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H. Allen Orr and Michael Behe on Irreducible Complexity

H. Allen Orr and Michael Behe on Irreducible Complexity

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I examine, in short, a debate between Michael Behe and H. Allen Orr.
I examine, in short, a debate between Michael Behe and H. Allen Orr.

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Published by: Torkk on Nov 22, 2009
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H. Allen Orr and Michael J.

Behe on Irreducible Complexity
In 1996, a book was published by a biochemist from Lehigh University named Michael J. Behe, the book being Darwin's Black Box: A Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. Although he had published papers before this, and still continues to do research, this book brought Behe to the spotlight of the scientific community, along with high publicity in creationist circles. Although the book does not directly vindicate creationism, creationists used the book, and its ideas to reinforce their beliefs, and added Behe to a list of scientists who support creationist science in one way or another, implicitly or not. Not only did creationists take the premise of the book to heart, but the a small contingent of scientists supporting Intelligent Design (ID) found that the main arguments of the book largely matched up to what they had been saying, notably that life is too complicated for natural selection to have brought it about to the complexity it now exibits. A majority of the scientific community has rejected the arguments Behe has made, mainly Irreducible Complexity (IC), which will be the basis of this paper. A notable evolutionary biologist, H. Allen Orr, has reviewed the book, and published his review in the Boston Review, rejecting Behe's argument for IC, at least in the conclusions Behe drew in Darwin's Black Box. As Behe usually does, he took the time to respond to Orr's criticisms, and it would not be an exercise in futility to see what each of these men had to say, and draw conclusions based on each of their arguments. First off, a definition of what Behe means by Irreducible Complexity should be stated and examined before an argument is formed surrounding the idea. And, as one would imagine, there is no better place to look for a definition then Darwin's Black Box. On page 39, Behe sets forth a decent definition from where to start the debate. He says: “By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several wellmatched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An

irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional. An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution.” This is Behe's very own definition, and it is sufficient to say that when he says something is irreducibly complex, or shows signs of IC, it is in reference to this definition. Behe, although the original contriver of IC, was not the first to use this line of thinking when talking about complex biological structures. Paley's watchmaker analogy seems very similar. A few key ideas about IC can be drawn from Behe's definition, so that the idea in its entirety can be made somewhat simpler and easier to work with. First of all, IC claims that some or, even all, complex biological structures could not have formed through the process of natural selection. This leads logically to the conclusion that an irreducibly complex structure does not have an ancestor structure which could have evolved into it. Since there is no known way for an irreducibly complex structure to have formed through natural means, the structure, therefore, shows characteristics of design. Michael Behe does not make a claim about who or what the designer may be, but some people are led to believe automatically he means the Judeo-Christian God, but this is a false assumption, as this particular argument leaves open the possibility that the designer could be any number of gods or not a god at all, just some kind of designing intelligence. As was stated before, a number of members of the scientific community have read the book and critiqued it in a manner of ways. Of course some people have dismissed the book outright, without having even opened a copy. Some scientists will not necessarily see a threat in the book's arguments and have given the book some attention, noting what they perceive as falsities in its ideas and claims.

Still, some scientists see the book as a legitimate academic threat to Darwinism, and have taken the time to thoroughly go over the arguments of the book, and either agree with it, or debunk the book and its ideas. H. Allen Orr, a noted evolutionary biologist, has taken the preceding step, and tried to debunk the book, being skeptical of Behe's claims, and published a review in the Boston Review. Behe, then, responded to H. Allen Orr, publishing his paper on the Access Resource Network's Internet website. H. Allen Orr starts out his review by saying that “Darwin's Black Box is well-written, cleverly argued, and biologically informed.” Orr does this because he sees that the book has some value, and that some people have used the book to back their creationist beliefs, and, although he sees some scientific value to the book, he wishes to dispel the faulty arguments of the book. He also notes that most creationist books he would not review as they are “intellectual junk food,” but this book obviously needs some attention. Orr also discusses Behe's credentials, noting he is “the real thing: a research scientist, someone who does experiments, gets grants, and publishes papers.”Lastly, Orr notes that Behe claims his scientific views are driven by the facts. Then, Orr goes into his arguments, after filling the reader in on some facts about Behe. Irreducible Complexity, or how Behe views it, is the point that Orr dedicates most of his paper to. A brief history of the complexity of the cell is reviewed in Darwin's Black Box to give some background for non-biology people, showing that until recently, the cell was viewed as a very simple structure, but in the past 50 years, it has been discovered the cell is very, very complex. Behe leads the reader, according to Orr, to believe that no one thought that the cell was complex before biochemists delved into the cell's structures and opened up a world of complexity. Orr says that evolutionists had always thought the cell as complex as it took 3 billion years for the first one to naturally develop, and another billion years to get to where we are now. Behe, according to Orr, tried to make a “crisis atmosphere” from the get-go of his book. Nobody denies that the blood-clotting cascade is a particularly complex structure in humans and

animals. Behe uses his book to ram that point home, and to point out that the system shows IC. Orr contends that irreducibly complex structures may exist in nature, but that they can be explained by Darwinism, by the process of natural selection in particular. Behe says otherwise, of course. Natural selection cannot explain irreducibly complex structures or systems. Darwinism's problem, according to Behe, is “it requires that each step in the evolution of a system be functional and adaptive.” So, instead, a idea long since abandoned is resurrected by IC, intelligent design. Are irreducibly complex systems a sign that natural selection, and hence, Darwinism in trouble, or can natural selection explain IC? If Darwinism cannot explain IC, then, according to Orr, Behe has made a remarkable discovery. Behe's case for ID collapses, instead, if natural selection can explain IC. In the next paragraph of his review, Orr claims that Behe's argument is “just plain wrong.” Orr says his argument is “fatally flawed.” What, according to Orr, is Behe's fatal mistake? Behe rejects the possibility that natural selection can explain IC. Orr's argument is thus: “An irreducibly complex system can be built by gradually adding parts that, while initially just advantageous, become-because of later changes- essential. The logic is very simple. Some part (A) initially does some job (and not very well, perhaps). Another part (B) later gets added because it helps A. This new part isn't essential, it merely improves things. But later on, A (or something else) may change in such a way that B now becomes indispensable. This process continues as further parts get folded into the system. And at the end of the day, many parts may all be required...The point is there's no guarantee that improvements will remain mere improvements. Indeed because later changes build on previous ones, there's every reason to think that earlier refinements might become necessary.” This quote was taken as a whole and put into this paper because there is no simpler way to make the point Orr is making. Orr then uses the example of the evolution of air bladders into lungs for land-

dwelling creatures. At first, the air bladders were only advantageous for water-dwelling creatures, but as they evolved, and animals migrated to land, producing limbs for walking , they became thoroughly terrestrial and the lungs became necessary for the animal's survival. “Although this process is thoroughly Darwinian, we are often left with a system that is irreducibly complex.” From this, Orr concludes “Behe's key claim that all the components of an irreducibly complex system “have to be there from the beginning” is dead wrong.” This also means that there is not necessarily a possible reconstruction of the evolutionary pathway a structure has taken. Just because of this, a system's apparent IC cannot be evidence against Darwinism. H. Allen Orr is not the discoverer of this process, though, for that credit must go to H.J. Muller who worked the details of this out in 1939. Muller's work showed that a gene that which first improved a function routinely became an essential part of an evolutionary pathway. “So the gradual evolution of irreducibly complex systems is not only possible, it's expected,” according to Orr. A direct result of Muller's work was showing that “some genes are duplications of others.” Somehow, a copy of a gene was made. The point can then be made that the copy was not necessary as it was not there before. Over time, the copy will change, and assume a new function. Eventually the copy becomes essential. This, according to Orr, shows that evolution can create IC. Examples of duplicated genes in our own bodies include myoglobin, which has the job of carrying oxygen to muscles, and hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in our blood. Both of these are now essential. Behe fleetingly mentions this subject, according to Orr, and may not have talked about it in his book because admitting that two genes are so similar, he would have to admit, then, that the organism could have got along, and must have at one point, without the copy. Those are Orr's main arguments against IC. From what I can gather, these arguments seem pretty logical, and he backs them up with biological evidence. The explanation of how IC came about through Darwinism seems particularly sound, and, overall, Orr seems to have done a good job

debunking many of Behe's claims and evidence. But, as on many occasions before, Behe wrote a response to Orr's paper, and it is time to air his disputes with Orr, to get more information so a better conclusion can be drawn. Behe first talks about how Orr tried to take priority in his field over that of Behe's. This was not mentioned before as it is not particularly relevant to the debate, but Behe seems to want to argue the point, writing a paragraph about it in his relatively shorter paper. Although he makes a good point claiming that evolution is driven by molecular changes, and hence, is part of biochemistry, this is not of particular importance. Moving onto Orr's main argument, explaining IC through addition of a part, and later necessity of that part, Behe gives a somewhat short, if very odd answer. He for some reason gets Orr's argument confused, thinking that Orr was talking about the mousetrap analogy when explaining his point, but Orr obviously was in fact not, as he was explaining how IC can come about through evolution by a simple explanation. It seems like Behe is getting off on some bad footing. Gene duplication is the next argument which Behe attacks, and he does a much better job. As may be remembered, Orr claimed that Behe never successfully explained gene duplication in Darwin's Black Box, but Behe claims he did. He says he does “on pages 89-90 of my book, concluding “The sequence similarities are there for all to see...By itself, however, the hypothesis of gene duplication...says nothing about how any particular protein or protein system was first produced.” Behe explains these similarities through common descent, but a specific kind: “all the cells in you body descended from one fertilized egg cell. The differences, however, are not due to Darwinian natural selection. Rather, there is a very clever, builtin program to rearrange anti-body genes. Billions of different kinds of antibody genes are “intentionally” produced by your body from a pre-existing stock of just a few hundred gene pieces.”

Behe seem to successfully debunk Orr's argument, saying that Orr may not have been aware of this process, and that natural selection does not gain any evidence from Orr's explanation anyway. After arguing Orr's two main points, Behe goes onto make some more points, saying that natural selection is in need of more evidence than just sequence similarity, and he is right, in my opinion, on that point. He goes onto explain his hallmark example, the bacterial flagellum, and how complex it is, going through all the different parts, as he must have done in his book also. Behe then makes this statement, the “rotary nature of the flagellum has been recognized for 25 years. During this time not a single paper has been published in the biochemical literature even attempting to show how such a machine might have developed by natural selection.” I, having contributed little in the way of ideas to this paper, decided to take Behe up on this statement, and did an Internet search for papers that explain how the flagellum may have come about. Here are my results: 1. In Evolution in (Brownian) space: a model for the origin of the bacterial flagellum, N.J. Matzke shows that two parts of the flagellum are not even necessary for the flagellum to function. These two parts are the L- and P-rings. 2. G. Kuwajima showed that of the 497 amino acids in a flagellum, almost a third of them can be cut out and it will still function. This work was published in the Journal of Bacteriology. 3. Finally, different bacteria are known to have different number of flagellar proteins. This shows that, at least to me, there are simpler flagellum, and these would be the flagellum with the lesser number of proteins. Shown by David Ussery who has written a paper on this subject. I tend to think that these reports and studies show that the bacterial flagellum are not irreducibly complex. Although there just may be structures that are, the flagellum is not one of them. Behe will either have to find a new example, or give up on his case, since it seems to have been thoroughly disproved. I would have to say, at the end of the day, assuming that natural selection could not explain IC

structures, intelligent design is not a logical explanation. We can say that, in Behe's case, mousetraps are designed. Fine, everyone in their right mind would believe that. Well, Behe then wishes us to think that means something that has the characteristic of IC is also designed. I say no. Why not? We know there are people, or robots, or something that make mousetraps. We do not have any evidence of anything supernatural, or any other type of designer who could have made things that are irreducibly complex. The logic just does not follow. Behe has a lot to say. He should not be ignored. No good scientist in their right mind should ignore what he has to say because they might not like his conclusion (intelligence), but people should also not blindly accept what he has to say because it conforms to their religious dogma. It seems the points which Orr brought up were good ones. Behe successfully battled one of them. He also made a claim in his response which I believe I disproved. The only thing we can hope for is the scientific method is adhered to as it was in the past, and always should be.

Bibliography
Behe, Michael J. The Sterility of Darwinism. 1997 Access Resource Network 10 Oct. 2008 <http://www.arn.org/docs/behe/mb_brresp.htm> Kuwajima, G. 1988. Construction of a minimum-size functional flagellin of Escherichia coli. Journal of Bacteriology 170: 3305-3309. Matzke, N. J. Evolution in (brownian) space: a model for the origin of the bacterial flagellum. 2003 The Talk Origins Archive 10 Oct. 2008 <http://www.talkdesign.org/faqs/flagellum.html> Muller,H.J. “Reversibility in Evolution Considered from the Standpoint of Genetics,” Biological Reviews 14 (1939): 261-80. Orr, H. Allen. “Darwin v. Intelligent Design (Again).” Boston Review Dec. 1996/Jan. 1997. 10 Oct. 2008. <http://www.bostonreview.net/BR21.6/orr.html> Ussery, David. 1999. A biochemist's response to "The biochemical challenge to evolution". Bios 70: 40-45. <http://www.cbs.dtu.dk/staff/dave/Behe.html>

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