Is the human body badly designed?
Refuting Human Errors: A Panorama of our Glitches by Nathan Lents
The headline “5 Design Fails of the Human Body (that you overcome every day)” was crafted to catch attention. It appeared in a health-and-fitness magazine called ‘Body and Soul’ that is syndicated to various weekend newspapers, which included the Melbourne Herald Sun, and the Queensland Sunday Mail. It pushed the long-refuted argument that your body is badly designed, a line of reasoning that Darwin used to argue that life was not created but evolved. It begins, “Your body succeeds despite a bunch of amazingly bad design flaws.”
The article draws on a book by Professor Nathan Lents, from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, called Human Errors: A Panorama of our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes, published this year. This book promotes these old bad-design arguments, plus others, and with easy-to-read humour.
For many the idea of bad design comes from ignorance. But for some it’s a device for pushing an anti-God agenda—as with this professor. That is likely why it keeps reappearing and is promoted so enthusiastically.
Unsurprisingly therefore, Lent’s book received many favourable reviews and was included on recommended summer reading lists in the Wall Street Journal, Discover Magazine, EndPoints, The Financial Times, and was "Book of the Month" for August 2018 in Geographical Magazine. These reviews say a lot about the attitudes of the reviewers.
So, what are these five shocking flaws that we (somehow) deal with every day? Well, here they are:
- One tube for breathing and eating
- Back-to-front retinas in our eyes
- Knees that can’t cope with sport
- A spine not designed for walking
- Sinuses that drain up, not down
One of us (Don Batten) sent the following letter to Body and Soul to give them scientific responses to the alleged problems the article featured (minor editing added).
Dear Editor Elin,
I enjoy reading B&S week by week. It has useful and interesting ideas relating to health and fitness.
I was perplexed to see “5 Design Fails of the Human Body (that you overcome every day)”, because it is so out of kilter with the usual helpful tone of B&S.
This article qualifies as disinformation, not factual material about the human body. It is driven by a ‘faith’ adherence to atheism, not the scientific evidence. Propagandists for this view that the human body is ‘badly designed’ are using this as an argument against it being designed at all (‘therefore God didn’t do it’). As such this amounts to a pseudoscientific polemic against Christian faith (and Judaism, Islam, and Sikhism). I doubt that you would knowingly publish a nasty put-down of Buddhism, or any other religion, but this is such an attack on the faith of many people who also read B&S. So, unless the editors of B&S think that your Christian (and Jewish etc.) readers are fair game for such treatment, I suggest that publishing this material is not appropriate.
Now, I just want to show how unscientific this article is. You won’t have time to read my treatment of each point, so I will just deal with #2, “back-to-front retinas”. But I want to make five points in general first:
- Quite aside from anything else, it must be quite depressing for readers of B&S to read that their bodies are poorly designed. It would be a lot more encouraging to read articles about how well our bodies are designed (there is lots of material!) and how we can work with our bodies to maximize our health, rather than be told that we are flawed from the start (this is discouragingly fatalistic).
- None of these propagandists, such as this ‘professor’, can provide a design that is superior; ask the designers of robots just how hard it is to mimic human functionality.
- Design is always constrained by what is possible, as any engineer can testify. For example, think about the idea (#1) that “humans are particularly prone to choking because our larynx is positioned higher in the neck than other primates, so we don’t have as much room for the muscles involved in swallowing to do their work”. Well, yes of course; if our larynx was lower in our neck we might be less prone to choke, but we could not talk; now that would be a good idea, eh? The constraint of being designed to talk limits what is possible. Duh! By the way, I don’t personally know of anyone who has died of choking (it’s quite rare).
- Injury due to misuse is hardly a design fault. Cruciate ligament tears (#3) are a case in question. I have lived a very active life, and I have never had such an injury, and most people have not. Now here’s the rub for our ‘professor’: the knee has a double bar ligament system that allows the incredibly marvellous movement possible with the human knee. Such a system could never evolve. Here is an article by Dr Stuart Burgess, Professor of Design Engineering at Bristol University, on this topic: Critical characteristics and the irreducible knee joint
- Evolutionary assumptions are not science. For example, that our spines were not designed for upright walking but for life on all fours. My daughter is a physiotherapist and when bad backs were treated as if they should be more like an ape’s, it made bad backs worse (a Dr Paul Williams was responsible for this wrong approach, based on evolutionary hypothesizing; Google ‘Williams Flexion Exercises’). When the human spine was studied as optimized for what it does, and treatments were devised accordingly (Mr Robin McKenzie, a physiotherapist from New Zealand), treatments began to work. But once again, nearly all back problems are due to misuse, such as too much sitting around, rather than moving, as Body and Soul has often correctly advised. We were not designed to sit around doing no physical exercise.
- Degeneration with old age is not a design fault (prostate problems in some men are a case in question). Nothing lasts forever. Nor is malfunction due to disease (e.g. sinus problems). None of these bad things were part of the original design but are a consequence of the Fall of man.
I will deal specifically with #2, “back-to-front retinas”. This is so wrong I shake my head in disbelief at the stupidity of the argument. The saying ‘eagle eyes’ refers to someone with keen eyesight. Eagles have the same ‘bad’ eye design as we do! That alone should give cause to question this nonsense from the ‘professor’. But there is a design constraint (reason) why our eyes are ‘wired’ this way (whereas an octopus supposedly has the ‘correct’ arrangement according to the professor). Here is an article by a specialist ophthalmologist, Dr Peter Gurney, who explains why the human eye design is actually optimal: Is our ‘inverted’ retina really ‘bad design’? (note also the Update at the end). By the way, evolution has no explanation for the origin of an inverted retina design from a light-sensitive patch, so this ‘bad design’ argument is really a smoke-screen to deflect attention from the real question of how such an eye could come into existence if it were not designed and created by God.
The publisher of the book that this stuff is extracted from is ‘Hachette’. That seems ironically appropriate, because the content is a hatchet job on the human body. It contains very poor science and very poor reasoning.
Thanks for reading.
With kind regards,
Dr Don Batten
Basically, the claim that our body is badly designed is an argument against God, reasoning that an all-powerful, all-wise, and all-loving God would not create people with bad designs.
However, the claim is a denial of the fact that the human body works magnificently well, incredibly better than any machine that humans have invented. Those who claim bad-design do not appreciate what they have. Consider our ability to walk, run, bend, swim, lift, see, hear, reproduce, heal, speak, touch, think, create, invent, and build, to name a few. Sometimes it is only when we lose these abilities through sickness or injury that we appreciate what we had.
The claim of bad design also comes from inexperience of what is involved in designing and making something. Design always involves trade-offs to achieve the design objective. Some of the claims of bad design turn out, upon thoughtful investigation, to be incredibly brilliant design. Answers to many such claims can be found by using the search engine on this site. It turns out that the human body is awesome in the way it has been designed and made, as we read in the Psalm 139:4: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.”
And the claim of bad design is based on ignorance of our origin and history. Those who make these claims do not know, or do not believe, that we live in a fallen world. We get sick; we have accidents; we get old; we die. We live in a world that is groaning and in bondage to corruption and decay (Romans 8:20–22). The Bible reveals that’s because of man’s rebellion against his Creator. We should look at our fallen-ness and recognize our need of redemption. This reality should prompt us to accept the glorious remedy provided for us in the life, death, and resurrection of our God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.