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Flagella Myths

be gradually built up via two-part, tlien three-part,


etc. contraptions, improving iLs mouse-catching
ability at each step in a Darwinian fashion.'*
Apparently realizing that a mou.setrap was
How Intelligent Design proponents not a very successful example for illustrating
created the myth that bacteria flagelia Behe's IC concept, ID advocates switched to
another example—the baaerial flagellum, a
iook iike man^nade machines "device" used by bacteria for motility.'' By 2002,
the ubiquitous image of a flagellum adorned the
books, papers, and lecture slides of ID enthusi-
asts. According to William Dembski, a main
M A R K P E R A K H advocate of ID, the flagellum had become ID's
IN 1996 A PROFESSOR OF BIOCHEMISTRY AT "mascot". The image of the flagellum appeared
Lehigh University named Michael Behe pub- on the cover of Dembski's book Ab Erve Lunch^,
lished Darwin's Black Box, ' in which he outlined on creationist blogs and so forth. Figure 1 shows
his concept of "irreducible complexity" (IC). an image of a flagellum as it appears on
Behe and his Intelligent Design (ID) colleagues Dembski's blog Uncommon Descent. Notice the
claim that IC is strong evidence of the "design" smooth surface of the depicted contraption, its
of biological systems. After the publication of his perfect symmetry, its tightly fitting comptïnents—
txx)k IC became one of the main pillars of the features we usually associate with man-made
Intelligent Design platform. machinery. Because these images look like
Tlie concept of irreducible complexity was in machines, ID advocates argue, they must be
fact considered many years before Behes book. designed. But figure 1 Ls the produa of an artist's
The Nol^ei Prize winning biologist Hermann J. imagination of how a flagellum "should" look.
Müller liad already discussed it (under the slightly Does this image truthfully represent the real
dilîèrent name of "interlocking complexity") in flagellura-' No.
1918.^ Some 10 years before Behe's book the Flagelia are tiny oiganelles that can't be seen
same idea was explored by A. Graham Caims- directly by the unaided human eye. Their
Smith.3 Unlike Behe, however, these pioneers dimensions are measured in nanometers
did not claim that the concept in question was a (billionths of a meter). But modem cryogenic
great discovery on a par with those by "Newton electron microscopy and X-ray techniques
and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schrödinger, Pasteur, have enabled scientists to form a pretty good
and Darwin" (as Behe immodestly asserted in understanding of a flagellum's structure and
DaruHn's Black Box). Neither did they claim shape. Figure 2 shows a schematic model of a
that "irreducible complexity" was a "marker" of fiagellum's stnicture." This model (one of several
a supernatural design. To the contrary, accord- published in sdentific literature) is a theoretical
ing to Müller, development of interlocking com- interpretation of the data obtained by electron
plexity in biological systems is to t>e expeaed microscopy, and mainstream scientists consider it
from Darwinian evolution. Therefore the con- an idealized schematic rather than a tnie-to-life
cept in question, as such, evoked no com- representation. ID advocates, when they com-
plaint from niaiastream sdence. pare the flagella to a designer created machine,
When Behe suggested a mousetmp as an present such images as if they are real depictions
example of an allegedly irredudbly complex sys- of the actual structure of the tiny flagella, usually
tem, Intelligent Design advocates reproduced providing no liint of the degree of idealiziition
endless images of mousetraps in multiple publica- inherent in such images.
tions. The moLisetrap, however, was not accepted In 2004, when Dembski debated PpDfessor
by the mainstream scientific community as a Niall Slianks (at UCLA) he displayed a diflerent
good model for IC. For example, professor of image of a flagellum (Figure 3). Unlike Figures 1
biology John McDonald su^ested in an animat- and 2, Figure 3 is neither an artist's rendition, nor
ed illustration how, starting with just a piece of a a schematic theoretical model; it is a "real" photo-
hook-shaped wire serving as a primitive mouse- graphic image obtained from an electron-micro-
catching device, a fliU-fledged mousetrap could scopic. While produced by scientists, such images

Í- V O L U M E 14 N U M B E R 3 2 0 0
í-igure 1. Ail artist ^ as it appears on the Unconiman üesceiit blog of WiHiam
Dembski. A stmtlar ii the dust cover of Dembski's book No Free Umch.

are often exploited by ID advocates who are objects. The schematics like that in Figure 2,
fond of pointing out their striking similarity to while refleaing many actual features of flagella,
man-made machines. However, such illustrations are products of a modeling approximation which
are misleading, picturing the ñagellum as a likewise can't pretend to reflect adequately the
fully symmetrical geometric shape, consisting of actual struaure of a tiny organelle. However,
geometrically perfectly formed parts. The real some other pictures of flagella may indeed be
flagellum is far from having such a perfect geo- "real" photograpliically obtained images (Figure
metric shape. Unlike machines, which can be 3). Are the images in die latter category adequate
for all practical purposes perfect replicas of representations of the flagella structure?
each other, the real flagella have shapes with Lcxik again at Figure 3. It is, at a glance,
many deviations from a perfect geometric impressive. Indeed we see here an d:)ject which is
symmetry, and there are no two flagella
exactly alike. Individual flagella differ in various
respects, just as biological organisms vary from
individual to individual.
This is why the images that Behe, Dembski,
and their ID colleagues show are often not pic-
tures of real flagella. Some of them are products
of an artist's imagination (Figure 1) or computer-
generated images of imaginary machine-like

OMt

Figure 3. An electron micrograph of about


I Basal body 100 superimposed, rotatJonally averaged
images of Hagelia—a technique that is much
iike superimposing multiple photographs of an
Figure 2. A schematic nwdel of a flagellum. object spinning on a lathe. From Francis, N. R.,
From Vonekura, K., S. MaM, D. G. Morgan, D. J. Sosinsky, G. E., Thomas, D. and DeRosier, D. J.,
DeRosier, F.Vonderviszt, K.lma<la. and K. Namba, 1994. "Isolation, Characterization and
2000. "The Bacterial Fl^ellar Cap as the Structure of Bacteriai Ragellar Motors
Rotary Promoter of Ftageltin SeK-AssemNy", Containing the Switch Complex." Journal of
Science 290: 2148-2152. Molecular B/otogy 235 (4), 1261-1270.

W W W . S K E P T I C . COM
a symmetrical, machine-like stmctiire, so it is easy
to understand the satisfaction Dembski and Behe
liave at the sight of this objea that fits so neatly
with their "design" hypothesis. There are, however,
tvto important points to be made. The first is that
the image in Figure 3 is a computer-generated
composite photo that was created by a technique
that i^ much like superimposing photographs of
an object spinning on a lathe. About 100 Images
of several flagella rotating around an axis were
superimptxsed .so that their natural irregularities
and individual differences were smoothed out.
The symmetrical image that results gives the
ngure 4. The stmcüj!. .. part of a object the artificial look of a man-made machine.
Samatey F.A., IVIatsiHiami, H., Imada, K., Nagashima, S., Shaikh, The second point is that the resolution of this
T.R., Thomas, D.R.. Cheii, J.Z., Deroslef, DJ., Kttao, A., Namba, K. picture is in.sufficient to see the flagellum's
"Structure of the Bacterial Rageliar Hook and Implication for the
Molecular Universal Joint Mechanism." Mature. 2004. Oct 28; 431 intrinsic structure. To appreciate the significance
{7012):1047. (In the online version the Image on tlie left Is artifi- of this, recall, by analogy, the "face on Mars," or
cially colored and »limated to illustrate the flagellar hook's rotation Lowell's nonexisting Martian "canals." Wlien the
in three dimenskMis-see http://motvls.sdsc.edu/flagetlar^hook/ resolution is insufficient, we "see" nonexisting
index.htm). Reproduced In accordance with the blanket permis- structures, which on closer inspection dissolve
sion granted In the referenced website, stlpulatii^ that a refer-
into natural patterns. This Ls equally taie for the
ence to the above article and to proteinexphrer.ois Is provided.
images of very small objects seen without suffi-
cient magnification and/or resolution. The images
of flagella obtained at higher resolution, and
enhanced by other modem sophisticated meth-
ods of investigation reveal the actual configura-
tion of flagella, demonstrating that die seeming
machine-like appearance of the flagella in Figure
3 is deceptive.
It should be noted that scientists often use
such terms as "machine" when describing
various biological assemblies. This usage,
however, unlike in the case of ID advocates,
is purely metaphorical, reflecting the superfi-
cial resemblance of certain biological .structuires
to man-made machinery. Scientists normally do
not imply that biological entities are intriasically
similar to man-made machinery. Perhaps such a
usage by scientists is unfortunate given ID advo-
cates' misuse of the superficial resemblance
between the designed man-made objects and
natural biological entities. We have to realize,
though, that scientists by and large are ncrt aware
of ID advocates' misuse of such terminology, as
Figure 5. The structure of the flagetlar Utament Side views show the only a small minority of scientists pay any atten-
Inner side (left) and outer sui^ce (right). The amino acki sequence tion to ID advocates' claims.
of each flageiiin subunit is cok>rcoded in the original image. From Let us now look at a few selected illustrations
Ybnekura, K.. Maki->t3nekura. S., Namba, K. Xomptote Atomic Model
of the Bacterial Fiageliar Riament by Electron Cryomicroscopy. " of my thesis. The detailed images of tlie flagella
Nature. 424; 643-650 (2003): Oniine version: http://vvww.fbs- structure obtained via cryogenic electron
osakai].ac.jp/eng/pubiicatk>ns/namba2003/Namtei2003eng.html microscxipy combined with sophisticated X-ray
techniques are exemplified in Figures 4, 5, and 6.

fi- V O L U M E 14 N U M B E R 3 2 0 0 8
These images show the actual configuration of the entirety of the available information about tk-
the flagellum, and have been selected practically gella. If they are familiar with images 4, 5, and 6
at random fixjm numerous similar images avail- (which are freely available both in print and on
able in the scientific literature. Instead of dghdy- the internet) could it be that diey are less inter-
fit machine-like pans, we see in dhese pictures ested in facts and truth and more focused on
convoluted garlands of protein molecules. These winning the "cultural war" by any means?
stRictures look similar to typical baaeriophage We must conclude that the aigyment in favor
viRises"^, and have nodiing in common with any of "design" of biological enddes based on dieir
man-made machine. They vividly illustrate that alleged similarity to man-made machinery Ls not
the image shown in Figure 3 is deceptive and supported by evidence. T
owes its machine-like appearance to the insuffi-
cient resoludon. This is even more true of the
Acimowledgment: My thanks to Matt Young, Paul
utterly artificial aitist's rendidons of flagella, whase
R. Grœs, and Nicholas Matzkefor pithy adtnce.
variadons serve as 'niascots" of ID.
ID advocates often point to die allegedly
fraudulent "icons of evolution" they claim are
utilized by "Ehirwinists" for nefarious purposes.^
One of diese allegedly fraudulent "icons" is that
of Ernst Haeckel s embryo drawings. In fact, die
faults of Haeckel's embryological illustrations
(dated 1874) were revealed'" not by creationists
but rather by the "Darwinists" themselves. On the
other hand, creationists of various hues,
including ID advocates such as Dembski and
Behe, incessandy reproduce images of flagella
that are often heavily stylized without admitting
to the great degree of idealization inherent in
these images. Indeed, look again at the images
of the flagella's actual molecular structure, as
shown above in Figures 4, 5, and 6, and it
becomes obvious that real natural flagella are far
from looking like man-made machines.
An interesting quesdon is: Why do ID advo-
cates and other creationists, who so eagerly and
persistendy display pictures like those in Figures
1, 2, and 3, never deign to show much more real-
istic representations of flagella structure such as
those shown in Figures 4, 5, and 6? It" they are 6. Partial structure of the flageilar fltanent's cros&«ectton.
By Keiichi Namba. http://www.nanonet.go.jp/engllsh/m^lniag
unaware of these more accurate pictures, per- /2004/Olla.html
haps they should try to educate themselves with

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1. Behe, Michael, 1996. Darwir)'s http://udel.edu/~mcdonald/mo Uttlefield Publishers. shs-ando.html : last accessed tm
Black Box. New York: Free Press. usetrap.html, last accessed on 7. Yonekura, K., S. Maki, D. G. June 20, 2008.
2. Müller. Hermann J. 1918. June 20, 2008. Morgan. D. J. DeRosier, F. 9. Wells. Jonathan. 2002. Icons of
"Genetic Variability, Twin Hybrids 5. Luha. Salvador E.. Stephen J. Vtonderviszt, K. Imada, and K. Evolution: Science or Myth?
and Constant Hybrids, in a Gould, and Sam Singer. 1 9 8 1 . Namba, 2000. "The Bacterial Viâry Much of What We Teach
Case of Balanced Lethal A View of Ufe. Menio Partí, CA: Ragellar Cap as the Rotary About Evolution is \Mor^. New
Factors." Genetics 3: 422-499. The Benjamin Cummings Promoter of Ragellin Setf- Yorti: Regnery.
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Seven Clues to the Ongin of 6. Dembski, William A. 2002. Wo 2152. "Icon of Obfuscation". In Ta/k
Life^. A Scientific Detective Free Lunch: Why Specified 8. Perakh. Mark. 2004. "Tîiree SH's Reason: http;//www.talkrea-
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