Christianity Today has now published a review of Michael Behe’s book The Edge of Evolution. You might dimly recall this book, since it was briefly big news among the ID folks upon its publication last year. It disappeared pretty quickly on account of it being not only wrong scientifically, but dreadfully boring to boot.
CT got Stephen Webb, a professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College, to write the review. Bad idea. Unlike Behe’s first book Darwin’s Black Box, whose major errors could be ferreted out by anyone capable of a bit of logical thinking, the present volume really requires a considerable knoledge of biology to review properly. Webb, one suspects, knows little about any relevant scientific discipline, which is why his review contains little more than mindless cheerleading.
The essay is nearly wall-to-wall howlers. Here’s the opening sentence:
Would an infinite number of Darwinians, working at [sic] for an indefinite period of time, eventually prove a single instance of evolution producing a new species?
Of course, the production of a new species by familiar evolutionary mechanisms is hardly news anymore. There are a number of well-documented cases, and even Phillip Johnson has conceded that reproductive isolation (the hallmark of separate species) is not really a problem for evolution. The argument, such as it is, concerns complex systems.
Philip Kitcher, a philosopher of science and committed Darwinian, confesses in his book, Living with Darwin, that if Darwinians “were to try experimenting on the natural selection of organisms with relatively long generation times it would take the lives of thousands of successive investigators to provide even the slightest chance of even the first steps toward experimental success.” Living with Darwin, it turns out, takes a lot more commitment than most people realize.
A creationist attaching his own beginning to a fragment of a sentence written by an evolutionist, without so much as a page number to check the reference? This is not going to end well.
Webb gives the impression that the “success” to which Kitcher refers is success in producing a new species by standard evolutionary mechanisms. Actually, Kitcher had something else in mind:
They want something much grander, a detailed study showing natural selection “transumting” one “kind” into another — giving an amphibian from a fish, or a bird from a reptile, for example.
Nobody can answer that demand. From a Darwinian perspective, however, that isn’t because the theory of natural selection is seriously flawed, but because the demand is absurdly naive. Biologists have measured mutation rates. They know that favorable variations arise by mutation quite rarely, and that, if they were to try experimenting on the natural selection of organisms with relatively long generation times, it would take the lives of thousands of successive investigators to provide even the slightest chance of even the first steps toward experimental success. They know that the Earth is ancient, that geological time has offered far more opportunities for evolutionary “experiments” than successive generations of human beings could manage. (pp. 80-81).
Kitcher lays out some elementary biology to show the absurdity of a particular creationist demand, and Webb turns this into a confession about some fundamental inadequacy of evolution. Charming.
Back to Webb:
Materialists do not accept an afterlife, of course, but they do believe in an infinite amount of time, and they surmise that given enough time, anything — including life as we know it — can happen. (Thus, it is famously postulated, infinite monkeys at infinite keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare.) This argument runs into an empirical wall with the big bang, which limits the amount of time for life to develop to about 15 billion years. It also has the theoretical problem that long stretches of time do not make impossibilities more possible. A lot of time does make improbabilities more probable, but multiplying time does not guarantee that long sequences of improbabilities will actually occur.
Let’s go in sequence. Nobody, materialist or otherwise, believes in an inifinite amount of time for evolution to occur. Does Webb think his strawman materialists are unaware of the Big Bang? Next “infinite monkeys” and “infinite keyboards” are nonsense phrases. He means “infinitely many monkeys” and “infinitely many keyboards.” Not a big deal by itself, but suggestive of a certain lack of comfort in discussing these sorts of topics.
It is not a postulate that infinitely many monkeys working at infinitely many keyboards will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare. Actually, it is a statistical inevitability. (Assuming, that is, that the monkeys referred to in this thought experiment are understood to be perfect randomizing devices that strike each key with equal probability).
And in the context of biological evolution, long stretches of time do, indeed, guarantee that something very improbable will occur. Whatever evolutionary trajectory is actually traced out by some evolving population can be recognized retrospectively as something very improbable. I suspect Webb is merely expressing the usual lament that certain biological systems are just too complex to evolve by the usual mechanisms. He would have done better simply to say that, rather than blather about what some fantasy materialists believe.
From here Webb spends a few paragraphs parroting Behe’s talking points. Soon we come to this:
Behe’s previous book, Darwin’s Black Box, argued that some cases of design in nature are too elegant to have been produced by chance. His critics attacked him on two fronts. First, they suspected that his talk of intelligent design was merely a ruse for getting God back into public education. In other words, they impugned his motives, which is always a sign of rhetorical desperation.
And the second front?
Second, his critics argued that intelligent design, whatever its merits, is not science.
Pure nonsense, of course. That ID is not science by any reasonable definition is certainly true, as is the claim that the main function of ID is to provide a constitutionally acceptable form of creationism for inclusion in public school curricula (an idea that looks a bit foolish in light of the Dover verdict). Neither of those, however, were the primary arguments raised against Behe’s first book.
Instead, the main charges were that his argument was wrong first as a matter of logic, since there was nothing in his definition of “irrdeucible complexity” that preculded an origin in gradualistic evolution, and second that he was woefully wrong on the science, since actually quite a lot was known about the evolution of the systems Behe described as totally mysterious. Rather more substantive than Webb would care to admit.
On and on Webb goes, mindlessly accepting each claim Behe makes without the slightest cricitcal scrutiny or examination. Which raises a question. Why would a serious magazine like Christianity Today ask someone so obviously unqualified to review so technical a book? Could it be that they had no serious interest in assessing the book’s arguments, but instead just wanted an opportunity to stick a thumb in the eye of establishment science?