Ronald Reagan famously defined the eleventh commandment to be, “Thou shalt not criticize a fellow Republican.” I’m a big fan of the spirit, if not the substance, of that statement. Generally speaking, I try to avoid criticizing my own side. The way I see it, there are dozens of bloggable items that come across my desk every day, and I can only write about a tiny fraction of them. So why should I waste time on some obscure commentator or blogger who defends something I believe in with somethng less than complete rigor? There are plenty of other bloggers on the other side perfectly happy to do that for me.
Sometimes, however, it’s a hard rule to live by. This is one of those times. Jerry Coyne has published a very long review of Michael Behe’s book The Edge of Evolution, for The New Republic. Coyne is a biologist at the University of Chicago. When I learned of this review’s existence I grew very excited. With plenty of space with which to work and writing for an audience of sophisticted nonscientists, I figured Coyne would take the opportunity to present some really interesting science and give Behe a proper drubbing.
Alas, it was not to be. Simply put, his review of EoE is a terrible piece of work. It’s all snideness and ridicule with very little in the way of good arguments. It really infuriates me when someone like Coyne is given such a terrific platform, several thousand words in a classy magazine like The New Republic, and then writes as if the whole project is beneath him.
Behe may be worthy of contempt and his arguments not worth wasting time on, but if that is your attitude then don’t ride into print on the subject. If you are going to write a long review of Behe’s book, you treat his arguments with the utmost seriousness and refute them point by irresistable point. That’s far more effective than all the snideness and one-liners in the world. This was a perfect opportunity to present some real science to an audience that would have appreciated it, and Coyne declined the invitation.
Coyne begins by discussing the anti-Behe statement from the Lehigh Biology Dept. To anyone who is not already anti-Behe that will look like a vicious, ad hominem attack. Everyone knows ID is unpopular among scientists, the question Coyne is supposed to be answering is whether that unpopularity is merited. If you’re going to mention this statement at all, you do it at the end of the article. First you demolish his arguments, then you point to that as the reason for Behe’s colleagues finding him embarrassing. Placing this at the beginning of the review makes it look like Behe is right. The mean old scientific establishment is coming down on one poor guy with unorthodox views.
There then follows paragraph after tedious pargraph recounting some of the history of ID. This goes on way too long, I kept yelling at my screen for him to get to the science, but even worse is the way it is written. Virtually every sentence is written with a tone of sneering contempt. I make fun of creationists for writing like this, for thinking that in every sentence they have to keep reminding their readers who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Now here’s Coyne doing the same thing.
At one point he writes:
The reviews of Darwin’s Black Box in the scientific community were uniformly negative, for two reasons. First, we do understand something about how these pathways might have evolved in stepwise fashion, though we are as yet admittedly ignorant of many details. (It is harder to reconstruct the evolution of biochemical pathways than the evolution of organisms themselves, because, unlike organisms, these pathways do not fossilize, and so their evolution must be reconstructed entirely from living species.)
I kept waiting for him to explain some of what we know about the evolution of complex systems and how we know it. Instead Coyne says almost nothing to back that statement up. It looks precisely like the groundless, dogmatic assertion Behe says it is.
And Coyne follows this with the argument that lacking a good explanation now is no reason to give up on the problem and attribute it to design. That’s a reasonable point, but making it one of your lead arguments right out of the gate is rhetorically very weak. Behe claims that all currently suggested naturalistic theories for the origins of complexity are utterly inadequate. They’re not even close, according to him. You don’t answer that by saying, well, who knows, maybe we’ll discover something new in the future. The fact is that biologists have the resources today, in the present, to shed a lot of light on the evolution of complex structures. That’s the point you hammer home. The not giving up can come at the end, when you’re showing that Behe has o good ideas of his own to offer.
Section two is a bit better, where he explains the basics of evolution by natural selection. But at one point he tells us that scientists have much evidence that genetic mutations are random in the usual technical sense. Seeing as how that is precisely the point Behe is challenging, it might have been nice for Coyne to describe some of that evidence. Instead he’s too busy speculating about Behe’s motives implying, based on nothing, that Behe is not sincere in his acceptance of common descent but rather concedes it out of some sort of political consideration. This is totally inappropriate this early in the review. You earn the right to speculate about motives only after you show that the guy’s arguments are so ridiculous that it’s reasonable to think there’s some insincerity in his views. If his arguments are good, I don’t care about his motives. Coyne never gets around to actually doing that, however.
Section three has some good stuff, especially the part where Coyne explains why it’s pretty silly to argue that because we don’t see complex systems evolving in malaria parasites or AIDS viruses we should conclude that natural selection acting on random mutations can’t produce complex systems. It’s a rare example of the review making an argument that is both solid and on point.
But even here I had to laugh when Coyne writes, “Malaria actually provides a superb example of natural selection…” as if Behe is denying that. One of Behe’s main points is that malaria does, indeed, provide a good example of natural selection in action, and the rather unimpressive results (in his telling) show how limited selection really is. Behe will have a good time lambasting Coyne for not reading very carefully.
Section four starts off in a promising way, as Coyne criticizes Behe’s descrption of cilia for being intended to wow the reader with all that complexity. Indeed it is. You always get the feeling, reading Behe’s descriptions, that you are in the presence of a snow job. Finally, I thought, Coyne is going to get down to business and explain to me why we can be confident that such complex systems evovled gradually by natural selection acting on random mutations. But he never does that.
Instead he just trots out the old type-three secretory system (TTSS) argument. Talk about phoning it in! It’s a fine argument, as far as it goes. It effectively shows that Behe was wrong to say that any precursor to an irreducibly complex system would have to be nonfunctional. But it’s hardly an argument that we know the whole flagellum evolved in the familiar way simply because we have identified one functional precursor. ID folks, after all, have been responding to this point for years.
And there’s so much more that can be said about flagellum evolution! We can say a lot more than just “Look at the TTSS!” For example, Coyne might have read the Matzke and Pallen article on this subject and explained some of its technical complexity to nonbiologists. That would have been interesting, and would have effectively shown how pathetic it is for Behe to claim that no one has the faintest idea how complex systems evolved. But that would have required doing a little homework, and Coyne, no doubt, is too busy for such things.
So what does he do with the space that might have been dedicated to, you know, presenting some facts useful for assessing Behe’s arguments? He presents an argument from authority. And which authority did he find to make it clear the flagellum is the product of evolution?
Indeed, the whole problem of the evolution of cilia was argued before Judge Jones in Harrisburg, who ruled that there was no convincing evidence that evolution could not have produced this structure, making legal doctrine from something biologists already knew.
Are you kidding me? In a paragraph meant to impress people with the idea that Behe is snowing nonscientists with a wealth of technical detail, Coyne uses as a counterargument that we managed to convince a Judge that the flagellum evolved? This is embarrassing. How could anyone on the fence read that and not come down on the side of the ID folks?
Coyne follows this with:
In his new book, however, Behe simply ignores his critics, repeating his bankrupt claim that there is “no Darwinian explanation for the step-by-step origin of the cilium.”
That claim is, indeed, bankrupt, as the Matzke and Pallen article, among other work, shows. But how would anyone reading this review know that? They would see only that Judge Jones did not see a reason for thinking the flagellum didn’t evolve, followed by a blunt assertion that we know how it did evolve.
Sadly, Coyne isn’t yet through being foolish. In a five-paragraph section meant to persuade us that the cilium could have evolved gradually, he devotes one whole paragraph to challenging Behe to provide his own explanation, and talks about the vacuity of design theorizing. That’s a fine thing to point out in a later section, when Coyne is discussing Behe’s own views on the matter. But in a discussion of cilium evolution it looks like this:
BEHE: The cilium could not have evolved gradually.
COYNE: Could to! And how do you explain it Mr. Big Shot?
Real convincing. And then, having just shot himself in the left foot, he then turns around in the next paragraph and shoots himself in the right by talking once again about how just because we don’t know the details of cilium evolution now doesn’t mean we never will. You might as well just concede Behe’s point and be done with it! We can say a lot about cilium and flagellum evolution, but no one reading Coyne’s essay would have the slightest idea about any of that. Instead, they would think the only difference between Coyne and Behe is that Behe thinks the problem is insoluble, whereas Coyne holds out hope that maybe someday we will be able to say something.
Section five has a few decent points about the futility of elementary probability calculations in discussing protein evolution, but some specifics would have been nice. After all, one of Behe’s main charges is that evolutionists wave their hands a lot but never get around to showing the details. Alas, there is nothing in this essay to counteract this view.
But then Coyne totally steps in it with this one:
Consider the evolution of whales from terrestrial animals, now documented by a superb fossil record. The fossils show a wolf-like creature gradually becoming aquatic, with the hind limbs being reduced and finally lost, the forelimbs transformed into flippers, and the nostrils gradually moving atop the head to form the blowhole. How can anyone say that these changes (which of course look planned at the end) are unconnected or incoherent? They represent a case of natural selection eventually turning a land animal into a well-adapted aquatic one.
How on Earth does Coyne conclude, on the basis of a handful of fossils, that a wolf-like creature evolved into an aquatic mammal by natural selection acting on random genetic variations? The mechanism is the only issue here. The fossils certainly provide strong evidence of evolution and common descent. But Behe accepts all that. One of Behe’s main arguments is that evolutionists routinely use evidence of common descent as if it is also evidence of a particular mechanism. Behe will delightedly use this as an example of that phenomenon in his subsequent talks.
Then comes section six. The seemingly endless section six. This is where, having blathered to very little purpose in the previous five sections, having said almost nothing to justify his confidence in evolution, Coyne goes on to berate Behe for his own suggestions about natural history.
Behe is certainly vulnerable on this front. His view of things has the Designer behaving in some very strange ways indeed. Behe basically concedes as much in the final chapter of his book, when he briefly talks about God designing malaria. Someone more deft than Coyne could have hammered him on this point.
Sadly, Coyne didn’t go that route. Instead he fires off a list of what are supposed to be real humdinger, unanswerable questions. I don’t think Coyne has made the slightest effort here to anticpate possible responses Behe might offer. In many cases Coyne’s questions are trivial to answer.
If the goal was perfection, why are some features of life (such as our appendix or prostate gland) palpably imperfect?
Well, who said anything about perfection being the goal?
So what scientific reason can there be for singling out just one species as the Designer’s goal?
There is only one species with the intelligence to contemplate a relationship with God. That’s why we might single out just one species.
Coyne’s little challenges here are a mixture of good points and bad points, but they are all jumbled together and the whole thing is presented with such malice that he even managed to turn me off, and I already think Behe is a snake. If he could piss ME off just think of the effect he is having on anyone who does not already despise ID.
And it’s not as if Behe didn’t provide plenty of ammunition for treating him contemptuously. For example, on pages 188-189, Behe provides a series of bullet-point quotations meant to show how Darwinists have routinely made wrong predictions in the past. Every one of these quotes is baldly, laughably, ridiculously out of context, and at least one of them is seiously doctored to boot (we’ll discuss it in a future blog entry). Perhaps if Coyne had botherd to point that out he would have had some justification for his hostility. As it stands, I think a lot of TNR readers will wonder what all the nastiness is about.
Though it pains me to say it, I think Coyne squandered a magnificent opprotunity to present a really cogent argument for evolution and against ID nonsense. Precisely because the leading ID folks are shameless cranks, willing to stoop to any level of dishonesty and distortion in making their case, it is essential that our side reply with solid, serious arguments. Relentless snideness is fun to write, but it is a big turn-off to anyone not already on your side. If this review were all I knew about this subject, I would have very little idea of why Behe is wrong.