Have species been individually designed?

Have species been individually designed?
Updated 7 August 2023


One of the key tenets of both creationism and intelligent design is that whereas minor variations are possible among different members of a given “kind,” such variations do not extend beyond the boundary of the “kind.” (The term “kind” as used by these communities is not clearly defined, but it appears to mean individual species.) Instead, each individual “kind” has been separately created or designed in meticulous detail by a Supreme Being. The intelligent design community, in particular, points to the many intricate, well-adapted features as evidence of this Designer [Behe1996]. The intelligent design writers typically do not directly identify this Designer as the Judeo-Christian God, although this is implicit in their other writings.

Difficulties with the design hypothesis

Creationist and intelligent design writers often point to early 19th century scholar William Paley as the intellectual pioneer of this line of thought. However, recent research by Adam Shapiro draws this conclusion into question. Instead, Paley’s empirically-argued theology saw God as operating in accord with natural law, not by contravening natural law [Shapiro2009]. Indeed, scientists, including numerous prominent scientists who are also religious believers, counter the creationist-intelligent design arguments by noting that Darwin’s discovery of evolution has provided a natural-law framework to explain apparent design. With regards to the examples of apparent design that have been promoted in creationist and intelligent design literature, scientists note that in virtually all cases these are well covered by published research showing how these features could and likely did arise (see Evolution evidence).

Even from a purely theological point of view, there difficulties the creationist-intelligent design concept of design, notably the fact that the design hypothesis fails to explain the pain, violence and suffering that is experienced in the natural world. Indeed, one of the theological advantages of the evolutionary model is that it doesn’t cast the responsibility for all of these problems on a Supreme Being. For example, Aubrey Moore, a nineteenth century British theologian, argued that evolution could be seen as a partial solution to the age-old problem of why suffering and evil exist: “Darwinism appeared, and, under the guise of a foe, did the work of a friend” [Moore1891, pg. 99]. Noted biologist and Dominican Priest Francisco Ayala similarly argues [Ayala2007, pg. 5]:

As floods and drought were a necessary consequence of the fabric of the physical world, predators and parasites, dysfunctions and diseases were a consequence of the evolution of life. They were not a result of deficient or malevolent design. … Evolution by natural selection is Darwin’s answer to Paley. It is also the solution to the last prong of the problem of evil.

This principle is stated quite forcefully by biologist John C. Avise [Avise2010, pg. 158-159]:

Evolution by natural causes emancipates religion from the shackles of theodicy. No longer need we agonize about why a Creator God is the world’s leading abortionist and mass murderer. No longer need we query a Creator God’s motives for debilitating countless innocents with horrific genetic conditions. No longer must we anguish about the interventionist motives of a supreme intelligence that permits gross evil and suffering in the world. No longer need we be tempted to blaspheme an omnipotent Deity by charging Him directly responsible for human frailties and physical shortcomings (including those that we now understand to be commonplace at molecular and biochemical levels). No longer need we blame a Creator God’s direct hand for any of these disturbing empirical facts.

Examples of deficiencies in nature

Here are just a few of the many striking examples scientists have found that present severe difficulties for the notion that biological systems have been meticulously and individually designed:

  1. Nearly all species that have ever arisen on this planet have become extinct, including, for instance, nearly all species of dinosaurs — many modern-day birds are descended from one particular dinosaur lineage; all other dinosaur lineages have completely disappeared. It seems rather strange to suggest that a Supreme Being “designed” individual species by the millions, only to see virtually all of them ultimately fall into oblivion. For example, scientists have found 22 distinct species of elephants that arose and became extinct during the past six million years. Why did it take so many tries to “design” modern elephants? [Miller1999, pg. 97]. See Fossils for a family tree of the numerous known elephant species.
  2. Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is required for a wide range of essential metabolic reactions. Scurvy, that scourge of British seamen, Mormon pioneers crossing the Great Plains, and millions in poor regions worldwide even today, results when humans do not get enough Vitamin C. Most animals, including nearly all mammals, generate their own vitamin C, but while humans have the same overall biochemical machinery, it doesn’t work because mutations have inactivated at least one key step [Fairbanks2007, pg. 53-54; Miller2008, pg. 97-98]. What’s more, very similar mutations are found in the other great apes, such as orangutans, chimpanzees and gorillas, but not in other more distantly related primates, such as lemurs. Evidently these mutations occurred after ancient primate ancestors adopted a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, so that when some individuals lost the ability to generate their own Vitamin C due to mutations, it was not deleterious to their survival, and the trait was passed on to posterity. But it would be very strange to insist that a Supreme Being “designed” humans with such a glaring “computer program bug” in their DNA, and it would be downright blasphemous to insist that a Supreme Being copied this same computer program bug into the genomes of several other primate species [Miller2008, pg. 97-98].
  3. The laryngeal nerve is a branch of one of the cranial nerves, the nerves that lead directly from the brain rather than from the spinal cord. On each side of the neck, one of the branches of the laryngeal nerve goes directly to the larynx, following a direct route. The other goes down into the chest, around one of the main arteries near the heart, and then back up the neck to the larynx. In humans, this strange “detour” is only a foot or two long, but in an adult giraffe, the detour is 15 feet long! [Coyne2009, pg. 72; Dawkins2009, pg. 356-364]. This detour makes perfect sense from evolutionary history (from the stretching of the neck and the modification of gills in ancient ancestors), but it makes no sense at all from a “design” hypothesis.
  4. Thirty percent of the roughly 1000 human genes associated with the sense of smell are inoperable due to accumulated mutations [Shubin2008, pg. 146].
  5. In the eyes of humans and other mammals, the optic nerves emerge from the front of the retina, and then travel to the back, resulting in a blind spot. By contrast, the eyes of cephalopods (including the octopus, squid, cuttlefish and nautilus) are designed more logically with nerve connections on the back of the retina [Miller2008, pg. 150-151; Fairbanks2012, pg. 34-37].
  6. The vas deferens carries sperm and is thus essential for reproduction. But in humans and other mammals, the vas deferens takes a strange detour up and over the ureter, the tube that carries urine from the kidneys to the bladder [Dawkins2009, pg. 364-365]. Again, this detour makes perfect sense from evolutionary history, but no one would ever “design” the system this way. Another questionable feature of the male reproductive system is the prostate gland. In a substantial fraction of the human male population, the prostate continues to grow through middle age, squeezing the urethra, making urination difficult or even painful, and, in some cases, resulting in kidney damage or even death. Evidently this was not a problem for most of evolutionary history, when relatively few men lived past 50 years, but it is a significant health problem today for men worldwide [Coyne2009, pg. 84].
  7. Many persons suffer from back ailments, due to a skeletal design that clearly has been adapted from four-footed ancestors [Miller1999, pg. 101; Dawkins2009, pg. 369]. Another byproduct of our adaptation from four-footed ancestors, which causes considerable misery for those prone to sinus headaches, is that human sinuses drain through a hole at the top instead of at the bottom [Dawkins2009, pg. 370].
  8. Many persons of African ancestry carry a mutation in the beta-globin gene, which encodes a certain protein in hemoglobin for adults. This mutation confers some immunity against malaria, provided one inherits only one copy. But those unfortunate individuals who inherit two copies of this mutation (one from each parent) inevitably suffer from sickle-cell anemia, one of those most serious of human genetic disorders. Initial symptoms include fatigue, pain, eye damage, infections and fever, which increase in severity and eventually lead to death. Few survive beyond 30 or 40 years [Fairbanks2012, pg. 198].
  9. Humans are subject to over 500 other genetic disorders, and doubtless many more will be identified in the coming years with the explosion of genome sequence data. Cystic fibrosis, a debilitating and often lethal disorder that affects not only the lungs, but also the pancreas, liver and kidneys, results from mutations in the “CFTR” gene in chromosome seven. Similarly, Huntington’s disease, a fatal neurological disorder resulting in uncontrollable body movements and dementia, has been narrowed down to mutations at a specific spot on chromosome four [Avise2010, pg. 52-55].

Numerous other examples could be cited. Did a Supreme Being “design” humans with these specific deficiencies and vulnerabilities, or is it the duty of society to use the scientific method to understand these problems, and, where possible, to counter their effects and mitigate the suffering?


The notion of a Supreme Being as a high-level designer/creator, operating within the foundations of natural laws and processes to produce a world where evolution can lead to intelligent life, is thought by many to be a generally reasonable proposition, although some writers disagree. But the much stronger hypothesis promoted by many creationist and intelligent design writers, namely that each individual species or “kind” was meticulously and individually “designed,” is countered by large amounts of widely available scientific evidence and is universally discredited among knowledgeable researchers in the scientific community.

Indeed, in light of the many genetic defects that have been observed in nature in general and in humans in particular, the notion that a Supreme Being specifically “designed” species, including human beings, with these defects, and, further, copied many of these defects into the genomes of other related species, is downright blasphemous. It is much more reasonable, from both a scientific point of view and a theological point of view, to simply acknowledge the evolutionary explanation, and not to insist that scriptures or theological reasoning alone can dictate technical details of the origin and rise of living species on planet Earth.

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