Posted by: FLPatriot | September 18, 2009

How Kenneth Miller gets it wrong.

Recently the subject of Dr Behe’s irreducible complexity theory has been catching my attention again. Several people have brought it up and inevitably it leads to a mention of Ken Miller and the Dover trial.

In a September 23, 2005 article Kenneth Miller was quoted as saying:

“The logic of their argument is you have these multipart systems, and that the parts within them are useless on their own,” said Kenneth Miller

Here he sets up a straw man argument, it is the same one he continues to use today. Dr Behe claimed instead that the mechanism in question, lets take the infamous “bacterial flagellum”, would not work if any one part of its system was not present. This failure to function would then lead to a failure in the larger organism. If the flagellum did not have all of it’s parts it would not function and would have been discarded.

So the theory of irreducible complexity does not claim that a part of the mechanism could not be used somewhere else and I am surprised that someone with as much intelligence as Dr Miller would miss something so obvious, I would hope he did not do it on purpose.


  1. Hey Mike,

    I would be very interested if you think that you could explain irreducible complexity in simpler terms. One problem that I have with this post is that it seems to take an snippet of what Ken Miller said and portray that as his argument – which is sort of what you are accusing him of doing – isn’t it? For example, from page 58 of his book (I think that the court proceedings, say something similar if I recall):

    “By asserting that it is a structure “in which the removal of an element would cause the whole system to cease functioning,” (actually citing Behe) the flagellum is presented as a molecular machine whose individual parts must have been specifically crafted to work as a unified assembly… In the case of the flagellum, irreducible complexity means that a minimum number of protein components, perhaps thirty, must be present to produce a viable biological function. These components should have no function until all thirty are put into place, at which point the flagellum spins into action. What this means, of course, is that evolution could not have fashioned those components a few at a time since they do not have functions that could be favored by natural selection. As Behe wrote, “Natural selection can only choose among systems that are already working”(again citing Behe) and an irreducably complex system does not work unless all of it’s parts are accounted for.”

    So – as you can see – Miller actually _is_ describing irreducable complexity by explaining that it states that individual parts are useless _within_ system until it all comes together…. Which as far as I can tell is what you are saying he misunderstands… It also seems to me to be just what Behe is saying (I’m almost through Darwin’s Black Box). Am I missing something there? What he tries to show is that there are plenty of “precursors” out there that indicate that it very likely _can_ (and eventually may) be explained by Darwinian selection because the purpose of the bacterial flagellum needn’t have always been the same — it just needed to survive.

    There’s also the mousetrap, but the mousetrap seems to me frankly not a good example. For all of the stuff in Black Box about it – it really misses the point since comparison of man-made machines will all lead to that conclusion as they lack the fundamental aspect of replication and therefore are impossible to compare by evolutionary means.

    Tell me if I’m missing something because I’m thinking that there’s just _got_ to be something I’m not getting… For example – I was thinking today – is the human circulatory system irreducibly complex because without a heart or lungs or blood we would cease to function? Is this evidence of special creation of animals with circulatory systems?

    Clearly this is not what he means – Behe says on page 5 “For the record, I have no reason to double that the universe is the billions of years old that physicists say it is. Further, I find the idea of common descent (that all organisms share a common ancestor) fairly convincing, and have no particular reason to doubt it.”

    Also – Neither an egg or a sperm have a heart or lungs or blood, yet somehow they can eventually build all of the necessary pieces to build a functioning human being by following simple DNA blueprints…

    I guess I’m just really not getting it – it’s not that I’m saying that there’s nothing there – I’m just asking for someone who _does_ feel like they get it to explain it to me….

  2. Lol… I love when I accidentally autocomplete the wrong word… Obviously Behe says “I have no reason to _doubt_… not _double_. Mia culpa.

  3. mcoville, you state…”I am surprised that someone with as much intelligence as Dr Miller would miss something so obvious, I would hope he did not do it on purpose.”

    You are so kind to Dr. Miller…lol…Of course he didn’t miss it, his goal is trying to discredit ID anyway he can. Your right Michael Behe and others do not claim that a part of the mechanism could not be used somewhere else. Evolutionists really have a hard time addressing the issue head on…lol

  4. Brian, good to hear form you. I only used the one snippet from Dr Miller because I felt it represented a view he states numerous times, I did not feel the need to copy and paste them all in this one article. Thank you also for quoting from his book as it continues to portray irreducible complexity incorrectly.

    Lets try it this way. An irreducibly complex system is a system that can not function without all of it’s parts present. Those parts may be used somewhere else for another function, but the mechanism in question would not function without all of the parts being present.

    This poses the problem for evolution because the chances of all the necessary parts of the flagellum evolving at the exact same time and then changing function to do a new job is mathematically improbable. You may find other work for individual parts of the flagellum that may give them purpose but the flagellum itself has one function and could not function until all of it’s parts where present.

    I do not have a copy of “Darwin’s black box” handy so I am going to have to do this from memory, and I hope someone will correct me if I am wrong. I believe Dr Behe stated in the book that what makes irreducible complexity a bane on evolution is that if a system like the flagellum did not have all of it’s parts the larger organism that makes use of the flagellum would not function and there for die off and not continue to evolve. This means that if it could not survive the flagellum would not have time to evolve itself into it’s current form. So the flagellum had to be created in it’s entirety are one moment in time in order for it to be useful to the larger organism.

    I hope this clears it up a little. Dr Millers false argument is that because a part of the flagellum could be used,or is currently being used, by another system then the flagellum could have evolved from these mechanisms. But Dr Behe states that if the flagellum did not have all of it’s parts at the same time then it would not have had the time needed to evolve because the organism that uses the flagellum would not have survived.

    Now you can see why a judge, with no interest in science to this degree, would have not understood the theory of irreducible complexity during a court trial when people such as you and me who take a healthy interest in the subject, took time to read about it and to study the pros and cons of the theory, still need help to understand the theory.

  5. The proposed flagellum rebuttal was included in Miller’s book, Finding Darwin’s God, where he dedicates a chapter to attempting to debunk Behe’s irreducible complexity. Behe himself has responded that the experiment Miller cites doesn’t really address the issue since it deals with redundant systems [overlapping systems] rather than irreducible complexity. He also notes that the two “adaptations” were, again, already there and simply kicked in once the main engine was removed. [I’m simplifying] Things that are already there aren’t really new adaptations.

    To the point, Miller moved the goalpost.

    -Sirius Knott

  6. mcoville,

    Thanks for responding because I’m really trying to figure this out – I hope that you (or anyone else) can keep up the discussion….

    I don’t mean to appear dense, but I’m still not getting two things (I’m trying to – really) – one specifically about your view of Miller’s argument (the topic of the post) and the other about Irreducible Complexity (IC).

    On the first – let me see if I can explain. You said “Thank you also for quoting from his book as it continues to portray irreducible complexity incorrectly….[and later]… Dr Millers false argument is that because a part of the flagellum could be used,or is currently being used, by another system then the flagellum could have evolved from these mechanisms. But Dr Behe states that if the flagellum did not have all of it’s parts at the same time then it would not have had the time needed to evolve because the organism that uses the flagellum would not have survived.”

    I am failing to see the specific disagreement in the 3 summaries of IC that that have been posted (Miller’s, Behe’s and yours) except in something that I think that you (and even Behe to a lesser extent at the end of the anniversary edition book that I have) are reading into it which is that Miller’s argument is simply IC is no good because other things contain many of the basic parts of the flagellum and therefore “case closed”. But that’s actually not it and if you read the paragraph that I cited above, that should be pretty clear. Miller’s argument is really that IC is posited as an explanation by a man who generally accepts evolution because he thinks that evolution cannot explain some of these things. Miller explains that: a)The idea the whole system is needed to accomplish “the function” is actually a misunderstanding of an important bit of evolution b) there is actually mounting evidence that it is a pretty good answer here too (or at least none compelling enough against it to consider without a seriously detailed proposal). As he explains, the “function” of the bacterial flagellum, like everything else, is just to make the cut (i.e., not die) and reproduce (or replicate) – not to “be a bacterial flagellum”. Miller points to the “similar” things recently discovered (at the time) that would indicate an ancestor or a cousin and be a driver for new hypotheses and scientific research during we will almost certainly break down at least some of the answers (thus, it is not irreducible). In fact, a great amount of work has been done within the scientific community in the last 10 years to answer just this question…. What they’ve uncovered are lots and lots of things regarding splicing, replication and lateral gene transfers which lead to lots of “variants” and families of closely related things (some not even flagellum anymore) which have varying degrees of similarity (some very close), each still serving its own perfectly viable function of not dying and continuing to reproduce while serving very different functions.

    Now that I’ve spent way to long clarifying on the nature of Miller’s statement – I have to say that the part about IC that I’m not getting is – give me a definition for which I can plug in natural (not man-made) things and understand it…. Thus far I’m having trouble seeing how – like I said – the human being is not irreducibly complex…. Without some of the key parts (heart, brain, lungs, etc) we would more or less immediately die. Without other important parts we would not successfully live a long life or reproduce. All of these things strike an incredible balance to “fit together” in extraordinarily complex ways that had time tables shifted just a bit would seem to argue IC for those things too – yet Behe is very open about the fact that he does not. In fact – a good portion of the early part of Black Box explains the title in exactly that light — he’s saying that essentially it’s like those Russian dolls — every time you open one up there’s another one inside… Until you get to the end – which is where he’s saying things are at this level and that’s why IC…. Except that the he goes on to talk about things like the eye which isn’t cellular at all and totally loses me – plus – I’m not quite sure how you get to IC at some complex cellular components and not others. To say that something is highly improbable is easily misunderstood.

    Let me give you an example that I just thought of: According to the National Weather Service (NOAA), the purely statistical odds (based on real numbers, not an estimate) of being an American who is struck by lightening in your odds of being struck in an 80 year lifetime are 1/5000. With this broad outlook, your odds of being struck twice in an 80 year lifetime would be 1/25,000,000 and the odds of being stuck seven times in an 80 year life time is 7.8125 × 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (7.8125 hundred nonillion – probably higher when you consider the simultaneously probabilities of surviving to get struck again… and… something else which I will get to in a second). According to most scientific estimates, only 100 to 115,000,000,000 people have ever lived on earth – yet Roy Sullivan was struck 7 times in his 71 year life just in the 1900s alone.. and his wife was struck once too! And he’s not the only multi-strike victim – he just holds the record that we know of. How is it that such a seemingly astronomically improbable thing happened just within our lifetimes? Well, for several reasons – first is the nature of statistics. If you were unlucky enough to survive a lightening strike at age 10, for example, you still have most of your life to get struck — and what are the odds of being struck again? The same as anyone who dies at age 70 – because the first occurrence already happened. Other facts are important too though – like where you are and what the weather is like (environmental conditions, practices and timing). In 2008, all fatal lightening strikes took place outside, near trees or water and in only 9 states. The majority took place in only 5 states… Of those in the 5 states, 2 had levels twice that of the other 3. June, July and August are historically the most dangerous months. So… If you happen to be employed as a park ranger as Mr. Sullivan and continue to put yourself into dangerous places and take dangerous risks, you elevate your chances dramatically.

    So… It’s part of selection to say that each condition makes the next wildly more likely and that environmental and locational conditions can grossly modify the base probability – isn’t it?

  7. PS – one thing that I do agree with Behe for sure on is the premise that inside the last doll (or maybe two) there is a new _kind_ of challenge (not problematic – just new) for evolution as the answers can’t go much lower… But there’s a big jump to where we suddenly derive IC that I’m having trouble making. I’m really not sure that I buy that there is a way to determine that… For example, let’s say that we found a new bacteria that was exactly flagellum minus one tiny piece and analyzing DNA shows a splice error in flagellum which isn’t in this piece — then we find a way to “introduce” a copying error and the non bacterial flagellum is “viola” suddenly replicating a bacterial flagellum. Is it still irreducibly complex?

  8. Brian,

    “What if” is not evidence. Claiming other parts can be used for something else doesn’t mean that those parts would leave one complex system to join another.

    An incomplete machine (missing one or more critical parts) has no function, therefore it’s invisible to natural selection which makes it impossible to evolve. If it does not work there is no advantage, thus useless. This is what Michael Behe and ID proponents proposed.

  9. Michael (from the post just above)… Where is a “what if” that is proposed as evidence? Is that a precursor to the next sentence or are you saying something else? In other words – are you saying that Miller’s argument is “what if” whereas Behe’s has evidence because “an incomplete machine (missing one or more critical parts has no function).. etc?

    Guys… Really… I’m not trying to be difficult here – I honestly _trying_ to understand your points but it seems to me that you aren’t getting Miller’s point any more than I am getting Behe’s. I’m trying to explain Miller’s but no one really seems to be offering much of a more than 1 or 2 sentence explanation of IC. The thing that I (and apparently Miller) am just not getting about your post: Just as in the natural world with animals, we now know (since original publication of Black Box) that there are whole “families” of things related to the bacterial flagellum which would appear to be – by the very definition an “incomplete bacterial flagellum machine” which is perfectly functional — as something else. How are they not? Is it merely because the seeming purpose has changed? Is it that simple?

    Sirrius – I’ll look for this — if you have a link to it, let me know…. I’m going to re-read his (Behe’s) comments in the afterword again, maybe that’s what you mean…

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