Why Is the Argument from Poor Design Simply Atheism of the Gaps?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

The other day I heard an atheist say that the fact that he sees poor design in the natural world leads him to the conclusion that the Christian God does not exist. Here is the argument:

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

There are several things wrong with this argument, but I want to focus on premise 2 – organisms have features that are sub-optimal.

I am an electrical engineer who has been designing integrated circuits (IC) for 20 years, either personally or through managing other engineers. I am extremely familiar with IC design. Over the years, I have often heard young engineers, who did not design a particular IC, criticize the design of that IC by saying it is sub-optimal, that they could do a better job. I have then seen these same engineers eat crow when they finally talk to the original designer and discover the constraints that original engineer was under when he designed the IC and the purposes for which he designed the IC.

It is impossible to judge a design as optimal or sub-optimal without knowing the purposes of the designer and without knowing the constraints the designer faced during the design. Young engineers just assume that they know both when they look at somebody else’s design. After being embarrassed a few times, they usually drop this approach and gain some humility.

I see the atheist who uses the argument from poor design in the same light. Biological organisms are incredibly complex and they operate in an environment that is massively complex. Our current knowledge of biological organisms and of all the earth’s diverse ecosystems is in its infancy. Every year, scientists realize how much more there is to learn. However, science marches onward and we do indeed learn more each year.

Here is the problem for the atheist. Like the young IC designer, they are in a very poor position to judge whether biological organisms are optimally designed or not. Each year, scientists discover new purposes, or functions, for biological organisms, and each year scientists discover more constraints within which biological organisms must function.

This means that every year the atheist making the argument from poor design will have to retract examples of poor design, and it will always be that way. The overall trajectory of scientific discovery is that the world we live in is more complex than we ever imagined, not less. Science is going in the wrong direction for the atheists making the argument from poor design.

Because of that, this argument is simply atheism of the gaps. Atheists fill in their biological knowledge gaps by claiming that certain organisms are designed poorly, only to have to abandon each example of alleged poor design as science advances. This argument, then, is a loser for atheists, and should be dropped. They are literally swimming against the tide of scientific progress when they make this argument. Their “poor design” gaps will continue to be filled in year after year.

  • Michael Crass

    I always scratched my head when atheists use this argument. It’s like they are claiming to know the intent and constraints of the designer! It’s like admitting design, but criticizing the designer. As if THEY could design life better if they were God!

  • Andrew Ryan

    No, it’s not necessarily saying “I could do a better job”, it’s saying the evident constraints are a clear sign not of a designer by a sign of the constraints of evolution. These constraints include the inability of evolution to ‘plan ahead’ or, in some ways, ‘go backwards’.

    If you’re looking at a complex piece of machinery, and at one point of it you can see there’s a ballpoint pen sticking out of a hole, keeping fluid from pouring out, you can tell that this was a feature of necessity – that was the only thing to hand to prevent disaster in a hurry. We don’t say: “I could have come up with something better”, as we understand that obviously nothing better was available. But we can tell that there were clear constraints on whoever jabbed that pen in place, and we can probably have a decent stab at discerning what those constraints were.

    Now, looking at many features in nature, those constraints look exactly like the constraints of evolution. I’m not talking about the constraints that ANY designer would face – even a perfect one – such as making a trade off between stability and power, or speed and accuracy. I’m talking about the constraints imposed on a feature because, say, THAT bone now being used to fly used to be used as a flipper, and therefore is in a sub-optimal position, but it can never move to the other side of that OTHER bone, because evolution doesn’t work that way.

  • Michael Crass

    It’s not an argument against design, but a beef with the designer. People criticize God for sending people to hell too. As if their dislike is proof He doesn’t exist.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “It’s not an argument against design, but a beef with the designer”

    No it isn’t, for the reasons I already described above.

  • Don Sciba

    I agree with you 100%, Michael.

  • It’s worth looking at some specific examples. One pretty striking case of “poor design” is the laryngeal nerve, especially in the giraffe. http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Laryngeal_nerve

    In the face of such examples, it’s unconvincing just to say we’re not as smart as God. We know this is inefficient, and we know why it got that way during the course of evolution. So creationists must come up with some possible explanation for why God wanted it that way.

  • You are just like the young design engineer. You are boldly confident that you understand all of the constraints the design of the giraffe was under and that you know all of the purposes for the giraffe.

    But you don’t. Feel free to continue listing alleged “poor design” examples, and I will feel free to point out every year how another one of these examples has been turned on its head by scientists as they learn more about the constraints and purposes of biological organisms.

    Your strategy is a loser. I would abandon it.

  • I’m not confident at all. I specifically asked for creationists to propose an explanation. I don’t assume any human explanation must be right, but we do need to discuss explanations. Just throwing up our hands and saying “God did it” is not a serious option.

  • anthropic

    You mean like the genetic information necessary to create trilobites that suddenly appear in the fossil record during the Cambrian Explosion? There they are, hard-shelled crabs, without any obvious ancestors.

    So where did the incredibly complex, specific information come from to build a trilobite? Eminent Cambrian paleontologist Charles Marshall debated intelligent design advocate Stephen Meyers on the subject, and the best Marshall could do was claim that the information somehow came into existence before the Cambrian. So it wasn’t as abrupt as it appears, you see.

    Meyers conceded this was at least theoretically possible, but asked Marshall the killer question: So where did the information to build a trilobite come from? Marshall had no answer.

    Evolution foresees nothing, right? It is a blind watchmaker, we are told. So where did the information to build trilobites (and many many other animals!) come from? Why would it accumulate in organisms that didn’t use itt? How was it instantiated? And what was it in blind evolution that looked ahead millions of years to see what would be needed next?

  • anthropic

    How about explaining trilobites, John? Or, say, the rapid appearance of functional folding proteins? Or the incredible specified complexity of the DNA code, which Bill Gates said was like human software, but far far more advanced?

    While you’re at it, remember that the U of Washington recently announced that they found ANOTHER code nested within DNA. This code regulates gene expression rather than protein synthesis. Kinda like sending a message in English that, read another way, contains a message in German!

    Does that sound like something a blind materialistic process creates? I mean, do we ever actually observe unguided material processes doing so? Heck, such coding is incredibly difficult even for highly intelligent people to pull off.

    I strongly suspect giraffe laryngeal nerves will prove far less problematic for those who believe in design than these issues will be for those who don’t. As Bill Pratt noted, the more we know, the worse it gets for the bad design argument.

  • Why do you ask me for an explanation? I don’t claim to know. You’re trying to change the subject. Is this the “Gish Gallop” technique?

  • Andrew Ryan

    Anthropic, we were discussing the Argument from Poor Design. The Cambrian Explosion has nothing to do with this at all. If you want to address the point I made then we can have a discussion.

  • sean

    Anthropic, I’d highly recommend whatever the appropriate learning tools available to you are based on your age about what evolution actually says. Next, I’d recommend learning what a simile is, and the reread the Bill Gates quote you just read. I’m a programmer too, and I can promise you that what you are taking away from this is not what he meant. The quote is from a book he co-wrote called “The Road Ahead” and is not a commentary on how biology is inexplicable. It’s a book from the 90’s about how the authors think computers and the internet will change and affect our future. Bill Gates, by the way, is an agnostic atheist. Please stop repeating what others have told you and look for the context. Quite mining has also given us the “God doesn’t play dice” quote from Einstein, and it’s equally as non-representative. Moreover, your claim about the English and German is sort of correct, but leaving out that 15%, not 100% of DNA does this is misleading. It would be like an English letter containing 15% of it’s words that are also used to form a message in German, and that’s not entirely unreasonable, though certainly not trivial. Do you know any people who are bi-lingual? If you do, talk to them about language overlap. The evolution of language makes it not the most impossible task that you seem to think it is.

    I want to reiterate and expand on something. The way you talk about evolution here seems to indicate that you have not actually studied the topic, and so you don’t actually know how evolution works. If you have ever seen someone get sick from the flu despite having received the shot, which does happen, it’s because of evolution. I’m sorry you are misinformed and not educated about this fairly fascinating subject. I’d recommend learning about it. Your strong suspicion that this isn’t a problem would carry a lot more weight if you actually understood the concepts involved.

    Also I’d definitely look up the ‘Gish Gallop’ and learn to avoid it. Respond to what people actually say. John was asking for an answer, and your response was to try and convince him that he didn’t have one. This is not the same as providing an answer to his question. If you don’t have an answer that’s fine, but then let it be.

  • anthropic

    So you didn’t write the following:

    “Now, looking at many features in nature, those constraints look exactly
    like the constraints of evolution. I’m not talking about the constraints
    that ANY designer would face – even a perfect one – such as making a
    trade off between stability and power, or speed and accuracy. I’m
    talking about the constraints imposed on a feature because, say, THAT
    bone now being used to fly used to be used as a flipper, and therefore
    is in a sub-optimal position, but it can never move to the other side of
    that OTHER bone, because evolution doesn’t work that way.”

    Funny, because that looks like the last paragraph you wrote!

    Going from a soft critter with no exoskeleton to a fully developed crab, the trilobite, in one fell swoop demonstrates the constraints of evolution? Because that’s what the fossils say, you know. Even Charles Marshall didn’t dispute that. All he could plead was that maybe all the information necessary to build a trilobite accumulated in other animals before the Cambrian.

    From where the information came, he couldn’t say. Why organisms not using the information would retain it and pass it on, he didn’t say.

    So you contend that evolution can look ahead tens of millions of years, decide to accumulate the information needed in the future to build an entirely new animal, then patiently wait until the Big Moment to create the animal? Evolution is not constrained from doing this?


  • sean

    You think that paragraph you quoted Andrew as saying is about the Cambrian explosion?


  • Andrew Ryan

    Perhaps he does. He seems confused.

  • chottsfired

    Are there any specific examples that the author could list to help clarify the atheism of the gaps theory? like a flaw that atheists see in the “design” of the human body that has been scientifically proven not to be a flaw? like the prostate positioned around the bladder? or the reproductive organs mixed up with the waste removal system?

  • Take a look at this wikipedia article:


    Also this blog post:

    But the bigger point to be made by my post is that it doesn’t matter what specific examples atheists use to prove poor design. They will never have enough information about purposes and constraints to make any example stick for very long.

    Atheism of the gaps just won’t work. As science advances, we will continuously see the natural world as being more and more complex. The design constraints we discover will continue to multiply. I don’t see that ever changing, which means this argument is a loser.

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