Education Icon Education
Faith & Science Icon Faith & Science
Intelligent Design Icon Intelligent Design

Refutation of Irreducible Complexity? Get a Vida!** [updated]

Casey Luskin

Today at the Dover Trial, plaintiffs’ expert witness, philosopher of science Dr. Robert Pennock, focused on 4 topics: (1) methodological naturalism, (2) methodological naturalism, (3) his Avida paper, and (4) methodological naturalism. Additionally, he also talked about methodological naturalism and his Avida paper. Today I will address only two of these many topics: Dr. Pennock’s Avida paper and in another post, methodological naturalism (MN).

First I will address the Avida Paper
The “Avida paper” was published as “The Evolution of Biological Complexity,” in Nature, 423:139-144, by E. Lenski, Charles Ofria, Robert T. Pennock, and Christoph Adami (May 8, 2003). Pennock and his other co-authors claim the paper “demonstrate[s] the validity of the hypothesis, first articulated by Darwin and supported today by comparative and experimental evidence, that complex features generally evolve by modifying existing structures and functions” (internal citations removed). Today in court, Pennock discussed the paper today asserting that it was a “direct refutation” of irreducible complexity and a “general test” of Darwinian theory.

One of the last questions asked of Pennock during his direct examination today was whether this paper was intended to be a rebuttal to ID and irreducible complexity. You know, just in case the Court might get the wrong idea that ID is worth critiquing in a science journal. That’s a common strategy on direct examination: it’s better for a friendly attorney to ask potentially touchy questions so you can explain your answer with more freedom. Pennock conspicuously denied that the paper was intended as a rebuttal to ID, with a very brief and extremely rushed answer (usually Pennock was more than willing to be articulate about his answers). I’m skeptical.

As noted, while on the stand, Pennock himself called the paper a “direct refutation” of irreducible complexity. Nonetheless, the Avida paper carefully omits any citations to works by ID proponents, lest they be legitimized by critique in a journal like Nature. Of course, my conspiracy theory could be wrong: perhaps Pennock just loves to co-author papers in scientific journals on the origin of biological complexity, and he was not thinking at all about ID when he wrote the paper. Pennock has an impressive C.V., but it seems to indicate that he has never authored any other technical research papers in a science journal other than the Avida paper in Nature.

I can think of no reason why a philosopher, who otherwise never authors technical papers in scientific journals, whose career specializes in rebutting ID, should be a co-author a technical research paper in a top technical science journal on the evolutionary origin of biological complexity, a claim which ID challenges, unless that paper somehow required some expertise on ID. Indeed, this paper now appears strategically arranged: is it mere coincidence that this paper appeared as a primary exhibit in the first trial against teaching ID? The reality is that Avida study, in which Pennock was third author, has much to do with strategically rebutting ID.

For a detailed discussion of why Pennock’s “Avida Paper” does not explain the evolution of irreducible complexity, but rather demonstrates that irreducible complexity cannot evolve, see:
Evolution by Intelligent Design: A Response to Lenski et al. by Casey Luskin (off site)

** “Vida” means “life” in Spanish.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School DistrictRobert Pennock