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.
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