad can be blamed on sin (although it’s not explained why human sin resulted in “deterioration or decay” among other species – this is something that Christian apologists since Milton have had difficulty with). One wonders if the appendix represents “deterioration or decay”, and if so, from what. Did pre-Fall humans have an herbivore’s cecum filled with cellulose-digesting bacteria? Did Adam and Eve browse on grass in Eden?

On that note, it’s worth pointing out that this statement seemingly places Meyer in the camp of the young-earth creationists, those who believe in a literal Garden of Eden, a literal serpent tempter and a human race descended from just two people. If that’s the kind of outright nonsense that Strobel is endorsing, his claim to be presenting the latest cutting-edge science goes up in smoke. We’ll get more into this topic in the next chapter.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.pippinbarr.com Pippin

    Thought was a good post in general. I was a little concerned by your rhetoric surrounding the human eye’s blind spot and car accidents, however, for two reasons. One is that I’ve been unable to find any useful evidence (online, admittedly) that the eye’s blindspot has been linked to accidents – though of course the burden of proof there is a little difficult. Also important, though, is that the term ‘blindspot’ in the context of car accidents traditionally refers to blindspots associated with the car itself, usually in terms of the rear-view mirror. I thought it was somewhat unfair to implicitly conflate the two, as it seemed to trade on people’s well-founded fear of the car blindspot with the clearly less well understood issue of whether the human eye’s blindspot can cause accidents.

  • Chris Soanes

    “I’m sure the families of people killed in car accidents because they didn’t see the other car in their blind spot will be relieved to hear that.”

    While I agree with your reasoning, you should avoid this kind of sophistry when making arguments – it tries to appeal on an emotional level rather than a logical one. We’re trying to persuade people to use logical thinking and scientific evidence, not emotions!

  • 2-D Man

    I’m sure the families of people killed in car accidents because they didn’t see the other car in their blind spot will be relieved to hear that.

    These two ‘blind spots’ are not the same thing, although they refer to the same phenomenon: you’re not aware of the things you cannot perceive.

    The driving blind spot occurs when you cannot see something around your car while looking ahead. You can see ahead of you; you can see behind you; you can see things almost beside you. If something is beside you, you’d never know unless you turn your head; this is a blind spot. Search the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia for “blind spot” and read the first two pages of the first document that comes up for a better description.

    The eye’s blind spot occurs, as mentioned, due to a lack of receptors in one spot on the retina. For anyone who hasn’t seen such a phenomenon, you can check it yourself: draw two dots on a page about four inches apart. Close your left eye and position the left dot directly in front of your right eye and stare at it with the paper about three inches away from your face. Slowly move the paper away from your face until it is about one foot away. The right dot in your peripheral vision should disappear. (For a bit of a mindtrip, move your thumb into your blind spot, now that you can detect it. It looks like the tip of your thumb has been removed.)

    Meyer is right, your two eyes do cover each other’s blind spot (and it has nothing to do with driving). His point, however, indicates an ad hoc solution or a design error: the use of software (such as the brain’s control of the eyes) to make up for a hardware flaw.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    What but design of darkness to apall?
    By Ian Musgrave on July 7, 2004 1:30 AM

    Jonathan Witt Wrote:
    Never mind for the moment that it has been clearly demonstrated that the backward wiring of the mammalian eye actually confers a distinct advantage by dramatically increasing the flow of oxygen to the eye

    Unfortunately for his argument, this statement is completely wrong. nderneath the photoreceptors is a layer of pigment and pigment cells (the squid, cuttlefish and octopus have similar arrangements), this layer of pigment absorbs stray light that is not caught by the photoreceptors, which might reflect back and fuzz the image. Unfortunately, the absorbed photons are re-radiated as heat, and in terrestrial vertebrates this can heat the retina up enough to cause damage (4). Fast blood flow through the tissues below the pigment layer cools it down (4). This is yet another area where vertebrate design is flawed, with the fragile photoreceptors hard up against the source of the damaging heat. In squids, octopi and cuttlefish, the pigment layer is below the photoreceptors, in an area of dense blood vessels (2). Of course, the question of why fish, which have more species than all terrestrial vertebrates combined, must suffer with a backwards retina so that terrestrial vertebrates can have high blood flows to an area that wouldn’t need them if the system was designed right in the first place, is never addressed. This is hardly the “brilliant piece of design” that Jonathan Witt claims…

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Denton vs Squid; the eye as suboptimal design.
    By Ian Musgrave on November 14, 2006 6:24 AM

    In a recent article in Touchstone Magazine, Jonathan Witt, fellow for the Discovery Institute’s Center for the renewal of science and culture, has written a review of Francis Collins’ book “ The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief”. Amongst other things in this review he claims that Michael Denton has demonstrated that the “backwards wiring” of the mammalian retina improves oxygen flow and is good design.

    Denton of course, has done no such thing. Since I am on a role with things visual, I am reposting an updated version of an earlier article on this topic.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    “Moving on from this point, Meyer tries to ward off the dysteleology argument by claiming that all design has “inevitable tradeoffs and compromises”. This is true, but misses the point.”

    I cannot agree. Most ID Creationists have stated that they believe the “Intelligent Designer” to be the God of the Christian Bible. Yahweh is allegedly omniscient and omnipotent, so I can’t buy the bit about “tradeoffs and compromises.” Who writes these rules that the Omipotent one must follow? With whom is He compromising?

  • Ritchie

    I know everyone will hate me (probably quite rightly) for being a pedantic sod, but the plural of octopus is octopodes!

    Officer Ritchie of the grammar police returning to base.

  • jack

    The idea that the vertebrate retina needs to be inverted so that it can have a better blood supply is pure nonsense. Most vertebrate eyes, the human included, have a paucity of blood vessels in the region where retinal cells, neural activity and visual acuity are all at their maximum, near the fovea or area centralis. Evolution has cleared them out of the way there because they would otherwise degrade image quality in the most critical part of the visual field. This is just one example of the kluges evolution has implemented to work around a fundamentally stupid design — one that results from an accident of evolutionary history.

    And of course it’s not just blood vessels that are in the way: incoming light must also pass through a layer of optic nerve fibers and several layers of interneurons before reaching the photoreceptors. And degraded image quality is not the only problem caused by our stupidly inverted retina. The vertebrate eye is vulnerable to retinal tearing and detachment because of its inverted “design”.

    I agree with the other commenters that the blind spot caused by the optic nerve head is not a likely contributor to car wrecks. Evolution has found several other kluges to work around that kind of problem in most situations.

    By coincidence, there’s a news item today about a new comparative study on the appendix that challenges the idea of its vestigal nature.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    …all design has “inevitable tradeoffs and compromises”.

    In other words: God is so magic that he can create the vastness of all existence out of nothingness… but he’s not magic enough to make a vertebrate eye without a blind spot.

    Do these people even think about what they’re saying?

  • Bob Carlson

    In a recent letter to an evangelical cousin, I could have used this excellent post, which is better than what I wrote to her in response to her sending of the booklet corresponding to this web page:

    http://studies.bibleinfo.com/discover/start.php

    I cited the appendix and a few other things like the superior eyes of octopi, but said that if I were a medical doctor, I could probably go on ad-infinitum. I’ll send a print of your concise post when I return her booklet. Thanks.

    Bob Carlson

  • Nick Wedig

    “It also doesn’t explain why octopuses do just fine with a non-inverted retina and no blind spot – unless the designer liked them better than us.”

    This has been hypothesized already, though only satirically.

  • SteveC

    Agree with the other commenters about the blind spot in cars not being the same as the eye’s blind spot, and the (apparent) conflation of the two not being a good idea. (First time I ever was in a car accident, it was because I failed to check my blind spot and changed lanes, trying to occupy the same space as a car just behind me and to the left — luckily, at low speed in a mall parking lot.)

    BTW, how’s the book coming along?

  • Mathew Wilder

    Reginald and Greta are right on. What need has an all-powerful creator of making trade-offs? The illogic of such an idea is staggering.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    The people who’ve pointed out that the blind spot in the retina is not the same as the blind spot in a driver’s field of vision are absolutely right. Mea culpa. I think it doesn’t weaken the basic point, however – as several commenters have pointed out in more detail than I, there is no physiological reason whatsoever why our eyes have to have blind spots.

    I do want to remark on this comment by Chris Soanes:

    We’re trying to persuade people to use logical thinking and scientific evidence, not emotions!

    I don’t agree with that at all. We should be trying to persuade people to value science more highly, yes. But science doesn’t have to be a bloodless process of logical deduction, nor do we have to be Vulcans. On the contrary, I think the appropriate and effective use of emotion – in support of conclusions arrived at using the scientific method – is a vital part of our persuasive strategy.

    This has to do with the fact that human beings always respond most powerfully to narratives – that is, to stories. If our argument consists solely of a carefully presented, dispassionate series of facts, and creationists have an appealing little morality tale about how we’re all sinners who displeased God by eating an apple but can be forgiven if we believe in creationism, they’ll win every time. It’s a big, simple story in bright colors, it’s easy to understand, and it hits all the right emotional buttons. If you want to beat that, you need to have a better story – and we do have one! It’s just that scientists haven’t been trained to present it in those terms.

    The dysteleological argument plays right into this. It’s an anomaly in the creationist story – a discordant plot element which they can’t adjust to. That’s a point we ought to beat on, by stressing the horrendous implications of the idea that a designer deliberately introduced these kludgy, awkward, even malevolent missteps into the human species. That’s the kind of persuasion people listen to and respond to.

    Also, SteveC asked:

    BTW, how’s the book coming along?

    I don’t want to tip my hand, but there may be some news on that in the near future. :)

  • Alex Weaver

    This has to do with the fact that human beings always respond most powerfully to narratives – that is, to stories. If our argument consists solely of a carefully presented, dispassionate series of facts, and creationists have an appealing little morality tale about how we’re all sinners who displeased God by eating an apple but can be forgiven if we believe in creationism, they’ll win every time.

    In my view, this is probably the strongest point of attack for dysteleological arguments, at least as far as humans are concerned.

  • konrad_arflane

    Meyer waves this off, claiming (without further explanation) that this arrangement is “a tradeoff that allows the eye to process the vast amount of oxygen it needs in vertebrates” [p.87], which Strobel accepts without qualm. He admits that this arrangement produces a blind spot, but “that’s not a problem because people have two eyes and the two blind spots don’t overlap”.

    This argument completely ignores that a majority, probably a rather sizable one at that, of vertebrates have a very small field of stereoscopic vision. AFAIK, most non-predator vertebrates have their eyes placed to cover the widest possible field of vision, which means that most of that field is covered only by one eye. In such a setup, the blind spots of each eye aren’t necessarily covered by the other – unless evolutionary pressures have forced the blind spots to “wander” to the area covered by the other. I don’t know if that’s the case, but I’d wager that most creationists don’t either.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I don’t want to tip my hand, but there may be some news on that in the near future. :)

    Great. Maybe you can get a blurb for the cover from Greta Christina.

  • jack

    AFAIK, most non-predator vertebrates have their eyes placed to cover the widest possible field of vision, which means that most of that field is covered only by one eye. In such a setup, the blind spots of each eye aren’t necessarily covered by the other – unless evolutionary pressures have forced the blind spots to “wander” to the area covered by the other. I don’t know if that’s the case, but I’d wager that most creationists don’t either.

    Excellent point, and I can supply the answer. I did some work on the visual system in the early part of my career. In most if not all vertebrates that have little binocular overlap, the blind spots are not in the binocular part of the visual field. The main work-around for coping with the blind spot is eye movement. Another, in humans at least, is neural image interpolation, which really is a kluge, not a fix. It gives us the illusion that there is no blind spot, even when we look at an image with only one eye. And yet there is nothing sinister or “deceptive” in this. By filling in the hole in the image with information interpolated from the surrounding photoreceptors, the brain is making the best possible educated guess at what that part of the image really does look like. Most of the time it works fairly well.

  • 2-D Man

    By filling in the hole in the image with information interpolated from the surrounding photoreceptors, the brain is making the best possible educated guess at what that part of the image really does look like.

    Which explains why the black dot on the white paper vanishes. Neato!

  • http://liquidthinker.wordpress.com liquidthinker

    Just poking my head above a far too busy schedule to say nice reviews in this series; you seem to have more patience with Strobel’s “Case for…” books than I. Thanks for writing these. Can we look forward to a review of “Case for Christ”?

    But, just to play Devil’s Advocate, you write: “The jury-rigged, ad hoc nature of adaptation is just what we would expect from evolution. ID, on the other hand has no explanation for this, other than postulating a capricious, whimsical designer who repeatedly reinvents the wheel rather than reusing his own solutions from other lineages. In other words, ID advocates have to assume a designer whose work looks like the product of evolution. “.

    Isn’t a capricious whimsical designer exactly what one would expect from reading the Bible?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Thanks, liquidthinker! I’ve long contemplated the idea of doing a review of The Case for Christ. Maybe after I finish this series, I’ll get around to it. I probably wouldn’t go through it in this level of detail, but I think it would be eminently worthwhile to at least highlight one or two of the major apologist blunders in each chapter.

    Isn’t a capricious whimsical designer exactly what one would expect from reading the Bible?

    Touché. :) However, the ID advocates would insist that “capricious and whimsical” isn’t a valid description of the Designer they worship. And that’s not to mention the epistemological problems it poses to hypothesize a Designer whose work looks indistinguishable from the products of evolution.

  • http://liquidthinker.wordpress.com liquidthinker

    Indeed, Ebonmuse. :) I would not disagree with your observation concerning the ID advocates, having followed them a while myself. But I would say this to them. To paraphrase a famous line from “The Princess Bride”, and by paraphrase I mean horribly mangle, “I don’t think the God you are worshiping is the God you think you are worshiping.”.

    There certainly were quite a few blunders in the “Case for Christ” book, a select few of which you may already have read from the infidel library on the net. I’m sure you also know quite a few more. What was really stupefying about all Strobel’s books was how blatantly he ignores evidence and does not seek out interviews of those skeptical of the points he wishes to establish. That was what immediately struck me when I read his work, especially since it was advertised as an unbiased journalist’s search for the truth.

  • Leum

    What was really stupefying about all Strobel’s books was how blatantly he ignores evidence and does not seek out interviews of those skeptical of the points he wishes to establish. That was what immediately struck me when I read his work, especially since it was advertised as an unbiased journalist’s search for the truth.

    I think, with all due respect to my journalist friends, I’ve found the problem.

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