I walked back to the convention center with the sixteen year old. The rest of the posse went a different direction. He seemed keen to persuade me of the absurdity of attributing consciousness to the purely physical properties of the brain. The most interesting part of this conversation was his complete confidence that animals, not even chimpanzees, are not conscious. “That’s what it means to say we are created in God’s image,” he informed me.
Thanks to the long line at Subway, we arrived back at the convention center more than halfway through Michael Behe’s talk. I wasn’t especially bothered by this. Having read most of Behe’s writing on this subject, I felt confident that I could have given his talk on the spur of the moment if asked to do so. Could probably have done it with considerably more eloquence, too. From what I heard it didn’t seem like Behe had prepared anything new.
Here’s the first sentence I heard from Behe upon walking into the room:
The grand Darwinian claims rest on undisciplined imagination.
Get the idea?
Behe graciously clarified that some Darwinian claims are well-substantiated. Darwinism explains antibiotic resistance and certain genetic diseases, for example. He even condescendingly informed his audience that imagination is important in science, it is just undisciplined imagination to which he objects.
The grand Darwinian claims Behe has in mind are the ones about being able to craft complex biochemical systems gradually via the prolonged action of natural selection. It’s pretty rich for Behe to chalk up this assertion to undisciplined imagination. When scientists claim to know a great deal about the evolution of complex systems, such as the blood clotting cascade or the immune system, they base their claims on reams of published data about the nature of those systems. That is, extensive research on these systems over many years gradually brings into focus a credible picture for how these systems evolved. Sure, no one paper presents a complete evolutionary scenario from start to finish. Instead, enough data gets collected that we can say with some confidence what the intermediate stages were. And since it seems to happen over and over again that the more we learn about a complex system the more plausible its evolutionary origin appears, scientists feel justified in asserting that such systems evolved gradually.
Behe, for his part, simply asserts that “irreducibly complex” systems can not evolve gradually. That assertion comprises Behe’s entire argument from Darwin’s Black Box. And when scientists point out three or four scenarios for how such systems can evolve in principle and illustrate with specific examples how they play out in practice, Behe just folds his arms and shakes his head. Charming fellow.
From here he went into full quote-mine mode. First up was the following quote from Franklin Harold, from his book The Way of the Cell:
We should reject, as a matter of principle, the substitution of intelligent design for the dialogue of chance and ncessity; but we must concede that there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations.
This is a rare example of Behe quoting someone accurately, though it should be mentioned that Harold specifically describes the Darwinian mechanism as plausible and argues that it is very difficult to recreate isolated events that happened long ago. That notwithstanding, I would argue that Harold was simply wrong to say this. Evolutionists can do considerably better than wishful speculations for a variety of biochemical systems.
More to the pointt, however, is that it is absurd to describe this as representative of the typical reaction to Behe’s books. Most critics emphasized the logical errors in Behe’s argument (irreducible complexity in the present does not preclude gradual formation in the past), used specific examples to illustrate that in some cases we do have strong evidence for how things evolved, and pointed out the numerous instances of Behe presenting caricatures of evolution or of misquoting people. Those were the primary responses to Behe’s book.
Behe delighted the audience by likening Harold’s wishful speculations to Kipling’s Just-So-Stories. Then he lamented that Harold seems to think there is some principle that precludes him from drawing a conclusion of design. That wasn’t Harold’s point at all. You can draw whatever conclusions you like from the data at hand, just don’t pretend that invoking design by an unfathomable intelligence is a legitimate sort of explanation for science.
This raised an interesting issue, and one that I have blogged about before. For most practicing scientists it seems obvious that an hypothesis of intelligent design offers nothing useful when confronted with problems in the lab. The attitude is that when some phenomenon seems difficult you hunker down and work harder. That is why Harold said we should reject ID on principle.
But for the people at the conference the situation is different. For them, what is important is the existence of the designer, not the minutiae of biochemistry. They know that “scientific evidence” is commonly regarded as the best sort of evidence there is, and they want to claim that science backs up their most cherished beliefs about the world. That’s why they seem completely deaf to the concerns of scientists engaged in actual research. Tell them that invocations of design are science stoppers and they will ask you why you would expect science to continue once it has confirmed the existence of a designer.
Behe, of course, felt Harold had a different principle in mind. He told the audience that a conclusion of design points beyond nature, and that makes many scientists uncomfortable. He also gushed about how scientists should be willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads.
At that particular moment the evidence was strongly leading to the conclusion that Behe was clueless. Further evidence came in when Behe turned to other reactions to his book. He pointed out that many critics responded by arguing there were accounts in the literature of the evolutionary origin for complex systems. To refute this charge he whipped out a statement from philosopher David Ray Griffin:
“The response I have received from repeating Behe’s claim about the evolutionary literature, which simply brings out the point being made implicitly by many others, such as Chris Dutton and so on, is that I obviously have not read the right books. There are, I am sure, evolutionists who have described how the transitions in question could have occurred.” And he continues, “When I ask in which books I can find these discussions, however, I either get no answer or else some titles that, upon examination, do not, in fact, contain the promised accounts. That such accounts exist seems to be something that is widely known, but I have yet to encounter anyone who knows where they exist.”
QED. I mean, if a philosopher says certian things are lacking from the scientific literature, it must be so, right? Based on Griffin’s statement Behe concluded that claims of evolutionary explanations for complex systems are mere urban legends. My conclusion, by contrast, is that Griffin has no more of a clue than Behe.
He now considered one further response to his books: Those people who say there are Darwinian explanations for the evolution of complexity, and then point to a specific paper to back up their claim. He told the audience he would now consider one such example. Anyone familiar with Behe’s work knows what is coming.
Here’s how Behe tells the story: Prominent scientists Russell Doolittle, an expert on the blood clotting cascade wrote an essay for the Boston Review claiming that Behe was wrong. He wrote the following:
Recently the gene for plaminogen was knocked out of mice, and, predictably, those mice had thrombotic complications because fibrin clots could not be cleared away. Not long after that, the same workers knocked out the gene for fibrinogen in another line of mice. Again, predictably, these mice were ailing, although in this case hemorrhage was the problem. And what do you think happened when these two lines of mice were crossed? For all practical purposes, the mice lacking both genes were normal! Contrary to claims about irreducible complexity, the entire ensemble of proteins is not needed. Music and harmony can arise from a smaller orchestra. (Emphasis in Original)
But actually it was Doolittle who was wrong. He misread the paper. The paper in question was entitled, “Loss of Fibrinogen Rescues Mice from the Pleiotropic Effects of Plasminogen Deficiency.” Behe then said,
He saw the phrase “rescues mice” and thought that the mice were normal. But they weren’t.
The point is this. That Professor Doolittle knows more about the clotting system, about its proteins its genes, and so on, then anybody else on Earth, and yet I think you can see from his mistake that he does not know how Darwinian processes could put together a system of the complexity of the blood clotting cascade. If he did he would have just told us in that essay or pointed to an article; instead he pointed to an article about hemorrhaging mice which showed the opposite of what he thought. And if Professor Doolittle does not know how Darwinian processes could put together such a system, nobody knows. Nobody in the entire world knows.
That’s Behe’s version. Here’s reality.
Pretty much the only part of Behe’s version that is true are the parts about Russell Doolittle being an expert on blood clotting and about how he wrote an essay for the Boston Review. Doolittle’s essay is available here. He begins by describing his thirty-five years of work on blood clotting in humans and other organisms. He then discusses how Behe misrepresented one of his own papers. Essentially, a paper that was intended by Doolittle to present the basics of blood clotting evolution to people who were not themselves experts in evolutionary biology was presented by Behe as a “state of the art” paper. He took advantage of Doolittle’s casual language, appropriate for the audience to whom the paper was to be presented, to accuse Doolittle of a variety of intellectual sins.
He goes on to describe some of the relevant ideas from biochemistry and describes some of the mechanisms that were likely involved in the evolution of blood clotting, citing two of his own papers in the process. Since he was writing in a popular level forum, he obviously could not belabor all the technical details. Along the way he refutes some mathematical arguments used by Behe in his book.
It is only at the end of this paper, after explaining that he believes he has a good grasp indeed on the evolution of blood clotting, that he mentions the business about mice lacking plasminogen and fibrinogen. Here is the full paragraph, with the part Behe cited in bold-face print:
Let me conclude by mentioning that support for the Yin and Yang scenario is now coming from another quarter. Thus, it has become possible during the last decade to “knock out” genes in experimental organisms. “Knockout mice” are now a common (but expensive) tool in the armamentarium of those scientists anxious to cure the world’s ills. Recently the gene for plaminogen was knocked out of mice, and, predictably, those mice had thrombotic complications because fibrin clots could not be cleared away. Not long after that, the same workers knocked out the gene for fibrinogen in another line of mice. Again, predictably, these mice were ailing, although in this case hemorrhage was the problem. And what do you think happened when these two lines of mice were crossed? For all practical purposes, the mice lacking both genes were normal! Contrary to claims about irreducible complexity, the entire ensemble of proteins is not needed. Music and harmony can arise from a smaller orchestra. No one doubts that mice deprived of these two genes would be compromised in the wild, but the mere fact that they appear normal in the laboratory setting is a striking example of the point and counterpoint, step-by-step scenario in reverse!
I’d say those extra sentences are pretty important, wouldn’t you? The part before Behe’s excerpt makes it clear that quoting the paper about the knockout mice was hardly the sum total of his theorizing on the subject of blood clotting. Rather, it was merely one more, recent, confirmatory piece of data for a scenario that is amply documented my many other lines of evidence. The part after Behe’s quote makes it clear that Doolittle understood that the mice lacking both genes were physically compromised, contrary to Behe’s presentation.
For a more detailed discussion of this issue, I encourage you to read Ian Musgrave’s post on the subject, written for the Panda’s Thumb. Behe has been using this example prominently in his articles and presentations for years. Ian points out that not only did Behe misrepresent Doolittle’s remarks, he also misrepresented the results of the knockout mice paper.
And it is upon this farago of nonsense that Behe bases his claim that no one has the faintest idea how complex biochemical systems can evolve. Small wonder the Lehigh University Biology Department felt compelled to post a statement distancing themselves from Behe’s views.
There was only one further item on the schedule. None of the talks had question and answer periods. Instead, conference attendees were invited to write down questions that would then be sifted and asked interview style at the end of the day. Lee Strobel played the role of interviewer, with Behe, Richards and Meyer answering the questions.
Earlier in the day Strobel told us all to make the questions as difficult as possible. Though I detected a slight lack of sincerity on Strobel’s part, I came up with the following question: “ID looks impressive in conferences like this or in public debates where people operate unencumbered by rules of evidence. Why is it then that when both ID proponents and evolutionists had a chance to make their best arguments in court, before a conservative judge, under circumstances that precluded theatrics, the verdict came down so strongly against the idea that ID had scientific merit?”
My question didn’t get asked. Anyone surprised? Here’s a summary of how things went:
Q: Should we push to have this taught in public schools?
A: ID is based on science. The Dover verdict is of little significance. Just teach the controversy. Do a point/counterpoint style of teaching, like Fox News. (I’m serious, he used Fox News as an example of the proper way to present a controversial issue.)
Q: Dr. Richards, your argument in The Privlieged Planet presupposes complex life based on carbon and water. But couldn’t complex life be based on other sorts of chemistry? Then we wouldn’t be so privileged.
A: That’s just science fiction. Even the folks at SETI restrict their attention to carbon based life.
Q: What advice would you give a young scientist concerning when to invoke intelligent design when facing a particularly difficult scientific problem?
A: You invoke ID for positive reasons, not because you lack information. You infer ID based on a purposeful arrangement of parts. It’s an interesting research problem to determine the interface between what was designed and what was not.
Q: Does ID equally support the old Earth and the young Earth theories?
A: ID is an age-neutral argument. There are people on both sides within the ID camp.
Q: Over ninety-nine percent of all the species that have ever existed are now extinct. If a basketball player made only one out of every hundred shots he wouldn’t make the team. (This was taken from the leaflets the atheists were handing out).
A: The question smuggles in theological assumptions. It assumes that an intelligent designer would create his species to be eternal. It assumes that extinction must indicate bad design. Something could be designed badly but still be designed. Ninety-nine percent of all car models that have ever been produced are no longer being produced. Does that mean they weren’t designed?
Q: Is ID testable or falsifiable?
A: Russell Doolittle thought he was testing ID, but he was wrong. ID is testable by normal scientific methods. It’s proponents of Darwinism that are resistant to tests of their theory.
And there the conference ended. Many people rushed the stage to talk to the speakers. I once confronted Ken Ham at a young-Earth creationist conference in that fashion, but I had little urge to repeat the experience here. Besides, my friend the sixteen year old was sitting next to me. He looked like he couldn’t wait for the questions to end so that he could lay his spiffy new argument on me. He was really bothered by my suggestion that consciousness could arise from the physical processes of the brain. Incidentally, his explanation was that the soul uses the brain to create consciousness. Whatever.
I’d repeat his argument here, but frankly I couldn’t make heads or tails out of it. He seemed convinced that if I believed that consciousness was a purely physical process I must also believe that air could be conscious. I can’ t fathom how he made that leap, but he sure seemed to think he had a real haymaker of an argument. We ended up talking about emergent properties, artificial intelligence and cognitive science. Actually he did most of the talking. I mostly searched futilely for a graceful way out of the conversation.
At this point an older gentlemen approached us. Turned out he was the father of my new friend. He gave me a look that wondered who I was and why I was talking to his son.
After he introduced himself I said, “Your son is giving me quite a lecture on modern neuroscience.” He smiled and said, “That’s okay. He lectures me all the time.”
With that I took my opportunity to leave. Was it worth it? Well, someone has to keep an eye on these guys. And it never hurts to get out of Harrisonburg for a few days!