Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Michael Behe’s new book The Edge of Evolution is now out and being heavily promoted by the Discovery Institute. I’m sure it will come as no surprise to my readers to hear that lots of us involved in defending evolution against the attacks of creationists, neo- and paleo-, have been having a bit of fun reading it and finding the many errors in both fact and reasoning it contains. Nick Matzke has a post up at the Panda’s Thumb that highlights one particular error that is so glaring and obvious that it’s almost inconceivable that Behe didn’t catch it.

As Nick notes, much of Behe’s new book focuses on the (alleged) impossibility of evolving protein-protein binding sites and the primary example he uses is malaria. Indeed, he bluntly says, as Nick quotes, that malaria was intelligently designed for a purpose. He doesn’t bother to revisit most of his examples of irreducible complexity (IC) from the earlier Darwin’s Black Box, but he does do a follow up on the cilium in which he claims that new research since the mid-90s has shown it to be even more IC than it looked before.

His argument for that is based on research that shows that the production of the cilium in eukaryotes requires the operation of another cellular system known as intraflagellar transport, or IFT. Thus, Behe claims, both the cilium and the IFT are irreducibly complex, which is why he labels that section Irreducible Complexity Squared. He declares:

IFT exponetially increases the difficulty of explaining the irreducibly complex cilium. It is clear from careful experimental work with all ciliated cells that have been examined, from alga to mice, that a functioning cilium requires a working IFT.12 The problem of the origin of the cilium is now intimately connected to the problem of the origin of IFT. Before its discovery we could be forgiven for overlooking the problem of how a cilium was built. Biologists could vaguely wave off the problem, knowing that some proteins fold by themselves and associate in the cell without help. Just as a century ago Haeckel thought it would be easy for life to originate, a few decades ago one could have been excused for thinking it was probably easy to put a cilium together; the piece could probably just glom together on their own. But now that the elegant complexity of IFT has been uncovered, we can ignore the question no longer.

Wow, double the irreducible complexity! You can’t build cilia without a functioning IFT, so now you have to explain both the origin of the IFT and the origin of cilia. Except that, as Nick shows, this claim is just plain false. Just as his claim in his earlier book that every single factor in the blood clotting cascade must be present in order to function was easily disproven by pointing to dolphins, which lack Factor XII (Hagemann factor) yet still have blood that clots), this claim is easily disproven by showing that, in the real world, there exist organisms which have cilia but do not have the IFT.

Nick shows a chart and offers a citation showing that there is an existing organism that has a cilium but does not have IFT, an organism in a group called Apicomplexans. Specifically, a parasitic organism in that group. More specifically, a parasite known as Plasmodium falciparum. You might know it by its better known name: malaria. Yes, the very organism that Behe spends much of his book using as evidence of IC actually disproves his claim about the cilia/IFT system being irreducible. Oops.

Comments

  1. #1 derp
    June 6, 2007

    cue simpsons ‘ha ha’ kid

  2. #2 Dave S.
    June 6, 2007

    Yes, the very organism that Behe spends much of his book using as evidence of IC actually disproves his claim about the cilia/IFT system being irreducible. Oops.

    Cue the waffling and handwaving by Behe and claims how this missrepresents his argument in 3 … 2 … 1.

    That designer is quite a guy/gal/entity. Imagine, deliberately and purposefully designing a disease that wipes out more than a million people, mostly children, each and every year and infects and maims many millions of others.

    Maybe all those kids would have probably grown up to be Hitlers or Stalins.

  3. #3 MartinM
    June 6, 2007

    OT, but is anyone else having trouble accessing PT? I haven’t been able to see it at all today.

  4. #4 khan
    June 6, 2007

    OT, but is anyone else having trouble accessing PT? I haven’t been able to see it at all today.

    Same here.

  5. #5 Lorri Talley
    June 6, 2007

    Ditto on PT.

  6. #6 ji
    June 6, 2007

    Wow! You think somebody would have noticed that blatant error when they were “peer reviewing” this book. If Behe were a clever fellow he would have let the real scientist rip the book to shreds, and then rewrite it. Then again… what’s the point? Even the small amount of response’s from their side have ignored the accusations, and focused mainly on attacking whoever wrote the article. UD was the perfect example, instead of addressing Chu-Carroll’s arguments they simply pointed out that he didn’t have a math degree, and that computer science was not math intensive. Then they simultaneously ignore the fact that Behe does not have a math degree.

    Is there any way to win with these people?

  7. #7 MartinM
    June 6, 2007

    You think somebody would have noticed that blatant error when they were “peer reviewing” this book.

    It’s entirely possible that someone did. Large parts of the ‘peer review’ for Darwin’s Black Box consisted of experts in the relevant fields panning it, followed by no corrective action whatsoever.

  8. #8 Skip
    June 6, 2007

    So now we have systems, to paraphrase a classic American film, that exhibit “Double secret irreducible complexity”.

    Behe is a total Neidermeyer.

  9. #9 Ed Brayton
    June 6, 2007

    The Panda’s Thumb is having some issues with its server overheating this morning. Reed and Wes are working diligently to fix it. We have a whole new server for PT but it had not been moved over there yet, so it may well end up being moved over now.

  10. #10 plunge
    June 6, 2007

    I don’t think you guys have made a big enough stink over the sheer oddness of this book’s major thesis. If I’m understanding it correctly, it goes something like this (as you guys have summarized it):

    1) He points out that there is a particular set of mutations in malaria that confer resistance. The chances of them occurring together are astronomically unlikely.
    2) However, he concedes that because there are so many malaria cells and reproductions, that this IS a set of mutations that we don’t need ID to explain: it is within the realm of possibility for malaria as a species.
    3) He then argues that, however, if this simple change is extremely unlikely in malaria, but “saved” by its extremely high numbers and number of generations, other organisms that are far more complex and have far fewer generations and numbers have no excuse: they can’t have evolved all their different traits simply by selection from random mutation: the necessary mutations would never have cropped up.

    So if that’s a fair summary of his argument, then isn’t it screamingly obvious what you would then do? You’d pick out known mutation sets in these larger animals (like humans) in the SAME WAY you picked one specific set out for malaria, and parade around how improbable they are, without the saving grace of having generation times and populations that make the unlikely event quite probable.

    It sounds to me like he hasn’t done this though: if he had it would be a pretty big deal and the core of his claim. (Correct me if I’m wrong, I still haven’t been able to get a copy.)

    If he hasn’t, then his book boils down to: “Look, I found a set of mutations in malaria that the sort we might expect to find in malaria via random mutation and natural selection!”

    Ok… and? So there are sets of mutations in the malaria gene pool that we might expect to find in malaria. One might assume that we will find mutations in larger animals of the sort we might expect to find in larger animals.

    Again: I suppose its possible that there are sets of mutations in larger animals that do not fit the extremely crude and incorrectly teleological picture of probability he is painting. So wouldn’t he then dazzle us with examples of these? Wouldn’t THEY be the centerpiece of the book, instead of malaria doing it’s malaria thing all within the realm of what evolution expects of malaria?

  11. #11 Adrienne
    June 6, 2007

    The first thing that caught me about reading this post is Behe’s claim that malaria had to have been designed. Umm, why would an all-good Designer make a frickin’ parasite to kill his other designs/creations, including humans??? Doesn’t that mean the Designer 1) has a very sick sense of humor and/or 2) is incredibly cruel? Yikes.

  12. #12 Brian L
    June 6, 2007

    That designer is quite a guy/gal/entity. Imagine, deliberately and purposefully designing a disease that wipes out more than a million people, mostly children, each and every year and infects and maims many millions of others.

    Maybe all those kids would have probably grown up to be Hitlers or Stalins.

    I can spot a theological argument a mile away! I can also see that stating a purely subjective moral or theological (read, non-scientific) opinion objecting to a purported desinger of life as if there is something objectively ‘wrong’ with diseases, Hitlers and Stalins in the absence of a designer of life is incoherent and self-refuting.

    Cordially,

  13. #13 plunge
    June 6, 2007

    I have come to believe that theologians are taught, in their education, to think that merely claiming that something is bad theology is tantamount to making an actual argument that it is.

    I do, however, judge Hitlers, Stalins, and diseases to be morally wrong, and my position is neither ignorant nor self-refuting. Nor do the correctness of moral judgments have anything to do with whether or not there is a designer.

  14. #14 Dave S.
    June 6, 2007

    I can spot a theological argument a mile away!

    Theological? I thought ID was totally consistant with the designer being a natural entity like an alien or a time traveller.

    Were they just pulling our chain with that one?

    I can also see that stating a purely subjective moral or theological (read, non-scientific) opinion objecting to a purported desinger of life as if there is something objectively ‘wrong’ with diseases, Hitlers and Stalins in the absence of a designer of life is incoherent and self-refuting.

    There is certainly something wrong, I’d use the word immoral, with anyone who deliberately constructs a disease that kills children.

    I do leave room that maybe the designer was merely ignorant of the effects his/her/its design would have and not malicious. Or maybe he/she/it was powerless to do anything about it as it might have been an unforseen and uncontrollable side-effect of something else.

    There certainly is something objectively wrong with both Hitler and Stalin, regardless of the existance or non-existance of any ‘designer’, in any form, be it natural or not.

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