Roughgarden on Behe

Over at The Christian Century, biologist Joan Roughgarden serves up this review of Michael Behe’s The Edge of Evolution.

The good news is that Roughgarden is unambigously pro-evolution and anti-ID. She writes:

Behe’s position has been criticized scientifically and theologically. The structures thought to be irreducibly complex aren’t; precursor structures can be identified whose modification can lead to a flagellum–or any other trait, for that matter. Furthermore, ID advocates don’t offer any hypothesis about what happened in the evolutionary past–where, when and how did the designer give bacteria their flagella?

The ID position wound up being a litany of complaints against Darwin rather than a scientific hypothesis in its own right.

Not quite how I would put it, but basically correct. It’s nice to see an evangelical magazine publish something like this.

Sadly, the review is mostly an illustration of what happens when scientists not intimately familiar with ID claptrap presume to discuss the matter in print. For example:

ID is commingled with creationism, even though it is different. Unlike creationists, ID proponents accept the old age of the earth, acknowledge that all life–including humans and apes–share descent from common ancestry, reject the idea that species are specially created, and do not regard the Bible as scientifically meaningful. Nonetheless, ID and creationism are joined at the hip because ID proponents ally themselves with creationists for fund-raising, publicity, politics and legal strategizing.

Yikes. That’s really bad.

As far as I know, there is precisely one ID proponent who accepts common descent. That is Michael Behe (and it’s not even clear what common descent means when you’re also hypothesizing repeated interventions by the designer.). Every other prominent ID proponent explicitly rejects common descent. Furthermore, ID takes no stand on questions like the age of the Earth, what the designer did or did not do, and the reliability of scripture. Roughgarden is simply wrong to attribute to the ID movement generally the views of Behe specifically.

And the usual claim is not that ID is identical to young-Earth creationism, it is that ID is a just a form of creationism. People in London, Boston, and Baton Rouge speak English differently, but it is the same language nevertheless. Ditto for the relationship of ID to creationism.

We also get this:

Discussion of these issues is certain to be eclipsed by the gladiatorial spectacle of scientists behaving badly. Behe attacks by name biologists Kenneth Miller, Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins, among others. Perhaps not surprisingly, these scientists have responded vehemently in their reviews of Behe’s book. This conduct cannot increase respect and appreciation for science in the general public. Dawkins has yet to acknowledge his own direct responsibility for the existence of the ID theory. Phillip Johnson founded the present-day ID movement by writing Darwin on Trial (1993) in response to the ideology of selfishness and militant atheism that Dawkins preaches in The Selfish Gene (1976) and more recently in The God Delusion (2006). With both sides poisoning each other’s wells, it’s tempting to run away lest one be slaughtered as collateral damage.

Ahem. Darwin on Trial was actually published in 1991. And it was The Blind Watchmaker, not The Selfish Gene that inspired Phillip Johnson (at least as he tells the story).

What a strange paragraph this is! Who, exactly, is behaving badly? Dawkins, Carroll, Coyne and Miller criticized ideas they found to be badly mistaken. Where is the bad behavior in that?

And Roughgarden can’t really believe what she is saying here. That there would be no ID movement were it not for Dawkins’ writing. There will be an ID movement for as long as high school biology teachers insist on teaching evolution in science classes.

I think we are seeing the typical reaction from a religious scientist who knows that the evidence for evolution can not be gainsaid, but who nonetheless wants to leave room for science to acknowledge the divine. She can see for herself that the arguments promoted by folks like Behe are scientifically worthless, but at the same time she is sympathetic to their goals. That is why she feels that a review of Behe’s book must include a knee-jerk criticism of people more overtly hostile to ID, especially the hated Dawkins.

Roughgarden has quite a few other choice nuggets in her review, but I’ll leave it to the comments to flesh those out. Mostly, I’m afraid it’s a rather disappointing effort.

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    November 15, 2007

    Ooh, it’s another episode of the hit show, Let’s Kick Richard Dawkins in the Crotch! Let’s watch.

    “Ideology of selfishness and militant atheism”?

    “Ideology of selfishness“?

    What in the blazing circles of Hell is she talking about?

    By now, I’m almost numb to the “militant atheism” canard. (Apparently, the atheist standard for militancy is lower than that for any religion you could name: to be a militant Muslim radical, I’d have to blow myself to bloody smithereens, but I get to be a militant atheist as soon as I get a book contract.) What can Roughgarden possibly mean by that “ideology of selfishness” remark?

    She doesn’t say that Johnson “founded the present-day ID movement” based on what he felt to be Dawkins’ ideology. Instead, she presents Dawkins’ selfish militancy as a bare fact, giving us a plain, referential statement. Yet this is absurd!

    The model of the “selfish gene” begins with the observation that living things, including human beings, display cooperation and even self-sacrifice. We then develop an explanation of this observation, in terms of natural selection acting upon genes, and it is the genes we describe as “selfish”. This does not, and indeed cannot, undermine the validity of the original observation, any more than the discovery that matter is made of atoms reduces the pain I feel when I slam my toe against a rock.

    A selfish gene is not a gene for selfishness!

    Roughgarden is talking nonsense, and should know it. She has no reason to report uncritically a creationist’s view of a respected scientist, and she has no justifiable cause to misrepresent Dawkins’ writing on her own.

  2. #2 Laelaps
    November 15, 2007

    I basically wrote off Roughgarden after I read Evolution and Christian Faith. Her sketch of evolution in the book is basically correct, but in the latter half she bends over backwards to try and reconcile evolution with the Bible (as well as reconcile homosexuality with the Bible) and it just results in a lot of special pleading and absurd arguments. I don’t really see what, if anything, she contributes to the arguments presented and seems like a minor player at best.

  3. #3 Jason Rosenhouse
    November 15, 2007

    Laelaps-

    I had precisely the same reaction to Roughgarden’s book.

  4. #4 Sven DiMilo
    November 15, 2007

    Roughgarden has her own beef with Darwin and Dawkins, having recently claimed, in a book and a Science article, that sexual selection theory is purely wrong. (She wants to replace it with a Nash-equilibrium game theory model that is opaque to me.)

  5. #5 RBH
    November 15, 2007

    Blake Stacey wrote

    The model of the “selfish gene” begins with the observation that living things, including human beings, display cooperation and even self-sacrifice. We then develop an explanation of this observation, in terms of natural selection acting upon genes, and it is the genes we describe as “selfish”. This does not, and indeed cannot, undermine the validity of the original observation, any more than the discovery that matter is made of atoms reduces the pain I feel when I slam my toe against a rock.

    Somewhere — I have forgotten where — Dawkins said (more or less) that he could have justifiably titled the book The Cooperative Gene with no change in content.

  6. #6 itchy
    November 15, 2007

    I was going to write what Blake wrote, only, like, not as good and stuff.

    Seriously, by using that phrase, it’s clear she never read Dawkins’ book.

  7. #7 Ian H Spedding FCD
    November 16, 2007

    This looks to me like another piece of evidence for the claim that religious belief and the practice of science are ultimately incompatible.

    Clearly it is possible for believing scientists to conduct perfectly good research for as they are able to keep their faith and their work in separate compartments. But, sooner or later, the two are going to come into conflict if the faith makes any claims whatsoever about the natural world.

    The question that should be asked of Roughgarden or Miller, for example, is whether there is any conceivable scientific finding which could cause them to modify or abandon their faith. If the answer is no then they cannot be scientists in the fullest sense of being willing to follow the evidence wherever it might lead. This is not to say that they cannot do valuable work but that their beliefs might well, at some point, be a barrier to further knowledge rather than an incentive to find it.

  8. #8 The Ethical Atheist
    November 16, 2007

    Dawkins preaches atheism in the Selfish Gene?! He may have had made some slight remarks in their indicating he was an atheist, but I must have missed the chapter where he promoted militant atheism.

  9. #9 windy
    November 16, 2007

    Robert Trivers said it good too:

    We do not say of someone who loves his children, helps his family and friends and treats his neighbors with respect, “What a selfish brute he is,” yet all of these traits may be genetically self-benefitting.

    Sven:

    Roughgarden has her own beef with Darwin and Dawkins, having recently claimed, in a book and a Science article, that sexual selection theory is purely wrong.

    Those insect males that stab their penis through the female’s abdomen are just “playing a cooperative game”, I guess.

  10. #10 J. J. Ramsey
    November 16, 2007

    “the ideology of selfishness and militant atheism that Dawkins preaches …”

    I have my beefs with Dawkins, but since when has he preached an ideology of selfishness?

  11. #11 SLC
    November 16, 2007

    This may not be entirely relevant to the conversation but Ms. Roughgarden used to be Mr. Roughgarden before undergoing a sex change operation.

  12. #12 Wes
    November 16, 2007

    When I read the part in Evolution and Christian Faith where Roughgarden claimed that a parable involving pruning branches from a tree was a metaphor for natural selection, I knew the author had a screw loose. I guess a transexual would have to have a screw loose to want to devote her life to a book that clearly condemns homosexuals to death and repeatedly re-enforces a strict divide between male and female behavior. I’ve met gay Christians before, and I always found it odd how they were able to explain away the clear sexual bigotry that runs throughout the Bible.

  13. #13 Dronwed
    November 16, 2007

    Actually SLC, it’s not relevant at all. Why should that matter and what does that fact add to the discussion?

  14. #14 Wes
    November 16, 2007

    Actually SLC, it’s not relevant at all. Why should that matter and what does that fact add to the discussion?

    Posted by: Dronwed | November 16, 2007 11:32 AM

    I think it’s relevant in that her attempts to reconcile her sexuality with the Bible are very much like her attempts to reconcile science with the Bible. It’s a pattern of poor rationalizations to deal with cognitive dissonance.

    I don’t think SLC was pointing out her sexuality as if it’s a bad thing. But when the discussion involves bad arguments to reconcile the Bible to things it very clearly conflicts with, her sexuality is relevant.

  15. #15 Russell Blackford
    November 16, 2007

    I’m glad Roughgarden gets some things right, and I’m not really so worried that she thinks “ID” = “Behe”. I mean, I suppose it might be said that the almost-respectable face of ID actually is Behe.

    But why is it so difficult for these good Christian people to understand that Dawkins did not write a book called The Selfishness Gene or The Gene for Selfishness, but a book that described how genes are selfish in a quite technical (some would say “metaphorical”, but Dawkins doesn’t like this) sense?

    Read the goddamn book!

  16. #16 Dale Husband
    November 16, 2007

    I’ve always felt that the worst lies are actually the ones that have some truth to them.

    Thanks to Jason Rosenhouse for this expose of Roughgarden being so two-faced!

  17. #17 Blake Stacey
    November 18, 2007

    Everybody who’s seen A Beautiful Mind knows that sexual selection can be modeled with a Nash equilibrium, anyway. . . .

  18. #18 John Abbott
    December 1, 2007

    The paragraph from the review below deserves comment. We know there are periods with bursts of speciation. Stephen J. Gould et al. have pointed this out. Behe (and Roughgarden) seems to piggyback on this observation, claiming that ‘ID did it’ because of a lack of another explanation; the fact that science has not yet explained something doesn’t mean it’s miraculous.
    :
    [[Third, Behe has introduced a glimmer of an idea of how to test the ID theory by arguing that the moments in history when the higher organisms (according to the Linnaean classification system) originated were marked by bursts of nonrandom mutation. This is an empirical claim that can be tested, although not easily. (Discovering that the emergence of higher organisms coincides with anomalous bursts of directed mutation would support the ID position without falsifying Darwinism, because Darwinism takes no position on what causes the variations on which natural selection acts.) ]]

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