Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Grasse, Behe, and "Irreducible Complexity"

Dr Pierre-Paul Grasse (editor of the 28-volume "Traite de Zoologie",
ex-president of the Academie des Sciences, etc.) is considered to
have been one of the most eminent of French zoologists.

I am currently* reading his "Evolution of Living Organisms: Evidence
for a New Theory of Transformation," (Academic Press: New York NY,
1977) with a view to summarizing the reasons why he should feel
that 'internal factors' are involved in evolution.

At the moment, however, I am quite intrigued by the following two

"Life is an epiphenomenon arising from a COMPLEX, structural, and
autonomous system forming an object endowed with an IRREDUCIBLE
individuality" (my capitals) [p.172]


"The system has become functional only when all its components
have come together and adjusted themselves to one another. The
Darwinian hypothesis compels us to postulate a preparatory period
during which selection acts upon something that does not,
physiologically speaking, yet exist. Under the necessary conditions
of the postulate, the action can only have been prophetic! Any
explanation ruling out the active intervention of the organism in the
acquisition of regulating systems may be regarded as inadequate.

To take as an evident truth the fact that the control mechanisms
attenuating or neutralizing the actions of the environment (these
are, let it be remembered, complex systems having several coordinated
elements) could have been assembled by successive and lucky strokes
of chance without the slightest need for the organism to play any
role whatsoever, is to sacrifice objective scientific analysis to a
wholly verbal magic trick" (Grasse's italics) [p.152]

I haven't read Michael Behe's "Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical
Challenge to Evolution" but a TalkOrigins article [1] provides the
following quote:

"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. An irreducibly complex
system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously
improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same
mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system,
because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is
missing a part is by definition nonfunctional. An irreducibly complex
biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful
challenge to Darwinian evolution. (Behe's italics) [p.39]

This article describes irreducible complexity as "essentially a
rehash of the famously flawed watchmaker argument advanced by William
Paley at the start of the 19th century" and comments elsewhere liken
the concept to "The old 'chicken-and-egg' question". Even so, I can't
help wondering if Behe had been inspired by Grasse's words!

From a wider perspective I found it interesting that Grasse
was arguing the case for 'internal factors' while others are using
similar reasoning to argue for external ones..

John Latter

*Grasse, Behe, and "Irreducible Complexity" first appeared here and was written in 2002.

[1] Irreducible Complexity and Michael Behe:


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