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Repentant Biology Journal Offers a Weak Rebuttal to Its Own Pro-ID Fine-Tuning Paper

Photo credit: Timo Volz via Unsplash.

Following its editorial disclaimer that we discussed last week, the repentant Journal of Theoretical Biology has gone further in seeking atonement from Darwin enforcers. What was the journal’s sin? The editors published a pro-intelligent design article on biological fine-tuning. So now they have published a short letter critiquing the original article. The authors, who are all biologists at Georgia Tech, submitted a surprisingly weak response. It doesn’t take issue with the factual claims in the article but rather focuses on attacking the logic behind the design inference:

What does this paper contribute to our understanding of theoretical biology? The primary claim of Thorvaldsen and Hössjer is that protein complexes, molecular motors, and biological networks are not random. This is true — in a mathematical sense — but is not a new discovery. What they claim to be novel is the conclusion that the existence of these specific systems amongst the space of all possible systems is so rare as to only possibly exist by ‘fine-tuning’ — a proxy for intelligent design. That components of living systems — or systems themselves — are exceedingly rare does not suggest agency or intent.

Design and Specification

Of course it isn’t just “rarity” that implies intelligent design. As we’ve explained many times, unlikelihood alone is not enough to detect design. Rare or unlikely events happen all the time. But what if a specific rare or unlikely event is needed for something to occur, like performing some complex biological function? To detect design we need specification, or matching an independently derived pattern. We call this specified complexity. Here is how the ID paper in the Journal of Theoretical Biology defines fine-tuning:

We define fine-tuning as an object with two properties: it must a) be unlikely to have occurred by chance, under the relevant probability distribution (i.e. complex), and b) conform to an independent or detached specification (i.e. specific).

Fine-tuning is thus another way of saying “specified complexity”: it’s an unlikely scenario that matches a precise pattern that is needed for some living system to operate. It’s tuned to just the right setting so life can exist (i.e., it’s specified), and this setting is unlikely, making it “finely tuned.”

In our experience specification plus rarity — i.e., fine-tuning — implies design. Even non-ID scientists acknowledge that fine-tuning “smacks of design,” as British evolutionary biologist Simon Conway Morris emphasizes. He writes:

[W]e must also acknowledge that it is the interdependence of each value as much as the fine tuning of any one that is so remarkable. All this smacks of design: physicists are rightly wary and the invisible hosts of multiverses is ever-popular.

Simon Conway Morris, “Darwin’s Compass,” in Intelligent Faith: A Celebration of 150 Years of Darwinian Evolution, p. 74 (2009)

If fine-tuning can imply design in physics, why not in biology? In biology, life runs on information. The kind of complex and specified information found in life is a prime example of fine-tuning. There’s no physical or chemical law that dictates the ordering of nucleotide bases in our DNA, and yet it matches specific patterns that are necessary to produce functional proteins. Stephen Meyer explains why fine-tuning points to design:

Where did that information come from? [Stuart] Kauffman doesn’t say, but it is an essential part of what needs explanation in the history of life. Similarly, in his light system, the order that allegedly arises “for free”— that is, apart from an intelligent input of information — only does so if, as Kauffman acknowledges, the programmer “tunes” the system to keep it from either (a) generating an excessively rigid order or (b) devolving into chaos. This tuning presum[es] an intelligent programmer selecting certain parameters and excluding others—that is, inputting information. 

Stephen Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt, p. 298

The authors of the letter never explain why fine-tuning doesn’t imply design. They just assert that it doesn’t.

An Even Bigger Pool

They then wade into an even bigger pool of logical fallacies:

Furthermore, irreducible complexity ignores the idea that evolution and natural selection act on a pool of variation: any number of individuals within the pool will not pass on their genes because their specific complement of protein complexes and cellular networks do not accomplish the necessary functions for life to continue. Hence, neither fine-tuning nor intelligent design is required when sample spaces are viewed through the lens of evolutionary dynamics.

So ID arguments “ignore” what’s possible in the “pool of variation”? Hardly! In fact we spend a great amount of time thinking about and measuring what’s possible in the pool of variation. One fundamental observation we make is that irreducibly complex (IC) systems won’t persist in the “pool of variation” unless they are complete, because incomplete IC systems do not perform a selectable function. If they don’t perform a selectable function, then they are not preserved by natural selection. That poses a major problem for maintaining incomplete IC systems in the pool. This means it’s very difficult for IC systems to be built by Darwinian evolution’s stepwise mechanism. 

But wait, isn’t this basically what the letter said? As the critics wrote:

[A]ny number of individuals within the pool will not pass on their genes because their specific complement of protein complexes and cellular networks do not accomplish the necessary functions for life to continue.

Yes, that’s exactly right! But rather than showing how IC systems evolve, their point shows precisely why they won’t evolve through an unguided Darwinian process: unless all the pieces are put together “just right” — i.e., are finely-tuned — an organism won’t survive and won’t pass on its genes. This point is true as the day is long. So how can you reconcile this with the idea that organisms evolve in a stepwise manner where small-scale changes build complex systems one small step at a time? It doesn’t seem possible in the real world. 

A Strange Argument

The authors argue strangely against irreducible complexity by saying that organisms without functional systems won’t pass on their genes. But that is purifying selection only and does not account for how those systems came to be in the first place. Is it likely that the “pool of variation” would come to hold these complex and functional adaptations just by chance? Are there stepwise pathways for building these systems? 

Perhaps the authors will explain how it’s possible, but the next sentence doesn’t help them at all: “Hence, neither fine-tuning nor intelligent design is required when sample spaces are viewed through the lens of evolutionary dynamics.”

Huh? They just said that most individuals won’t pass on their genes because they lack the right set of complex components for life, and then they conclude that intelligent design and fine-tuning aren’t necessary? Their conclusion does not follow from the argument. In fact their conclusion is the opposite of what the argument implies. 

Appealing to the non-controversial principle that broken systems don’t get passed on hardly helps explain how incomplete IC systems could help build complete IC systems. Understood properly, their argument shows precisely why IC cannot be built by Darwinian evolution: incomplete IC systems don’t work and thus tend not to be passed on to the next generation. Rather than showing how these complex systems evolve, their argument shows why they cannot evolve by Darwinian means. 

Extraordinary Claims, Extraordinary Evidence

The authors close by quoting Carl Sagan’s famous adage that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” We in the ID movement are happy to affirm this principle — the claim that finely tuned, information-rich, and irreducibly complex biological systems can be built in a blind, stepwise manner via Darwinian mechanisms is extraordinary. It requires extraordinary evidence. But when we seek such evidence we don’t receive it. Hence our skepticism of neo-Darwinism. 

This paper has hardly provided that evidence. If the letter is the best reply that ID-critics can muster to the ID-friendly paper in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, then that must have been a strong paper indeed!