The Evolution of a Protein Transport Machine: Fazale Rana on Irreducible Complexity

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of Darwin’s Black Box, Michael Behe’s groundbreaking work on intelligent design. This month, the documentary Revolutionary: Michael Behe and the Mystery of Molecular Machines was made available online. It’s remarkably well made and is certainly required viewing for anyone interested in this topic. Behe’s ideas have been knocking around for more than 20 years now, and much has changed in the time that has passed. Revolutionary presents Behe’s argument in an updated and fresh form. In light of this focus on Behe’s work on design, I thought it would be fitting to write an article on irreducible complexity.

For the past few months, biochemist and old-earth creationist Dr.Fazale Rana has been posting ‘Question of the Week’ videos on his Facebook page (the videos are also available on YouTube), where he discusses various science and faith questions. Rana primarily focuses on topics surrounding the biological origins debate. I have followed much of his work in the past, primarily because he comes at the design debate from a different perspective. Though he does accept intelligent design, he doesn’t always agree with the way most ID theorists advance their arguments. Interestingly, one of his primary disagreements is with Behe’s argument from irreducible complexity and in one of his more recent videos he discussed the question ‘Is irreducible complexity a good argument for design?’.(1)

In the video, Rana begins by helpfully laying out some basic definitions and talks about how Behe’s work influenced him in the past. He then goes into a discussion about some of the usual responses ID critics use against Behe’s argument (co-option etc.). I was half expecting Dr. Rana to stop there and come down on the side of the critics, but I was pleasantly surprised. Rana recognises that the co-option response (at least with respect to the Type Three Secretory System) is completely misguided, and, as Behe and others have to point out continuously, it doesn’t begin to appropriately tackle this nagging biological perplexity. However, Dr. Rana brings up another example. In talking about his past enthusiasm for the argument he notes:

But all that changed for me in 2009 when a team of researchers from Australia and the UK published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where they were looking at the evolutionary origin of what’s called the TIM23 protein import machine. This is an irreducibly complex protein transporter that is embedded in the inner membrane of mitochondria, that plays a role in mitochondria biogenesis, transporting proteins from the cytoplasm of the cell into the lumen of the mitochondria.(2)

You can read the full paper that Rana is referring to here.

Rana goes into a little more detail on the irreducible complexity of the mitochondrial machine that is in question, claiming that we can show experimentally that if one protein is removed from this complex, it will cease to function. For him, by demonstrating a plausible co-option scenario for the Darwinian development of this system, this paper essentially disproved Behe’s argument from irreducible complexity, though he does qualify the conclusions of the paper:

This work could be interpreted from a design framework where you could just simply argue that the similarity between the TIM A and TIM B, and the proteins that are part of the TIM 23 complex, is essentially a reflection of the modular design of biochemical systems, where you have components that can be pieced together in a variety of different ways to produce a number of different types of functional systems. Or you could view them as part of an archetypal design that a creator used to build different types of machines.(3)

Despite this, he thinks that the paper shows that irreducible complexity is a claim that can no longer be made because the researchers demonstrated a plausible stepwise pathway. Though he recognises that they hadn’t fleshed out all the details, and that it doesn’t definitively prove that the system emerged in the way they argue, to him they did succeed in presenting a plausible pathway.

Concerns About the Paper

Before moving on to some of Rana’s other points , I want to take a look at his reservations about irreducible complexity. I happen to disagree with his conclusions here, sensibly tentative though they are. Though the paper is now quite old (published in 2009), I did read the paper at the time and the media hype surrounding it. Various science news outlets picked up on it (4), asserting with smug triumphalism, intelligent design’s ignominious demise (yet again).

The main thing I’d like to do in this article is to draw attention to the other side of the argument. As I quoted above, though Rana charitably notes that the results of the paper in question can, conceivably, be interpreted in a design framework, I felt he wasn’t doing justice to the way various ID proponents have responded to the paper. Shortly after the paper was published, there were several noteworthy comments from various ID proponents, which cast serious doubt over the success of the paper in question. Here I will breifly outline some of them.

The first response was from Behe himself, though unfortunately he was predictably refused a ‘letters to the editor’ response to the paper. He subsequently posted his thoughts at Evolution News. Behe essentially points out that ‘the claims made in the paper far surpassed the data, and distinctions between such basic ideas as “reducible” versus “irreducible” and “Darwinian” versus “non-Darwinian” were pretty much ignored.'(5) The first questions to consider is whether the system is irreducibly complex or reducibly complex. And whether anyone claimed the system is in fact irreducibly complex in the first place. The authors of the paper, Clements et al, clearly think they are demonstrating that a previously postulated irreducibly complex system, is actually reducible. Yay for Darwin. They write:

Molecular machines have been described as being of irreducible complexity. But could a single component of the machine function in the absence of the others to provide even inefficient protein transport? Although searches of genomes have not found a species of eukaryote in which the LivH/Tim 23 type channel is present in the absence of Tim44 and Tim14 subunits, equivalent studies on the TOM complex in the outer mitochondrial membrane have provided just such proof of principle.(6)

However, Behe responds:

The authors intend to show that Darwinian processes can account for a reducibly complex molecular machine. Yet, even if successful, that would not show that such processes could account for irreducibly complex machines, which Clements et al cite as the chief difficulty for Darwinism raised by intelligent design proponents like myself. Irreducibly complex molecular systems, such as the bacterial flagellum or intracellular transport system, plainly cannot sustain their primary function if a critical mechanical part is removed. (2-4) Like a mousetrap without a spring, they would be broken. Here the authors first postulate (they do not demonstrate) an amino acid transporter that fortuitously also transports proteins inefficiently. They subsequently attempt to show how the efficiency might be improved. A scenario for increasing the efficiency of a pre-existing, reducible function, however, says little about developing a novel, irreducible function.(7)

Clearly, contrary to the assertion of the authors, and by extension Dr Rana, Behe argues that the mitochondrial machine is not irreducibly complex. More importantly, as Casey Luskin points out in his response ‘No ID proponent has ever claimed that this particular system is irreducibly complex, making this a straw man attack.'(8) Of course, the system still could be one that meets the standard criteria of an IC system, even if Behe and others never focussed on it, showing that there are plausible Darwinian pathways to such systems. Rana claimed that it had been experimentally confirmed that if one part is removed, the system crashes, but he neglected to elaborate on the details. If we look at the paper itself, we find no detailed support of this claim. Behe mentions a few other points, which you can read in the response, but concludes that:

…if these are the best “refutations” that leading journals such as PNAS and Science can produce in more than a decade, then the concept of irreducible complexity is in very fine shape indeed.(9)

To my mind, Behe’s response was a little brief, yet he managed to cast a few serious doubts about the paper. Aside from Behe’s comments, a more thorough and devastating rebuttal came from Casey Luskin. As mentioned, Luskin argues that the paper is a straw man, due to the fact that ID theorists haven’t claimed this system is irreducibly complex (10). Even apart from that, there are more serious problems with the arguments in the paper. One of the main problems with it, is their flippant and vague understanding of the IC challenge. Luskin references the work of philosopher Angus Menuge, who sharpened the challenge by laying out several necessary steps that an argument against IC must make. They are reproduced below:

For a working flagellum to be built by exaptation, the five following conditions would all have to be met:

C1: Availability. Among the parts available for recruitment to form the flagellum, there would need to be ones capable of performing the highly specialized tasks of paddle, rotor, and motor, even though all of these items serve some other function or no function.

C2: Synchronization. The availability of these parts would have to be synchronized so that at some point, either individually or in combination, they are all available at the same time.

C3: Localization. The selected parts must all be made available at the same ‘construction site,’ perhaps not simultaneously but certainly at the time they are needed.

C4: Coordination. The parts must be coordinated in just the right way: even if all of the parts of a flagellum are available at the right time, it is clear that the majority of ways of assembling them will be non-functional or irrelevant.

C5: Interface compatibility. The parts must be mutually compatible, that is, ‘well-matched’ and capable of properly ‘interacting’: even if a paddle, rotor, and motor are put together in the right order, they also need to interface correctly. (11)

Like most critics of Behe’s argument, Clements et al, only attempt to address C1 and as one can clearly see, this barely even scratches the surface of the problem. Luskin goes into quite some detail on other problems with the paper, such as the suspiciously easy appeal to ‘preadaption’, often using teleological language. You can read Luskin’s full response here.

The final response I’ll point to is one by Brian Thomas at The Institute For Creation Research. Despite the fact that I disagree with his theological stance, in the article he makes some legitimate points. Thomas criticises the reasoning of the authors and their preadaptation hypothesis:

…the very label “preadaptation” counters the authors’ claims. The idea admits that not-yet-evolved “proto-machines” are not subject to Darwinian selection of adaptations. Preadaptation is observed nowhere; it is a devised assumption “in keeping with Darwinian evolution.” The fact that non-functioning “machine parts” are invisible to Darwinian selection is exactly what design theorists have observed.(12)

There were two other responses made to the paper which are worth reading. One was by Clive Hayden at Uncommon Descent here, and Cornelius Hunter at his blog here.

In my view, the responses to the paper I have outlined provide some strong counter arguments to the claims made in the paper, removing Fazale Rana’s reason for having doubts about irreducible complexity.

Is Irreducible Complexity a Negative Argument?

Coming back to Rana’s video, there were some other comments he made that I’ll briefly touch on. One of Rana’s criticisms of Behe’s argument is that it’s framed in purely negative terms, and so risks a kind of “god of the gaps” reasoning. He sees the standard design argument this way:

The way in which, I believe Michael Behe, framed the argument…is in negative terms. That is evolution cannot explain the emergence of irreducibly complex systems, therefore these systems must be the product of a designer.(13)

I was disappointed to hear this comment made by Rana because it’s one of the weakest objections and the most common misunderstanding about the formal structure of design theory. I’m not going to bother responding in great detail to this claim, since it has been thoroughly dealt with in other publications. A good response to the god of the gaps charge can be found here. In short, as atheist Bradley Monton argues:

…I maintain that Behe’s irreducible complexity argument is not a God-of-the-gaps argument at all. Behe is not saying that we don’t know (or can’t know) how irreducibly complex systems like the bacterial flagellum could plausibly arise naturalistically. Instead, Behe is giving positive reasons that the sequence of events that would have to happen for irreducibly complex systems like the bacterial flagellum to arise via an undesigned process is an improbable sequence, and hence the design hypothesis should be taken seriously.(14)

Behe himself points out that:

…irreducibly complex systems such as mousetraps and flagella serve both as negative arguments against gradualistic explanations like Darwin’s and as positive arguments for design. The negative argument is that such interactive systems resist explanation by the tiny steps that a Darwinian path would be expected to take [because direct routes are impossible and indirect routes unlikely]. The positive argument is that their parts appear arranged to serve a purpose, which is exactly how we detect design.(15)

Rana complains that Behe and others don’t appeal to the positive designed qualities of biological systems, such as the information bearing properties, optimisation, and analogs to designed objects by humans. I find this a bizarre claim to make coming from anyone who has done even a cursory reading of Behe’s work, because even back in 1996, Behe’s argument appealed to all the things Rana accuses it of lacking.

One further point to make about Rana’s ‘god of the gaps’ charge is that ID doesn’t necessarily posit a god. It posits intelligence. The most one could accuse ID of doing is arguing for an ‘intelligence of the gaps’. This is not a problem if those gaps are features that positively require an appeal to intelligence. Rana worries that by doing this, one is backing into a vulnerable position, where all it takes is for someone to demonstrate one plausible Darwinian pathway, and the argument lies in tatters. That may be the case for particular molecular systems, but on the other hand, all it takes for naturalistic accounts to be falsified, is one single demonstration of a true irreducibly complex system. Famously, Darwin himself recognised this.(16) Essentially, Rana makes a straw man argument against the standard challenge from irreducible complexity, alleging that it makes a purely negative claim against evolution, but ID proponents have been crystal clear about the positive aspect of their theory, and so I conclude that Rana’s concerns here are misplaced.

Conclusion

Rana goes on to argue very strongly for design and I agree with all his comments about the richness of the design hypothesis. It’s just that he believes he is making a different type of argument to Behe’s and the rest of the standard ID model, when in fact he is merely making the same claims as standard ID theory. I’ll end this article by saying that I genuinely appreciate Rana’s work and his powerful case for biological design, I just think his reasons for rejecting Behe’s irreducible complexity challenge and his problems with the formal structure of the argument are very weak.

The dispute over irreducible complexity continues. What I aimed to do in this article was to address some of Rana’s concerns, especially surrounding this particular 2009 paper. Much more work has and is being done (17), and Behe’s provocative ideas continue to be written about in the philosophical and scientific literature.(18) As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, to get a clear and contemporary presentation of Behe’s ideas, I highly recommend giving Revolutionary a watch.

References

  1. Reasons to Believe (2017) Question of the Week: Aug 21, 2017 Is irreducible complexity a good argument for design?. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcqzL4pLMe0
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Websites such as Softpedia, Wiredand ID critic Jack Scanlan picked up on the publication.
  5. Michael Behe, Reducible Versus Irreducible Systems and Darwinian Versus Non-Darwinian Processes, Evolution News (2009), Available at: https://evolutionnews.org/2009/09/reducible_versus_irreducible_s/
  6. Clements A, et al. (2009) The reducible complexity of a mitochondrial molecular machine. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA doi/10.1073/pnas.0908264106.
  7. Behe, op cit.
  8. Casey Luskin, PNAS Authors Resort to Teleological Language in Failed Attempt to Explain Evolution of Irreducible Complexity, Evolution News (2009), Available at: https://evolutionnews.org/2009/09/pnas_knocks_down_straw_man/
  9. Behe, op cit.
  10. In Luskin’s article Molecular Machines in the Cell, he lists various molecular systems, some of which have been argued by scientists to be irreducibly complex. However, Luskin puts TIM and TOM systems in the category of machines ‘that may be irreducibly complex, but have not been studied in enough detail yet by biochemists to make a conclusive argument.’
  11. Angus Menuge, Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), p.104-105.
  12. Brian Thomas, Preadaptation: A Blow to Irreducible Complexity?, Acts & Facts (2009), 38 (11): 15.
  13. Reasons to Believe, op cit.
  14. Bradley Monton, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design (Broadview Press, 2009), p.115.
  15. Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: Free Press (2006), p.263-264.
  16. Darwin wrote ‘If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.’ (Charles Darwin, Origin of Species, (1872), 6th edition, (New York University Press, 1988), p. 154.
  17. For some of the most up-to-date work on mitochondrial transport systems I recommend reading Origin and Evolutionary Alteration of the Mitochondrial Import System in Eukaryotic Lineages.
  18. Many critics believe ID to be a dead theory. However Behe’s ideas, 20 years on, are still being studied to this day: Digital Irreducible Complexity: A Survey of Irreducible Complexity in Computer Simulations, A New View of Irreducible Complexity, The Argument from Irreducible Complexity, Michael Behe’s Challenge — Past, Present, and Future, Three Flagellum Updates Amplify Behe’s Challenge to Darwinism from Irreducible Complexity.
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Critic’s Corner: Sahotra Sarkar

Sahotra Sarkar is a philosopher of science and conservation biologist at The University of Texas at Austin. He specialises in history and philosophy of science, most of his work being focused on physics and biology. 

As a critic of intelligent design and creationism, Sarkar is not as well known as people like Ken Miller and Barbara Forrest. Having said that, in my view Sarkar is one of the few good critics. Even though I think his case against ID isn’t successful, it is sophisticated and carefully argued. I think because Sarkar isn’t particularly well known in general, there has been little interaction with his work (I hope to fill this gap at some point as I think his work is well worth responding to). Here is the material related to Sarkar and ID:

Homepage

http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~philsci/sarkar/main.html

Books

Doubting Darwin?: Creationist Designs on Evolution

Papers & Articles

Sober on Intelligent Design

The Science Question in Intelligent Design

Decoding “coding’-information and DNA

Fine-Tuned Deception

“Intelligent Design” Creationism Is An Immoral Fraud

Book Review: Science v. Religion? Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution

Book Review: Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design

Sarkar’s blog posts on ID

Responses

Debate with Paul Nelson (Discussion paper for Sarkar/Nelson Debate on Evolution and Intelligent Design)

In the Face of an Aspiring Baboon: A Response to Sahotra Sarkar’s Review of Science vs. Religion?

Review: Doubting Darwin?

Not So Innocent: Methodology and Metaphysics of Evolution 

Evolutionary Revisionist Sahotra Sarkar Fine-Tunes Recent History

Why Can’t Intelligent Design Critics in Synthese Accurately Represent Their Opponents?

Sarkar’s Review of My Book, and Dougherty’s Defence-Bradley Monton

Response to Sarkar’s Review of ‘Seeking God in Science’-Trent Dougherty

Quote of the Month: H. Allen Orr on Darwin’s Failure to explain the Origin of Species

“He [Darwin] recognized that he asked his readers to believe both that most evolution is due to natural selection and that sterility of hybrids routinely evolves. Indeed, Darwin spent an entire chapter of the Origin of Species trying to explain away this paradox, but his attempt was less than overwhelmingly successful. Hence the common (and correct) charge that the Origin of Species neglected to explain the origin of species.”

-H. Allen Orr (“Dobzhansky, Bateson, and the Genetics of Speciation” – Genetics Society of America) 

Orr’s comment here echoes the pioneering Dutch geneticist, Hugo De Vries, when he famously stated that ‘natural selection may explain the survival of the fittest, but it cannot explain the arrival of the fittest.'(1) In more modern times, we hear similar admissions from evolutionary biologists like Andreas Wagner in his book Arrival of the Fittest, claiming that Darwin left evolution’s greatest puzzle unexplained. These claims are of course historical rather than about the current state of evolutionary biology. With regard to modern evolutionary theory we are repeatedly assured that Darwin’s theory and its many and various extensions have most things covered nowadays. That is another question altogether, but as it happens, I see little evidence that, even now, the ‘arrival of the fittest’ has been adequately explained under the reigning naturalistic framework.

As to the historical claim about Darwin’s lack of success, I have no desire to exaggerate or  on the other hand downplay his achievements beyond what the evidence really shows us. It’s important to be honest. It is however a breath of fresh air to have these rather more subdued assessments of Darwin’s work rather than the highly suspect pronouncements made by most avid Darwinists, who tell us that Darwin gave us a sufficiently detailed and unassailable naturalistic account of biological change. He did no such thing.

What do you think?

References

  1. Glenn Branch, Whence “Arrival of the Fittest”?, Available at: https://ncse.com/blog/2015/05/whence-arrival-fittest-0016357

Peter S. Williams on Intelligent Design

Peter S. Williams is a philosopher I respect very highly. Being a Christian, most of his work falls within the realm of Christian apologetics, however, Williams is also an intelligent design proponent and has produced some valuable work on philosophy of science and intelligent design theory. In other articles, I would like to look at some of his specific writings in more depth. For now, I wanted to round up his work on ID. Here it is:

Peer Reviewed Papers

The Design Inference from Specified Complexity Defended by Scholars Outside the Intelligent Design Movement: A Critical Review,” Philosophia Christi (Vol. 9, Issue 2, 2007). Also available @http://epsociety.org/library/articles.asp?pid=54

Atheists Against Darwinism

 

Articles

Christianity, Space & Aliens

Darwin’s Rottweiler and the Public Understanding of Scientism

The Definitional Critique of Intelligent Design Theory: Lessons from the Demise of Logical Positivism

Design and the Humean Touchstone

Designed or Desinoid: Dawkins, Science & the Purpose of Life

Focus on Intelligent Design: Some Advice on Avoiding Journalistic Embarrassment

Intelligent Design, Aesthetics and Design Arguments

Intelligent Design Theory – An Overview

If SETI is Science and UFOlogy Is Not, Which Is Intelligent Design Theory?

Playing Both Sides of the Pond: British and American Belief in Creation, Evolution and Intelligent Design

A Rough Guide to Creation & Evolution

Theistic Evolution & Intelligent Design in Dialogue

‘What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?’ – Comparing Dawkins’ Blind Faith to Flew’s evidence

A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory by Lawrence M. Krauss

The Big Bad Wolf, Theism and the Foundations of Intelligent Design: A Review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion

On the Side of the Angels: Review of Richard Dawkins’ A Devil’s Chaplain

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Undermining Richard Norman on “Why Science Undermines Religion

The War on Science: How Horizon Got Intelligent Design Wrong

A Response to Edward Turner’s Review of A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism

A Response to Edward Turner’s Review of I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning: A Response to Nihilism

Dawkins Ad Hominem – Misrepresented Again?

Intelligent Designs on Science

‘Is Peter S. Williams a liar for God?’  One fallible human responds to another’s critique of ‘Darwin’s Rottweiler and the Public Understanding of Scientism’

Reviewing the Reviewers – Pigliucci et al on “Darwin’s Rottweiler & the public understanding of science”

God Questions – a dialogue-Carl Stecher and Peter S. Williams (Cosmological and Design Arguments)

 

Book Chapters

Peter has written about intelligent design in further detail in several of his books:

-In chapters 8 and 9 in I Wish I Could Believe in Meaning: A Response to Nihilism.

-In chapters 6 and 7 in A Faithful Guide to Philosophy: A Christian Introduction to the Love of Wisdom.

 

Videos

Peter S. Williams and AC Grayling Debate Fine-tuning

Peter S. Williams vs. Peter Hearty on ID

Faithful Guide To Philosophy 6: Paley, Hume & Design (Teleology I)

Faithful Guide To Philosophy 7: Intelligent Design (Teleology II)

Podcast Episodes

Thinking Through Creation & Evolution

Introduction to Intelligent Design Theory

A Rough Guide to Creation

Introduction to Intelligent Design Theory (2)

How Atheists Defend Intelligent Design Theory

 

Blog Posts

Peter often writes about ID on his excellent blog, ID Plus.

 

Peter S. Williams & Denis Alexander’s Dialogue on Intelligent Design

In this post, I wanted to draw attention to a particular written dialogue between ID advocate/philosopher Peter S. Williams and biologist/ID critic, Denis Alexander. Both Williams and Alexander are committed Christians (Williams being one of the UK’s foremost Christian philosophers and Alexander being the director of the Faraday Institute for Religion and Science), so in terms of their broader worldviews, they have much in common. Denis Alexander is a Christian neo-Darwinist, which would put his views pretty much in line with the Biologos crowd (in fact he is one of the bloggers at Biologos). Alexander has critiqued various aspects of ID in many publications¹

Back in 2006, Alexander had an article published on the website Bethinking.org called Creation and Evolution?. In it he discusses theistic evolution, creationism, and ID. Subsequently, Peter S. Williams penned an interesting piece in the form of a hypothetical dialogue called Theistic Evolution & Intelligent Design in Dialogue. There are several characters in the dialogue who are coming from various perspectives in the origins debate. This article was written as some form of response to Alexander’s initial article. In response to this, Alexander wrote Designs on Science, an open letter to the characters in Peter Williams’ dialogue, which neatly summarizes some of Alexander’s criticisms of ID. Finally, in response to Alexander, Peter Williams wrote Intelligent Designs on Science: A Surreply to Denis Alexander. This was the concluding part of their dialogue.

It is well worth reading through the dialogue from start to finish. Both authors engage in a polite and cordial fashion throughout, and much ground is covered in great depth. In particular, Williams’ concluding response is very lengthy (25.000 words with almost 300 footnotes) and very well researched, and to my mind constitutes a devastating refutation of Alexander’s objections to design. In addition to this, Williams presents a strong positive case for ID. Of course, Williams doesn’t answer everything that Alexander has written on ID but he deals with the most salient points.

In future, I shall be writing my own response to some of Denis Alexander’s more recent publications on intelligent design.

  1.  Denis Alexander has critiqued ID extensively in books such as Creation or Evolution: Do We Have To Choose?The Language of Genetics: An IntroductionRescuing Darwin: God and Evolution in Britain TodayBeyond Belief: Science, Faith and Ethical ChallengesRebuilding the Matrix: Science And Faith In The 21St Century. On top of these, he has published many articles on the topic including Is Intelligent Design Biblical?Intelligent design is not scienceA Critique of Intelligent DesignA Response to Should Christians Embrace Evolution?

 

Critic’s Corner: Elliott Sober

Elliott Sober is a highly respected professor of philosphy at University of Wisconsin-Madison. His main fields of interest are philosophy of science and philosophy of biology.

Sober has interacted quite a bit with ID theorists, and has published several interesting papers and books advancing his take on ID and evolution. To my mind he is a very thoughtful critic, whose responses to ID present quite a strong challenge. That being said, I think design advocates have also done a good job at replying to Sober’s criticisms. Sober’s output is pretty vast so in this post I have only link to his published works related to evolution and ID:

Books by Sober

Papers/Articles

(Sober’s papers directly related to ID can be found at the bottom of his page)

Selected Papers

Intelligent Design, Irreducible Complexity, and Minds-A Reply to John Beaudoin

Popper’s Shifting Appraisal of Evolutionary Theory-(with Mehmet Elgin

Media

Lectures and Interviews

Youtube Playlist

(Podcast Episodes)

Think Atheist: Episode 43

Elliott Sober on Darwin’s Theory

Darwin or Design with Jason Rennie

 

Responses

(Books)

William Dembski responds to Sober in:

-No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence (Roman & Littlefield, 2002) in chapter 2: Another Way to Detect Design?

-The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design (Inter-Varsity Press, 2004) at various points.

Bradley Monton Responds to Sober on p.42-46 of Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design (Broadview Press, 2009)

David Reuben Stone responds to Sober in The Loftus Delusion: Why Atheism Fails and Messianic Israelism Prevails (2010) in chapter one ‘Intelligent Design and Modus Tollens’.

 

(Papers & Articles)

A Critique of the Rejection of Intelligent Design as a Scientific Hypothesis by Elliott Sober from His Book Evidence and EvolutionJames LeMaster

Testability of Intelligent Design Argument in the Perspective of Quantitative Methodology-Chong Ho Yu

Firing Squads and Fine Tuning: Sober on the Design Argument-Jonathan Weisberg

Sober on Intelligent Design and the Intelligent Designer-John Beaudoin 

Another Way to Detect Design? A Preliminary Reply-William Dembski

Another Way to Detect Design? Lecture Notes-William Dembski

Elliott Sober’s Independent Evidence Requirement for Design– William Dembski

If Not Natural Selection?(A review of Steven Hecht Orzack and Elliott Sober, eds., Adaptationism and Optimality)William A. Dembski

Sober’s “Progenic Fallacy”-William Dembski

Elliott Sober, Alvin Plantinga and the Design Argument-Graham Veale & David Glass

A Critique of Elliott Sober’s Goals and Abilities Objection to the Design Argument-Daniel Lim

On the Logic of Evolution and the Vanity of Scientism-Thomas E. Elliott

Observation Selection Effects and the Fine-Tuning Argument for Cosmic Design
Jonathan Lipps

Epistemology, Miracles, and the God Who Speaks-Lydia McGrew

Historical Inquiry-Lydia McGrew

Testability, Likelihoods, and Design -Lydia McGrew

Elliot Sober: Just Don’t Call the Designer “God” (Part 1/Part 2)-Sean D. Pitman

Empiricism and Intelligent Design I: Three Empiricist Challenges-Sebastian Lutz

On Likelihoodism and Intelligent Design-Sebastian Lutz

On Elliott Sober’s Challenge for Biological Design Arguments-Troy Nunley

Fossils, Fishnets, Fine­tuning…and Flaws in Sober’s Defense of Common Ancestry-Troy Nunley

Fishnets, Firing Squads, and Fine-Tuning (Again): How Likelihood Arguments Undermine Elliot Sober’s Weak Anthropic Principles-Troy Nunley

Where the Design Argument Goes Wrong: Auxiliary Assumptions and UnificationMaarten Boudry & Bert Leuridan

Thomas Nagel vs. His Critics: Has Neo-Darwinian Evolution Failed, and Can Teleological Naturalism Take its Place?-Vincent Torley 

Sober and Irreducible Complexity-Dave S

Deconstructing Sober-Dave S

“No Designer Worth His Salt”? At the University of Chicago, Gregory Radick Critiques the Theology of Darwinism

Sober Analysis-Logan Gage

What is Wrong with Sober’s Attack on ID? (Part 1/Part 2/Part 3/Part 4)-Casey Luskin

Cornelius Hunter’s Blogposts on Sober

Getting Sober About Survival (Part 1/Part 2/Part 3)-Michael Sudduth

Probabilistic Modus Tollens and the Design Argument-Alan Rhoda

Nagel and his critics, Part III-Edward Feser

The “Achilles’ Heel” of the Design Argument?

Sober Continued

Sober, Arbuthnot and Fisher

Elliott Sober: Confusing Religion and Philosophy-Jeremy Pierce

Sober on ID being Inherently Supernatural-Bradley Monton

Quote of the Month: Cornelius Hunter on the Unfalsifiability of Evolution

This month’s quote is by ID proponent Cornelius Hunter. Hunter is the author at the blog Darwin’s God. I used this quote myself in my article ‘Jeffrey Koperski on Good and Bad Ways to Attack Intelligent design (Part 2): The ‘Good’ Ways’, and I have seen it used in ID literature quote often. This quote is taken from Arsenic-Based Biochemistry: Turning Poison Into Wine.

Being an evolutionist means there is no bad news. If new species appear abruptly in the fossil record, that just means evolution operates in spurts. If species then persist for eons with little modification, that just means evolution takes long breaks. If clever mechanisms are discovered in biology, that just means evolution is smarter than we imagined. If strikingly similar designs are found in distant species, that just means evolution repeats itself. If significant differences are found in allied species, that just means evolution sometimes introduces new designs rapidly. If no likely mechanism can be found for the large-scale change evolution requires, that just means evolution is mysterious. If adaptation responds to environmental signals, that just means evolution has more foresight than was thought. If major predictions of evolution are found to be false, that just means evolution is more complex than we thought.

I think that at face value, Hunter’s point is undeniably true. It seems that there is little that can be discovered that would overturn evolution. That’s not to say that evolution is entirely unfalsifiable, it just demonstrates that it’s extremely difficult to falsify. Perhaps one might respond by saying that the erratic data we often encounter is the result of many different factors and mechanisms that nature utilises. Nonetheless, this response seems very ad hoc and contrived to me.

I don’t think a theory necessarily need be falsifiable to be considered scientific or true. Some theories are more difficult to falsify than others (evolution being one of them). The way I see it, testability and verifiability are more essential. Having said that, a theory that is falsifiable and verifiable is stronger than one that is merely the latter. 

What do you think?

Why the Question of Biological Origins Really Matters

In the foreword to the intelligent design text, The Design of Life, biochemist William S. Harris notes:

The scientific community continues to wrestle with the deep and fundamental questions: Where did the universe come from? How did life originate? How did a coded language (i.e., DNA) come to form the basis of life? How could multicellular life have originated from unicellular life? What is the origin of complex molecular machines that are inside every cell and that are necessary for life?(1)

Who cares?

Sometimes we can be too busy arguing with those who hold the opposing view, that we forget why we’re so intellectually and emotionally invested in this area of inquiry. On the other hand, it is lamentably the case that many people don’t even stop to seriously consider these questions. Here I want to pause, take a step back, and consider whether this issue really matters at all. I have always thought it does matter, and I think you should too. Here’s why:

1) It’s a question of historical significance.

As rational creatures, we humans have wondered about our origins for millennia. Even now, we still wonder. Critics of of the modern intelligent design movement would have you believe that this is just a recent controversy initiated in the US by anti-scientific Christian fundamentalists in order to surreptitiously inject creationism into schools. This narrative, however, is completely off the mark and also neglects the crucial point that this is a historically ancient dispute.

Anthony Long points out that ‘much that divides the two sides in modern America was already a major source of debate in classical antiquity, pitting theist Platonists and Stoics against evolutionist Epicureans.'(2) He further argues that ‘The Epicureans are antiquity’s principal evolutionists and opponents of intelligent design.'(3) As for those who argued for design around this period, in his historical survey of the history of arguments over design, Stephen Meyer writes:

Design arguments based on observations of the natural world were made by Greek and Roman philosophers such as Plato and Cicero and by Jewish philosophers such as Maimonides and by Christian thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas.(4)

Moving further on, it continued to be an issue for the founders of modern science such as Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton. Philosophers and theologians also eagerly entered the fray. For Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Thomas Reid, and William Paley, it was an issue that that dominated much of their work.

And here we are, still asking similar questions. Given its turbulent past, and relevance today, this debate isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. In fact, discussion around this issue has never been more vibrant and widespread, and its bound to continue on this trajectory. When we enter into this discussion, we aren’t merely arguing over a petty and parochial concern. We are engaging in a historically important and increasingly relevant dialogue, one that has occupied the minds of some of the greatest intellects.

2) Science is interesting.

When asked what his approach was, the former editor of New scientist magazine, Alun Anderson asserted, ‘What’s happening in science is the most interesting thing in the world, and if you don’t agree with me just f*** off.'(5) This comment was subsequently made well known by Richard Dawkins.(6) Of course, I wouldn’t put it in such strong terms, but essentially I think everyone should have a healthy appreciation for science, regardless of ones worldview. I realise that in one sense this is a highly subjective claim, since people aren’t always interested in the same thing, but I think there is more to this point than merely being interested.

If you’re religious, you should be in awe of God’s creative genius and want to understand it in some measure. I use the word should very deliberately because theologically, I think humans have a moral and intellectual obligation to at least reflect deeply upon these matters. If you’re not religious, you may think that perhaps its not as much as an objective intellectual obligation, but rather more an expression of human rationality and curiosity. Either way, whatever worldview we happen to hold, science infiltrates into most areas of our lives. As Jennifer Wiseman explains

Agriculture, entertainment, energy production, communications, and health care are just a few of the ways science and technology shape life for people around the globe, and affect all other life on the planet as well.(7)

In terms of the study of the natural world, science is the most effective set of tools we have. And it’s a truly wonderful human activity.

3) Biology is about life.

The origins debate ‘remains a point of concern and controversy, because it deals with the greatest of all mysteries, our own origins, and our place in human nature.'(8) The good news is that all we have to do to begin a journey of self-understanding (and an understanding of our fellow animals), is to start by looking under our very own noses. The answer is right here in front of us.

David Berlinski highlights the importance of this point well when he notes that ‘There is a wide appreciation of the fact that if biologists are wrong about Darwin, they are wrong about life…’.(9) Biology reveals to us a world of stupefyingly complex living systems. Let us not forget that we are among these perplexing living systems. The debate over intelligent design is vitally important because it is a quest to understand the secret of life.

4) It has many intra and extra-scientific implications.

At the end of the day, does it really matter either way? Well, yes it does. The reason why it matters is that the answers to these questions have far reaching implications. If the truth behind nature is that design is real, it has many implications for science education (it would affect what we teach in the classroom). And some would argue that it would drastically change the way we do science, and how we define science itself.

Even if this is the case, surely there are more pressing issues we should be talking about like climate change and social equality? Indeed we should be talking about these issues, however that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking about matters concerning origins either. We can and should think deeply about both because:

our concern about humanity’s social ills and our planet’s environmental catastrophes—and our motivation to act—are deeply connected to what we think about human origins.(10)

Our origins outlook also colours our views on religion and ethics, and it no doubt affects several other areas.

On a more fundamental level, one’s views on this subject can affect one’s worldview and vice versa. Stephen Meyer notes that:

Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for  poses a serious challenge to the materialistic worldview that has long dominated Western science and much of Western culture.(11)

If you believe life is a product of design, you will see humans and animals in a much different light. Likewise, if you think that life is purely the result of chance and necessity, that will make you see things differently too. Our beliefs about the nature of nature have huge consequences.

5) Science is an inclusive and interdisciplinary inquiry

Science today is a more interdisciplinary endeavour than it ever has been. The bountiful fruits that it has given us has made us realise that nature is far richer and multifaceted that we could have thought. Now we need all the conceptual and practical tools we can muster. Today there is a dazzling multitude of fields and sub-fields within science with many areas overlapping and cross-fertilising. Modern biology in particular takes an integrative approach towards the study of the natural world due to its increasing interdisciplinary nature and this makes for a stunningly powerful research process.

The debate about the nature of biological life is fascinating partly because it touches on so many areas including molecular biology, genetics, zoology, paleontology, information theory, engineering, computer science, sociology, philosophy, ethics, education, politics, religion, history…The list goes on. This is a very inclusive problem, and so people from a multitude of disciplines can weigh in.

Conclusion

For me, the origins dispute has great significance and importance. I hope the reasons I outlined above might encourage you to reconsider this topic and find out more for yourself. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking this is merely a sectarian theological argument over creationism. To be perfectly honest, I often find ‘creation/evolution’ disputes to be quite banal, repetitive, and irritating. Worst of all, too often such discussions rapidly descend into heated idiological slanging matches. As a result, casual observers withdraw and decide to wash their hands of the issue. Understandably, onlookers might conclude that it’s not a dispute worth getting involved in, given it’s often unproductive and unfriendly nature. Speaking as a Christian, many people in my generation see it as a stale and embarrassing sideshow that is primarily the interest of close minded fundamentalists, eagerly wishing to defend their particular interpretation of the creation accounts in Genesis.

But in my view, there is another way of looking at these perennial questions. Debates about creationism and evolution often get hopelessly muddled with the issue of intelligent design. This confusion has been encouraged by people on both sides of the debate unfortunately, due to a failure to make basic distinctions and less than savoury motives. Arguments about creationism are primarily theological disputes. And though I wouldn’t say this of all creationists (young and old-earth), many seem to use science merely as a tool to achieve a theological end. However, as I have tried to argue, there’s is much more to this topic than the often stale and unedifying “creation vs evolution” arguments. This is a rich and multifaceted  dialogue, with many important implications. It’s also just tremendously fascinating.

References

  1. William A. Dembski & Jonathan Wells, The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems (Foundation for Thought and Ethics, 2008), p.xiii.
  2. Anthony A. Long, Evolution vs Intelligent Design in Classical Antiquity (2005), Available at: http://muller.lbl.gov/pages/Long.pdf
  3. Ibid.
  4. Stephen C. Meyer, A Scientific History and Philosophical Defense of the Theory of Intelligent Design, Religion, Staat, Gesellschaft 7, no. 2 (2006): 12-14, Available at: http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/filesDB-download.php?command=download&id=324
  5. Simon Kirk. Interview with Alun Anderson. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20080226010755/http://www.sussex.ac.uk/Units/alumni/notable_alumni/interviews/Anderson_interview.html
  6. agillesp123 (2006) Dawkins vs. Tyson. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_2xGIwQfi
  7. Jennifer Wiseman, Why Should Christians Care About Science?, available at: https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/2013/09/24/why-should-christians-care-about-science/
  8. Kenneth Miller, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God (Cliff Street Books, 1999), p. xi.
  9. David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions, (United States: Basic Books, 2009), p.186.
  10. Fazale Rana, Why Argue About Evolution? (2015), Available at: http://www.reasons.org/articles/why-argue-about-evolution
  11. Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (New York: Harper Collins, 2009).