Yes, Darwin was wrong.
In a quote much beloved of intelligent design theorists Darwin famously declared:
“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 break down.”
This quote appears in Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box (Touchstone, 1998), 39. Immediately after the quote Behe comments:
“It is safe to say that most of the scientific skepticism about Darwinism in the past century has centered on this requirement.”
He then asks:
“What type of biological system could not be formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications?” (39)
Folks, would you please give a warm welcome to Irreducible Complexity! (Applause)
Now I do agree with Behe (and Darwin) that the identification of biological structures or processes which are irreducibly complex does present a problem for Neo-Darwinian theory in its current form. My problem is with Darwin’s claim that the identification of one irreducibly complex entity would be sufficient to cause his theory to break down. The problem is that this just isn’t how theories work, whether those theories are scientific or philosophical or otherwise.
Let’s say that you’re an economist and as the economy is facing a downturn you predict that a particular degree of stimulus spending will be sufficient to turn the economy around. After the spending the exact opposite happens: the recession deepens. Is this an embarrassment for your theory? Sure is. Does it cause your theory to break down? Far from it. There are just too many factors at play. Well-developed theories are supported at multiple points, and one failure is hardly sufficient to sink the theory.
Come to think of it, sinking a theory presents a good analogy for us. Imagine a ship with thirty air-tight compartments below deck. The ship is compromised by striking an ice berg, resulting in one compartment filling with water. Clearly this is not sufficient to sink the ship. Nor are two or three compromised compartments. So how many would be required to sink the ship? That’s not entirely clear, but what is clear is that it would take several. With each new rip into the ship’s hull, the ship would sink deeper into the water until it would finally sink.
Theories (economic, theological, philosophical, scientific) are like that. They are supported by multiple lines of evidence for which they aim to offer satisfying explanations. One anomaly is rarely sufficient to sink a theory. It would typically take multiple compromises before you’d have to run to the lifeboats and abandon ship for a new theory.
And this is surely the case with contemporary Neo-Darwinian theory. It is supported by a dizzying array of facts across multiple disciplines. Consequently, identifying one “complex organ … which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications” would not be sufficient to cause Darwin’s theory to “break down.”
Of course, judging by the less than enthusiastic embrace the scientific community extended to Behe’s favorite candidate for irreducible complexity — the bacterial flagellum — he probably already knows this.