Skip to comments.Irreducible Complexity is an Obstacle to Darwinism Even if Parts of a System have other Functions
Posted on 02/18/2004 3:41:01 PM PST by Heartlander
A Response to Sharon Begleys Wall Street Journal Column
Michael J. Behe
February 18, 2004
| In a recent column in the Wall Street Journal (February 13, 2004, Science Journal, page B1, Evolution Critics Come Under Fire for Flaws In 'Intelligent Design') science writer Sharon Begley repeated some false claims about the concept of irreducible complexity (IC) that have been made by Darwinists, in particular by Kenneth Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University. After giving a serviceable description in her column of why I argue that a mousetrap is IC, Begley added the Darwinist poison pill to the concept. The key misleading assertion in the article is the following: Moreover, the individual parts of complex structures supposedly serve no function. In other words, opponents of design want to assert that if the individual parts of a putatively IC structure can be used for anything at all other than their role in the system under consideration, then the system itself is not IC. So, for example, Kenneth Miller has seriously argued that a part of a mousetrap could be used as a paperweight, so not even a mousetrap is IC. Now, anything that has mass could be used as a paperweight. Thus by Millers tendentious reasoning any part of any system at all has a separate function. Presto! There is no such thing as irreducible complexity.
Thats what often happens when people who are adamantly opposed to an idea publicize their own definitions of its key terms--the terms are manipulated to wage a PR battle. The evident purpose of Miller and others is to make the concept of IC so brittle that it easily crumbles. However, they are building a straw man. I never wrote that individual parts of an IC system couldnt be used for any other purpose. (That would be silly--who would ever claim that a part of a mousetrap couldnt be used as a paperweight, or a decoration, or a blunt weapon?) Quite the opposite, I clearly wrote in Darwins Black Box that even if the individual parts had their own functions, that still does not account for the irreducible complexity of the system. In fact, it would most likely exacerbate the problem, as I stated when considering whether parts lying around a garage could be used to make a mousetrap without intelligent intervention.
In order to catch a mouse, a mousetrap needs a platform, spring, hammer, holding bar, and catch. Now, suppose you wanted to make a mousetrap. In your garage you might have a piece of wood from an old Popsicle stick (for the platform), a spring from an old wind-up clock, a piece of metal (for the hammer) in the form of a crowbar, a darning needle for the holding bar, and a bottle cap that you fancy to use as a catch. But these pieces, even though they have some vague similarity to the pieces of a working mousetrap, in fact are not matched to each other and couldnt form a functioning mousetrap without extensive modification. All the while the modification was going on, they would be unable to work as a mousetrap. The fact that they were used in other roles (as a crowbar, in a clock, etc.) does not help them to be part of a mousetrap. As a matter of fact, their previous functions make them ill-suited for virtually any new role as part of a complex system.
Darwins Black Box, page 66.
The reason why a separate function for the individual parts does not solve the problem of IC is because IC is concerned with the function of the system:
By irreducibly complex I mean a single system which is composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.
Darwins Black Box, page 39.
The system can have its own function, different from any of the parts. Any individual function of a part does not explain the separate function of the system.
Miller applies his crackerjack reasoning not only to the mousetrap, but also to the bacterial flagellum--the extremely sophisticated, ultra complex biological outboard motor that bacteria use to swim, which I had discussed in Darwins Black Box and which has becoming something of a poster child for intelligent design. No wonder, since anyone looking at a drawing of the flagellum immediately apprehends the design. Since the flagellum is such an embarrassment to the Darwinian project, Miller tries to distract attention from its manifest design by pointing out that parts of the structure can have functions other than propulsion. In particular, some parts of the flagellum act as a protein pump, allowing the flagellum to aid in its own construction--a level of complexity that was unsuspected until relatively recently.
Millers argument is that since a subset of the proteins of the flagellum can have a function of their own, then the flagellum is not IC and Darwinian evolution could produce it. Thats it! He doesnt show how natural selection could do so; he doesnt cite experiments showing that such a thing is possible; he doesnt give a theoretical model. He just points to the greater-than-expected complexity of the flagellum (which Darwinists did not predict or expect) and declares that Darwinian processes could produce it. This is clearly not a fellow who wants to look into the topic too closely.
In fact, the function of a pump has essentially nothing to do with the function of the system to act as a rotary propulsion device, anymore than the ability of parts of a mousetrap to act as paperweights has to do with the trap function. And the existence of the ability to pump proteins tells us nil about how the rotary propulsion function might come to be in a Darwinian fashion. For example, suppose that the same parts of the flagellum that were unexpectedly discovered to act as a protein pump were instead unexpectedly discovered to be, say, a chemical factory for synthesizing membrane lipids. Would that alternative discovery affect Kenneth Millers reasoning at all? Not in the least. His reasoning would still be simply that a part of the flagellum had a separate function. But how would a lipid-making factory explain rotary propulsion? In the same way that protein pumping explains it--it doesnt explain it at all.
The irreducible complexity of the flagellum remains unaltered and unexplained by any unintelligent process, despite Darwinian smoke-blowing and obscurantism.
I have pointed all this out to Ken Miller on several occasions, most recently at a debate in 2002 at the American Museum of Natural History. But he has not modified his story at all.
As much as some Darwinists might wish, there is no quick fix solution to the problem of irreducible complexity. If they want to show their theory can account for it (good luck!), then theyll have to do so by relevant experiments and detailed model building--not by wordplay and sleight-of-hand.
Discovery Institute is a non-profit, non-partisan, public policy think tank headquartered in Seattle and dealing with national and international affairs. For more information, browse Discovery's Web site at: http://www.discovery.org.
Sure, I grasp the impossibility of the situation as you portray it but it doesn't have to be that way.
It is true that the biochemistry in a cell is intimately tied together, as you express it, but not to such a degree that every small change causes the whole system to break down. So the addition of isolated features (which aren't immediately detrimental to the cell) is the way these biochemical systems get more complex. Through other changes those features may become essential for the cell. (I suggest you read Ichneumon's post on how so-called irreducibly complex systems can form by gradual change)
So the only problem in this scenario should be the emergence of the first self-replicator(s). Of course if we assume that it must be as complex as most modern single-celled organisms then I concede that it's practically impossible that it could have arisen by chance but I don't see why this has to be the case. Most likely the first self-replicators were a lot less complex than any organism we know today.
And since research in this field is only in its infancy and our knowledge on what is possible resp. impossible in biochemical systems is still quite limited, I think it's quite presumptuous to declare abiogenesis to be impossible.
Really?! This is inconsistant with what can be objectively seen today in medicine . . . one - small - change --> leads to disease of the cell, and it ceases functioning properly or outright dies.
So the addition of isolated features (which aren't immediately detrimental to the cell) is the way these biochemical systems get more complex. Through other changes those features may become essential for the cell.
Cute. However, wholely and entirely inconsistant with what we understand about the principles of biochemistry and molecular/cellular biology and what can be objectively seen.
So the only problem in this scenario should be the emergence of the first self-replicator(s).
Of course if we assume that it must be as complex as most modern single-celled organisms then I concede that it's practically impossible that it could have arisen by chance but I don't see why this has to be the case.
Again true - "impossibility" is this case occurs because the emergence of any life-like "self-replicator" is inconsistant with what is known and objective.
I think it's quite presumptuous to declare abiogenesis to be impossible.
And I, obviously, think it quite presumptuous to declare abiogenesis to be possible.
Ok, smart guy, what is it about abiogenesis that does make it possible, considering the known principles of physics, chemisitry, and biology?
Ball's in your court . . . ;-)
Where the hell did you study biology? Far and away, most genetic changes are neutral. Even deletion of entire genes usually results in no phenotypic change. Some organisms can double their chomosome set. Some can lose entire chromosomes with no ill effect. You never learned any of this? I am very curious to learn where you are attending medical school.
stu·pid·i·ty [ stoo píddətee ] (plural stu·pid·i·ties) noun
1. lack of intelligence: lack of intelligence, perception, or common sense
Gould refers to this as the drunkard's walk.
Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker or a flowing stream void of intelligence and going forward.
With respect to the theological view of the question. This is always painful to me. I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [wasps] with the express intention of their [larva] feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other, I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance.
(Darwin to Asa Gray, [a minister] May 22, 1860)
Ichneumon, I dont think you are stupid or the name you have chosen is due to stupidity. I am merely arguing for intelligence in design and you are arguing for stupidity in the appearance of design. Now, I fail to see how Bevis and Butthead images help your position.
I've already pointed out before (read:previous posts) why it is quite impossible with no one giving any sort answer to some of the most simple and important questions asked about abiogenesis. My position is simply what it is. Want to prove me wrong? "Show me the money, fool!" :-)
Until then, I don't see us having any more to discuss on the subject, do you?
Cute. Straw man, smart guy, because I never said anything about "genetic changes" did I? Although you did a VERY good job of giving a different argument then what I gave followed by interesting points counter to an argument I never gave in the first place, not to mention a thinly vieled ad hominem personal attack about my medical and biological knowledge. What is this 3rd grade?
BTW, I attend one of the top medical schools in the country. Don't be jaealous and play nice now.
An admirable profession!
A doctor you might be interested in Dr. Howard Glicksman
Did you not say: "one - small - change --> leads to disease of the cell?"
What kind of "change" pray tell are you referring to? Pocket change?
BTW, I attend one of the top medical schools in the country.
Thank you. It's a calling, like the priesthood or military special ops - not everyone can do it, and because of that I tend to take my medical education rather seriously. I've been blessed, and it's quite important for me to do what I'm doing, even when I find myself disliking it at times. The greater good will always be served by those working in the healing ministries.
It is truly a calling and we are blessed to have you accepting this responsibility. Your sacrifices are not lost with my knowledge of what it truly takes to become a doctor. It takes far beyond just a special person.
I would not ridicule any individual who would sacrifice so much for others.
It would, if it were ever demonstrated. What we actually have right now are researchers trying to figure which route to life is most probable, which are unlikely, etc.
As we go back the definition of "life" becomes less obvious. Is a closed autocatalytic network "alive"? It metabolizes, grows, evolves, but doesn't have a genetic code. Is a lipid membrane with a few catalysts on the surface "alive"? What if the catalysts help make more lipid and catalyst?
why do you think an "off-planet" origin of bacteria is necessary in the first place
I don't. I was saying that would be compatible with later evolution.
sorry, no cell, no evolution. It's quite simple, really, but grasp at straws if you must.
Cells are necessary for life as we know it today. It seems reasonable to restrict "evolution" to the study of the changes in cells and their genetic material over time.
That does not mean they're necessary at the beginning of life. It is quite likely that earlier forms of life had no genetic code, for example. There is active research going on to try and find out just how the code evolved.
It's quite simple, really, but grasp at straws if you must
Whatever are you talking about!?
Oh please. Medicine is hardly self-sacrifice, even if it is difficult. And any ridicule is not directed at the medical career, but at ideas that, if implemented across the profession, would have it stagnate. I suppose a general practioner has no requirement for understanding science, but research would come to a screeching halt without a guiding paradigm.
Natural selection occurs as does random mutations and these are factors in biodiversity and anyone who argues otherwise is foolish.
And if one believes that it is possible for all biodivesity to have occurred via random chance from a single instance of life forming by random chance, and seeks evidence backing up his theory, nobody should stop him.
But if one believes otherwise that doesn't make him illogical or anti-science or a believer in magic. I'd argue that a good scientist would express honest skepticism of the theory -- without rejecting it out of hand, of course.
Some argue that if one expresses skepticism or rejects absolute randomness, one is resorting to "God did it" and forfeits any claim to science.
Once science was predicated on the belief that God did do it and the job of the scientist was to find out how. If God did do it, saying so is a much better model of reality than one claiming all exists by accident.
It would work but I think we can get glimpses of what the plan is :-)
"Peer" = "Evolutionist"
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