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This article is from
Creation 18(2):38–40, March 1996

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Seeing back to front

Are evolutionists right when they say our eyes are wired the wrong way?


Figure 1. Click for larger image.

“No engineer worth his salt would design an eyeball the way ours has been built.” So said evolutionist and popular-science writer Graham Phillips.1 He was basing this on the very widely read book The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins. An Oxford zoologist who claims to have been a Christian before he really understood the implications of evolution, Dawkins is an outspoken opponent of creation and the supernatural in general. According to him, ‘some of the parts in our eyes have been wired backwards’!2

Wrong wiring?

The retina in our eye (Figure 1) is the light-sensitive layer, somewhat like the film in a camera. When the light rays forming a focused image fall on it, each of the millions of cells in it sends a signal to the brain along an individual nerve fibre, like an electrical wire.

A smart engineer, say evolutionists, would have these millions of ‘wires’ coming out the back of the retina, closest to the brain. Having the wiring coming out of the front seems to make no sense, they say, because this is the direction from which the light comes. Surely the light, having to pass through this tangle of cells and fibres (Figure 2), must get distorted or weakened in some way?

Figure 2. Click for larger image.

Furthermore, because these ‘wires’ have to eventually get behind the retina in order to reach the brain, they have to plunge through a central hole in the retina; here they are bundled together to form the beginning of the optic nerve, on its way to the brain.3 The eye of a squid or octopus is supposedly a lot like ours; but it is ‘wired correctly’ by Dawkins’ criterion, since its nerve fibres come out the back of the retina. Such critics overlook the fact that the cephalopod eye is actually more like ‘a compound eye with a single lens’, and doesn’t see as well as ours despite its ‘correct wiring’.

Not only does our eye have the wires coming out the front; (Figure 2) shows that the light-sensitive parts of the visual receptor cells (the rods and cones) face backwards, away from the incoming light, where they butt against the opaque pigment layer.

Blind chance seeing eyes

The paper-thin retina contains about 126 million light receptors. Around 6 million of these, called ‘cones’, allow us to distinguish some 8 million colours. The remainder ('rods') only detect black and white. They allow night vision and after an hour of darkness, become 75,000 times more sensitive.

Evolution is supposed to proceed in a ‘blind’ way, without the ultimate goal in view. Evolutionists say they can conceive of an original clumsy ‘proto-eye’ (perhaps just one or a few light-sensitive cells), beginning by chance in this ‘back-to-front’ orientation, at a time when this made no difference. Once the eye started along its evolutionary path, it could not go ‘backwards’ and redesign from scratch, since everything has to happen in small steps in which each stage improves upon what went before.

This allegedly unwise design of the human eye, they say, fits the idea of a chance evolutionary process, able only to slightly modify an already existing design, not looking to any ultimate purpose millions of years hence. The eventual results will be ‘good enough’, but not necessarily perfect or the most sensible way to achieve the goal. Yet an intelligent Creator designing the eye to function immediately would not have left such marks of illogical design imperfection, we are told.

However, those many people who have been swept along by Dawkins’ argument should have first paused to see the breathtaking audacity of the claim. Let us leave aside for the moment ideas of what seems aesthetically nice. Could anyone really seriously claim that (in terms of how it brilliantly carries out its function) our eye demonstrates anything but superb precision and perfection?

Wanted: Evidence

There is in fact no evidence at all that having this layer of nerve fibres (which are largely transparent) in front of the receptors significantly blocks, distorts or diffracts the incoming light in any way.4 This leaves evolutionists with only the flimsiest of claims; that is, that there seems to be no reason for it to be designed in this way.

However, that is not true. (Even if it were, it could either mean that we had not yet discovered the reason, or that the Creator simply chose to design it this way. In any case, the eye works beautifully; a design which merely seems ‘odd’ by our assessment cannot logically constitute proof of evolution or evidence against creation.5)

Fascinating eye facts

Eyes in different creatures are designed to meet their differing needs. Humans need good resolution and detail, whereas a fly needs speed. We see a fluorescent lamp as flickering at 10 Hz (cycles per second) but it looks stable to us at 20 Hz. A fly can detect a flicker of 200 Hz, so a normal movie would look to it like a slide show!

The simple act of walking into a room and immediately recognizing all the objects in it requires more computing power than a dozen of the world’s top supercomputers put together.

A useful filter

The human eye actually discriminates better in indirect, lower intensity light, so the intervening layer acts as a filter, minimizing excessive light-scattering. It also filters the short-wave ultraviolet (potentially cancer-causing) light. So why does the squid’s eye not have this ‘protective wiring’ up front? Because this creature operates in a different environment.6 It needs all the light it can get, and because of the low intensity of UV light in water, neither sunburn nor sun cancers are occupational hazards for a squid or octopus. Both types of eyes are beautifully designed to suit their purpose.

But what about the way in which the rods/cones have their light-sensitive ends hard up against the pigment layer, facing away from the incoming light? Is there any conceivable reason for this? There certainly is. When light is shining on them, the granules of pigment from this layer migrate within little extensions between the light-sensitive processes. This is very effective in screening scattered light (the granules return to the pigment layer in the dark).

Back is beautiful

According to biologist Richard Lumsden, it is critical to have the photoreceptive processes of the rods and cones intimately associated with the pigment layer for another reason, in order to allow the light-sensitive pigment rhodopsin to regenerate.7 So if the rods and cones were turned around to face the incoming light, as Dawkins requires, the pigment layer would have to be between the light and the light receptors, thus blocking vision altogether!8 In short, it is just as well that God, not Professor Dawkins, designed the eye.

References and Notes

  1. ‘Mother Nature, the Imperfect Designer’, Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), September 26, 1993, p. 149. Return to text.
  2. Ref 1. Return to text.
  3. This is seen as a round whitish patch when a doctor looks into the back of your eye with his light. Because that part of the retina has no light receptor cells, we all have a tiny ‘blind spot’. This is so functionally insignificant that most of us are unaware that we have it (until its existence is demonstrated by simple experiment). Return to text.
  4. Richard Lumsden, ‘Not So Blind a Watchmaker’, Creation Research Society Quarterly, 31:13–21, June 1994. Lumsden goes into more technical detail than we do here. Return to text.
  5. See Walter ReMine’s classic book The Biotic Message for some really fascinating philosophical arguments on the thesis that alleged ‘imperfections’ of design such as the panda’s thumb are actually arguments against evolution. Evolutionist allegiance to the ‘blind watchmaker’ is a convenient philosophical ‘win-win’; they use ‘imperfect’ design to argue against a Creator, but the myriad examples of ‘perfect’ design do not lead them to acknowledge His handiwork (Romans 1:20). Return to text.
  6. The human eye operates at the 400–700 nanometer (nm) range of wavelength, whereas the squid’s eye can operate as well in the 300 nm range, meaning it can ‘see’ with UV light. Ref 4. Return to text.
  7. Lumsden also claims that the existing arrangement serves to shield the photoreceptive processes from toxic metabolites, though he does not elaborate. [Ed. note: the related articles explain more.] Return to text.
  8. It is also crucial that these cells, with their very high rate of metabolic turnover, are supported by a very rich blood supply. In the current design, this is achieved by a dense capillary network in what is called the choroid layer, just outside of the pigment layer where it does not block any incoming light. Return to text.

Readers’ comments

Robert W.
A research document in 2010 revealed that the vertebrate eye (VE) does not rely in light passing through the media in the front of the eye. Instead, glial (Müller) cells act like optical fibres, carrying the light down directly to the photosensitive cells. This ‘fibre optic’ process both increases the resolution of the eye and reduces the chromatic aberration that would otherwise occur.

The arrangement of the VE does result in a blind spot. However, it is not accurate to describe this area as a ‘blind patch’. To begin with, it only occupies about 0.2% of the visual field. And as vertebrates have two eyes, what is a blind spot in one eye will not be ‘blind’ to the other eye. In addition, all high-resolution vision and 50% of all visual data is provided by the fovea centralis, which is completely unaffected by the existence of a blind spot in a peripheral area of the visual field.

So why is the wiring different in the VE and the cephalopod eye? One obvious point here is that, unlike invertebrates, the VE eye socket is made of solid bone or cartilage, which means there is very little ‘give’ in them. If the nerve fibres were nearer to the surface of the eyeball, therefore, they would be in greater danger of damage from impacts. This would increase the risk of nerve damage in key parts of the retina, such as the fovea centralis, which might also be irreversible.

Hans T.
If squids have their eye designed for underwater sight, why arent fish eyes also designed the same way? In any environment you can find squids or other cephalopods, you will also be able to find various species of fish, yet they have the same vertebrate eye as we do. In fact, no matter what environment fish and squids live in, be it the deep ocean, the shallows, muddy water, fresh water, salt water et.c., the design of the eye does not vary: fish have one type of eye, cephalopods have another. This also applies to other marine vertebrates such as whales and sea turtles.

I'm not saying this as some sort of "got'cha" argument. It just seems to me like this difference in eye based on type of organism rather than usage goes against your claim in this article, and I'm genuinely curious about what your answer to my claim would be.

God bless.
Don Batten
Hi Hans,
The article was only saying that cephalopods, because of their aquatic life, don't need some of the features of the vertebrate eye. That is not to say that the vertebrate eye is unsuitable for aquatic life (as with bony fish).
Jeff V.
I hope someday I have an opportunity to ask an evolutionist what exactly these light-sensitive cells that evolved into eyes are and where the evidence that they existed is - and how would light sensitive cells help the survival of the fittest anyway?
A light sensitive cell connected to the brain, they make sound so simple - but even this would require incredible technology -
I pray for Richard Dawkins - that he will one day worship our creator along with us -
Tommy S.
I've also heard it said many times by evolutionists that they could design a better eye. My answer to that is, then why don't you do it, win a Nobel prize, and wipe out blindness forever? I'm pretty sure all the blind people would be happy to receive their super amazing eye invention. But, of course, they are as far from designing and building such an eye as they are to discovering the origin of life through natural processes. The sheer arrogance these scientists demonstrate is staggering.
Dan M.
I’ve heard several atheistic scientists now, say, “I used to be an evangelical Christian before I studied science”. Is that supposed to be some kind of qualifier, that they researched Christianity and found it to be false or were further enlightened by science? Come on, let’s get real!
Our churches are full of non-committed carnal Christians like that, who will never find God because they never seriously search Him out. To them church is like a club in which you belong or something you give a chance that makes you feel better. All I can say is they, (Dawkins and such) must have been carnal Christians and not serious faith based Christians. You have to be willing to take God at his word and then the spirit will indwell you and reveal the truth to you, (Heb 11:16).
Since I’ve taken that leap of faith He has taught me to look at things in a much different way, (Rom 1:19-20) and my faith has never been stronger.
The gospels are just a drop in the bucket of what Jesus did and said, (Joh 21:25). I found in my bible verses in red letters, where Jesus spoke the word Faith at least 30 times and believe 58 times. Do you think that maybe, He was trying to get some kind of point across? You must diligently seek Him!
Robert R.
No engineer would design an eye like that!
I constantly see articles about engineers studying wings, animals, and trying to mimic nature [god's design].
The scallop's eye in Creation magazine, and owl's silent wings.
The engineers try to retro engineer what God did thousands of years ago, not criticizing bad designs that don't work.

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