“Irreducible complexity” and an unanswerable question 11

We cannot understand how sane, adult, educated, intelligent people can believe in the supernatural.

It’s astonishing to us that such an astute observer of the political scene, so witty a commentator as Ann Coulter can believe in creationism – the belief that the universe was created by a supernatural being: “God”.

Some creationists say that the supernatural being created the earth with the fossil remains in it of creatures who were never actually alive; bones that seem to prove the earth is much older than creationists absolutely know for sure it is; and which may also seem to prove that evolutionary changes have happened over time. They seem to, but they don’t, the creationists say. They were put there by God in the form they have now – as a sort of joke he wanted to play on archaeologists? Creationists don’t put it that way; they don’t ascribe a sense of humor to their God.

In fact there are many versions of creationism, some of them acknowledging that a certain amount of evolution does occur, but denying that human beings evolved from older species. All versions of creationism are equally apodictic. They who demand absolute proofs for every claim that evolutionists make, declare without any proofs at all that God made everything; designed and created the universe out of nothing.

The nearest they come to offering the sort of evidence that science recognizes is by “disproving” evolutionary explanations. They argue: “If some phenomena cannot be incontrovertibly explained by evolutionary theory, it proves they were designed by a superhuman intelligence.”

They believe they have found such phenomena. Not easily, though. Evolution is such a good explanation for Things Being As They Are that, to find anything which challenges its explanations, creationists have probed deep into the structures of life through powerful microscopes. And one of the “gotcha” things they found under the glass was a thread on certain cells, including bacteria such as Ecoli, that enables them to swim. It is called the flagellum.

The flagellum has a complex structure that has set creationists gloating in triumph. There is no way, they say, that the flagellum could have evolved from simpler structures because without every single one of its parts being present and operating exactly how they do, it couldn’t work at all.

In a recent column, Ann Coulter waves the flagellum (so to speak) in the faces of evolutionists. It proves, she believes, that evolution is not true. Its discovery is a supreme achievement of “advances in science” which have, she says, “completely discredited Darwin’s theory of evolution”.

She claims there is now a “mountain of scientific evidence disproving this mystery religion from the Victorian age”. And from the mountain she has plucked “one small slice” – the flagellum.

It is a mathematical impossibility … that all 30 to 40 parts of the cell’s flagellum … could all arise at once by random mutation. … Nor would each of the 30 to 40 parts individually make an organism more fit to survive and reproduce, which, you will recall, is the lynchpin of the whole contraption.

The authority she cites for these assertions is a religious scientist [now there’s an oxymoron for you] named Michael Behe who “proved” them to be the case.

In fact, Michael Behe’s proofs have been disproved, the claims made for the “irreducible complexity” of the flagellum shown to be fallacious. (You can find the counter-arguments for this special case here, and for this and many other anti-evolution claims here.)

We quote a short summary of the refutations of Michael Behe’s “proof”:

Based on similarity in structure and partial similarity in amino acid sequence, it is generally accepted among scientists that the eukaryotic flagellum and cilium have evolved from the cytoskeleton, while the eubacterial flagellum has evolved either from the type III secretion system or from a more ancient secretion system from which the type III secretion system has evolved as well. The archaeal flagellum has probably evolved from the type IV pili. …

In his 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box, intelligent design proponent Michael Behe, under funding from the Templeton Foundation [which exists to promote religion over science – JB] cited the bacterial flagellum as an example of an irreducibly complex structure that could not have evolved through naturalistic means. Behe argued that the flagellum becomes useless if any one of its constituent parts is removed, and therefore could not have arisen through numerous, successive, slight modifications. This claim has been strongly challenged by the work of Zvonimir Dogic. His team reported constructing active hairlike structures containing only two proteins that reproduce the beating functionality of flagella, proving that the flagellar complexity is in fact reducible. Behe’s argument is weakened by the observation that the proteins used by Dogic are all present in every eukaryotic cell in the centriole, and could easily have evolved into a flagellum through numerous, successive, slight modifications. … Exaptation explains how systems with multiple parts can evolve through natural means.

So no – evolution is not proved to be wrong by the flagellum, or by anything else, and “most scientists” do not consider it disproved as Ann Coulter claims they do.

Now let’s briefly examine her alternative belief. In doing so, we step away from science. Science is concerned only with the natural. Anything to do with the supernatural has nothing whatsoever to do with science. “Is there a god?” is not a scientific question.

Let’s posit a Creator. Let’s imagine him designing and making the flagellum – out of nothing, remember.

Let’s translate his God language into English and catch his thoughts as he goes about his creating.

“Now I’m going to fit these bacteria with this complex structure by which they’ll propel themselves into the bloodstream of animals and human beings and make them sick and kill them.”

The question, Ann, is WHY?

A Creator, one who designed and deliberately made the universe – whether exactly as it is at this moment or long ago set upon a course of development through many ages – is a Purposer. Those who believe in him hold that he created a universe not accidentally but on purpose.

What is the purpose of the universe?

Religion absolutely requires an answer to that question. But the believers never answer it. They cannot. It has no answer.

  • Anonymous

    Watch out, she’s following up:
    http://www.anncoulter.com/columns/2011-08-31.html

    • C.Gee

      What I would like to see from Coulter is an intelligent design explanation for the Cambrian explosion of numbers of species (which we know from the fossil record – that fatally incomplete body of evidence) that does not assume that the intelligence designing the life and extinction of species is an Evolver – an even more self-contradictory supernatural entity than the all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good God. 
      Once again, man is creating God in man’s image.  The Intelligent Designer is a kind of Darwinian scientist when it comes to life. He arranges and rearranges genes into groups called “species”, lets them live a while, then takes some of the groupings and forms another species, meanwhile letting the former species die out with no physical traces for fossilisation. 
       He could  also be the cosmic Computer Programmer  you suggest in another comment.  
      Whatever Science contributes to knowledge is reflected in the image of God. I wonder how the String Theory God will leave his mark for the archeologists of the Creator to spot?  

  • Anonymous

    Quoting: “They argue: ‘If some phenomena cannot be incontrovertibly explained by evolutionary theory, it proves they were designed by a superhuman intelligence.’ ”

    This deserves to be amended and expanded upon:

    These people then have the gall to hypocritically argue “god’s” existence by claiming that there are simply things humans cannot understand yet, and science cannot explain now – this has become hte fallback position of many psuedo intellectual believers.

  • Liz

    Ann Coulter is typical of how religious belief causes “arrested developement” in certain areas of thought, while others may be quite developed.  When one accepts something unquestioningly, such as the existence of the supernatural, and only pays attention to ideas that support that belief, it’s possible to ignore the obvious. 
    In reply to Lucretius, who posted previously – I cannot believe that there is “hardly a physicist in the world” who would agree with the idea that “the universe has no purpose, cause, or creator”.  Are you kidding?  I think it’s rather the opposite. Evolution IS irrefutable considering the humongous mountain of evidence for it, and NO evidence for creation. Just as there is a humongous mountain of evidence AGAINST the existence of the supernatural, and NONE for it.  If something (such as the “mind of God”) has to exist outside of existence, then it DOESN’T EXIST.  This is a simple fact that doesn’t take a genius to understand.   

  • Hochuli’s Biceps

    Coulter is way behind the curve on this stuff, but upon her personal “discovery” of it she trots it out in her usual inimitable way as though it’s irrefutable. I mean, Michael Behe? Please — this clown (along with the likes of Philip Johnson and William Dembski and all those other Discovery Institute yahoos) has been eviscerated by Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Massimo Pigliucci, Eugenie Scott and many others YEARS ago. For Coulter to drag it out now is passe.

  • Fan of Heather Mac Donald

    Evolution is irrefutable.  What pisses me off is when morons then try to put anthropogenic global warming into the same category.

    Thank god for conservative atheists. 😀

    • lucretius

      “The universe has no purpose, cause or creator. It has always existed and will always exist.”

      This is contrary to all scientific evidence that we have. There is hardly any physicist in the world that would agree with this statement.

      “Evolution is irrefutable.”  If this were true, it would make it entirely unscientific – by the criterion of falsifiability  or refutability accepted by most philosophers of science. 

      As far as a Creator is concerned:  is no doubt that the creation of the universe (through Big Bang)  has to precede the creation of man. Biological evolution played no role before the appearance of biological life – and therefore it is not a universal principle – it itself needs to be explained in more basic terms. 

      The strongest philosophico- scientific arguments for the existence of a Creator and a special role assigned to man is the “anthropic principle”, which actually convinced people like great physicist Max Planck and the great astronomer Fred Hoyle to turn from ateism to a form of deism.

       In fact, Fred Hoyle, created the “steady state” theory of an ever lasting universe and invented the name “Big Bang” in order to disparage the idea that the universe could have been created (by arguments similar to the ones that appear on this site and whose authors seem oblivious to the fact that they had been considered and found contrary to scientific evidence years ago), yet  scientific evidence (which nobody today challenges) forced him to abandon his views. 

      The anthropic principle derives from the fact that there are a number of physical constants in the universe which, if thy were even slightly different, would have made the occurrence of life impossible.  This argument should be the first one addressed when discussion any kind of “creationism” but the fact that it is hardly ever done shows both the poverty of scientific knowledge and the ideological motivation of most participants in such discussions.

      Recently Stephen Hawking announced that physicists have finally “disposed” of the problems with anthropic principle and thus “proved” the non-existence of a Creator. This fact was hailed publicly by Richard Dawkins, which is ironic, since Dawkins always refused to accept that any of the problems that have supposedly been overcome, ever existed. In any case, Hawking’s “overcoming” is achieved by a theory of infinitely many alternative universes that will strike many as considerably more contrived and equally unverifiable as the existence of a Creator.

      There is another reason why many scientists, particularly mathematicians (e.g. Lagrange)  are inclined to believe in a form of creationism (although they try not to use the word because it has become so politicised). The reason is epistemological. If the universe is governed by laws that have a mathematical form, as many mathematicians and physicists believe, than these laws ought to have an existence independent of human minds. It is therefore natural to postulate the existence of a universal Mind, that must have been involved in the creation. This Mind itself obviously can’t be a part of the universe that it created. On the other hand, the fact that our minds seem capable of grasping at least some approximations of these laws suggest that indeed mankind, in some sense at least, was created “in God’s image”.

      All this is, of course, not science but metaphysics. It is irrefutable and the choice whether to accept it or believe an alternative (e.g. there are no “laws of physics”, the universe was created by itself,there are infinitely many universes etc) can only be based on essentially aesthetic grounds (i.e. what one finds more intellectually satisfying). 

      • Anonymous

        The universe functions like a computer program, complete with a long-since-executed initialization segment that defines the properties of matter, then applies those rigid rules over and over and over again in ways that lend the same matter to perform different functions when considered from a certain scale.

        For example, the construction of a tire makes it conducive to forming a pressure cushion against a vehicle and the road by trapping air, while preserving the ability to rotate with the wheel. Yet this object consists of the same basic “stuff” as a human, one of Earth’s typical biological mammals with the uncanny ability to not be completely stupefied by the many functions of the universe.

        All objects obey the same order, lending a internal consistency to the universe. We should have no reason to believe that this order is the only possible order, much less the only one that enables life. Nothing is logically inconsistent with the physics of cartoon worlds except for our personal revulsion of potentially inhabiting such a freakishly unpredictable realm.

        One of the most important functions of this universe for the purposes of human life is that saviors never come from the sky down, only from the ground up. The religious would do well to remember this when they are praying for salvation.

  • Ralph

    The universe has no purpose, cause or creator. It has always existed and will always exist. Creating(creationism?) gods to explain the universe explains nothing, because it doesn’t tell us who created the gods.

  • Ralph

    Since I’m not a biologist I usually avoid discussions of evolution. I fall back on my arguments against the existence of gods(creators). If one destroys belief in a creator there can be no creationism.

    One of my failings as an atheist is that I can’t refute theism from a scientific point of view. My atheism is based on history not science.

  • Anonymous

    I always appreciate seeing a conservative political commentator defending evolution so vividly.

    There is not even a conflict with evolution and God, except the very specific homo-animalian deities conceived by humans. My personal belief is that if the universe does have a purpose, life fits somewhere very intricately within it because of evolution. There are over one sextillion stars in this expanse, billions of years of crazy events, and an assortment of 81 mostly-stable element – how could all of this stuff possibly be doing nothing?

    The universe is built to generate chaotically variable trees of interbreeding children through the process of evolution via natural selection, all of whom fit the needs of life to their own purposes, but some who are much better at it than others. For Earth, that child is Homo sapiens, a large-brained ape that responds to rhythmic music like none other and can explore an amazingly deep internal reservoir for discovering reason. But the equipment fails if used improperly, which requires false pretenses like that Yahweh created the universe.

    Ann Coulter’s brain is malfunctioning.