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.