Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Statements from Two Behe Reviewers

There is an update below the fold with much new information

Last week I wrote about the fact that Michael Behe claimed last week under oath that his book, Darwin’s Black Box, received even more thorough peer review than a scholarly article in a refereed journal. Now more and more facts are coming to light. We only know the names of 3 of the 5 reviewers – Michael Atchison, Robert Shapiro and K. John Morrow. Atchison, I’ve already documented, did not review the book at all. He had a 10 minute conversation about the book over the phone, without ever seeing the text, with an editor who was concerned about whether it would sell. Skip Evans contacted Robert Shapiro and was told that he did review the book, and while he agreed with some of his analysis of origin-of-life research, he thinks his conclusions are false. He did, however, say that he thought that Behe’s book was the best explanation of the argument from design that was available.

Now, what of Morrow? As it turns out, this is the best of all. Over on the Panda’s Thumb, a commenter has left the text of an email from K. John Morrow in response to an inquiry about his review of Behe’s book (and I have verified its authenticity). His response is absolutely devestating:

I did review Behe’s book for a publisher who turned it down on the basis of my comments, and those of others (including Russell Doolittle who trashed it). When I reviewed Behe’s book I was much more polite than Doolittle, who didn’t mince words. Eventually Behe found another publisher, so he’s right; it was peer reviewed. What he doesn’t say is that is was rejected by the first set of reviewers…

I’m absolutely appalled by Behe’s arguments, which are simply a rehash of ideas that Darwin considered and rejected. There is not a shred of evidence to support intelligent design, and a vast body of evidence that argues against it. It is not a scientific hypothesis, it simply the philosophical wanderings of an uniformed (or disingenuous) mind.

So of the three named reviewers of the book, we have one who thinks the book is wrong in its conclusions but a good exposition of a bad argument, one who completely panned the book as appalling and unsupported (along with others, leading the original publisher to turn down the book for publication), and a third who didn’t actually review the book at all. Yet Behe claims that this book received stronger peer review than a paper in a refereed journal? This is beginning to look a lot like wishful thinking, at best, and outright distortion at worst.

Update: Dr. Russell Doolittle, perhaps the foremost expert on blood clotting in the world, has also been kind enough to give us permission to use the full text of his review of Behe’s book that he gave to Dr. Morrow back in 1995 when he was asked by the original publisher to review the manuscript. Dr. Morrow says he thinks it was Doolittle’s comments that prompted the original publisher to reject the book. Here are Doolittle’s comments in full:

November 14, 1995
Professor K. John Morrow, Jr.
Dept. Cell Biology & Biochemistry
School of Medicine
Texas Tech University
Health Sciences Center
3601 4th Street
Lubbock, TX 79430

Dear Dr. Morrow,

I read the draft of the chapter for a proposed book by Micheal Behe that you sent me. As you warned me on the telephone, my own writings play a prominent role in his attack on evolution. I don’t know whether the word ingenious or disingenuous is more appropriate here, but he has certainly turned all my thinking completely around to suit his own ends. That it is really disingenuous is clear from the fact that he has managed to belittle important scientific findings by couching them with sarcasm.

But what annoyed me the most in the chapter was the author’s appeal to Rube Goldberg, one of my favorite cartoonists, and a person I often refer to for my own perspective. On numerous occasions I have shown the two enclosed Goldberg cartoons as examples of how evolution works! Indeed, I used them in (trying to) teach our medical students about how complicated cascades work in contemporary cells. Also, I have used the same cartoons in debating our local creationist (Duane Gish), pointing out that certainly no Creator would have designed such a circuitous and contrived system. Instead, this is how the opportunistic hand of natural selection works, using whatever happens to be available at the moment. (I wonder if he knew about this?)

But let me back up a bit. First, the 1993 article of mine, which is so heavily quoted from and intentionally disparaged, was the text of a lecture I presented at an international conference on blood clotting. It was presented to an audience of mainly clinicians and biotechnologists, not persons well versed in the rudiments of protein evolution. The tone was intentionally light and breezy. My “casual language” has to be viewed in this light. My main point was to demonstrate that the delicate balance of forward and backward reactions that regulate blood clotting came about in a step-by-step process. I emphasized that the Yin-Yang was simply a metaphor and that other similar point and counterpoint comparisons could be made.

A more rigorous development of these ideas can be found in the cited references, one of which (Doolittle & Feng, 1987) is enclosed. This article predicted that certain components of the cascade appear relatively late in vertebrate evolution, and data in support of this contention are just now forthcoming (lower vertebrates appear to lack the equivalents of factors XI and XII).

A wonderful example of how gene duplications operate in this regard was noted almost 25 years ago. Thus, in hemoglobin, similar sequence extrapolations backwards in time suggested that the gene duplication leading to alpha and beta chains occurred at about the time of the diversification of fishes (see Fig. 1 of Doolittle, 1987, (enclosed). Indeed, when hemoglobin from lampreys and hagfish were examined, they were found to be single-\|chained! They had diverged before the key alpha /beta duplication that has led to the allosteric regulation of oxygen transport. Max Perutz has written elegantly about this.

Here are a few of his comments that I found most irritating.

On page IV-29 the author bold-facedly claims that “the (Doolittle) article does not explain.. how clotting might have originated and subsequently evolved.” and then in italics “..no one on earth has the vaguest idea how the coagulation cascade came to be.”

I disagree. I have a good idea, shared by most workers in the field, and it is a matter of the (important) details that we are trying to establish.

On page IV-24, Behe underscores that no “causative factors are cited.” “What exactly is causing all this springing and unleashing?” Gene duplications, of course, the frequency of which is difficult to measure (I often note that “duplication begets more duplication,” for reasons of the misalignment of similar sequences), but which is turning out to be enormously more common than expected.

Causation is tricky. Sometimes environmental or internal benefits are obvious. Often however, the rule for survival is “no harm, no foul,” with adaptations occurring subsequently. For the moment, they don’t even have to be slightly improved.

As for the “enormous luck needed”, we are now into the crux of all evolutionary problems, which is to say, what is the probability of survival? Population geneticists are attempting to answer such questions in general terms (see, e.g., J. B. Walsh, Genetics, 139, 421-428, 1995). In fact, the product of most gene duplications, which are the heart of the evolutionary process, are doomed to random oblivion (see enclosed, Doolittle, Science, 1981).

Also, on page IV-26, he states, “the crucial issues of how much? how fast? when? where?” are not addressed. These are relevant and not unknowable matters. There is a wonderful article about to appear in Molecular Phylogenetics by D. Gumucio et al on how fetal hemoglobin has evolved in primates and that also outlines exactly the regulatory circumstances that allow its differential expression. Finally, my “model” does give some important numbers. The power of sequence-\|based analysis is that it reveals the order of appearance of new proteins, even when the sequences are limited to one or a few species. As noted above, it also has the power to make predictions about the occurrence of proteins in different creatures.

In the meantime, we must ask Mr. Behe whether he doubts the existence of gene duplications? (There are many examples of closely related species where one has n copies of a gene and the other m.) If he acknowledges their existence, then how does he account for the pseudogenes that these duplications often give rise to? Does he think they have a function? And what does he think was the origin of allosteric hemoglobins in all but the most primitive vertebrates? As I say, even his derisive comments call attention to a system that could only have come about by natural selection.

Should the book be published? Scurrilous as it is, I am a believer in a free press. I also know most publishers will publish anything that can make money, and I’m sure there’s a naive market for claptrap like this.

I only ask that if you do recommend publication that you suggest that I be invited to review the book, so I can put my own Rube Goldberg cartoons to use.

Feel free to phone if there are other questions.

Sincerely,

Russell F. Doolittle
Research Professor
of Biology and Chemistry

Dr. Morrow further said in his email to me what I said a few days ago, that books and refereed journals are very different and that no book is ever as rigorously peer reviewed as a journal article for the simple reason that the book publisher’s primary concern is whether the book will sell or not. He notes, “I think Mike is being pretty disingenuous (I use that word a lot) to say that the manuscript was subjected to rigorous peer review. Everyone knows that the criteria that book publishers use are mainly financial and economic.”

Let me also say this: I think the book should have been published. I agree with Dr. Shapiro that while I think much of his argumentation is less than honest and his conclusions absurd, it’s very well written and is probably the best example of the argument from design that has been published since Paley’s day. It’s a provocative and well written book on a hot subject. From the perspective of a book publisher, that certainly means the book should be published. The point of all of this is not to say that his book should have been rejected by the publishers. It is only to say that the claim that it underwent more rigorous peer review than a journal article is patently absurd and contrary to the facts.