Home: Scrying: "Irreducible Complexity" is load of crap (er, I mean, an oxymoron)
This whole issue of “irreducible complexity” has been getting under my skin lately. Creationists—er, intellegent designionists—have been making a big deal about it, claiming it is this big issue that science can’t explain. As a result, scientists have been scrambling to explain it. After the excellent article on Tiktaalik yesterday, today the New York Times is reporting on evidence against supposed “irreducible complexity”:
“The evolution of complexity is a longstanding issue in evolutionary biology,” said Joseph W. Thornton, professor of biology at the University of Oregon and lead author of the paper. “We wanted to understand how this system evolved at the molecular level. There’s no scientific controversy over whether this system evolved. The question for scientists is how it evolved, and that’s what our study showed.”
Ok… to me, this seems obvious. The purpose of science has always been to explain complexity… from starry nights to diseases to layers of rock. So, this seems rather redundant for him to say—if no one was questioning this issue, he wouldn’t need to say it. We’ll get to why it is a ridiculous thing to question in a moment. First, lets look at what they did:
Their experiment was pretty interesting, and sheds some light on beneficial mutations. They looked at how one protein could be slightly modified to become two different proteins with different purposes. This is sort of like taking a picture of the essential unit of evolution and speciation—mutations in DNA offering selective advantages, and so persisting in future populations. In this case, the change persisted in all land animals. (Perhaps Tiktaalik was one of the first to take advantage.)
Kenneth Chang’s article summarizes it better than I ever could:
Dr. Thornton’s experiments focused on two hormone receptors. One is a component of stress response systems. The other, while similar in shape, takes part in different biological processes, including kidney function in higher animals.
Very cool… but then we get to the sniping about irreducible complexity:
Dr. Thornton said the key-and-lock mechanism of a hormone-receptor pair was “an elegant exemplar of a system that has been called irreducibly complex.”
But Dr. Behe, professor of biochemistry and advocate of intelligent design disagrees, suggesting that the system Dr. Thornton studied wasn’t complex enough:
Dr. Behe described the results as “piddling.” He wondered whether the receptors with the intermediate mutations would be harmful to the survival of the organisms and said a two-component hormone-receptor pair was too simple to be considered irreducibly complex. He said such a system would require at least three pieces and perform some specific function to fit his notion of irreducibly complex.
Er, ok… so it seems Dr. Behe has read up on Poincare and the whole “waves of three“ issue, and has a clear conception of chaos theory. He also seems to allow that evolution happens bit by tiny bit. But Chang doesn’t quote him directly saying any of this. Instead, he says:
“Even if this works, and they haven’t shown that it does,” Dr. Behe said, “I wouldn’t have a problem with that. It doesn’t really show that much.”
Ok… so, is he waiting for the complete book on all the bits and pieces then? I wish he’d explained this more, because I’m downright confused. Where is intelligent design supposed to come into this? Are the complex systems he speaks of not built of bits and pieces… and generally more than three? Like the hormone-receptor pair is but one little bit that allows, say, a complex thing like a kidney, to function?
I can’t understand the idea of “irreducible complexity” to begin with. It’s an oxymoron. Let’s look up the defintion of “complex:”
Ok… Dr. Behe, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says you only need two units to be “complex.” Three is for chaos. ;)
Also… it says a composite of parts. As in, the whole is made up of parts. Therefore, if something it complex, it is “reducible“ and not “irreducible.”
In other words, the irreducible form is the simplest form. So, if you’re talking about something, like an organ, that is made of other parts, like cells (which are made of other parts, like proteins, which are made of other parts, like amino acid chains.. and so on, down to quarks, maybe strings, etc) then it is possible to reduce, and therefore NOT irreducible. (The only thing that seems to truly be irreducible is fundamentalist narrow-mindedness.)
It seems to me the part Dr. Behe and his fellow intelligent-designionists have trouble swallowing is the amount of relatively small amount of complexity digested here. Given enough time, we can pinpoint how each and every protein in each and every kidney cell is a slightly modified copy of other cells, and give the rich detail involving more than just a hormone-receptor pair. The hormone-receptor pair will be there, of course, along with all the other adapted protein tools. When we’ve done this—for each and every protein in each and every cell—we need to put it all into one thick book, and be sure that Dr. Behe gets to read it. Oh, and since he won’t believe it until he sees it, make sure he buys all the lab equipment so that each experiment involved in the research can be reproduced in his living room.
The rest of us will keep admiring the complexity for what it is, and appreciate learning more about various parts, without demanding the whole book at once.