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Why focus on the bacterial flagellum?

The natural sciences concern themselves with a vast diversity of physical, chemical and biological processes that transform some system of interest from an initial state (i) to a final state (f). Evolutionary biology, for example, deals at length with the processes by which organisms, employing their own functional and transformational capabilities and interacting with both their physical and ecological environments, change in the course of time. Substantial progress has been made in the scientific effort to become acquainted with the numerous processes relevant to evolutionary transformations, but even more remains to be discovered and comprehended.

The vast majority of Dembski’s argumentation in No Free Lunch focuses the reader’s attention on his particular concept of the way in which these transformational processes might be limited and constrained by the logical and mathematical requirements of information theory. In Dembski’s judgment, the scientific community has been lax in its dealing with these limitations and constraints, especially as they apply to the Darwinian mechanism for evolution. By presuming that all of the transformations of interest to evolutionary biology can be accomplished by purely natural processes, the scientific community has failed, in Dembski’s judgment, to give due consideration to the limitations of natural causation and the consequent necessity for supplemental action by a non-natural intelligent agent.

Sometimes, however, Dembski’s purely theoretical argumentation regarding these issues seems abstruse and esoteric, far removed from the real life things to which scientific theories are supposed to apply. Concrete illustrations then become essential. In my experience, the key to understanding the character or quality of Dembski’s abstract theories is to see how he applies them to specific biological systems. That’s where the case of the bacterial flagellum comes into play.

In Dembski’s judgment, a straightforward application of his “design-theoretic reasoning” will clearly demonstrate the need for designer action. “Design-theoretic explanations are concerned with determining whether some particular event, object, or structure exhibits clear marks of intelligence and can thus be legitimately ascribed to design.”NFL, p. 355.Focusing on the arena of biotic evolution, Dembski believes that he is now in a position to demonstrate convincingly that “transforming a biological system that does not exhibit an instance of specified complexity (say a bacterium without a flagellum) into one that does (say a bacterium with a flagellum) cannot be accomplished by purely natural means but also requires intelligence.”NFL, pp. 331-332.This is the specific claim that we will examine later in this paper.This essay focuses on the ID movement’s principal scientific claim and the rhetorical strategies employed to support it. I have also expressed concern for some of the religious and theological implications...

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