The Design Hypothesis, DNA, and Dysteleology

The Design Hypothesis, DNA, and Dysteleology November 2, 2015

DNA DesignDysteleology is the idea that life or nature does not show compelling evidence of design, in contrast to the Christian perception of purpose or design (teleology). The marvelous complexity in DNA is often cited by Creationists as the best evidence for their position. The facts tell a different story, and DNA makes clear that life looks more haphazard than designed.

Let’s consider four aspects of DNA that make it look not designed.

1. DNA Size

Human DNA has 3.42 billion base pairs. You might imagine that humans need the most DNA since the gods in Genesis said, “Let us make man in our image,” but we’re not even at the top of the list of mammals. Cows, mice, and bats have more.

And mammals don’t have as much DNA as other animals. One kind of salamander has 126 billion base pairs in its DNA. Does it really need 37 times more DNA than humans? Or could there be a lot of (dare I say it?) “junk” in that DNA?

We find much variability in fish DNA. The longest DNA (for the marbled lungfish) is almost 400 times the size of the smallest (the green puffer fish).

There are grasshoppers, beetles, ticks, worms, and snails that have more DNA than we do. There are plants that have more than we do—the onion, for example, has five times more. The record holder, with 400 times more DNA than humans, is a protozoa.

The wide variability in DNA size is shown in this chart:

c values

This is a logarithmic chart of the weight, or c-value (a proxy for DNA length), of the DNA of many categories of animals. Humans are in the “mammals” category at the top.

Maybe DNA is all useful and length is proportionate to the complexity of the organism. Maybe many animals are just more complex than we are, but then how can Man be God’s greatest creation? The alternative explanation is that there’s a lot of waste in DNA, but that rejects the idea of a designer. Neither is a good option for the Creationist.

2. Pseudogenes

All mammals synthesize vitamin C. They produce it internally and don’t have to eat it. All mammals, that is, except a handful, such as humans. We get scurvy if we go too long without eating vitamin C.

When you look in human DNA, you find a pseudogene (a broken gene) for vitamin C production, right where most other mammals have a functioning gene. Apparently, ancestors of humans and a few other primates once ate a diet rich in vitamin C so that a random mutation that broke the gene didn’t convey a selective disadvantage. The pseudogene spread through the population, and here we are, with every cell carrying a useless gene.

We find another example of a useful gene that didn’t have enough survival value to be selected for in the Antarctic icefish, which has no hemoglobin (the oxygen transport molecule) because of the oxygen-rich Antarctic water.

Smell is an area where humans have many pseudogenes. Of our roughly 100 odorant receptor genes, most don’t work. Many other mammals have working versions of these pseudogenes. At the other end of the scale is the dolphin, which has no working odorant receptor genes. They’re all pseudogenes.

Overall, human DNA has 20,000 pseudogenes—again, not evidence of the hand of a designer.

3. Endogenous Retroviruses

A virus can’t reproduce by itself and must force a cell to do it, which causes disease. Where it gets weird is when the virus infects a germ cell (egg or sperm). Then the viral DNA, inactivated by mutation, is passed on to succeeding generations. Becoming part of the genome is the “endogenous” part.

DNA keeps a record of these invasions. Human DNA has thousands of endogenous retroviruses, mostly just fragments, which compose up to 8% of our genome. One, the 5-million-year-old “Phoenix virus,” has been reconstructed from human DNA.

4. Atavisms and Vestigial Structures

Birds don’t have teeth, but their theropod dinosaur ancestors did. In fact, the ancient genes for teeth are still present in bird DNA. Scientists have been able to tweak chicken DNA to turn on these genes and get chickens with conical, dinosaur-like teeth.

When archaic genes are switched on in nature, those are called atavisms. Snakes can have legs, dolphins can have a hind pair of limbs, and humans can have tails.

Vestigial structures are those that have lost most or all of their ancestral function. Note that they’re not necessarily useless (Creationists delight in pointing out the value in the human appendix or tailbone); they’re just not used for what they were originally used for. For example, ostrich wings are vestigial because they can’t be used to fly (that’s what wings do).

Other examples are eyes in blind mole rats or cave fish, the pelvis (for nonexistent legs) in the baleen whale, and goose bumps (to raise nonexistent fur) in humans.

None of this proves that God doesn’t exist. What it does make clear is the difference between complexity, which we see in DNA, and evidence of a careful and skillful designer, which we don’t.

Yes, evolution by descent from a common ancestor is clearly true. 
If there was any lingering doubt about the evidence from the fossil record, 
the study of DNA provides the strongest possible proof 
of our relatedness to all other living things.

— Francis Collins, evangelical Christian and head of NIH

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 1/16/13.)

Photo credit: U.S. National Library of Medicine

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  • Brian Kellogg

    Excellent and impactful article.

  • Greg G.

    I am adding “dysteleology” to my vocabulary where it will remain until I have an occasion to use it in a sentence.

    I didn’t know about the Phoenix virus either.

    The vitamin C gene works in mammals except primates and guinea pigs. but the way it is broken in primates is different than how it is broken in guinea pigs. That shows the broken gene in primates comes from common descent and that the broken gene in guinea pigs is a separate event. It is beneficial to not produce something that is easily consumed by diet. But it is a bit wasteful to continually reproduce genes that don’t work, which shows that evolution is not a perfect god.

    If we are made in God’s image, does that mean God has defective genes, too?

    • Catechin

      The vitamin C gene got broken because of sin after the fall, didn’t you know? Yes, I’ve heard that from a creationist. But he never explained the reason other primates (closely related to humans) have the same broken gene suggesting common descent!

      • See, for some reason apparently *all* animals were affected with the Fall, at least that’s the explanation I’ve heard.

        • TheNuszAbides

          i’m sure some theological treatise or other blathers at great length about sin’s “ripple effect”.

        • It seems to be a pretty common line.

      • curtcameron

        I’ve heard them say that the very first primordial organism contained a superset of all the DNA functions in existence today, and because of the fall/entropy it keeps losing functionality, so that today there are lots of broken genes as they would expect.

        They get this partially because of the Intelligent Design Creationists who are always going on about how natural evolution couldn’t result in a genome with more information. Bob, that would be a good topic for a future post – how the creationist take on information theory is backwards. I could help!

        • One problem for the “perfect DNA in the past” theory is that the known rates of DNA mutation don’t point back to an Adam and Eve from 6000 years ago or so. The other is that there is no evidence for it. The natural explanation works just fine, and Occam’s Razor rejects the God hypothesis as unnecessary.

          If you have more on the information side of the issue, I’d appreciate that. Creationists declare that information always comes from intelligence. My response: information always comes from a brain, so that leaves God out.

          But I don’t have a direct rebuttal to that. My thought was that maybe DNA simply is the only example we know in nature of information created by natural processes (mutation + selection).

          I’ve heard clarifications about how DNA is/isn’t data, a code, a language, or whatever, but this doesn’t defeat the apologist’s challenge. If you have more, I’d love to hear it, thanks.

        • Brian Kellogg

          TalkOrigins is a good sight for this topic.

        • Thanks for the link. That is a great site.

          Looking at the list of Creationist claims, however, I don’t see any that directly address the Creationist argument “Information only comes from intelligence.” I’m content with saying that RNA and DNA in living things is the only known natural example, but it’d be nice to rebut it more directly.

        • Brian Kellogg

          The link speaks to some of creationists’ arguments briefly dealing with the natural mechanisms that add information to DNA. Then I would just do more research on information theory that they touch on. That link speaks to the issue of adding additional information. The genesis of the information is probably more to do with abiogenesis than evolution.

        • Taneli Huuskonen

          Did you notice this link on the TalkOrigins page?

          At a quick glance, it seems to be a long and rather technical reply to your question.

        • I’ll take a look, thanks!

        • MNb

          Talkreason, which I mentioned above, has one or two.

        • 90Lew90

          [Note: Disqus (spit!!!) now pastes only the last paragraph over and over of anything I copy from a word processor for some reason. Sorry if you got that.]

          This is an interesting one. My stab at it is that you’re unlikely to find any statement from science or philosophy that “information only comes from intelligence” because neither “intelligence” nor “consciousness” have any tested or agreed definitions, and the latter still isn’t understood. What’s more, they’re often erroneously conflated, which is what seems to be the case with this creationist trope. Presumably, a creative god would have both intelligence and consciousness. Put simply, we’re only beginning to scratch the surface with AI in one field and neurscience in another, so it would be impossible to say “information only comes from intelligence”. Even on the face of it that statement sounds daft to me.

          I’m reading a fascinating book by Raymond Tallis at the minute called ‘Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.’ Tallis was a professor of geriatric medicine, had an illustrious career in both research and practice in neuroscience, then in 2006 turned to neurophilosophy and became a full-time writer. In other words, he has the credentials to speak with authority. This book provides a nice curative to the hype around neuroscience and trite canards that you hear all the time like ‘the mind is as the brain does’. He demolishes these, showing why they’re scientifically and philosophically unsound. Daniel Dennett gets mauled for gettin way ahead of himself in his work on consciousness, for instance.

          I’m still reading it, but it’s turning out to be possibly my book of the year to be honest. It’s meaty, it’s thoroughgoing, it’s authoritative, it’s not polemic; it’s a very powerful and sober (and sobering!) statement of a case from that rare breed — a philosopher who has actually done some poking around in real brains. Very highly recommended.

        • Thanks for the book recommendation. I see that it’s about a year old. Has there been pushback? Any reason to think that he’s gone too far?

        • 90Lew90

          I haven’t seen any pushback. As far as I’m concerned (as a layman, obviously) he’s been absolutely meticulous in his arguments. This is the first book he’s written on this for a popular audience. He’d been writing for a professional audience for a number of years on areas he picks up in this book. As I said, it’s not a big nay-saying polemic. It’s very tightly and soberly argued and it basically demolishes a lot of the hype around neuroscience and reinforces that the science is in its infancy. You’ll probably be aware of things like ‘neurolaw’ where some lawyers were attempting to co-opt neuroscientists to mount “my-brain-made-me-do-it” defences. Tallis finds things like that beyond the pale. The Churchlands and John Searle get quite a drubbing for “neuromania” and a lot of evolutionary psychology is panned as suffering from “Darwinitis”. Dennett’s apparently got a touch of both! As far as I can make out, Tallis is very highly regarded and the book was well received. Most often described as “necessary”. A lot of a the cover blurb is from neurologists etc.
          I just feel like I’m in a safe pair of hands with this guy. I’ve read a few popular books on the state of neuroscience and had a feeling they were bigging it up a bit too breathlessly. With Tallis a fair chunk of the book sets out where neuroscience is actually at before he gets the knives out to carve up what he sees as abuses. It’s good stuff.

          [Note: It came out in 2011. Maybe only published in the US last year. Review here: ]

        • 90Lew90

          Hi again Bob. If you’re interested, I just found this by Tallis. It seems to have been drawn from the early part of the book.

        • That’s a bit more approachable. Thanks.

        • curtcameron

          The Talk Origins page that Brian linked to has a good summary, but you could write a post directed more at the current IDC talking points.

          If you take a set of data, such as a billions-long sequence of DNA nucleotides, that has a certain amount of information. There are a couple of ways to quantify that information, such as Shannon, which relates the probability of that sequence (for example if you know characteristics of the data ahead of time, the probability is higher for any given sequence thus the information content is lower), and Kolmogorov, which says the amount of information is equal to the shortest computer program that could recreate it. Both of these ways address the same idea, that increased complexity is increased information. If you change one letter in the DNA sequence, you will slightly change the information content. Some changes will increase it, others will decrease it. Mutations can happen in any direction so there’s no problem with increasing information content.

          A key idea is that a random sequence of data has the maximal information content – it is the least predictable, or in Kolmogorov terms there’s no way to compress it to be smaller, a computer program would just have to contain the entire sequence.

          What is the information content of Hamlet versus the information content of two copies of Hamlet? It’s slightly more, because a computer program could just say “do this twice.” But now what if you start making little changes in the second copy? Now you can see that the information content would go way up. And that’s what we see with genes – gene duplication plus mutation.

          To get around these inconvenient facts, the IDiots have tried to redefine the term “information.” They say “complex specified information” or “functional information.” However, they can’t define these terms in any meaningful way, and they’re intentionally equivocating by using their vague notion but still trying to use mathematical laws with it. See

          The smarter ID people already know all this. Stephen Meyer spouts all the time that information only comes from intelligence. I’m convinced he’s lying and just using it to feed to the rubes because it’s a good-paying gig.

        • MNb

          For IDiots the first problem is not a problem, because they’re OK with an old universe.

        • I had another thought on the Creationist challenge, “information only comes from intelligence.”

          You’ve probably seen software simulations of evolutionary systems. One example is the car evolving simulation here:

          There’s a nonintelligent source of information (the information being the attributes of each model). The Creationist would say that the software simulation is intelligent, but the simulator simply makes it easy for us to see how it works. Don’t like the simulator? Then drop it. It works the same way as a thought experiment.

          How would this do?

        • MNb

          Before you do consult this page:

        • Thanks for the link.

        • Greg G.

          how the creationist take on information theory is backwards.

          Creationism is a loss of information.

          They assume that changes to the DNA signal can be considered like distortion to a signal through an amplifier. Any differences between the input and the output is a loss of information.

          By that reasoning, the red shift of the absorption lines of the light from a distant galaxy is a loss of information but it actually increases the information by allowing the calculation of the relative speed to the observer and to infer the distance. If the light passes through a cloud of gas, the absorption lines allows us to identify the types of molecules, the relative speed of the cloud, and it’s distance.

          Many creationists are so brainwashed that they insist any mutation is a loss of information. A point mutation to one of a pair of genes is a loss of info. A second point mutation that restores the gene to the original order is another loss of info. That’s what blind faith does to the brain.

    • TheNuszAbides

      I didn’t know about the Phoenix virus either.

      same here. i’m rather surprised my last cell theory teacher didn’t bring it up [particularly either just before or just after we looked into sheep-cloning]. but yeah, fascinating. (and the opening paragraph is curiously well-phrased for scaring the crap out of–well, whoever has the crap easily scared out of them.)

    • busterggi

      I hear his zipper is broken at least.

      • Greg G.

        I used to have a problem like that. I used to complain that other people’s jeans wore out at the knees and they could make shorts while the crotch tended to rip first on mine. My neighbor explained that others have big knees.

        • Aram

          Always my crotch rips first. Always.

        • Will you guys quit braggin’?

  • Jon-Michael Ivey

    Reptiles need more DNA because they must produce alternate enzymes to work in a wide range of temperatures. Mammals maintain homeostasis well enough that those extra enzymes become superfluous and eliminating them makes the organism more efficient.

    • Greg G.

      Reptiles are able to produce those extra enzymes with a lower consumption of food and oxygen. That seems like they are more efficient organisms.

    • Catechin

      Source please?

    • You’re not saying that all reptiles’ DNA is used, are you?

      • TheNuszAbides

        wouldn’t our shapechanging interstellar overlords make sure of that?

    • Castilliano

      Read the chart.
      The spectrum for reptiles is at a lower DNA quantity than the mammals’.

      Not to mention that it’s really, really obvious from the protozoa bar that simple speculation on DNA based on physiology has zero merit. Heck, the spectrums for salamanders & frogs (or reptiles), which are so “obviously” similar, don’t even overlap.

  • GingFree

    Aside from being an argument against design, ERVs are by fary favourite evidence FOR evolution and common descent.

    1) Most serve next to no purpose.

    2) Sharing of ERVs shows descent in that the odds of another species contracting the SAME EXACT strain of virus that integrates in the SAME loci are so low it’s insane.

    So that shows that the only logical way for those viral sequences to be there is for viruses to infect an ancestral species that then carried down the ERVs to the various of shoot species.

  • Aram

    Fascinating stuff.

  • Interesting and persuasive points. Thanks.

  • JBSchmidt

    Honest questions. If you wish to take them in a snarky manner, that’s on you. If you could also cite a scientific source.

    1) If evolution were true, wouldn’t we expect to see more a pyramid of genetic code? For example, either the earliest organisms had all the code or none and the DNA pyramid would expand/contract from that point. I accept that genetic code would be both lost and gained over the process; however, it doesn’t seem to be a zero sum exchange.

    2) Isn’t science continuing to find that pseudogenes actually have a viable use? That while at an given moment they may be turned off or on depending on the needs of the organism (ie, in utero). Which genes do we know for sure are psuedo?

    3) I have no real question here. Except it is interesting that some identical ERV’s are seen in animals with an unrelated evolutionary past.

    4) Here again, we see that over time, science is denying rather than confirming the existence of vestigial structures. So if the pattern is that the more science understands these structures the more they find there purpose, why would we expect anything different in the future?

    As for Atavisms, the what separates the chicken you cite (whose changes lasted for a mere 10 hours in utero) from any other birth defect from say a prescribed medicaiton?

    • either the earliest organisms had all the code or none and the DNA pyramid would expand/contract from that point.

      The earliest organisms had very little DNA, right? Why would you think it any other way?

      2) Isn’t science continuing to find that pseudogenes actually have a viable use?

      A pseudogene by definition is broken. But the “junk” comparison is apt. Just like a junkyard and a dump are quite different (you can go to a junkyard to get pieces that can be refurbished), a pseudogene isn’t under selective pressure to remain unchanged and might turn into something new and useful. You might say, “What are the chances??” but we’re talking about billions of individuals going through perhaps billions of generations.

      it is interesting that some identical ERV’s are seen in animals with an unrelated evolutionary past.

      Oh? Give me an example.

      science is denying rather than confirming the existence of vestigial structures

      You do understand, I hope, that “vestigial” doesn’t mean “useless.” That was made clear in the post. If you do get that, then give me examples of your point here.

      the more science understands these structures the more they find there purpose, why would we expect anything different in the future?

      Uh, OK. What’s your point? Yes, vestigial structures do things.

      As for Atavisms, the what separates the chicken you cite (whose changes lasted for a mere 10 hours in utero) from any other birth defect from say a prescribed medicaiton?


      • JBSchmidt

        1) I was giving you that option.

        If evolution, shouldn’t we see a steady DNA increase as we move along the complexity list? An inverse pyramid.

        2) You are missing the point of my question. Many ‘pseudogenes’ are proving to actually be useful and required at different times in the development of an organism. Why would that be different than the ones we don’t understand yet? You assume they will become useful, when most likely, based on what we have seen, they are already useful.

        3) There is the same retrovirus found in the placenta of Baboons and also in some cats.

        4) Mole rats use their eyes to see. Can you prove it is less useful.

        Cave fish eyes are the turning off of the genetic code to build the full eye. When removed from a cave, they do produce fully functioning eyes.

        The ostrich uses it wings for many things including temp regulation, running balance, turning, mating and providing shade for young. Can you prove they were more useful at one time?

        Whale pelvis serves the very useful function of attachment point for reproductive organs. Same way its ancestors used the additional bones some consider legs. See the work done by Philip Gingerich.

        The muscles/nerves that control goosebumps serve the function of releasing oil to keep skin moist. They do over react to stress, but that doesn’t indicate they are vestigial nor that it was originally to specifically keep warm.

        Your claim is they are less useful, remnants we can’t shake. Do you have proof anything above was more useful on some point in history?

        Finally, we know that some medications when prescribed to a woman pregnant or planning on getting pregnant causes the inability of some genetic expression in the offspring. The scientist caused the same genetic manipulation to the chicken for 10 hours in utero. Why does one signify ancient genes and one birth defect?

        • If evolution, shouldn’t we see a steady DNA increase as we move along the complexity list?

          Copying errors include dropping bits, but I think that DNA tends to grow with time.

          Many ‘pseudogenes’ are proving to actually be useful and required at different times in the development of an organism.

          We’ve been over this. According to Wikipedia, “Pseudogenes are dysfunctional relatives of genes that have lost their gene expression in the cell or their ability to code protein.”

          They’re broken. They’re not useful. Maybe a mutation will make one useful, but then it won’t be a pseudogene anymore.

          You assume they will become useful


          3) There is the same retrovirus found in the placenta of Baboons and also in some cats.

          Placenta? We’re talking about bits of nonworking virus DNA in every single cell of an organism.

          4) Mole rats use their eyes to see.

          So your point is that they aren’t vestigial but nearly so? OK.

          Cave fish eyes are the turning off of the genetic code to build the full eye. When removed from a cave, they do produce fully functioning eyes.

          No, that’s not what the article says. It says that another part of their bodies is light sensitive.

          The ostrich uses it wings for many things including temp regulation, running balance, turning, mating and providing shade for young.

          Yes, I know that ostriches use their wings. They don’t use them for flying, though, which makes them vestigial.

          Can you prove they were more useful at one time?

          You want to research the ancestors of ostriches? Go for it.

          Whale pelvis serves the very useful function of attachment point for reproductive organs.

          Do not tell me again about the uses of vestigial structures. We’ve been over that. “Vestigial” doesn’t mean “useless.” The post makes that clear.

          You do realize that evolution is the scientific consensus, right? Imagine someone who actually understood this field reading our conversation—two idiots debating a subject on which the experts have already made a conclusion. Pretty ridiculous.

        • JBSchmidt


          Your right.

        • MNb

          “The ostrich uses it wings for many things …..”
          Which means that teleology and hence creationism loses all explanatory power. Wings –> flying has become a non-sequitur. Your god did not create wings for flying, but for all kind of random things and there is no way to select them.
          Teleology loses, causality wins.
          In other words: creationism isn’t science (which doesn’t use teleology anymore exactly for this reason), Evolution Theory is.
          You just nicely demonstrated why. Refusing to accept this means you lag more than 200 years behind.

        • JBSchmidt


        • meaning … ?

        • Susan


          Why won’t you answer my simple questions?

          What sources have you consulted on the subjects of evolutionary biology and on cosmology other than apologetics sites?

          Edit: If you remain silent again, I will have to assume the answer is “none”.

        • MNb

          The consensus is that teleology in science is totally useless.

    • Aram

      Uh oh, someone’s being hitting the AiG pipe again.

    • Susan

      Why not take a free course if you’re interested in the subject?

      • JBSchmidt

        From the course description:

        “The present version does not cover macroevolution or the diversity of life. There will not be anything about dinosaurs. The evolution topics covered in the present course are largely confined to “microevolution,””

        I don’t deny microevolution (adaptation).

        • Susan

          You asked about genes in your comment.

          Course Syllabus:

          Evidence for evolution

          Introduction to basic genetics

          Recombination and genetic mapping simple traits

          Complications to genetic mapping

          Genes vs. environment

          Basic population genetics and Hardy-Weinberg

          Gene flow, differentiation, inbreeding

          Natural selection and genetic drift

          Molecular evolution

          Adaptive behaviors and sexual selection

          Species formation and phylogenetics

          Evolutionary applications and misapplications

          I’m not sure how it’s not applicable despite the unfortunate terminology “macroevolution” they put in scare quotes.

          If not this course, then there are books.

          Here’s a free pdf:

          What sources have you sought out other than apologetics sites?

          I recall asking you the same question about cosmology and you never did answer.

        • MNb

          And of course you (or any other creationist) never defined the limits of microevolution, so that they can be tested.
          Yeah, yeah, I know there is something like baraminology (a total failure) and you guys love talk about “microevolution within its kind”. But neither you or any other creationist ever defined “kind” either.
          So your denial is meaningless.

          Regarding your scientific pretentions – what again would make you reject creationism? What evidence would convince you that Evolution Theory is correct?

        • Scott_In_OH

          I’m very surprised to see that language in the syllabus, as evolutionary biologists don’t typically use the terms “microevolution” or “macroevolution.” I’m doubly surprised, given that the professor recommends Jerry Coyne’s book, and Coyne recognizes that those terms are meaningless. I wonder why the professor answers the FAQ that way.

          In fact, since it’s an on-line course, I wonder if the professor even wrote that. It might have been Coursera that did it. Odd.

        • That was my question as well.

  • busterggi

    Broken genes, junk dna, fatal mutations – if dna was designed it wasn’t designed well enough to be trustworthy. But then, if it was trustworthy we wouldn’t have evolution.