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An information systems prof has some questions about Ken Miller’s “spitball” mousetrap

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Thumbnail for version as of 14:41, 25 May 2009
courtesy Captain Phoebus

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.


Prof. FX Gumby said: "Perhaps your anonymous IS prof’s problem is that he’s not 7 years old anymore and is out of spitball making practice." I sent a revised version of this to UD when I was asked if it was OK to use my name. Check it out again and see if you think your comment is still valid. Speaking of anonymity, is FX Gumby your real name? RalphDavidWestfall
[Behe] May I have a close look at that mousetrap? [Miller] By all means! Hands mousetrap to Behe. [Behe] Pulls out hammer and smashes mousetrap into pieces. Picks up one piece of the now destroyed mousetrap and faces Miller. [Behe]Look, I've removed just one part. And look how the mousetrap no longer functions. Obviously, it was IC after all. Mung
But what Miller and the other Darwinist who attempt to refute irreducible complexity miss completely is that it shifts the burden of proof. The irreducible complexity of something makes a prima facie case that it could not have evolved by Darwinian means. Thus, if Darwinists wish to assert that it could have, it is incumbent on them to show the evolutionary path to it. This no one has even come close to for any of Behe's examples. The mousetrap was just an example. Arguing about mousetraps is a side show. Show me how the flagellum, the blood clotting cascade, inercellular transport, or the cillium could have evolved, including the steps, the mutations that produced the proteins, the probabilities, and the increased fitness of each step. Until then all you've got is hot air. Bruce David
Sorry, in my 2nd link you have to click on the link to "The Solution" to see the diagram. CannuckianYankee
On a related matter: Here are several of the diagrams Darwinists use to refute Behe's mousetrap analogy: http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/DI/Mousetrap.html http://www.detectingdesign.com/irreduciblemousetrap.html#The Solution Now if you pay close attention, one observation is strikingly missed by these diagrams: yes they show that there can be function at certain "steps" in the process of converting a piece of wire (for example) into a mousetrap. What they miss is the fact that the wire must be continuously and fluidly functional throughout every "step" (and "step" is really a bad word here - since the process is fluid). So it's really a Darwin of the gaps argument. They assume that in the missing "steps" there is function. Let's put it this way. If a person is artificially doing the evolving of the wire into a mousetrap, there are times during such a process that the wire being bent into a mousetrap does not function. The Darwinists overlook this and they think they're being clever with such diagrams. CannuckianYankee
Lastly, I'm compelled to point out, given the context of Miller's relating his "just so" story, that had a piece of debris accidently fallen onto a random partial assembly of mousetrap parts, and had the impact of the debris accidently wound the spring and the recoil accidently launch the debris off into another direction, then Miller would have provided evidence for the "blind spitballer". But as noted, it is merely another smugly incompetant story offered up in desparation from the tedious intellectual bankruptcy of Darwinism. Charles
What are you guys talking about??? Here is positive proof that mousetraps are leading the way in evolutionary innovation: http://www.popsci.com/archive-viewer?id=vUWZaX5aZpcC&pg=01&query=JUne+2007 :) bornagain77
What did it for me was when I saw a moustrap being used for a tie clip. Right then and there I realized that a mousetrap was not irreducibly complex. :rollseyes: Mung
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. Firstly, Miller's use of "probably" and "mostly likely" flags this as another in an endless stream of "just so" stories on which the Darwinist creed rests. Secondly, had the trap been able to launch spit balls without being held, Miller might have point. But Miller's rowdy friend merely substituted his own fingers for the hold-down bar and catch to supplement the base, spring, and the hammer. The trap's functional complexity was never actually reduced. It "functioned" only with his rowdy friend's digital intervention, otherwise it did not function at all for any purpose. Miller's story unwittingly prove's Behe's example of irreducible complexity. Lastly, the 'spitball launcher' lacks the "sling release" feature essential in catapults. The spring moves in an arc and without a "sling release", even a large floppy spitball will not be accellerated and released tangential to the spring's arc and flung in a linear path. Miller's rowdy friend would have to further add complexity back into the spitball launcher to effectively release spitballs in a linear path from an otherwise circular motion. Miller's rowdy friend would had to have foreseen the need and designed a sling release with a purpose in mind and add complexity to the otherwise useless handfull of parts. Charles
I think a major flaw of Miller's existence proof is that intelligence agency is implicitly suggested which effectively invalidates his claim. It was the boy who decided to use it for a different purpose, not the mousetrap that automatically adjusted itself to the different purpose. Eugene S
Ken Miller, and other theistic evolutionists like him, are seriously missing the point. Specifically relating to irreducible complexity, Behe himself said: “An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism)...” (DBB, p. 39) If it doesn’t work the same way when a part is missing, then it can’t be produced directly, which is just what I wrote. Nonetheless, I do agree that, for example, a computer missing a critical part can still “function” as, say, a door stop." Finding other functions for systems that, at the very least, appear to be designed for something else entirely, sheds no light whatsoever on how the 'intended' function could arise by accident. Generally speaking, theistic evolutionists need to ask themselves, was God in control of evolution? Is the existence of life on our planet something that God had in mind all along? If the answer to these questions are both yes, then why do theistic evolutionists spend all their time and effort disagreeing with Intelligent Design (over, basically, a technicality) when they should be concentrating on atheists who claim that life, and the universe, is simply a meaningless accident? That is where the fundamental disagreement lies. If you believe that God is behind our meaningful, planned existence then surely it is better to attack atheists than get into bed with them. Chris Doyle
Perhaps your anonymous IS prof's problem is that he's not 7 years old anymore and is out of spitball making practice. Prof. FX Gumby
So an intelligent agency used an intelligently designed device for something it wasn't designed for and that somehow refutes ID and IC? Pathetic... Joseph

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