fbpx Skip to Navigation Skip to Main Content Skip to Footer

The Argument from Poor Design: A Christian Response

Xandra Carroll

The LORD has made everything for its purpose.

Proverbs 16:4

One afternoon I grabbed lunch with a coworker of mine at a Japanese joint down the street. I was a projectionist at the time, and we worked at a movie theater together. As we sat down for our meal, my coworker folded his hands, brought them to his chin and said, “So, you’re a Christian right?”

My stomach turned. Yet again, I’d unwittingly signed up to be interrogated for an hour. I felt like the tuna steaks searing on the grill behind the counter. I gulped. “Yeah, I’m a Christia–”

“So-do-you-believe-in-creationism?” my friend cut in.

“I believe the world was created, yes.”

“Created by what?” he retorted. “Some sort of deity?”

“I believe the world was created by God.”

My friend leaned back in his chair with a look of satisfaction. He played with the stubble on his chin. “Do you know much about giraffes?”

“I can’t say that I do beyond their basic morphology.”

“So, you’ve never heard of the recurrent laryngeal nerve? Let me tell you about it.”

My coworker launched into a diatribe that lasted the duration of our lunch break. I ate my meal in silence while he berated me about how unintelligent so-called intelligent design is.  The succulent seared tuna turned sour in my mouth as I swallowed my pride. I had no idea what this guy was talking about. I was only 18 at the time, and he was a senior at university studying biology. It wasn’t until many weeks later that we had lunch again, and this time I invited him to the table. That was the beginning of a series of conversations in which I learned much, and though my friend tried to prove me wrong all the while, I came away from our times together with a deeper understanding of God and His creation.

The argument may seem like a fringe one, but it is still cited in literature today as one of the surest reasons we can put intelligent design (hereafter called ID) to rest. What’s more, I find it a good example of a common argumentative style against the ID concept.

The recurrent laryngeal nerve (let’s call it RLN) is present in all tetrapods because all four-legged vertebrates have a larynx. The purpose of the larynx is to protect the lungs from ingesting food or water. In some creatures it also helps in the production of sound. This nerve, like all other nerves, starts from the brain. It travels down the thorax until it reaches the heart of the animal where it wraps around the fourth and six aortic arches. From there, the nerve passes back up the neck. This path is straightforward in fish, from whence we have all supposedly come. But for other creatures, especially creatures with long necks, the nerve becomes impractically long. Matthew J. Wedel sums up the problem this length poses in his work A Monument of Inefficiency when he writes, “The extreme length of the RLN in the giraffe is frequently cited as the kind of post−hoc evolutionary kludge (= workaround) that an intelligent designer would surely have avoided.”[1] Wedel goes on to explain that other animals such as sauropods had an even longer neck, and, therefore, a longer RLN. For Wedel and other evolutionary biologists, these many examples provide a preponderance of evidence that an intelligent designer is out of the question.

The overall argument is called the argument from poor design (also known as the dysteleological argument). The argument from poor design is used again and again through various morphological facets in biology and can be summarized in the following syllogism:

  1. An intelligent designer would not create something inefficient or useless
  2. The morphology in question is inefficient or useless.
  3. Therefore, the morphology in question did not arise from an intelligent designer.
  4. The theory of evolution posits that all forms developed through purely natural processes.
  5. If all forms originated by these processes, we would expect to see forms that are inefficient or useless.
  6. Therefore, the theory of evolution is more consistent with the observed morphology than intelligent design.[2]

The argument from poor design has been employed against ID with regards to so-called ‘junk’ DNA, the appendix, and the tailbone. There are multiple responses we might make to such an argument. A common approach is to point out the functionality of the supposedly vestigial or inefficient form. Another approach is to submit the explanation of Darwinian macroevolution to the same scrutiny it uses against ID. Yet a third possible response would be an appeal to the functionality of science itself:


In the case of the RLN, the more time goes on, the more we realize it has a high level of functionality. Geological researcher Casey Luskin has studied various fossil forms and is no stranger to the structure of long-necked sauropods. Luskin explains that the RLN is more connected to the cardiac system than originally thought. The nerve innervates the esophagus and trachea as well as the larynx. Also, the RLN gives cardiac filaments deep into the cardiac plexus, suggesting that it aids in heart function somehow. This makes sense of why the nerve should have to travel all the way down to the heart, even in long-necked animals such as the giraffe or brachiosaur. Luskin writes, “Clearly, the RLN is performing many jobs, not just one. Its ‘intended function’ is much more than simply innervating the larynx.”[3]


One would not be remiss in asking why the macroevolutionary process has not yet sorted out the kinks of a so-called poor design if the process itself is such a good designer. Critiquing ID because of supposedly flawed morphology but not critiquing the proposed alternate process even though the flawed morphology remains is a classic case of double standards. If a design is inefficient, it’s a bad design regardless of how it arose.

Indeed, many macroevolutionists have asked why the processes of biological evolution haven’t been able to sort the kinks out. With regards to the giraffe, Wedel explains, “It’s impossible for it to sort itself out through evolution…Could some extinct tetrapod have evolved a nonrecurrent laryngeal nerve that took a more direct path from the brainstem to the larynx? It appears unlikely, given the developmental and clinical correlations of nonrecurrent laryngeal nerves—those that run directly from the brainstem to the larynx without descending into the thorax and looping around the great vessels. Nonrecurrent laryngeal nerves are rare in humans, and never occur bilaterally. A nonrecurrent laryngeal nerve is present on the right side in less than 1% of humans, and is associated with abnormal arterial supply to the right forelimb.”[4]

Wedel is correct when he states that these supposedly inefficient forms can’t sort themselves out through evolution. The reason is that macroevolution is not teleological, meaning it does not have an end goal in sight. The macroevolutionary process cannot say, “I want to make this dinosaur fly” and then give it feathers. Rather, already-present forms undergo random mutations over time, rendering some more adapted to their environment than others. Evolution is not, as Dawkins called it, a Blind Watchmaker. Evolution does not want to make a watch, nor does it know how. Rather, evolution is understood to be a blind force acting in all places at all times, much like the gravity we experience on our planet. To think of this process otherwise would be to give rational thought to a subject without a predicate, meaning it is understood to be true because of how it is viewed experientially. Classical Kantian metaphysics shows that any a priori claim can only be considered true on the basis of its own logic, and not by any appeal to experience. [DO2] 

Not only is evolution unable to sort out these inefficient forms, but a more straightforward form is considered abnormal and is less efficient. A nonrecurrent (and, therefore, ‘efficient’) laryngeal nerve causes all sorts of problems in the 1% of humans who have it. Would we be remiss to say the original form, though it seemed odd at first glance, does a better job than the form we think it should be would? In the case of a long and winding RLN, what at first seemed inefficient has now shown itself to be the only way that makes sense. A more straightforward pathway in our eyes turns out to be highly problematic, even non-functional. Perhaps this discovery points to a design arising from a mind that is smarter than us, whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8). A Creator would have known all along what would work best for the recurrent laryngeal nerve, and at the end of the day the proof is in the pudding. It simply doesn’t work any other way.

What’s more, similarities in forms such as the pathway of the RLN don’t suggest common ancestry in the views of many scientists. For instance, Geneticist Dr. Lonnig of the Max Planck Institute argues that the similarities we see in these body-type morphologies [DO4] (called bauplan) suggest intelligent design rather than refuting it. Lonnig explains, “It need not be stressed here that all mammals—in spite of substantial synorganized genera-specific differences—basically share the same bauplan…proving the same ingenious mind behind it all.”[5] Just because something looks similar to something else doesn’t mean they came from a common ancestor. Rather, this indicates they originated from the same designer. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright’s unique prairie style shows through in all his architecture. In the same way, the fact that the RLN wraps around the heart of every tetrapod, whether it be an echidna with a neck of two inches or a giraffe with 72, indicates the same engineer.


Anyone who plays science for keeps knows they must play the long game. We stand atop a mountain of rubble, the stuff of which is comprised of great theories that much of the known world believed in at one time. The mantra of the scientific method is, keep seeking, keep seeking, keep seeking. This should elicit a high level of humility. We don’t know everything now, and we will never fully understand all the marvels and mysteries of the universe. We dig for answers, we test and ponder, we wait and see. We must not demand a full comprehension of something mechanically for it to be real to us. Just because we don’t understand it doesn’t mean it is designed poorly. Junk DNA is anything but junk. It might not code for proteins, but recent discoveries suggest it may be integral to the functionality of the cell in which it resides.[6] The appendix has been shown to protect flora living in the intestines.[7] The coccyx serves as an anchor for muscles and may yet reveal more functions as time goes on.[8]

Imagine an alien species observing a ship upon the sea. This alien could see through the hull, all the way to the bottom of the vessel. Observing the various levels of the ship, an alien might remark that everything on the ship had a function except for the life rafts. The barrels were used for food, the nets on the deck were used for catching fish, the slats along the wall were used as beds. The circular structures on the deck of the ship must serve no purpose at all! But if the alien were to continue a close observation of the sea, they might have a chance to observe a damaged ship that was sinking. Only at that time would the functionality (and indeed necessity) of the life rafts be understood. Good science doesn’t jump to conclusions about something being useless; rather, it continues observation.

Further Implications of the Argument from Poor Design

The argument from poor design is especially damaging when applied to all of creation because under its guidelines we are forced to conclude that humanity has no meaning. The case has been made many times that humankind as a species does not meaningfully contribute to the biosphere. Thus we can conclude that humanity itself, since it has no function, is a mistake. Therefore, in a sense, those making the argument from poor design against God’s existence because of seemingly useless forms end up cancelling out the validity of their own existence. If something has value only because of its function within its greater system as a whole, humanity itself is rendered devoid of worth.

When we see creation as designed, however, we come to different conclusions. These conclusions apply not only to humanity, but to individuals personally. The One who created the world not only formed it in ways we don’t always comprehend, but also created the world so that you could exist. The implication here is that God wanted you to exist. If you were brought into existence on purpose, your life has purpose—it has meaning. As we read in Revelation 4:11, “[God] created all things, and by [His] will they existed and were created.” It was not by blind forces that you came to life. It was not even by the will of the parents who conceived you. Christianity declares that there is one force and one alone that brought you into existence, and that was the will of God. Therefore, you may have your mother’s eyes or your father’s chin, but you bear most of all the image of God. This means you have dignity and worth arising from outside your human capabilities.

All that was made, therefore, has worth. This makes space for beauty to exist, which has no meaning in and of itself, but which connects all of humanity. The universe is not simply machinery but rather, as John Calvin described, a theatrum gloriae: a dazzling theater by which the Creator showcases His glory.[9] All of creation shares in this intrinsic value, having not been said of its Creator, “It is very useful” but “It is very good.” (Genesis 1:31

Instead of a having comments section, we invite you to contact us here.

[1] Mathew J. Wedel, “A Monument of Inefficiency: The Presumed Course of the Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve in Sauropod Dinosaurs”. (Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. 2012) 57 (2): 241.

[2] Michael Berhow. 2019. Dysteleology : A Philosophical Assessment of Suboptimal Design in Biology. 15-16

[3] Casey Luskin, “Medical Considerations for the Intelligent Design of the Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve.” (Evolution News and Science Today. October 16, 2010) [https://evolutionnews.org/2010/10/medical_considerations_for_the/]

[4] Wedel 252. Emphasis mine.

[5] Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig. The evolution of the long-necked giraffe: (Giraffa camelopardalis L.) : what do we really know? : testing the theories of gradualism, macromutation, and intelligent design. (Münster: Verlagshaus Monsenstein und Vannerdat. 2011), 31

[6] Wojciech Makalowski, “Not Junk After All.” Science. 300.5623 (2003): 1246-1247. 

[7] I. A Kooij, S. Sahami, S. L Meijer, C. J. Buskens, The immunology of the vermiform appendix: a review of the literature. (Clinical & Experimental Immunology, October 01, 2016) 186, 1, 1-9

[8] Milana Flusberg, Mariya Kobi, Simin Bahrami, Phyllis Glanc, Suzanne Palmer, Victoria Chernyak, Devaraju Kanmaniraja, and Rania Farouk El Sayed. 2021. “Multimodality imaging of pelvic floor anatomy”. Abdominal Radiology. 46 (4): 1302-1311.

[9] John Calvin, John T. McNeill, and Ford Lewis Battles, Institutes of the Christian religion Vol. 1, Vol. 1. (London: SCM Press, 1961), 1.5.8; 2.6.1