The Washing Machine from the Bad Place: A Lesson on Intelligent Design
by Rich Deem

Why suboptimal design is often better

Suboptimal design?

Intelligent design opponents often claim that there are many biological systems that are not designed the best they can be. However, biological systems often must be suboptimally designed so that all the parts work together optimally. The saga of the new washing machine has much to tells us about optimal design.

Rich Deem

What do washing machines have to do with intelligent design? Of course, they are designed by "intelligent" agents, so we should be able to see some parallels if the design is truly "intelligent."

Out with the old...

Our tale begins with our 20+ year old washing machine. It had experienced some minor problems in recent years, but one day would not run at all. The question was, "Do we fix it again or get a new one?" The new washers were tempting, since they had a capacity that was probably double our 20 year old model. This feature would be especially appreciated in our household of three very active boys. We decided to get a highly-rated Maytag washer and get rid of the old one. with the new (and improved!!?)

It was several days between the death of the old washer and the delivery of the new one. As a result, the laundry began to pile up when the washer was delivered and installed. Carole was anxious to get caught up, and so ran a load while I was at work. I got the bad news at work - the washer had flooded the garage. It seemed that the drain was unable to keep up with the water pumped out of the washer. When I got home, I tried running a "large" instead of "oversize" load. The results were the same - the drain could not keep up with the washer's pump.  The manufacturer recommended that the top of the drain be 36 inches above the floor. Upon measuring, it was exactly 36 inches. I was off to Home Depot for some advice. The helpful people at Home Depot recommended that the height of the drain be increased 6-8 inches. I bought an extension and installed it on the top of the drain. However, the results were the same. I noticed that the drain had a trap at the bottom. My studies of physics told me that eliminating the tortuous course of the drain water would probably increase the flow of water down the drain considerably.

Do we have a design problem here?

The next evening after work, I took apart the plumbing and got rid of the trap. Removing the trap had an additional benefit of raising the level of the drain another 3 inches. The drain was now 46 inches above the floor. The water now had a straight shot down to the sewer pipe. I tested the new plumbing by running a garden hose to the drain and turned on the water full pressure. No leaks, no overflow. This had to work! Confidently, I ran another load. Unfortunately, water flowed over the top of the drain as it had done before. Was I going to have to re-plumb the entire sewer system of the house so that the over-industrious washing machine pump could empty the washer in 30 seconds flat?

A direct hose to the gutter maybe?

Fortunately, in relating my problems to my co-workers, one of them mentioned that her washer dumped its water into a laundry sink. That was the answer! Of course, to put in the laundry sink, I had to move the washer, since the sink would have to be there. The washer had to go where the dryer had been, because of the water hoses and drain side. This meant that the dryer had to be moved and the gas line to the dryer had to be extended, since the dryer was now six feet from its line. In addition, the drain from the wall had to be extended 4 inches, since the sink drain could not get as close to the wall. In the end, it all worked, as our new washer pumped out its 3000+ cubic inches of water into the nearly filled sink in 30 seconds. I am convinced that not any ordinary household drain in the world would be able to keep up with the fabulous pump that came with our new Maytag washer. And, it saves 30 seconds in the washer cycle, since it works so well!

Conclusion Top of page

In case you haven't yet figured out what lesson the washing machine teaches us about intelligent design in biology, here it is. Sometimes systems that operate in tandem with other systems must be suboptimally designed in order to work most efficiently. Take the washing machine, for example. A slightly less robust pump would have worked fine - even if it took an additional 30 seconds to empty its load of water. It certainly would have saved me a whole bunch of extra work. In biology, the vertebrate photoreceptors of the retina are "wired in backwards," causing the light to pass through the nerves before striking the receptors themselves. Although this design seems stupid at first glance, there are some very good reasons why the retina is designed this way. In fact, if it were "wired correctly," the system would fail within a short period of time due to other, much larger problems.

More information on why biological systems seem to be poorly designed can be found on the link below:

Examples of Bad Design Gone Bad

Creation As Science: A Testable Model 
	Approach to End the Creation/evolution WarsReasons To Believe's third in a series of books proposing a testable creation model takes on the origin and design of the universe. Previous books, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off and Who Was Adam?: A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of Man, examined the origin of life on earth and the origin of mankind, respectively. Creation As Science develops a biblical creation model and compares the predictions of this model compared to a naturalistic model, young earth creationism, and theistic evolution. This biblical creation model is divided into four main areas, the origin of the universe, the origin of the Solar System, the history of life on earth, and the origin and history of mankind.

The Edge of evolutionThe Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism by Michael Behe

Darwin's Black Box author Michael Behe takes on the limits of evolution through an examination of specific genetic examples. Behe finds that mutation and natural selection is capable of generating trivial examples of evolutionary change. Although he concludes that descent with modification has occurred throughout biological history, the molecular devices found throughout nature cannot be accounted for through natural selection and mutation. Behe's book claims to develop a framework for testing intelligent design by defining the principles by which Darwinian evolution can be distinguished from design.


If your old washing machine has died, I recommend trying to get it fixed first, unless you are good at plumbing.

P.S. A couple years after the incident, a plumber wrote to say that the rubber hose could to made to seal inside the pipe (by using a smaller diameter pipe), preventing overflow. For some reason, our installers had cut the top so that it would NOT seal, so it wouldn't have been an option for us, unless we bought a new drain hose. So much for our intelligent designers!

P.P.S. Our new top-rated Maytag washer died after only four years of service (R.I.P., 2002-2006). Needless to say, we didn't get another Maytag. Our new Kenmore washer works fine, although it doesn't pump the water out in 30 seconds. Hopefully it is designed to last longer than 4 years!

Today's New Reason to Believe
Integrating Science and Faith

Science News Flash
Science News Flash
Last Modified December 27, 2006


Rich's Blog