Irreducible Complexity as an Evolutionary Prediction

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For instance Mark Perakh

Mark Perakh Wrote:

A concept identical in all but name to Behe’s irreducible complexity was around for a long time before Behe. It was applied to the problems of evolution of various anatomical structures, such as the mammalian eye (recall the many times answered question, “what good is half an eye?”), or the snakes’ apparatus of venom injection (Marcell 1976), etc.

Even more relevant, a practically identical concept (“interlocking complexity”) was discussed from the standpoint of genetics already nearly 80 years earlier (Muller 1918, 1939). Even the application of the IC concept to the molecular assemblies within a biological cell (which is Behe’s playing field) was put into circulation some ten years before Behe (Cairns-Smith 1986). Unlike Behe and his supporters, these Behe’s predecessors did not claim that the concept in question constitutes a great discovery or implies intelligent design, so in the rendition of these predecessors it would hardly invoke Miller’s categorical rejection quoted above.

Mark Perakh Beyond suboptimality: Why irreducible complexity does not imply intelligent design

Or Don Lindsay

For one, Behe thought he had invented Irreducibly Complexity. On pages 203-204, he wonders if some unknown mechanism could generate I.C.-ness. He dismisses the possibility. On page 233 he compares his great discovery to those of Newton, Einstein, Pasteur and Darwin. He should instead have compared himself to Nobel Prize winner H. J. Muller [3], who invented irreducible complexity in 1939. Muller argued in some detail that evolution would routinely cause such systems. That conclusion is today a common wisdom of evolutionary biology. Behe didn’t rebut Muller’s argument because he didn’t even know it existed. He says on page 187 that evolution always progresses by addition, but any evolutionist knows that it often happens by subtraction.

Or PZ Myers

Professor PZ Myers, Professor of Biology at the University of Minnesota and ardent pro-evolutionary blogger, makes the following point about Behe’s claims:

“‘Irreducible complexity’ is one of those things the ID people have gotten a lot mileage from, but every competent biologist immediately recognizes its antecedents: Muller’s ratchet. Muller made the argument back around 1925 that genetic processes would naturally lead to increasing complexity; cycles of gene duplication and addition to pathways would unavoidably lead to more and more steps. Contrary to Behe, the phenomenon he describes is actually a prediction of 80 year old genetics.”

Sneaking God into science by the back door

So if Irreducible Complexity was not only identified by Muller but also argued to be an outcome of evolutionary processes, how come that Michael Behe reached the exact opposite conclusions?

Chris Ho_Stuart may have the answer

The reason for the difference is basically that Muller was using evolution; and Behe was using a weird strawman of his own devising. Behe describes evolution as working by the gradual addition of parts, one by one. Muller, however, describes evolution as working by gradual modifications of parts. Muller’s description is the more accurate.

I am curious as to the response from ID proponents. Did Behe re-invent an argument which had already been argued to be an inevitable outcome of evolutionary processes more than half a century earlier?

The question becomes: Did Behe’s contribution address Muller’s arguments? Did Behe’s contribution show that Irreducible Complexity was an argument against (Darwinian) evolution while doing justice to the arguments presented by Muller?

22 Comments

Allen Orr in Boston Review

This scenario was first hinted at by the geneticist H. J. Muller in 1918 and worked out in some detail in 1939.6 Indeed, Muller gives reasons for thinking that genes which at first improved function will routinely become essential parts of a pathway. So the gradual evolution of irreducibly complex systems is not only possible, it’s expected. For those who aren’t biologists, let me assure you that I haven’t dug up the half-baked lucubrations of some obscure amateur. Muller, awarded the Nobel Prize in 1946, was a giant in evolution and genetics.

It struck me as I was reading this that the body is itself a kind of “irreduably complex” system. Take away one part: the heart, the lungs, the brain, and it all ceases to function. Of course, no IDists seem to be making this argument (although I’ve seen YECs try it) - but maybe the IDists realize that it’s just too darn obvious that different parts of the body appeared at different times in history. It’s possible to buildup an “irreduably complex” body through the incremental addition of parts over time – just like the bacterial flagella.

Muller didn’t invent “irreducible complexity”. The idea of it is older that the theory of evolution. Paley wrote:

“But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? why is it not as admissible in the second case, as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e. g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it.” http://www.hti. umich.edu/ cgi/p/pd- modeng/pd- modeng-idx?type=HTML&rgn= TEI.2&byte= 53049319

The text that Ho-Stuart quotes doesn’t inlcude the term “interlocking complexity” or any explicit definition of it. I suspect that it was Behe who was first to give it a straightforward name.

Take a look at the last sentence of Paley’s, quoted by Samson–“…or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it.” Paley was hinting at exaptation!

Behe wasn’t the first creationist to use the “irreducible complexity” argument. ICR, decades before, was using “what good is half an eye?” as its standard boilerplate.

Indeed, every argument made by IDers – absolutely every single one – was put out thirty years ago by creation ‘scientists’. IDers have said nothing new at all.

I’m amused by Ho-Stuart’s phrase “a weird strawman of his own devising.” Behe’s “strawman” is more commonly referred to as a religious doctrine, it was devised at the very least centuries ago, and has been organized and named as part of the process of rationalizing why reality has, once again, failed to trump any Received Wisdom trained-in early enough to become indelible. As for “weird”, perhaps it’s a truism that any faith not one’s own seems weird.

However, Behe’s technique of “discovering” that the literature is silent on his rationalizations by the simple method of *not reading* the literature, is at least consistent.

It’s been pretty plain even to us non-biologists that evolution is highly opportunistic, and any redundency represents an opportunity. Complexity that is NOT irreducible is an unstable and temporary evolutionary condition.

I’m amused by Ho-Stuart’s phrase “a weird strawman of his own devising.” Behe’s “strawman” is more commonly referred to as a religious doctrine, it was devised at the very least centuries ago, and has been organized and named as part of the process of rationalizing why reality has, once again, failed to trump any Received Wisdom trained-in early enough to become indelible. As for “weird”, perhaps it’s a truism that any faith not one’s own seems weird.

However, Behe’s technique of “discovering” that the literature is silent on his rationalizations by the simple method of *not reading* the literature, is at least consistent.

It’s been pretty plain even to us non-biologists that evolution is highly opportunistic, and any redundency represents an opportunity. Complexity that is NOT irreducible is an unstable and temporary evolutionary condition.

Brit Wrote:

It struck me as I was reading this that the body is itself a kind of “irreduably complex” system. Take away one part: the heart, the lungs, the brain, and it all ceases to function.

Sadly, the body can last for a good long time without a brain. Just look at Congress.

Brit Wrote:

Of course, no IDists seem to be making this argument (although I’ve seen YECs try it) - but maybe the IDists realize that it’s just too darn obvious that different parts of the body appeared at different times in history.

I’ve used exactly this in ID debates. I started using the evolution of the giraffe heart as a beat-stick for IC, only to be told that IC applied only to molecules, not organs. We went round in circles for days trying to get him to explain just why IC could be applied to molecules, not organs, but I never did get an answer.

Molecules aren’t my forte, but I got lucky and the first one I checked up on (human hemoglobin) was not only IC (four parts, matched together, you die if they don’t match), but the evolutionary history of it is well known (2 part hemoglobin in some fish, one part in some invertebrates, precursors going back to the bacteria). It was painfully easy to show the evolution of an IC system.

Oh, no, that didn’t count, because it wasn’t IC for the earlier organisms, you see. Therefore, it hadn’t been IC throughout history, so could never count as IC!

I asked if this meant that IC was irrefutable because any IC example you find an evolutionary history for ceases to be IC in the first place, rather than a defeat of IC in concept. He said, no, there were real IC systems and if you could show how they evolved, it would disprove IC. I asked him to name one. He said “Blood clotting”. I showed him some articles on how blood clotting evolved. He concluded that blood clotting wasn’t IC to begin with.

But, really, if it had been a real IC system, then showing how it could have evolved would defeat IC!

He then left because we were all stupid.

Brit Wrote:

It’s possible to buildup an “irreduably complex” body through the incremental addition of parts over time — just like the bacterial flagella.

Addition isn’t enough to make IC. Addition, modification, and subtraction make IC systems. It’s the “evolution=addition” goof that causes Behe’s argument to fall apart when exposed to reality.

Sometimes you wonder what kind of scientists are taking part of the ID movement? Any scientist, even those who are moderately competent know to check for precendents in the literature. After all science is not done in a vaccum but within the context of the human experience and the accumulation of knowledge. This is even more relevant for cases in which you are making a new and/or bold statement that will topple a well established hypothesis or theory. Behe’s argument about IC were nothing new or revealing, were simply the result of incorrect assumptions and more revealing lack of scholarly accumen. IC as a concept recognized within the evolutionary process as presented by Muller more than 80 years ago. This makes Behe’s lack of scientific rigor more blatant than anything he can put forth even within his line of research. Behe failed miserably on every count of scientific discipline, scholarly procedure and just plain overall common sense. In other words, how stupid could you be !!!!!. Congratulations Michael Behe.

Sometimes you wonder what kind of scientists are taking part of the ID movement? Any scientist, even those who are moderately competent know to check for precendents in the literature. After all science is not done in a vaccum but within the context of the human experience and the accumulation of knowledge. This is even more relevant for cases in which you are making a new and/or bold statement that will topple a well established hypothesis or theory. Behe’s argument about IC were nothing new or revealing, were simply the result of incorrect assumptions and more revealing lack of scholarly accumen. IC as a concept was recognized within the evolutionary process as presented by Muller more than 80 years ago. This makes Behe’s lack of scientific rigor more blatant than anything he can put forth even within his line of research. Behe failed miserably on every count of scientific discipline, scholarly procedure and just plain overall common sense. In other words, how stupid could you be !!!!!. Congratulations Michael Behe.

Very nice post. Congratulations to Chris and all the others as well.

Tyrannosaurus:

Sometimes you wonder what kind of scientists are taking part of the ID movement?

No you don’t. They are all True Believers.

Any scientist, even those who are moderately competent know to check for precendents in the literature.

Knowing to check and knowing when NOT to check are different things. If we minimally bear in mind that ID is essentially a PR campaign, we assess the diligence with which the literature was checked, against the PR value of claiming the literature is silent (whether or not you know otherwise).

Behe’s argument about IC were nothing new or revealing, were simply the result of incorrect assumptions and more revealing lack of scholarly accumen.

Again, if we minimally bear in mind that ID is essentially a PR campaign, we judge Behe’s arguments on how well they play to the target audience. The goal is to convince the scientifically ignorant that ID is scientifical. Admitting incorrect assumptions and lack of scholarship fails to achieve this goal. Remaining silent because telling the truth works against you, ALSO fails to achieve this goal. Behe is not stupid; he’s well aware that his target audience is neither inclined nor competent to check anything he claims. PR campaigns are successful to the degree they manipulate their target audiences.

Behe failed miserably on every count of scientific discipline, scholarly procedure and just plain overall common sense.

Yes, Yes, No. If we minimally bear in mind that ID is a PR campaign, we recognize that scientific and scholarly failure is a necessity that people won’t notice because they do not WANT to notice. And this is common sense itself.

Again, Behe’s goal is to convince people that their religious faith is scientistical. Behe has two weapons in this battle: He is a biochemist, which as we all know is scientifical as all hell. And he makes statements we like to hear because it ratifies our beliefs. Which renders our beliefs scientific, and anyone who says otherwise is gonna answer to Jeezus, see?

Behe doesn’t become stupid because neither his goals nor his methods meet your standards. His goals require very different standards, and he meets these pretty well.

Re “His goals require very different standards, and he meets these pretty well.”

Or to put it another way, what I’d call a lack of standards. Oh well.

Samson Wrote:

The text that Ho-Stuart quotes doesn’t include the term “interlocking complexity” or any explicit definition of it.

Indeed, even the word “complexity” appears nowhere in the 78 page paper by Muller that Ho-Stuart links to.

Here an excerpt from the Muller article which may sum up “inter-locking complexity” (emphasis added):

Each new mutant in turn must have derived its survival value from the effect which it produced upon the “reaction system” that had been brought into being by the many previously formed factors in cooperation; thus a complicated machine was gradually built up whose effective working was dependent upon the interlocking action of very numerous different elementary parts or factors, and many of the characters and factors which, when new, where originally merely an asset finally became necessary because other necessary characters and factors had subsequently become changed so as to be dependent on the former.

I do not consider myself a supporter of Behe; however, I believe in his explanation “irreducible” requires that the interim steps represent feature which could not be considered “assets” and would either be neutral or even detrimental. To put it another way the new feature would have to derive from a series of “non-selectable” steps.

I do not care for the ID - IC argument because it is just a probability game. There are several possible paths which can take us to “C” from “A” lets call them B0, B1, B2, etc. IC only claims that each path is statistically improbable. We infer from this that an unknown external agent or catalyst may have been required for our solution Bn; however unless we can replicate this agent or catalyst, then this remains entirely hypothetical. To jump to the assumption that there is a “designer” (which we cannot replicate) is utterly pointless even harmful to a real search for Bn. Consider that Behe himself refuses to review or consider a large number of articles which may have already found the Bn for some of his so-called IC examples.

In the end ID is about public opinion and truthiness*, where it does not have to be true to feel true.

*coined by Stephen Colbert from “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central

Re “IC only claims that each path is statistically improbable.”

Each path? What about the disjunction (B0 or B1 or… Bn) path?

What about the fact that a few unlikely things are apt to happen when there’s a huge number of different things happening? (Or am I being picky?)

Henry

Henry J:

The story is told of some robber baron calling in his lawyer and demanding that the lawyer find him a legal way to do something. And the conversation was:

Baron: Find me a legal way to do this. Lawyer: But sir, you can’t do that, it’s illegal! Baron: That’s not what I asked.

This conversation is now replicated in the world of creationism:

Creationist: Find me a reason why evolution is false. Lawyer: But sir, evolution is true! Creationist: That’s not what I asked.

IC is just a way to try to satisfy the creationist’s demand. Evolution does not need to be false, to find endless reasons why it’s false. The demand here is to find the *reasons*, not the falsehood.

“Although this conclusion had suggested itself to the writer in 1912” I note with glee that “interlocking action” is a nearly 100 year old idea. Which BTW seems to me to be a better term since it doesn’t suggest anything else about the system. I surmise Muller changed the name 1939 for some reason.

“I do not consider myself a supporter of Behe; however, I believe in his explanation “irreducible” requires that the interim steps represent feature which could not be considered “assets” and would either be neutral or even detrimental. To put it another way the new feature would have to derive from a series of “non-selectable” steps.”

I was just going to ask if not the earlier term takes precedence other Behe’s. Though IIRC recent use has something to say in biology - at least for species name, tyrannosaurus and all that. But if they are slightly different terms (due to Behe’s strawman) I guess he can keep his.

I am in the process of adding a few remarks to the Wikipedia article “Irreducible complexity”, on the topic of “Forerunners”. Perhaps others have some contributions to make.

The idea that the interrelationship of parts of living things has implications for their origins goes back at least to the mid-1600s, with Pierre Gassendi, and was later taken up as an argument against individual development in the 1700s. The standard belief, going back at least to Aristotle, was the common-sense idea that the embryo really did develop from a simpler state.

Also, in the early 1800s, Georges Cuvier wrote of “correlation of parts” - he was rather famous for being able to reconstruct a whole animal from fragmentary remains. Some of the secondary sources say that he used this notion of “correlation of parts” to argue against Lamarckian evolution, but I have been unable to find where he actually said that. I know that Cuvier was an anti-evolutionist - the question is whether he drew this connection. If anyone can help with this, please do.

I was forwarded an excellent comment by Ted Scharf and Tom McIver

I still haven’t checked Behe directly, but here is excerpt from 1996 review of Behe by creationist Nancy Pearcey from ARN webpages:

“Behe’s tight focus on scientific data means he treats historical and philosophical issues only gingerly. Except for brief (though illuminating) discussions of Paley and Socrates, we hear little about the history of the concept of design. No mention is made of Georges Cuvier, who in the nineteenth century developed a similar notion of irreducible complexity (calling it ‘the correlation of parts’). Nor is there any discussion of contemporary proponents of design theory, such as Michael Denton (Evolution: A Theory in Crisis ) or Thaxton, Bradley, and Olsen (The Mystery of Life’s Origin ).”

Since Cuvier’s “correlation of parts” functional argument is well known (and was well known to Darwin, as you mention), I agree that Behe’s “irreducible complexity” doesn’t seem that new or original. I’ll see if I can check Rudwick translation too, plus other ID sources that acknowledge historical precedents.

Ted also forwarded a more detailed discussion of Cuvier and Larson based on his and Tom’s research in this area. Interesting to hear that the concept of irreducible complexity seems to go back to Cuvier. And Darwin for that matter. Seems that ID’s concept of irreducible complexity was not only known for centuries before Behe resurrected it, but that evolution provided plausible explanations for it.

Remind us again, how does ID explain IC systems again? Poof…

I’m glad that it’s getting more coverage, but this “news” is 10 years old (from Orr’s review at least). What now should be emphasized is that, in 10 years, Behe and countless cheerleaders have not taken the first step toward studying how an IC system might have originated, and when, if not by evolution. That’s because they have known all along that it is just a word game. And one that was probably more successful than they had hoped. Let’s not forget that, from the start, critics were divided into those who said “those systems are not IC” and “they are IC but evolved.” While both statements are correct, depending on the definition of IC, the message sent to potential ID sympathizers was not very good for critics of ID. The message that needs to be emphasized now is that the disagreements among critics is merely a semantic one, end that the evidence for evolution of those systems (IC or not) is exceeded only by the evidence that IDers have been doing nothing but playing word games for 10+ years.

BTW, I’m not convinced that Behe had not heard of Muller when he wrote “Darwin’s Black Box.” Since then, Behe has made it clear that he only cares what his target audience thinks, and few of them ever heard of Muller. As a typical peddler of pseudoscientific snake oil to a science-wary public, Behe is completely unfazed about being the laughing stock of mainstream science.

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This page contains a single entry by PvM published on October 23, 2006 8:28 PM.

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