Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Moronic Design

November of next year brings to us biology-types, and to all of the scientifically-minded, a very special anniversary. It will mark the 150th year since the publication of what is certainly the most significant scientific work in the field of biology and one which would easily make the top three across the entirety of science. The publication in question is of course Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”. In it, Darwin laid out his case for his hypothesis on, as the title suggests, the origins of the variety (and similarity) we see between the many species of our planet.

The theory states the following. A common ancestor species once existed which produced offspring. As new generations of offspring were produced, inheritable differences (variations) began to appear in them. Some variations produced a benefit, others did not. Those variations that were beneficial enhanced the survival of the altered offspring and so those new traits were more likely to be passed on. The detrimental variations, whilst not always fatal, were less likely to be passed on simply because they reduced the carriers’ chances of survival and reproduction. Thus we have three simple mechanisms; reproduction, variation and selection. Add enough time, changing environments, migrations, separations and countless other influences and you get groups of organisms that have changed so much that they can no longer interbreed. These are broadly called species. So when you have these mechanisms working across an entire planet for over 3 billion years, you get a whole lot of species. I covered this whole process in a whimsical little story, posted a couple of months ago.

The scientific crisis and revolution that followed lasted decades, and was mostly heralded by Darwin’s supporters, rather than the man himself. His book and the works which confirmed his observations made a compelling case, and 150 years later his theory of evolution is accepted as the standing model of how life on Earth derived from a common ancestor. It is a theory that is so simple to explain that it is often described by scientists of all fields as “elegant” or even “beautiful”.

You may recall my explanation of how scientists develop a hypothesis, a testable idea, and then make observations and measurements that have the potential to disprove the hypothesis. If the hypothesis survives many observations, can be shown to predict bits we haven’t looked at yet, and can be confirmed independently, it becomes theory. A theory is the currently accepted model. That’s an important definition, because in common language “theory” generally has a meaning more like what scientists call a “hypothesis”. So when say, a creationist calls evolution “just a theory”, they are being rather misleading. Evolution (the process) is a fact and the model of that fact (the theory of evolution) is accepted by the vast majority of scientists as being entirely valid. So, more accurately, the theory of evolution is “just a (robust) theory (that has been re-tested and confirmed countless times over the course of 150 years and is now accepted as entirely valid by greater than 95% of scientists and greater than 99% of biologists”. Phew. I can see why they shorten it.

The metaphor-free zone

What I’m trying to get across is that evolution is a theory, in other words a model of reality, which is as well-accepted by scientists as Einstein’s theories of relativity. It’s important to remember that when considering the arguments of those who would tell you that evolution did not happen. I will generically refer to these movements as creationism, though that will certainly annoy them. Their common element is that they ascribe the creation of the Earth and of all life to a supernatural intelligence. In most variants this is the Christian God, and the basis of their “theory” is a fully literal interpretation of the book of Genesis. No, symbolism, no metaphor. A literal six day creation of the universe and all life in it.

There’s insufficient space here (and I have insufficient time) to fully explore the evolution versus creationism debate, but I would invite readers to visit TalkOrigins or explore various internet debates on the matter to get a feel for how in-depth the row has become over the past few decades. Leave your sanity at the door, it will only hinder you. Rather than delve into that whole mess, I will instead focus on the core issue that is used by one branch of creationists; the “intelligent design” (ID) proponents. ID proponents believe that life was designed by a great intelligence. They are unspecific as to the age of the Earth (traditional creationists put the limit at around 10,000 years) but believe that life was created in a single creation event and has varied only within tight boundaries since then. They also contend, as do most creationists, that mutation (the process that causes the variation in evolution) cannot create new function, but rather can only break the function of a gene or restore its previous function. Officially, they do not identify the intelligent designer as “God”, but internal documents leaked from the ID inner circle reveal that they are in fact Christian creationists with a secular gloss over them. This is apparently to make their ideas appear more palatable to institutions such as the secular US education system into which they would like to insert their “science”. So we can quite confidently label intelligent design as creationism.

If ID constitutes science then it must have a testable hypothesis at its core. Evolution states as its core hypothesis that all life derived from a common ancestor by variation and selection. That statement has many implications which we may test. We should, for example, be able to find evidence of organisms, perhaps extinct, which show a transition between known species. Evolution thus makes a prediction that we ought to be able to find such species in the fossil record. And we do. What does ID predict? Not much. If life is entirely designed by a creator with only one specified trait (intelligence), it could look like almost anything at any level. It could even be made to look entirely as though it evolved. It’s thus rather unsurprising that creationists in generally spend most of their time trying to discredit evolution rather than testing things such as ID. They propose a false dichotomy (a made-up two way choice); if evolution is false, creationism must be true. All other imaginable or unimaginable options are somehow off the table.


In their flailing attempt to make ID into a science, its proponents latched onto the work of ID defender Michael Behe who suggested in his 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box that intelligent design was proven plausible by the existence of what he termed “irreducible complexity” in biological systems. Irreducible complexity, according to Behe, is a property of any system which performs a function but which is disabled entirely if we remove any critical part of that system. Thus, a clockwork pocket watch would be considered irreducibly complex, as removing a cog will cause the watch to stop functioning as intended. Behe firstly contends that this is a property we expect to see in any intelligently designed system and secondly that the property is observable in life forms. He also claims that such systems cannot arise by evolution, since the various parts would have to evolve at the very same time and this is improbable. I will now attack all three assertions.

In the first instance, Behe is essentially claiming that irreducible complexity is a testable implication of the ID hypothesis, much as we can say that transitional fossils and genetic similarity (we share common DNA with all known life forms discovered to date) are testable implications of the evolution hypothesis. This is logically flawed in many respects. Firstly, in the design of various mechanisms, a human designer must consider a number of factors that will determine the amount of redundancy (or back-up systems, if you like) that a mechanism will have. The intended life time of the mechanism, the replacement cost of it and the practicality of repairing the object will all feed into that decision. A pocket watch can be repaired, as can a car. We’ll certainly build in some backup systems here and there, but where that isn’t practical, or essential, we’ll leave a number of critical systems in our design. Thus the pocket watch and the car become, “irreducibly complex”. By assuming that this feature is something we expect to see in designed life, we are making a rather significant assumption about the intention of the designer. We are assuming that the design considerations for an organism are in some manner similar to those for a mechanism such as a car or pocket watch. However, in a system that is difficult to repair (without modern medicine; a recent development), intended to last decades without maintenance and prone to replication errors (DNA mutation), do we really want to have critical systems with no backup? More to the point, if we assume that we do want such dangerous breaking points built into an organism, wouldn’t it make sense to build redundancy into the most important systems? Let’s consider some of the systems that Behe claims display this lack of redundancy in humans; the blood clotting cascade and the sight cascade. A biochemical cascade is a system in which a protein is affected by something (for example, light from our eye) and reacts by signalling another protein, which signals another and so forth until that signal is propagated to our brains. So we can see in the clotting cascade and the sight cascade that non-redundant points exist. Mutate specific proteins and the cascade breaks like the pocket watch. The sight and clotting cascades are extremely important systems for our survival and yet for some reason, redundancy exists in other, less (or equally) important biochemical systems. The chemokine system that controls the communication between our immune cells has multiple backup levels built into it, for example. We are thus forced to conclude that whether irreducible complexity is an expected feature of designed life depends heavily on the capabilities, level of intelligence, desires and intentions of the designer. If we assume that humans were directly designed, we are also forced to conclude that the designer is either technically limited, rather dim, malevolent or disinterested in individual human survival. Or a combinations of these traits. If we assume that our designer is actually fully “omnipotent”, we actually cannot make any assertion at all about what features we’d expect to see in designed life, since that designer could make life appear any way it chose without consequence.

The remaining two of Behe’s assertions can be refuted together. Whether we actually observe irreducible complexity in organisms and whether such systems could have arisen by a process of evolution go hand in hand. By definition, if we can imagine a means by which an irreducibly complex system could have arisen by evolution, then it is not in fact irreducibly complex. This is actually quite easy to show, and gives me a chance to crack the flow charts again! Let us imagine a simple “reducibly complex” protein cascade, in other words one which has redundancy. A “signal”, such as light, enters the system and can be picked up by protein A or B. These proteins can then interact with either of another two proteins C and D, which all may interact with more proteins further along the signal chain. Here then, is a fully redundant system which could easily have evolved by totally conventional means. We need to make only one change in order to create one of Behe’s “irreducibly complex” cascades. We delete A, B, C or D. So let’s take D out of the cascade. In nature, this could easily occur as a result of a mutation resulting in either a loss of function or a change of function. If we get the second case, a change in function (and one that is beneficial in its own respect) then successive mutations will make it difficult for us to connect the new protein to its historical role in the old cascade. Behe will see that cascade as being irreducibly complex, but that is an illusion created by evolution. The cascade is merely “complex”.

Such plausible evolutionary histories have now been demonstrated for most of Behe’s major examples of irreducible complexity, including both the sight cascade and the clotting cascade. Indeed, in the latter case, proteins that Behe claimed to be critical to certain cascades have been demonstrated to be absent in other species, with no ill effect. We can even see backup systems in these species which are related to systems in humans that have now been diverted towards alternate functions. Whilst the evolution of many cascades has not been fully explored, this does not for a moment suggest that irreducible complexity exists in organisms, since at the very least the simple method I’ve outlined allows the illusion of these to emerge by evolution. So, do we see irreducibly complex systems in organism? Nope, just the illusion of them.


So where does this leave ID creationism? In an awkward position really. Irreducible complexity, if we assume it to be real (and deliberate), represents a significant set of design flaws. These flaws are compounded by the Designer’s perplexing choice of a DNA-based inheritance system that is so very prone to replication errors. This then, gives us not an intelligent designer, but a being who is, frankly, a bit of a moron. I’m not saying I could do better, but nor am I claiming to be an intelligent designer. In some debates with creationists, I have seen this argument countered with the suggestion that the lack of redundancy in some systems is the result of the “degeneration” of the creator’s perfect design, due to the Fall of Man. By that logic, all life must have been created fully redundant, or at least with key systems featuring back-ups. These were then lost due to mutation, resulting in the very same systems that creationists now claim represent evidence of design. So this thinking would force creationists to abandon irreducible complexity as evidence of design. In reaction to that annoying point, others still contend that life was created “perfect”, in an entirely different way, in that it was entirely irreducibly complex throughout and that the redundancies which exist are some manner of reaction to the expulsion of life from that “perfect” first environment. By this of course they are referring once again to the expulsion of life from Eden. This though, demands that the creator must either have intervened to modify his creation (which is not supported by their literal interpretations of Genesis) or, and this is the part which really upsets creationists, we must have gained some functional back-ups by mutation; a process they need to claim is impossible in order to discredit evolution.

By bringing irreducible complexity to the table in the great creation versus evolution debate, the ID proponents actually force themselves into trap. If they will not accept evolution (or at least some other alternative to creationism) then they must accept one of three things; that the Designer is fallible, that irreducible complexity is not evidence of design, or that mutation can generate new functionality. Oops.

Image credits: DNA double helix by Michael Ströck. Released under the GFDL. Flow chart by the author. Creation of Adam by Michaelangelo. Public domain.


Owlfarmer said...

I never have understood why believers couldn't see evolution as god's creative mechanism; instead they seem to have to reduce all the beauty and complexity to something dopey enough for the scientifically illiterate to understand.

Thanks for this. Every now and then I need some reassurance that the world isn't just stupiding itself to death. And yes, I know that's not a real word, but I think it's apt.

The Biologista said...

I agree. I think the theory itself is far more elegant than a literal take on Genesis. I think they see in evolution, a slippery slope towards the abandonment of the bible as an infallible source. They may be right on that count.