The Argument from Design (the Teleological Argument) says that life looks designed. For example, 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 zebra 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) gives little support for design. The cell, marvelously complicated though it is, may be more a Rube Goldberg machine than the elegant and sophisticated 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 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, constraints on materials, and beauty—are 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 that 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, so either they need many times more DNA than humans or their genome has a lot of junk.
The Christian Response
The first argument Creationists often make is that made by Jonathan Wells in The Myth of Junk DNA. He argues 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 sober 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.
Christian response #2: 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 them. Richard Dawkins observed that Paley was doing good work, given that he was writing fifty years before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and that he would likely have been on board with evolution if given the chance.
3. 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.
Evolution’s random mutation + selection can make lots of things. Here’s a simulation of random polygons added to an image selected to look like Mona Lisa. Here’s an evolution of random parts selected to make a car.
4. But DNA is information! Show me an example of information not coming from intelligence. Show me information not coming from a mind.
Show me an example of intelligence or a mind that’s not natural. Science recognizes no supernatural examples of anything, let alone intelligence and mind. We’re back to square 1, with supernatural claims without good reason to believe them.
But to your point, the examples of evolutionary software given earlier show information coming from a non-intelligent process. If you say that the software was intelligently designed, that’s true, so ignore the software. Make this a thought experiment. Imagine random polygons being added with a selection process that defines “fitness” as “looks like the Mona Lisa.” The software simply makes the thought experiment tangible.
5. Suppose I have dents in my car. Obviously, they’re imperfections of the design, but they weren’t put there by the designer. Just ignore them. Similarly, imperfections in DNA are no criticism of the Designer.
If your blue 2003 Honda Civic has dents, we can find a blue 2003 Civic without those dents to use as our standard of perfection. What’s the equivalent for human DNA? There is no perfect example to imagine that our DNA descended from.
There simply is no human DNA without pseudogenes, and the fact that some protozoa have 400 times more DNA than humans remains.
Where’s the evidence that going back in time, you find perfect DNA? Was human DNA perfect 3000 years ago when the stories that became the Bible began to be collected? Was it perfect in our last common ancestor with chimpanzees six million years ago? Was it perfect in the animals that came out of the Cambrian Explosion more than 500 million years ago? Science breathlessly awaits your evidence.
6. 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. There is no perfect human DNA except in the imagination of this apologist.
7. 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!
8. But you haven’t proven that God doesn’t exist.
Sure, God might exist. God might use evolution to carry out his plan. God might be a clockmaker who touched off the Big Bang and walked away. The focus of this post was simply to show the flaws in 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
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 1/21/13.)