October 16, 2004

Darwin's Black Box

Title:
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars

I have just finished reading this book for the second time, so I though I would give my thoughts on this book as a biochemistry student.

I will assume that readers of this review are familiar with the concept of evolution.

In the book Michael Behe argues based on analogies with some mechanical systems (the mousetrap) that there are “Irreducibly complex” systems within organisms that demand an intelegent designer.

The “irreducible complexity” argument relies on there being biological systems that completely fail when one component is removed. A mechanical example of this given by Behe is a mouse trap (p42 fig 2–2) which will not function at all if one component is removed. Behe then describes various biochemical systems and pathways such as the vision event in rods in the eye, blood clotting, the cilia, the bacterial flagellum and intracellular transport (ask me if you need these explaining to you). He shows that each of these systems is nonfunctional if components are removed and in some cases are actually detrimental and dangerous to the organism in question when incomplete (e.g. unregulated blood clotting). The “irreducible complexity” of these systems argues for an “intelligent designer” that can place these systems in place complete. Behe also defends the “intelegent designer” concept from the argument that states that some organisms appear to have features that (according to those suggesting this) are not perfectly designed so (supposedly) refuting intelligent design.

The book is friendly and accessible to both laymen and scientists, each deriving his own from the book. The layman will become more educated about biochemical systems, and the scientist will find extensions of the argument into his own area of interest.

In conclusion: this book should be read, and read carefully. It will do you no good to casually read this and/or to vent your spleen on it because it challenges evolution. Read it carefully, analyzing the points made and you will find a well reasoned argument. It may or may not convince you, but no doubt you will better off for reading this book carefully, since carefully study of issues always improves your mind.

Notes.

I suggest that you treat reading this book like you would a science textbook or paper, read it carefully, going back over sections and making notes. This is no light book so the more effort spent on reading and understanding it the more usefulness you will derive from it.


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  1. Chris May

    Behe glosses over an important point in his arguments; whilst the evolution of a complex component (like the rods in the eye) requires every mutation to be advantageous to the organism, that doesn't mean that every mutation has to make it better suited to it's end goal. Our legs, after all, spent the first hundred million or so years evolving into fins, which probably explains why running makes my knees hurt but swimming doesn't.

    So it may well be the case that a half-finished optical rod is just what you need for doing something else. Certainly there are many organisms with optical systems much simpler than our own – single-celled Dinoflagelates manage pretty well with just a tiddly light-sensitive organelle.

    Of course, it's hard to prove that a half-done optical rod was either useful or useless to some proto-slime (in the absence of any organisms using one now), but in such situations one would normally apply Occam's Razor, and consider whether the simpler explanation is evolution by random mutation or directed design. But that's an article of faith, not science.

    16 Oct 2004, 14:58

  2. Hi, thanks for the reply,

    whilst the evolution of a complex component (like the rods in the eye) requires every mutation to be advantageous to the organism, that doesn't mean that every mutation has to make it better suited to it's end goal.

    True, however there are a few things that should be noted. Detrimental mutations will tend to be eliminated as they will cause the organism to be less successful in multiplying than an organism lacking said mutation, either through slower reproduction or possible increased predation (higher organisms). Taking your example, a change in a marine organism to make its flippers more like limbs would (probably) result in poorer functioning as flippers, poorer swimming and so increased predation leading to a lower likelihood of passing on genes. Remember evolution is not about the species, it is about the individual reproducing and passing on their genes.

    So it may well be the case that a half-finished optical rod is just what you need for doing something else. Certainly there are many organisms with optical systems much simpler than our own

    Sure they may be simpler, but does this still mean that they can be assembled in a stage by stage process and still do their job? What does a half-finished rod do? Unregulated light absorbing pathways are dangerous, generating high energy molecules. It would not (on an evolutionary timescale) do an organism any good to have these molecules “running” around in a cell. The potential for DNA damage is high.

    Of course, it's hard to prove that a half-done optical rod was either useful or useless to some proto-slime (in the absence of any organisms using one now), but in such situations one would normally apply Occam's Razor, and consider whether the simpler explanation is evolution by random mutation or directed design

    This is a classic mis-application of Occam’s Razor that I see all to much (for the uninitiated a good explanation of Occam’s Razor can be found here ) We are trying to apply Occam’s Razor without having established whether either model actually fits reality. If we have a set of possible explanations we must first determine which fit and which don’t. Then we apply Occam’s Razor to the best fitting if there is more than one. We cannot just dismiss the design argument by Occam’s Razor when it states that the evolutionary explanation does not work in every case and gives examples. If both adequately explained life then Occam’s razor would apply and slice Design away, but as they do not, Occam’s Razor cannot and does not apply yet.
    Also it is not a case of useful or useless only (False Dilemma Fallacy), there is also the category of detrimental (useless to me means without use, but silent. It does not carry the same meaning as detrimental). In many cases the mutations that would be helpful towards one aim are detrimental to the cell without other components being there. It’s a case that the original function is disturbed by the mutation resulting in a loss of function that is detrimental to the cell and results in an unsuccessful organism.

    Rich Cowan

    16 Oct 2004, 17:26

  3. There was an interesting article in Wired recently about just this subject. The Crusade Against Evolution

    16 Oct 2004, 18:04

  4. Chris May

    What does a half-finished rod do?

    Well, that's exactly the point, isn't it? I can't offer any evidence that a half-finished rod is beneficial to an organism's ability to reproduce (sorry, my use of useful/useless before was sloppy language – subsitute beneficial/detrimental to the gene).
    But, it's entirely possible that there is some benefit to a half-finished rod, and we simply haven't found it yet; moreover it is also possible that there are incremental beneficial changes from a half-finished to a present-day rod. The evidence that a half-finished rod could not possibly be an advantage to the gene seems to me to be weak, given the variety of light-sensitive structures present in organisms today.

    So we have two possible explanations; either rods evolved incrementally through a series of states which we have not yet discovered, but which were nevertheless each incrementally beneficial to the gene, or rods are the product of intelligent design. It seems to me that either of those two explanations could fit the evidence, therefore it is not a mis-application of OR, unless you can prove that there is no incremental path to a rod.

    16 Oct 2004, 18:48

  5. Behe is one of the few creationists who makes a falsifiable argument.

    The problem is that it has be falsified.

    The problem with irreducible complexity is that he assumes evolution only builds one way – upwards, and he assumes adaptations only have one effect – ie. are either good or bad.

    The explanation to his cases are based (a) on scaffolding – a non-irreducibly complex organ first evolves, and extraneous features are removed over time. And (b) characteristics appear in a population which are neutral evolutionarily, or serve another purpose. Now all mutations disappear at the same rate. Genetic disorders have persisted despite being hugely more detrimental than say a slightly worse flipper. The root cause is the multi-effectual nature of our genes.

    And there is evidence for this. The human digestive system for example is a non-irreducibly complex system which is tending towards an irreducibly complex one, as the appendix gets slowly degenerate. Ultimately Behe assumes that things we have not explained by evolution will NEVER be explained by evolution, despite the fact that consistently things have become explained. (look up his examples on talkorigins) This is the root of his fallacy.

    16 Oct 2004, 21:10

  6. Jonathan Cave

    Irreducible complexity is entirely circular – it suggests that "irreducible" functionality is somehow intrinsic or intended. As I understand it, evolution is the inevitable (and not necessarily monotonic) result of 3 processes:
    variation, selection and heredity. Together, they produce a path-dependent process of change that reflects (similarly evolving) environmental influences. There is nothing in this that argues for 'reducible' complexity. Perhaps if Behe was able to adduce evidence on the nature and relative strength of these three components, this might happen. For instance, in a very stochastic environment irreducible complexity might not be robust, arguing for design. Without this evidence, this is ex post rationalisation. A second point is emergence: the 'intelligence' that 'designs' may itself be the product of these three forces. Our own creativity is certainly not irreducible, as shown, for example in "Mendeleev's dream" – some ideas emerge simultaneously in many places – no irreducibility there!

    05 Nov 2004, 11:06

  7. William

    Dear Zhou,

    You appear not to think of evolution as a scientific theory but rather as something you believe in. I would say, for a scientist, the dilemma, the problem is not that Behe's ideas have to be proven false, but what the truth of the matter is.

    Unfortunately, I haven't read his book but I think from a scientific point of view, the question we should ask is not "when will we explain eye rods, blood-clotting mechanism using evolutionary theory?" but rather "can we at all?" and if not, "is it likely that we can?".

    Dear Jonathan,

    I think evolutionary theory most certainly requires reduciblility. Surely, that's the idea! -that a number of smaller changes can lead to, amongst other things, complex systems. If a complex system cannot be explained by appealing to its parts, and a plausible, likely mechanism for those parts coming together then evolutionary theory has a hole.

    "Irreducible complexity is entirely circular – it suggests that "irreducible" functionality is somehow intrinsic or intended." How is this circular?

    18 Nov 2004, 23:03

  8. GOD

    I made the univerise one week when I was bored and there was nothin' on Diety-TV.
    So stop all this idiotic talk, lest I strike thee down with a lightning bolt!

    p.s. Only Mormons get into heaven – all other religions, you loose. You're going staight to hell, sorry.

    09 Mar 2005, 20:51


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