May 26, 2007

Behe's back - Still deluded after all these years

I like Michael Behe. There, I said it.

No, I've never met the guy, never even spoken with him. But I still have this impression of him as a kind of lovable puppy dog with no real axe to grind and no one with whom to even the score. Yes, he's wrong...way wrong. We all know this. But his wrongness seems to be more a product of limited capacity and unexpected celebrity than it is the result of some wretched desire to inflict his religious beliefs upon others. He has often struck me as accidentally swept up in the ID production, not really suited to the spotlight but enjoying it too much to demur from the attention - as incidents such as the astrology catastrophe in Dover suggest he should.

Although I tend to think he believes what he says, as I suspect most of the ID "theorists" do, he strikes me as less willing to descend into the depths of obfuscation and deception in service of those beliefs. But this is of little matter. His ideas are still an intellectual mess (and even if Behe is more restrained, many of his colleagues will be ready to shape them to the political needs of the moment), and they contribute to the ID movement's attacks on the integrity of science. After all, then, it remains that Behe is an important ID creationist. And even if he is severely confused about what the data say and what he is entitled to infer from those data, his confusion will inevitably be the inspiration for some credulous individuals to find their way to "intelligent design."

To that end, Behe has written another book codifying his confusion. This one is called "The Edge of Evolution" and is soon to be released. In support of the book, his publisher has presented a softball interview with Behe on its website. Let's see what Dr. Mike has to say:

Question & Answer with Michael J. Behe

What do you believe Darwinian evolutionary processes can actually do?

The Edge of Evolution asks the sober question, what is it reasonable to think Darwinian evolutionary processes can actually do? Unprecedented genetic data on humans and our microbial parasites (malaria, HIV, E. coli) now allow us to answer that question with some precision. The astonishing result is that, even under intense selective pressure, and given an astronomical number of opportunities, random mutation and natural selection yield only trivial, mostly degenerating changes. The bottom line: the major events that produced life on earth were not driven by random mutations.
A bottom line with which most biologists would concur. The "major events that produced life on earth" were driven by a combination of factors, certainly including random mutation, but in concert with selection and drift and other influences like lateral transfer and endosymbiosis. Random mutations are surely necessary for all these (and more) mechanisms to produce organismal complexity, but Behe is indulging a very tired creationist strawman when he attempts to tar evolutionary biology with the metaphysical scareword "random."

More important than this, though, is Behe's suggestion of the appropriate "sober question" in his first sentence. I happen to think the more sober question is, is it reasonable to infer supernatural phenomena when we think Darwinian evolutionary processes cannot produce something? Creationists, especially the ID kind, like to skip over this part of the argument, for obvious reasons.
The book's subtitle speaks of the "limits of Darwinism." Are you saying that Darwin's theory is completely wrong?

Not at all. It is an excellent explanation for some features of life, but it has sharp limits. Darwin's theory is an amalgam of several concepts: 1) random mutation, 2) natural selection, and 3) common descent. Common descent and natural selection are very well-supported. Random mutation isn't. Random mutation is severely constrained. So the process which produced the elegant structures of life could not have been random.
This is pretty confused. He appears on the one hand to be suggesting that random mutation does not exist, then on the other he says that it is constrained. Well, if it exists, as we all (including Behe) know it does, then there will be little disagreement with the notion that it is constrained.

Behe seems to want to say both that mutations that we think are random are not, and that random mutation is not sufficient to produce genetic diversity. So which is it? Does he think there must be another method by which intelligence intervenes or does he think that the mechanism is mutation, but some mutations are intelligently designed? His ideas, typically, are muddled.

And of course his conclusion in the last line does not in any way follow from that which precedes it.
How does the book evolve from the failure of randomness to the conclusion of intelligent design? Aren't there possible unintelligent evolutionary explanations other than Darwinism?

The new genetic results on humans and our parasites tell against not only Darwin's theory, but against any unintelligent process. In their reciprocal evolutionary struggle, human and parasitic genomes could have been altered in nature by whatever unintelligent mechanism had the ability to help. Yet virtually nothing did. Because the categories of "intelligent" and "unintelligent" processes are mutually exclusive and exhaustive, ruling out unintelligent processes necessarily implicates intelligence.
Against "any unintelligent process?" Did he just say what I think he said? Are all biological processes now intelligent? And how do we then evaluate any claim as to the discovery of an intelligent process?

And "virtually nothing did?" There were no natural mechanisms involved in the co-evolutionary development of humans and their parasites? Did he just say what I...oh never mind.

There is no better evidence of Behe's limited abilities than the above paragraph. It is utter nonsense from the first to the last.
What evidence speaks most clearly to the role of intelligent design in biology?

The elegance of the foundation of life -- the cell. Charles Darwin and his contemporaries supposed the cell was a "simple globule of protoplasm," a microscopic piece of Jell-O. They were wrong. Modern science reveals the cell is a sophisticated, automated, nano-scale factory. For example, the journal Nature marvels, "The cell's macromolecular machines contain dozens or even hundreds of components. But unlike man made machines, which are built on assembly lines, these cellular machines assemble spontaneously from their ...components. It is as though cars could be manufactured by merely tumbling their parts onto the factory floor."
No. Darwin and his contemporaries did not think the cell was a piece of Jello. This is another creationist canard. Then comes Behe's continuing fascination with biological structures as "machines" (and the strange ID suggestion that an analogy with flawed and limited human built machines suffices to demonstrate the influence of a transcendental designer). This business is foolishly misguided, as I have previously taken pains to point out.
How does intelligent design differ from the prevailing Darwinist view of evolution?

To a surprising extent prevailing evolutionary theory and intelligent design are harmonious. Both agree that the universe and life unfolded over vast ages; both agree that species could follow species in the common descent of life. They differ solely in the overriding role Darwinism ascribes to randomness. Intelligent design says that, while randomness does exist, its role in explaining the unfolding of life is quite limited.
This is more "randomness" marketing-speak that is quickly recognized as content free.
How does intelligent design differ from creationism? What do you say to critics who charge that it is merely "creationism in disguise"?

Intelligent design theory is to creationism as the Big Bang theory is to the book of Genesis. Although both intelligent design and the Big Bang may be reminiscent of some religious ideas about the universe and life, they are both grounded on the empirical study of nature, not on holy books. The phrase "Let there be light" may be evocative of the Big Bang, but the Big Bang is science, not scripture. Intelligent design may be compatible with some religious concepts, but the astounding intricacy of cellular molecular machinery is hard scientific data.
Behe is quite taken with the Big Bang. He spent his time on the stand in the Dover trial boring people with constant mention of it, he refers to it often in his public appearances, and he clearly believes it's invocation is a magic bullet straight to the heart of the ID=creationism=religion argument.

Now, as I understand it, “Big Bang” is a name for that set of physical and mathematical data that describes events which follow the moment of existence of the initial conditions that led to our universe. The “Big Bang” makes no statement about what may have preceded that moment (though it does, indeed, lead to speculation both scientific and not). It says nothing about causal agency, it comes to no conclusions about antecedent circumstances which could have led to the expansion. In other words, the theory describes natural (with an understanding that natural laws themselves were, at the time, coming into existence) events occurring in our observable reality.

The difficulty for Behe’s analogy here is obvious. Any determination of “design” in an object/artifact/system implicitly posits an antedating causal event. And any “scientific theory” which trumpets an inference of “intelligent design” is methodologically obligated to address that event.

The comparison with BB theory is instructive. Had physicists called it the Big Blueprint or the Grand Design or even the Mother-of-all-purposeful-arrangements-of-parts Behe’s argument might have merit. But physicists, as they are methodologically bound to do, describe, by use of the phrase the “Big Bang,” only those phenomena which can be supported by the evidence, leaving the philosophical and religious implications for other epistemologies.

If ID “theorists” had merely described their observations ("irreducible complexity, "specified complexity" etc.) without obvious and intentional reference to theological concepts - a designer - this dispute would have come down to matters of detail decided among scientists, not lawyers and politicians. But that, of course, would be equivalent to asking ID proponents not to be creationists.

Far from being analogical evidence denying the relationship of ID to creationism, the Big Bang actually stands as an instructive example of the difference between science and ideology.
Do you see intelligent design as a concept that provides a resolution to the creation vs. evolution debate? Is there ever a point where science and religion might meet in some form of compromise - and does intelligent design help to provide that answer?

In some ways intelligent design is the perfect middle ground between the scientistic atheism exemplified by Richard Dawkins and the dogmatic religious creation stories he rails against. Like the Big Bang theory and the discovery of the "fine-tuning" of the universe for life, intelligent design recognizes that empirical results from science point insistently to a reality greater than is dreamt of in Dawkins' philosophy. Yet, rather than relying on some holy text, ID comes to that conclusion through science -- from our own human intellect and the struggle to understand nature.
ID is a nice middle ground, for those who like that sort of thing, but it is not science. And it emphatically does not come to its only important conclusion (the existence of an intelligent designer) through scientific methodology, as it studiously avoids testing this hypothesis and simply assumes its evident truth.
How does your view of intelligent design in biology fit with the findings and theories of cosmology and physics?

The conclusion of intelligent design in biology fits very well with unexpected results in the past few decades from physics and astronomy, which show that the universe, its laws, physical constants, and many details, are "fine-tuned" for life on earth. For example, if the charge on the electron or the properties of water were much different, life as we know it would be precluded. Biology has now discovered that the fine tuning of the universe for life actually extends into life. The term "consilience" denotes the situation where results from several scientific areas point in the same direction, reinforcing our confidence that the conclusion is correct. Biology has attained consilience with results from cosmology and physics.
This is all quite silly of course, and certainly to be expected in this kind of promotional interview. But the very wishfulness of it all is what still amazes me after all this time criticizing ID and its proponents. Imbued in so many of their arguments is this kind of childlike desire for a safe and comforting universe, one in which all questions come pre-answered by a simple, mindless commitment to the notion of an empirically evidenced designer of everything.
Is it necessary to conclude that the designer is God?

"Necessary" is a strong word. It is not "necessary" in a compulsory sense. The scientific study of nature in the past century and especially the last few decades, however, points strongly to the conclusion that there exists an intelligent being who set up our universe for life: its physical laws, many of its astronomical properties and details, as well as many necessary details reaching deeply into life. In the teeth of that evidence a person such as Richard Dawkins is still free to think it was all one huge cosmic accident. Most people will decide God -- or some remarkable being -- is the most likely explanation.
It's "not "necessary" in a compulsory sense." Well, thank Designer for that! I'm still not ready to have my culture renewed. But of course even though it's not necessary it certainly is the obviously designed implication of ID "theory" (the denial of this remains the central deceit of the ID movement). There is no reason for ID to exist otherwise since natural investigations of intelligent activity, such as archeology, forensics and cryptography, have grown as scientific fields where warranted.
Why do you think there is such resistance within the scientific community to the idea of intelligent design?

Scientists are trained to think of the universe as a self-contained, self- explanatory system. Unexpected findings that go against that supposition can be disconcerting. When it was first proposed, the idea that the universe had a beginning in a big bang was strongly resisted by some scientists, because it pointed to a reality outside of the universe. Intelligent design of biology evokes even stronger reactions, perhaps because it challenges the supposition of a self-contained universe even more strongly.
"Scientists are trained to think of the universe as a self-contained, self- explanatory system." What Dr. Mike appears not to understand (no, I don't think he is being disingenuous, I really think he doesn't bother thinking beyond a very shallow, self-confirming perspective) is that science only works because it addresses the universe as a "self-contained, self- explanatory system." That means that if ID is true, which conceivably it might be, this cannot be confirmed scientifically. The supernatural is beyond science, and it is not "pointed to" either by the Big Bang or biology.

Scientists simply resist diminution of scientific efficacy by the attempted dismantling of its methodology. Just ask Ken Miller or Francisco Ayala if the have trouble with the idea of a "reality outside of the universe."
One criticism of ID has been that it makes no predictions, and thus is unscientific. Does The Edge of Evolution address this?

The Edge of Evolution is almost entirely concerned with the major, opposing predictions of Darwinism and ID. The most essential prediction of Darwinism is that, given an astronomical number of chances, unintelligent processes can make seemingly-designed systems, ones of the complexity of those found in the cell. ID specifically denies this, predicting that in the absence of intelligent input no such systems would develop. So Darwinism and ID make clear, opposite predictions of what we should find when we examine genetic results from a stupendous number of organisms that are under relentless pressure from natural selection. The recent genetic results are a stringent test. The results: 1) Darwinism's prediction is falsified; 2) Design's prediction is confirmed.
Mike Behe has trouble with a lot of concepts. "Prediction" is apparently one of those. He says, "ID specifically denies this, predicting that in the absence of intelligent input no such systems would develop." Okay, this qualifies as a prediction only if it can be falsified. How would Behe respond to those who point to complex structures like, say, the flagellum, as having developed absent intelligent input? He says, of course, that they are intelligently designed, and then challenges biologists to prove him wrong.

This is not a prediction. This is nothing more than a shifting of the burden of proof founded on the assumption of his conclusion (a supernatural designing intelligence).
Are there lessons we can learn from the study of malaria and HIV to help us, as a species, protect ourselves from viral and parasitical threats? How might other fields, such as medicine, be affected by intelligent design?

One heartening conclusion of intelligent design is that Darwinian evolution is not the relentless, Borg-like process we had thought. Random evolution is clumsy and limited. That means that, even when fighting pathogens such as malaria that occur in enormous numbers, if science can find the right monkey wrench to throw in its molecular machinery, random mutation and natural selection will be helpless to circumvent it. now antibiotics are evidence that life was intelligent designed? And here all this time I thought this was confirmation of the principles of evolutionary biology.

I suppose it's possible that resistance to this kind of specious rhetoric is futile, but I hope Behe will forgive us if we continue to rotate our shield frequencies in trying to hold off their assault upon science. After all, the future of the entire galaxy (okay, maybe just our little corner of it) is at stake.


Anonymous JimDriskill said...

You Wrote: 'The "major events that produced life on earth" were driven by a combination of factors, certainly including random mutation...,etc.'

Before the advent of life, what was it that was mutating, etc?

2:10 PM  
Blogger RLC said...

Jim -

"Before the advent of life, what was it that was mutating..."

I'll answer that in two ways. First, I don't believe Behe was referring specifically and exclusively to those events that led to the production of the very beginning of life on earth. It was my impression that "major" as he used it was meant to cover pivotal developments like the rise of eukaryotes, basal taxonomic branching events, and introduction of novel biological structures. As such, you're question is then inapt.

But you may be correct. Behe is known to have considered "front-loading" to be a plausible explanation for "designed" biological complexity (I don't really know if he still believes in this).

In this case your query would be relevant and my response would be this - you demonstrate for me that which would be a definitive point the one side of which is non-life and the other life (i.e., primitive RNA based replicating molecules perhaps somehow developing metabolic activity) and I'll show you what was mutating before the advent of life as well as what was mutating after.

In a pre-biotic scenario such as the currently popular RNA-world model, it is virtually certain that mutation happened far in advance of "life."

9:56 PM  

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