Flagella -- real and fictional

(And how some reviewers of books by religious authors ignore relevant facts)

By Mark Perakh

Posted May 12, 2008

1. Claremont Review of Books about the latest book by Michael Behe

In a recent issue of the Claremont Review of Books (v. VIII, No. 2, 2008) Joseph M. Bessette reviewed books by Owen Gingerich [1], Francis Collins [2], and Michael Behe [3]. All three authors are scientists who are religious.

This fact seems to invoke Bessette's sympathy, as he does not limit his discussion to the specific merits or weaknesses of the reviewed books but also offers certain notions aimed at the justification of the three authors' faith.

At the beginning of his review, Bessette argues in favor of faith by asserting that "those who would conclude that science tilts the scales toward atheism, must confront two inconvenient facts." One such fact, according to Bessette, is that many (or even most) great scientists (he specifically refers to Kepler and Galileo) were deeply religious; the second fact is that, according to Bessette, in the USA today 40% of scientists believe in a personal God.

The debate between theists and atheists has a long and convoluted history, wherein multiple arguments of various degree of sophistication have been offered, rebutted, re-offered, etc., time and time again (see, for example, many pertinent entries in the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, ed. Tom Flynn, Prometheus Books, 2008). Given that history, it seems to me that Bessette's argument is one of the weakest ever suggested in favor of faith. How could Bessette know that atheists indeed construe his two facts (assuming they are true) as "inconvenient"? Has he conducted a poll of the atheistic scientists? To my mind, most atheistic scientists see no "inconvenience" in either the faith of Keplers and Galileos or in the religious beliefs (if true) of those 40% of scientists Bessette refers to. They rather construe these facts as irrelevant.

The likes of Kepler and Galileo, as great scientists as they were, were products of their time and their social environment. They were products of their upbringing and education, when faith permeated every pore of the society and of the social order.

Likewise, a similar statement can be made about those 40% of contemporary scientists in the USA who overwhelmingly inherited their faith from their parents and adhere to it throughout their lives because of having emotionally absorbed it in their childhood.

Moreover, it is commonly known that even the most formidable contributors to science, while certainly great authorities in their fields, quite regularly happen to be patently wrong in some other respects. The great Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, the discoverer of the periodic table of elements which justifiably is acknowledged as one of the most important discoveries of all times, was an implacable enemy of Arrhenius's theory of electrolytic dissociation. Mendeleev was wrong in that. Newton spent more time on various pseudo-scientific endeavors than on his theory of gravity. Bessette's argument from authority has no evidentiary value insofar as the controversy between theists and atheists is concerned.

Likewise, the reference to 40% of scientists believing in a personal God can easily be reversed against Bessette's thesis. Indeed, if we resort to such statistics, supposedly supporting arguments favoring faith, what about the 60% of scientists who, according to Bessette's assertion, do not believe in a personal God? Of course, I am far from suggesting that the number -- 60% -- has any significance. These numbers are irrelevant as the controversy hardly can be solved via a popular vote.

Moreover, the assertion about the supposed inconvenience experienced by atheistic scientists at the sight of many of their colleagues believing in this or that God might perhaps make some sense if the overwhelming majority of those believers unanimously shared the same kind of faith. In fact, the differences between various kinds of faith are sometimes more drastic than the differences between theists and atheists. Even if we ignore the incompatibility of, say, beliefs of Christian and Muslims (that caused centuries-long wars) or between Bahais and Budhists, or Sikhs and Wiccans, etc., various denominations of the same Christian faith are often so contrary to each other (causing bloodshed even in our times) that those religious scientists who adhere to specific kinds of beliefs are more reasonably expected to experience "inconvenience" at the sight of other religious scientists sharing different sets of sectarian preferences. I think Bessette's thesis about two "inconvenient" facts may be dismissed as irrelevant.

Bessette's review does not mention the multiple reviews of the same books that appeared elsewhere, both in print and online (since this essay is mainly about Behe's, see, for example reviews of Behe's book [4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 -- and many more]). Most of those reviews are more critical of the books in question than is Bessette's review. Some of the critics even pointed to elementary errors in Behe's latest book (like his erroneous statement regarding HIV viruses, as revealed by SA Smith in her blog ERV [8]; pushed into a corner, Behe was forced to grudgingly admit his error -- a very rare occurrence in the ID advocates' entire output, not because errors are rare there, but because they mostly pretend not to notice critique revealing their errors).

To avoid creating the impression of bias, Bessette perhaps should have at least mentioned those negative commentaries, or, even better, evince his opinion of the critique in question. Since he chose not to do so, this seems to make plausible the assumption that not all facts are "convenient" for reviewers like Bessette.

While Bessette devotes attention to the faith (or lack thereof) of scientists, he seems to have little interest in the scientific contents of the reviewed books. Let us discuss some of such items, mainly regarding Behe's position. I'll not discuss Bessette's attitude to Gingerich and Collins because both Gingerich and Collins do not support "Intelligent Design," are both serious, highly productive scientists, whose personal religious beliefs are nobody's business, as these beliefs do not interfere with their genuinely scientific work. Behe, on the other hand, is one of the most energetic proponents of pseudo-science of "Intelligent Design." Unlike many of other Intelligent Design advocates, Behe accepts most of the concepts of evolutionary biology, such as common descent, and even concedes that "God" can be evil. His only surviving claim for Intelligent Design is that the "Darwinian" mechanism can't account for big evolutionary changes, therefore the mutations that drive evolution must be inserted by some intelligent hand. The details of his argument have been decisively refuted by competent molecular geneticists, and published in real scientific journals.

Behe's argument wherein he has used as allegedly convincing assertion the notion that "if it looks like a ducků etc., than it must be a duck" is illogical on its face. Many things are not what they look to be. All mimicry is based on the deceiving appearance not corresponding to what is beneath that appearance.

Instead of delving into the details of Behe's second book [3], which have been critiqued at length in many reviews (like those mentioned above), I'll discuss an argument which is regularly offered in the Intelligent Design advocates' discourse, but, to my knowledge, has not yet been clearly repudiated.

2. Behe and images of flagellum

I'll turn now to a creationists' (including ID advocates' like Behe) habit of misleading their unsuspecting audiences with arguments that are too close to be in fact fraudulent. Here is a vivid illustration.

On February 15, 2008 I happened to debate Michael Behe on TV, in a program hosted by Larry Kane of Comcast network, Philadelphia, PA. (The invitation to participate in this event sent to me by the show's producer, indicated that I'd be "interviewed" by Kane. When, on the eve of the event, I learned that simultaneously with me Kane would also interview Behe, thus making it rather more of a debate moderated by Kane, over a TV link, it was too late for me to refuse to participate). While Behe was invited to sit in Larry Kane's studio, I had to participate in the debate from a PBS studio in San Diego, CA. Kane and Behe could see both me and themselves on a screen in Kane's well lit studio. They were sitting at a table whereupon Behe could spread his papers. Large pictures used by Behe for his arguments hung on the studio's wall.

On my end everything was different. There was no TV screen in front of me, so I could not watch either myself, or Behe and Kane, or Behe's posters. All I had was a single chair in a dark cavernous studio, so I had to hold the pictures illustrating my arguments on my knees. (A couple of weeks after the debate, when the show's producer kindly sent me a DVD of the debate, I was finally able to see how the debate proceeded on both sides). I am mentioning these facts not to complain about the unequal treatment of the two debaters, which was hardly "by design" of the show's organizers, but to point out that Behe's argumentation was very much based on showing pictures. As I found watching the DVD, Behe's colored pictures purportedly showed the image of a bacterial flagellum.

When Behe published (in 1996) his very popular and widely reviewed book Darwin's Black Box, the ubiquitous example of "irreducible complexity" became a mousetrap. The picture of a mousetrap was endlessly reproduced in various papers as an alleged example of the "irreducible complexity" suggested by Behe as a marker of "Design." Of course, the concept of irreducible complexity was in fact known for many years before Behe's book. The famous biologist Hermann J. Muller had already discussed it (under the slightly different name of "interlocking complexity") in 1918. [11]. Some 10 years before Behe's book the same concept was considered by A. G. Cairns-Smith [12]. These predecessors of Behe's, unlike Behe, did not claim that the concept in question was a great discovery on a par with those by "Newton and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schroedinger, Pasteur, and Darwin" (as Behe asserted in Darwin's Black Box). Neither did they claim that "irreducible complexity" was a marker of a supernatural design. Therefore the concept in question, as such, did not invoke a strong resistance from mainstream science as it later did in Behe's rendition. Perhaps the strongest display of the rejection of Behe's thesis was the statement by the prominent biologist and author of popular textbooks of biology Kenneth Miller (who incidentally happens to be Behe's fellow practicing Catholic) who referred to Behe's irreducible complexity as "nonsense." [13].

(Professor John McDonald even suggested [14] an animated illustration of how a five-part mousetrap can be gradually built up from a single-part primitive mousetrap via two-part, then three-part, etc. into a full fledged five-part mousetrap, thus showing lack of substantiation in Behe's example.)

Apparently finally realizing that a mousetrap was not a very successful choice for illustrating Behe's idea (an idea that has become one of the pillars of the ID "theory") ID advocates largely switched to another example. They chose a bacterial flagellum as the new example of the "irreducible complexity." (As the prominent young earth creationist Morris has pointed out [15], the flagellum had been discussed as an example of "organized complexity" -- young earth creationists' term for irreducible complexity -- many years prior to ID advocates' invocation of that concept.)

As the mousetrap before it, the image of a flagellum has become a ubiquitous accompaniment to ID advocates' books, papers, lectures, etc. The image of the flagellum appeared on the cover of Dembski's highly acclaimed (but also severely skewered by critique) book No Free Lunch, on creationist blogs, and so on.

It is this image of the flagellum which Behe displayed on the wall of Larry Kane's studio. Pointing to that image, Behe triumphantly claimed that the flagellum looked exactly like a man-made "machine." Since all machines we know about have been designed, Behe confidently asserted that the flagellum bears features doubtlessly pointing to Design. QED.


Since, as I have already mentioned, I could not see Larry Kane's studio during the debate, and therefore could only guess what images of a flagellum appeared on Behe's posters, I could not argue against Behe's asseverations based on invisible (for me) pictures. Had I been able to see Behe's pictures, I'd have had no problem in demolishing his argument.

In fact, the same argument has been repeatedly advanced by ID advocates for a number of years. For example, in 2004 the same argument was offered by Dembski in the course of his debate with Niall Shanks, at the University of California Los Angeles. (See [16] for some not principal but curious details of the story about that debate). The debate was taped and broadcast on some TV stations. In that debate with Shanks Dembski used an image of the flagellum as one of the tools for his presentation.

If I had seen Behe's pictures, I could have simply repeated what I wrote in a post to the Panda's Thumb blog on June 15, 2004 regarding the Dembski-Shanks debate [17]. Here is a quotation from my post:

[Dembski] has devoted a considerable attention to the discussion of what he referred to as the mascot of intelligent design - the bacterium flagellum. He insisted that the flagellum is in fact a machine, and to support this statement, he displayed that standard picture where the flagellum is shown in a geometrically perfect shape, fully symmetric and consisting of geometrically perfectly formed parts. Of course, such a presentation was misleading as the real flagellum is far from having such a perfect geometric shape. Unlike machines, which may be close replicas of each other (say, all Jeeps of the same year have almost exactly the same shape) the flagella, first, have shapes with many deviations from a perfect geometric symmetry, and, second, there are no two flagella exactly identical. Individual flagella differ in various respects, like the entire biological organisms vary from an individual to individual. If Dembski's picture were closer to reality, it would be much less effective in supporting his claims. Since he did not offer a disclaimer pointing to the idealization used in his depiction of the flagellum, we are entitled to conclude that he was interested not in an honest discussion based on facts, but rather on winning the debate regardless of means.

The above words can be addressed to Behe as well as to Dembski.

In fact the images Behe, Dembski, and their ID colleagues are showing are not pictures of real flagella but rather pictures of imaginary (usually computer-generated) machine-like contraptions remotely reminiscent of real flagella, pictures composed in a way artificially creating a false impression of flagella's machine-like appearance.

To illustrate my thesis, let us survey some examples of flagella images found in various publications.

Fig. 1

In Fig. 1 the image of a flagellum is shown as it appears on a blog maintained by Dembski. Note the smooth surface of the contraption in this image, its perfectly symmetric tightly adjusted components, indeed displaying a machine-like appearance. Unfortunately for its creators, this image is a heavily idealized representation of a real flagellum.

Fig. 2

In Fig. 2, reproduced from Yonekura, K., S. Maki, D. G. Morgan, D. J. DeRosier, F.Vonderviszt, K.Imada, and K. Namba, 2000. "The Bacterial Flagellar Cap as the Rotary Promoter of Flagellin Self-Assembly," Science 290: 2148-2152) a schematic of a flagellum, which is one of the versions of such schematics that often appear in various publications, is shown. Unlike in Fig. 1, this scheme is not purported to be a realistic representation of the real flagellum but rather is admittedly an idealized representation of a flagellum's structure.

Fig. 3

In Fig. 3 a model of a flagellum is shown (reproduced from Nanonet, constructed as an illustration of the flagellum structure. It, again, is not an authentic image of a real flagellum, but an idealized representation.

To see the level of idealization in the above images, let us look at an actual electron micrograph of a real flagellum in Fig. 4; reproduced from Shahid Khan, Imran Humayun Khan, and Thomas S. Reese, 1991; "New Structural Features of the Flagellar Base in Salmonella typhimurium Revealed by Rapid-Freeze Electron Microscopy." Journal of Bacteriology 173:2888-09]). The vertical tube has diameter about 20 nanometers (about 2 x 10-8 m).

Fig. 4

Unlike in Figs 1, 2, and 3, where the flagellum appears much like a man-made machine, there is little in this actual photograph of a flagellum resembling a man-made machine.

To complete the comparison, let us look at some more detailed images of the molecular structure of a flagellum, obtained by scientists via sophisticated analysis (including X-ray technique and cryogenic electron microscopy).

Fig. 5

In Fig. 5 an animated representation of a rotating flagellar hook (which is a part of the flagellum assembly) is shown (reproduced from the Atlas of Macromolecules).

Fig. 6

In Fig. 6 (reproduced from the Complete atomic model of the bacterial flagellar filament by electron cryomicroscopy), the molecular structure of a filament (another part of the flagellum assembly) is shown.

One more picture of the molecular structure of a flagellum is shown in Fig. 7, in this case representing a filament's cross-section view.

Fig. 7

Instead of machine-like parts with a smooth surface, we see in these pictures garlands of protein molecules constituting the elements of the flagellum assembly. Which man-made machine has anything in common with these images? These structures rather look like typical bacteriophage viruses.

ID advocates often point (see, for example, [18]) to the allegedly fraudulent "icons of evolution" supposedly utilized by the "Darwinists" for their nefarious purposes. One of such allegedly fraudulent "icons" is the images of embryos by Haeckel. In fact, Haeckel's embryos images were shown to be erroneous not by any creationists but rather by the "Darwinists" themselves. On the other hand, ID advocates, including Dembski and Behe, incessantly reproduce images of flagella which are heavily doctored, without any disclaimers as to the great degree of idealization inherent in these images. Indeed, look again at the real electron photographs of flagella and/or at the images of their actual molecular structure, as shown above in Figs 4, 5, 6, and 7, and it becomes obvious that real natural flagella are far from looking like man-made machines like those whose artificially constructed images are shown in Figs 1, 2, and 3.

It seems that Behe, Dembski, and their companions in the anti-science endeavors, may be with a much better justification accused of resorting to frauds, because the images of flagella they endlessly reproduce are in fact fraudulent insofar as they are not accompanied by disclaimers admitting the substantial degree of idealization, resulting in those mages being misleading made-up representations of real flagella.

For reviewers like Bessette who are gratified by the religious beliefs of the likes of Behe, these facts seem to be of no interest. The argument advanced by ID advocates and other creationists, based on artificially presenting flagella in a machine-like appearance, is as poorly substantiated as all other pseudo-arguments allegedly proving "design" of the biosphere and of the universe as a whole.

Another aspect of Behe's discourse which Bessette's discussion avoided was Behe's misuse of probabilities. I have written before about the ways creationists of various hues, and in particular Behe, misuse and misinterpret probabilities (see, for example [19], [20], [21], and [22], so I'll not repeat that critique here. It has to be noted, though, that in the almost nine years since I first pointed to the holes in Behe's treatment of probabilities, he seems to have not realized his lack of understanding of the relevant probabilistic concepts, and evidently continues to adhere to his puerile interpretation of probability.

My thanks to Matt Young and Paul R. Gross for having read the initial draft of this article and making pithy suggestions.


1. Owen Gingerich. God's Universe. Belknap Press. Cambridge, MA, 2006.

2. Francis S. Collins. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Free Press. NY, NY 2007.

3. Michael J. Behe, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism. Free Press, NY NY, 2007.

4. Jerry Coyne. "The Great Mutator." Printed in The New Republic. Available online at

5. Sean Carroll, "God as Genetic Engineer." Published in Science magazine, available online at

6. Richard Dawkins, "Inferior Design." New York Times, July 1, 2007. Available online at

7. Mark Chu-Carroll, "Behe's Dreadful New Book: A Review of The Edge of Evolution." Available online at

8. SA Smith. The critique of Behe's errors is found on SA Smith's blog titled ERV (

9. Ian Musgrave. "The Open Letters File." Available online at

10. Nick Matzke, "The Edge of Creationism." Published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 2007, available online at

11. Hermann J. Muller. "Genetic variability, twin hybrids and constant hybrids, in a case of balanced lethal factors." Genetics 3: 422-499, 1918.

12. A.G. Cairns-Smith. Seven Clues to the Origin of Life:A Scientific Detective Story.Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA 1986.

13. Kenneth R. Miller Finding Darwin's God. NY: Cliff Streets Books. 1999.

14. John McDonald.

15. Henry Morris.

16. Mark Perakh. "Letter to ***" (

17. Mark Perakh."Three SHs and one D". (

18. Jonathan Wells, Icons of Evolution, Regnery publishers, NY, 2000.

19. Mark Perakh, Unintelligent Design, Prometheus Books, 2004, chapter 2.

20. Mark Perakh. "Irreducible Contradiction." In Talk Reason:, 1999.

21. Mark Perakh. "Does Irreducible Complexity Entail Intelligent Design?" Skeptical Inquirer, 2005, No 6. Also available online at

22. Mark Perakh. "Improbable Probabilities." (Chapter 13 in Unintelligent Design (see ref. 19); also available online at

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