EVOLUTION'S "NEW" ARGUMENT---SUBOPTIMALITY
Bert Thompson, Ph.D.
In setting forth the case for creation, and establishing the
existence of a Creator, creationists often employ what is commonly
called the "design" argument. Put into logical form, the argument looks
If the Universe evinces purposeful design, there must have been
The Universe does evince purposeful design.
Thus, the Universe must have had a Designer.
Even atheists and agnostics admit that the form of argumentation is
correct. Paul Ricci, an atheistic philosopher, has admitted in his
book, `Fundamentals of Critical Thinking', "...it's true that
everything designed has a designer.... `Everything designed has a
designer' is an analytically true statement" (1986, p 190). Their
disagreement, however, has been with the second premise, which affirms
that the Universe does evince purposeful design. In the past,
evolutionists simply denied the existence of any purposeful design in
the Universe, and busied themselves in attempting to prove that point.
For example, in 1986 Dr. Richard Dawkins, lecturer in animal science
at Oxford University, wrote `The Blind Watchmaker', in which he
attempted to establish the case for no design in the Universe. Were
such design to exist, evolutionists would be driven to admit, as Ricci
concedes, that "everything designed has a designer." And that, to them,
At least that is the way it used to be. But, evolutionists
apparently are beginning to recognize that they simply cannot explain
away what the "man on the street" can so easily see as evidence of
design in the Universe. Now, as unbelievable as it may seem, even
evolutionists are finally admitting that design does, in fact, exist.
Dr. Douglas Futuyma, for example, admits: "We look at the design of
organisms, then, for evidence of the Creator's intelligence, and what
do we see? A multitude of exquisite adaptations to be sure; the bones
of a swallow beautifully adapted for flight; the eyes of a cat
magnificently shaped for seeing in the twilight" (1983, p 198).
Does this mean, then, that evolutionists like Dr. Futuyma are
admitting defeat, and becoming committed creationists in light of these
new revelations? Hardly. Rather than abandon their sacrosanct theory of
evolution, they have decided to "put their heads together" in an effort
to explain all of this. The resulting argument is, admittedly, unique.
It goes something like this.
THE ARGUMENT FROM SUBOPTIMALITY
If design in the Universe proves the existence of a Designer, says
the evolutionist, then "non-design" disproves the existence of that
same Designer. Put into logical form, here is the argument.
If the Universe evinces traits of non-design, there is no
The Universe does evince non-design.
Thus, the Universe had no Designer.
In recent years, this argument has grown in popularity. Dr. Futuyma,
in `Science On Trial', devoted almost an entire chapter to examples of
"non-design" in nature. Other evolutionists are joining in the fracas.
For example, Dr. Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard has written extensively
about examples of non- design in nature.
As a result of all this attention to the matter of design versus
non- design, a new term has even been coined to express the
evolutionary argument. It is called the argument from suboptimality.
That is to say, if all design were considered perfect, everything would
be optimal. However, since there are items in nature that (allegedly)
are imperfect, there is suboptimality in nature.
[NOTE: The argument is also sometimes known as the argument from
dysteleology.] It is our contention that the argument is flawed for
First, in arguing the case for design, creationists are not
obligated to show obvious design in every single feature of the
Universe. It is necessary to produce only a reasonable number of
sufficient evidences in order to establish design. For the evolutionist
to produce an example of something which, to him, evinces either non-
design, or poor design, does not somehow magically negate all the other
evidences of obvious design!
Second, it is possible that an object possesses purposeful design,
but that it is not recognized by the observer. Consider the following
two cases. Dr. Wayne Frair, in the book he co-authored with Dr.
Percival Davis, `A Case for Creation', gives the following story.
My daughter was playing with her pet rat one day when a
question occurred to her. "Daddy," she said, "why does a
rat have scales on its tail?"
"You know perfectly well," I replied. "The reptiles that
were ancestral to rats and all other mammals had scales
on their tails as well as on the rest of their bodies.
Because there was no particular disadvantage to having
them, they persisted in rats to this day."
"Quit putting me on, Daddy. I know you don't believe that!"
You cannot win, it seems. But it is true that one is hard
put to discern the reason for the manifold adaptations that
What I should have said to my daughter (and eventually did
say) was that God had put the scales there for reasons He
knew to be perfectly good ones but which may take us a lot
of research to discover, since He has not told us what they
are. Still, the fact was that I could not explain the
presence of those scales... (1983, pp 30-31).
Dr. Frair has raised two very important points with this simple story.
First, we may not presently know why an organism is designed the way it
is. To us, the design is either not yet recognizable, or not well-
understood. Second, with further research, the heretofore
unrecognizable design eventually may be discovered. And, in the case
which follows below, that is exactly what happened.
In his 1980 book, `The Panda's Thumb', Dr. Gould (one of
suboptimality's most vocal supporters) presents what he believes to be
perhaps the finest known example of non-design ever to be found in
nature---the panda's thumb. After providing an exhaustive explanation
of how the panda has 5 other digits in each "hand," which function
quite well in the panda's everyday life, Dr. Gould then provides an
equally exhaustive explanation of the panda's "thumb." It is, he says,
"a somewhat clumsy, but quite workable" appendage which "wins no prize
in an engineer's derby." His whole essay is intended to portray this as
good evidence of suboptimality---non-design in nature. In fact, lest
the reader miss his point, Gould says that "odd arrangements and funny
solutions are the proof of evolution---paths that a sensible God would
never tread, but that a natural process, constrained by history,
follows perforce" (pp 20-21).
Interestingly, while Dr. Gould was writing about the non-design
which he felt was so evident, research (the same kind of research Dr
Frair said would be needed to elucidate the purpose of design in
certain structures) was ongoing in regard to the panda's thumb. And
what did that research show? The panda's thumb has now been found to
exhibit design for very special functions, as the following information
First, the San Diego Zoo's `Giant Panda Zoobook' states: "In fact,
the giant panda is one of the few large animals that can grab things as
tightly as a human can" (undated, p 6). Second, in 1985 Schaller et al.
authored `The Giant Pandas of Wolong',in which they state: "The panda
can handle bamboo stems with great precision by holding them as if with
forceps in the hairless groove connecting the pad of the first digit
and pseudothumb" (p 4).
Do these kinds of statements seem to describe the panda's thumb as
a "jury-rigged" device? Does being able to grasp something tightly,
with great precision, using a "pseudothumb" that is compared to
surgical forceps seem to convey non-design? Such statements remind us
of the point originally being made: an object may possess purposeful
design, but that design may not be immediately evident to the observer.
Dr. Gould could not see (for whatever reasons) the design in the
panda's thumb. Nevertheless, such design is now known to be present.
There are other flaws with the suboptimality argument as well. One
of the most serious is this: those who claim that something is
"suboptimal" must, by definition, set themselves up as the sole judge
of what is, and what is not, "optimal." In other words, those who would
claim non-design in nature must somehow "know" two things: (1) they
must know that the item under discussion positively evinces no design;
and, (2) they must know what the absolute standard is in the first
place (i.e., "the optimal") in order to claim that something has become
These points have not escaped the evolutionists. For example, S.R.
Scadding of Guelph University in Canada has commented that the
suboptimality "argument is a theological rather than a scientific
argument, since it is based on the supposed nature of the Creator"
(1981, p 174, emp. added). That is to say, the evolutionist sets
himself up as the Creator, presupposes to know the mind of the Creator,
and then presumes to say what the Creator did, or did not, do. Observe
how one evolutionist does just that:
The case for evolution then has two sides; positive
evidence---that evolution has occurred; and negative
evidence---that the natural world does not conform to
our expectation of what an omnipotent, omniscient,
truthful Creator would have created (Futuyma, 1983, p
198, emp. added).
Notice the phrase, "that the natural world does not conform to our
expectation of what an omnipotent, omniscient, truthful Creator would
have created." The evolutionist looks at the creation, sees that it
does not fit what he would do if he were the Creator, and then suggests
on that basis that evolution is true. And all of this is from someone
who does not even believe in a Creator in the first place! Such
thinking makes for an extremely weak argument. As Dr. Frair has
remarked: "It could be considered arrogant to assume knowledge of a
design feature's purpose in an organism, even if it had a purpose"
(1983, p 31). But such arrogance does not stand in the way of the
There is yet another flaw in this "suboptimality" argument. And,
like the one just discussed, it has to do with theology, not science.
First, the evolutionist sets himself up as the Creator, and proceeds to
note that since things weren't done as he would do them, there must not
be a Creator. Second, when the real Creator does try to explain the
evidences of "non-design" in the world (as the evolutionist sees them),
the evolutionist refuses to listen. Consider the following as an
explanation of this point.
It is at least possible that an object once clearly reflected
purposeful design, but as a result of a process of degeneration, the
design has been clouded or erased. Let us consider the following
Suppose a gardener, digging in a pile of rubbish,
discovers an ancient book. Its cover is weathered, its
pages are mostly stuck together, the type has faded, etc.
It is, for all practical purposes, completely illegible.
Does the current condition of the book mean that it never
had a message---that it never evidenced design? Of course
not. Though the book is in a degenerative condition, and
the message has faded with time, there is no denying that
the book was at one point quite communicative (Jackson,
1989, p 2, emp. added).
The evolutionist surveys the Earth and finds examples of what he
believes are evidences of "suboptimality." Yet in many cases he may be
witnessing simply degeneration instead. In fact, that is exactly what
the Creator has stated. When man sinned, and evil was introduced to
this planet, a state of progressive degeneration commenced. The whole
creation suffered as a result of man's sin (Romans 8:20-22). The Hebrew
writer, quoting the psalmist, observed that "the earth, like a garment,
is wearing out (Hebrews 1:10-11).
Also consider this important point: the fact that the product of an
orderly mechanism is flawed does not necessarily reflect upon either
the initial design or the designer.
For example, if a machine which manufactures tin cans begins
to turn out irregular cans, does this somehow prove the
machine had no designer? Must one postulate that the machine's
inventor intended for mutilated cans to be produced, or that
the machine was imperfectly designed? Surely we can conceive
that the failure could be on the part of those who failed to
follow the correct procedures for maintaining the machine, or
who abused it in some fashion. When man rebelled against his
Maker, the Lord allowed, as a consequence of that disobedience,
degenerative processes to begin, which eventually result in
death (Romans 5:12). But the fact that we have eye problems,
heart failure, diseases, etc., does not negate the impact as a
whole that the human body is "fearfully and wonderfully made"
(Psalm 139:14). We will not assume, therefore, that because our
critic's reasoning ability is flawed, this proves his brain was
not designed. The "design" argument remains unscathed! (Jackson,
1989, p 3, emp. in orig.).
Evolutionists, of course, ignore all of this. After all, they have
already set themselves up as the Creator, and have determined that none
of this is the way they would do it. When the real Creator speaks, they
are too busy playing the Creator to hear Him. Here is a good example.
The creationists admit that species can undergo limited
adaptive changes by the mechanism of mutation plus natural
selection. But surely an omniscient and omnipotent Creator
could devise a more foolproof method than random mutation to
enable his creatures to adapt. Yet mutations do occur, and we
have experimental demonstration that they are not oriented in
the direction of better adaptedness. How could a wise Creator,
in fact, allow mutations to happen at all, since they are so
often degenerative instead of uplifting? According to the
creationists, there is "a basic principle of disintegration
now at work in nature" that we must suppose includes mutation.
But why should the Creator have established such a principle?
Didn't He like the perfection of His original creation (1983,
Dr. Futuyma acknowledges that creationists have tried to get him to see
that there is "a basic principle of disintegration now at work in
nature." Then he asks, "But why should the Creator have established
such a principle? Didn't He like the perfection of His original
creation?" This is why we say that the problem is rooted in theology,
not science. Dr. Futuyma questions why the Creator enacted this
"principle of degeneration," then makes it clear that he has no
intention whatsoever of accepting the answer provided by the very
Creator he questions. If Dr. Futuyma had studied what the Creator did
say, he would have the answer to his question. Yes, the Creator liked
His original creation, so much so He pronounced it "very good" (Genesis
It was not God's fault that the principle of degeneration became a
reality. It was man's fault because the first man wanted, like
evolutionists today, to be the Creator. Is there a "principle of
degeneration" at work? Indeed there is. Might it cause some organisms
or structures to have their original message (i.e.,design) diminished,
or to lose it altogether? Certainly. But does that mean that there
never was any design? Or, does it reflect poorly on the Designer,
proving somehow that He does not exist? In the eyes of the
evolutionists, the only possible answer to these questions is a
resounding "yes." As Scadding says:
Haeckel makes clear why this line of argument was of such
importance to early evolutionary biologists.... It seemed
difficult to explain functionless structures on the basis of
special creation without imputing some lack of skill in
design to the Creator (1981, p 174).
So, God gets the blame for man's mistakes. And, the evolutionists get
another argument for their arsenal. Here, in a nutshell, is that
argument, as stated by British evolutionist Jeremy Cherfas:
In fact, as Darwin recognized, a perfect Creator could
manufacture perfect adaptations. Everything would fit because
everything was designed to fit. It is in the imperfect
adaptations that natural selection is revealed, because it is
those imperfections that show us that structure has a history.
If there were no imperfections, there would be no evidence of
history, and therefore nothing to favor evolution by natural
selection over creation (1984, p 29).
Dr. Henry Morris, speaking specifically about the comments made by
Cherfas, makes an interesting observation:
This is an amazing admission. The main evidence against creation
and for evolution is that natural selection doesn't work! If
there were no "imperfect" structures in nature, the evidence
would all favor creation. No wonder evolution has to be imposed
by authority and bombast, rather than reason, if this is its
only real evidence! (1985, p 177).
Yet this is exactly what Gould has suggested: "Odd arrangements and
funny solutions are the proof of evolution...." (1980, p 20, emp.
The creationist, however, is not willing to usurp the Creator's
prerogative and, like the evolutionist, tell Him what He can (and
cannot) do, or what is (and what is not) acceptable. As Dr. Frair
Yet the creationist lacks the option (open to the evolutionist)
of assuming purposelessness. Human curiosity being what it is,
the creationist will be motivated to inquire concerning the
purpose of the universe and all its features. The purpose for
most things will not be found. What we do find may, nonetheless,
be sufficient justification for the endeavor (1983, pp 31-32).
It is clear that evolutionists are "grasping at straws" when the
"new" argument from suboptimality is the best they can offer. Actually,
this argument is not new at all. Darwin, in his `Origin of Species',
addressed this very argument in 1859. Modern evolutionists---desperate
to find something they can use as evidence against design in the
Universe (and thus against the Designer)---have resurrected it from the
relic heaps of history, given it a different name, and attempted to
foist it upon the public as a legitimate response to the creationists'
argument from design. Once again they have had to set themselves up as
the Creator in order to try to convince people that no Creator exists.
And once again, they have failed.
Cherfas, Jeremy (1984), `New Scientist', May 17.
Davis, Percival, and Dean H. Kenyon (1989), `Of Pandas and People'
(Dallas, TX: Haughton Publishing).
Dawkins, Richard (1986), `The Blind Watchmaker' (New York: W.W.
Frair, Wayne A. and Percival Davis (1983), `A Case for Creation'
(Chicago, IL: Moody).
Futuyma, Douglas (1983), `Science on Trial' (New York: Pantheon).
`Giant Panda Zoobook' (undated), (San Diego, CA: San Diego Zoo).
Gould, Stephen Jay (1980), `The Panda's Thumb' (New York: W.W.
Jackson, Wayne (1989), "Some Atheistic Arguments Answered," `Reason
& Revelation', 9:1-3.
Morris, Henry M. (1985), `Creation and the Modern Christian' (El
Cajon, CA: Master Books).
Ricci, Paul (1986), `Fundamentals of Critical Thinking' (Lexington, 11
ME: Ginn Press).
Scadding, S.R. (1981), `Evolutionary Theory', May.
Schaller, George B., Hu Jinchu, Pan Wenshi, and Zhu Jing (1985),
`The Giant Pandas of Wolong' (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago
(C) 1991 Apologetics Press, Inc All Rights Reserved
This file may be copied, but is distributed on the understanding that
it will not be modified or edited, and will not be used for commercial
purposes. Further, it may not be copied without due reference to the
original publication source, author, year, and name and address of the
230 Landmark Drive
Montgomery, AL 36117-2752