Pharyngula

Now Behe is thrown to the wolves

At least one metaphorical wolf, that is: Richard Dawkins reviews The Edge of Evolution (behind the NYT Select paywall, sorry). Again, he focuses on the argument from improbability that is at the heart of Behe’s book, and he comes up with a clear counter-example: if Behe were right, the modifications achieved by plant and animal domestication would be impossible.

If mutation, rather than selection, really limited evolutionary change, this should be true for artificial no less than natural selection. Domestic breeding relies upon exactly the same pool of mutational variation as natural selection. Now, if you sought an experimental test of Behe’s theory, what would you do? You’d take a wild species, say a wolf that hunts caribou by long pursuit, and apply selection experimentally to see if you could breed, say, a dogged little wolf that chivies rabbits underground: let’s call it a Jack Russell terrier. Or how about an adorable, fluffy pet wolf called, for the sake of argument, a Pekingese? Or a heavyset, thick-coated wolf, strong enough to carry a cask of brandy, that thrives in Alpine passes and might be named after one of them, the St. Bernard? Behe has to predict that you’d wait till hell freezes over, but the necessary mutations would not be forthcoming. Your wolves would stubbornly remain unchanged. Dogs are a mathematical impossibility.

Don’t evade the point by protesting that dog breeding is a form of intelligent design. It is (kind of), but Behe, having lost the argument over irreducible complexity, is now in his desperation making a completely different claim: that mutations are too rare to permit significant evolutionary change anyway. From Newfies to Yorkies, from Weimaraners to water spaniels, from Dalmatians to dachshunds, as I incredulously close this book I seem to hear mocking barks and deep, baying howls of derision from 500 breeds of dogs — every one descended from a timber wolf within a time frame so short as to seem, by geological standards, instantaneous.

If correct, Behe’s calculations would at a stroke confound generations of mathematical geneticists, who have repeatedly shown that evolutionary rates are not limited by mutation. Single-handedly, Behe is taking on Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright, J. B. S. Haldane, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Richard Lewontin, John Maynard Smith and hundreds of their talented co-workers and intellectual descendants. Notwithstanding the inconvenient existence of dogs, cabbages and pouter pigeons, the entire corpus of mathematical genetics, from 1930 to today, is flat wrong. Michael Behe, the disowned biochemist of Lehigh University, is the only one who has done his sums right. You think?

I can predict Behe’s response: that the variations in dogs are all “trivial,” “piddling,” or “modest,” all belittling adjectives he has applied to scientific observations that contradict his claims before. They don’t refute his claim that two specific simultaneous amino acid changes in a single protein are the “edge of evolution” (and they don’t directly), but they do show that evolution can achieve radical alterations in form within short spans of time, and that perhaps his damning mathematical abstraction isn’t really relevant.

Behe has been flailing at refuting his critics on his amazon.com blog. He’s got a few more to wrestle with now. So far, Coyne, Carroll, Ruse, Miller, and Dawkins have put out reviews in major journals, and all have thoroughly panned the poor sap. I hope he does add more arguments to his blog page—it’s a handy compendium of failure, illustrating the breadth of his rejection in the scientific community.

Comments

  1. #1 Doc Bill
    June 27, 2007

    Behe will simply sigh and repeat for the umteenth time that all this dog stuff is MICRO-evolution and common breeding and that he has NEVER argued against it. On the contrary, Mikey will say, he has a ways supported microevolution and that’s not an issue.

    The fact that he doesn’t address the question that Dawkins raises will be lost in the chaff that Behe spreads.

    I predict that Behe’s next book will be about pruning, the Hedge of Evolution, where he proves that topiary is intelligently designed.

  2. #2 Keanus
    June 27, 2007

    The thesis that Behe is making money on his royalties may be slowly sinking into the mud. Sales of The Edge of Evolution now rank just 1554th at Amazon. That’s pathetic. Hitchens’ God is Not Great is 17th; Gore’s The Assault on Reason is 25th; Dawkins’ The God Delusion is 56th.

    Maybe Behe should read Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die which is 83rd. It might give him some good advice or an idea about a sequel that would expand that idea and in which Behe could draw upon some first-hand experience.

  3. #3 zohn
    June 27, 2007

    WARNING: LONG POST -> COPY AND PASTE OF ARTICLE
    WITH APOLOGIES TO THOSE OFFENDED BY SUCH ACTS, AND BY ALL CAPS SENTENCES.

    ————————————————————-
    July 1, 2007
    Inferior Design
    By Richard Dawkins

    THE EDGE OF EVOLUTION
    The Search for the Limits of Darwinism.

    By Michael J. Behe.

    320 pp. Free Press. $28.

    I had expected to be as irritated by Michael Behe’s second book as by his first. I had not expected to feel sorry for him. The first — “Darwin’s Black Box” (1996), which purported to make the scientific case for “intelligent design” — was enlivened by a spark of conviction, however misguided. The second is the book of a man who has given up. Trapped along a false path of his own rather unintelligent design, Behe has left himself no escape. Poster boy of creationists everywhere, he has cut himself adrift from the world of real science. And real science, in the shape of his own department of biological sciences at Lehigh University, has publicly disowned him, via a remarkable disclaimer on its Web site: “While we respect Prof. Behe’s right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally and should not be regarded as scientific.” As the Chicago geneticist Jerry Coyne wrote recently, in a devastating review of Behe’s work in The New Republic, it would be hard to find a precedent.

    For a while, Behe built a nice little career on being a maverick. His colleagues might have disowned him, but they didn’t receive flattering invitations to speak all over the country and to write for The New York Times. Behe’s name, and not theirs, crackled triumphantly around the memosphere. But things went wrong, especially at the famous 2005 trial where Judge John E. Jones III immortally summed up as “breathtaking inanity” the effort to introduce intelligent design into the school curriculum in Dover, Pa. After his humiliation in court, Behe — the star witness for the creationist side — might have wished to re-establish his scientific credentials and start over. Unfortunately, he had dug himself in too deep. He had to soldier on. “The Edge of Evolution” is the messy result, and it doesn’t make for attractive reading.

    We now hear less about “irreducible complexity,” with good reason. In “Darwin’s Black Box,” Behe simply asserted without justification that particular biological structures (like the bacterial flagellum, the tiny propeller by which bacteria swim) needed all their parts to be in place before they would work, and therefore could not have evolved incrementally. This style of argument remains as unconvincing as when Darwin himself anticipated it. It commits the logical error of arguing by default. Two rival theories, A and B, are set up. Theory A explains loads of facts and is supported by mountains of evidence. Theory B has no supporting evidence, nor is any attempt made to find any. Now a single little fact is discovered, which A allegedly can’t explain. Without even asking whether B can explain it, the default conclusion is fallaciously drawn: B must be correct. Incidentally, further research usually reveals that A can explain the phenomenon after all: thus the biologist Kenneth R. Miller (a believing Christian who testified for the other side in the Dover trial) beautifully showed how the bacterial flagellar motor could evolve via known functional intermediates.

    Behe correctly dissects the Darwinian theory into three parts: descent with modification, natural selection and mutation. Descent with modification gives him no problems, nor does natural selection. They are “trivial” and “modest” notions, respectively. Do his creationist fans know that Behe accepts as “trivial” the fact that we are African apes, cousins of monkeys, descended from fish?

    The crucial passage in “The Edge of Evolution” is this: “By far the most critical aspect of Darwin’s multifaceted theory is the role of random mutation. Almost all of what is novel and important in Darwinian thought is concentrated in this third concept.”

    What a bizarre thing to say! Leave aside the history: unacquainted with genetics, Darwin set no store by randomness. New variants might arise at random, or they might be acquired characteristics induced by food, for all Darwin knew. Far more important for Darwin was the nonrandom process whereby some survived but others perished. Natural selection is arguably the most momentous idea ever to occur to a human mind, because it — alone as far as we know — explains the elegant illusion of design that pervades the living kingdoms and explains, in passing, us. Whatever else it is, natural selection is not a “modest” idea, nor is descent with modification.

    But let’s follow Behe down his solitary garden path and see where his overrating of random mutation leads him. He thinks there are not enough mutations to allow the full range of evolution we observe. There is an “edge,” beyond which God must step in to help. Selection of random mutation may explain the malarial parasite’s resistance to chloroquine, but only because such micro-organisms have huge populations and short life cycles. A fortiori, for Behe, evolution of large, complex creatures with smaller populations and longer generations will fail, starved of mutational raw materials.

    If mutation, rather than selection, really limited evolutionary change, this should be true for artificial no less than natural selection. Domestic breeding relies upon exactly the same pool of mutational variation as natural selection. Now, if you sought an experimental test of Behe’s theory, what would you do? You’d take a wild species, say a wolf that hunts caribou by long pursuit, and apply selection experimentally to see if you could breed, say, a dogged little wolf that chivies rabbits underground: let’s call it a Jack Russell terrier. Or how about an adorable, fluffy pet wolf called, for the sake of argument, a Pekingese? Or a heavyset, thick-coated wolf, strong enough to carry a cask of brandy, that thrives in Alpine passes and might be named after one of them, the St. Bernard? Behe has to predict that you’d wait till hell freezes over, but the necessary mutations would not be forthcoming. Your wolves would stubbornly remain unchanged. Dogs are a mathematical impossibility.

    Don’t evade the point by protesting that dog breeding is a form of intelligent design. It is (kind of), but Behe, having lost the argument over irreducible complexity, is now in his desperation making a completely different claim: that mutations are too rare to permit significant evolutionary change anyway. From Newfies to Yorkies, from Weimaraners to water spaniels, from Dalmatians to dachshunds, as I incredulously close this book I seem to hear mocking barks and deep, baying howls of derision from 500 breeds of dogs — every one descended from a timber wolf within a time frame so short as to seem, by geological standards, instantaneous.

    If correct, Behe’s calculations would at a stroke confound generations of mathematical geneticists, who have repeatedly shown that evolutionary rates are not limited by mutation. Single-handedly, Behe is taking on Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright, J. B. S. Haldane, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Richard Lewontin, John Maynard Smith and hundreds of their talented co-workers and intellectual descendants. Notwithstanding the inconvenient existence of dogs, cabbages and pouter pigeons, the entire corpus of mathematical genetics, from 1930 to today, is flat wrong. Michael Behe, the disowned biochemist of Lehigh University, is the only one who has done his sums right. You think?

    The best way to find out is for Behe to submit a mathematical paper to The Journal of Theoretical Biology, say, or The American Naturalist, whose editors would send it to qualified referees. They might liken Behe’s error to the belief that you can’t win a game of cards unless you have a perfect hand. But, not to second-guess the referees, my point is that Behe, as is normal at the grotesquely ill-named Discovery Institute (a tax-free charity, would you believe?), where he is a senior fellow, has bypassed the peer-review procedure altogether, gone over the heads of the scientists he once aspired to number among his peers, and appealed directly to a public that — as he and his publisher know — is not qualified to rumble him.

    Richard Dawkins holds the Charles Simonyi chair for the public understanding of science at Oxford. His most recent book is “The God Delusion.”
    —————————————————–

  4. #4 Tracy P. Hamilton
    June 27, 2007

    Keanus said”The thesis that Behe is making money on his royalties may be slowly sinking into the mud. Sales of The Edge of Evolution now rank just 1554th at Amazon. That’s pathetic. Hitchens’ God is Not Great is 17th; Gore’s The Assault on Reason is 25th; Dawkins’ The God Delusion is 56th.

    Maybe Behe should read Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die which is 83rd. It might give him some good advice or an idea about a sequel that would expand that idea and in which Behe could draw upon some first-hand experience.”

    For Behe’s audience, books are to be quoted, not read.

    You don’t have to buy the book to do that.

  5. #5 Chinchillazilla
    June 27, 2007

    It’s official: I’ve finally given in, and Dawkins is now my hero.

  6. #6 Robert Maynard
    June 27, 2007

    The Rottweiler strikes again! :D
    Dawkins is a great advocate for atheism, but he’s an even better advocate for evolutionary biology.

  7. #7 Frank Sullivan
    June 27, 2007

    As a layperson, I have a difficult time looking at two different species (like a timber wolf and a beagle) and knowing what sort of genetic differences must exist between the two. I’ve heard that it only takes one amino acid change in order for a chicken to have leg feathers instead of leg scales. With that said, it seems easy to guess that the mutations needed to change a timber wold into a beagle are relatively simple, and nowhere near as coincidental and improbable as the ones Behe is talking about.

    When it comes to biology, I trust Dawkins, but I think that people who distrust him (i.e., the majority of Americans), are going to look at this op-ed, unimpressed that mutations have carried us from timber wolf to beagle, and therefore unimpressed with Dawkin’s argument.

  8. #8 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    June 27, 2007

    Say, Zohn, much as I appreciate that you wanted to share the review with those of us that don’t want to pay for NYT Select access, and as much as I appreciate the thought of those of you who provided passwords to NYT Select, keep in mind that the NYT paid for the article. So, it is theft of content and not a good idea.

    The review will appear at richarddawkins.net shortly and the rest of us can read it at that time.

    Not that I am a big fan of the Times’ to the point at which I am concerned about their loss of revenue; but right is right and wrong is wrong. And I am not sure whether or not PZ can get in trouble for this (IANAL)

  9. #9 Paguroidea
    June 27, 2007

    If Behe wants to go to the top of the charts, I would think all he would have to do is to write a book admitting that he was wrong and why, apologize, and make a tremendous effort to try to undo all the mess he has made. He could also have a section in the book on why intelligent people sometimes believe dumb things.

    Although he seems to be in a “no escape” situation, he could change sides and contact Richard Dawkins for advice. Perhaps he could go on to serve as a valuable leader in a pro-science movement.

  10. #10 Ken Cope
    June 27, 2007

    Information wants to be free, but information also wants to be expensive. So long as I’m anthropomorphizing abstractions, and worrying about impinging upon the rights of corporations (treated under the law as persons), I’m more concerned about the rights of Professor Dawkins and Doctor P Zed than anybody else’s. Fortunately, nobody got to download any songs, so we have at least dodged that bullet.

    While some may not forgive me for passing on the power of the magic words dailykos dailykos, which have for some years overcome many more barriers to entry than just those at the home of Judith Miller, I hope I haven’t let the cat out of the bag about the power of a public library card. Perhaps the laughing ghost of Ayn Rand will offer guidance toward proper conduct in the marketplace of ideas, here in the future.

  11. #11 Andrew Wade
    June 27, 2007

    When it comes to biology, I trust Dawkins, but I think that people who distrust him (i.e., the majority of Americans), are going to look at this op-ed, unimpressed that mutations have carried us from timber wolf to beagle, and therefore unimpressed with Dawkin’s argument.

    Do remember that Behe’s target audience are quite ignorant of biology. They’re not going to see the same deep similarities between a timber wolf and a beagle that a biologist would. For once the ignorance of his audience would work against Behe, except that they’re not likely to read Dawkin’s op-ed, or anything else that might challenge their world-view.

  12. #12 386sx
    June 27, 2007

    Dawkins is a great advocate for atheism, but he’s an even better advocate for evolutionary biology.

    Right. Because, unlike theism, evolutionary biology has some actual solid evidence to work with. If there were some real evidence for theism then most atheists would probably be persuaded by it and therefore convert to agnosticism, which is far far far friendlier toward blind speculative unsupported theism than atheism is.

  13. #13 JimC
    June 27, 2007

    I trust Dawkins, but I think that people who distrust him (i.e., the majority of Americans

    I think the majority of Americans would like Dawkins. Many have bought his books and he comes off well in person.

  14. #14 MissPrism
    June 28, 2007

    Excellent.
    I remember a similar smackdown Dawkins once gave to a drool-puddle called ‘The Facts Of Life’. Its author and publisher sent indignant letters in reply, and Dawkins responded “Why no letter from his mother?”

  15. #15 Pablo
    June 28, 2007

    I admit, I must vehemently disagree with Dawkins. A Pekingese is anything but adorable.

  16. #16 Rieux
    June 28, 2007

    Boo wrote:

    If Behe were to be consistent he could simply reply that dog breeding worked because the Unkown Intelligent Designer was utilizing their Unkown Intelligent Design Mechanism simultaneously with humanity’s breeding of dogs to create all the different breeds.

    This is exactly what I thought. If you’re willing to ignore the parsimony principle entirely, it seems to me that you can overcome pretty much any factual obstacle–Dawkins’ Dog Dilemma certainly included.

    [Behe] won’t [claim this], of course, because he knows how silly it would make him look.

    Maybe–but geez, isn’t that account exactly the way he explains the evolution of malaria (and everything else more complicated than malaria) in the new book? I.e., that every single step of the way, “a wizard did it“?

    I’m not convinced that he needs to worry about “looking silly” in even this case. Would Behe’s fans know Occam’s Razor if it came up and slashed them in the nose?

  17. #17 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    July 1, 2007

    As I expected, richarddawkins.net has now posted the review on his own site:

    Inferior Design

  18. #18 Caledonian
    July 1, 2007

    So far, Dawkins’ review is excellent, but I have a quibble with this point:

    Behe correctly dissects the Darwinian theory into three parts: descent with modification, natural selection and mutation.

    That’s not really accurate, and Behe wasn’t really correct. The third part of Darwinian theory is variation, not mutation. A population in which there is heritable variation but no mutation will still go through the evolutionary process if natural selection is applied.

    It’s a subtle point, but one that I think is rather important.

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