My Intelligently Designed Mouse PadPublished 11 June, 2012
Occasionally people ask me why I never write posts about Creationism or Intelligent Design, topics that other evolution-minded bloggers visit with some frequency. The short answer is that while I recognize the importance of teaching students science rather than superstition in schools, the debate seems more or less a waste of time to me, a bit like geologists pounding the table about how the Flat Earthers are wrong. It just doesn’t strike me as something to bother with.
On the other hand, someone recently asked me about the mouse pad I’m currently using in my office at school – pictured – so I thought I would take a moment to explain myself. Some time ago, a student gave me the mouse pad pictured here, and I pressed it into service.
As you can see, the mouse pad features a “creation scientist” named Professor Giraffenstein, which right away might strike some as skirting the edge of some vaguely offensive ethnic allusion. More to the point, the mouse pad is supposed to illustrate Michael Behe’s notion of “irreducible complexity,” and it’s this aspect of the mouse pad that brings me much joy.
Behe introduced the notion of irreducible complexity in Darwin’s Black Box, a must read for anyone stranded on a desert island with absolutely nothing else to read. The basic idea of irreducible complexity is as follows. Suppose you have a device that has a number of parts such that if you remove any one of them, the whole thing won’t work. Behe favors the example of a mousetrap to illustrate the point. If you remove the spring or the base, then the mousetrap won’t work, even if all the other parts are still in place. The key point is that the mousetrap doesn’t become a little less good at functioning as a mousetrap without any one of the these two parts; it ceases to function as a mousetrap at all. In his own words, a system is irreducibly complex if it is:
composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. (p. 39)
Behe suggests that mechanisms that show this property pose a problem for the theory of evolution because it implies that there was no gradual route to the current design. If all parts are simultaneously necessary, then there must have all appeared at the same time as opposed to there being a gradual pathway with the thing working pretty well up until the most recent bit was added on.
An easy way to see a basic problem with this argument is to consider human artifacts such as arches, which will collapse if any of a large number of individual constituent stones are removed. Scaffolding allows such arches to be built; once the scaffolding is removed, the arch has the property that removing any of a large number of pieces will lead to the collapse of the whole thing. Evolutionary scaffolding can bring about the same result.
And here’s what’s great about the little mouse pad propaganda. The thing about a mouse pad is that if you remove a part of it, say one square inch from the corner, it doesn’t cease functioning as a mouse pad. It’s just a little bit worse, yes, but it exactly doesn’t have the property of being irreducibly complex. It works just a little bet worse as you remove bits; it’s reducibly simple, if I may. If one were going to produce an irritating and patronizing example of irreducible complexity, one ought to choose something whose function isn’t gradually eroded as you removed bits of it.
And, you know, not to flog a dead Giraffenstein, but the second quotation on the mouse pad is a bit odd as well. The claim there that GOD designed the human hand so that it could operate a mouse implies that all the other things one can do with a hand are a side-effect of being able to operate a mouse, that the hand’s function is mouse-operation as opposed to a more broad description, manipulating small objects or some such. Not only that, but if the hand is for using a mouse, then why bother with 4th finger and pinky? Unless I’m doing it wrong, I don’t use these two fingers when I use the mouse. Ring finger, well, maybe, but my pinky is essentially useless. If GOD were designing a mouse-using mechanisms, what are those extra digits for? It seems to be a bad design, which ought to lead even ID people to infer that GOD had something else in mind when he made hands
Which brings up a question that I’ve been thinking about recently. Suppose, for argument’s sake, you assumed that some organism was designed by GOD or some other natural or supernatural entity, and that this entity built the different parts of the organism to execute different tasks (such as getting food, using a pointing device, looking beautiful for the benefit of members of other species, etc.). Would it be possible to infer what the different bits of such an organism were for in the sense of the tasks that the Designer intended those bits to perform? Could you use the shape, say, of organisms’ parts to guess the intended function?