Irreducible Complexity and Darwin’s Blackbox

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For much of human history, most people believed in the existence of a supreme being who created everything. But recently, advances in science have pointed out the possibility that there is no need for a creator in the first place. A very potent argument on the scientific side is the theory of evolution.

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by nuerous, successive, slight modifications, then my theory could break down! – Charles Darwin, the origin of species –

Many people know what this theory is about. The argument from irreducible complexity is an opposition to the theory of evolution. It is part of the arguments for intelligent design.

Human Evolution – Image by Vilija Barsauskas, pinterest


The intelligent design movement has two major arguments: the argument from irreducible complexity and the argument for specific complexity.

As you would have rightly guessed from the title, what this post concerned with, is the argument from irreducible complexity. Also, like all other expositions of philosophical arguments, I would also talk about the criticisms against the argument.

What is an irreducibly complex system?

It is basic that in order to fully understand the argument from irreducible complexity, we need to first know what an irreducible complex system is.

One of the main proponents for the argument form irreducible complexity is Michael Behe the author of “DARWIN’S BLACK BOX“. He has aptly defined an irreducibly complex system as:

Any single system which is composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to cease functioning.

In essence, what he is saying is that an irreducibly complex system is made up of several parts. If one of these several parts is removed, the whole system fails!

An example that he uses to explain this is the bacterial flagellum. The flagellum is a filament-like appendage that protrudes from the cell membrane of bacteria. Bacteria use their flagellum to move about in liquid substances.The flagellum is styled like an axle and is made up of different complex proteins. Behe’s argument is that if one of these proteins remove, the whole system fails in its entirety.

Another example that Behe uses to explain the meaning of an irreducibly complex system is an old-fashioned mouse trap. In order for the mousetrap to carry out its function – of catching mice and other vermin, all its parts have to be in place. If any of its parts is missing or tampered with, the mousetrap wouldn’t be able to carry out its function.

Image by ASMRLarryGraves – youtube

The argument itself

Now that we understand what an irreducibly complex system is, the next thing is to examine the argument itself. The argument has two premises and a conclusion. It goes something like this:

  1. X is an irreducibly complex system (you can replace X with flagellum, or mousetrap).
  2. If X is an irreducibly complex system, then an intelligent designer must have made it.
  3. Therefore, X must have been intelligently designed.

So, the argument uses the variable “X” here, meaning that there are a lot of things in nature that are irreducibly complex. The argument also doesn’t refer directly to God, although most people believe that intelligent design arguments are basically arguments for the existence of God.

Behe and other intelligent design theorists try to be agnostic about the existence of a God in order to give their argument a scientific coating.

The Purpose Criticism

One key ingredient in the definition of an irreducibly complex system is that they are created for a specific basic purpose. So, in the case of the flagellum, the basic purpose is locomotion, while in the case of a mouse trap, the basic purpose is catching mice.

However, a problem with this is that when it comes to objects in nature, defining their basic purpose is not so straightforward. For instance, a mouth can be used to eat; it can also be used for kissing, and for smiling. So, which is its basic purpose?

Proponents respond to this by saying that the basic purpose of a thing is what it contributes to a larger thing. So, for instance, the basic purpose of the lens is to focus light rays to make the eyes see. But then, this just pushes the problem further. In the case of eyes, are they really made for seeing? What of the case of animals that have eyes but can’t see?

The below video by Essilor UK explaining the need of Irreducible Complexity using as example the enormous complex structure of human eye.

The Criticism of Evolutionary Co-adaptation

The major criticism against the argument from irreducible complexity is the argument from evolutionary adaptation. This criticism attacks the premise of an intelligent designer. The criticism states that the process of evolution can as well do the job of making things look intelligently designed.

Intelligent design proponents respond that evolution can only account for systems that are not so complex. In order for evolution to work, it has to follow a step by step process that would finally lead to the irreducible complex system. As a result, they contend that it is impossible for a random process like evolution to produce an irreducibly complex system.

It is just like randomly spinning a 40-wheel combination lock and expecting to get it all right. At best, you would get three correct combinations, not all forty.

Evolutionists respond by saying that evolution is a process that combines things that have worked with more things to end up with a complex system. Systems or parts that are not useful get discarded, and useful systems remain.

For instance, in the case of a flagellum, the different proteins may have been part of other previous systems that have now combined over the course of evolutionary history to form a flagellum. So, that’s it for the arguments from irreducible complexity.

Do you buy the arguments or feel that its criticisms have dealt a serious blow to its validity?

You can let us know your thoughts in the comments.


Feature Image by thecolly.co.uk

Giannis Sore

Giannis Sore

Giannis is an IT enginner from Athens.
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