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Journal SimianOverlord's Journal: Irreducible complexity and a man on top of a cliff 6

An oft-cited explanation for many people's belief in Intelligent Design(ID) is the argument of "Irreducible Complexity". This states that certain processes, structures, or biomechanics due to their inherent complexity, or their reliance on many simultaneous, finely interdependent parts, could not have resulted from Darwinian evolution.

A common example of this was the bacterial flaggellum, which is a thick rod extruding from some bateria that is spun around to move them through their liquid habitat. The complexity of the flaggelum, which has about 80 moving parts that each require the other moving parts for the whole to function correctly could not have come about through darwinian selection, it was argued. For any one part to evolve needed the other parts in place - any one component could not evolve without the others, or the flaggellum would not work.

The flagellum example was popular until it was shown that other, more primitive forms of flaggellum exist - an intermediate, simpler form that gave a sort of snapshot of how evolution had created the finely functioning finished flagellum.

Blood clotting is the latest example. Blood clotting is a fantastically intricate process that requires the simultaneous interactions of hundreds of proteins. Therefore... yadda, yadda, you get the picture.

The problem with irreducible complexity is obvious. As the evolution of one complex piece of machinery or one convoluted biological process is partially explained, proponents can simply surf onto another. There are plenty of examples of complicated processes in biology, after all, and science is not so advanced as to be able to outline plausible evolutionary paths for all of them.

You see, the structures and processes we see now are, to us, the final product. Unlike larger features that can be traced in the fossil record, no stone-imprinted proof awaits our discovery of the evolution of blood clotting agents, there aren't always easily discoverable primitive forms of flagellum, because the prototypes have died off, their descendents inheriting the final, seemingly perfect form.

The sum of irreducible complexity comes down to "evolution is disproven because we cannot see it working", which is no satisfying argument at all.

Imagine a man climbing a cliff with only a short ladder. Fortunately, the cliff has many horizontal ledges set not too far apart that he can scale. He sets his ladder, clambers up, then lifts his ladder up after him. In this way, from ledge to ledge, he can scale the cliff, which is many times higher than his ladder. Someone, who hadn't observed the process, and who believes in irreducible complexity, might imagine that the man must have had outside help to scale the whole cliff. After all, his ladder is too short to reach the top. And there is no evidence of the ladder left behind on any of the ledges.
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Irreducible complexity and a man on top of a cliff

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  • but you would expect so see a few bodies at the bottom from all the people who tried that daring stunt and failed.
  • I simply don't believe in IR. The form of ID I believe in is theistic evolution- that evolution is how God works. I find IR as hard to believe in as chaos theory and the indeterminate universe of atheistic evolution. We can't see atoms either- but we know they exist. We can't determine the state of energy of a electron and it's position at the same time- but that doesn't mean the electron doesn't exist.
    • Theistic evolution is how most evolutionary biologists with faith juggle both evolution and their beliefs. I think equating chaos theory with ID is difficult. Chaos theory at least makes predictions that can be tested, as far as I understand it. ID states at its heart that we cannot know, do not know, and probably shouldn't bother trying to find out.
      • Chaos theory at least makes predictions that can be tested, as far as I understand it.

        Actually, Quantum Mechanics brings to Chaos Theory the idea that we cannot know, beyond a certain probability, what will happen. It's at the very center of how mutations happen- and it's similar to the theistic evolution idea of how mutations happen in ID. Basically, that's the difference between atheistic and theistic evolution- did an unknown but maybe one day knowable God write laws several billion (19.3 at last cou
  • The protein which makes up a component of the flagellar motor is used as a potent defensive toxin in other bacteria. This explains the use that a piece of the supposedly irreducible flagellar motor has.

    Just goes to show that the ID people either have a serious lack of imagination, or they are simply drawing a conclusion where none is warranted. The best answer sometimes is to say "I don't know the answer."

Syntactic sugar causes cancer of the semicolon. -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982