Reducing Irreducible Complexity

Bekah asked me if I’d tackle Michael Behe’s claim that some biological systems are “irreducibly complex” and therefore could not have evolved. I thought about giving a detailed scientific explanation, but why reinvent the wheel? Behe has been answered time and time again by countless scientists.

In brief summary, Behe makes the correct observation that in biology, there are systems that have many components, all of which are required for their proper function. Take away any one piece, and the whole thing falls apart. His famous analogy is that of a mousetrap, all of whose components are required for proper function. A mousetrap without, say, the holder for the cheese, wouldn’t work. For biological examples, he holds up the clotting cascade in our blood and the bacterial flagellum, among many others. He then takes these examples and claims that they could not have evolved, since evolution works by building up systems by small steps. A clotting cascade with fewer components simply wouldn’t work, by his logic. Neither would a flagellum without some of its “motor” pieces.

But he’s mistaken, as the folks at Talk Origins have amply demonstrated in the link above. Gene duplication and coopting of cellular components originally used for other functions are the two best explanations to debunk Behe. Even so, the idea of irreducible complexity is an alluring one. It does seem that there are things in biology that just can’t be explained by evolutionary mechanisms. One that haunts me personally is the intricate machinery for replicating DNA, transcribing it to RNA, and translating it into proteins. I have a hard time conceptualizing how such a system could have evolved. There are far-fetched “RNA world” hypotheses, but even these run into the more basic problem of how the first life arose from an “abiotic soup”. We simply have no experimental evidence to explain how these systems fundamental to life could have evolved. I suppose Michael Behe would say, “Aha! So, you see. These are irreducibly complex systems that you can’t debunk. I’m right after all!”

But I refuse to settle for that. I do so not because I have faith (for indeed it would be faith) that a cogent evolutionary explanation for the beginnings of life will be produced in the future, but because the possibility exists for such. To sit back and claim that God must have made the first DNA/RNA/protein replication machinery because evolution can’t explain it is to hem in God. It’s a classic “gap” in which to place Him. History is littered with closed gaps, and the lack of an airtight material explanation for the beginning of life is no different from any other in the past. Close that gap, and if my theology is based upon a God that explains the materially unexplainable, I’ll have to go find another one in which to place Him. It’s a long retreat, one that I, or my descendents, will ultimately lose. Irreducible complexity and related theories are not problematic because they’re bad science (which they are), but because they’re terrible theology.

The alternative is classical Catholic theology, where God upholds the entire world–He brought it into being and He holds it in place by His will. Material causes exist only because He first brought them into motion, and because He wills them to continue. This is not the clockwork God of the Deists, who set everything into motion and retreated to watch His design, but an active God who can, and does, intervene. His interventions must remain a mystery to us, but it is undeniable from countless examples throughout history that He does work within His world. He does not, however, work only through unexplainable gaps in material understanding. For man is very, very good at filling those gaps. God transcends gaps; His creation is seamless. Behe, as a Catholic like myself, should understand that.


9 Responses to “Reducing Irreducible Complexity”

  1. 1 Bekah January 2, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    I brought this particular subject up because not long ago I caught a Relevant Radio segment in which the host was discussing evolutionary theory. I thought he did a disservice to his listeners because he waved off the whole possibility of an evolutionary origin by appealing to irreducible complexity, under the specific subject of the intricacy of the symbiosis between pollen-producing plants and bees. His argument was that these plants couldn’t have evolved before bees, nor bees before these plants. I believe the argument to be short-sighted.

    It seems to me, as little educated on the topic as I am, that by appealing to a “God of the gaps” we reduce the glory of God. Every time a gap is closed, God becomes just a little bit smaller.

    Our belief in God is not because there are things beyond our comprehension. Such a faith is vulnerable. Such a faith is looking to reconcile faith with reason, instead of recognizing that faith should be an extension of reason. (Nevermind the creationists who seem to have decided that faith and reason can be contradictory. That’s another subject entirely.) I say this is a vulnerabilty, because when faith and reason become irreconcilable, the believer says, “There is God! It must be He, because He is beyond comprehension.” The skeptic says, “Eventually we will explain it.” When it happens, the skeptic feels confirmed and continues to disbelieve. In essence, we have neglected to find a way to preach the gospel to this person in such a way that he can hear it.

    I much prefer how you have articulated how faith and science are separate entities, each able to inform the other, but neither able to define the other. Realizing that science is isolated to the physical, and theology the metaphysical, is key to traversing the “creation/evolution minefield and avoiding the mines.

    I am eagerly anticipating future discussion from the Vatican authorized study of this whole debate. I feel that Pope Benedict has made a wise move to encourage such study. In this age of appeal to Science as the debunking of religion, we need further strengthening of our defenses and honing of our blade against these attacks.

  2. 2 Edmund C. January 2, 2007 at 3:26 pm


    Wow, I am flabbergasted that someone on Relevant Radio would have such a flimsy grasp of evolution and theology. He’s shooting us all in the foot by associating Catholicism with a simplistic idea of “irreducible complexity”. There is one pretty simple concept that I think IC proponents don’t get: that evolution does not have to work only by building up individual building blocks. Let’s say, for a completely hypothetical example, that bees once lived on something other than nectar. And, plants were once all self-pollinating or relied on something else to carry pollen. Then, a bee population comes along and discovers what a good source of food nectar is, and brushes up against pollen, carrying it along to another plant. The cross-pollinated plants will be more vigorous because of broadening of the gene pool. And so on. But, over time, the bees and plants become dependent upon each other through specialized evolution. The system then becomes irreducibly complex, although it wasn’t at the beginning.

    I keep modifying, on another subject, exactly how I think about “faith” and “science.” My current image is of a “semi-permeable membrane” that lets the metaphysical through to influence the material (miracles, for example, and the broader purposes of God) but materialist scientific methodology, by its very definition, can’t go back the other way. (I use the same mental image to describe what I think about “separation of church and state…)

  3. 3 Bekah January 2, 2007 at 3:34 pm

    But, over time, the bees and plants become dependent upon each other through specialized evolution. The system then becomes irreducibly complex, although it wasn’t at the beginning.

    Those were my exact thoughts as I was listening to him. Makes sense to me.

    My current image is of a “semi-permeable membrane” that lets the metaphysical through to influence the material (miracles, for example, and the broader purposes of God) but materialist scientific methodology, by its very definition, can’t go back the other way. (I use the same mental image to describe what I think about “separation of church and state…)

    Yes, I think this is a much better articulation of my own thoughts as well. Since the physical world is a means of revelation, true science, by which I mean science which is a pure investigation of the physical without a predefined materialist ideology, can be informative to our faith. But too often modern science disguises truth rather than illuminates it.

  4. 4 Bekah January 2, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    Well, we have proof. I decided to do a simple search to see if I could find an archive of the show I referred to previously, and found a comment illustrating exactly the phenomena that I am worried about on the Square Zero blog.

    The commentor identifies the specific show as having aired 11/10, but I haven’t been able to locate an archive, yet.

  5. 5 Edmund C. January 2, 2007 at 3:54 pm

    Ugh. You know, the more I read and think on this subject, the more the target of my ire has shifted from atheists/agnostics, like that “biomedical scientist” on Square Zero, to Christians who don’t understand either science or theology, and therefore, should keep their mouths shut.

  6. 6 Bekah January 2, 2007 at 4:16 pm

    Unfortunately, I’m convinced they don’t know how little they understand, and don’t recognize the damage they might do. Creationinsts/ID think they’ve got it all figured out, along with all the talking points to blow holes in evolutionary theory. I used to be one of them. 😉 Now I realize how little I know, and a quiet discomfort comes over me when the subject comes up. There’s one friend in particular, a former Catholic, fellow homeschooling mom, who is very into the popular Creationists. I don’t see as much of her anymore because it seems like the topic continually comes up, and she didn’t recognize my hints that not everyone agrees. (creation and left behind…oh my what a combo!)

  7. 7 Edmund C. January 2, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    All the bickering back and forth between creationists, intelligent design advocates, evolutionists (theistic and atheistic) really serves as good evidence for the value of the Magisterium and obedience to its teaching, doesn’t it?

  8. 8 Wonders for Oyarsa January 6, 2007 at 12:38 am

    Ahhh – well I’d better just convert to Catholicism now, Mr. Edmund. Why, with the magisterium you have, I’m sure you don’t have bickering back in fourth on any number of issues, this one included…

    *rolls eyes*

    But seriously though, isn’t there value found in the engagement and wrestling with these topics? If I hadn’t heard out all the arguments, at various stages of my education, would I not be the worse for it?

  9. 9 Edmund C. January 6, 2007 at 9:11 am

    Yeah, I probably got too wound up in that last comment, WFO. This is a touchy subject for me, as you well know…

    Yes, there is value found in engagement with these topics. But, such engagement as was in that Relevant Radio segment, with some seriously uninformed folks acting as spokesmen in a public forum, I don’t think serves anyone well. There’s a huge difference between you and I having a serious discussion about the merits of Behe’s theory, and someone waving off evolution using a very bad example, when speaking to the public as a representative of a particular group (or someone else, as happened above, ranting on about religious people and their silly ideas).

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