Home: Scrying: "Irreducible Complexity" is load of crap (er, I mean, an oxymoron)

"Irreducible Complexity" is load of crap (er, I mean, an oxymoron)

April 07, 2006

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. Complexity, by definition, is always reducible.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.

Hormones and hormone receptors are protein molecules that act like pairs of keys and locks. Hormones fit into specific receptors, and that attachment sends a signal to turn on — or turn off — cell functions. The matching of hormones and receptors led to the question of how new hormone-and-receptor pairs evolved, as one without the other would appear to be useless.

The researchers found the modern equivalent of the stress hormone receptor in lampreys and hagfish, two surviving jawless primitive species. The team also found two modern equivalents of the receptor in skate, a fish related to sharks.

After looking at the genes that produced them, and comparing the genes’ similarities and differences among the genes, the scientists concluded that all descended from a single common gene 450 million years ago, before animals emerged from oceans onto land, before the evolution of bones.

The team recreated the ancestral receptor in the laboratory and found that it could bind to the kidney regulating hormone, aldosterone and the stress hormone, cortisol.

Thus, it turned out that the receptor for aldosterone existed before aldosterone. Aldosterone is found just in land animals, which appeared tens of millions of years later.

“It had a different function and was exploited to take part in a new complex system when the hormone came on the scene,” Dr. Thornton said.

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.”

“Of course,” he added, “our findings show that it is not 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.

What Dr. Thornton has shown, Dr. Behe said, falls within with incremental changes that he allows evolutionary processes can cause.

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:”

Complex (adj.):
1. a. Consisting of interconnected or interwoven parts; composite.
b. Composed of two or more units: a complex carbohydrate.
2. Involved or intricate, as in structure; complicated.

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.”

Irreducible (adj.):
Impossible to reduce to a desired, simpler, or smaller form or amount: irreducible burdens.

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.