Is the human knee joint “irreducibly complex”?

This is a re-post, in slightly modified from, of one of my Talk Origins Archive feedback responses (from back when the Archive had a feedback section, specifically March of 2002)

Luke asked:

Please email me your response if possible. I don’t want to categorize myself as a evolutionist or creationist. I was visiting the other website I think it was creationist or similar, your guys arch enemies; anyways I was trying to find proof to support modern man evolving from ape, and they had an extensive article written about the human knee and how it has sixteen parts and minus just one and its useless. Apes have non locking knees and because of their makeup you aparently can’t evolve it into a locking one you have to start from scratch. Evolution and mutations from what I’ve read only allow for small changes no mutation can allow for the formation of a complex organism with sixteen moving parts? The knee would have to be built all at once it couldn’t evolve or it would have no use. How do you suggest that apes dumped their knees and immediately mutated new ones with sixteen brand new parts? I would like to believe it could happen just seems far fetched?

This argument originates from an article (Critical Characteristics and the Irreducible Knee Joint) published in the Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal (Vol. 13, No. 2, 1999) by a British engineer named Stuart Burgess.

From my reading of the article it seems to be highly flawed, especially in its almost total lack of discussion on the comparative anatomies of living non-human apes (gorillas & chimps etc.), extinct hominins (australopithecines, early Homo) and modern humans. This lack of attention to comparative anatomy (and physiology) is typical of anti-evolutionists and it leads them to continually talk about the anatomy/physiology of various organisms as if they exist in a vacuum (examples: The woodpecker or The bombardier beetle). They focus on some extreme example of organ or system in a particular species as if it is totally unique to that species. The fact is that when one looks at other closely related species one usually finds that there are variations on the extreme example that the anti-evolutionists have focused upon.

For instance the bombardier beetle that anti-evolutionists often cite is just one species of a whole group of beetles (“Ground beetles”, Family Carabidae) many of which have some variation on a chemical defense mechanism, using the same basic chemicals (which exist in many beetles in varying amounts), but used in differing ways. The specific example that anti-evolutionists cite sprays an explosive mixture out of its abdomen in a fairly well aimed stream at its attackers, however there are other Carabid beetles that spray with less accurate aim, and others that merely excrete bad tasting chemicals out of their abdomens when attacked. There is a whole spectrum from fairly simple to fairly complex defense mechanisms. Anti-evolutionists only talk about the more complex variant.

This discussion of the human knee is another example of this sort of argument in a vacuum.

While I am not an expert in the comparative anatomies of the living non-human apes and humans, as far as I am aware there is no material difference between them. That is, every bone, muscle, ligament, tendon, and cartilage in the human knee has its corresponding representative in the knee of chimpanzees and the other great apes (and presumably in the knee of their concestor). Yes they are shaped somewhat differently. Yes they are proportioned differently. But as far as I know all the same parts are there (if there are any primatologists or physical anthropologists out there, please correct me if I am wrong). [Note: see the 2nd Lovejoy quote provided by Adam Benton in the comments section below.]

As for fossil hominins, the knees of more derived types like Homo erectus (which are either “fully human” or “just apes” depending on what anti-evolutionist you talk to) seem to be virtually identical to those of H. sapiens. As for the knees of the more basal species of Homo (H. habilis) and the australopithecines these become increasingly like those of living non-human apes the farther back in time one goes. Exactly the sort of thing one would predict if humans evolved from an “ape-like” ancestor. The knee of Australopithecus afarensis (which most anti-evolutionists say is “just an ape”) retains a number of “ape-like” features but also has characteristics like those of later hominins including H. sapiens. In other words it is an intermediate form in this regard.

The knee bones of a modern human, an australopithecine and a chimpanzee.

See The ICR and Lucy: Bearing False Witness Against Thy Neighbor for more comparative photos, or refer to any good text on human evolution for comparative illustrations.

Burgess does mention living apes briefly but only to dismiss them as being poor bipedal walkers. However this is a problem for his argument for irreducible complexity (IC), at least as I understand Michael Behe‘s (the person responsible for the recent popularity of this term) definition of the term, in that while the knees of living non-human apes are slightly different in form, and are not as efficient for use in bipedal walking as those of humans, they do work, and they can walk bipedally.

Note: please remember that evolutionary theory does not postulate that humans are descended from other living apes, like chimps or bonobos, rather we share a common (ape) ancestor with those species.

So, assuming that knee joints of the ancestor of later hominins was essentially the same as those of the living non-human apes and could, like them, walk in a bipedal manner at all, then it would be possible for there to be a selective advantage for any slight modifications in their descendants which lead towards an increase in efficiency of bipedalism.

The human knee seems to me to be a poor example of an IC structure.

Some of Burgess’ other arguments just seem nonsensical to me. For example he states:

The knee joint presents a major challenge to the evolutionist because it is unique, and because there are no intermediate forms of joint between a condylar joint and the other two limb joints found in animals and humans – the ball and socket joint and the pivot joint. (Burgess, 1999)

I fail to understand Mr. Burgess’ challenge here. Knee joints did not evolve from elbow, shoulder, or hip joints. Rather knee joints have been knee joints since their origin in the first tetrapods. The same applies to the other types of joints. So why would we expect to find “intermediate forms” between them? That Burgess even poses this as a supposed problem for evolution demonstrates a significant lack of understanding about evolutionary theory and the fossil record.

Ichthyostega; an early tetrapod and its hind leg bones. Its “knee” was the joint between the femur and the tibia and fibula.

It is a curious thing that Behe’s principle of IC as an argument for design turns the traditional argument from design on its head. It used to be argued that those features of organisms that seem perfectly sculpted to suit their needs, or seem well designed from an engineering point was evidence for design. Now, under Behe’s IC principle of design, it doesn’t matter how clunky, ungainly, and poorly designed from an engineering point of view something is, it only matters that it is supposedly irreducibly complex.

Apparently the “Designer” under this new design “theory” is a (supernatural) cosmic Rube Goldberg.

Related Links


Inside Nature’s Giants – Polar bear

This is the latest in the wonderful Inside Nature’s Giants television series (U.K.) and while it unfortunately (at least as far as I’m concerned) spends more time on environmental issues than anatomy, it is still definitely worth watching; so here you go, enjoy:

More from Inside Nature’s Giants

Two more episodes from the excellent television series Inside Natures Giants are now available for viewing on YouTube. As I wrote in a previous post, this is a fascinating zoology program wherein the bodies of various large animals are dissected to demonstrate the details of their anatomy. This is combined with discussions of the living animals and their natural history with occasional incites from Richard Dawkins about evolutionary biology.

First of the newly available episodes is a two for one in which both a lion and tiger are examined, contrasted and compared. Here is part one of four:

A play list for the rest of the parts can be found here.

In my previous posting on this series I wished for them to focus an episode on something like a giant squid so as to show something on invertebrate anatomy and my wish has come true. Here is part one of five:

I couldn’t find a play list for this episode so here are individual links to the different segments: part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.

As before I really cannot speak more highly of this program. It is fascinating television for anyone with even the slightest curiosity about the natural world and a absolute must see for anyone interested in biology, zoology and evolution.

Gush, gush, gush!

[Thanks to P.Z. (squee) Myers over at Pharyngula for the heads up on the squid episode and to the WhyEvolutionisTrue YouTube channel for hosting the videos!]

Inside Natures Giants

I recently stumbled upon (on YouTube) a BAFTA award winning British TV series titled Inside Natures Giants and I’ve fallen in love. What we have here is a television show in which various large animals, all vertebrates so far, are dissected on camera (and often in front of a live audience of students)  by a team of biologists in order to show the details of their anatomy while presenting elements of their physiology, natural history and evolution (including commentary by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins).

So far the show has dissected an Asian elephant, a fin whale, a Nile crocodile, a Rothschild giraffe, a great white shark, a Burmese python, and most recently (unfortunately not yet available on YouTube) a two for one, lion and tiger combination.

I’m hoping they work in a ostrich or emu in there sometime soon and maybe a giant squid or octopus to show some invertebrate anatomy as well.

These programs deal with the dissection of actual animals in graphic detail so if you’re squeamish at all you might find them difficult to watch, however this show is an absolute must see for anyone interested in zoology and evolution.

Of particular interest was the dissection of the giraffe. Among the various interesting adaptations towards tree top browsing is a classic example of one of the cloven hoofprints of evolutionary history, the recurrent laryngeal nerve; the dissection of which has apparently not been done (according to one of the scientists in the show) in a giraffe since the 1830’s.

Here is the first episode of the first series on the Asian elephant:

A play list of all the videos available on YouTube can be found here, and I really cannot recommend them more highly.

Go watch them… NOW!

but there is a whole series of videos showing several different large animals being dissected while their anatomy, physiology, and how these evolved are discussed. A must see for those interested in zoology and evolution.