Debating the Controversy That Doesn’t Exist

In tomorrow’’s issue of Science, researchers Jamie Bridgham, Sean Carroll and Joe Thornton of the University of Oregon claim to have shown how an irreducibly complex system might have arisen by a process they call “molecular exploitation.” Their paper, “Evolution of Hormone-Receptor Complexity by Molecular Exploitation,” Science 312 (7 Apr 2006):97-101 and an accompanying commentary by Chris Adami are sure to stir lively discussion. Mike Behe has already weighed in, arguing that Bridgham et. al. haven’t even come close to answering the challenge of irreducible complexity. Tomorrow we’ll provide a detailed scientific response to the paper as well.

For the moment, however, we want to point out something that should be obvious, but may escape notice at first glance. The publications by Bridgham et al. and Adami will appear in Science, the flagship journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The AAAS has taken a prominent public stance on the intelligent design controversy. And therein lies a mystery, of sorts.

What Scientific Controversy? Oh, That One… 

Like nearly all national science organizations, the AAAS has repeatedly insisted that there is no scientific controversy about intelligent design. That must explain why Science this week will publish two scientific articles taking positions on the controversy. The one that doesn’t exist.

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 addressing 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, 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.” But of course we must remember that 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 (primary research) literature, brought there by scientists themselves as they respond to ID arguments. “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.

Thus, 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 Darwinian 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?

We’ll give you some thoughts tomorrow. In the meantime you might want to catch up on some reading around irreducible complexity. Here are a few things to whet your appetite.

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.