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Is the world perfectly designed?

Drawing of the left recurrent laryngeal nerve.

M. writes:

Hi, I had a question please.

a) Is it believed that we are made with intelligent design/perfect design? If so in what way?

What about the vestigial organs or those structures which are described as being useless/poorly made like the left recurrent laryngeal nerve? What about the structures for which they say are mistakes/by-products of evolution like for example cardiac referred pain caused when the nerves approach in the spinal nerve. Considering these things is it still possible to say ‘intelligent design’?

David wrote something like “I am wonderfully made”—not sure where, but what do we mean here?

b) Perfect is also subjective. What is perfect to one person may differ to another, so what criteria do we use when we say creation is perfect?

Thank you,


CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

Dear M.

Thanks for writing in.

To say that we’re made with intelligent design is different from saying that we’re made with perfect design. Nobody would deny that computers, jet fighters, and MRI machines are intelligently designed. But are they perfectly designed? They’re made by humans. There’s almost certainly going to be some flaw in the design, or at least something that could improve its overall performance.

But also, we need to know what we mean by ‘perfect’. If we use the term ‘perfect’ with respect to how nature runs, we might refer to the pre-Fall world as ‘perfect’ in the sense of lacking actual evil (Was God’s finished creation perfect?). This notion of ‘perfection’ does have an objective sense to it. However, this is a moral category, not an engineering category that ‘perfect design’ seems to refer to.

Indeed, an engineering concept of ‘perfect design’ seems undermined by the fact that all designs involve trade-off. Perhaps the best we can talk of is constrained optimality.1 But even this falls short, since God is plausibly not merely an engineer, but also an artist. But the canons of ‘perfect design’ in both categories can often conflict. Or, as a CMI book on design puts it:2

Optimized combination

A single feature may not be optimal, but the combination of features may be. E.g. a thicker shell, considered only for its protective properties, works better against predators and environmental damage. But a too-thick shell wastes manufacturing resources, and it could weigh down the creature so overall the creature is worse off. Indeed, one engineering textbook on machine-component design points out that “Most engineering designs involve a multitude of considerations, and it is a challenge to the engineer to recognize them all in the proper proportion.”3

What matters from a design perspective is not whether something is perfectly designed, but whether the design is successful at achieving the functions it’s aimed at achieving. We see that cellular life functions as a compositionally and geometrically complex configuration that maintains, sustains, and reproduces itself across a broad range of environmental conditions. It can even adapt to different environmental conditions at both the individual and population levels. Basically, imagine a micro-scale city that can maintain, sustain, and reproduce itself across different environments, and that’s a decent picture of the cell.

This is nothing like e.g. salt crystals being able to form into cubes in a wide range of environments, because their ability to do so is determined by the chemistry of its constituents. (See Some thermodynamics criticisms— and answers (#2).) There is nothing about the chemistry of a cell’s constituents that spontaneously forms it into such complex arrangements. In reality, there are more-than-astronomically more ways for the constituents of a cell to be arranged that will not be able to self-replicate than arrangements that can self-replicate. And thermodynamics will tend to arrange cellular constituents in the more probable configuration, i.e. abiotic. Basically, if something like a tornado ripping through a junkyard isn’t likely to spontaneously assemble a Boeing 747, then undirected energy is far less likely to arrange a conglomeration of cellular parts into a functional cell (see Life’s irreducible structure—Part 1: autopoiesis).

But now upscale that to a multicellular system where it’s no longer the single cell that counts as a single reproductive individual, but the multicelled composite is (such as animals and plants). In this case, not only is most of the complexity of the single-celled level retained, but cellular replication is controlled in space and time for the purpose of maintaining the multicelled individual (Serial cell differentiation: intricate system of design). Everything from a lichen to a human has this sort of multicellularity (Evolution of multicellularity: what is required?), and they’ve both been successful at survival and reproduction for their populations to have survived for millennia. Our best technologies not only are nowhere near this level of specified complexity, but they can’t persist in a functional state for anywhere near as long even with external maintenance, let alone being able to maintain themselves for so long. As such, multicelled organisms are highly successful in their functions.

Given the above context, what relevance do these supposed issues of ‘bad design’ have to the question of whether we were intelligently designed? So what if there’s some referred pain? So what if the left recurrent laryngeal nerve has a rather circuitous route? (Though we have written articles on this before, and they are findable via our search function, i.e. The left recurrent laryngeal nerve design in mammals is not poor design and Recurrent laryngeal nerve.) The question we should be asking is: ‘Do the relevant systems work well?’ The fact we’re still here after millennia shows that they do.4 These sorts of ‘bad design’ arguments are like saying that the sun visor in a Lamborghini being offset a little to the left means the Lamborghini wasn’t designed.

Actually, even the Lamborghini analogy is probably too generous. Why? It considers the design of a single life form rather than considering the design of the entire biosphere. But we can’t survive apart from the biosphere. That means the design of our bodies must be considered in the context of designing an entire biosphere. But that seriously upscales the design problem; now we have to consider interactions within the biosphere from genetics to continental-scale ecology when designing a global-scale self-sustaining system within which creatures with both affective (e.g. amniotes) and rational (humans) capacities can interact in consistent and functional ways for millennia.

So, when considering the placement of e.g. the left recurrent laryngeal nerve, we can’t just consider where it sits in a developmentally mature human. We must also consider establishing and maintaining its function as that human develops from an embryo into an adult. Moreover, we must consider also how the human species can be functionally integrated into the wider biosphere in the most successful way for its continued persistence (Why the ‘poor design’ argument against intelligent design is unsound). I also wonder if design economy issues come into play in building a successfully functioning biosphere: e.g. maximizing phenotypic diversity across different kinds of creatures with minimal change at the molecular level might maximize the efficiency of how the biosphere functions at an ecological level.

The closest analogy for this is perhaps the science fiction idea of terraforming a planet, i.e. turning a sterile planetary body into a place that can sustain life autonomously. However, in such a scenario the location of the planetary body must be considered; is it in a life-permitting location stable enough for life to persist long-term? But even once we have a viable candidate along those lines, we now have to consider how to introduce all the organisms we need to produce a functionally sustainable biosphere. However, this analogy has a serious shortcoming: we are merely transplanting (a significant portion of?) our biosphere to a different location; we are not designing a biosphere from scratch, which would involve designing the creatures that must interact with each other to constitute a system that can sustain itself long-term.

At any rate, I hope that shows how these sorts of localized ‘bad design’ arguments really don’t account for how the design paradigm actually works. It’s a poor argument that doesn’t take into account how functionally embedded the structure under consideration is within the organism and ecosystem in which it functions.

Kind regards,
Shaun Doyle
Creation Ministries International

Published: 1 June 2023

References and notes

  1. Dembski, W., Intelligent Design is not Optimal Design, metanexus.net/intelligent-design-not-optimal-design, 2 February 2000. Return to text.
  2. Sarfati, J., By Design, Ch. 12: What about ‘poorly designed’ things, CBP, 2008. Return to text.
  3. Juvinall, R.C. and Marshek, K.M., Machine Component Design (International Student Version), p. 14, 5th Edn, John Wiley & Sons, 2012. Return to text.
  4. Ironically, the ‘billions of years’ naturalistic scheme only serves to highlight this point. If organisms have been successfully reproducing not just for millennia, but for billions of years, then there can be no doubt about the success of cellular life for achieving its functional outcomes. Return to text.

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