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“Poor Design”? Actually, the Human Body Is Amazing; Here’s Why

Photo credit: Dolo Iglesias via Unsplash.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to present this excerpt from Your Designed Body, the new book by engineer Steve Laufmann and physician Howard Glicksman.

I sing the body electric.

Walt Whitman

In the human body, even a cursory look shows us that a lot is going on. Hands that wield a sledgehammer during the day can play evocative piano sonatas in the evening. In a triathlon, the same body swims, bicycles, and runs — three very different activities — in rapid succession and with extreme endurance. The same body that completed that triathlon can also climb a mountain (though perhaps on a different day). 

Our bodies keep a constant internal temperature, manage our water levels effectively, and keep us going even when we eat the wrong foods. When we stand up, our blood pressure adjusts almost instantly to keep blood flowing to the brain. We know when we need food and water. Even with our eyes closed, we can sense the position of all our body parts and make detailed adjustments in movement. 

Our eyes differentiate the nuances across an amazing spectrum of colors. The same eyes that work in painfully bright light can also see in almost total darkness. How do they turn light (photons) into information (electrical impulses), and how does our brain turn that into images? 

Our ears face similar challenges, only they turn sound (pressure waves) into electrical signals. Further, they’re configured such that our minds can generate a three-dimensional understanding of the objects around us, just by the sounds those objects emit (or block). 

When we cut our finger, the blood quickly stops and the wound scabs over and heals. When we get sick, our bodies generally do an excellent job of fixing the problem and getting well again. 

While our bodies are neither the fastest, nor the biggest, nor the strongest in the animal kingdom, they are without question the most versatile. The human body’s range of capabilities boggles the mind. 

On top of all this, we can make new people. Anyone who has experienced the birth of a child knows that in this astonishing process something special happens. 

A Comparison with Human Design

What is a fitting response to such wonders? 

Several years ago, I (Steve Laufmann) was perusing an online discussion board frequented by some fellow enterprise and systems architects when one post caught my attention. The writer observed that human-designed systems architectures can’t compare to the amazing architectures we see in living organisms. This comment sparked an energetic discussion. Of particular interest to me, one responder agreed that these biological systems would indeed be amazing architectures, but since they resulted from entirely random, unguided Darwinian processes, as he believed, they could not be considered architecture. After all, architects know that good architectural design takes hard work and never happens by accident. 


Surely the architecture — the quality of the engineering in any system, including a living system — is evident in the resulting system, independent of who, or what, did the architectural work. And from a systems perspective, it’s clear that living systems have extraordinarily hard problems to solve, else they can’t be alive. For example, many single-celled organisms can intake oxygen from the surrounding environment, but how do the cells in a large multi-cellular body (like a human’s) get oxygen when most of them have no access to the external environment? 

It takes complex, multi-part systems to solve problems of this kind — to make a large and complex body work. And such systems only happen when there’s a suitable architectural framework to define how they fit together — and how they work together. In the example above, a naïve architecture would likely fail to get the necessary oxygen to each and every cell, or would make any of a million other similar errors that would render life impossible. 

The human body is unquestionably a marvel of engineering, but what is the source of the engineering? We’ve all been told that we are cosmic accidents, built gradually over eons by the purposeless forces of nature. We also have been told that we are purposely made.

Which Is It? 

To shed light on the question we intend a detailed examination of the human body. The exploration will benefit from two distinct, complementary perspectives: 

  • A medical perspective — to understand the sophisticated and extraordinarily precise functional capacities, dynamics, and coordination of the body’s many interconnected systems. 
  • An engineering perspective — to explore the exquisite engineering of these systems: the mechanical, pneumatic, hydraulic, and electrical systems, the control systems, the internal signaling and coordination mechanisms, the information processing systems, and much more. 

Throughout, we’ll base our observations and arguments on incontrovertible medical and engineering knowledge. 

We’ll also consider claims that one or another part of the human body is poorly engineered. The past several years have seen a growing move to denigrate and demote the human body’s architecture. According to this argument, the human body is actually not so well designed. Rather, it’s filled with the many errors and evolutionary dead ends you’d expect if it resulted from billions of small, random, purposeless mutations threshed by natural selection. This argument for blind evolution is commonly known as the argument from poor design. We’ll look at a few examples of this line of argument in the course of the book and take a deeper dive into the matter in Chapter 23, after we’ve explored many recurring design principles and patterns in the human body. 

We will argue that the exquisite architecture and engineering-design of the human body reveal daunting hurdles to any causal explanation — hurdles that can no longer be ignored. In the final chapters we will detail a theory of biological causation rooted in the lessons of engineering and systems biology, and compare it to the modern evolutionary paradigm. 

Controversial? Definitely

There’s no question that our view will be controversial. It challenges the reigning paradigm for biological origins. But dominant paradigms aren’t always the best paradigms. The history of science is replete with dominant paradigms that were overthrown when new evidence drove new theories to the fore. 

In such cases, the champions of the dominant paradigms do not generally cede the field quickly or magnanimously. This is perhaps the central message of historian of science Thomas Kuhn’s famous work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck put it this way: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”1 Or, as his point is often paraphrased informally, “Science advances one funeral at a time.” 

That’s a bit more pessimistic than the reality. Already there have been some high-level public conversions to the design paradigm in the scientific and broader academic community, as well as a growing number of young scientists who are privately supportive but are keeping a low profile because they are at vulnerable points in their careers. Planck’s observation, however, is true in the main. 

Psychologist James Dobson tells a story from early in his career, when he worked in a clinic with patients who had varying levels of detachment from reality. One patient believed he had been dead for some time. Dobson tried everything he could think of to convince this poor guy that he was actually alive. Nothing worked. After much thought, he devised a foolproof approach. He asked, “Do dead men bleed?” The patient was outraged, “Of course dead men don’t bleed. That’s absurd.” Dobson then pulled out a needle and pricked the man’s finger. Staring at the drop of blood oozing from his skin, the man exclaimed, “Well, I’ll be darned… Dead men do bleed.”

An amusing story, all the more so because it illustrates a common foible of humans. When faced with evidence that challenges long-held assumptions, a person may not let go of the assumption that is most reasonable to let go of. Instead, he may let go of the one he cherishes the least. 

As you examine the evidence laid out in these pages, our encouragement to you is, don’t be the guy in the story. Be willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads. 

Clever Solutions 

The question of human origins is also, of course, a question of biological origins generally. Organic life must overcome many thorny problems, both to be alive and to reproduce. While the laws of physics and chemistry are precisely tuned to permit life, they are incapable of causing it, and of course have no way to care whether life exists or not. 

And the matter calls for considerable care. Life depends on a delicate balance of forces, arranged with precision. As Richard Dawkins famously put it, “However many ways there may be of being alive, it is certain there are vastly more ways of being dead, or rather not alive.”2 Life’s margin of error is small. But as we’ll show, jump-starting, sustaining, and reproducing life are enormously hard problems to solve. How is it possible to get so much right, to land within the margin of error again and again and again? 

Hard problems require ingenious solutions. Fortunately for us, ingenious solutions are everywhere in biology — and nowhere more so than in the human body. 

Virtually every one of the body’s ingenious solutions involves one or more systems (1) composed of various parts that (2) work together to achieve a function that none of the parts can perform on its own, (3) all of which are correctly arranged, assembled, and integrated, with (4) exactly the needed range of capacities, while (5) operating within tight tolerances and under tight deadlines. Most of us know from firsthand experience that when any one of these systems breaks down, bad things happen. 

Producing a next generation is even trickier. If something goes wrong, even something seemingly modest — and early in embryonic development, particularly — the result is that life simply ceases. Life never exists as a formless blob, but instead always exists in an architecturally complex form. Nor, of course, does life exist in the often- fertile imaginations of materialist scientists. Life is found in the real world, and reality has a way of humbling theories that are not grounded in the nitty-gritty details of what life requires.

Coherent Interdependent Systems — Do or Die 

Physicians don’t get to make stuff up. They don’t have the luxury to merely observe how life looks or theorize about its superficial qualities. They need to know how the body really works, how the parts affect each other, and what it takes in practical terms to keep it all working over a (one hopes) long lifetime. 

Physicians know that every human body must do all the following, all the time: 

  • The body must follow the rules. The forces of physics and chemistry will not be ignored. So, for example, because chemical diffusion will lead to death, the body must work actively (and usually very hard) to counteract the force of diffusion. No exceptions. 
  • The body must take control. The only way to manage a separate equilibrium, and thereby stay alive, is to effectively control each of the thousands of required quantities and processes. When there is too much salt in the body, or not enough, the body must realize this and take the actions needed to correct it. Failure means death. 
  • The body must possess exactly the right functional capacities. The heart and lungs must have exactly the right capacities to deliver oxygen throughout the body, at levels appropriate to a wide range of activity levels. Every bone and muscle must be able to support exactly the needed weights and stresses, each the right size, strength, and flexibility for its particular tasks. 
  • The body must be finely tuned. It must manage all these things within remarkably tight tolerances. Failing to do so in any of the dozens of life-critical parameters or across thousands of control processes can lead to death.

Medical science obviously has much to teach us about such questions, but so too does engineering, since regardless of the origins story one prefers for the human body, the thing is an engineering marvel. An engineering perspective, then, should shed important light on how it works. 

Though their mistakes sometimes take longer to discover than those of physicians, engineers also must live in the real world. Engineers design, build, deploy, and operate complex systems that do real work in the real world. And it takes yet more work to keep these systems from failing, which is pretty much guaranteed to happen at the least opportune times. 

Engineers know that all the following are required to make systems that work: 

  • Systems require many parts. The parts are usually specialized to perform certain tasks under certain conditions. Systems are typically composed of other systems, constituting a hierarchy of systems — a system of systems. 
  • Systems must be coherent. A system’s parts must be precisely coordinated. They must fit together correctly, with the right interfaces and integrations for functional coherence. And they must be carefully orchestrated over time to achieve their overall function(s), for process coherence. Failure at either will prevent the system from working. 
  • Systems of systems usually exhibit complex interdependencies. Individual systems or subsystems often require other working subsystems in order to function. Many times, these dependencies go both ways. For example, your car’s engine won’t start without a charged battery, but the battery won’t charge unless the engine runs. 

For human engineers it takes a lot of ingenuity, hard work, and perseverance to achieve such things, typically including many iterations of the classic design-build-test cycle. Engineers know that working systems are never an accident. So if someone suggests that a coherent, interdependent system of systems (like the human body) arose by chance, they’ll need to back that up with a detailed engineering analysis.


  1. Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers, trans. Frank Gaynor (New York: Philosophical Library, 1949), 33–34.
  2. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986), 9.