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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Book Review: Behe's Edge of Evolution: A turning point in the evolution vs. intelligent design controversy?

Look at Darwin. My God, what a powerful theory. Incidentally, I give that one about 40 more years, and it will go down in flames.

(Tom Wolfe, interview with George Neumayr, “Mummy Wrap,” The American Spectator January 10, 2005)

Before dealing with Edge of Evolution, which I see as a turning point in the debate between Darwinism and intelligent design, permit me to briefly sketch the cultural landscape in which it has just appeared:

Predicting the end of Darwinism became an electronic cottage industry in the last two decades. Hence I called this blog, which keeps track of the controversy, the Post-Darwinist.

However, two factors have protected Darwin as he approaches his 200th birthday - his friends and his enemies.

Darwin's friends

A high proportion of Darwin's most devoted friends are atheists. I am certainly not the only person to notice that Darwinism is in fact their religion. Indeed, the hagiography around Darwin himself seems to be copied from the adoration offered to Catholic saints. Indeed, zeal for Darwin's house hath eaten them up. (John 2:17) For them, Darwinism is and must be true, and opposition arises only among the wicked of the earth. They have mastered the art of certainty in an uncertain age.

Darwin's enemies

Darwin is likewise fortunate in his enemies. While his friends unite around materialist atheism - a grim creed but a clear and comprehensive one - his enemies are divided by several creeds.

Darwin's theory requires three things:

- an ancient Earth (to allow time for evolution),
- common ancestry of living things from a single primordial cell (to allow opportunity for evolution), and
- enormous creative power arising from survival of the fittest (natural selection acting on random mutations), to provide a force for evolution

But on these three points, Darwin's enemies go separate ways.

An ancient Earth: Some scientists (young earth creationists) believe that evolution did not really occur because the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. Darwin is thereby obviated. But their critiques have little impact on other scientists.

Common ancestry: Most scientists who doubt Darwin accept the evidence for an ancient Earth. But some of them doubt common ancestry. Usually, they are particularly troubled by the common ancestry of the human and the chimpanzee.

Because they don't think common ancestry is true anyway, relatively few in this group of anti-Darwinists ask the following critical question: What if common ancestry is right, but Darwinism is wrong? Put another way, if Ronald Reagan and Bonzo are indeed descended from a common ancestor, it does not follow that Darwinism (natural selection acting on random mutations) explains the event correctly.

Opponents of Darwinism as a creative force: Lehigh University biochemist Mike Behe, author of Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, thinks that the great antiquity of the earth and common ancestry are right but Darwinism is wrong. In his new book, he cites powerful evidence that Darwinism cannot do what its proponents hope.

His first book Darwin's Black Box, which set forth his argument for irreducible complexity (structures within the cell that could not be created by Darwinian evolution), was greeted by howls of genuine outrage. Hordes of scientists attempted to test and falsify his thesis, all the while claiming that it could not be tested or falsified, and that it was not science. Like Tom Wolfe, the culture critic quoted above, I began to pay close attention to the controversy around Darwinism, because it clearly signalled profound changes afoot.

Now, with The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, Behe develops his case further. He takes it into the lab.

Next: The Edge of Evolution: What exactly does Behe say about Darwinism?

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?, or my book of essays on faith and science topics, Faith@Science: Why science needs faith in the 21st century (Winnipeg: J. Gordon Shillingford, 2001). You can read excerpts as well.

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2. The Edge of Evolution: What exactly does Behe say about Darwinism?

Not surprisingly, the science press greeted The Edge of Evolution with orchestrated hostile reviews.

Because Behe's actual thesis is apt to get lost amid the smoke, noise, and mirrors these reviews have generated, I am going to take a moment to outline it briefly:

In Darwin's Black Box, Behe was concerned to show that some elegant structures in life are beyond the reach of random mutation and natural selection (= Darwinism). In The Edge of Evolution , he seeks to draw up "reasonable, general guidelines" to determine where the edge of evolution is, "to decide with some precision beyond what point Darwinian explanations are unlikely to be adequate, not just for some particular structures but for general features of life." (8)

Darwinian evolution must be evaluated at the molecular level because that is the level at which the exact causes of a given change can be known. Recent technological advances have given us the tools to do that (10).

He studies in detail a number of cases where Darwinian evolution is known to have occurred. That is, the exact mechanisms of the changes that took place in the malaria parasite, E. coli, and HIV have been identified, and the change appears to have been caused by natural selection acting on random mutations. The vast numbers and the swiftness with which these microorganisms reproduce enable a rate of evolution that is equivalent to millions of years of evolutionary time for larger organisms. Thus, an estimate of the limits of Darwinian change is possible.

Characterizing the available evidence, Behe's metaphor for the relationship between the human immune system and the malaria parasite is destructive trench warfare, rather than the productive arms race beloved of Darwinist writers (19). For example, random mutations like sickle hemoglobin that confer protection from malaria always come at a cost: "Some are worse than others, but all are diminishments; none are constructive. Like sickle hemoglobin, they are all acts of desperation to stave off an invader." (38).

For that matter, the intestinal parasite E. coli, subject of the most extensive laboratory evolution study ever, evolved over thirty thousand generations mainly by devolving - throwing away sophisticated machinery, not by building it. (16)

Meanwhile, the malaria parasite, which can develop resistance to laboratory drugs within weeks, has not evolved resistance to the human sickle cell trait in thousands of years. That, Behe suggests, may point us to the limits of evolution by random mutation. (53) (Natural selection can be activated only when a mutation has occurred.)

In general, he suggests, two simultaneous mutations that create an advantage (like resistance to the antimalarial chloroquine) is a vastly higher hurdle for the malaria parasite to achieve via Darwinian evolution (59) than only one, on the order of 10 to the 20th power.

The significance of this figure becomes evident when we consider the fact that there have been so many fewer humans in the world than malaria parasites. If the rate of change is the same as observed in the lab, Behe notes: "No mutation that is of the same complexity as chloroquine resistance in malaria arose by Darwinian evolution in the line leading to humans in the past ten million years." (61) (Note: Behe is NOT claiming that no evolution occurred. He is saying that an evolutionary process cannot, on the evidence, have been a Darwinian one; it must have been nonrandom (83).)

Darwinian evolution depends on processes that break things rather than processes that create them: "... mutations that help in trench warfare by breaking something will appear at a rate hundreds of times faster than ones that help by doing something new." (69) As the example of freeze-tolerant fish shows, it is far more likely to occur among simple proteins than complex, machine-like ones (82). In the face of challenges that can only be addressed by reengineering, Darwinian evolution just stops. For example, the malaria parasite has never evolved a way to infest humans in cooler climates or get around sickled cells. (82)

Noting that in the long war between humans and malaria, neither side seems to have evolved new protein interactions (136-37), he argues that "complexes of just three or more different proteins are beyond the edge of evolution", but that the great majority of proteins in the cell work in complexes of six or more. (135) Similarly, the HIV virus has undergone no significant basic biochemical changes, despite its endless mutations in pursuit of resistance (139), nor has E. Coli (142) done so.

Behe calculates that, based on the available evidence of observed Darwinian mutations, events less likely than ten to the twentieth power are generally beyond the edge of (Darwinian) evolution (145).

There is the main argument in a nutshell, minus the supporting material. Many people, of course, will feel the need to argue for or against the thesis of The Edge of Evolution without bothering to read it. Despite the fact that it is very clearly written - a masterpiece of simple explanation, accessible to anyone who can read National Geographic or Scientific American.

Also worth noting:

- Both in The Edge of Evolution and in his previous book, Darwin's Black Box, Behe makes clear that he has no quarrel with common ancestry (page 12). Indeed, it is crucial to his thesis. In The Edge of Evolution, he also offers a defense of the common ancestry of human and chimpanzee (pp. 70-73).

- Contrary to claims heard recently, Behe discusses his earlier thesis of irreducible complexity at considerable length (86ff and 120ff) in EoE, explaining the challenge that structures such as the cilium/flagellum pose to Darwinian evolution. For example:
Although Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller argued in response that the two-hundred component cilium is not really irreducibly complex, he offered no Darwinian explanation for the step-by-step origin of the cilium. Miller's professional field, however, is the study of the structure and function of biological membranes, and his rejoinder appeared in a trade book, not in the scientific literature. An updated search of the science journals, where experts in the field publish their work, again shows no serious progress on a Darwinian explanation for the ultracomplex cilium. (95)

And what about the reviews? Well, they seem to be doing their best to discourage readers from actually reading the book. Having read it, I think I know why.

Next: The response to Edge of Evolution Dogs, Dover, Darwinists, and Deals

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?, or my book of essays on faith and science topics, Faith@Science: Why science needs faith in the 21st century (Winnipeg: J. Gordon Shillingford, 2001). You can read excerpts as well.

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3. The response to Edge of Evolution Dogs, Dover, Darwinists, and Deals

When a book that challenges a consensus comes out, it is prudent to read the book before reading the reviews. Chances are, the reviews are written by prominent defenders of the status quo and - critically - you stand little chance of getting a clear sense of either the book's content or the thrust of its argument. Sometimes, careers depend on obfuscating the issues. The response to Edge of Evolution provides an excellent demonstration of this effect.

The review in Publisher's Weekly set the tone: Behe is incompetent.
From Publishers Weekly

... Although Behe writes with passion and clarity, his calculations of probability ignore biologists' rejection of the premise that evolution has been working toward producing any particular end product. Furthermore, he repeatedly refers to the shortcomings of "Darwin's theory-the power of natural selection coupled to random mutation," but current biological theory encompasses far more than this simplistic view. Most important, Behe reaches the controversial conclusion that the workings of an intelligent designer is the only reasonable alternative to evolution, even without affirmative evidence in its favor.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

This sort of review invites people not to read the book. Indeed, if you are the sort of person who nods happily when you hear Daniel Dennett say that Darwin's is the "single best idea anyone has ever had" or subscribes to the Big Bazooms theory of human evolution, I would not advise you to read it either. You cannot guard your fragile faith too carefully, and I certainly don't want to be responsible for upsetting you.

For the rest of us: The reviewer gives little attention to the carefully set out argument to which EoE is devoted: Natural selection, observed in the laboratory has not produced anything like the results that Darwinism needs. Therefore our picture of evolution is defective. Notice how the review raises a number of red herrings instead. For example, "current biological theory encompasses far more than this simplistic view."

In fact, Darwinian evolution has always been by far the most popular kind among evolutionary biologists. The fact that it demonstrably fails to do what it is supposed to do is a serious problem - to the extent that it is in fact a theory in science and not simply a faith position among atheists and theistic evolutionists.

And the very dogs yelp Darwin's name!

Arch-Darwinist and author of best-seller The God Delusion Richard Dawkins' review of Behe in the New York Times (July 1, 2007) strives to frame the world's view of Behe.

Dawkins is never short of adoring fans, and evidently the delight is mutual. Indeed, in By Design or by Chance? I quoted one of Dawkins's editors to this effect,
If you’re an intelligent reader, and you read certain literary novels that everybody has to read, along with seeing Tarantino movies, then reading Richard Dawkins has become part of your cultural baggage.
Darwinism is mental wallpaper for such people, and it is most unlikely that they are interested in the question of whether, when tested in lab studies, Darwinian evolution really worked. That's almost, well, vulgar.

Dawkins revels in his contempt for Behe (a working scientist, not a don like himself) and then distracts his readers by pointing, with self-indulgent glee, to the large variety in the shapes and sizes of domestic dogs, as "proving" Behe wrong. Come to think of it, how could Behe be so dense as not to have noticed the dogs in the park?

But Dawkins is evading the issue, of course. Dog breeding emphasizes some available canine traits at the expense of others. The dog need not evolve a new post-canine trait. That is precisely what Dawkins, famously, claims that Darwinism can do. And Behe, controversially, shows that, in the very situations where Darwinism can actually be tested, Darwinism does that too rarely to merit the role it is given.

Another reviewer, Jerry Coyne, angrily responds :
Behe has lost his case in the arena that matters most to all of us: the right of a scientifically misguided -- and largely theological -- theory to be accepted as science in public schools. (Remember that Behe wrote half of a chapter in the second edition of the discredited textbook, Of Pandas and People, at issue in the Dover trial). ID, irreducible complexity -- the whole lot of gussied-up creationist claims -- have been found by the courts to be "not science". Behe's IDeas can't get a place alongside evolution in the public schools. That is far more damaging than a few critiques levelled in scientific journals and highbrow magazines.

This says so much more about Coyne than about Behe. Yes, indeed, if public schools are forced by the courts to flak for Darwin, a few in every generation will grow up to praise his name. And that's what "matters most to all of us"? Speak for yourself, Jerry Coyne.

Meanwhile, the desperately academic review in evangelical thinkmag Books & Culture manages to go on and on, giving barely a hint of the point of Behe's assault on the Darwinist's key premise. Here is an instance of the prattle:
Now Behe frequently introduces, quite legitimately, the notion of coherence or "fit" in his description of how protein machines work. Design, he says, is nothing more then "a purposeful arrangement of parts." In this regard he has reproduced Aristotle's distinction between the heterogeneous and homogeneous ordering of parts. Heaps and aggregates are homogeneously ordered. They can be measured and weighed. But whenever a number of distinct parts "fit together" to perform a single function, we have a qualitatively distinct heterogeneous ordering.
Compare that to Behe's clear exposition of the problem with Darwinism in the lab. Far better you should read the book.

Some other lines from Behe's critics are illuminating:

University of Florida Darwinist Michael Ruse has the answer for Mark Colvin of PM Australia (June 15, 2007) as to why people think Behe might have a point:
MICHAEL RUSE: Well, you know, we philosophers have a term, and I guess I'm not allowed to use the philosophical term on the radio, but let's just say it's BS, and it's BS baffles brains. I mean, the point is the intelligent design arguments are just as primitive as they ever were, but of course you don't just come along and say, oh well, I've got the design or something like that, you turn to the science textbooks or whatever, you start to talk about the flagellum, and most people wouldn't know a flagellum if their sister married one, and you know, and then you show them two or three pages of chemical formulae and you say, oh my God, I remember grade 10 when I flunked that one, or my girlfriend did it for me. I mean, people are impressed. But of course the thing is you've got to be working with people who are impressed in the first place."

"I think that what we're seeing is, as I say, a part and parcel reaction against modernity, against science, against philosophy, and I think that what we are seeing, particularly in America, is a reaction against the Enlightenment as it manifested itself in the second half of the 19th century, people looking for simplistic solutions, whether it be George W. Bush, whether it be moral values, whether it be, oh well, let's walk in and show those Iraqis who really is boss, or teach intelligent design in the school."

The lab results can wait, I guess.

Interestingly, Michael Lemonick at Time Magazine already knew back in April that no debate is really necessary on the subject of the limits of Darwinism:
So the answer to your question, fellas, is that the Darwinists are afraid of two things. The first is giving you folks a shred of credibility by appearing in the same room with you. The second is that your piles of half truths will actually make people more ignorant.

Right. Time Magazine doesn't need lab results either. They're just more piles of half truths that make people more ignorant. The Taliban should steal that line, actually.

Some have made accusations about Behe himself. For example, Brown University biochemist Ken Miller, who has a considerable reputation as a Catholic Darwinist, has apparently claimed that Behe has never presented his results to a scientific meeting. Behe has said in response,
I presented the data which became the Behe/Snoke paper as a poster at a national meeting of the Protein Society in Philadelphia several years ago. 2) I have met with and/or presented seminars on ID to a number of science departments, including the department of biochemistry of the Mayo Clinic, the department of Genetics at Princeton, dept of Genetics at the University of Georgia, The Royal Society of Medicine, Dept of Chem & Biochem at U South Carolina, the dept of biochemistry at the University of California San Francisco, and others.

Arguably, Miller might not have known about those, but if he is going to accuse others (or, rather, insinuate) of cowardly avoiding presentations to experts, he should endeavor to find out the facts. On the other hand, he has no excuse for the following: 1) I presented a seminar to a Gordon Conference on Organic chemistry; the next year Miller himself was invited to present to the same Conference as a response to me. Clearly, then, he knew I had presented the year before
at that conference. 2) After the debate between ID/Darwinism on William Buckley's Firing Line program in 1999, he and I wrote a *joint letter* to the organizing committees for the next national meetings of the American Society for Cell Biology (his professional society) and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (my professional society) proposing a session on ID, pro and con, with the two of us presenting. We never heard back from them. Miller has a lot of chutzpah to lead people to believe I avoid such conferences when we
wrote a joint letter to propose such a session!!!

Curiously, amid all this evasion, textbook author Larry Moran, an evolutionary biologist who has written to tell me that he is not Darwinist nor a fan of evolutionary psychology (though also no friend to intelligent design), seems to be one of the few who is prepared to address the challenge:
I'm reading The Edge of Evolution, the new book by Michael Behe. I'm not finished but I can tell you it's going to be a challenge to refute Behe's main claims. That's not because he's correct—far from it—but because he has done a clever job of picking out scientific data to support his case. The idea is that random mutation and natural selection are simply not capable of doing the things they have to do in order for large scale changes to accumulate. His probability arguments are more sophisticated than those of the average IDiot and I think we owe it to Behe to address them rather than just dismiss them out-of-hand because we don't like the conclusion. I'm looking forward to the challenge.

Yes, come to think of it, someone should take up the challenge and focus on scientific data that support or fail to support his case. It would be fascinating if the person who did it was an evolutionary biologist.

(Note: See my update here.)

Behe talks back

Behe responds to his critics here at his blog (scroll down).

He also (April 19, 2007) comments on a Liu and Ochman paper that suggests that Darwiism might be going wild.

Audio: Mike Behe Michael Medved's show (June 4, 2007).

I started this three-part post by expressing the view that Edge of Evolution is a turning point in the conflict between Darwinian evolution and intelligent design. The reason I think so is that it focuses clearly and systematically on the one question that can presently be answered: Can Darwinian evolution do what its proponents claim. If not - and Behe certainly makes a powerful case that the answer is no - whether intelligent design is true, along with assorted other controversies, is a question for another day. There is plenty of rubble to clear up as it is.

Return to beginning : Book Review: Behe's Edge of Evolution: A turning point in the evolution vs. intelligent design controversy?

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?, or my book of essays on faith and science topics, Faith@Science: Why science needs faith in the 21st century (Winnipeg: J. Gordon Shillingford, 2001). You can read excerpts as well.

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