Here’s a topic I have apparently never addressed before, which is surprising because I thought I did – Irreducible Complexity. The term was introduced by a biochemist Michael Behe in his book on Intelligent Design in 1996. The concept was known before, of course, but it didn’t stir much of a debate until Behe’s book.
Behe is a Christian but evolutionist nevertheless and what he found was some systems that in his opinion couldn’t be produced by random chance. The best example of this concept is a bacterial flagellum which has an amazing rotary motor capable of spinning at 100,000 rpm, which is the upper limit of existing electric motors. Here’s a picture with an insert of a photograph of the actual thing at best available zoom for electronic microscopes:
It has about forty moving parts, which are actually various proteins, or somewhat large molecules, in everyday speak. They tightly fit together and form a system, and this means that even one missing or misconstrued part would render the motor dysfunctional.
That is the general idea of irreducible complexity – it’s a working motor or nothing, it can’t be a half motor, and so it’s irreducible. To Behe it means that the motor was designed, hence “intelligent design” theory.
It’s been almost two decades and no one in the scientific world takes it seriously anymore. Why? That’s a good question, and the answer to it makes science look bad, very bad.
When the book came out no one knew what to make of it and it generated a lot of interest in all quarters. Evolutionists were not going to concede, of course, and Behe’s book was widely criticized. Then, ten years later, came the Dover trial where Behe was called to testify on the side of the creationists and the ruling was that his theory was not science. Then came the TV documentary re-enacting the trial from transcripts and debunking his arguments. Wikipedia calls Intelligent Design “pseudoscience” and that’s the end of it.
Not it looks conclusive and toxic and no mainstream scientist would touch it with a flagpole. Is any of it justified, though?
Not in any scientific sense, it’s all just politics and science has no place in that debate anymore.
Take wikipedia article, for example. The very first two references for “pseudoscience” use words like “incoherent”, “equivocations”, “rhetorical”, and “nonsense”. These are emotive words that convey no information and no substance but create an impression that actual scientific work supports these conclusions. Clicking around that page takes one here and there but no matter where one lands, it’s the same rhetoric implying actual counterarguments exist.
I don’t even see the reason in trying to unravel their train of thought. They might be onto something when they apply scientific criteria to some ideas from the book but I don’t think even Behe himself cares that much anymore. At one time he simply pointed out that while some critics claim his theory is unscientific because it’s unfalsifiable, others declare victory in falsifying it and proving it wrong. It’s just word jugglery that is meant to look impressive but is actually meaningless.
What about scientific arguments against irreducible complexity itself. The concept is straightforward and it doesn’t carry any deep philosophical meanings about it. One could simply demonstrate how flagellum motor could have come out in a series of steps, or similarly disprove irreducible complexity for any other Behe’s examples. Interestingly enough, that was scientists’ first reaction, before wikipedia folks got their hands on the issue.
The initial response wasn’t kind to Behe and in one article where he responds to his critics I counted four times the word “ignorant” was used to describe him but, besides abuse, there was also a genuine attempt to prove him wrong. At that time there was no empirical proof of any kind, no detailed studies, just first things that popped into people’s minds.
One “reviewer” defeated several arguments for intelligent design but none of them was made by Behe, like seriously, not a single example from the book, only his own invented strawmen.
Another got fixated on a mousetrap, arguing how it could have come out by random chances and how each element added to a wooden base, for example, would serve some useful purpose. Mousetraps are dead matter, of course, and they are designed, not evolved by themselves, and so the whole argument is silly. Behe used it as an everyday example of irreducibly complex system, he could have picked up a car or a computer instead, would his critics argued how building up a car by adding one part after another would produce anything evolutionary useful at each step?
A decade later the mousetrap example was used in the documentary I mentioned earlier. There it was used as a tie clip. In other cases “evolutionary” mousetrap is used as a paperweight. Everything that has a mass can be used a paperweight, it does nothing to demonstrate how it could have evolved into something particularly useful with addition of each element of a particular size.
As far as flagellum is concerned, right away scientists picked up a case of a flagellum that is used for pumping poison by a bacteria carrying Bubonic plague, for example. What does it prove, though? They meant to say that it’s an intermediate evolutionary step between no flagellum and flagellum with motor but there’s no proof of that whatsoever. These poison pumps could be repurposed motors, for all we know. Even if they are somewhere in between, as they claim, it’s just ONE step out of millions required to produce a working motor, and it turns out these flagella need their own irreducible complexity systems acting as pumps, too – the fact that evolutionists didn’t know before and so surprised even Behe himself.
Each evolutionary step must be useful, natural selection won’t wait until bacteria tries a million permutations and kills itself in the process until it gets something working. A designer could invest time and energy and wait for results, but not evolution. Whatever change it produces, it must have an evolutionary purpose and help the organism survive until the next mutation comes along. Half finished projects do not survive and become a drag, sapping materials and energy.
Behe responded to these objections right away and they failed to convince him that irreducibly complex systems can be created through natural selection. Have they come up with anything better in two decades that passed since? Nope, nothing. It’s still the same poison ejecting pump all the way. The only thing that has been added is unbelievable amount of rhetoric.
Other examples from Behe’s book suffer from the same fate – half arsed knee jerk reactions repeated over and over again, each time with greater conviction but with the same lack of actual substance. In one case, something about blood clotting in mice, they’ve been able to demonstrate how the mechanism could have been produced in 20,000 steps while Behe points out that laboratory results show that these intermediate mice are evolutionary cripples who don’t survive. (Edit: 20,000 steps refers to evolution of E. coli bacteria, it has nothing to do with mice, my bad. Mice still die, though). Yes, they have necessary steps which could lead to eventual blood clotting, but the mice die because because they are defenseless against even minor cuts.
I was too lazy to read up on these mice in detail so this summary might be wrong in some way, but the main point stands – there’s no
evolutionary evidence for irreducibly complex system appearing through random mutations, there’s only wishful thinking.
So now it has become a case of “everybody knows” but without any actual evidence to back it up. Anti-IR arguments is the naked emperor where no one is allowed to point out that he has no clothes, and I think I’ll write more on it tomorrow. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to explain how science is like a drunk today but being intoxicated by its own boasting has already been demonstrated, I hope.