The Bad Design Argument

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #1

This bad design argument is common but pretty bad. I’ve always opposed it. Surpringly even TE use it. Why do you think that is?

The Cambrian Explosion And Evolution
(Paul A Nelson) #2

It’s a powerful argument, as long as one doesn’t think too deeply about its assumptions, or look carefully at the biological details. When I was a graduate student, I spent long hours in the biology library trying to find the observational evidence for Gould’s claim that the panda’s thumb was suboptimal. Nothing.

Or, rather, the available evidence all pointed in the opposite direction, namely, that the thumb was superbly structured for its main functional role, manipulating and stripping bamboo.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #3

Why do yo think TE has echoed these bad design arguments? They just do not make sense, and are obviously loaded with the wrong theology.

I was surprised when Keith Fox used this versus Axe in the Henry Center exchange.

The book has an agenda for an anti creation view of the world. The section on reproduction is particularly bad, as it ignores the functional reasons for several of these cases of “bad” design.

Is it really? Who finds it convincing? It is not just bad theology and questionable science, but also against our instincts.


“It is not just bad theology and questionable science, but also against our instincts.”

I suggest being more careful or cautious when talking about our supposed ‘instincts,’ Joshua. There are ‘scientists’ who study them & us, but those scientists are neither you nor most of your readers. The leap from genetics to genealogy is great. That from physics to psychology, even greater.

The ‘bad design’ argument isn’t either of the things you say when it is properly contextualised and defined. ‘Bad design’ is both a scientific and a theological topic when properly framed & attended. And again, let’s not forget that the ‘philosophy of design’ or ‘ethics of design’ and even ‘aesthetics of design’ is inevitably a crucial part of the discussion.

Unfortunately, proponents of ID have not made a clear enough (at least, not for my tastes) distinction between varieties of design, including human, animal and also divine (they attempt to remain ‘politically correct,’ which often turns out humourous in the end). And it is undeniable that they leave out vast swathes of ‘design thinking’ in their approach & yet claim to be persecuted as ‘design thinkers’ whereas tons of ‘design thinkers’ are not persecuted simply because they are not IDists. They bring unwelcome upon themselves first and foremost through the language they choose to use and that most of them still won’t un-embrace.

‘Bad design’ is yet another topic that shouldn’t be held captive by those in the USA’s ‘Creation Wars’ (as Joshua calls them). Bad design is a legitimate topic free of the USA’s wars.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #5

I suppose I see common descent as God’s design principle and believe he fearfully and wonderfully made us. Saying we are poorly designed seems to deny Gods work of creation and what seems to be our instinct about the beauty of creation.

Of course there are strange anomalies and puzzles and quirks in biology. It makes more sense to describe them this way, rather than making the value judgement “bad”. That judgement also works against curiousity, because we can also wonder why we were made this way too. And of course, these quirks to point to common descent, but how can we call it Bad Design?

You seem to be defending this though. How would you say it is the better way to understand these arguments?

(George) #6


Aren’t you painting with a pretty big brush when you say “bad design arguments are pretty bad”?

Bad design topics, including nested hierarchies, seem to be what I consider best practice:

Why would all primates except, Chimpanzees and Humans, who share the most recent of common ancestry, have functioning Vitamin C genes … while Chimpanzees and Humans have the same gene broken?

Is this a “bad” refutation?

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #7

I would call that a pseudogene, which is evidence of shared history, evidence of common descent, but not “bad design”. I’m not going to make the value judgement “bad” about God’s creation.

My issue is not with the argument for Common Descent, but the value-laden language in which it is couched. That I think is what @paulnelson is reacting to, and I think he has a point there.

(George) #8

Why would God “guide the human genome” to include a useless gene or pseudogene? … except if it was a normal artifact of his “growing” humanity from the primate lineage that has the useless gene already.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #9

That argument is fine. I agree with it.

Why does it benefit from calling it “bad design”? A “normal artifact” seems to be a much more valid description.

(George) #10

I see… you are concerned that we categorize “mysterious design” as bad… when God may well know exactly what he is doing.

I guess I could imagine a Virtual Rule… if I have something that someone might call Bad Design, I can couch it as a nested hierarchy with a mysterious purpose!

(George) #11


These 2 paragraphs came from a link on Bad Design recently posted. Notice that it does make for powerful rhetoric to emphasize what seems to be bad design - - but certainly mysterious:

Since creationists don’t believe in evolution, what is their explanation? It’s not that we don’t have the GULO gene. We do. It just doesn’t work. Why would an intelligent force intentionally design us with a broken gene? Give us a gene or don’t, but a broken version? What is that about?

Also, GULO is not the only pseudogene. We have thousands of formerly functional genes scattered throughout our genomes like rusting cars in a junkyard.5 We may even carry more broken genes than working ones. If this is design, it sure isn’t intelligent!

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #12

The rhetoric here sets up evolution vs. creation. I think that makes tacit in language a false choice. God could have created through evolution, he could have designed through common descent. These things are not a valid argument against God, but merely an indication of how He created.

I think it is critical to remove theologically-laden language from science. Perhaps, that is actually where I have a lot of common ground with @paulnelson, but also maybe more hope that it is possible.


Well, I don’t define ‘bad design’ out of existence, if that’s what you mean. Some things do imho qualify as ‘bad designs’. In case you do admit of such things, are you then simply wondering if those things should be definitionally limited to technology or artefact rather than organism or nature? Or are you taking the stronger position of claiming that there are not only no bad designs and no good designs, indeed, there are no ‘designs’ properly spoken about at all in biology & genetics/genomics?

If the latter is the case, are you suggesting it would become something like a strange centaur of ‘ethical biology’ if scientists were to consider something typically thought ‘natural’ as in fact ‘designed’? I’m sure you’ve at least tried to ‘put on the hat’ of ‘design thinking’ that involves some mysterious ‘intelligence’ (beyond just complexity) before, right? (There are those who speak of ‘design by evolution’ or ‘evolution by design’, but let us leave that aside for now.) I’m trying to understand your disapproval of using good/bad in front of design if nevertheless at the same time you admit of ‘some’ design in biology as legitimate, proper, etc. Does it help to ask about that this way?

p.s. it seems that some people call it the Cambrian Diversification & other names, to distinguish it from short timescale events like explosions. Promotion of natural theological immediacy & abruptness persists. Perhaps the title of the thread is a bit misleading at the start. ‘The Cambrian Period’ more neutral.

The Cambrian Explosion And Evolution
(S. Joshua Swamidass) #14

I’m rather saying that there is a less theologically-laden way of saying this. Neutral language is best where possible. And this is one of those places.

From a theological point of view, I hold that God created everything “very good”, not perfect, not bad, but “very good.” So I am not going to agree that the quirks we see in nature are “bad”. I’d say instead that they are “very good”, but not “perfect”, and this is exactly as how Scripture describes it. This, therefore, is not evidence against design, but it it not consistent with arguments that “God could not have created us because, life is designed poorly.”

Why not just describe these things as they are, quirks, puzzles, surprises, and even imperfections. Of course, they follow patterns too, which give evidence of common descent. Bad design, however, is an attempt to make these things more than they are, and strawman the theology of creation in the process.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #15

To answer your question @paulnelson, this is theologically-laden for sure. It contributes to the conflict in an unnecessary way. I oppose it as strongly as I’d oppose Coyne’s work, and would also hope that language is not in text books.

Instead of saying “bad design”, it should be stated more neutrally, as “quirks” or “puzzles” or “details,” that appear in certain patterns, which make sense through the lens of common descent. Of course, you might disagree with that scientific conclusion, but that would at least be theologically neutral. I think, also, that this is an argument that is convincing to my secular colleagues. That is an argument that can be one with an editor or author of a textbook, as a way to reduce conflict while still presenting accurate science.

I would oppose political and legal action over things like this in textbooks, but I do not think such actions would be necessary any way. Our interests are all aligned in presenting accurate science ways that do not attack religious belief.


Yes, that appears to happen all too often. (The needed aside would be to include plural theologies of creation, if you are inviting them here.) One could also helpfully turn it into a verb that acknowledges a common occurrence in discussions about origins: “Such & such person is strawmaning (or strawpersoning, if one listens to Justin Trudeau & co.) my theology of creation.” The term ‘caricature’ and caricaturing could be used also.

Person A means something X about the created world; yet, Person B says they mean something Y instead of X about the created world (arguing that calling it ‘created’ might not be politically acceptable in public of a ‘western democracy’, etc. etc.), thus confusing the conversation. Apparently on purpose, intentionally. Just like ‘bad design’ that is meant theologically, but implied scientifically.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #17

Caricature ad strawman, both words apply. It is how the debate works right now. It is totally unconvincing. To win arguments, you have to deal with the real claims being made, not imagined constructions.


“Bad design” is an argument related to a specific mode of design. I think it arose in response some widely held beliefs about the nature of a particular designer.

For an unspecified mode of design, there’s not much to argue about either way.

However, attaching attributes like ‘perfection’ to a designer and the notion that such a being could only produce the best of all possible worlds have had a long history in philosophy and Christian theology. Tied to other hypothesis like the special creation of most species (or kinds), and it’s not a stretch to propose that all parts of organisms are specifically designed for some form of optimal function and that such design is not hindered by things like historical contingency (i.e. evolution via common descent). Against that specification, identification of ‘suboptimal design’ is not a horrible counter-argument. And clearly many Biblical, Special Creationists still take it quite seriously in denials about vestigial organs and the like.

But to be sure, the argument has no impact against ‘generic’ ID as no specifications are attributed to a generic designer.

And yet…

I suspect some echo of that ‘optimal design’ thinking persists today, as evidenced by many within ID arguing against the presence of non-functional (‘junk’) DNA. Clearly they retain, perhaps unconsciously, some unspoken specification that their kind of designer wouldn’t add extraneous ‘stuff’ to what it creates. That’s a reason why one might favor proposals where all the DNA in an organism has some ‘function’ (100% functionality arguments – or 99%, whatever).

I think it’s a bit ironic that the ‘most bits of the genome are functional’ position is shared both by hard-core adaptionists and a number of ID biologists. Amazing how long these echos persist to the current day.


In any case, that’s my ‘soapbox spew’. Thank you, @swamidass for splitting this conversation to its own thread.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #20

I would not be surprised if this was so. It could be a good case of agenda getting in the way of clear arguments.