Tuesday, 16 November 2010

C4ID’s Introduction to Intelligent Design: Part 6

The Centre for Intelligent Design website features a set of brief (sometimes very brief) pdf documents which collectively form an Introduction to Intelligent Design, credited as written by Dr Alastair Noble, C4ID Director. The pamphlet sets out C4ID’s manifesto for ID. Often these documents are written in a way that could be seen as persuasive to the uninformed. In general, the arguments used are those of ‘common sense versus rational investigation’, and the hoary old ‘argument from ignorance/incredulity’.
The title page hook for this part is:
Modern molecular biology has revealed a cellular world as complex as a galaxy of stars or a modern mega-city. The complexity and variety of the living cell is one of the best kept secrets of the modern world.
Sounds very secretive, doesn’t it? Is modern science somehow shielding the public from information? Well, of course it isn’t, and as one moves along an educational trajectory in biology, one finds out more and more. The continued analogy with a mega-city doesn’t really work, though serves a purpose if one is arguing for design.
Part 6 of C4ID’s Introduction to Intelligent Design is about two pages long seems to rest on William Dembski’s ideas of irreducible complexity, or specified complexity. As well as holding a Faculty position at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at Fort Worth, Texas, Dembski is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute. The Discovery Institute came up with Intelligent Design as the Wedge Strategy to bypass the constitutional separation of Church and State in the USA, with a view to reintroducing creationism in science classes in schools. In this context, Intelligent Design was thoroughly dismissed as a scientific endeavour in Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District.
My BCSE colleague Paul Braterman wrote an excellent overview of ‘specified complexity’ – (Beacon Vol XIIV, No 2 pp4-6).
The general argument proposed in Part 6 is pretty lightweight. The author, presumably Noble, uses the examples of a safety razor and a fax machine as objects which are evidently designed and which also show purpose. The safety razor example is as follows:
A simple analogy clarifies the nature of ‘specific complexity’. A safety razor is a useful, and to many people, an indispensable tool. It is clearly designed and, in its own way, complex. The plastic or metal handle is shaped for ease of handling; its head can follow the contours of the skin; and its single or multiple blades protrude to just the right height for effective shaving and to avoid cutting the skin. Although razors come in various shapes, sizes and colours, the basic design is clear. You would never even consider that it was not deliberately designed. It has obviously been constructed according to a previously specified plan.
But what is also clear is that a safety razor is made for a specific purpose. It is not for stripping wallpaper or for removing stains from the carpet. It is specifically designed to remove hair from skin. In that sense it has ‘specified complexity’ relating to its function. The analogy illustrates that ‘specified complexity’ relates to both assembly and function.
There’s a fundamental problem with using this analogy for complex biological systems. There are no known natural mechanisms that could be invoked to explain the appearance of a safety razor other than its design and assembly by a human. In contrast, the natural mechanisms to explain the appearance of biological structures (one classic example used by creationists and ID advocates being the eye) are known and increasingly well understood.
Behe’s concept of irreducible complexity gets another airing, this time concerning the evolution of the bacterial flagellum.
The flagellum is a tail-like structure present in many bacteria. It is, in effect, a biological outboard motor with almost 40 parts. It can rotate at speeds of up to 100,000 rpm and has protein parts that act as stators, rotors, O-rings and drive shafts. The removal of any single part of the bacterial flagellum renders it useless. It is, clearly, irreducibly complex.
As an aside, this shows the tendency of ID proponents (and other creationists) to equate biological structures with machines – a tendency of over-analogise, and something that comes back in discussions of biological information. Interestingly, the concept of irreducible complexity assumes that the ancestral structures of the flagellum necessarily shared the same function. This is unwarranted, and is shown by the response of the scientific community (summarised in Wikipedia here).
This misconception is shown in the following paragraph, where the author clearly thinks that the ancestral structures necessarily functioned as flagellae. In actual fact, this is unlikely to be the case: this video of Ken Miller destroying the ‘poster child’ of ID, the so-called irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum is well worth viewing. So while Alastair Noble may find it
[...] difficult to visualise how a system that requires each one of its 40 parts to be fully operational can gradually evolve by random mutation and natural selection, while maintaining full functionality at each stage [...],
a trained biologist does not find it difficult. Remember that Noble’s principal academic credential is a PhD in Chemistry, not Biology.
Robert Saunders, BSc (Hons), PhD

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