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Open Access Highly Accessed Hypothesis

The cosmological model of eternal inflation and the transition from chance to biological evolution in the history of life

Eugene V Koonin

Biology Direct 2007, 2:15  doi:10.1186/1745-6150-2-15

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On the remarks on irreducible complexity

Albert de Roos   (2007-06-18 11:37)  Syncyte BioIntelligence

In his interesting and thought-provoking article, dr. Koonin refers to the concept of irreducible complexity, a concept often used by the Intelligent Design movement to falsify evolution. He argues that irreducible complexity is not a problem for the origin-of-life since the irreducibly complex systems of replication and transcription could arise by chance by invoking the ‘many worlds in one’ hypothesis. However, in my opinion, the concept of irreducible complexity is not just a problem for the origin-of-life research, but for the entire field of molecular evolution. He also states that his model leaves no room whatsoever for any form of intelligent design. However, the article and its theory have striking similarities with intelligent design theories, being based on the apparent improbability of naturalistic processes and the invocation of higher order processes that go beyond our observable world. In this comment, I would like to point out some aspects of both irreducible complexity and intelligent design that justify a closer look at these concepts.

Irreducible complexity describes systems in which the major components are interdependent and which contradicts a gradualistic model of evolution. The essence is that both essential components could not have evolved separately because they are only functional as a whole. In that respect, I do not see a basic difference between the origin of life question and other macro-evolutionary obstacles in evolutionary theories where irreducible complexity can be seen. For example, how can we introduce introns in a gene, if the function of a protein is dependent on the simultaneous presence of a perfect excision mechanism? How can we compartmentalize our transcription mechanisms in the nucleus, when the cell is dependent on the simultaneous export mechanisms for its mRNA product? How could cellular life exist before the evolution of the essential membrane proteins that provide the necessary transport of nutrient and waste? The interdependencies between mRNA and DNA, as also stated in the article, constitute the same paradox. So, irreducible complexity does pose a real problem for evolutionary science and, in my opinion, these cannot be sidestepping just for the origin-of-life.

There are several ways to counteract the claim that irreducibly complex pose a problem for evolution. The first is to try to argue that irreducible complex systems can arise by mechanistic processes as mainstream evolutionary science has tried to do. This has proven to be unsuccessful, as dr. Koonin’s article indicates for the origin of life, which is not surprising, since irreducible complexity and gradual evolution are mutually exclusive (cf. the concept of a perpetual motion machine for physics). The second possibility is invoking supernatural or non-gradual solutions, as dr. Koonin and many proponents of intelligent design do, which does circumvent the problem but only using non-natural processes which is difficult to falsify but does not satisfy materialists like myself. The third possibility is the acceptance of the falsification of gradualism presented by irreducible complexity, followed by a modification of our evolutionary theories. This last approach should in my opinion be exhaustively tried before we discard a purely naturalistic solution.

While the proponents of intelligent design (and dr. Koonin for the OOL) try to find a solution outside the realm of random mutation and natural selection, we should first look whether we can find alternative solutions that still fall within naturalistic science. I have recently proposed a reducible complex solution for the origin of life in this journal but I have also advocated solutions for the paradoxes that surround the origin of introns and the eukaryotic cell. Apart from the unconventional engineering approach based on the design-by-contract methodology (see here for an overview), this research point to a eukaryotic origin of Life, instead of a prokaryotic origin, which opens the way for a reducible complex origin of cellular life. The design-by-contract model also leads to models of evolution where a high level of complexity does not necessarily imply a late origin and vice versa, since the complexity of an organism could be a reflection of how many relic functionality has been retained. Thus, alternative approaches exist that offer reducibly complex mechanism, showing that we have not run out of naturalistic, gradual approaches for evolution.

There are two central themes revolving around intelligent design. First, there is the recognition that current evolutionary theories are not sufficient to explain evolution, a theme that is shared by dr. Koonin in his analysis of the origin of life paradox. Second, proponents of intelligent design tend to look for alternative explanations in the form of metaphysical (mostly theistic) solutions, that share with the multiverse theory for the origin of life that they are difficult to falsify and have little predictive value. The plain rejection of intelligent design in the scientific community seems to be motivated by the religious connotation that intelligent design has. Without the religious aspects, however, the incorporation of design patterns (e.g. design-by-contract for evolution) and intelligent systems may provide the tools for the eradication of irreducible complexity in our theories. Therefore, the skepticism put forward by the intelligent design movement could better be used to improve scientific theories and eventually separate religion from the natural sciences.

I hope that my comments will be useful to the many evolutionists who add disclaimer type rejections of intelligent design to their articles, since I feel that this type of response does not justify the valid criticism that is offered by intelligent design in the form of irreducible complexity and design-related aspects.

Competing interests

I have no competing interests

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