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New Paper on Flagellum Reveals Secret Obsessions

Michael Behe

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Suppose in the course of a pleasant conversation with a colleague you mentioned your vacation last year in Las Vegas. All of a sudden he starts ranting about Area 51 — Vegas is only a few hours away, right? Did you see any lights in the sky? Any military vehicles heading north? You should stay at the Little A’Le’Inn motel like he has six times. You’ll see some funny stuff there.

You’d probably back away slowly, smiling, wishing him a nice day.

That’s the feeling I got after reading a couple recent reports on science news sites. While describing an impressive piece of research on the bacterial flagellum and its variants, New Scientist could no longer contain itself:

Behold — the only known example of a biological wheel. Loved by creationists, who falsely think they are examples of “intelligent design” …

[T]he diversity of the motors and the fact that they have evolved many times in different bacterial lineages, scuppers the creationist view that the machinery is “irreducibly complex”.

Wow!!!! Did you see those lights in the sky??!!!

You’d never guess from the breathless prose that the research paper (written by people whose work I commented on a few years ago) has nothing at all to do with irreducible complexity or intelligent design. Not only don’t the phrases occur anywhere in the manuscript, the concepts don’t show up either.

The dusty-sounding title, “Diverse high-torque bacterial flagellar motors assemble wider stator rings using a conserved protein scaffold,” is apt for the work — an elegant, largely descriptive study of the structures of modern flagella from a few different kinds of bacteria that shows some are wider and more powerful, others narrower and less powerful. It reports no experiments that test whether random mutation and natural selection could explain even the variations of the molecular machines, let alone what they all have in common, which is considerable:

Despite differences in the organisms’ swimming ability, the flagellar motor is composed of a conserved core of ~20 structural proteins. The mechanism of flagellar motility is conserved, with torque generated by rotor and stator components.

The paper does, however, show that if any one of dozens of proteins is knocked out, the ability of the cell to swim is lost, which of course is exactly what to expect from an irreducibly complex system.

Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News (GEN) also lost it:

[T]he bacterial flagellum has been at the center of the thinly veiled creationism movement called intelligent design. Subscribers to this belief system have erroneously postulated that the flagellar motor system is “irreducibly complex” and could not have come about through Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms….

It is doubtful these findings will sway the opinion of its detractors, yet they do make it extremely more difficult for them to make their case.

So, you see, those strange folks who think an extraordinarily sophisticated molecular machine points toward intelligent design will hold to their opinions no matter what. They can’t be reasoned with, so you shouldn’t even try.

Well, it’s certainly clear that GEN and New Scientist have given up trying to reason on the subject.

One crazy person is a coincidence. Two are a trend. What’s provoking some otherwise smart people into thinking this paper has anything at all to do with intelligent design, other than to reinforce its arguments? I think it’s the same general factors that are responsible for much craziness in our world: fear and ignorance. The magazine staff works for and writes for people who fear intelligent design — either because they simply don’t want it to be true or at least because they worry it will encourage the ignorant masses to question what they’ve been taught about life.

What’s more, if you go by what they write, these folks are utterly clueless about what modern ID proponents actually argue. They seem to have gotten what opinions they have from perusing a New York Times story, or from glancing at press releases from scientific societies denouncing ID. No one gives any hint of having read a book by an ID proponent, or even of visiting a reliable ID website such as this one. Then they wonder why informed people don’t think their arguments are persuasive.

Here are some elementary points they miss, put as simply as possible. Intelligent design is not about common ancestry. It doesn’t matter to the ID argument whether life was “originally breathed into a few forms or into one,” as Darwin wrote, or even into many. Nor does it matter whether the exact same molecular machine occurs in all organisms or if elegant variations on the theme are found in each separate family or genus or species.

It matters only whether the unabashedly purposeful structures can be seriously explained — in real scientific detail — as the result of unintelligent processes, as Darwinists have so far spectacularly failed to do, or whether intelligence was required to make them.

Image: Warning sign, Area 51, by X51, [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Michael J. Behe

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael J. Behe is Professor of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. He received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania in 1978. Behe's current research involves delineation of design and natural selection in protein structures. In his career he has authored over 40 technical papers and three books, Darwin Devolves: The New Science About DNA that Challenges Evolution, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, and The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, which argue that living system at the molecular level are best explained as being the result of deliberate intelligent design.