The Case for a Creator: Complexity Is Scary!

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 8

In the previous installment, I discussed how creationists steer well clear of doing any real science. We can see another example of this in, ironically, the way Strobel falls all over himself lauding Michael Behe as a Real Scientist:

He has authored forty articles for such scientific journals as DNA Sequence, The Journal of Molecular Biology, Nucleic Acids Research, Biopolymers, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Biophysics, and Biochemistry… He is a member of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution, and other professional organizations. [p.196]

(Side note: Why is Behe a member of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution?)

But never mind that parentheses. Just take a look at Michael Behe’s impressive scientific track record! See how many prestigious peer-reviewed journals he’s published in! Just try to refute the ID-supporting scientific arguments of… but wait a minute. Strobel has swiftly stepped around a very obvious question. How much of that vaunted publication record actually supports the arguments of ID?

The answer, if you don’t stop at Strobel’s glossy superlatives and actually go on to look at the papers, is: not much. If you look at Behe’s CV, you can see that most of his work is about technical aspects of DNA and protein structure (with scintillating titles such as, “Quantitative assessment of the noncovalent inhibition of sickle hemoglobin gelation by phenyl derivatives and other known agents”). And if you look a little more deeply, you’ll notice an even more interesting fact: Behe’s already modest scientific output nosedives in the early 1990s. Not by coincidence, I’m sure, his much-hyped Darwin’s Black Box was first published in 1996. Perhaps that was when he found out that working the creationist lecture circuit was a much easier, and far more profitable, line of business. (There was one new paper by Behe in 2004 – the only exception to what’s otherwise a decade-plus publication drought. We’ll come to that in a later post.)

There may be another reason for this, and we’ll see it in the first section of this chapter. Guided by Strobel, Behe begins the conversation by talking about how simple Charles Darwin and his contemporaries thought that cells were.

“In Darwin’s day, scientists could see the cell under a microscope, but it looked like a little glob of Jello, with a dark spot as the nucleus… Electricity was a big deal back then, and some believed that all you had to do was to zap some gelatinous material and it would come alive. Most scientists speculated that the deeper they delved into the cell, the more simplicity they would find.” [p.196-7]

This claim, which apparently originated with Behe, has become a touchstone of creationist literature. Many prominent ID advocates, all using each other as their only sources, have spread the claim far and wide that early Darwinists thought cells were extremely simple. The trouble for them is that this claim is utterly false. Darwin himself (who was a skilled microscopist), wrote about the “astounding complexity” implied by what he could see of cells’ organization and behavior. For details, see this post by Wesley Elsberry, which also catalogues the sloppy anti-evolutionists repeating this falsehood.

I’m sure you’ve guessed Behe’s motivation for making this false claim: so he can dramatically whisk the curtain back and proclaim (much to Darwinists’ imagined horror) that no, those tiny little cells are really complicated!

“We’ve learned the cell is horrendously complicated, and that it’s actually run by micromachines of the right shape, the right strength, and the right interactions.” [p.197]

This is Behe’s cue to launch into a description of some of the molecular processes that operate within the cell. I’ll spare you pages of verbiage about mousetraps and highways and motors – ID advocates still love these cartoonishly simple, Paleyesque analogies – except to note that Strobel chimes in on cue, gasping theatrically at the “stupefying complexity” [p.209] of this processes that stand revealed.

All this buildup is just so Behe can get to his overall point, which can be summed up thusly: “Look how complicated this is! Look how many different parts it has and how well they have to work together! I just can’t imagine any way this could have developed gradually through evolution, can you? Let’s just give up, say it must have been intelligent design, and then go home.”

Lest you think that I’m being unfair to Michael Behe, he actually says something like this in this book, and in very nearly these words. Here’s how he puts it:

“Now, does this microscopic transportation system [Behe is speaking about the endoplasmic reticulum —Ebonmuse] sound like something that self-assembled by gradual modifications over the years? I don’t see how it could have been. To me, it has all the earmarks of being designed.” [p.209]

“I don’t see how it could have been”: this is the argument of intelligent-design advocates in a nutshell.

I do wonder if this way of thinking is partly responsible for creationists’ near-total lack of scientific output, even those who were actual scientists before joining the ID movement. Their argument is based on treating the complexity of the living world as utterly intractable and inexplicable. Is it not likely that this attitude discourages them from trying to study it? When your theology teaches you that science is a futile pursuit, why even attempt to do science?

The error at the root of this complexity phobia is the belief that evolution is incapable of creating complex things. This is implied in Behe’s arguments throughout this chapter, though it’s never explicitly spelled out. But why should we believe this? Evolution has been running on this planet for billions of years. It’s not at all surprising that, with so much time to accumulate beneficial mutations and acquire new genes, the end products that we see today would be very complex indeed. And those molecular systems that Behe is so awed by? Many of them are found in bacteria, which number in the trillions and have generation times measured in hours. If evolution were a contest, bacteria would be the undisputed champions. Is it any wonder that there’s so much complexity down at the bottom?

Other posts in this series:

Neil deGrasse Tyson Shows Why Small-Minded Religious Fundamentalists Are Threatened by Wonders of Universe
Atlas Shrugged: Bring Me a New Black Guy
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
The Atheist Community Is Diversifying
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • arensb

    The error at the root of this complexity phobia is the belief that evolution is incapable of creating complex things.

    I find this amusing, because the time when I tried to evolve a program (as opposed to a simple string like “Methinks it is a weasel”), one problem I kept running into was that the size of the candidates kept ballooning out of control.

  • Slater

    It never ceases to amaze and annoy me how these idiots seem to think the ToE stands and falls with Darwin’s credibility, as if every scientist since him has just said “Yeah, that sounds plausible enough, let’s assume it’s true and work on something else”.

    Hundreds of scientists have verified and improved his theory since his time, and even if we were to discover that ol’ Charlie was completely delusional and had no proof whatsoever of his idea, that wouldn’t change a comma in the ToE, because he’s not the only one who’s ever worked on it.

    Behe is an embarrassment to science. How did someone so retarded ever manage to do any real science?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    How did someone so retarded ever manage to do any real science?

    As a grad student and post-doc he managed to get led into topics interesting enough to propel him forward just long enough to land tenure. If you look at his publication record and overlay the times of his PhD degree award, and start of his faculty job, you will notice that, once on his own, he pushed the old topics a bit further but never came up with any truly new and exciting on his own.

  • Dan

    His 2004 paper with David Snoke was something of a bust when Behe cited it in court testimony as support for ID.

    From the wikipedia entry on David Snoke:

    On May 7, 2005, Behe described the paper in presenting arguments for irreducible complexity in his testimony at the Kansas evolution hearings.[19] At the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial later that year it was the one article referenced by both Behe and Scott Minnich as supporting intelligent design. In his ruling, Judge Jones noted that “A review of the article indicates that it does not mention either irreducible complexity or ID. In fact, Professor Behe admitted that the study which forms the basis for the article did not rule out many known evolutionary mechanisms and that the research actually might support evolutionary pathways if a biologically realistic population size were used.”

    Apparently Behe only selectively reads his own research.

  • David Dvorkin

    Somehow, they make the leap from “it must have been intelligently designed” to “it must have been designed by the single god that I believe in.”

    They think that evolution stands or falls with Darwin’s credibility because they’re the kind of people who depend on the voice of authority and revealed belief. They think that scientists are the same and that evolution is a theology revealed by the prophet Darwin. Engineers and nurses are two professions that attract people with that mindset because of the nature of their work, and they are also two groups who (in my experience, anyway) are prone to belief in religion and/or other flavors of nuttery.

  • Nathaniel

    Yeah, I’ve noticed that about engineers too. It’s weird. Anybody got an idea why?

  • Seomah

    As an european engineer, I can’t resist the urge to nitpick: don’t put us in the same bag as our american colleages in that isue. Please.

    Granted, it’s easy for you to forget that the blog and comments are lurked by people from outside, as fundamentalism is nearly inexistent here in Europe compared to there in the USA, but that was a bit too much.

    Having said that, it’s true that some engineers (I wouldn’t even say most) focus more on the practical side of the things (how they work) and don’t stop to think further when they have their problems solved. Something like “Isn’t that fixed? Then stop annoying me! Here’s the bill”. That kind of “staying on the surface” can invite suspension of rational thinking regarding authoritative statements.

  • 2-D Man

    First off, when you say that nursing and engineering attract creationists, realize that the rate of creationism and magical thinking is still lower in engineering than the general population.

    I think it comes about because engineering and science are opposites. They require similar skill sets but answer fundamentally different questions (and no, not like the different “questions” that religion answers). (FYI, my major, which I finish this year, focuses on both physics and engineering.)

    An example of a science question:
    What is the output of the system, when we have this set of inputs? How does the output change if we change the fourth input?

    An example of an engineering question:
    What sort of system with which types of inputs do we need to get the desired result?

    If you consider the universe we live in as special in any way, you’ll go about answering questions of origins in an engineering manner (where the results are known and we’re trying to find the inputs), which can lead one to accept ‘magic’, or arguments from authority, as an appropriate answer when the complexity of the problem combinatorially explodes. If you realize that what we see is just one possibility out of a multitude of unknown ends, you’ll go about answering such questions in a scientific manner (where the inputs aren’t known, but what we do know about them doesn’t rule out what we see), using authority or magic, as an explanation seems absurd.

  • Argentum

    For the first 3 billion years life existed on this planet, it was singled-celled in nature. Considering the relative complexity of multicellular organisms, and the fact that they have only been on the scene for a relatively short time compared to the cell itself, is it any wonder the cell is such an incredibly complex system? Does Behe not comprehend this?

  • Joffan

    With regard to the last quotation of Behe, for me earmarks indicate a designated purpose whereas it is hallmarks that are characteristic of a particular origin. I would class confusion between the two concepts as a hallmark of creationist thinking.

  • Joanna

    i guess i think the engineers/nurses theory is b.s.
    -atheist engineer daughter of an atheist engineer father and an agnostic nurse mother
    (good job getting my whole family at once :P except you missed my brother who is the only religious one)
    seriously, i can see why more scientists would be non-religious than other professions, but I’d be surprised if engineers or nurses or particularly different from most other jobs…

  • Leum

    It’s called the Salem hypothesis.

  • jemand


    Compared to the general public, engineers are more secular, but compared to other academics, not so much. Don’t really know why.

  • yunshui

    On the science/engineering dichotomy:

    Science asks: “How does it work?”

    Engineering asks: “Does it still work if I take it to bits and put it together again?”

    Intelligent design asks: nothing. They already have an old book which tells them all the answers.

  • Ebonmuse

    I suspect the issue with creationism and engineers is a self-selection bias at work. With only very rare exceptions, creationists tend not to go into fields like biology that would force them to confront evidence about how their religious beliefs are wrong. A field like engineering probably seems theologically “safe” to creationists in a way that pure scientific research isn’t, so they’re disproportionately attracted to it. Even though their numbers in the engineering field are probably lower than in the population as a whole, they’re higher than in pure scientific fields, so from our perspective there’s an asymmetry.

  • Polly

    jemand, I was going to link to that same Slate piece. The question had occured to me before I read it.
    I wonder if there’s a strong link between conservatism and engineering even among non-religiuos engineers.

    “Look how complicated this is! Look how many different parts it has and how well they have to work together! I just can’t imagine any way this could have developed gradually through evolution…

    This was my thinking while I was studying biochemistry. Not only the cells, but the proteins and the whole DNA transcription process struck me as near-miraculous. Even, now, intuitively, I feel like life is “too complex.” But then I remember that there are a great many things in mere classsical mechanics that defy my expectations so I know my intuition about the physical world isn’t reliable.

    I remember listening to a Xian program in rapt attention. The preacher was going to reveal why evolution was false. I was genuinely excited. He brought out the old trope about how people didn’t know that the cell was more than just a gelatinous blob in Darwin’s day. He concluded with the fact that the cell is VERY COMPLEX. That bit of pseudo-history was certainly not revelatory to me. Nor was it satisfying, even for someone who already was a believer.

    I was always hoping a fellow believer with some knowledge could provide a reason to believe.

    An older friend who was studying philosophy once gave me a tape that purported to destroy evolution. It was just a bunch of philosophical gobbledy-gook. I was disappointed and even let him know that I was expecting some kind of evidence would be employed if evolution was to be taken down.

    (without the preview pane, I’m not sure how LONG my comment will be)

  • Slater

    @Reginald Selkirk:

    “he pushed the old topics a bit further but never came up with any truly new and exciting on his own.”

    That’s strangely comforting to know.

  • Tak

    @ #5: I have to agree that nurses seem more prone to theism (I don’t know about engineers) but I want to chime in as a nursing student (I get my license at the end of this year) and an atheist. We are out there! As for me, I tend to be quiet about my atheism with my classmates and instructors because speaking up about the total ineffeccacy of things like prayer – or as I like to call it, “wishing” – would be seen as “intolerant of others beliefs” even though it’s actually true. I’d suspect there are others like me who keep it on the down low to avoid being percieved as insensitive. Just for funsies this semester I plan on doing my evidence based paper on the effects of prayer on the pediatric patient.

  • Jeff Eyges

    First off, when you say that nursing and engineering attract creationists, realize that the rate of creationism and magical thinking is still lower in engineering than the general population.

    That may be true, but I’ve noticed that when I come across a creationist mouthing off on a blog about his “degree in science”, nine times out of ten, he turns out to be an engineer.

    I think Ebon has the answer, or at least part of it: “I suspect the issue with creationism and engineers is a self-selection bias at work.”