The primordial condition of biology
In 1996, Lehigh University professor of biochemistry, Michael Behe, published his first book Darwin’s Black Box, which famously advanced the concept of irreducible complexity (IC) to prominent status in the conversation of design in biology. In his book, Professor Behe described irreducible complexity as: A single system which is composed of several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.
In illustrating his point, Behe used the idea of a simple mousetrap -- with its base and spring and holding bar -- as an example of an IC system, where the removal of any of these parts would render the mousetrap incapable of its intended purpose of trapping a mouse. Further, he provided examples of biological IC systems; each one dependent on several distinct parts in order to accomplish its task. Behe's point in all this was that ALL the parts of the mouse trap are simultaneously necessary in order for a mousetrap to trap mice. And in a biological sense, if critical functions require several parts, then those functions would not occur until the various parts became available.
Depending on who you talk to, IC was seen as either a barrier to step-by-step evolution in certain functions, or as a significantly steep hill to climb. It was also a hill that would have to be climbed over and over again to account for all the IC systems found in biology. And yet to no one’s surprise, among the motivated ID critics, it was treated as being all but irrelevant – evolution made the parts available over the good course of time, and life gained new functions as those parts became available. Apparently, on the way back to the origin of life, there is no critical function that ever required more than one thing when it was necessary.
In any case, one of Behe’s main critics was Brown University’s Kenneth Miller, who generally ignored whatever function might be lost by removing a part from an IC system, and pointed out that the remaining parts could serve other functions until the missing parts became available. For instance, he suggested that we could remove the holding bar from Behe’s mousetrap, yet the base and spring could serve as a fashionable “tie clip” instead. Miller was so pleased by his rebuttal that he often wore a tie clip cast in the form of a miniature mousetrap. Of course, Miller’s tie clip argument, nor any other counter-argument, offered any real refutation of irreducible complexity, but that didn’t seem to matter. Miller’s simplistic imagery caught fire and was soon repeated in discussions throughout the debate.
Today, Lehigh University maintains a special page on their biology website, serving two distinct purposes. The first is to provide a platform for the faculty to congratulate themselves on their robust commitment to intellectual freedom, and the second is to publically humiliate their fellow faculty member Michael Behe and his heretical concepts, including of course, irreducible complexity.
The reason for highlighting irreducible complexity in this article is not merely because the concept never went away, but as it turns out, irreducible complexity is unambiguously corroborated by the study of semiosis inside the cell. Semiotic processes were never prominent in the original presentation of irreducible complexity, nor in the nationwide debate that followed. Likewise, the semiotic observations that I've articulated at Biosemiosis.org were never intended to be an argument about irreducible complexity. But the fact remains that semiosis is a process that simply does not occur without (a minimum of) two objects operating in a very specific system. And the function that is lost by not having this system is the very capacity to organize biology in the first place. The living cell does not happen without it.
Semiosis ultimately refers to the physical process whereby meaningful information is exchanged and translated in the living kingdom. The translation of an informational medium is a primordial condition of biology because it creates the physical means to specify objects and place them under temporal control. This is a universal reality inside the living cell. The capacity to specify something is the utility that enables living things to be organized in a far-from-equilibrium state, and sustains them there. But the capacity to specify something is itself a product of organization -- a unique organization unlike any other. It has clear organizational requirements that must be fulfilled in order to function.
Foremost, it requires the arrangement of a medium to serve as a representation – an object that is foreign to all other (non-semiotic) physical systems. This arrangement is used to specify the thing being represented within the system, but no material object (regardless of its arrangement) inherently specifies or represents any other material object, so a second arrangement of matter is required to establish what is being specified by the representation. This is a fundamental organizational requirement involving two critical objects, and is required to accomplish what the system can do. It is this architecture that allows nucleic representations to specify amino acid effects in a deterministic material system. But there is a third critical requirement -- the system only functions by establishing the medium as a genuine formal representation. This is accomplished by preserving the natural discontinuity between the arrangement of the representation and the determination of its effect. In the origin of the autonomous self-replicating cell, many of these representational relationships must simultaneously exist in order for the system to have the informational capacity it needs to record itself into memory, and begin the cycle of life. This also implies the additional requirements that the patterns of these individual representations be independent of their dynamic properties, and that the constraints of a reading frame code be instantiated in the system and recorded in the information encoded by it.
Of course, there is an RNA-based objection to all of this. RNA can serve as an informational medium, as well as catalyze certain effects. So to an advocate of the RNA world, hope remains in the idea that a sequence of RNA might both describe itself and catalyze its description into being.
The problems associated with the RNA World are legion, and generally available to any interested reader, so I will not cover them here. But suffice it to say; in addition to all the problematic chemistry involved in the RNA world hypothesis, the obvious problem from the semiotic perspective is that the RNA scenario does not achieve translation. Indeed, it represents an entirely different organization altogether, demonstrating the very limitations that translation specifically overcomes.
During genetic translation, the products of the system are not determined by the dynamic properties of the medium being translated. Along with the establishment of a reading frame code, this is the fundamental feature of the system. The system is organized around the discontinuity required for genuine representational control. But in the RNA world, the products of the system are entirely determined by (and limited by) those same dynamic properties.
Ultimately, the RNA world lacks the very utility that makes the living cell possible.
Will any of this matter to the proponent of RNA? No, it’s not likely. This is particularly true of those who are preconditioned to deny any observation of design in biology, as well as those who have no curiosity about the evidence of design already presented. Furthermore, any hypothesis that is protected by what we don’t know (as opposed to what we do know) can always look over the horizon and say “we just don’t yet understand how it happened”. In other words, the RNA hypothesis can never be put to a test of its validity, and is therefore unaffected by any evidence to the contrary.
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So, it is an empirically-substantiated observation that genetic translation is semiotic, and as a matter of organizational necessity, semiosis is an irreducibly complex process. The faculty at Lehigh University should remove the insult to Michael Behe from their website. It was always in poor taste, but it is particularly so when Behe was right all long.
They should consider replacing it with an apology.