This past Wednesday I saw Michael Behe’s talk at the Washington D.C. offices of the Discovery Institute. The talk, alas, was staggeringly dull, and I frequently found my attention wandering. Unlike Thomas Woodward, who was lying through his teeth at almost every turn and plainly knew next to nothng about science, Behe confined things pretty much to biochemistry. It was all malaria this and binding sites that.
So I won’t give him the full treatment the way I did with Woodward. If I did it would basically look like just a straight summary of his book, and you can get that from any of a dozen different blogs. I will, however, provide a transcript of my own brief exchange with Behe.
The audience was much smaller than I expected. There were only 35 people there when Behe started, but this swelled to about 55-60 by the end. Nonetheless, as I anticipated would be the case, it was impossible to ask any follow-up questions in the Q and A. In fact, the way things worked out, I was the last person to ask a question.
Behe’s big thing is that random mutations filtered through natural selection can not explain the formation of complex systems. In his first book, Darwin’s Black Box, he argued that if a system satisfies his definition of “irreducibly complex,” that it is composed of several, well-matched parts such that the removal of any one part causes the system to cease functioning, then that fact alone is enough to conclude that it could not have appeared via gradual evolution. The charming thing about this argument is that it never even makes it past the level of simple logic. It is just wrong to say that irreducible complexity in the present is telling us anything relevant about possible functional precursors in the past. And that leaves aside the fact that for a great many such systems, we know quite a lot about how they evolved.
The new book contains little that is new. There is a detailed discussion of malaria that is supposed to imply something, God knows what, about the plausibility of complex systems evolving gradually.
Anyway, that’s the set-up. Here’s my question, and Behe’s answer:
ROSENHOUSE: My question is this: when I look at the biological literature and when I read replies to your work from other biochemists and other biologists, it seems to me that biologists who actually study these systems find a lot of evidence that they were cobbled together from simpler precursors, what Stephen Jay Gould used to call the senseless signs of history, things that make sense if you view these systems as the result of a long evolutionary process, but are hard to understand as the result of intelligent design. And I also notice that for certain specific complex systems, such as the immune system, or the blood clotting cascade, or the Krebs cycle, or the mammalin inner ear structure, or numerous others, biologists seem to have pretty good evidence for their conclusions about what the intermediate stages actually are. So my question is this: You’re asking scientists to effectively abandon this idea that complex systems evolve gradually by Darwinian mechanisms. Do you have any suggestions for what they would replace it with? And I don’t mean necessarily an actual fully developed theory for what they would replace it with, but just what sorts of experiments, what sorts of activities should scientists be doing differently in their day-to-day professional lives, that they would do under your way of looking at the world but currently do not do because they have Darwinian blinders on?
BEHE: Well, cobbled together is in the mind of the beholder. I’m real suspicious of somebody who says, gee that looks like it was cobbled together, when the system works pretty well, especially at the protein level. People confuse — that’s why I try to separate Darwin’s theory into common descent, random mutation and natural selection. Common descent — you know, one protein might resemble another protein that has a different role in the cell, but the question is not common descent, did this arise from a gene from another protein, the question is how did this go on to have spiffy new properties. And because of the data I talked about today, I think the transition, or going from one to another is a whole lot harder than Darwinian biologists have given it credit for. So the similarities are really interesting, tracing lines of descent that’s very interesting, but inferring from that that it was a Darwinian random process, that’s a whole lot trickier, and I think, like I say, people let their presumptions guide them more than they should.
As to what they should do, I think for the very large part, they can probably continue to do exactly like they’re doing. Because nobody’s looking into how Darwinian processes put together complex systems, they all just presume them, they’re trying to trace lines of descent, and that’s an interesting thing but they’re not actually trying to explain them. If I were a head of a granting agency, and if I could give money to someone I thought was doing interesting work pertinent to this area, I would give a whole lot more money to Richard Lenski, or other folks who do similar types of experiments, to try to answer the question in finer and finer and finer detail exactly what can random processes do. Let’s stoke up Lenski’s work, he worked with 10 mL flasks, let’s give him a 100 L fermenter, let’s give Michigan State a multi-invetigator grant so that when Lenski retires or goes to Florida, someone else can watch this over longer and longer periods of time. Because in my view the more we know about, the more we watch actual evolution in nature without models that govern our presuppositions, the more and more I think we will see that Darwinian processes are in fact limited.
A revealing answer. First, cobbled together is not in the mind of the beholder. It is a simple and well-known fact, going back to Darwin’s own investigations into the insect attracting contrivances of orchids, that complex systems are never made of parts wholly unique to that system, without any vestige of history in some plausible precursor system. They are cobbled together from readily available parts, and not from new parts fashioned just for them. This is what we would have to find for natural selection to be a viable explanation.
Next, Behe is flatly wrong in saying that no one is trying to understand how complex systems evolve gradually. One wonders why the professional literature has so mucvh to say on the evolution of complex structures if no one is studying the question. Behe denies that such papers prove very much, but the fact remains that their authors certainly think they do, which is enough to refute Behe’s claim here.
Now for the main point. If you need any further evidence that design is scientifically vacuous, you need look no farther than Behe’s answer here. Asked bluntly what scientists would be doing differently under a design regime, Behe answered plainly that nothing would change. So much for design being a scientific reasearch program.
So that was my day. Behe was a snooze, I got rained on, and I didn’t have time for my planned trip to the Museum of Natural History. All in all, the highlight of my day was my corned beef sandwich at Eli’s Kosher Deli on 20th and N. But it was a very good sandwich indeed…