Friday, January 04, 2008

The Intelligent Design Contention: Part 2

Intelligent Design Examples
The de-facto symbol, rallying emblem, and prototype of the Intelligent Design School is the propulsion flagellum of the Bacteria Escherichia coli. A complex motor like construction delivers the revolutions to the flagellum. The ID case may derive some of its compelling quality from diagrammatic representations of the flagellum drive. These diagrams (see picture) show a structure with rotary components that has at least a superficial resemblance to a piece of human engineering. This resemblance may help elicit the intuitive gut reaction “An inventor must have designed and made it!”. Just looking at representations of the flagellum drive sets the mind up to be more susceptible to the ID contention that this structure of harmonized components must have come together in one grand slam creative act overseen by an Intelligent Designer. Clearly this designer knew all about wheel bearings long before humans were rolling stone monuments of Eygptian kings on logs. Inventors, particularly male inventors, have never been able to get the invention of the wheel out of their heads and when they see a wheel they know there must be a like mind around somewhere.
Other examples of biological engineering used to promote ID are the blood clotting cascade and the immune system (The arguments ‘for and against’ here can be locked onto using Google). These molecular level systems do not just depend on the production of a single protein but consist of a molecular 'industrial process' like production line of inter-dependent proteins that achieves the required result. Remove one protein from this production line and the functionality of the system is severely compromised. Thus, if vital biological systems like blood clotting and the immune system fail to function for want of a single component, then the organism hosting these substructures becomes unstable and dies. In the abstract the ID argument is this: how could all these parts have come together without intelligence? For clearly, ID theorists argue, they must have come together as a whole because removal of any one part leads to failure of function and death. These systems, they claim, cannot be made any simpler; that is, they cannot be reduced – they are ‘irreducibly complex’. The two ‘big name’ Christian theorists associated with the defense of the concept of irreducible complexity are Michael Behe and William Dembski. In some Christian circles they are megastars, Davids fighting courageously against the Goliaths of evolutionary theory.

I recently heard about another ID theorist whilst reading reading Sandwalk, the blog of atheist Larry Moran. Sandwalk reported (critically, of course) on the work of Canadian ID theorist Kirk Durston who is researching proteins, the active chemical ‘bricks’ of living things. To carry out their function the long molecular strands comprising protein molecules must be folded into appropriate shapes. According to Durston there comes a point when incremental changes in the molecular sequence of proteins completely disrupts their folding, thereby making them non-functioning. Durston is claiming that if changes in the molecular structure of proteins go beyond a certain magnitude threshold they cannot do their job. Once again the ID case rests on the difficulty of conceiving how certain biological structures could have come about except as complete up and running systems. The concept of irreducible complexity does not recognize half-measure structures – structures either work on they don’t. Biological solutions, it is claimed, have no sense of nearness or vicinity attached to them – they have to be either bang on target or they are a complete miss.

The ID vs. Darwin debate usually centers round specific organic examples like the prototypes I have given above. There seems to be a reason for this example-by-example treatment. Morphospace is a colossal and hugely complex platonic construction, highly inhomogeneous in its possibilities, and embracing objects of different types and levels – from atomic configurations that make up proteins, through the molecular reactions of protein production lines, to the micro engineering of E. Coli. One could of course, introduce even higher types – e.g. fully blown organisms or an ant’s nest (which is effectively a structure made of many individual organisms). Another tricky facet of morphospace is that environment has a critical bearing on the stability of structures; a structure that is stable in one environment might be unstable in another. Also, a structure may effect or become part of an environment thus giving rise to the non-linear effects of feedback. Moreover, strictly speaking mophospace doesn’t just include biological structures, but just about everything that we can conceive of, and more, that can be made from atomic matter; this even includes human artifacts like a bar of soap, a house, Lego, a jet fighter, a computer, or a Von-Neumann machine. The class of objects covered by morphospace are so varied in typing and level, with so many unknown degrees of freedom, so open ended in functional possibilities that general analytical treatment of this ‘space’ seems to be beyond the wit of man and hence the need to dwell on the specific rather than the general.
But in spite of all this ID theorists are committed to the notion that in critical biological regions morphospace possesses a feature that is a barrier to evolution, or at least in the examples they constant hark back to: they see these example biological structures standing isolated in a kind of design vacuum; that is, they are not surrounded by lower ‘marks’ or similar structures that could be part of an equally stable nexus. Thus, according to ID theory they have no stable neighboring structures that evolutionary gradualism could have passed through en route to the ‘final design’. ID theory therefore swings on the assumed disconnectedness of the regions of structural stability in morphospace. This is the rather brave and quite possibly wrong assumption on which ID theory rests, but it seems that the conceptual intractability of morhpospace, so vast in its ramifying possibilities and typing, makes it difficult for evolutionists to refute this assumption with one-liners. The result is much frustration, annoyance and abrasive dialogue.


Anonymous said...

Until they (ID advocates) come up with (the same old) examples that aren't blood clotting (which has been demonstrated as not irreducibly complex), the flagellum (again, also demonstrated as not irreducibly complex), or anything else which has been demonstrated by others to be inherently 'evolution-able', there is no point in talking to them on a scientific level.

As Ken Miller points out in that video I sent you, they skip the whole scientific peer review process and go straight to kid's textbooks. Why's that? Because they have been demonstrated to be wrong.


Timothy V Reeves said...

I haven't watched the video yet, but I really need to do so before I proceed with this series.