Ignorance and a limited perspective can lead to some pretty amazing blunders. Robert H. Goddard was a visionary trailblazer in the early days of rocket science. NASA lauded his accomplishments in a 2004 online article: “Now known as the father of modern rocketry, Goddard’s significant achievements in rocket propulsion have contributed immensely to the scientific exploration of space.”1 The first to build a liquid-fuel rocket and launch a rocket payload, he is credited with 214 patents, and his list of rocketry firsts is astounding.
But despite his amazing scientific work, Goddard was the subject of some shameful treatment.
In 1920, the Smithsonian published his original paper, “A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes,” in which he included a small section stressing that rockets could be used to send payloads to the Moon. Unfortunately, the press got wind of this and the next day, the New York Times wrote a scathing editorial denouncing his theories as folly. Goddard was ridiculed and made to look like a fool.1
The New York Times editorial mocked Goddard and questioned whether he knew any more than a high school student. It’s hard to quantify the arrogance it took for newspaper reporters who knew little about rocketry to criticize the work of a man clearly out of their league. Unchecked control over their news forum, coupled with an overestimation of their own self-importance, emboldened their abuse of journalistic privilege.
This account is instructive. Today, the content of mainstream scientific journals passes through chokepoints controlled by evolutionists. They’ve used that control to criticize several biological organs as “poorly designed”—especially the human eye. Does scientific evidence justify these assertions, or does it point to a deliberately limited frame of reference that these critics have on biological systems they simply do not fully understand?
Playing “Gotcha” with God
Evolutionists believe they have discovered numerous design flaws in living organisms. According to them, flaws arise because organisms evolve bit by bit over long ages in a ruthless struggle to survive. Death, not intelligence, is embraced as the means that “fractions” out the DNA needed to build new traits in a process that somehow operates without thought or purpose. Brown University’s Kenneth Miller explains how his evolutionary beliefs contrast with seeing creatures as being made by a wise, benevolent God:
Though some insist that life as we know it sprang from a Grand Designer’s Original blueprints, Biology offers new evidence that organisms were cobbled together layer upon layer by a timeless tinkerer called evolution.2
Anything cobbled together by a “tinkerer” would likely have many mistakes—especially when compared to the creations of a craftsman. Thus, the evolutionist’s argument is that the presence of design mistakes reveals evolutionary tinkering and not the work of God. Richard Dawkins thinks he sees some huge problems in how the human eye is put together. To him, creationists are caught in a dilemma—either God did not design the eye or He made mistakes.
Dawkins begins with cells capable of detecting incoming light. These have photosensitive elements at one end and a nerve at the other end that conveys signals to the brain (Figure 1).
Light enters the front of the human eye, while the brain is located behind it. Other eyes are built in a manner called verted, where the photosensitive elements face the front and the nerves go out the back. But vertebrate eyes are built inverted, where the photosensitive elements face the back and the nerves face front. The nerves come together at a specific location and U-turn out the back.
The “Poor Design” Mantra
Dawkins popularized the belief that anyone can simply look at the eye’s inverted layout and plainly see that it is a foolish design, that it is “wired backwards.”
Any engineer would naturally assume that the photocells would point towards the light, with their wires leading backwards towards the brain. He would laugh at any suggestion that the photocells might point away from the light, with their wires departing on the side nearest the light. Yet this is exactly what happens in all vertebrate retinas. Each photocell is, in effect, wired in backwards, with its wire sticking out on the side nearest the light. The wire has to travel over the surface of the retina, to a point where it dives through a hole in the retina (the so-called ‘blind spot’) to join the optic nerve. This means that the light, instead of being granted an unrestricted passage to the photocells, has to pass through a forest of connecting wires, presumably suffering at least some attenuation and distortion (actually probably not much, still, it is the principle of the thing that would offend any tidy-minded engineer!).3
Dawkins was not the lone evolutionary voice on the subject. Kenneth Miller later grabbed the baton, claiming, “Evolution, unlike design, works by the modification of pre-existing structures….[It] does not produce perfection.” His prime example? “The eye, that supposed paragon of intelligent design, is a perfect place to start.”4 Miller parrots Dawkins’ disapproval:
Given the basics of this wiring, how would you orient the retina with respect to the direction of light? Quite naturally, you (and any other designer) would choose the orientation that produces the highest degree of visual quality. No one, for example, would suggest that the neural wiring connections should be placed on the side that faces the light, rather than on the side away from it. Incredibly, this is exactly how the human retina is constructed.4
Like Dawkins, Miller admits there is no evidence of poor eye performance: “None of this should be taken to suggest that the eye functions poorly. Quite the contrary, it is a superb visual instrument that serves us exceedingly well.” But the eye is not built the way he feels it should be: “The key to the argument from design is not whether or not an organ or system works well, but whether its basic structural plan is the obvious product of design. The structural plan of the eye is not.”4 Devotees of Miller should recognize that he subtlety changed the basis for his criticism from an objective standard to his subjective opinion.
In scientific literature published concurrent with Dawkins’ comments, however, were many examples of complicated biological systems bearing multiple parts working together for a purpose. In this sea of documented biological complexity, evolutionary claims of poor design—without documented poor performance—rang hollow.
So, Francis Ayala, an evolutionary biologist and American Academy for the Advancement of Science president, joined the party. He began asserting that visual problems are caused by poor design. First, he claimed:
We know that some deficiencies are not just imperfections, but are outright dysfunctional, jeopardizing the very function the organ or part is supposed to serve. In the human eye, the optic nerve forms inside the eye cavity and creates a blind spot as it crosses the retina.5
But then, in a broad-brushed flail against intelligent design, he pronounced that “it is not only that organisms and their parts are less than perfect, but also that deficiencies and dysfunctions are pervasive, evidencing ‘incompetent’ rather than ‘intelligent’ design.”6 However, the real experts—actual neuroscientists—weren’t documenting dysfunctional eyes.
Bad Design or Optimized Design?
Dawkins and other evolutionists may think that since the performance of one particular eye trait isn’t maximized then it’s irrelevant to investigate the entity as a functional whole. This practice leaves them ignorant of good reasons for design tradeoffs or other involved factors.
There is no excuse for this “poor design” blunder. When Dawkins, Miller, and Ayala made their claims, abundant existing information related how retinal tissues marvelously balance design solutions to several competing physical challenges—simultaneously—to begin converting light fluctuations into useful information. Engineers regularly need to concurrently satisfy numerous competing interests. When engineers optimize a design, they find solutions for several conflicting demands—a hallmark of sophisticated engineering.7
In the eye, this light-processing optimization requires 1) a mechanism to detect light, 2) a quick replenishment of that light-detecting mechanism to enable its extended use in large quantities of light, which tends to destroy tissue, 3) the removal of heat from the highly metabolic process before the heat destroys protein function, 4) the removal of heat from light focused on the retina, and 5) the prevention of light reflecting inside the eye after it passes through the photoreceptors. For human eyes, how could engineers optimally balance these major factors so the retina can work properly? They’d solve the problem by building an inverted retina! Photoreceptors must be inverted and embedded in the retinal pigment epithelium, a cell layer just outside the retina (Figure 2).
This vital tissue removes waste and helps remove heat from the rapidly regenerating receptors.8 Its black granule pigment prevents light-scattering. The choroid’s extensive network of blood vessels supports the high metabolic needs of photoreceptors and functions like a car radiator to absorb additional heat.9 Researchers have known for decades that the “uninsulated” nerve fibers leaving the photoreceptors spread apart, making this layer light-transparent.10 In addition, retinal Müller cells conduct light from front to back like fiber optic cables. One paper described their remarkable properties: “The increasing refractive index together with their funnel shape at nearly constant light-guiding capability make them ingeniously designed light collectors.”11 This enables the light-sensitive molecules to detect light regardless of which way the retina is oriented.
Simply put, if our eyes were built according to evolutionists’ expectations, we’d all be blind.
“Poor Design” Claims Are Spectacularly Wrong
One neurophysicist effectively summed up how human eyes couldn’t be more sensitive to light:
“If you imagine this, it is remarkable: a photon, the smallest physical entity with quantum properties of which light consists, is interacting with a biological system consisting of billions of cells, all in a warm and wet environment,” says [Rockefeller University professor Alipasha] Vaziri. “The response that the photon generates survives all the way to the level of our awareness despite the ubiquitous background noise. Any man-made detector would need to be cooled and isolated from noise to behave the same way.”12
One research study simply concludes, “The retina is revealed as an optimal structure designed for improving the sharpness of images.”13 Another account extolls the eye’s extraordinary performance: “Photoreceptors operate at the outermost boundary allowed by the laws of physics, which means they are as good as they can be, period.”14
A 2014 report on the vast contradictory scientific evidence against long-standing claims of poor eye design stated:
Having the photoreceptors at the back of the retina is not a design constraint, it is a design feature. The idea that the vertebrate eye, like a traditional front-illuminated camera, might have been improved somehow if it had only been able to orient its wiring behind the photoreceptor layer, like a cephalopod, is folly.15
Every statement by Dawkins, Miller, Ayala, and others about the eye’s poor design—from photocells being “wired backwards” to the eye being “outright dysfunctional”—is scientifically incorrect. “Folly” accurately describes their blunder. Their ignorance surpasses that of the journalists who criticized the aeronautical genius of Robert Goddard. By asserting that our eye’s design isn’t what a sensible human engineer would do, these evolutionists mock God. Their smug ridicule of eye anatomy and their claims that it is exhibit A for poor design are now embarrassingly exposed as a clear scientific blunder.
Time and truth go hand in hand. Goddard was right and the journalists wrong. NASA noted:
A day after Apollo 11 set off for the Moon, in July of 1969, the New York Times printed a correction to its 1920 editorial section, stating that “it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.”16
Though greatly belated, the Time’s humble retraction is honorable. Science shows that God is also due a retraction. Time will reveal how well humility fits into the “struggle for survival” mindset of the evolutionists who have denied His engineering genius and creative craftsmanship.
- Marconi, E. M. Robert Goddard: A Man and His Rocket. Posted on NASA.gov March 9, 2004, accessed July 15, 2016.
- Miller, K. R. 1994. Life’s Grand Design. Technology Review. 97 (2): 24-32.
- Dawkins, R. 1987. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 93.
- Miller, Life’s Grand Design.
- Ayala, F. J. 2007. Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 22.
- Ibid, 155.
- Guliuzza, R. 2012. Clearly Seen: Constructing Solid Arguments for Design. Dallas, TX: Institute for Creation Research, 32-33.
- Anderson, D. H., S. K. Fisher, and R. H. Steinberg. 1978. Mammalian cones: Disc shedding, phagocytosis and renewal. Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science. 17 (2): 117-133.
- Parver, L. M., C. R. Auker, and D. O. Carpenter. 1983. Choroidal blood flow: III. Reflexive control in human eyes. Archives of Ophthalmology. 101 (10): 1604-1606.
- Hamilton, H. S. 1985. The Retina of the Eye—An Evolutionary Roadblock. Creation Research Society Quarterly. 22 (2): 59-64.
- Franze, K. et al. 2007. Müller cells are living optical fibers in the vertebrate retina. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. 104 (20): 8287-8292.
- Study suggests humans can detect even the smallest units of light. Rockefeller University news release. Posted on newswire.rockefeller.edu July 20, 2016, accessed July 21, 2016.
- Labin, A. M. and E. N. Ribak. 2010. Retinal glial cells enhance human vision acuity. Physical Review Letters. 104 (15): 158102.
- Angier, N. Seeing the Natural World With a Physicist’s Lens. New York Times. Posted on nytimes.com November 1, 2010, accessed July 26, 2012. For the extended quote, see Thomas, B. Eye Optimization in Creation. Creation Science Update. Posted on ICR.org November 23, 2010.
- Hewitt, J. Fiber optic light pipes in the retina do much more than simple image transfer. Phys.org. Posted on phys.org July 21, 2014, accessed July 21 2016.
- Marconi, Robert Goddard: A Man and His Rocket.
* Dr. Guliuzza is ICR’s National Representative.