Home > Critical Thinking, Science & Technology > Design – Simple or Complex? (Creation/Evolution Part 18)

Design – Simple or Complex? (Creation/Evolution Part 18)


(Please see the links at the bottom of this post for the context of this discussion which, regrettably, has spanned a long time and a fairly large number of posts.  Only two more posts after this one and we are finished with this series, the dissection of a Scientific American article by one Mr. Rennie that alleges to dismantle the Creationist position.  To date we have seen that he has been decidedly unsuccessful.) 

We have arrived at the final alleged argument against creationism as a model for origins, and here our protagonist does finally attempt to address one of the more recently articulated lines of evidence used by those in the Intelligent Design (ID) camp.  Given that books have been written on this, however, his short treatment is still an insufficient effort.  But let us proceed forthwith:

15. Recent discoveries prove that even at the microscopic level, life has a quality of complexity that could not have come about through evolution.

"Irreducible complexity" is the battle cry of Michael J. Behe of Lehigh University, author of Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. As a household example of irreducible complexity, Behe chooses the mousetrap–a machine that could not function if any of its pieces were missing and whose pieces have no value except as parts of the whole. What is true of the mousetrap, he says, is even truer of the bacterial flagellum, a whiplike cellular organelle used for propulsion that operates like an outboard motor. The proteins that make up a flagellum are uncannily arranged into motor components, a universal joint and other structures like those that a human engineer might specify. The possibility that this intricate array could have arisen through evolutionary modification is virtually nil, Behe argues, and that bespeaks intelligent design. He makes similar points about the blood’s clotting mechanism and other molecular systems.

Yet evolutionary biologists have answers to these objections. First, there exist flagellae with forms simpler than the one that Behe cites, so it is not necessary for all those components to be present for a flagellum to work. The sophisticated components of this flagellum all have precedents elsewhere in nature, as described by Kenneth R. Miller of Brown University and others. In fact, the entire flagellum assembly is extremely similar to an organelle that Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague bacterium, uses to inject toxins into cells.

The key is that the flagellum’s component structures, which Behe suggests have no value apart from their role in propulsion, can serve multiple functions that would have helped favor their evolution. The final evolution of the flagellum might then have involved only the novel recombination of sophisticated parts that initially evolved for other purposes. Similarly, the blood-clotting system seems to involve the modification and elaboration of proteins that were originally used in digestion, according to studies by Russell F. Doolittle of the University of California at San Diego. So some of the complexity that Behe calls proof of intelligent design is not irreducible at all.

Complexity of a different kind–"specified complexity"–is the cornerstone of the intelligent-design arguments of William A. Dembski of Baylor University in his books The Design Inference and No Free Lunch. Essentially his argument is that living things are complex in a way that undirected, random processes could never produce. The only logical conclusion, Dembski asserts, in an echo of Paley 200 years ago, is that some superhuman intelligence created and shaped life.

Dembski’s argument contains several holes. It is wrong to insinuate that the field of explanations consists only of random processes or designing intelligences. Researchers into nonlinear systems and cellular automata at the Santa Fe Institute and elsewhere have demonstrated that simple, undirected processes can yield extraordinarily complex patterns. Some of the complexity seen in organisms may therefore emerge through natural phenomena that we as yet barely understand. But that is far different from saying that the complexity could not have arisen naturally.

Rennie’s first paragraph is essentially accurate.  He finally seems to grasp a creationist argument in contrast to what we have seen in his past efforts.  Yet the alleged evidence he  cites to refute Behe and company is based on interpretations and arguments already shown to be fallacious at best.

“Evolutionary biologist have answers to these objections?”  Really?  First, they are not objections but data, evidence to be weighed in the balance, observable facts that must be explained in whatever model of reality you are proposing.  It is not enough to merely assert that evolutionary biologists have answers.  You must answer these questions as well:  do those proposed answers comport with all the data?  Do those answers do so better than those offered up by creationists?

Regarding the “precedents elsewhere in nature” supposedly cited by Kenneth Miller, it must be pointed out that Mr. Miller’s reliability is quite questionable, as deconstructed here.  Mr. Rennie totally ignores Dr. Behe’s response to critics such as Miller as posted here.

Mr. Rennie’s citation assertion that “the entire flagellum assembly is extremely similar to an organelle that Yersina pestis, the bubonic plague bacterium, uses to inject toxins into cells,” is based on the misuse of the research of Dr. Scott Minnich by the National Center for Science Education.  Dr. Minnich is

…a world-class expert on the flagellum who says that belief in design has given him many research insights.  His research shows that the flagellum won’t form above 37°C, and instead some secretory organelles form from the same set of genes. But this secretory apparatus, as well as the plague bacterium’s drilling apparatus, are a degeneration from the flagellum, which Minnich says came first although it is more complex.

What Dr. Minnich does say is that only about 10 of the 40 flagellar components can be explained by co-option, but the other 30 are brand new. Not only that, but this multiplicity of components must be assembled in the right sequence, a process which requires other regulatory machines, so the “construction process” is in itself irreducibly complex.

Now Mr. Rennie shows that he really hasn’t studied his opponents arguments as well as he should have (Surprise!  For those just joining us, we’ve seen this on multiple occasions before in this series.  Sorry, you’ll have to go back to find them yourself…if you’re really interested.).  He demonstrated his lack of understanding of irreducible complexity when he asserts that Behe suggests the flagellum’s component structures have no value apart from their role in propulsion.  According to Rennie, they can, in fact, serve multiple functions that would have favored their eventual evolution on the basis of these other alleged functions.  In contrast, what Dr. Behe actually means “by irreducible complexity is that the flagellum could not work without about 40 protein components all organized in the right way,” a subtle but significant difference.

Mr. Rennie next turns to the blood clotting mechanism and the studies of one Russell Doolittle that allegedly indicate that the proteins of this complex mechanism “were originally used in digestion,” thus rendering them unacceptable examples of irreducible complexity.  See here for a more thorough refutation of this arguments, including this explanation:

This is once more a lot of bluff by the atheist Doolittle, or at least poor reading comprehension. He cited recent experiments showing that mice could survive with two of the components of the blood clotting cascade (plasminogen and fibrinogen) eliminated. This supposedly showed that the current cascade was not irreducibly complex but clearly reducibly complex. But the experiment really showed that the mice lacking both components were better off than one lacking only plasminogen, because the latter suffer from uncleared clots. But the former are hardly as healthy as Doolittle implied, because the only reason they don’t suffer from uncleared clots is that they have no functional clotting system at all! A non-functioning clotting system (despite possessing all the many remaining components) is hardly an evolutionary intermediate that natural selection could refine to produce a proper clotting system.  Rather, this experiment is evidence against this, because the next step (i.e., from lacking both plasminogen and fibrinogen to fibrinogen only) would be selected against because of the uncleared clots.


Mr. Rennie’s two closing paragraphs turn to Dr. Dembski’s work and specifically to his argument from “specified complexity,” a complexity of living organisms that defies random, undirected natural processes.  It is really only semantically different from “irreducible complexity.”  The problem with Mr. Rennie’s argument here is twofold.  First, it ignores the multiplicity of examples of irreducible complexity in nature.  In addition to the flagellum and blood clotting, there’s various eye structures, the dynamic sticking mechanism in the legs of insects, the fascinating chemical “gun” of the bombardier beetle, and the sticky feet of geckos.  Interestingly, the evolutionary scientists who elucidated the sticky structure of gecko feet described that structure as “beyond the limits of human technology.”[1]

Secondly, it needs to be pointed out that showing that “nonlinear systems and cellular automata” (computer simulations???) can allegedly “yield extraordinarily complex patterns” does not prove the inorganic origin of life.  Anyone ever hear of fractals?  These are complex, often beautifully so, patterns created by mathematical constructs.  Yet they can hardly be called “life.”

The complexity of biosystems and the intricate internetworking of the various subsystems at the molecular level beggars the description of “extraordinarily complex.”  A Boeing 747 has about 4.5 million non-flying parts.  Each must be constructed to exact specifications so that it will work properly when assembled into the whole.  The assembly of the whole must be done in a fairly precise sequence in order for the final product to fly.  You would think me insane were I to assert that a Boeing 747 can be constructed from the parts of a large junk yard by means of a multiplicity of tornados going through it, yet this is not dissimilar from the level of faith evolution requires when it comes to origins.

Thus, to assert that life arose from the chance, that natural processes can produce that level of complexity in the absence of pre-existing complexity is a statement of faith, not scientific fact.  (And personally, I don’t have enough faith for that!)

We will close this exposition with the observation that Dembski makes, that:

…specified complexity in all cases but biology is used as evidence of design, including the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Since biological complexity is the only exception proposed by evolutionists, it smacks of special pleading.


I mentioned above that there are only two more posts in this series planned.  The next one we finish with Mr. Rennie and Scientific American by examining his closing statements.  In the final post of the series, I will answer the question, so what?  That is, why did I take all this time and effort to critique this article and blog it?  Stay tuned, happy campers for the exciting end of the story!



1.  K. Autumn et al., Adhesive Force of a Single Gecko Foot Hair, Nature 405(6787): 681–685 (8 June 2000); perspective by H. Gee, Gripping Feat, same issue, p. 631.


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  1. 23 May 2011 at 11:28 AM

    Hope I communicate my idea correctly with what I am about to say …
    Answer to the Q is: Simply Complex. (Simple not meaning “easy” or of less value).

    Thanx for sharing this and thanx for the links to the previous posts.

  2. 23 May 2011 at 8:52 PM

    Gotcha, Mrs. AL! Simply Complex does, indeed, capture a great deal.

    And you’re welcome.

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