Behe’s Bacterial Flagellum — Debunked

Everybody knows about Michael Behe. Not only is he a Discovery Institute Senior Fellow, he was the Discoveroids’ star witness in the Kitzmiller case — see Kitzmiller v. Dover: Michael Behe’s Testimony.

Behe is best known for his argument in Darwin’s Black Box that the presence of “irreducible complexity” in many biochemical systems indicates that they must be the result of intelligent design rather than evolutionary processes. His most famous example is the bacterial flagellum. Behe’s colleagues at Lehigh University are so impressed by his brilliance that they publicly disassociated themselves from him by issuing this statement: Department Position on Evolution and “Intelligent Design”.

We found a great refutation of Behe’s argument at the website of ABC Science, a division of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: The bacterial flagellar motor: brilliant evolution or intelligent design? That website has a comments section (with no comments so far).

You already know what to think of Behe and his magic flagellum, but it’s good to have a single source to which one can point. It was written by Matt Baker of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute. Here are some excerpts from Baker’s article, with bold font added by us:

In terms of speed and agility, flagella-powered bacteria would leave Olympic swimmers for dead. They swim hundreds of body lengths in a second, and can change direction in a fraction of that time. The source of this incredible mobility is the microscopic equivalent of an outboard motor — the bacterial flagellar motor. At one millionth of the size of a grain of sand, this motor rotates up to five times faster than a Formula1 engine, spinning the whip-like flagella and driving the bacterium forward.

It starts out like a rapturous Discoveroid article. If it were one of theirs, it would end up declaring that the only possible conclusion is Oogity Boogity! But this article isn’t from the Discoveroids. Baker says:

It is perhaps not surprising then that such complexity and technology has been hijacked for use as proof, via intelligent design, of the existence of a creator. Intelligent design is a theory advocated by the new-wave of creationists that are primarily located in the US. It holds that some aspects of life are so complex that they cannot have evolved through a series of steps via natural selection, and therefore must have been designed in one go.

Baker clearly understands the adversary. Let’s read on:

A central tenet of this theory is the notion of ‘irreducible complexity’. This asserts that some biological machines — like the flagellar motor — must be the product of design, because if you were to remove one or two components from the motor it would not function properly, or at all. The logic being, this motor was designed as a whole construction — it didn’t evolve through a series of steps, so the individual parts of the motor would serve no purpose on their own.

The Discoveroids are always complaining that their critics are ignorant of intelligent design. But it’s clear that Baker knows what he’s talking about. He continues:

So the creationist argument relies on us finding no evidence of individual parts of the motor having a role outside of bacterial flagella. Luckily, individual components of the bacterial flagellar motor have indeed been found elsewhere. And they work. So the motor is ‘reducible’, and certainly not ‘irreducibly complex’.

How embarrassing for Behe! Here’s more:

Proof of the flagellar motor’s ‘reducibility’ — that it’s component parts can function elsewhere — comes in the form of the injectisome; another fabulous molecular machine found in bacteria. This needle-like complex is used by disease-causing bacteria to punch holes in the host’s target cells.

The protein machinery used to assemble the proteins that make up the punching needle is identical to that used to assemble the ‘propeller’ part of the flagellar motor — the filament and hook of the motor. In addition, nine core proteins of the flagellar motor share common ancestry with injectisome proteins — the genes that code for them are so similar they have clearly come from the same genetic ancestor.

Gasp! What will Behe do now? But wait, this gets even better:

In fact, the flagellar motor contains a wealth of other evidence pointing not to intelligent design, but to its evolutionary origins. Bacteria swim in many different ways, and the motors that drive their swimming are widely varied, implying an adaptive response to an environment — a hallmark of evolution. So while the flagellar motor of freshwater Salmonella is powered by protons (hydrogen ions, H+), motors of other bacteria that live in salt water environments, like Vibrio alginolyticus are powered by sodium ions (Na+) from the salty environs.

There’s also considerable variety in propeller shape across different bacterial species — propellers can be straight or curly, left- or right-handed, and more or less rigid. In fact, genetic sequencing of the proteins that make up the propellers has shown that there must be thousands of different bacterial flagellar systems.

That’s not all — Baker has even more to say:

Recent work on flagellar motors in species other than bacteria, such as single-celled archaea, show they also swim by a rotary motor, but one that is completely unrelated to the bacterial motors. The archaeal motors sometimes use a completely different power source (ATP hydrolysis), and their propeller grows from the base, instead of from the tip. This indicates that convergent evolution has taken place: two completely separate evolutionary paths have converged towards rotary powered swimming.

This must be very humiliating for the Discoveroids. What will they do? Ah, we know — they’ll have Casey refute Baker’s science. Then they’ll assign Klinghoffer to the task he does best — slashing away at Discoveroid detractors. That should do the job. But Baker understands the opposition. He says:

While all this may seem relatively harmless, the intelligent design movement is well funded, slickly presented, and actively challenges educational curricula in many countries. It is a dangerously well-articulated distraction from the large body of evidence supporting evolutionary theory. Scientists studying the flagellar motor can contribute by demonstrating that it is clearly not a smoking gun that proves intelligent design.

Typically, intelligent design proponents persevere despite this evidence. They simply adjust their goal posts by selecting other systems to act as poster boys for irreducible complexity. It is difficult to respond to these movable challenges. But as we learn more about the origins of these and other complex systems, we can at least reduce the number of available candidates used to prop up the theory of intelligent design.

Okay, now let’s sit back and wait for the inevitable Discoveroid response. You know they can’t ignore this.

Copyright © 2015. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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28 responses to “Behe’s Bacterial Flagellum — Debunked

  1. Intelligent design is a theory advocated by the new-wave of creationists that are primarily located in the US.

    a “theory” they say. At least they might have said an “assertion” rather than give them credit for a true scientific theory.

  2. Awesome.
    So awesome that I’m speechless.

  3. While I am most certainly not of the ID persuasion and very much appreciate the elegance and smarts behind the work described-I doubt it will have any impact on determined discoveroids view. They may try to reinterpret etc in another attempt to discredit the honesty and smarts of scientists but fundamentally they just say goddidit – and that argument is untouchable by anything other than some kind of common sense and insight which they have not dug out from their dusty closet in years. If they did not have influence in school systems I would say-ignore them.. There has to be some other way to undermine their dumbness.

  4. This has been known for quite a while now. The DI just move on, latest is ATP synthase. I don’t how many examples they can propose that scientists subsequently can show the evolutionary processes behind them. Additionally, things designed by humans are generally uncomplex – cheaper to manufacture, less to go wrong etc. So why does the Great Designer insist on complexity?

  5. Charles Deetz ;)

    Let say that the two different flagellum/motors are designed … likely by different designers (who says there has to be one, although it would be a treat to hear Casey use that defense.)

    I again come around to wondering when ID stops and nature takes over. Did micro-evolution take over with these thousands of different flagellum types/shapes? Or was each of them designed? Is every mutation that occurs part of the design process … or only the irreducibly complex stuff? Why does the designer then only do the hard part? Or does he do everything? How do we using science (their version or ours) test or detect the difference?

  6. As to Behe’s alleged examples of “irreducible complexity”, we all know that they were eviscerated one-by-one at the Dover Trial by attorneys citing the published papers which had already demolished them. But I got to wondering: Has Behe or any Discoveroid-friendly IDer come up with any new alleged irreducibly complex phenomena to help bolster the ranks of Behe’s failed classics?

    Does Behe continue to cite his four IC classics (i.e. flagella, blood-clotting factors, immune systems, and {can’t remember}) in venues outside of academia? I assume that Behe gets invited to speak to ID-friendly audiences. Does he just pretend that the Dover Trial didn’t force him to listen to attorneys cite and summarize the journal articles which explained step-by-step processes which undermine his IC claims? Or do his speaking engagement contracts forbid an audience questions segment?

    In the olden days when Morris and Gish were in their primes, even when forced to see and even concede some of their favorite examples and quote-mines by an astute audience member in a Q&A session–and even after promising to amend their next book accordingly–they would nevertheless repeat the discredited factoid at the next conference and new audience. So I’ve wondered if that infamous tradition is also traditional for any Discoveroid speakers who still allow audience questions. I assume yes but I’m curious about some specific examples. Do Behe et al pretend nothing happened to Behe’s classic four IC examples and/or have they beefed them up with “new” data and commentary? Or do they avoid alerting their audiences to a Dover drubbing that they’d rather forget?

    The most likely explanation for how flagella evolved has been published here, there, and everywhere, so I would assume that even with friendly audiences, IDist speakers would always risk someone asking for their rebuttal.

  7. I guess I don’t understand “irreducible complexity” and why it can’t evolve.
    A Royal-Flush in poker is irreducibly complex; but it is trivially easy to evolve one from a random deck of cards via copying, swapping and deleting in a competitive environment.

  8. docbill1351

    Here’s the abstract of a paper I found after a 5-second Google search of “flagellum injectisome:”

    The bacterial flagellum and the virulence-associated injectisome are complex, structurally related nanomachines that bacteria use for locomotion or the translocation of virulence factors into eukaryotic host cells. The assembly of both structures and the transfer of extracellular proteins is mediated by a unique, multicomponent transport apparatus, the type III secretion system. Here, we discuss the significant progress that has been made in recent years in the visualization and functional characterization of many components of the type III secretion system, the structure of the bacterial flagellum, and the injectisome complex.

    As I recall, the Tooters discounted the relationship between these two structures by calling the injectisome a degenerate flagellum, that is, the flagellum was designed by Blessed-be-He, then degenerated, probably after the Flood, into the injectisome. However, genetic analysis of the protein families of both structures proved the opposite. I think the Tooters still maintain their myth, though, because, you know, who gives a flying [edited out]?

  9. Professor Tertius asks:

    Do Behe et al pretend nothing happened to Behe’s classic four IC examples and/or have they beefed them up with “new” data and commentary?

    I haven’t checked the Discoveroids’ latest babblings on blood clotting, etc. but they posted this in 2011: Michael Behe Hasn’t Been Refuted on the Flagellum.

  10. The problem is that when you look at things empirically, when something is shown to be wrong, you discard it and move on. Not entirely, necessarily – my understanding is that some of Newton’s equations for gravity are technically not entirely accurate, but that they’re so much easier to use than the more accurate ones that, for most purposes, they’ll do – but something simply goes from being potentially true to not being true and, well, that’s about it. There will be some people who cling to the old knowledge, but there is much tutting and shaking of heads at them

    ID and creationism are, at their heart, about being right, first and foremost. Organizations like the ICR and AIG actually have in their statements for employees to sign that even if you come across inarguable proof that creationism is a red herring, you’ll still believe in it because God said it, you believe it, that settles it. There is no actual search for truth, only justification of existing authority.

    That’s why evidence against individual items that they hold to be true are so ineffectual. The problem really isn’t that Michael Behe believes that the flagellar motor is irreducibly complex, it’s that he feels that he has to believe that the flageller motor is irreducible complex. And you won’t get much mileage arguing someone out of the way they feel.

  11. “Intelligent design is a theory advocated by the new-wave of creationists that are primarily located in the US.”

    “…we can at least reduce the number of available candidates used to prop up the theory of intelligent design.”

    DavidK in the first post above is 100% correct — “Intelligent Design” is NOT a theory. It is simply a belief. The term “Intelligent Design” is just a fancy way of saying “Godddidit”, and is untestable and therefore, unfalsifiable. Simply stated, it is not science, but religious belief.

    We give the “Discovery” Institute credibility by calling Intelligent Design a theory. Instead, call it “Intelligent Design Belief”.

  12. “Intelligent Design Belief — not even an hypothesis.”

  13. @RSG: I still have an objection – you use too many characters. IDiocy is sufficient.

  14. docbill1351

    Do Behe et al pretend nothing happened to Behe’s classic four IC examples and/or have they beefed them up with “new” data and commentary?

    Neither. They play the “misrepresented” and “misinterpreted” cards. Remember when Behe claimed that the malaria thing couldn’t happen because it required two “simultaneous” mutations? Then, research showed that there were at least six independent pathways to produce the resistance none of which involved two or more “simultaneous” mutations, but the individual mutations provided enough advantage in the population to be preserved and acted upon subsequently, something that Behe said, categorically, was impossible (or in creationist terms vewy, vewy, impwobable). The Tooters tried to claim that “simultaneously” didn’t mean “at the same time.” WTF, right?

    Same with blood clotting. Behe claimed the “entire process” was IR, but when examples of partial, but working, processes were documented he then claimed that the “entire process” really only meant “part of the entire process.” That claim got whittled down smaller and smaller until he put it in the closet for a few years, then brought it out again making the original claim as if everybody in the world suffered “simultaneous” amnesia.

    So, no new data. No new analysis. They simply assert that whatever they say means whatever they want those words to say.

  15. Fascinating. So IDers can believe in step-by-step “evolution” but only when the steps are headed the wrong way!

    Whenever YECs and IDers insist the Adam’s sin brought on countless immediate changes (e.g. grass and coconut-eating herbivores like feline, eagle, and T-rex carnivores), I tell them that the biosphere would be so radically changed with new food chains and ecosystems that (1) I’m surprised the Bible says so little about it, and (2) that they are basically talking about a second creation. For example, what did blood-digesting organisms from vampire bats to leeches and various blood-borne parasites eat before the Fall–or were some organisms created for the first time when Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden? Were any of the carnivores given new teeth and their extra cellulose-processing stomachs removed after the Fall? Also, should we be able to find “old, unused code” in the genomes of such organisms which we could use to engineer pre-Fall animals and plants?

    With that in mind, if you promise to keep it to yourself, I will give you an insider’s preview of what will soon reported in the trades and then the mass media.

    I don’t want to give away too much–perhaps I should post SPOILER ALERT! like the young folks do–but, yes, Professor Tertius is hard at work on his first screenplay, a Spielberg film entitled Prelapsarian Park.

    The movie opens with magnificent panoramic views of the Kentucky countryside as the film credits roll. The camera slowly pans to reveal its vantage point, the view from inside a beautifully furnished and spacious helicopter interior. The camera moves to the pilot’s cabin for an even better view of the destination ahead as the craft descends to 3000 feet and a better look at the details on the ground. Eventually the endless lush greenery yields to reveal a large clearing, a busy campus of spacious facilities, tastefully but intricately designed, and all of the buildings are interlinked by covered sidewalks and walkways. Flower beds of every color impress the eye and, upon closer examination, one sees large, elaborate topiaries, countless pairs of animals of every “baramin”, all filling the landscape near and far. Yet, the most inescapable sight is the enormous boat-like building surrounded by crowded queues of humanity, patiently awaiting “The Ark Park Experience” Biblically anticipated inside.

    Yes, the fictitious buildings are the research laboratories of Answers in Genesis, the mythical research annex of the latest properties added to the campus of the Ark Park. In the center of the complex, the camera pauses to examine a particular portion of the intricate topiary-filled landscape. We see that the summer-long flowering marigolds are arranged to spell-out three words easily readable from above: “Were you there?”

    As the opening theme music ascends, the helicopter rapidly descends. It lands on the rooftop helipad of the seven story office building. [It’s named after the “seven story” in Genesis 1. Get it? Ken’s idea. Yeah, I didn’t care for it either–but when the Ham-Man has an idea, nobody at AIG is going to question it.] Ken Ham steps out of the helicopter and onto his awaiting Segway. He twists the handle and wheels his way down the roof-ramp into his seventh-floor office just below.

    I don’t want to give away what the camera sees next but as the last opening credit appears, Ken Ham stands at his huge office window, surveying his grand domain. A breathless Georgia Purdom knocks on his already open office door and walks in. She can barely speak as she tries to catch her breath and delivers the news: “Ken…….we found it! We found it!…..The key variable which determines how countless IF-THEN statements in the code of each of the genomes will be executed!”

    Dr. Purdom explains to Ken Ham the significance of their discovery. Within every genome of every animal there are countless IF-THEN statements which determine how a huge number of other program variables are initialized to their appropriate values and how/which so many segments of code will be run during the development of offspring. And just one special Boolean variable controls those key IF-THEN conditional statements: the variable DID-ADAM-SIN.

    Yes, that’s the name the “creation scientists” at cinematic Answers in Genesis chose for that key variable. The scientists realized that within every genome of every animal of this fallen world, the DID-ADAM-SIN global variable is always set to TRUE. So this means that if AIG scientists can just manage to engineer retroviruses to change/initialize that variable value to FALSE, the organism will produce offspring which will develop as if they were part of the prelapsarian world. They will take on their “Edenic forms”!

    So the scientists set about developing the appropriate genome modifying retrovirus, the Prelapsarian Strain of what they call the Eden virus. The fictitious movie-version of Ken Ham decides to gather two of every animal on the planet and infect them with the retrovirus so that he can build a theme park to top all others in his growing kingdom of theme parks.

    Yes, a world not yet sullied by man’s sin. A world where no animals are endangered by carnivores. A world where “the lion will lay down with the lamb”, just as the Bible says. “The Garden of Eden” will be the highlight of the new park, but only one part of the fascinating whole. After all, the Genesis garden was just a small part of the pre-fall planet. The Bible says very little about that world outside of the garden. Yes, the garden is just one paddock within that larger world, another theme park to which Ham will invite visitors and say: “Welcome to Prelapsarian Park.” {Cue the timpani roll and cymbals restarting the theme music.}

    Now that you know the setting, I think you can imagine the possible ways that the prelapsarian plan could go amiss. Ham invites the leading anti-GMO activists to the park to explain why they needn’t be worried that something could go wrong with the retroviruses. Yet, to give you any more details, would be to give away too much. After all, there are many contractual and legal matters to negotiate and work out yet. For example, Ken offered John Williams lifetime season passes to all of the AIG theme parks (yet to be built in perpetuity) in exchange for him composing the sound-track. Williams turned it down. He’s holding out for a percentage of the Prelapsarian Park snack bar proceeds.

    I can already imagine the movie trailer:

    {Scene: Beautiful, serene setting. Waterfalls. Animals grazing. Birds singing. Narrator voice begins.}
    “If you think Dominion Theology is scary…If you’ve ever OD’ed on ID… If your answer to ‘Were you there?’ is a loud ‘No thank you!’ …. wait till you’ve seen what one man, one mantra, …and a whole lot of very bad pseudo-science and even worse theology can do….wait till you’ve seen an entire planet turned into……Prelapsarian Park!”
    {Dangerous theme music begins, rapid montage of movie scene clip sequence follows. Narrator voice resumes.}
    “And the lion will lay down with the lamb…….. and eat him!
    {Theme music quickly plays out as title card appears including “This film is not yet rated.”}

    Script revisions, previews, and the latest news on the project will be posted on the BSF blog.

    (c) 2015. Professor Tertius & the Bible.and.Science.Forum at Gmail.com.
    All rights reserved. https://bibleandscienceforum.wordpress.com/

  16. The idea behind Irreducible Complexity has been around for a long time. It was notably popular in the 18th century in support of preformation.

    Whether something is IC seems to be dependent on the path taken.

  17. @mnbo: I’m afraid we need to write out Intelligent Design, even though it is so wasteful of characters. You see, here in Indiana “IDiocy” can also refer to the state law requiring anyone buying alcoholic beverages to show their ID, even if he or she is obviously an octogenarian. (Carry-out only.)

  18. @Professor Tertius: I’m envious of your apparent keyboarding speed. I think you are able to type faster than I can read.

  19. Behe MOTH. He’s sprouted long feathery antenna!

  20. @Prof T: I was thinking that you would have a carnivore, say a tiger, stalking its prey, which is unknown to the audience. Slinking stealthily through the forest, waiting for the right time to pounce, the camera focuses alternately on its strong body, focused eyes and sharp teeth. At the scene’s climax, the tiger is covered and dripping in red liquid. And as the camera pan’s out, you see the tiger’s victim was a strawberry patch.

  21. What ID’ers do when one of their examples of “irreducible complexity” or some other creationist principle is refuted is simple: they move on to another. It’s that good old “God of the gaps” in action, and they’ll probably be able to rely on Him, one way or another, for generations more. The job of sensible people is simply to ensure that they don’t gain influence, or worse, the political power to ram their ideas down the throats of everyone else..

  22. @MG: The prelapsarian tiger would have teeth appropriate for grazing. The image of a tiger chewing it’s cud could become the iconic Prelapsarian Park logo.

  23. Let’s see if I got this right, maybe I’m just slow. According to proponents of ID, all of life is irreducible complex so there’s a designer planning everything, only they have no clue as to who the designer is and how he/she/it actually works, right? No mechanisms and consequently no predictions with their theory and worse no line of inquiry to discover more about this so-called designer. So tell me, what the hell good is their so-called science in the first place?

    This is science as conceived by civil servants since you really don’t have to do anything other than accept the belief that there was a designer. Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of science would know what they are offering is sheer nonsense and is basically a faith-base belief system camouflaged as a pseudo-science for consumption by the rubes. That’s probably most of the Republican party and a chunk of the Democrats.

  24. All life is intelligently designed, but is anything not intelligently designed?

  25. TomS asks

    is anything not intelligently designed?

    The WordPress Beep-Beep-Boop editor, for one.

    Many, many other examples of Moronic Design available on request…

  26. Charles Deetz ;)

    Found this just posted on an ID group on FB. Video is posted in February, so the minions are at least still defending Behe.

  27. The one good thing about the IDiots is that they have somehow managed to point the way to more real research by real evolutionary scientists. Look at what has been discovered all due to Behe’s completely false premise!

  28. Would it be worthwhile for a evolutionary scientist to scan the literature from the 18th century for other discarded ideas to motivate 21st century research?