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Evolution's "New" Argument--Suboptimality

by  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 like this:

Premise #1 If the Universe evinces purposeful design, there must have been a designer.
Premise #2 The Universe does evince purposeful design.
Conclusion 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, “’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 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, is unthinkable.

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. 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.


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.

Premise #1 If the Universe evinces traits of non-design, there is no Designer.
Premise #2 The Universe does evince non-design.
Conclusion 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, 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 sometimes is known as the argument from dysteleology.] It is my contention that the argument is flawed for several reasons.

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. Percival Davis, in the book he co-authored with Wayne Frair, 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 organisms possess. 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. Davis 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 that follows below, that is exactly what happened.

In his 1980 book, The Panda’s Thumb, Dr. Gould (one of suboptimality’s most vocal supporters) presented what he believed 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 provided 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 was 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 that he felt was so evident, research (the same kind of research Dr. Davis 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 now has been found to exhibit design for very special functions, as the following information attests.

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” (n.d., 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 now is known to be present.

The panda’s “thumb” is an enlarged and extended wrist bone covered by a thick pad. It is separated from the pads of the five digits by a furrow that the panda uses to hold bamboo stalks. 

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 “suboptimal.”

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 Frair and Davis have 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 evolutionists.

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. Consider the following analogy:

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 already have 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. Futuyma says:

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, p. 200)?

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 1:31).

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).

Henry Morris, speaking specifically about the comments made by Cherfas, made 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. added).

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 Frair and Davis noted:

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), “The Difficulties of Darwinism,” New Scientist, 102:28-30, 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. Norton).

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. Norton).

Jackson, Wayne (1989), “Some Atheistic Arguments Answered,” Reason & Revelation, 9:1-3, January.

Morris, Henry M. (1985), Creation and the Modern Christian (El Cajon, CA: Master Books).

Ricci, Paul (1986), Fundamentals of Critical Thinking (Lexington, 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 Press).

Originally published in Reason & Revelation, November 1991, 11[11]:41-44. Copyright © 1991 Apologetics Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 1991 Apologetics Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

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