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E. Coli at the No Free Lunchroom: Bacterial Flagella and Dembski’s Case for Intelligent Design

Howard J. Van Till

Professor of Physics and Astronomy Emeritus
CalvinCollege, Grand Rapids, MI49546
18 November, 2002

The Intelligent Design movement argues that it can point to specific biological systems that exhibit what ID’s chief theorist William A. Dembski calls “specified complexity.” Furthermore, Dembski claims to have demonstrated that natural causation is unable to generate this specified complexity and that the assembling of these biological systems must, therefore, have required the aid of a non-natural action called “intelligent design.” In his book, No Free Lunch, Dembski presents the bacterial flagellum as the premier example of a biological system that, because he judges it to be both complex and specified, must have been actualized by the form-conferring action of an unembodied intelligent agent. However, a critical examination of Dembski’s case reveals that, 1) it is built on unorthodox and inconsistently applied definitions of both “complex” and “specified,” 2) it employs a concept of the flagellum’s assembly that is radically out of touch with contemporary genetics and cell biology, and 3) it fails to demonstrate that the flagellum is either “complex” or “specified” in the manner required to make his case. If the case for Intelligent Design is dependent on the bacterial flagellum, then ID is a failure.

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