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Behe’s Critics Use Faulty Logic to Allege Creationist Connections to the Origin of Irreducible Complexity

Casey Luskin

Quarterly Review of Biology (QRB) published an error-filled article attacking Michael Behe and intelligent design (ID) as penance for publishing Behe’s article. So much for the claim from critics that Behe’s QRB paper had nothing to do with ID.

In any case, the critical article by Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke, and Johan Braeckman uses fallacious logic to attempt to connect Michael Behe’s arguments from irreducible complexity to young earth creationism. There argument seems to be that if anyone anywhere who is a creationist has ever talked about an idea that sounds like irreducible complexity, then that was necessarily one of Behe’s sources for his ideas. Behe’s critics thus quote Henry Morris and other creationists talking about how some biological features require many parts to function. The critics then assert–without any proof whatsoever to back their claim–that “Behe has simply adapted these creationist notions to his own ends. Consider his definition of IC in Darwin’s Black Box.” Boudry, Blancke and Braekman then quote Behe’s definition of IC from page 39 of Darwin’s Black Box, confidently bluffing that it settles the argument that Behe got all his ideas from young earth creationists.

On the contrary, the critics haven’t even made an argument.

Behe’s words are very different from those of Morris and other creationists. As noted, Behe’s critics present zero — literally zero — evidence to back their claim that Behe derived his ideas from those creationists. (My guess is that Behe’s critics think their criticism is true because they hear it commonly repeated. Eugenie Scott often makes that argument, and they probably heard her make it at some talk they attended, and they trusted her contrived attacks as gospel.)

Rather, if you read Darwin’s Black Box it becomes quite clear where Behe got his ideas from–and it wasn’t a young earth creationist. Boudry, Blancke and Braekman leave off the first part of Behe’s quote, which shows Behe got his ideas about weaknesses in Darwinian evolution from Darwin himself. Behe’s actual quote reads:

Darwin knew that his theory of gradual evolution by natural selection carried a heavy burden:

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.

It is safe to say that most of the scientific skepticism about Darwinism in the past century has centered on this requirement. From Mivart’s concern over the incipient stages of new structures to Margulis’s dismissal of gradual evolution, critics of Darwin have suspected that his criterion of failure had been met. But how can we be confident? What type of biological system could not be formed by “numerous, successive, slight modifications”?

Well, for starters, a system that is irreducibly complex. By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, 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 non-functional. An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution. Since natural selection can only choose systems that are already working, then if a biological system cannot be produced gradually it would have to arise as an integrated unit, in one fell swoop, for natural selection to have anything to act on.

(Michal Behe, Darwin’s Black Box, p. 39 (Free Press, 1996).).

So it seems very clear where Behe got his ideas about problems with Darwin’s theory — he got them from Darwin. And Behe cited other scientific authorities who see merits to such challenges to Darwinian evolution — including George Mivart (a 19th century evolutionist and a Catholic ) and Lynn Margulis (a leading evolutionary biologist of the modern day). Perhaps some creationists picked up similar ideas along the way. So what? That doesn’t mean anything unless you use a “correlation equals causation” fallacy a la Barbara Forrest. Of course, Lynn Margulis and George Mivart are no latter day young earth creationists. As Mivart stated:

The higher the organization, whether of an entire organism or of a single organ, the greater is the number of the parts that cooperate, and the more perfect is their cooperation; and, consequently, the more necessity there is for corresponding variations to take place in all the cooperating parts at once, and the more useless will be any variation whatever unless it is accompanied by corresponding variations in the cooperating parts; while it is obvious that the greater the number of variations which are needed in order to effect an improvement, the less will be the probability of their occurring at once…the improbability of obtaining an improvement in an organ by means of several spontaneous variations, all occurring together, is an improbability of the same kind.

Or as Margulis has stated:

We agree that very few potential offspring ever survive to reproduce and that populations do change through time, and that therefore natural selection is of critical importance to the evolutionary process. But this Darwinian claim to explain all of evolution is a popular half-truth whose lack of explicative power is compensated for only by the religious ferocity of its rhetoric. Although random mutations influenced the course of evolution, their influence was mainly by loss, alteration, and refinement. One mutation confers resistance to malaria but also makes happy blood cells into the deficient oxygen carriers of sickle cell anemics. Another converts a gorgeous newborn into a cystic fibrosis patient or a victim of early onset diabetes. One mutation causes a flighty red-eyed fruit fly to fail to take wing. Never, however, did that one mutation make a wing, a fruit, a woody stem, or a claw appear. Mutations, in summary, tend to induce sickness, death, or deficiencies. No evidence in the vast literature of heredity changes shows unambiguous evidence that random mutation itself, even with geographical isolation of populations, leads to speciation.

(Lynn Margulis, Dorion Sagan, Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of the Species, pg. 29 (Basic Books, 2003).)

Those sound a lot like Behe’s criticisms, but clearly they are not “creationist notions.” The fact that Behe makes similar arguments doesn’t mean he’s borrowed his arguments from creationists.
Apparently Boudry, Blancke and Braekman felt that if anyone was talking about an idea like “irreducible complexity,” then they necessarily were Behe’s source for his ideas. Such slippery logic was tolerated by the reviewers. Why didn’t QRB’s editors hold Behe’s critics to the same high standards to which they held Behe?

Selective Sources
If, as the slippery logic of Boudry, Blancke, and Braekman would suggest, anyone anywhere who has ever talked about an idea like irreducible complexity is fair game to identify as a source for Behe, then why not consider the fact that the very term “irreducible complexity” was used by non-creationist biologist Micahel J. Katz in his 1986 Cambridge University Press book Templets and the explanation of complex patterns? Katz suggests that cells are “irreducibly complex,” and that this bears an impact on the question of origins:

  • “In the natural world, there are many pattern-assembly systems for which there is no simple explanation. There are useful scientific explanations for these complex systems, but the final patterns that they produce are so heterogeneous that they cannot effectively be reduced to smaller or less intricate predecessor components. As I will argue in Chapters 7 and 8, these patterns are, in a fundamental sense, irreducibly complex…” (pp. 26-27)
  • “For some natural phenomena … there simply is no reduction to smaller predecessors. In these cases, the companion rule to ‘order stems from order’ is that ‘complexity stems from complexity'” (p. 90)
  • “…the unique characteristics of organisms are pattern characteristics. The first of these fundamental pattern characteristics is complexity. Cells and organisms are quite complex by all pattern criteria. They are built of heterogeneous elements arranged in heterogeneous configurations, and they do not self-assemble. One cannot stir together the parts of a cell or of an organism and spontaneously assemble a neuron or a walrus: to create a cell or an organisms one needs a preexisting cell or a preexisting organism, with its attendant complex templets. A fundamental characteristic of the biological realm is that organisms are complex patterns, and, for its creation, life requires extensive, and essentially maximal, templets.” (p. 83)
  • “Self-assembly does not fully explain the organisms that we know; contemporary organisms are quite complex, they have a special and an intricate organization that would not occur spontaneously by chance. The ‘universal laws’ governing the assembly of biological materials are insufficient to explain our companion organisms: one cannot stir together the appropriate raw materials and self-assemble a mouse. Complex organisms need further situational constraints and, specifically, they must come from preexisting organisms. This means that organisms — at least contemporary organisms — must be largely templeted. Today’s organisms are fabricated from preexisting templets — the templets of the genome and the remainder of the ovum [egg] — and these templets are, in turn, derived from other, parent organisms. The astronomical time scale of evolution, however, adds a dilemma to this chain-of-templets explanation: the evolutionary biologist presumes that once upon a time organisms appeared when there were no preexisting organisms. But, if all organisms must be templeted, then what were the primordial inanimate templets, and whence came those templets?” (pp. 65-66)

Sound kind of like Behe’s ideas? Yeah, it sure does. But of course Katz is no creationist. He’s a theoretical biologist at Case Western Reserve University. Perhaps that’s why Boudry, Blancke and

Braekman ignored the fact that his ideas, too, bear some similarity to Behe’s.

In a third commentary I will discuss how Boudry, Blancke and Braekman make Darwinian evolution unfalsifiable.


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.



Michael Behe