Perhaps it Seems Obvious

Natural selection depends upon mutations that are not produced in response to the organism’s needs. The bacteria are at the mercy of chance, which will fling in this variant protein or that, with negli- gible probability that the latest novelty will fit with what went before or will contribute to the design project of building a flagellum. In essentials, how- ever, this is precisely parallel to an old creationist strategy, just the one that Darwin sidestepped in the case of the eye. Behe has specified how the inter- mediates are to be formed, and it isn’t surprising that his preferred scenario has the air of impossibility.

What exactly is known about the bacterial flagellum? During the past few decades, careful molecular studies have identified the genes that direct the assembly of the motor, and have explored the ways in which it is put to- gether in the development of an individual bacterium. Some mutations in these genes allow for bacteria to move, albeit less efficiently. What is cur- rently missing, however, is that systematic study of the differences among bacteria with flagella and bacteria without that would parallel the knowl- edge attained in the case of vision. A sufficiently intensive study of the genomes of bacteria that lack flagella would enable biologists to explore the potential role of some of the crucial genes, and of the proteins they give rise to, when others are absent, and thus enable them to make more progress with Behe’s apparently formidable challenge.

Most sciences face unsolved problems—indeed the exciting unsolved problems are the motivators for talented people to enter a field. Chemists still struggle to understand how newly made proteins fold into their three- dimensional shapes as they are synthesized. To take an instance closer to hand, Behe’s own discussion acknowledges that there’s still a lot to learn about the molecular structure and functions of cilia. Unsolved questions are not typically written off as unsolvable—nobody proposes that there’s some special force, unknown to current chemistry (an “intelligent force” per- haps?) that guides the proteins to their proper forms, or some hand that as- sembles the cilium in the development of an individual bacterium. Why, then, should we believe that the problem of the bacterial flagellum is un- solvable? Just because, in the absence of systematic molecular studies of bacteria with and without flagella, we can’t currently give a satisfactory scenario for the evolution of the bacterial flagellum under natural selection, why should we conclude that further research couldn’t disclose how that evolution occurred?

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