The Conserved Complexity of Eye Cell Types | The Institute for Creation Research

The Conserved Complexity of Eye Cell Types

The late leading evolutionary biologist, Ernst Mayr, said the eye appeared at least 40 times “during the evolution of animal diversity.”1 But creationists claim that the more we learn of the eye and its complexity, particularly in the retina, the more it negates evolutionary naturalism. The eye is a marvel of creation.2

Interestingly, it was the anatomy of the eye that troubled Charles Darwin. He stated in his On the Origin of Species,

To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I confess, absurd in the highest degree.3

Since Darwin penned these words, our knowledge of the eye’s “inimitable contrivances,” such as ultrastructure, neurophysiology, and the biophysics of vision, has increased. Zoologists are left astonished at its complexity. Natural selection, time, and random genetic mistakes could never produce a functional eye, “simple” or otherwise.

It has long been known that the brain is the most sophisticated accumulation of matter in the known universe, and the retina of the eye “is arguably as complex as any other part of the brain.”4 The retina is a thin layer of light-sensitive tissue in two layers at the back of the eye. The outer layer is pigmented, and the inner layer has photoreceptor cells (cones and rods), nerve endings, and blood vessels. The eye is really an extension of the brain.

Recently, Berkeley News published an article regarding retina research.5 Author Robert Sanders stated the retinal cell types go far back in evolutionary time and they seem to have a common origin. He mentions the work of Karthik Shekhar of the University of California Berkeley, who is an assistant professor of biomolecular and chemical engineering. Shekhar has been researching the vertebrate retina by obtaining samples from 17 separate species, including humans, pigs, and cows. Sanders stated,

The retina is a miniature computer containing diverse types of cells that collectively process visual information before transmitting it to the rest of the brain. In a comparative analysis across animals of the many cell types in the retina—mice alone have 130 types of cells in the retina, as Shekhar’s previous studies have shown—the researchers concluded that most cell types have an ancient evolutionary history.5

Each of these retinal cell types are incredibly complex. What was their origin? Creationists recognize them as a testament to precise and purposeful creation, but evolutionists can only say retinal cell types have been diverse and complex for a very long time.

A group of scientists have published research in the journal Nature regarding retinal classes and cell types in vertebrates. The opening sentence of this formidable paper by Hahn et al. sets the stage: “The basic plan of the retina is conserved across vertebrates, yet species differ profoundly in their visual needs.”4 Not only is the retina with its variety of cells complex, but the retinal cell types are also conserved. The first paragraph of the Nature article goes on to mention conservation in cell types and the authors’ efforts to identify “conserved developmental programmes.”4

The word “conserved” is used to describe something that has remained relatively unchanged over extended periods of time (deep evolutionary time, according to evolutionists). Creationists would say that people, animals, and plants are all conserved and show no real evolution (macroevolution). Like the Nature article, Sanders refers to evolutionary conservation when addressing the alleged ancient evolutionary origins of eye cell types: “The retina of vertebrate species, such as mice and humans, are remarkably conserved since the origin of jawed vertebrates more than 400 million years ago.”5 But creationists hold that jawed vertebrates were created as jawed vertebrates just thousands of years ago, 6,7,8 and that’s why the retina is remarkably conserved.

Conservation—not evolution—is also seen at the molecular level in the vertebrate retina. Regulatory proteins called transcription factors (transcription regulators) are RNA polymerases designed to regulate the conversion of DNA to RNA (transcription). These extremely complex proteins are molecular machines9 and have remained unchanged (conserved) for, according to evolution, hundreds of millions of years.10 Hahn et al. state, “The subclass-specific expression of these transcription factors were broadly conserved across species, suggesting that the programmes specifying, like those specifying classes, are evolutionary ancient.”4 The theme of this Nature paper is conservation, not upward/onward evolution.

Robert Sanders stated, “Vertebrates vary widely in the number of retinal cell types in the eye, but most cell types seem to have a common origin [emphasis added].”5 The retinal cell types supposedly go far back in evolutionary time, but that doesn’t explain their origin. Clearly, God created retinas11 so that creatures—both vertebrate and invertebrate—might occupy various environments.12 However, evolutionists have no recourse but to say the eye in all its complexity somehow evolved in creatures as varied as vertebrates,13 arthropods,14 jellyfish,15 and mollusks.16

The more scientists investigate the eye cell types in vertebrate retinas, the more their design and biochemical complexity is revealed. Creation scientists maintain these incredible retinal cells point to our all-wise Designer, the Lord God.


  1. Mayr, E. 2001. What Evolution Is. New York, NY: Basic Book, 113.
  2. Thomas, B. Do Eyes Carry ‘Scars of Evolution’? Creation Science Update. Posted on August 24, 2011.
  3. Darwin, C. 1859. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Bantam Classic edition, 1999. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 155–56.
  4. Hahn, J. et al. 2023. Evolution of neuronal cell classes and types in the vertebrate retina. Nature. 624: 415–424.
  5. Sanders, R. Cell types in the eye have ancient evolutionary origins. Berkeley News. Posted on December 13, 2023.
  6. Sherwin, F. 2021. Vertebrate Origins on the Ropes…Again. Acts & Facts. 50 (5): 14.
  7. Sherwin, F. 2020. Osteostracans Aren’t Ancestors. Acts & Facts. 49 (12): 14.
  8. Thomas, B. Will the True Tetrapod Transition Please Step Forward? Creation Science Update. Posted on October 1, 2008.
  9. Guliuzza, R. 2023. Billions of Biological Nanomachines Point to Christ's Workmanship. Acts & Facts. 52 (11): 4–7.
  10. Alberts, B. et al. 2022. Molecular Biology of the Cell. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 239.
  11. Sherwin, F. Retina Design. Creation Science Update. Posted on April 20, 2023.
  12. Continuous Environmental Tracking.
  13. Thomas, B. 2013. Amazing Animal Eyes. Acts & Facts. 42 (9): 16.
  14. Sherwin, F. Butterflies and Cancer Detection. Creation Science Update. Posted on November 30, 2023.
  15. Sherwin, F. 2007. The Eyes of Creation. Acts & Facts. 36 (7).
  16. Thomas, B. Hi-Tech Eye Design in a Lowly Mollusk. Creation Science Update. Posted on May 6, 2011.

* Dr. Sherwin is science news writer at the Institute for Creation Research. He earned an M.A. in zoology from the University of Northern Colorado and received an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Pensacola Christian College.

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