Klinghoffer Laughs at “Complexity by Subtraction”

A few days ago one of our clandestine operatives tipped us off to this article in Science Daily, and predicted that the creationists would be jumping all over it: Alternative Way to Explain Life’s Complexity Proposed. Here are the first two paragraphs to give you the general idea:

Evolution skeptics argue that some biological structures, like the brain or the eye, are simply too complex for natural selection to explain. Biologists have proposed various ways that so-called ‘irreducibly complex’ structures could emerge incrementally over time, bit by bit. But a new study proposes an alternative route.

Instead of starting from simpler precursors and becoming more intricate, say authors Dan McShea and Wim Hordijk, some structures could have evolved from complex beginnings that gradually grew simpler — an idea they dub “complexity by subtraction.” Computer models and trends in skull evolution back them up, the researchers show in a study published this week in the journal Evolutionary Biology.

Here’s the paper, but you’ll need a subscription to read more than the abstract: Complexity by Subtraction. There’s another article about it in EurekAlert: Study proposes alternative way to explain life’s complexity.

We didn’t think all that much of it, because we thought the idea was an old one. We’ve seen discussions about it regarding apparently elegant biological features, and it’s been suggested that such may have begun as clumsy structures resulting from, say, a DNA replication accident resulting in the fusion of a pair of genes, perhaps one of them a duplicate. The result may have been functional, but it was clumsy — a kluge, so to speak. Lots of new things get their start that way. Often they stay that way. Evolution isn’t about perfection; functional adequacy is sufficient.

Starting with that, unnecessary components can be lost in subsequent mutations over time, eventually resulting in an efficient, uncluttered, and deceptively refined feature that is unlikely to have appeared in that configuration sua sponte, but which exists nevertheless — a puzzle for the unsophisticated observer. But the process of arriving at that point is far from miraculous.

During the gradual refinement process during which unnecessary components are eliminated, the organism would fail if a mutation removed something vital. But if a mutation removed something that was mere surplusage, the organism would persevere and pass on its more efficient genome to its descendants. The process is very Darwinian. The only “unorthodox” part is that in the case of that particular function, the mutation sequence serves to make an already functional structure more efficient by making it less cumbersome. It’s really efficiency (not complexity) by subtraction.

The analogy offered was that of a natural arch, which couldn’t possibly form all at once as a result of some geologic upheaval, but which could — and does — form naturally as unnecessary parts are slowly eroded away.

In other words, there’s more than one way a biological structure can appear, and as long as there are natural methods available, there is no necessity (or rational justification) to “explain” such things by resorting to the highly unlikely and always unevidenced intervention of a supernatural agency.

So, thinking this was old stuff, we ignored our operative’s tip. That was a mistake, because it appears that the creationists are making a big deal about it, as can be seen at the blog of the Discoveroids. They’ve just posted a smirking article by David Klinghoffer — both he and the Discoveroids are described in the Cast of Characters section of our Intro page.

Klinghoffer’s article is “Complexity by Subtraction”: In Evolutionary Biology, a Devilishly Subversive Suggestion. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

A theme in Stephen Meyer’s forthcoming book, Darwin’s Doubt (June 18), is that we already live in a post-Darwinian world. This will come as a shock to those low-information science consumers who follow trends in biology through the popular media, textbooks, Darwin activist blogs and the like. From such sources, it might appear that Darwinian theory is scientifically unassailable.

You, dear reader, are one of those “low-information science consumers.” Klinghoffer is about to enlighten you. Let’s read on:

It’s quite different in the technical literature on evolutionary biology, Meyer writes. There it’s apparent that plenty of top researchers have already stepped over the debris of Darwinism, making no secret of it either, and begun exploring alternatives. A new article in Evolutionary Biology offers a great illustration.

Lordy, lordy. Klinghoffer is claiming that the concept of “Complexity by Subtraction” is an alternative to Darwinian evolution — as if somehow it doesn’t involve mutation and natural selection. He continues:

Duke University biologist Daniel W. McShea and his colleague Wim Hordijk have wised up to the reality that Darwinian evolutionary gradualism is not an adequate explanation of complex structures in living creatures. As Michael Behe showed in Darwin’s Black Box, irreducible complexity is rife in biology, and it resists orthodox evolutionary explanations. If it didn’t resist, there would be no reason to propose an alternative, as McShea and Hordijk do.

Do we need to go on? We don’t, really, but we’ll give you his final sentence:

If it were feasible to build up complexity per the usual narrative, there would be no need to offer an alternative that turned the original on its head. Would there?

Okay, dear reader. It’s up to you now. Is Darwin’s theory in such trouble that “Complexity by Subtraction” is a desperate attempt to explain certain apparent miracles that are otherwise “obviously” the work of the intelligent designer? That’s what Klinghoffer is trying to tell you.

Copyright © 2013. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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12 responses to “Klinghoffer Laughs at “Complexity by Subtraction”

  1. Better to be a “low information” consumer than a “misinformation” consumer, as Klinghoser would have us be.

    I’m certain that I’ve read of this process as an explanation for apparent irreducibly complex structures in the popular literature for years. It’s a little surprising that these authors would propose this as a new idea, so I suspect it’s being highly distorted by Kling. Although he would lie about any article, it’s no doubt easier to distort those articles which exist behind paywalls.

  2. Charles Deetz ;)

    1. Referencing other research gives the appearance of work by DI.
    2. Refuting a theory or part of a theory does not automatically make DI’s theory correct.

  3. Poor guy, he and the rest of his Discoveroids have gotten so darn predictable.

  4. Among other sources, the Wikipedia article on “Irreducible complexity” mentions natural arches. It’s been quite a while since Behe’s book came out, but I seem to recall that natural arches occurred to me almost immediately, and probably to plenty of other people.
    Has any advocate of “irreducible complexity” ever talked about the Wikipedia article, and its long list of precursors (going back to at least the 18th century) for “irreducible complexity”? I always like to compare an argument against evolution to an argument against reproduction, and “irreducible complexity” fits – in the 18th century, people who believed in
    “preformation” used an argument practically identical to “irreducible complexity” to argue against reproduction.

  5. Suppression of an existing trait potentially increasing an organisms chances of successful propagation has been an accepted concept for some time now if I’m not mistaken.

    What McShea and Hordijk appear to be saying is that multicellular organisms can be expected to have specialized cells that may not exhibit the complexity that single cell organisms can have.

    One of the authors, Dan McShea’s webpage offers a little more rational explanation than what is offered by Col.Kling and the cast of hillybillys at sciencedaily.scam.

    The link to Complexity drain provides an PDF related to this topic.

    Cheers

  6. This idea is very old, in the case of biochemical pathways. In the 1930’s Muller predicted what we know call irreducible complexity in biochemical pathways via the addition of optional parts, creating redundancy, modification of optional parts to make them necessary, then the removal of redundant parts.

    The blood clotting pathway championed by Behe is shaped like a Y and has two branches, so the first steps are redundant and may eventually be removed.

    I think about 5 years back there was a big kerfuffle. Evolutionists at PT said “Aha, Behe said the WHOLE blood clotting pathway is IC, but part of it is redundant.” Then Luskin posted a blitheringly stupid post in which he said, ‘waah, Behe never said the whole clotting cascade is IC, he only said the part past the fork in the Y was IC, you’re misrepresenting what Behe wrote.’

    So at PT they posted a detailed analysis of Behe’s “Darwin’s Black Box” where Behe starts out claiming the part of the clotting cascade above the fork was IC, and then a couple pages later, he “proves” that the whole cascade (including the redundant parts) are IC too. Go figure that logic. Anyway, another example of Luskin’s ZERO reading comprehension.

  7. From my work in the computer field, I’m reminded of the “gold plated” software solution whereby everything possible under the sun was inserted into the software. This solution of course was not very good as many of the features were never used, were inherently non-functional, or were outright flawed and error prone to begin with. Nobody wanted to by the package. So the software would be pared down to eliminate these “over-features/over-inadequacies” and eventually a working piece of software resulted that the user would buy. Then, if any of the remaining features failed to function properly, one could say that it had become irreducibly complex, i.e., removing parts would render it unable to function, but only as intended.

    But like its biological counterpart, that doesn’t mean the individual component parts (e.g., subfunctions, etc.) couldn’t be reused in another application, or serve a wholly different function than originally intended. In fact the software industry does exactly that by reusing basic components in different applications. Only a creationist, or an inefficient software house, would reinvent the wheel each time the same function was needed in different applications. Indeed, a software house maintains a library of functionality that it can draw upon when a certain function is needed.

  8. On H. J. Muller, this from H. Allen Orr:

    “Behe’s colossal mistake is that, in rejecting these possibilities [of evolution of IC], he concludes that no Darwinian solution remains. But one does. It is this: An irreducibly complex system can be built gradually by adding parts that, while initially just advantageous, become—because of later changes—essential. The logic is very simple. Some part (A) initially does some job (and not very well, perhaps). Another part (B) later gets added because it helps A. This new part isn’t essential, it merely improves things. But later on, A (or something else) may change in such a way that B now becomes indispensable. This process continues as further parts get folded into the system. And at the end of the day, many parts may all be required.

    The point is there’s no guarantee that improvements will remain mere improvements. Indeed because later changes build on previous ones, there’s every reason to think that earlier refinements might become necessary. The transformation of air bladders into lungs [in lobe-finned fish] that allowed animals to breathe atmospheric oxygen was initially just advantageous: such beasts could explore open niches—like dry land—that were unavailable to their lung-less peers. But as evolution built on this adaptation (modifying limbs for walking, for instance), we grew thoroughly terrestrial and lungs, consequently, are no longer luxuries—they are essential. The punch line is, I think, obvious: although this process is thoroughly Darwinian, we are often left with a system that is irreducibly complex. I’m afraid there’s no room for compromise here: Behe’s key claim that all the components of an irreducibly complex system “have to be there from the beginning” is dead wrong.

    It’s worth noting that our scenario is neither hypothetical nor confined to the often irretrievable world of biological history. Indeed it’s a common experience among computer programmers. Anyone who programs knows how easy it is to write yourself into a corner: a change one makes because it improves efficiency may become, after further changes, indispensable…

    I wish I could claim credit for this Darwinian model of irreducible complexity, but I’m afraid I’ve been scooped by eighty years. This scenario was first hinted at by the geneticist H. J. Muller in 1918 and worked out in some detail in 1939.6 Indeed, Muller gives reasons for thinking that genes which at first improved function will routinely become essential parts of a pathway. So the gradual evolution of irreducibly complex systems is not only possible, it’s expected. For those who aren’t biologists, let me assure you that I haven’t dug up the half-baked lucubrations of some obscure amateur. Muller, awarded the Nobel Prize in 1946, was a giant in evolution and genetics.” [Source]

    Although Muller’s essay isn’t as well known as it should be, the gist of his idea is common wisdom in evolutionary biology. Here’s an important application: Molecular evolutionists have shown that some genes are duplications of others. In other words, at some point in time an extra copy of a gene got made. The copy wasn’t essential—the organism obviously got along fine without it. But through time this copy changed, picking up a new, and often related, function. After further evolution, this duplicate gene will have become essential. (We’re loaded with duplicate genes that are required: myoglobin, for instance, which carries oxygen in muscles, is related to hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in blood. Both are now necessary.) The story of gene duplication—which can be found in every evolution text—is just a special case of Muller’s theory. But it’s an immensely important case: it explains how new genes arise and, thus, ultimately, how biochemical pathways get built.

  9. Ceteris Paribus

    I’m just happy to know that Sunday school teachers can finally tell their classes that the ID removed the monkey’s tail so we could become fully human and go to heaven. There ain’t no monkeys in Kansas, and intelligent kids want to know why.

  10. Doctor Stochastic

    Many years I posted a calculation (on another site) which illustrated that a distribution could gain information by addition or subtraction or it could lose information by addition or subtraction.

  11. @Doctor Stochastic – Please, could you tell us more about that?

  12. TomS says to Doctor Stochastic: “Please, could you tell us more about that?”

    Yes, we want more! At least links.