A Non Sequitur on the Road to Irreducible Complexity

As you will probably be aware from even the most basic familiarity with anti-evolutionary arguments, creationists are adept at demonstrating that this or that is ‘complex’. See, for example, the latest from Dr Jeffrey Tomkins: Brain Function Discoveries Support Creation.

Golgi-stained neurons in the cortex, from a macaque.

Tomkins talks about a “pair of recent reports in the journal Science” that, according to him, “have added new insight into the incredible design and function of the human brain.” The papers in question are Hierarchical Genetic Organization of Human Cortical Surface Area and The Geometric Structure of the Brain Fiber Pathways, both from the March 30 edition of Science.

Much of Tonkins’ article consists of this kind of thing:

The cortex itself is a highly complicated region of the brain with various types of sub-regions that show differences in cell morphology, cell density, cell distribution, and process variation.

Nobody is disputing that the brain is complex. But at the same time, evolution can create complexity. But there is something evolution can’t do: Irreducible Complexity!1

The outcome of these projects adds to the incredible irreducible complexity of the human brain and its amazing architecture.

Whoa there, Jeffrey – you may have shown that the brain is complex, but where has this ‘irreducible’ thing come from?

This is the common non sequitur I have been alluding to: creationists go to great lengths to paint a organism’s organ as ‘complex’, and then jump straight to the ‘irreducible’ safe house. Never mind that most claimed irreducible complex systems are comparatively simple – that’s what the ‘irreducible’ part demands after all, that it could not be any simpler.

The brain, after all, is not irreducibly complex. You can chop bits out, for one, and the patient will at very least still live. And is a mouses brain not simpler than a humans? It may not do the job as well as our ‘more evolved’ brain, but that is the point of evolution is it not? Similar situations arise in other instances of this trope.

A linked Brian Thomas article – Brain’s Complexity ‘Is Beyond Anything Imagined’ – provides an insight in to the creationist thought process when it comes to the issue of complexity:

The more complicated a system is, the stronger it argues for having been intentionally designed.

Which is silly: a broken glass is more complex than an unbroken one, but it is neither intentional nor designed (nor even intelligently created in many cases). But that’s how creationists think, or rather want to make their followers think.

The final line in Tomkins’ article is:

And it is interesting that the evolutionary verbiage so often accompanying many biological publications is largely absent from these papers.

From what I can read – i.e. the abstract – this isn’t true in at least one of the articles,2 which begins:

The structure of the brain as a product of morphogenesis is difficult to reconcile with the observed complexity of cerebral connectivity.

You would have expected Tomkins’ to have seized on this as the topic of his article, rather than what he did. I certainly did, at least until I read to the end of the abstract:

This architecture naturally supports functional spatio-temporal coherence, developmental path-finding, and incremental rewiring with correlated adaptation of structure and function in cerebral plasticity and evolution.

Well there’s your “evolutionary verbiage”, with the added bonus of showing that what they, at least, found can indeed evolve. It’s a good thing that he focused on the other one, isn’t it?

  1. ^ Provided you define IC as ‘something evolution can’t do’, of course. Less stringent definitions are liable to bring in things that evolution can actually create, which only makes things even more complicated…
  2. ^ The Geometric Structure of the Brain Fiber Pathways if you want to check.

2 thoughts on “A Non Sequitur on the Road to Irreducible Complexity

  1. “evolution can create complexity” – how? Don’t you see, time destroys complexity everyday – even in the capability of cells/DNA etc.

    • Why can’t it?

      Using the traveling salesman problem from the other day, if you randomly drew lines until you connected up all the dots, the pattern produced would already be ‘complex’, would it not? And then if you mutated that pattern, and selected for the shortest one and repeated, the pattern would become more ordered. The end result would be undeniably both ‘complex’ and ‘ordered’, but you are only using the processes avaliable to evolution. There is no design, no supernatural entity.

      Creationists are always going on about how entropy destroyes perfect systems, but if you start from the bottom things will build, not be destroyed.


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