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Thursday, July 12, 2007

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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