Is Life Irreducibly Complex?

Today we are going to look at a philosophical and religious concept that some of you may be familiar with - it's called "irreducible complexity." Irreducible complexity is a concept used by many religiously-minded individuals to try and provide a reason for their faith. While their efforts are admirable, and I promote the idea of faith built on reason and rationality rather than blind faith, ultimately, I will be criticizing this concept today.

See, Irreducible Complexity states roughly the following (and you can read this on Ken Ham's website, "Answers in Genesis," if you are so inclined.)

Modern organisms are so complex, and require so many pieces to work together, that if one piece were missing or incomplete, the organism would fail. Therefore, life was intelligently designed, and did not evolve naturally.

Oh Ken you moronic koala bear, of course life isn't irreducibly complex. Life is complex, but complexity is a relative term. Ken probably would find a computer program of any magnitude complex, but I can (and do) create computer programs all the time. I even upload them for the public to enjoy if they are so interested. But to me, it isn't complex at all.

Even if there were an objective measure of complexity, something being complex does not necessitate a creator. Look at the stars. The swirling plasma and matter in them is fascinating and complex - but it is produced by the forces of nature without any aid from a creator, Ken. Complexity does not necessitate design. Here's an example of something complex that didn't require a designer with intent. These bacteria were introduced to an artificial environment and then left to their own devices. After many generations of bacteria went through the same environment, something changed - they suddenly grew more propulsion organelles, among other things, and consumed the food in this new, safe environment faster. The bacteria had become altered because some of the bacteria had mutated in this way, and then out-competed the non-mutated bacteria for food and reproduced faster and faster, and eventually the next generations of bacteria were all this new, mutated, evolved kind. Complex adaptation, without a designer.

Let's take a look at a hilarious video by Ray Comfort.

Here, at 17:34 in the video, Ray Comfort grills a university student that looks like he's been smoking a bit too much (We've all been there). He asks first, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" as if he's thinking "Gotcha!" with this question. The answer is the egg, Ray, because whatever organism came before the egg and laid the egg, would have been slightly different from the creature that hatched from the egg. The first chicken was laid in an egg by a creature almost identical to it (remember, evolution is incremental change, not sudden leaps!). But Ray goes on. We're in rapid fire mode, people.

"Before it had eyes, how did it see?"

I don't know, how does the Earthworm survive without eyes, Ray?
It's a mystery.

There's actually a really cool idea for how things could have evolved eyes (since we can't observe something evolving eyes right now, as it would take hundreds of thousands of years to evolve something that significant.) Essentially, a multicellular organism eventually produces cells that are slightly sensitive to light - not as organized or efficient as our eyeballs of course. These cells give the organism new information about it's surroundings, via light. Eventually natural selection takes over, and the mutation that granted it light sensitive eyes will, in some cases, provide an organism that survives to reproduce more easily than ones without eyes, and boom, you're on your way to evolving an eyeball, Ray. That wasn't so complex, now, was it? Random mutation and natural selection.

"How did it think before it had a brain, to look for food? And where did the food come from?"

I don't know, Ray, how do bacteria eat and survive
without brains?
You seem to eat just fine without a brain, Ray. Plants and bacteria don't have brains either. The food they consume is simply either other organisms, or inanimate nutrients (plants feed on inanimate nutrients, water, and sunlight - not sure if you are aware of this, Ray.) Creatures evolved alongside each other. Eventually, they began to eat each other and became herbivores and carnivores. The strong survive - this is called natural selection, Ray.

"Do you think the chicken-thing, before it evolved into a chicken, had lungs?"

It definitely had lungs before it was what we'd consider "chicken" by today's standards, but if your objection is "how could it have survived without lungs," I have a picture to show you.

I don't know Ray, I can't imagine a creature without lungs.
That's completely inconceivable, Ray.

How do things survive without lungs?... Except that the ocean is filled with creatures without lungs, Ray.

There's a theme here, of Ray and Ken denying evolution because they believe in one or both of the following claims.

  1. God created and designed all creatures, therefore evolution is impossible and unnecessary, and
  2. Earth and the entire universe is only ~6,000 years old. This is known as Young Earth Creationism.

These claims have absolutely no evidence of course, and all natural evidence flies in the face of these claims. The universe is billions of years old - starlight from stars and galaxies billions of light-years away from us has reached us, meaning that it took billions of years to get here. You don't get to say "the laws of physics lie" or "the laws of physics changed at some point" to make your case - that is altering the evidence to fit the conclusion, and that is straight up lying. The evidence supports a multi-billion year old universe. Score one for science.

How about evidence that the universe is designed by a deity?... Nope? Well there's gotta be a pretty convincing argument for a deity at least, in spite of a lack of evidence, right?

Not really.

See, "life is irreducibly complex" is a claim that has no evidence, and the assumptions that gave rise to the idea of irreducible complexity - as mentioned above - also have no evidence or reasoning behind them.

There's one more problem with this though. Let's say we had no idea how things could have evolved in particular. Let's say that no person on earth had any idea how any creature's evolutionary history played out - it's all a mystery.

That does not mean that life is irreducibly complex, nor does it mean that there is a creator or designer. It means we don't know the evolutionary tree. If you then say "we don't know, therefore god," you are playing the "god of the gaps" game, where your deity is an ever receding pocket of scientific ignorance. Neil deGrasse Tyson said in an interview once that that's fine, but just be ready to have your world shattered when science discovers new things that make your deity even harder to justify in that way. Scientific ignorance does not mean god exists.

What does logic have to say about all this?

To really nail this down for you, I will now put the argument from "irreducible complexity" in syllogistic form, and take it apart piece by piece.

Premise: Modern organisms are complex.
Premise: These organisms cannot be explained by evolution.
Conclusion: The Christian god exists.

There are multiple fallacies here. Firstly, the second premise is patently false - evolution can, and does, provide decent explanations for how many organisms have evolved over time. The fossil record also shows evolution over time. There is also an argument from ignorance here, which is popularly known as the "god of the gaps" that I mentioned earlier. Essentially, this argument is saying, "I don't understand how these organisms arose, therefore god." However, that's yet another fallacy - a false dichotomy. There are more than two explanations for how the modern creatures we see today could have arisen. Pantheism, Deism, other forms of theism besides Christianity are all possibilities, just to name a few.

To quote Christopher Hitchens, "You could prove deism, but you've still got all your work ahead of you to prove theism." Even if you somehow could prove that a deity exists, that does not endorse a particular branch of religion, a particular sect, or anything. What this means, and what deism means, is that even if you could prove that life had to be designed somehow, and something had created the universe, that wouldn't endorse the Christian deity. It would simply mean something created us. It wouldn't specify who, or for what purpose (if any,) nor would it say, necessarily, how they did it. Irreducible Complexity, even if it were true, does not point to a particular creator, so it cannot be used as stand-alone evidence of the Christian deity, despite what Ray Comfort would like us to believe.

It is plainly obvious that this argument is an incoherent mess, and therefore cannot be used by any self respecting logician. As far as I am concerned, this argument is DOA: Debunked On Arrival.

This video by "Rationality Rules" explains this entire argument and debunks it in much the same way I do - in fact almost eerily the same way. Give Rationality Rules a check out if this article interested you, folks, he's a good logician.

Feel free to let us know what you think in the comments below, and we'll be sure to get back to you.


  1. Mmm...former believing apologist here. I don't think you've quite grasped irreducible complexity (unless you're simplifying it for rhetorical purposes).

    The point isn't as simple as "it's super complex, therefore design." It's that there are things which look like they couldn't evolve, from a certain naive and intuitive perspective.

    Blood clotting, for example, is fatally useless if you take out five or more of a couple of dozen pieces. How do you evolve something with 24 pieces when organisms with 19 or fewer die? Did 20 pieces evolve all at once?

    So, not just "lots of complexity," but "irreducible" complexity.

    1. Hi Hunter - thanks for reading and commenting!

      I did simplify the concept a bit, to specifically go after Ken Ham and Ray Comfort's apologetics. I want to write another article discussing some of the more detailed ideas that Michael Behe proposes, because he tries to go into biochemistry and suggest that essentially any given biochemical process or compound is too complex and specific to have evolved over time. Philosophically this is similar to what Ken and Ray talk about, where complexity essentially necessitates design, because most people including Ray and Ken don't have any knowledge of or interest in biochemistry.

      You give the example of blood clotting. So I'm guessing your question is, how did blood clots evolve to their current structure/function? I will give you a link that seems to explain it in some detail.

      However do we need blood clots to survive? Many animals and life forms do not need them. Anything that is a complete organism looks "irreducibly complex" because it is complete - but the simpler organisms from hundreds of millions of years ago are also complete, and complex. Even if we don't know exactly how certain molecular machines evolved precisely, the fact is that we have many reasons for why Darwinian evolution is to be believed as true and factual. The fact that is still holds mysteries should only entice us to further research and study it in my opinion :)

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