I am aware of the works of Doctors Stephen Meyer, Doug Axe and Michael Behe, who are well known ID proponents. I recently have heard Dr. Swamidass and Dr. Francis Collins (in an older talk) reference the idea that recent understandings in genetics have made clear that the idea of “irreducible complexity” is falsifiable or has been falsified. In short, organisms, without any guidance or purpose, can recruit what they need genetically to survive and evolve. The well known claims are about the plant hopper’s legs or the bacterial flagellum, etc. I would love to see the specifics in a not too many technical terms. I am not a scientist but have a lay level understanding. Any help?
Hello @Scottie_A , and Welcome to Peaceful Science.
Much of ID can be difficult to refute because it’s not making claims that can be refuted. If the claim is made that some biological structure is so complex that it can only be designed, and then science shows that it could indeed evolve, that still doesn’t prove it was not designed. The key concept here is Falsifiability, very few of the claims made by ID proponents can be falsified, and therefore ID is (mostly) not a scientific concept.
ID can still work just fine as a philosophical or religious concept, but it doesn’t work as science. IMO, nearly all scientific arguments over ID amount to pointless squabbling because there is no scientific claim to argue about. That said, I’ve participated in quite a few of those anyway.
Irreducible complexity is exclusively presented either as a 1) problem with no examples or 2) examples with no problem.
So far as definitions for irreducible complexity necessarily excluding evolution have been proposed, no examples of features meeting such definitions have been provided.
So far as proposed examples of irreducible complexity have been presented, plausible evolutionary pathways are known.
Which is why those arguing for irreducible complexity invariably argue dishonestly by equivocating between meanings.
Thank you for your time and replies. Also, thanks for helping me with the non-technical thoughts. So it can’t be a scientific hypothesis if it can’t be verified or falsified. That makes sense. Is there an evolutionary pathway demonstrated for some the the things that often get argued from ID (Eyes, flagellum, etc.)? Am I correct to hold the position of irreducible complexity that it is an argument from absence? Something like the “god of the gaps” idea? Are ID proponents attempting to make an argument from inference in your opinion? One ID author does this a bit I think in his recent book. To paraphrase, he makes a case that where we see complexity that functions towards some end (genetic code, metabolism, reproduction, sight, flight,) it is a reasonable inference to conclude something like “mind”, rather than unguided process that is not headed towards some end. Then one would possibly try to talk about degrees of certainty. It is still scientifically unverifiable, which would maybe make it unhelpful. Am I thinking on the right track?
I think that you are applying the deceptive rhetoric used to present IC. Put simply, ideas cannot be falsified, so your statement makes no sense.
What you’re missing is that IC is part of a hypothesis that is never clearly stated because it makes the pseudoscientific nature of ID more obvious. The hypothesis is that structures that fit one or more of the multiple definitions of IC cannot evolve. That hypothesis has been falsified; besides, no one in the ID movement is willing to test any ID hypothesis.
Yes. But don’t expect ID proponents to agree with that characterization.
Yes you are on the right track. There are (to my knowledge) exactly 3 example of testable hypotheses in the literature, one from an ID research (Ewert 2016) and two from mainstream scientists “throwing down the gauntlet” for putting ID to the test. These all feature a hypothesis stating what evidence for design might look like, compared to what we expect from evolution.
IC is always couched in evidence for evolution - show how this evolved or else it is designed - there is never any distinction of how design should differ from evolution.
Yes. For the eyes, see Nilsson D., Pelger S. A pessimistic estimate of the time required for an eye to evolve. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B 1994; 256:53-58. A creationist will reject that pathway because it doesn’t consider each and every tiny genetic step. Just like objections to the fossil record, every new transitional fossil divides one gap into two smaller gaps.
Irreducible complexity isn’t an argument, it’s a condition. A system is irreducibly complex if removing any single part causes the system not to function. The argument is that irreducible complexity therefore can’t evolve, and that’s where the gap comes in, since the justification is that the arguer can’t think of a plausible way for it to happen and rejects anyone else’s suggestions.
Almost all science is argument from inference. The question is whether that inference is warranted in any particular case. I haven’t seen any warranted ID inferences.
You should check out the Creation Myths YouTube channel run by Dr Dan Stern Cardinale for relatively nontechnical critiques of ID and creationist material. He’s also had quite interesting conversations with Dr Michael Behe on irreducible complexity.
A lot of more “serious” ID arguments are highly technical and that typically demands a technical response. However, some people recognize this and will tend to provide a more lay-friendly response. Browse through PS and you will find a treasure trove of such responses. Welcome!
Yes and by “show” they don’t mean make an inference to the best explanation using evidence, which they always find some baseless reason to reject for evolution(they completely reject phylogenetics, for example). They usually demand to have X evolved basically in real time in front of their eyes.
Consider how much other science we would have to discard with that standard. “Show me how that mountain was produced by plate tectonics, in real time, or it was designed!” Well I can’t make the Earth re-produce a mountain right here (and it would also take too long anyway), but I can show you data that is very well explained by this process of plate tectonics producing mountain ranges like this one. This is basically the same situation with evolution. Some simpler things evolve quickly, more complex things more slowly, and some things just can’t be evolved on human timescales and this is where we can do inferences from the data just like we can in geology and astronomy.
Three possible interpretations of “irreducible complexity”, and they all fail.
If you read Behe very literally, it only considered “Darwinian” evolutionary pathways in his argument. But of course there are lots of non-Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms, so an argument based strictly on “Darwinian” evolution is irrelevant to the question of “evolvability”.
But if you put that aside, the argument comes in “strong” and “weak” forms. The strong form is that nothing that meets the criteria for IC can evolve, and that form of the argument is false; we’ve directly observed and documented the evolution of such structures. For example the tetherin antagonism activity in the HIV-1 group M VPU protein, or the Cit+ trait in the the long-term evolution experiment in E. coli.
The weak form is that some IC systems can evolve, but some absolutely cannot. This is untestable and unfalsifiable.
No matter how you interpret the argument, it doesn’t work.
@Scottie_A Just to elaborate a bit, Behe has conveniently stated that he concedes IC systems with only 2-3 components can evolve, but anything beyond that is in his view beyond the “edge of evolution”.
This is a very clever rhetorical strategy because with this concession Behe can say his argument allows most(though we do have some examples of things that are beyond his “edge”) observed results from experimental evolution (and therefore these observations and experiments don’t “refute” his argument), but more complex systems become more difficult to experimentally assess then lie beyond what you’d expect to evolve in a few years of experimental evolution.
Behe says basically, sure - a system with just 2-3 components can evolve, but what about one with 10, or >50?
And then we are back to where things adding up to those levels take longer than we have, just like we don’t have time to wait for 10 consecutive geological periods to each produce their own sedimentary layer, or for two colliding plates to squeeze out a mountain range. But the fact is we can know these things happen and have happened in the past through inferences from extant data.
This is where the total denial of historical inference in biology becomes a staple of ID. There are methods of reconstructing the past of long-term evolutionary changes where very complex entities with dozens of components evolved from simpler ones and became more complex and elaborate over time (some times literally grew in number one by one), in a way analogous to how we can reconstruct the past in geology where we can show how the layers were added on top of each other over time as different periods of sedimentation and erosion came and went.
In biology the methods of historical inference about evolutionary changes are known as phylogenetic/ancestral reconstruction.
There are multiple threads on this forum where methods and result of ancestor reconstruction have been discussed (just search “ancestral sequence reconstruction”), and how ID proponents have no sensible answer to these results other than, basically, blanket denial.
These proposals lack a mathematical model that shows feasibility. There is no reason for the ID guys to respond.
Here is a debate between Dr Swamidass and Dr Behe. It presents both sides in a balanced way.
You have to understand that Bill rejects both of those sides, since Bill rejects common descent in favor of separate creation, unlike either Swamidass or Behe.
I would only add to the good points made here that invoking ID explains nothing. Design is not enough; you need a mechanism for the design to be embodied. So in the end to appeal to ID is to invoke an endless series of miracles; one for each time the Designer intervenes to impose a desigh feature. You can explain anything that way; so what?.
And then there are all the arguments against ID; from poor design, broken genes, and so on.
They are not proposals. They are empirical tests of evolutionary hypotheses with strong mathematical foundations.
@Scottie_A ignore this fellow called Bill. He is one of the most confused ID proponents on this forum.
And here we see an example of the denial of historical inference:
Curiously Bill has no “mathematical model that shows feasibility” for ID-creationism, so that can’t really be what prevents Bill from accepting the reality of historical biological evolution.
His statement is also false, since I have shown him concrete examples (it’s really basic arithmetic like number of mutations/generation times number of generations divided by the number of changes that separates ancestor from descendant) where the number of changes that separate inferred ancestral states from their extant descendants are well within the ranges of realistic rates of mutations, some times by factors so large that it would be possible for many millions of times more genetic changes to have occurred over those intervals of time. Which really just shows that the effect of purifying selection has been operating on the genetic traits in question.
Of course, if you want actual modeling that couples biophysics to population genetics, you can start here:
Lynch M, Hagner K. Evolutionary meandering of intermolecular interactions along the drift barrier. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A . 2015;112(1):E30-E38. doi:10.1073/pnas.1421641112
Going forward on this forum you will discover that there is literally no topic upon which Bill Cole won’t pontificate and yet be fully and thoroughly wrong from beginning to end.