Where Science and Faith Converge

Responding to a Skeptic

By Fazale Rana - June 3, 2009

Are Bad Designs a Problem for the Case for Intelligent Design?

The Q&A sessions during our speaking events are usually filled with high drama. This is the time when skeptics can come to the microphone and issue any challenge or ask any uncensored question they would like about the scientific case we have made for the Christian faith.

Recently, at a Skeptics Forum held at the University of North Florida, a biology professor from the school and an advocate for science education, Dr. Anthony Rossi, challenged my arguments for God's role in creating life by asking me to account for bad designs in the biological realm. Dr. Rossi specifically asked, "Why do men have nipples?" and "What about autocoprophagy? (I addressed the first question in an episode of our podcast, Science News Flash. As for the second question, though disgusting, I'm not sure why Rossi would consider animals eating their own feces to be a bad design. I suspect he included that question for effect.)

Though the examples Rossi cited actually turn out to be elegant instances of good designs when more carefully considered, his basic point does have merit. If life stems from the work of a Creator, then we wouldn't expect to observe bad designs in nature. If, however, the blind, undirected process of evolution generated life, then bad designs would be anticipated.

But, so-called "bad designs" may not be as big a problem for our creation model as they appear on the surface. They can be explained as arising from both natural processes and the Creator's intentional activity.

Life is subject to the laws of thermodynamics. Faulty biological designs can result when optimal systems produced by the Creator experience the unrelenting effects of the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy causes biological systems (like everything else) to tend toward disorder. Over time, this tendency will ultimately lead to a loss of optimality and yield a poorly designed system. In The Cell's Design, I illustrated this idea using deviants of the universal genetic code.

On the other hand, some bad designs in the biological realm are best understood as suboptimal designs. When engineers design complex systems, they often face trade-offs and must purposely design components in the system to be suboptimal in order to achieve overall optimal performance. In fact, if a system consists of finite resources and the goal for the system is to accomplish numerous objectives, then it must represent a compromise, because inevitably the objectives will compete with one another. Any attempt to maximize the system's performance in one area will degrade its performance in other areas. When confronted with trade-offs, the engineer's job is to carefully manage them in such a way as to achieve an overall optimal performance for the system as a whole. And this can only be done by intentionally suboptimizing individual aspects of the system's design.

Given the trade-offs routinely faced by engineers, it makes sense within the context of the biochemical intelligent design argument that, in some instances, suboptimal biochemical designs result from the Creator's intent. In other words, these biochemical systems are truly suboptimal, but intentionally so. (Go here to read an article that illustrates this point.) But it's through this suboptimization that the Creator achieves overall optimal performance.

Living systems are complex. Often scientists don't completely understand them, even those that have historically been the subject of focused investigation. When biologists claim that a certain feature in the living realm exemplifies poor design, it's largely based on their authority, not on a comprehensive understanding of that system and its interrelationship to other biological structures and processes. It's all too common for biologists to gain new insight into the operation of an 'imperfect' system or develop a better appreciation for its relationship to other systems, only to discover that a design once thought to be faulty represents another marvelous illustration of the elegant features that define the living realm. (Go here and here to read articles that illustrates this point.)

In addition, to these general rebuttals, recent work on the use of viruses to combat infections by drug-resistant bacteria suggests another response to the "bad design" argument against creation. More on this next week.

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