Documentary, Education

Intelligent Design – Unlocking The Mysteries Of Life

A thoughtful and well presented argument for a turn away from the dry/rationalist argument that the miracle of life is a “nothing but” – scientifically explained foregone conclusion. Their is “intelligence” behind the design.

Often called the most researched and documented case for Intelligent Design, “Unlocking the Mystery of Life” features state-of-the-art computer animation to explain the origins of life via Intelligent Design by challenging Darwinian evolution. The speakers are a who’s who in the Intelligent Design movement such as Phillip Johnson, Paul Nelson, Dean H. Kenyon, Michael J. Behe, Stephen C. Meyer, William Dembski, Jonathan Wells, Jed Macosko and Scott Minnich.


Intelligent Design View

“Unlocking the Mystery of Life” starts by describing Charles Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos Islands and how it influenced him to write his “On the Origin of Species” describing Natural Selection as an explanation for evolution.

It contends that while Natural Selection is good at explaining small changes, such as beak sizes, it does not do so well at explaining the evolution of entire species or at the cellular level.  It then lists a number of molecular machines found in the cells such as trucks that carry supplies from one end of the cell to the other and machines that convert light to useable energy.

Michael Behe describes how he began to doubt evolution when he encountered the bacterial flagellum with its flagellar motor.  This molecular machine is composed of numerous parts, such as a stator, rotor, driveshaft, and propeller that can rotate at up to 100,000 rpm.

Behe coined the term “Irreducible Complexity,” which describes that multiple components are required to make a function work.  If any of these parts are missing, then the mechanism will not work.  All components must be present simultaneously for the mechanism to work.

A mousetrap and the flagellar motor are cited as examples of Irreducible Complexity.  The flagellar motor is composed of about 40 protein parts, such as a driveshaft and propeller and if any of these parts are missing then the motor doesn’t work.  Evolution requires that you can explain how the system can be built gradually when there is no function until you have all those parts in place.  For example, how could even the tail of the flagellar motor evolve when it didn’t serve any purpose until the motor is completed?  But how could the motor evolve without the tail.  We are caught in an apparent Catch-22.

In 1996, Behe published his book Darwin’s Black Box arguing that Natural Selection could not explain the bacterial flagellum or any other Irreducibly Complex biological system.  Therefore, these systems point to an Intelligent Designer.

One explanation given by evolutionists is co-option in which natural selection uses components from an existing machine to create a new machine.  However, Scott Minnich argues that this does not apply to the flagellar motor since it is composed of 40 components – Ten of which are used for other functions in the cell, but what about the other 30?  And even if you had all the parts, what caused them to be constructed into the motor?  He then states that there is no explanation for how this complex machine was produced by Darwinian mechanism.

The video then goes into a discussion of DNA and how proteins are assembled.  The graphics for this section, as well as much of the rest of this video, are quite impressive.

William Dembski states that human beings detect the activity of intelligence when they observe a highly improbable object or event that matches a recognizable pattern.  Small probability and specification equals information.  For example, Mt. Rushmore is obviously created by intelligence and not by chance.  We see the same thing in DNA which stores and incredible amount of specific information about the construction of the organism.  This specific information and low probability point to an Intelligent Designer.


“Unlocking the Mystery of Life” shows some of the shortcomings of our knowledge of the cell and how it came to be.  This is good.  These questions need to be answered.  Pretending or believing that evolution has answered these questions when it hasn’t doesn’t help science and people should be aware of these shortcomings.  But just because a question hasn’t been answered doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t eventually be answered.

Its three main arguments for an Intelligent Designer are:

  • Irreducible Complexity – Even the originator of this says it doesn’t disprove evolution.  He also says that Irreducibly Complex functions, such as the flagellar motor, could have evolved. [see explanation…]
  • The evolution of DNA can’t be explained – Yet, they totally ignore ten years of research into the RNA World theory that answers many of the questions raised by this video. [see explanation…]
  • The math of William Dembski disproves evolution – The mathematician who created the formulas Dembski based his work on says that they aren’t applicable to the type of systems he uses them for.  And even Dembski himself says that his NFL theorems don’t disprove Darwinian evolution [see explanation]

What does this leave us with?  Well, we have the overall theme put forth by the video that the parts of the evolutionary pathway that have not — yet — been explained by evolution, must have been performed by an Intelligent Designer.  Yet, it offers no evidence for this designer or even suggests what the designer might even be.  And even if evolution is shown to be unable to produce life as we know it, this doesn’t prove a designer.  Suppose I say the moon is made out of cheese and you say it made out of jello.  I then prove that jello won’t hold together in such a large ball.  Does that prove that it is made out of cheese?

Science has only recently had the ability to examine the inner workings of the cell in any detail.  Naturally, many new, unexpected, and unexplained phenomena are being discovered.  This is to be expected and shouldn’t surprise anyone.  It is the usual first step of any new exploration.  Discovering what it out there.  There will be then be a time gap until the new discoveries are understood and explained.  Evolution, slowly, one by one, seems to be explaining these new discoveries.  Granted, it still has a long way to go and many of these new discoveries still seem very mysterious.  But to claim, “hey here’s something that we don’t understand, therefore it must have happened outside of nature,” is a bit premature.  That’s possible, but more likely, it just means that we don’t yet understand how that aspect of nature works and not that nature doesn’t work and we must invoke outside forces to explain it.  Once there was no way for science to explain medical conditions such as epilepsy.  Since science couldn’t explain it, it was thought that it must be caused by forces outside of nature such as demonic possession.  Luckily, scientists didn’t accept this explanation and pressed forward.  Likewise, they are pressing ahead and showing how supposedly “Irreducibly Complex” biomechanisms can and do evolve.  As we learn more about how nature works, the theory of evolution may have to be modified and improved, or it may even have to be scrapped and replaced with a better theory.  These new discoveries will go a long way towards creating new medicines and technologies.  But, simply throwing our hands up in the air and proclaiming we don’t understand it, therefore it must have happened outside the laws of nature leads us nowhere.

Evolutionist View

The “Unlocking the Mystery of Life” video states that Michael J. Behe believes that bacterial flagellum (the bacteria with a propeller) is Irreducibly Complex (IC) and could not have evolved.

However, in 2000 (four years before this video was released), Behe said

He hadn’t meant to imply that irreducibly complex systems “by definition” cannot evolve gradually.  He also says, “I quite agree that my argument against Darwinism does not add up to a logical proof.”

Also note that Behe is an evolutionist.

I clearly write in my book Darwin’s Black Box that I am not a creationist and have no reason to doubt common descent.  In fact, my own views fit quite comfortably with the 40% of scientists that Scott acknowledges think evolution occurred, but was guided by God.*

For the record, I have no reason to doubt that the universe is the billions of years old that physicists say it is. Further, I find the idea of common descent (that all organisms share a common ancestor) fairly convincing, and have no particular reason to doubt it. I greatly respect the work of my colleagues who study the development and behavior of organisms within an evolutionary framework, and I think that evolutionary biologists have contributed enormously to our understanding of the world. Although Darwin’s mechanism–natural selection working on variation–might explain many things, however, I do not believe it explains molecular life.  (Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution p. 5)

The video also states that there is no evolutionary explanation for the bacterial flagellum.  This is simply FALSE.  The producers of the video may not agree with the explanations, but to claim that none exist is simply false.  See The Flagellum Unspun, Answering the Biochemical Argument from Design, and Publish or Perish for a list of other papers describing the evolution of bacterial flagellum.

It has been shown that the base of the flagellar motor is the Type III secretory system (TTSS) that exists in many bacteria.  This is composed of a subset of the flagella motor’s parts, yet is fully functional for another purpose.  Hence, even though some parts were removed, the flagellar motor would still serve a biological purpose.  Look at Behe’s (the speaker in the video and the creator of the Irreducible Complexity concept) own definition:

By irreducibly complex I mean a single system 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. (Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution p. 39)

This excludes the flagellar motor from being an example of Irreducible Complexity.  To be fair, one might argue that the Type III secretory system (TTSS) is itself an example of Irreducible Complexity (IC).  But that is not the point.  The point is that even after some of the parts of the flagellar motor are removed, it can still serve a useful (Darwinian Selectable) purpose.  Therefore, by definition, the flagellar motor is not Irreducibly Complex as stated by the video.  Granted, this does not tell us how the flagellum evolved, nor does it imply that the flagellum evolved from the TTSS.  It only that shows that is not IC.

To summarize: The Type III secretory system (TTSS) is a subset of the parts of the flagellum (i.e. a flagellum with parts removed) and has a Darwinian selectable function, therefore demonstrating that the flagellum can serve a function with some of its parts removed and therefore is, by Behe’s definition, not an example of Irreducible Complexity (IC).  Granted, we don’t yet know for sure what the intermediate stages were (and they probably don’t even include TTSS), but intermediate stages are clearly possible, therefore the flagellum is not IC, and ID does not need to be invoked to get the flagellum.

This information has been known since shortly after Behe published his book in 1996.  Why is it necessary for the producers of the video to present false information if their arguments would stand up without them?

See The Flagellum Unspun for more information on TTSS and the References for possible evolutionary pathways for the flagellum.

But to be fair, this still ignores the main issue.  Has “Unlocking the Mystery of Life” found something that can not be explained by evolution and therefore needs an Intelligent Designer?  After all, isn’t that the point of this video?  But remember, even Michael Behe, the originator of the term Irreducible Complexity and the one who initially introduced the flagellar motor as an example says:

He hadn’t meant to imply that irreducibly complex systems “by definition” cannot evolve gradually.  He also says, “I quite agree that my argument against Darwinism does not add up to a logical proof.”

So not only is the main example given not an example of Irreducible Complexity, but even it were even Behe says that it would NOT disprove evolution.  If the video producer’s goal was to present an accurate portrayal of the issues, then wouldn’t this information be important?  Remember, Behe made these comments some FOUR YEARS BEFORE the video was released.

The “Unlocking the Mystery of Life” video lists William Dembski as a mathematician at Baylor.  Although he did head Baylor’s Institute for Faith and Learning, he has never had any affiliation with Baylor’s mathematics department.  To list him as a mathematician at Baylor is misleading.  The point of this is not to create an ad hominem attack.  Regardless of his credentials, his ideas may still be correct.  However, it does speak to the integrity of “Unlocking the Mystery of Life” when it repeatedly presents inaccurate and misleading information.

If the producers of this video repeatedly present false and misleading information, then you should take any other information they present with a large grain of salt.

It spends much time refuting theories about the evolution of DNA that were disproved by biologists in the 70s, yet ignores the “RNA World” theory which has been around for about ten years and answers many of the questions raised by this video.  Are these the actions of someone dedicated to presenting accurate information?

Dean Kenyon states that new biochemical discoveries further weakened his conviction that amino acids could have organized themselves into proteins.  This caused him to doubt biological evolution.  Luckily, other scientists didn’t follow his lead and just throw their hands up in the air and proclaim “Gee golly, I can’t figure it out, it must have a designer.”  They continued the research and developed theories such as the RNA World.

Recent lab research has demonstrated processes by which RNA can evolve into DNA.  While one can’t fault the producers of the video for not mentioning this since it was discovered after the video was made, it does show the danger of defining God as “The God of the Gaps.” The gaps are getting smaller all the time.  See ‘Accelerated evolution’ converts RNA enzyme to DNA enzyme in vitro

William Dembski briefly states his idea of how specific information shows the need for a designer.  However, they didn’t go into much detail about his theories.  And probably with good cause – His information theories quickly fall apart when scrutinized.  Here is some more information about Dembski’s ideas.  Dembski’s Complex Specified Information (CSI) theory attempts to show that biological systems are too complex to have evolved in the necessary time frame.  He states that if the total probability for a sequence of events, such as a presumed evolutionary pathway, is less than 10-150, then there would not have been enough time for it to have evolved in the 4.5 billion years of Earth history.  For example, Dembski calculates the probability of the 30 proteins needed for the flagellum as 10-1170,  a much smaller probability than the 10-150 threshold, therefore making it impossible via evolution.  Dembski bases these probabilities on the No Free Lunch (NFL) math theorems and even called his book “No Free Lunch.”  But there is no mention of the fact that David Wolpert says that the NFL theorems do not apply to the types of systems Dembski uses them for and therefore are “fatally informal and imprecise.”  Since Wolpert was one of the mathematicians who created the NFL theorems that Dembski bases his work on his opinion is significant.  This would be like using the quadratic equation to do your taxes.  You could do it, but the results would be meaningless.  A presentation dedicated to the truth would have mentioned this.

Do we  live on a planet that is specially designed for Life?
See review of  The Privileged Planet

But Wolpert could be wrong.  However, take the Kreb’s cycle for example.  Using Dembski’s calculations, its probability of occurring is 10-400, which according to Dembski is too small a chance to have occurred via evolution.  But biologists have been able to show how the Kreb’s cycle could have evolved and this has since been validated by genomic DNA sequences.  This shows that Dembski’s mathematical models are not valid.  Had the biologists listened to Dembski they would have had no choice but to throw their hands up in the air and say it was impossible and nothing new would have been learned.  But instead, they did the hard work and therefore contributed valuable information to field of biology.  This is one of the biggest drawbacks of Intelligent Design.  You learn nothing new by saying something was created by a designer.

Dembski himself has since retreated from his position.  Although he clearly once said otherwise, he now states “I certainly never argued that the NFL theorems provide a direct refutation of Darwinism.”

Again, a presentation dedicated to the truth might have mentioned these significant opposing views to Dembski’s work.

Maybe they should rename this “Unlocking the Mystery of Lies.”


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