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ID claims don't hold up

By: Dr. John Wise and Dr. Pia Vogel, Contributing Writers

Posted: 4/26/07

ID is the idea that the origin of living things requires the intervention of an outside intelligence.

Jonathon Wells, a Discovery Institute fellow, Phillip Johnson and other ID and creationism proponents have asserted that there is no evidence of transitional intermediates between species in the fossil record and have inferred from this that a creator must have intervened. Their assertion is blatantly and unequivocally false. It's rock for goodness' sake. It's hard to ignore tons of rock with whale-like tetrapods, tetrapod-like whales, reptile-like birds, bird-like reptiles, fish with arm bones, and the many other transitional forms found in them over and over again without losing credibility.

Let's name just a few. The terrestrial tetrapod to modern whale transitional series includes Synonyx, Pakecetus, Ambulocetus, Remingtonocetus, Rhodocetus, Basilosaurus, Durodon and Mysticetus before arriving at the modern toothed whales, Odontoceti. The dinosaur-to-bird series includes Troodontidae, Archeopteryx, Confusiusornis, Enantiornithes, Ichthyornis, and Hesperornis before arriving at Aves, the modern birds. There are many more examples of transitional intermediates.

Our favorites are the fish-to-amphibian-tetrapod transitions. These were particularly embarrassing for Phillip Johnson, who used the absence of the then-not-yet-discovered intermediates between fish and amphibians as evidence that no such intermediates ever existed. This led him to write that a creator was responsible. Unfortunately for Phillip Johnson, several such intermediates have since been found. The absence of evidence, it should be pointed out, is never evidence for anything. Dinosaurs with feathers. Birds with teeth. Fish with fingers. This real scientific evidence is tangible. It is as hard as stone. One cannot credibly deny its existence. ID fails on this claim.

What about Michael Behe's "irreducible complexity"? This is the cornerstone, the poster-child of ID. The repeated failures of the claimed "irreducible complexity of biochemical systems" have been published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature again and again, but we'd be happy to reiterate.

First, what is "irreducible complexity"? Dr. Behe says in Darwin's black box that the biochemical machines of life are so complex that removal of one part results in a functionless pile of parts. He goes on to say that Darwin's mechanism of natural selection can only work on biochemical machines that have functions. We happen to agree with this last sentence, but only this last part. No function, no natural selection. Let's look at the examples Dr. Behe chose to illustrate his claim of irreducible complexity.

Scientists have shown that the bacterial flagellum is composed of 50 parts, is extremely complex, and functions as an acid powered, rotary motor that is used by bacteria for swimming. Dr. Behe has written that the bacterial flagellum is a great example of irreducible complexity. Any biologist will stipulate that the bacterial flagellum is a wonderfully complex machine, but let's look and see if removal of a part eliminates all function. It turns out, as Prof. Kenneth R. Miller so skillfully pointed out in the Kitzmiller hearings, that we don't have to do the test of irreducible complexity on the flagellum ourselves. Nature has already done the "remove some parts" experiment for us.

Nature has in fact taken away 40 out of the 50 total parts, and guess what? There is still biological function present. The remaining 10 parts of the bacterial flagellum make up the "Type III secretory system," a molecular syringe used by many bacteria to inject toxins into the cells of their victims. Is it still a flagellum? No. Does it still have function? Yes. If it has any function, it is subject to natural selection. Irreducible complexity fails on this claim.

How about Dr. Behe's prediction that blood clotting systems are so complex that they, too, are irreducibly complex? Nature has done this experiment as well. Take away Factor XII and the blood shouldn't clot, correct? Guess what? Whales and dolphins don't have Factor XII and their blood clots just fine. Irreducible complexity fails again. Not good enough? How about we take away the "intrinsic pathway" part of the system? Nature has done this one for us too. The puffer fish lacks this whole part of the system and its blood still clots. If it functions, natural selection can work on it. Irreducible complexity fails again.

Listen to what Dr. Behe wrote in 1996 about the complexity of the mammalian immune system: "As scientists, we yearn to understand how this magnificent mechanism came to be, but the complexity of the system dooms all Darwinian explanations to frustration. Sisyphus himself would pity us." So what did ID's premiere scientist recommend? He suggested that this subject is beyond human comprehension; we should not even bother to try to understand it. Real scientists didn't give up on this important science. Between 1996 and 2005, each element of the "transposon hypothesis" of immune system evolution was scientifically confirmed.

The Kitzmiller v. Dover transcript provides all of exact citations of the peer-reviewed science journal articles and book chapters that make this last point. We are quite certain that Dr. Behe saw quite enough of them during the hearings. Eric Rothschild presented Dr. Behe with a mountain of these science papers, one after the other. After each presentation, he asked Dr. Behe if he had read the article and, if yes, asked if he accepted the conclusions written within. Those times that Dr. Behe was familiar with the work, he indicated that the evidence was not sufficient to convince him. When unfamiliar work was explained to him, he indicated that it was not sufficient evidence to convince him.

Judge Jones summed it up in his opinion when he said, Dr. Behe "… was presented with fifty eight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system; however, he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was not "good enough."

It's just like the fossils in the rocks. It is very difficult to deny the existence of mountains of evidence without losing your credibility. When a scientist loses his credibility, he will be ignored. If one does not reject hypotheses that have been shown to be false or revise hypotheses so they can accommodate the scientific evidence available in the real world, no serious scientists will show up for your conference.

The ID claims of irreducible and incomprehensible complexity fail time and again. There is much more in the scientific literature, but we risk trying the readers' patience if we lengthen this report.

Discovery Institute Fellow and primary philosopher and mathematician for the ID movement, William Dembski, wrote "If it could be shown that biologically complex systems - such as the bacterial flagellum - could have been formed by a gradual Darwinian process (and thus that their specified complexity is an illusion) then ID would be refuted on the grounds that one does not invoke intelligent causes when undirected natural causes will do. In that case, Occam's razor would finish off ID quite nicely."

The gradual Darwinian process is natural selection. Irreducible complexity fails time and again. The time to reject ID has already arrived. Does anyone need to borrow a razor?

John Wise, Ph.D. and Dr. Pia Vogel are professors in biological sciences at SMU. They can be reached at jwise@smu.edu and pvogel@smu.edu.
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