Tomato Sandwich & Irreducible Complexity

I had a tomato sandwich tonight for the first time in I don’t know how long.  I’d had a craving for one for a few days.

First, I had to have bread.  Now I’m no cook, but I do know you have to have bread to make a sandwich.

Second, I had to have tomatoes.  Again, I’m no cook, but I do know that to make a tomato sandwich—unless it’s an artificially-flavored tomato sandwich—you have to have tomatoes.

Third, I had to have mayonnaise.  I know some people have strong feelings that mayonnaise is disgusting.  They are wrong.  I’m no cook, but I know the famous Mayonnaise Rule I made up just now: mayonnaise goes on any sandwich that does not have peanut butter or squid.

A tomato sandwich has irreducible complexity to me.  No bread, no tomato sandwich.  No tomatoes, no tomato sandwich.  No mayonnaise, and the tomato sandwich isn’t worth eating.  If any one of the ingredients is gone, the sandwich is ruined.

This is not like a club sandwich, where it still tastes okay without the bacon (arguably) or all right without the lettuce.  With a tomato sandwich, if any ingredient is missing, bye-bye sandwich.

I saw Unlocking the Mystery of Life last night and was reminded about irreducible complexity.  Turns out, bacterial flagellum is irreducibly complex.  Now, I admit, that doesn’t sound too interesting.  If I’d heard that in high school, I think I’d have changed the channel.  But maybe not if I’d seen what a bacterial flagellum looks like.

I’m not a scientist.  I struggled mightily with science in college.  It seemed like so much algebra and expensive names and tiny germy things I didn’t understand.  But when I first heard science explained in easy words, I became keen on it, as keen as Commander Keen was on eating digital chocolate bars.  (If you are not from the 80’s, and that made no sense to you, do not feel bad.  You are normal.  If you are from the 80’s, I’m so sorry.  I understand.  Me too.)

So when I talk about bacterial flagellum, I’ll use words I understand.  I no longer think I have to be an expert in science to dive right in to the beauty and adventure of it.  But if you want a more technical explanation, I’m sure there’s lots out there.

A bacteria to me looks like a blob that can move.  That’s pretty cool when I think about it.  A blob of mayonnaise can’t move (and I’m happy about that).  But under the microscope, blobs move.  Hopefully not the mayonnaise blob.  But bacteria blobs move.

Now here’s what’s really, really cool about bacteria.  There’s this one “species” called bacterial flagellum.  And bacterial flagellum has this little propeller that whips around and moves it.  A lot like . . the propeller on a boat.  And since the bacterial flagellum came first . . . looks like somebody didn’t have an original idea, whether they knew it or not.

The propeller is “irriducably complex”, like my tomato sandwich.  Only . .  not.  On Wikipedia, 11 parts of the flagellum are labeled, including rings, the hook, junction, filament, rod, and secretion system.  If even just one part is missing, the propeller won’t work.  This makes sense to me.  This makes a lot of sense to me.

I’ve already said I’m no cook, but I’m a trillion times the cook I am the car mechanic.  I had to have somebody help me figure out how to get my hood up a few weeks back.  At a gas station.  Very fortunately, an older gentleman took pity on me.

But even though I’m no car mechanic, I do know this: I can’t take pieces of my car out of the hood.  No, no, no.  I can get away with taking out a few things like those little floor carpets or the antennae or glove compartment, but I cannot take things away from under the hood.  Big no-no.

In the same way, no part of the bacterial flagellum can be taken away and the propeller still work.

That makes sense, if the bacterial flagellum was designed, like a car.  But it doesn’t make sense if it just evolved randomly over time.  Here’s (one reason) why: for a living thing to evolve, it takes a series of tiny changes.  Each change has to help the living thing out.  This is what Darwin believed.

But the bacterial flagellum couldn’t have made a series of tiny changes, because many of those changes would not help a living thing out.  The propeller (which looks like a rat’s tail) would have just sat there until it worked.  That would mean many bacteria would have had to keep the propeller mutation before it served any purpose.  But evolution can’t plan for purpose.

Darwin never believed a zebra, for example, could think, “I will work really hard to evolve one stripe each generation for the next fifty generations of zebras until we are completely striped and harder for predators to see.”  That wouldn’t be evolution, anyway, that would be design: design by the zebra!

Irreducible complexity would be a real problem for me if I believed our universe was generated by a cosmic roll of dice.  But I don’t, and I can’t.  If a 3-ingredient tomato sandwich can’t make itself without my help, surely I know in my heart this universe didn’t make itself (out of nothing!), no matter how many zillions of years I factor in.

If I place even tomatoes, mayonnaise, and bread next to each other, they’re not going to make a sandwich in a zillion years.  They’ll rot before then—and that’s another problem.  Why didn’t the nonlife rot away before it became life?  Only life can make offspring.

And, an even bigger problem is, with my tomato sandwich, I have 3 ingredients to start with, at least.  With the universe, I have nothing.  Nothing means nothing.  I can’t even put it into words.  It doesn’t exist.  How does nonexistence turn into stuff that turns into life?  I have, in all my life, never seen something poof into existence from nonexistence in the physical world, and I have never seen  something that wasn’t living become living.  I don’t see rocks getting tired of their spot in the sun and packing up and moving.

Some people would say I’m in real contradiction to believe in God, because I believe God created and the universe came from nothing, and because I believe God can make the nonliving into living, like when He breathed life into Adam.  I am not ashamed of my faith, and I get that it takes faith to believe in God.  (However that faith is a free gift from God [see John 4:10, Acts 8:20, Rom 4:16, Rom 5:15-18, Rom 6:23,  2 Cor. 9:15, Rev 22:17].)

But what I don’t understand is how it can be that it doesn’t take faith to believe the universe came from nothing with no cause, and nonliving became living randomly without any help.

There is something supernaturally different between a baby I hold in my arms and the baby’s blanket.  There is not an instant of question to which is more valuable–which I will protect with my life, and which I couldn’t care less about in the event of an emergency.  But where do these beliefs come from?  And how can I trust them if I just came about from random chances?

There is irreducible complexity even in my morality.  I can’t take God away and expect to still have it.  Without God, morality is gone.  There’s no trustworthy way I could ever give value.  And I have to give value, every day.  If it’s cruel to step on the carpet, I need to know it.  Yet, if the carpet came about the same chance way as my cat, how is it any more “wrong” to step on my cat?

My tomato sandwich is irreducibly complex.  A bacterial flagellum is, too, and Unlocking the Mystery of Life does a great job showing the marvelous parts of the microscopic propeller.  But I don’t have to go to the bacterial flagellum to find irreducible complexity.  I see irreducible complexity everywhere in the universe around me.  From the perfect placement of the earth from the sun to the perfect placement of the hand on the arm . . . from the life of a baby I hold in my arms to the morality I hold in my heart . . . I am inundated with irreducible complexity.  And I have a decision to make: Will I see the Master Designer behind it all or will I reduce all the wonders of this universe to a level of complexity that blind, random chance will allow?

For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (He is the God who formed the earth and made it, He established it and did not create it a waste place, but formed it to be inhabited), “I am the LORD, and there is none else. (Isaiah 45:18, NASB)


William Lane Craig,

Answers in Genesis,

Propeller (Marine), Wikipedia, accessed 2/23/2012

Flagellum, Wikipedia, accessed 2/23/2012

Unlocking the Mystery of Life


Photograph of bread by Eric Fung, profile on

Photograph of tomato by Ajith Kumar, profile on

Photograph of mayonnaise by Jules, profile on

Photograph is under Creative Commons License.

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