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:

#BeyondMarieCurie: Women in STEM & Medicine
Debunking the Bible's Gender Binary
Popular Delusions: Electrosensitivity
The World in the Dark
About Adam Lee

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


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