Behe, Lenski and the “Edge” of Evolution, Part 4: IC and Exaptation
Note: In this series, we reexamine the claim made by Intelligent Design proponent Michael Behe to have found a limit to “Darwinian” evolution in light of recent results from the laboratory of Richard Lenski.
In previous posts in this series, we evaluated Behe’s claimed “edge” for what evolution can (and allegedly cannot) accomplish by examining the step-by-step path that bacteria in the Long Term Evolution Experiment (LTEE) took to arrive at a mechanism for utilizing citrate under aerobic conditions. In this post, we look at the implications of these results for another of Behe’s related ideas: that of irreducible complexity.
Behe and IC
Since we have previously explored Behe’s idea of irreducible complexity in an entire series, we will not revisit it here in great detail. It is important, however, to reemphasize how Behe defines irreducible complexity (IC). As we noted in the first part of that series, Behe frames his ideas on IC as a counter to Darwin’s ideas of gradualism.
For Behe, the argument for IC is a critique of gradual evolutionary processes, of the kind that Darwin saw as necessary for his theory to hold. When Behe introduces and defines IC in his book Darwin’s Black Box, he has a key quote from Darwin on gradualism explicitly in view:
Darwin knew that his theory of gradual evolution by natural selection carried a heavy burden: "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down."
It is safe to say the most of the scientific skepticism about Darwinism in the past century has centered on this requirement… critics of Darwin have suspected that his criterion of failure had been met. But how can we be confident? What type of biological system could not be formed by “numerous, successive, slight modifications”?
Well, for starters, a system that is irreducibly complex. By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional. An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution.
(Darwin’s Black Box, p. 39)
The definition of an IC system is thus straightforward: it is a matched group of components, where all the components are necessary for the function of the system. The necessity of each component can be demonstrated by attempting to remove it – if the system no longer works if even one component is removed, it is by definition IC.
Behe and exaptation
The standard response to Behe’s argument from IC is to discuss the evolutionary concept of exaptation: that new systems and functions are cobbled together from components that have functional roles in other systems already present in the cell. Behe discusses, and ultimately dismisses this idea in Darwin’s Black Box as follows:
In Chapter 2 I noted that one couldn’t take specialized parts of other complex systems (such as the spring from a grandfather clock) and use them directly as specialized parts of a second irreducible system (like a mousetrap) unless the parts were first extensively modified. Analogous parts playing roles in other systems cannot relieve the irreducible complexity of a new system; the focus simply shifts from “making” the components to “modifying” them. In either case, there is no new function unless an intelligent agent guides the setup.
So for Behe, two points are clear: parts selected for function in one system cannot be exapted for use in other systems since they would require too many modifications; and the emergence of a new function is the indication that an intelligent agent is guiding the process.
Behe has responded to my previous posts to claim that the tandem duplication event that brought about the Cit+ actualization event should not be considered a gain-of-FCT mutation under his criteria:
The gene duplication which brought an oxygen-tolerant promoter near to the citT gene did not make any new functional element. Rather, it simply duplicated existing features. The two FCTs comprising the oxygen tolerant citrate transporter locus -- the promoter and the gene -- were functional before the duplication and functional after. I had written in my review that one type of mutation that could be categorized as a gain-of-FCT was gene duplication with subsequent sequence modification, to allow the gene to specialize in some task. Venema thinks the mutation observed by Lenski is such an event. He has overlooked the fact that there was no subsequent sequence modification; a segment of DNA simply tandemly duplicated, bringing together two pre-existing FCTs.
As an aside, quibbling over whether this mutation constitutes a “genuine gain-of-FCT” mutation is not my purpose here, since the definition is Behe’s to define, and I am not aware of anyone else in the scientific literature who uses Behe’s definitions. That said, I consider it passing strange to claim that a series of events that produced a gene that has a new sequence and functional properties distinct from either of its component parts does not constitute the production of a new “functional coded element.” If nothing else, it is a functional coded element that has not previously existed, cobbled together from parts of other functional coded elements, displaying new, adaptive properties. If according to Behe’s definition that’s not “new” or a “gain” then I guess it’s not, but that seems to me to torture the words “new” and “gain” beyond recognition. But I digress.
The important point for our purposes, however, lies elsewhere. Note carefully how Behe describes the Cit+ actualization event. By dividing the new aerobic citrate transporter gene into two previously existing FCTs, Behe is describing an exaptation event. The one FCT (the aerobic promoter) starts off as a necessary component of a gene transcribed when oxygen is present. As such it is under selection for that function, which has nothing to do with expressing a citrate transporter. The second FCT (the citrate transporter amino acid coding sequence) is under selection to be a citrate transporter, which has nothing to do with the function of the gene the promoter comes from. The Cit+ actualization event, then, exapts these two FCTs by placing them together to create a new function (which Behe does not mention).
And here’s the kicker: the new system (expression of the citrate transporter when oxygen is present) requires both FCTs in order to work. It has become a system of “well matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function” (i.e. transporting citrate in the presence of oxygen) “wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.”
In other words, it is a new IC system – a small and relatively simple system, yes, but nonetheless IC. Now, I’m fairly sure that Behe would not define this system as IC, since the documentation of an IC system evolving would seriously undermine his thesis. I am interested, however, in how he will handle this development, on two fronts. First, he would need to explain specifically why two exapted FCTs that are required together for a basic function does not constitute an IC system (if indeed he wishes to preserve his definition). Secondly, given that he allows for exaptation in this case, he needs to explain how exaptation is not a threat to IC in general. In Darwin’s Black Box he disallows exaptation altogether, but that option is no longer on the table.
In the next post in this series, we’ll continue to explore the evidence for exaptation as a means to build new FCTs, and go on to examine the implications of this evidence for Douglas Axe’s proposed limit to evolutionary mechanisms.
For further reading:
Blount, Z.D., Barrick, J.E., Davidson, C.J. and Lenski, R.E. (2012). Genomic analysis of a key innovation in an experimental Escherichia coli population. Nature 489; 513- 518.
Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (New York: Free Press, 2006).
Michael J. Behe, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (New York: Free Press, 2007).
Michael J. Behe (2010). Experimental evolution, loss-of-function mutations, and “The first rule of adaptive evolution”. The Quarterly Review of Biology 85(4); 419-445.
Dennis Venema is Fellow of Biology for The BioLogos Foundation and associate professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signalling.