Science and the Sacred

Science and the Sacred

On Reducing Irreducible Complexity, Part I

posted by Darrel Falk


Every Monday, “Science and the Sacred” features an essay from one of The BioLogos Foundation’s co-presidents: Karl Giberson and Darrel Falk. Today’s entry was written by Darrel Falk.

Someone needs to write a book about the emergence of evolutionary biology as a subject for public discourse beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This was the period when Stephen Jay Gould’s books were at their zenith. Gould outlined what he considered to be limitations of the theory of natural selection. Through his great story-telling ability and brilliant writing skills, Gould made his particular view of evolutionary theory come alive. No scientist since Darwin had so successfully engaged the public in evolutionary theory. In his book, Wonderful Life, Gould proposed in an especially poignant manner that vertebrates like us are here not just because of the force of natural selection. He suggested that luck–pure unadulterated luck–was at least as important to our arrival on earth as was natural selection itself. It was also Gould who brought the Cambrian Explosion to the attention of the public, and it was Gould who caused people to become aware that after more than 150 years of searching the rocks, paleontologists had found only a very limited number of transitional species.

This was also the period when the Australian molecular biologist Michael Denton wrote the book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Denton went further than Gould. Gould wanted to put contingency alongside of natural selection as the driving force of evolution. Denton, also an agnostic, believed evolutionary theory was so fundamentally flawed it needed a complete overhaul.

Michael Behe was just a couple of years into his appointment as an Associate Professor at Lehigh University when he read Denton’s book. He read it in two days and, in a recent summary
of those days, he states that his serene assumptions about natural selection were shattered forever: “When I laid the book down, I lived in a different world.”
We are all trained as scientists to find flaws in other scientists’ interpretation of the data. Usually, this is restricted to tiny details that only a handful of other scientists care about. Still, there is nothing that energizes a scientist more than to identify a significant flaw that has been missed by others. It makes for excited conversation at coffee time. Imagine, then, the exhilaration when Behe became convinced that that the most important theory biology had ever produced was deeply flawed. His world would, indeed, never be the same again.

It wasn’t just Behe and Denton. Because of the writings of Gould, the pump was primed like never before. Gould’s writings had prepared the academically engaged evangelical Christian. Furthermore, creation science had just failed in the Supreme Court of the United States. Creation science was religion, not science, the Court declared. The time was ripe for a new approach to demonstrate the scientific credibility of creation for the millions who believed in a creator. When Science printed a quote that advised scientists to protect others from becoming confused by Phillip Johnson, author of the just-published Darwin on Trial, Michael Behe spoke for many when, in 1991, he rebuked the scientific community:

The theory of evolution by natural selection is not a difficult concept to grasp, and Charles Darwin addressed The Origin of Species itself to a general audience. But neither is it self-evident to many people that natural selection can fully account for the world they observe. Thus when questions about the theory arise in public forums, the scientific community would do much better in the long run to patiently list supporting facts and frankly admit where positive evidence is lacking, rather than paternalistically maintaining that an understanding of the theory of evolution is reserved for the priesthood of professional scientists.

Putting such thoughts in writing–taking on the scientific community from within–was a most unusual step for any young professor at a research university, but it was only a foretaste of all that was to come. Within a year, Behe resolved to “write a book explaining in detail for the public why modern biochemistry is not only resistant to Darwinian explanations but points strongly and insistently to intelligent design.”

Engagingly written with a clarity that rivaled Gould at his finest, this 1996 book
was a communication-masterpiece. However, Behe had taken a tact that was extremely risky. Key sub-disciplines of the biological sciences–cell biology and molecular evolution–were just coming into their heyday in 1996. Truly fascinating data was only beginning to surface. Many questions were being asked and imaginative techniques to obtain answers were emerging just as quickly. Behe decided to jump into this cauldron to say that some of the findings pointed to cellular structures and processes so complex that they could not possibly have arisen through the process of natural selection. He chose several examples: the bacterial flagellum, the blood clotting cascade, the eye, and the immune system. He declared that studies of the origin of all of these structures and processes were at scientific dead ends and would remain in that status. Indeed, Behe declared that their existence would never be explained except by invoking the input of an intelligent designer.

Some would say this was a foolhardy move when the structures and processes had only just been described and the science for investigating them was still being developed. The history of science has shown repeatedly that one does not just jump into a scientific problem when the field is in its heyday and declare it has reached a dead end. The just-posted FAQ on irreducible complexity at the BioLogos web-site provides a synopsis and a set of references which summarize the tremendous advances that have taken place in the past thirteen years. I’ll spend some time on this site in upcoming days writing further on the reduction of irreducible in complexity. For now, though check out the FAQ.

The status of the Cambrian explosion and transitional species is in a similar state of affairs and we have also addressed this in another FAQ.
So why did we Christians jump into a pot stirred up by the dilemmas posed by Stephen Jay Gould two decades ago? Why did we try to insert God only into the scientific unknowns?

  • It seems that we wanted a God who worked in flurries of activity, only to rest for a while and then come back and work some more. I wonder why we expected a God of that sort.
  • It seems we wanted a God whose activity we could point to, in order to prove beyond doubt that our own views about God and the universe are correct. I wonder what made us think that science would find the kind of God you could prove. Based on I Corinthians 2 for example, it is hardly scriptural.
  • It seems we wanted a God who worked in a magical fashion. People have been seeing the hand of God working in mostly subtle ways for thousands of years. I wonder what made us think it would be any different now just because we have fancy scientific tools to try to find the magic.

There are extremely good reasons for believing in the God of Christian Scripture and for choosing to enter the life of Christian faith. Science provides wonderful hints that point to that God for those who choose to examine. Hints and proofs, however, are two very different things. Personally, I like living in a world composed of hints which are embedded in a world still full of mystery. C.S. Lewis calls them sign posts. Paul writes about seeing them through a glass darkly. I like the haze of a misty morning when the sun first starts to break through. It is all we have right now, but I am okay with that.

Darrel Falk is a biology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego and co- president of The BioLogos Foundation.


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posted August 24, 2009 at 10:32 am

Perhaps we also began to draw too hard a line between natural and supernatural, forgetting the very biblical notion of Providence – God’s governing and sustaining of all things. Without realizing that *everything* in the end is ordained by God (though yet we have free will, a great mystery), we tried to pin down his activities to things which didn’t seem to have discernible material causes. Great post.

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posted August 25, 2009 at 2:30 am

Trifles, light as air, are to the jealous, confirmations strong
as holy writ
Othello Act 3, Scene 3 William Shakespeare
This article and its’ referenced ‘The just-posted FAQ on irreducible complexity’ is precisely that which deeply concerns me about proposed evidences for evolutionary transitions. It is all story telling and not a single iota of science is included. Allow me to explain:
As the Paleontologists have pointed out, as led by Gould, Eldredge, Steven Stanley, and Colin Patterson (And who as people are being reduced in importance in this article by who else, a biologist :) ) the fossil record rejects Darwinian evolution. This is why Gould and Eldredge devised a new Theory called Punctuated Equilibria. They proclaimed that the true evidence of the fossil record is one of the sudden appearance in the fossil record of each type of creature followed by stasis (i.e. no change), They either until they became extinct or are alive today.
The oldest creatures found in the fossil record are 4 types of cyano bacteria. In the 1990′s, all four of these bacteria were discovered, alive and well and totally unevolved.
The Coelecanthe fish, once seen by evolutionists as a prime candidate as our ancestor, was found to be alive and well, with no evolutionary changes over its’ 400 Billion years on this planet. Not only was his skeleton un-evolved, so were its’ soft body parts showed no signs of any evolution.
With respect to the evolution of the evolution of the ear:
This evolution is alleged to have occurred in a group of so called – mammal like reptiles known as the Therapsids. There is sharp criticism of the order given for the ear evolution,the order of the alleged transitions given above is not the correct order they appear in time in the geologic record. The arrangement of the order is based solely on evolutionary relationships. Furthermore different evolutionary taxonomists have provided different arrangements based on their personal evolutionary biases of ear developement of the therapsids.
Furthermore, there is no clear lineage between the two. The most convincing transitions presented in textbooks are lineages that combine more than one order of therapsida, with several species in the lineage which were contemporaries of each other and therefore cannot and do not form a progressive ancestry. In addition, one of the critical links is commonly shown out of order, as it is older than the link that ought to be it’s ancestor. Then there is the fact that the order of the Therapsids for ear evolution consist of herbivores and carnivores. They do not interbreed.
Also, the ear bones in each seperate species vary enormously in size from Therapsid species to other Therapsids species. The first mammals (Morganucodon) had the three bones in their ear, and they were extremely small bones. The Therapsids always had two of the bones in their Jaws. There is no clear lineage between Therapsids and the first mammals.
A bigger problem in ever determining wether or not the therapsids can
ever even be a true transition between reptile and mammals is the very nature of what reptiles and mammals are. Reptiles are cold blooded, they lay eggs with hard shells, they have scales on their skin, multiple bones in the jaw, and a single bone in the ear. Mammals are warm blooded, they give birth to their young, have mammary glands, hair, and other significant soft body differences, besides a single lower jaw hinged with a single joint on each side, and three ear bones. The fossils do not tell us if these all important changes ever occurred even though the fossil record could have provided the evidence if such a materialistic evolutionary transformation ever occurred, since a great many soft bodied fossils are recorded in the fossil record.
Finally, where is the hard science for the evolution of the first ear? Since all structures get their command from their extremely complex DNA on how and when to form, what mutations would have to occur to the DNA to move two big Jaw Bones into the ear of the mammal while also reducing the size of the bones to petit.
I have talked to many materialist evolutionists, and they freely admit that if a God did exist, that would be the best explanation for life as we know it. But they see no evidence of such a God, so they are forced to believe that life had to evolve. Do not let anyone persuade you that major evolutionary transitions can occur without providing actual hard science that this is true, and in complete context rather than the usual special pleading fallacy they usually resort to.

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posted August 25, 2009 at 3:21 am

Actually, punctuated equilibrium is not a whole new theory. If you read Gould and Elderidge in context, you will find that their theory agrees with traditional neo-Darwinian views of evolution in the big picture, it is only different in a few details.
Basically, punctuated equilibrium just says that evolutionary speciation probably takes place at a faster rate that traditionally thought following catastrophes. It does NOT challenge the idea of natural selection. Gould and Elderidge did not say that creatures appeared fully formed. They readily admitted that there are abundant transitional fossils. They just feel that due to the nature of speciation transitional fossils between species are rare, but they both agree that there are a plethora of transitional fossils between the genus and family levels.
I know how widespread Gould and Elderage’s quotes are used by creationist. When I was a young earth creationist a few years ago, I did not understand that those quotes are taken wildly out of context. I have read several statements by both Gould and Elderidge stating that they are angered by the way their work has been dishonestly misrepresented by the anti-evoltution folks, and that their theory is NOT a replacement for the neo-Darwinian synthesis.
Your statement about cyanobacteria is a bit misleading. Evolution does not postulate that one creature “turns into” another and the original species ceases to exist. Your analogy is similar to the argument that some people use that says “if people came from monkeys, then why are there monkeys?” Speciation usually takes place when populations become separated and face different evolutionary pressures and have different genetic mutations in their isolated populations. Nothing says the original species must have gone extinct. Please read about parapatric and sympatric speciation (and ring species).
I could deal with some of your other examples, and there are good evolutionary theories for some of the traits you looked at (just look at the excellent examples of evolution of the ear in the land mammal-to-whale transitional fossils), but I think it might be better to challenge the underlying assumption. The basic assumption is that since evolutionists can not explain absolutely EVERYTHING in biology than evolution must not be true. No other science discipline is held to this standard. No one says “quantum mechanics can not explain this certain thing, so all of quantum mechanics must be bunk.” No doctor says “we don’t understand every detail about the immune system and b cells, therefore b-cells and the immune system do not exist.” Science does not work that way. People do science precisely because everything is not figured out. There is overwhelming evidence for evolution, but of course the state of knowledge is not complete (just like chemistry, medicine, ecology, physics, astronomy, etc still are incomplete). Evolution should be held to the same standard that other science disciples are help to.
A good book for the evidence of evolution is “Why Evolution is True” by Jerry Coyne, his section of the biogeography evidence for evolution is especially strong. I wish that had been one of the first books I read when I was researching evolution for the first time. I also enjoyed Neil Shubin’s explanation for how they designed their search for the traditional fossil Tiktaalik in “Your Inner Fish.” They made many assumptions based on evolution to guess where precisely to look for a particular transitional fossil with a particular feature, and they found it in exactly the geologic column that evolution would predict.
I’d encourage you to actually read Gould and Elderidge to see what they really said. And please read some good books on the evidence for evolution (especially DNA, which I feel is the strongest evidence). I have a feeling you might be as surprised as I was when I actually researched evolution, instead of relying on creationist books and conferences for information on evolution. Have a great day!
- Dan

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posted August 25, 2009 at 7:19 am

I really enjoyed reading this essay. I always enjoy reading intelligent commentary on religion and science especially when they are brought together. I especially like the the “bullets” about the assumptions people seem to bring to the relationship between God and nature you included at the end. I believe science and religion are equally valid approaches to understanding reality and are equally necessary to the progress of civilization.

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posted August 26, 2009 at 12:46 pm

I wrote two posts in response to Dan’s post, They were here yesterday, but have been removed. The first was my refuatation that Gould’s & Eldredge’s Theory of Punctuated Equilibrium is not nor ever had been complementary to Darwinism, in fact, they, along with most leading Paleontologists consider that Darwinism as a scientific Theory – IS DEAD, and they scientifically demonstrated why. Yet they were forced to curtow to the powers that be in Academia and the liberal mass media. This is really what evolutionism is really all about: Materialistic Ideology opposing real science; and the science fiction of evolutionism suppressing science.
My 2nd post was that Charles Darwin based his idea of how new genetic information arises in a genome and thereby becomes available for Natural Selection to act, Darwin based this novel variations upon an ancient theory known as Pangenesis going back to before Hippocrates as the method for providing this variation. Today we know that Pangenesis is bunk and that Mendellian Genetics accurately explains the enormous quantity of variations species contain within their genes. Mendellian genetics are diametrically opposed to Darwinian evolution, which I explained rather well in my censored post.
I hate censorship in all its’ ugly forms, and I consider the censorship of my two very well written and well documented posts is precisely how the public and students of science are drawn into a false faith in the factuality of Darwinian Evolution. This censorship undermines the validity of ‘Science and the Sacred’ and does great harm to The BioLogos Foundation’s co-presidents: Karl Giberson and Darrel Falk, who are now posters to a gestapo type censored forum. ‘Heil Evolution’, ‘Heil Evolution’, ‘Heil Evolution’!
Why can’t proponents of evolution just once engage in a reasonable debate? Its because real science does not support evolution, but refutes it. So the proponents of Darwinism feel they must resort to censorship to in order to spread and protect their own religiously held beliefs on origins.
Please re-instate my two censored posts.

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posted August 26, 2009 at 2:35 pm

The topic here is irreducible complexity. You posted two very very long essays about something that was off-topic. There will be other opportunities to engage participants in discussion about punctuated equilibrium when that is the topic at hand—but this is not the place to post long essays that are not directly to the main post.
Hope you understand,

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posted August 26, 2009 at 6:18 pm

Gould and Elderidge have both said repeatedly that their theory was not a death blow to “Darwinism.” They just disagree about the rate of evolution, not its existence. They have both said repeatedly that there are many clear examples of transitional species between the family and genus levels. Both men have said that they are angered by creationist taking their quotes way out of context. I have read Gould, you should too.
Yes, Darwin (and everyone else at that time) did not understand modern genetics. If you read The Origin you will see that he readily admits that. That does not mean that the modern neo-Darwinian synthesis is false. Evolutionary theory adapted and changed to the new genetic information, making evolutionary theory stronger, not weaker as you seem to think. I think the genetic evidence for evolution is even stronger than the fossil evidence.
Evolution is science; it certainly is not repressing science like you amusingly say. I could respond in a lot more detail to your points, but I know this is off topic so I won’t continue. Just please read a book on what evolution really is and the evidence for it (and actually read Gould, especially “The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.” I think you’ll be surprised).

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posted August 26, 2009 at 6:39 pm

OK Darrel, so it was you who deleted my post. If that be the case, I was merely replying to the erroneus statements that Dan made in his reply to my initial post which did directly address elements of your initial post. If you read my posts, you would discern Dan was wrong
In my view, to let Dan’s post remain and to delete my replies, seems to me to be biased and unfair. The end result is you are favoring Dan who also wrote off topic be meandering into Punctuation Equilibrium. If you deleted his post first, I would never have written those posts. But my two replies are gone, and Dan’s misinformed post remains, making his chatisement of my initial post appear to be legitimate. The Bible does wisely inform us that in a court of judgement, quite often one’s argument seems right until the other side speaks. Dan spoke on the faults of what I posted, but my reply to him that demonstrated PUNK EEK is an alternative to Darwinism, was censored, Thereby letting Dan’s opinion be the final arbiter of our discussion. I find that to be most unfair, particularly when I have broad knowledge of the subject and my response was sound. BTW, I did read the book Dan recommended, Jerry Coyne’s book, “Why Evolution is True”, and found it to be unconvincing.
Darrel, I do take your word for it that you are a Christian, and I welcome you as a brother in Christ. But my rejection of evolution is based strictly on the related science or the lack thereof. My concern when it comes to evolution is the same one expressed by Professor J. Wolfgang Smith, Ph.D Mathematics, MS Physics 20 years ago.
Professor J. Wolfgang Smith wrote:
“The salient fact is this: If by evolution we mean macroevolution (as we henceforth shall) then it can be said with utmost vigor that the doctrine is totally bereft of scientific sanction. Now, to be sure, given the multitude of extravagant claims about evolution promulgated by evolutionists with an air of scientific infallibility, this may indeed sound strange. And yet the fact remains that there is not a shred of bona fide scientific evidence in support of the thesis that macro evolutionary transformations have ever occurred. …
“We are told dogmatically that evolution is an established fact; but we are never told who has established it, and by what means. We are told, often enough, that the doctrine is founded upon evidence, and that indeed this evidence ‘is henceforward above all verification, as well as being immune from any subsequent contradiction by experience’; but we are left entirely in the dark on the crucial question wherein, precisely, this evidence consist.”
Professor J. Wolfgang Smith, Ph.D Mathematics, MS Physics, ‘Teilhardism and the New Religion’, 1988, Tan Books and Publishers. pp. 2,5,6.
Darrel, I never intended to drift from what you actually wrote, I do regret it happened, but I was not the one who diverted it.

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posted August 26, 2009 at 7:15 pm

It is BioLogos’ blog. I think they have deleted a couple of my more long-winded posts before (at least I could not find them later). They might delete this post of mine, and I won’t have a problem with that. You made some wild accusations in your origional post and they still let you keep it.
I wrote a post in the “Two Complementary Accounts” on BioLogos blog that explains that every intelligent design proponent and even Answers in Genesis believes that macroevolution is a scientific fact. Humorously enough, Answers in Genesis believes in an incredibly massive amount of macroevolution, all in the past few thousand years. They actually accept much more macroevolution in a short time than any evolutionist I know of does.
Here is the link to that blog, if you want to know what macroevolution really is, and why Answers in Genesis accepts it, I think my post is now the second comment (a few were deleted):
I will say it again; Gould and Eldridge have repeatedly said that punctuated equilibrium is NOT an alternative to “Darwinism”, but simply a theory that helps to fill in the details on an already robust theory. They have both said that it is either dishonest or naïve to say that their theory killed traditional evolutionary theory. Thanks.

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posted August 27, 2009 at 2:09 am

I will not respond to your post Dan, but do not take that as if we were in agreement about what you wrote. Perhaps another time and place. This is Darrel Falk’s Blog??? and I plan to respect his wishes. The topic here is irreducible complexity.

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posted August 31, 2009 at 8:40 am

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

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posted September 17, 2009 at 11:22 am

I asked this question to biologos and received no response so I will ask some of you out there. If you believe in irreducible complexity, how can you distinguish it from aspects of natural law that have yet to be discovered? There are many unexplained parts of this world that science cannot yet answer. Because of this, why are you confident that science can NEVER explain it? We can’t look into the future.

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posted March 26, 2010 at 10:10 pm

Different people in every country take the business loans in various creditors, because that is easy and fast.

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