EN13: What do mousetraps, flagella, and blood clotting have in common?

I have just finished re-reading the marvelously written book, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, by Michael Behe, 1996. If you don’t have this book in your library, you simply must get it. Behe is a biochemist by profession, yet writes with perfect clarity for the non-techie. He offers easy-to-understand examples for those who don’t want to go too deep. But for those who enjoy the hairy details, he includes “sidebar” sections that should stretch an engineer or scientist . . . at least a little!

(I’ve summarized some of Darwin’s Black Box previously, in Part 6 of my Short Course. In this blog I’ll expand on additional points.)

Behe is one of the luminaries of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. The book makes the case for irreducible complexity, defining that as follows:

By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional.

The main thesis is that irreducible complexity (IC) is a lethal challenge to Darwin, who famously wrote:

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.

Darwinian evolution, as tweaked in modern times by discovery of DNA and its connection to genetics, depends on numerous slight mods via mutations and natural selection.

Behe starts with a simple example of IC before launching into biology. Consider the conventional mousetrap. It has 5 critical parts: (1) a wooden base to hold all the parts together in a functional configuration, (2) a metal hammer with which to crush the life out of the poor little mouse, (3) a spring to accelerate the hammer, (4) a sensitive catch which releases the spring’s pent-up energy, and (5) a metal bar that holds the hammer back until sprung.

It is clear that the trap can’t work without all of the pieces in place. None of the parts can do the job by themselves. There is no trapping function at all unless the system is there at the start. The author points out that there are other kinds of mousetraps, including a glue trap, a box propped up by a stick, and a boy with a BB gun. Yet none of these can possibly be “physical precursors” – ancestors – of the conventional mousetrap. Similarly, you can think of “conceptual precursors” to the space transportation system known as the Space Shuttle. Simpler transport systems could include skateboards, toy wagons, bicycles, autos, biplanes, and jet fighters.

Yet there is no way that slight modifications to these conceptual precursors could result in a Space Shuttle, all the while maintaining functionality at every step. In the Darwinian analogue, imagine that the skateboard design is stored in a digital file. Random bit flips (mutations) in the file would produce changes in the code that the skateboard factory’s machines use during production. For the skateboard to “evolve” into toy wagons and bicycles, etc., all the while maintaining a viable, marketable product, is impossible . . . and I don’t use the word lightly.

But it’s worse than that. Because along the way to biplanes with internal combustion engines and jet fighters with titanium-bladed turbines, the entire factory has to change! The manufacturing equipment, the raw materials, and the logistical chain for skateboards is nothing like that for F-22 fighters! Behe touches this subject in this book, but treats it in far more detail in his more recent book, The Edge of Evolution, 2007, which enjoys the advantage of an additional 11 years of biochemical insights. (In an upcoming blog I’ll discuss that book.)

Darwin’s Black Box points out that the real action in biology . . . and therefore, the real action in evolution . . . must take place at the molecular level. Life depends on the incredibly complex nanomachines (proteins, DNA, RNA), and systems of nanomachines (ribosomes, mitochondria, chromosomes) that enable metabolism, energy production and transfer, muscular contraction, neural processing, etc., to occur . . . moment by moment, year after year.

Paleontology simply can’t answer the questions. In fact, the fossil record is of no help to evolution whatsoever, displaying overwhelmingly consistent patterns of distinct kinds, well separated in physiology. Other “large scale” arguments like biogeography and population genetics may be interesting, but simply don’t matter. If you don’t have a theory for evolution at the molecular level, you don’t have a theory of evolution. From Darwin’s time until the 1950s, understanding of biochemistry was rudimentary . . . yet the evolutionary paradigm became firmly entrenched. A fact! Supposedly. Yet without a theory! (And with no empirical observations or laboratory experiments to support the non-theory.)

Evolutionists talk about “simple” or “primitive” life forms. Bacteria are at the “bottom” of the complexity hierarchy. Yet some bacteria have a wonderful swimming device, the flagellum, which has no counterpart in more complex creatures. The flagellum is a rotary propeller, whereas the cilium, found in certain types of mammalian cells (discussed in Part 6 of the Short Course), acts as an oar.

The long, hairlike filament of the flagellum consists of a single type of protein, called “flagellin.” The base connects to a rotor drive via a special protein that hooks it into place. The rotor spins within several concentric rings made of other proteins. Energy is derived from a controlled acid flow through the bacterial membrane. There are at least 40 different kinds of proteins involved in the structure and operation of the flagellum, with all of the nano-structures precisely fitted together for perfect functionality.

The accompanying figure is one simplified view of what it might look like at a very superficial level. If the “magnification” were ratcheted up to see the protein designs . . . well, representing proteins in diagrams is very difficult. Proteins are precisely folded huge molecules, typically with several thousand atoms.

Note that this marvelous machine is nanotechnology. An outboard motor for your boat is obviously designed, but has nothing near the design sophistication of a flagellum. It is harder to design and build machines at the nano-scale!

Behe has carefully searched the professional literature on the bacterial flagellum. There are literally thousands of papers detailing research on the structure and function of this biomachine. The subject is important due to medical implications associated with bacteria. Yet “no scientist has ever published a model to account for the gradual evolution of this extraordinary molecular machine.”

This isn’t an exception to the rule. Whatever the biological system, at the subcellular level, or the cellular, or at the level of organs . . . the action is at the nanomachine level and there are no scientific papers that even suggest a quantitative model for an evolutionary origin. Behe works through several other examples in his book.

Don’t be gullible. Most get fooled by imaginative non-quantitative stories spun by evolutionists. As a typical case study, Behe discusses the irreducible complexity of the blood clotting system that keeps you and me alive whenever our skin gets cut.

I won’t try to summarize how blood clotting works. It’s simply too complex a system to be encapsulated in a couple of paragraphs. Read the book. Behe’s “wiring diagram” summarizing the process shows over 30 different types of proteins (or their “activated” counterparts) which must interact with each other in order to seal a wound. Consider just some of the requirements for this process:

1. The wound must be detected and the clotting process initiated automatically.
2. The clot must occur quickly. (A mesh forms first which then fills in.)
3. You don’t want the clot to block any blood vessels.
4. You don’t want clots to form during “normal operation” of the circulatory system.
5. Clotting needs to turn off when the job is done.
6. Everything must be done without any conscious direction.
7. It’s got to work every time!

Because of the immense importance of blood clotting, the scientific literature is rich. It is vital to understand just how it works. For example, as Behe relates, “The most common form of hemophilia arises from a deficiency of antihemophilic factor, which helps activated Christmas factor in the conversion of Stuart factor to its active form. Lack of Christmas factor is the second most common form of hemophilia. Severe health problems can also result if other proteins of the clotting pathway are defective . . .” From the “wiring diagram” and the book’s discussion of the process, it is easy to see how messing with any component can destroy the entire process. And so we see that blood clotting is irreducibly complex.

blood clotting cascade

Behe has found the scientific literature to be void of evolutionary explanations in this field also. The one exception he found was an attempt by a renowned researcher, Russell Doolittle, who attempted to hypothesize a scenario for how one clotting protein after another might have evolved to produce the present-day system. Behe gives Doolittle some credit for daring to try!

Yet Doolittle’s scenario is “all verbal.” He gives no reasons for the appearance of each protein; he makes no effort to estimate any new protein’s properties and . . . most significant . . . he makes no attempt to calculate the probability of a protein’s appearance. (See Part 1 of my Short Course to appreciate the lethal significance of this shortcoming.) No surprise there. Doolittle must be perfectly aware of the impossibilities associated with the “sudden appearance” of protein nanomachines.

Behe reprints Doolittle’s scenario and then comments, “The first thing to notice is that no causative factors are cited. Thus tissue factor “appears,” fibrinogen “is born,” antiplasmin “arises,” TPA “springs forth,” a cross-linking protein “is unleashed,” and so forth. What exactly, we might ask, is causing all this springing and unleashing?”

Behe goes on to explain . . . with some real numbers . . . how ridiculously improbable such steps are. Doolittle’s explanation is just story-telling. There is no “theory” proposed. Not even a hypothesis. Why not? Biochemists KNOW that as soon as they write down specific chemical reactions and make quantitative estimates, that there had better be some science supporting them! Some lab experiments, some already established theory . . . something other than story-telling. And so they have nothing to say, beyond the story. Behe likens these flights of imagination to the comic strip adventures of Calvin and Hobbes, in which the principals create adventures without any constraints on reality.

Behe’s conclusion to this chapter: “No one on earth has the vaguest idea how the coagulation system came to be.”

I’ll note at this point that Michael Behe is a strong member of the Intelligent Design movement. However, he explicitly denies association with Biblical creationists, as do most of the ID folks. Behe is a Roman Catholic and quite cheerfully accepts the Darwinian idea of “common descent.” He scoffs at the Biblical history of Genesis, certain that evolutionary geologists and others must be telling the truth about an Earth history of billions of years. I always find this astonishing. Michael, why not apply your God-given brain power and critical thinking skills to see through the scams in evolutionary geology?

Back to our analysis . . . The chapter on intracellular transport is quite fascinating. Here’s the problem: “A new protein, freshly made in the cell, encounters many molecular machines. Some of the machines grab hold of the protein and send it along to the location it is destined to reach.”

An analogy from everyday experience: “All cargo delivery systems face common problems: the cargo must be labeled with the correct delivery address; the transporter must recognize the address and put the cargo in the correct delivery vehicle; the vehicle must recognize when it has arrived at the right destination; and the cargo must be unloaded. If any of these steps is missing, the whole system fails . . . The entire system must be in place before it works.”

Of course, a terrestrial logistics system necessitates intelligent (human) intervention at many stages, and even the automated portions must have been designed by engineers who earned at least “B” grades in college. But the intracellular (not to mention inter-cellular) transport systems must be designed for autonomous operations, in billions of cells, for the entire life of the organism. Wow. What a brilliant Creator-Engineer God we have!!!

Behe points out that 19th century biologists considered the cell to be a “homogeneous globule of protoplasm.” They were wrong. Eukaryotic cells (almost everything except bacteria) are compartmented, with specialized regions that include the nucleus (DNA), the mitochondria (energy production), the endoplasmic reticulum (protein processing), the Golgi apparatus (protein way station during transport), the lysosome (garbage disposal), secretory vesicles (cargo storage), and the peroxisome (metabolizes fats). Compartments are sealed by membranes which must be engineered to let the right things in and out.

There is much more, of course! Skim a book on cell biology. Behe gets into the details sufficiently to strike awe in the heart and mind of any but the most resolute materialist.

His conclusion? “An analysis shows that vesicular transport is irreducibly complex, and so its development staunchly resists gradualistic explanations, as Darwinian evolution would have it. A search of the professional biochemical literature and textbooks shows that no one has ever proposed a detailed route by which such a system could have come to be. In the face of the enormous complexity of vesicular transport, Darwinian theory is mute.”

I would go much further. There is no theory of evolution. The case for a Designer, a Creator God, is beyond compelling. Look: it’s not merely that biologists haven’t come up with the “right idea” yet. The designs resplendent in life are way beyond the most sophisticated designs ever conceived my man. Any time we observe an element of human technology . . . supercomputers, rocket engines, the internet, cell phone systems . . . there is NO QUESTION about design. Now go several orders of magnitude beyond such levels of sophistication and dare to claim that evolutionists are right, but just haven’t figured out the details yet. Really? The problem is in your heart. That’s why your mind is so dark.

Behe’s chapter on the immune system is too mind-boggling for summary here. No human engineer would have ever dared to conceive such brilliant complexity. Please read the book. His conclusion? “We can look high or we can look low, in books or journals, but the result is the same. The scientific literature has no answers to the question of the origin of the immune system.”

Behe goes on to discuss evolutionary fantasies regarding the origin of the first cellular life, including the initial proteins, RNA, DNA, and other essentials of life. One of his conclusions: “In private many scientists admit that science has no explanation for the beginning of life. On the other hand many scientists think that given the origin of life, its subsequent evolution is easy to envision, despite the major difficulties outlined in this book. The reason for this peculiar circumstance is that while chemists try to test origin-of-life scenarios by experiment or calculation, evolutionary biologists make no attempt to test evolutionary scenarios at the molecular level by experiment or calculation. As a result, biology is stuck in the same frame of mind that dominated origin-of-life studies in the early fifties, before most experiments had been done: imagination running wild. Biochemistry has, in fact, revealed a molecular world that stoutly resists explanation by the same theory so long applied at the level of the whole organism. Neither of Darwin’s starting points – the origin of life, and the origin of vision – has been accounted for by his theory.”

Some comments: Once you reject the Creator God, there is no explanation for the origin of life or, for that matter, any living thing. Behe observed that evolutionists believe that if life could have gotten started, “its subsequent evolution is easy to envision.” Of course this is evolutionary bluster and progaganda, since no one can generate one quantitative model or produce one paper for review that wouldn’t get rejected immediately – by their own peers.

No, the alleged evolution from bacteria to invertebrates to reptiles to mammals and birds, etc., is MORE IMPOSSIBLE (Words fail!) than that of the origin of the alleged first bacteria. At every stage, the gulfs of complexity are vast, and must be bridged by multiple irreducibly complex nanomachine systems. The gaps are bigger than those from skateboards to F-22s, or from an abacus to a supercomputer.

Behe’s final conclusion on the vast scientific output recorded over the last century on this subject: “There has never been a meeting, or a book, or a paper on details of the evolution of complex biochemical systems.”

After all this, Behe yet opines that as a Roman Catholic, evolution is quite compatible with his religious views. Wow. Like I said, it’s a heart problem. Behe sees the entire issue as a scientific one. He believes that “the identity of the designer will simply be ignored by science.” He predicts victory for the ID paradigm because it simply can’t be denied.

He’s wrong. Truth has always been denied by the determined rebel. The Gospel is not rejected because of its truth. It is rejected because men love darkness and hate light. Willful, unrepentant sinners hate truth. Ultimately, rebels hate God, hate righteousness, and are adamant to exalt self. God’s creation vs. evolutionary naturalism . . . the issue is not settled on the basis of IQ. It is clear that when the heart is determined, the mind will rationalize as much as required.

Michael Behe, as representative of the entire ID movement, is naïve. He seems to believe that truth will simply prevail . . . “The reluctance of science to embrace the conclusion of intelligent design that its long, hard labors have made manifest has no justifiable foundation. Scientific chauvinism is an understandable emotion, but it should not be allowed to affect serious intellectual issues. The history of skirmishes between religion and science is regrettable and has caused bad feelings all around. Inherited anger, however, is no basis for making scientific judgments.”

Really? He calls the evolutionist camp scientific chauvinists (I agree, although the term is too kind), but says their attitude “should not be allowed.” Just who is not going to allow discrimination against intelligent design? Academia is entirely owned by atheists! Faculty members in secular institutions who dare to espouse the truths of either ID or Biblical creation are routinely harassed, denied tenure, or simply fired.

There is a strong philosophical overlap between academic evolutionary “chauvinism” and Marxism. When Marxists are in control, there is no freedom. The non-lethal “American style” persecution of creationist faculty is well-documented. I have experienced milder aspects myself, when I was the only Biblical creationist on a faculty of 400 at a secular state university. “Mild” because the aggravation was only verbal and written (including letters to the local newspaper editor about the embarrassment of a creationist’s presence on campus).

Behe goes on to say, “The philosophical commitment of some people to the principle that nothing beyond nature exists should not be allowed to interfere with a theory that flows naturally from observable scientific data. The rights of those people to avoid a supernatural conclusion should be scrupulously respected, but their aversion should not be determinative.”

That’s nice. More “should be” and “should not be.” Behe promises to respect the other guys if they would only be so kind as to respect him and his position. It’s just not going to happen. This is spiritual warfare. (By the way, Behe does not offer respect to Biblical creationists.) Of course ID is abundantly evident in biology. But Biblical creation is overwhelmingly demonstrated not only in biology, but also geology, genetics, paleontology, and astronomy.

The Adversary, however, will never admit it. There are demonic spirits in this world who so effectively corrupt the judgment of so many apparently intelligent people. Those corrupted rule academia, the media, and the government. And so children of yet another generation will be indoctrinated that happenstance is the cause of the brilliance and the beauty of God’s creation. And that happenstance is “fact.” Don’t worry about evidence. There is always another story to spin.

How about you? I wrote this essay in part because I once was an atheist who had genuine stumbling blocks regarding evolution. When I was confronted with a perspective based on “reality,” my mind and heart and conscience had a “Board Meeting.” Once I realized that the God of the Bible is, in fact, the Lord Jesus Christ revealed in the Bible, I knew I’d be insane to rebel any further. Heart, mind, and conscience got in sync, and I repented from the stupid, vile sins I loved so dearly, and trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior. You can, too.

You might object, “How can I be sure that the Creator God is the one in the Bible?” That’s easy. Check out my essay, “How do I know the Bible is true?”


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