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Debating The Controversy That Doesn’’t Exist

In today’s issue of Science, three researchers Jamie Bridgham, Sean Carroll and Joe Thornton claim to have shown how an irreducibly complex system of the kind described by Michael Behe in his book Darwin’s Black Box might have arisen as the result of gene duplication and a few mutational changes. On ID The Future today we published a response from Michael Behe making clear that Bridgham et. al. have done no such thing. Tomorrow we will provide a detailed scientific response to the paper as well.

But for now we want to note that the paper by Bridgham et al., and the accompanying commentary by Christopher Adami, raise important questions that go beyond the scientific arguments presented.  

The American Association for the Advancement Science has repeatedly insisted that there is no scientific controversy about intelligent design. But now Science, the AAAS’s flagship journal, has just published two scientific articles taking positions on the controversy – the one that doesn’t exist. 

Remember, there is no scientific controversy about ID. But, just in case, here’s a new primary research publication claiming to test one of ID’s key concepts, irreducible complexity.  

Skeptical observers might say that leading journals such as Science or Nature are happy to publish research articles exploring the intelligent design controversy, as long as those articles claim that ID is wrong. Skeptics might also note that the senior author on the Bridgham et al. paper, Joe Thornton [link], states on his University of Oregon webpage that one of his main research goals is “to illustrate how a complex, tightly integrated molecular system – one which appears to be ‘irreducibly complex’ – evolved by Darwinian processes hundreds of millions of years ago.” The concept of irreducible complexity has stimulated no research, which is why Professor Thornton is working hard to solve the problem.

Skeptics could feast on a rich buffet of such ironies. Or absurdities. The plain fact is that since the publication of Darwin’s Black Box (1996) and The Design Inference (1998), the problems, concepts, and arguments of intelligent design have steadily been making their way into the scientific literature, brought there by the critics of ID themselves. “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about,” quipped Oscar Wilde, “and that is not being talked about” – and the central concepts of ID, such as irreducible complexity, are in no danger of not being talked about in science. The problems ID raises for theories of naturalistic evolution are genuine, and must be solved if undirected natural processes really did bring about biological complexity. Either those problems will be solved, or they will not. But the problems are not going away any time soon.

ID casts its shadow across the current scientific literature, very much like someone standing just outside a window, silhouetted by bright sunlight. Those who perceive themselves as safely within the house of science are carrying on a vigorous debate with the alarming figures they see as standing outside. There is no scientific controversy about design or evolution, say the inhabitants of the house – but skeptical onlookers can hear the noisy, through-the-window conversation all the same. Scientific papers are being published trying to refute arguments made by someone. But who?

Welcome to the scientific controversy that doesn’t exist. Pull up a chair, and take a look at this new paper. Just remember – there’s no controversy here. Now, what do you think of Bridgham et al.’s counterargument to Behe?

Tomorrow we’ll tell you more about what we think of their science.

In the meantime you might want to catch up on some reading around irreducible complexity. Here are a few things to to get you started.

Molecular Machines: Experimental Support for the Design Inference
Michael J. Behe

Genetic Analysis of Coordinate Flagellar and Type III Regulatory Circuits in Pathogenic Bacteria, Second International Conference on Design & Nature, Rhodes Greece, Scott A. Minnich & Stephen C. Meyer

Irreducible Complexity and the Evolutionary Literature:
Response to Critics

Michael J. Behe

Irreducible Complexity is an Obstacle to Darwinism Even if Parts of a System have other Functions
Michael J. Behe

Paul Nelson

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Paul A. Nelson is currently a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute and Adjunct Professor in the Master of Arts Program in Science & Religion at Biola University. He is a philosopher of biology who has been involved in the intelligent design debate internationally for three decades. His grandfather, Byron C. Nelson (1893-1972), a theologian and author, was an influential mid-20th century dissenter from Darwinian evolution. After Paul received his B.A. in philosophy with a minor in evolutionary biology from the University of Pittsburgh, he entered the University of Chicago, where he received his Ph.D. (1998) in the philosophy of biology and evolutionary theory.