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23 September 2009

Like a Phoenix, Irreducible Complexity Rises Again

A couple of weeks ago, etihwelppA selrahC at LGF 1.0 posted about an article that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) entitled “The Reducible Complexity of a Mitochondrial Molecular Machine.” As is usual for selrahC – who is not a scientist, and does not evince any actual knowledge of any scientific field – there was a whole lot of crowing about irreducible complexity “going down in flames.” Yet, this “evidence” for evolution was anything but. And today, Michael Behe, who pioneered irreducible complexity in the microbiological/biochemical fields, observes why this and other articles fail in this regard,
Recently a paper appeared online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, entitled "The reducible complexity of a mitochondrial Molecular machine" As you might expect, I was very interested in reading what the authors had to say. Unfortunately, as is all too common on this topic, the claims made in the paper far surpassed the data, and distinctions between such basic ideas as “reducible” versus “irreducible” and “Darwinian” versus “non-Darwinian” were pretty much ignored.

Since PNAS publishes letters to the editor on its website, I wrote in. Alas, it seems that polite comments by a person whose work is the clear target of the paper are not as welcome as one might suppose from reading the journal’s letters-policy announcement (“We wish to provide readers with an opportunity to constructively address a difference of opinion with authors of recent papers. Readers are encouraged to point out potential flaws or discrepancies or to comment on exceptional studies published in the journal. Replication and refutation are cornerstones of scientific progress, and we welcome your comments.”) My letter received a brusque rejection. Below I reproduce the letter for anyone interested in my reaction to the paper. (By the way, it’s not just me. Other scientists whose work is targeted sometimes get the run around on letters to the editor, too. For an amusing / astounding example, see here.)

Call me paranoid, but it seems to me that some top-notch journals are real anxious to be rid of the idea of irreducible complexity. Recall that last year Genetics published a paper purportedly refuting the difficulty of getting multiple required mutations by showing it’s quick and easy in a computer - if one of the mutations is neutral (rather than harmful) and first spreads in the population. Not long before that, PNAS published a paper supposedly refuting irreducible complexity by postulating that the entire flagellum could evolve from a single remarkable prodigy-gene. Not long before that, Science published a paper allegedly refuting irreducible complexity by showing that if an investigator altered a couple amino acid residues in a steroid hormone receptor, the receptor would bind steroids more weakly than the unmutated form. (That one also made the New York Times!) For my responses, see here, here, here, and here. So, arguably picayune, question-begging, and just plain wrong results disputing IC find their way into front-line journals with surprising frequency. Meanwhile, in actual laboratory evolution experiments, genes are broken right and left as bacteria try to outgrow each other.

Well, at least it’s nice to know that my work gives some authors a hook on which to hang results that otherwise would be publishable only in journals with impact factors of -3 or less. But if these are the best “refutations” that leading journals such as PNAS and Science can produce in more than a decade, then the concept of irreducible complexity is in very fine shape indeed.
This is pretty typical, really. Since evolutionism is not science, but is a philosophical predilection, it is very difficult for those who have had their whistles whetted by the thought that finally, this time around, they’ve refuted them doggone creationists to have to backtrack and admit that maybe they were a bit hasty. For them, doing so is, in a sense, a lot like having to recant a dearly held religious doctrine. Remember, this happened with Ida. The supposedly rock-solid evidence of proto-human evolution turned out to be an extinct lemur or some such. The MSM loudly trumped it, and were mimicked by non-science types like selrahC, even as the scientists were quietly backing away from the initial claims as it became apparent that there were too many problems with the data for Ida to retain celebrity status.

When I saw the post at LGF 1.0, the first thing I did was to go to PNAS’ website and print off the actual paper, figuring that the claims being made were not supported by the actual data. I was not disappointed. The data in Lithgow et al. does NOT support the wild-eyed ravings about refuting irreducible complexity. Not even close. I was going to go through the actual science involved and provide a precise demonstration of why the paper in question is scientific junk, but I just noticed that Casey Luskin at the Discovery Institute already did so. Go there and read the details. When I call Lithgow et al. “scientific junk,” I’m not just being pejorative. It actually IS junk. The whole paper is full of speculation, argument from (loose) analogy, and argument using assertions that have not been proven (and hence cannot, by the strict rules of logic, be used as support for their arguments) but are merely assumed a priori. At one point, the authors even say that they are engaging in speculation (their word, not mine) about a key point needed to sustain their argument.

As an aside, I also appreciate the point that Luskin makes that the authors of this paper are forced, once again, to rely upon the use of teleological language in their discussion. No matter how hard evolutionists try to get around it, it seems as if purpose and design keep intruding. This is a point I’ve consistently made for quite a while now – evolutionism can’t get anywhere without making evolution (a process) act teleologically (which presumes an intelligence directing the process to a definite, purposeful end). You see it all the time when evolutionists talk about evolution “designing more complex eyes” and whatnot.

Anywise, back to the article. Essentially, the logic behind this paper can be boiled down to a four-point syllogism:

1) The molecular machines that transport proteins through the mitochondrial membranes are made up of one complex of proteins.

2) In certain species of alpha-proteobacteria (which are assumed, but never demonstrated, to be evolutionary precursors to mitochondria, which were then "captured" by other cells, and became mitochondria), there are proteins with similar structures.

3) The genome that codes for these proteins could possibly have mutated to start coding for the proteins we see in mitochondria, which then could have adopted a new function (i.e. the mitochondrial transmembrane protein transport).

4) Therefore, they did.

That’s it. Behe and Luskin are right – the logic is spurious, and so is the PNAS article. There’s no demonstration that any of the presumptions in the article actually happened. No exhibition of data or evidence that would suggest that these speculations were anything more than that – mere speculations. Similarity of protein structure, I hate to tell them, does not prove, or even necessarily suggest, common descent or origin. They certainly haven’t provided anything to suggest otherwise in this case.

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