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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
Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI 49546
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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E. Coli at the No Free Lunchroom


The Core of Dembski’s Case for ID
Why focus on the bacterial flagellum?
Getting Acquainted With the ID Vocabulary
Doing what comes naturally
Darwinism = evolution + maximal naturalism
The Darwinian mechanism
What does it mean to be “intelligently designed”?
The signs of design
E. coli and its Rotary Propulsion System: Dembski’s Flagship Case for Design
Is the flagellum complex? General considerations
Is the flagellum complex? Computing the crucial probability.
Is the flagellum specified?
Bacterial Flagella and Dembski’s Case for Intelligent Design: Closing Arguments


Howard Van Till
Dr. Howard Van Till

See also:

Dembski: Intelligent Design Coming Clean...
Purpose and Design
Charles Darwin
Bacterial Flagellum
DNA Double-Helix
Books on Biology, Genetics and Theology