An information systems prof has some questions about Ken Miller’s “spitball” mousetrap
|May 5, 2011||Posted by News under Informatics, Irreducible Complexity|
While explaining how he believes complex biochemical information just happen to arise through random processes, Brown University’s Ken Miller dismisses Mike Behe’s mousetrap, introduced in Darwin’s Black Box. To show that it is not an example of irreducible complexity that points to design, he recounts a childhood recollection of a pupil using a mousetap to fire spitballs, which showed that the mousetrap could be used for something other than killing mice (pp 54-57). That is how Miller, who has just won the Stephen Jay Gould award for promoting Darwinism, knew that ID biochemist Behe was wrong.
Ralph David Westall, an IS prof at California Polytechnic University, Pomona*, contacted Uncommon Descent to say,
Ken Miller’s Mousetrap? In Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul (2008), Kenneth Miller devotes several pages (especially pp. 54-55) to the argument condensed below against irreducible complexity. However based on my experiences with mousetraps, his example looks quite suspicious.
I tried the approach he describes but wasn’t able to get a mousetrap to launch spitballs at all. (This is in marked contrast to my experiences with clothes-pin match guns, which did work quite well when I was in the age range of Miller’s story.) However I did manage to snap the trap on my fingers.
The big problem was that I couldn’t get the spitballs to stay on the swinging bar that Miller identifies as the “hammer.” There needs to be some kind of holder, which Miller doesn’t mention, to keep a spitball on the swinging bar until it can transmit a substantial amount of motion to it. After that, the spitball would need to be released in a way that was consistent enough to make it possible to aim effectively.
The “large, floppy spitballs” that Miller describes wouldn’t go very far because of air resistance. And then there’s the sound when the “hammer” hits the base, which would alert the study hall monitor and reveal the general location of the perpetrators before many spitballs were launched. Based on the above considerations as well as my testing, I didn’t discover anything remotely resembling what it would take to cause spitballs to be “zooming up into balconyland with the force of ballistic missiles” as Miller claims below.
Not being very mechanical, I mentioned it to an engineer who I knew to be quite hostile to intelligent design. I asked him if he could demonstrate the validity of Miller’s mechanism. He never got back to me.
Are there any “truth seekers” among the readership who’d like to try to make this work, and perhaps even video their efforts for YouTube?
Meanwhile, Westfall offers a “condensed” version of Miller’s account:
Soon spitballs began to fly, showering down on the unsuspecting students on the floor of the auditorium.We were defenseless-until the mousetrap came along. One of my classmates had struck upon the brilliant idea of using an old, broken mousetrap as a spitball catapult … He fashioned large, floppy spitballs and carefully loaded them onto the hammer, pulled it back, and fired it over his shoulder up at the unsuspecting balcony dwellers. You should have seen the surprised looks on their faces as spitballs came zooming up into balconyland with the force of ballistic missiles.
And now the memory of that device stuck in my mind. It had worked perfectly as something other than a mousetrap. Perfectly.
But how could it have? Weren`t the parts of irreducibly complex machines supposed to be useless until the entire machine had been assembled? … my rowdy friend had pulled a couple of parts—probably the hold-down bar and catch—off the trap to make it easier to conceal and more effective as a catapult.
What was left behind was, most likely, just three parts—the base, the spring, and the hammer. Not much of a mousetrap, but a helluva spitball launcher. And then … l realized why the mousetrap analogy had bothered me. It was wrong. The mousetrap is not irreducibly complex after all.
While it is absolutely true that my friend`s three-part spitball launcher wasn`t going to catch many mice, that’s not the point of the argument from design. The reason that irreducibly complex biochemical machines are unevolvable is that their parts, all their bits and pieces, should have no function until they are fully assembled into the final, carefully designed machine for which they are intended. That’s why natural selection cannot produce such machines—natural selection, as Michael Behe has pointed out, can only select for things that are already functioning. The same is true of the mousetrap. But if the parts of a mousetrap can have functions unrelated to catching a mouse, the mousetrap cannot be irreducibly complex.
(Note: Uncondensed version can be viewed via Search Inside This Book on the word “spitballs” at Amazon but for best results you may need to sign in.)
* Originally, Westfall was reported as teaching at Pomona University. UD regrets the error.