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Has Ken Miller Refuted Irreducible Complexity with a Tie Clip?

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At a recent meeting of the student apologetics group Ratio Christi an acquaintance suggested to me that biologist Ken Miller’s use of a mousetrap as a tie clip — with the catch and the hold-down bar removed — was somewhat cheesy but had "made its point." Really?

What exactly was Ken Miller’s point? Well, the idea is that Miller’s tie clip purportedly demonstrates that Michael Behe’s example of the mouse trap as an irreducibly complex (IR) apparatus (comparable in this respect to the bacterial flagellum with its own IR design) fails by a simple analogy. In other words, what we see now as a complete bacterial flagellum might well have served a different function in an earlier form. The degree to which this kind of theatrics has lodged itself in the public mind as a "refutation" of IR caught me by surprise, especially because it came from someone from whom I would have least expected it.

My first inclination was to respond, "The tie clip demonstration doesn’t address the essential point, namely, that ALL parts of the mouse trap are necessary to make it function as intended. Now if by removing a part of the mouse trap the mechanism could still function in the same capacity, then I think a valid point would be made. But Behe’s whole point is that ALL parts of the mouse trap are needed to function as a mouse trap."

My off-the-cuff answer is valid, I think, but it seemed to me a simpler explanation was likely available. So I e-mailed some friends for their thoughts, and to my satisfaction a great many responses poured in. I will paraphrase the two best, which can be posed as plain rhetorical questions, as follows. First, did the tie clip spontaneously assemble or did it require some intentional, purposeful design? Second, could the selective pressures that led the tie clip to morph into an apparatus for catching mice be explained?

Those simple questions show Miller’s complete misunderstanding of IR and ID. Behe has addressed this directly himself (for the complete chapter go here):

Finally, rather than showing how their theory could handle the obstacle, some Darwinists are hoping to get around irreducible complexity by verbal tap dancing. At a debate between proponents and opponents of intelligent design sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History in April 2002, Kenneth Miller actually claimed (the transcript is available at the website of the National Center for Science Education) that a mousetrap isn’t irreducibly complex because subsets of a mousetrap, and even each individual part, could still "function" on their own. The holding bar of a mousetrap, Miller observed, could be used as a toothpick, so it still had a "function" outside the mousetrap. Any of the parts of the trap could be used as a paperweight, he continued, so they all had "functions." And since any object that has mass can be a paperweight, then any part of anything has a function of its own. Presto, there is no such thing as irreducible complexity! Thus the acute problem for gradualism that any child can see in systems like the mousetrap is smoothly explained away.

Of course the facile explanation rests on a transparent fallacy, a brazen equivocation. Miller uses the word "function" in two different senses. Recall that the definition of irreducible complexity notes that removal of a part "causes the system to effectively cease functioning." Without saying so, in his exposition Miller shifts the focus from the separate function of the intact system itself to the question of whether we can find a different use (or "function") for some of the parts. However, if one removes a part from the mousetrap I pictured, it can no longer catch mice. The system has indeed effectively ceased functioning, so the system is irreducibly complex, just as I had written. What’s more, the functions that Miller glibly assigns to the parts — paperweight, toothpick, key chain, [tie clip,] etc. — have little or nothing to do with the function of the system of catching mice (unlike the mousetrap series proposed by John McDonald, discussed below), so they give us no clue as to how the system’s function could arise gradually. Miller explained precisely nothing.

With the problem of the mousetrap behind him, Miller moved on to the bacterial flagellum — and again resorted to the same fallacy. If nothing else, one has to admire the breathtaking audacity of verbally trying to turn another severe problem for Darwinism into an advantage. In recent years it has been shown that the bacterial flagellum is an even more sophisticated system than had been thought. Not only does it act as a rotary propulsion device, it also contains within itself an elegant mechanism to transport the proteins that make up the outer portion of the machine, from the inside of the cell to the outside. (Aizawa 1996) Without blinking, Miller asserted that the flagellum is not irreducibly complex because some proteins of the flagellum could be missing and the remainder could still transport proteins, perhaps independently. (Proteins similar — but not identical — to some found in the flagellum occur in the type III secretory system of some bacteria. See Hueck 1998.) Again he was equivocating, switching the focus from the function of the system to act as a rotary propulsion machine to the ability of a subset of the system to transport proteins across a membrane. However, taking away the parts of the flagellum certainly destroys the ability of the system to act as a rotary propulsion machine, as I have argued. Thus, contra Miller, the flagellum is indeed irreducibly complex. What’s more, the function of transporting proteins has as little directly to do with the function of rotary propulsion as a toothpick has to do with a mousetrap. So discovering the supportive function of transporting proteins tells us precisely nothing about how Darwinian processes might have put together a rotary propulsion machine.

I suppose what disturbs me most is how Miller gets away with such shenanigans. When antics replace analysis and stunts substitute for serious discussion, the only purpose served is the expansion of Miller’s calendar of speaking engagements and his honoraria.

Image source: Neal Patel/Flickr.

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.