John McWhorter & Michael Behe, 2

Just a quick follow-up to the previous post, as I finished watching the whole Behe-McWhorter exchange. Notes:

1) McWhorter is an atheist, and implies he's always been an atheist (or at least not a theist).

2) He's really impressed by Michael Behe's arguments, to the point where he might assent to Michael Behe being the Isaac Newton of evolutionary genetics (though his summation of some of the jaw-dropping talking points in The Edge of Evolution leaves me a bit skeptical as to McWhorter's deep knowledge of basic evolutionary ideas).

3) Part of the issue really has to do with the impenetrability of "scientese." More clearly, I remember years ago a friend with a legal degree admitting that the Creationist talking point about The Second Law of Thermodynamics would have left him at a loss, as he didn't have the scientific background to parse such issues. Behe is a much more sophisticated and slick player at that particular game.

4) McWhorter was also impressed enough by Darwin's Black Box to offer it to a friend who happened to be a biologist at Berkeley (when McWhorter was a professor of linguistics there). The friend apparently threw the book across the room, leaving McWhorter somewhat bemused. I'm somewhat appalled that McWhorter would repeat this anecdote, as it I can imagine how irritating a biologist at Berkeley would have felt to be gifted a work by one of the luminaries of a neo-Creationist movement as if it was a signal contribution to biological science. I don't think McWhorter understands the implicit insult entailed by his action.

5) By the end of the diavlog John McWhorter does not seem to be one who accepts Intelligent Design, or is convinced into being a religious believer. Rather, he's intrigued and provoked by the arguments which Michael Behe has put into the public domain. This is in the area of the demarcation problem, and though McWhorter has implicitly disavowed this diavlog after seeing him discuss his long-standing familiarity with Behe's ouvre, as well as some glib dismissals of skepticism as to the admissibility of the ideas of Intelligent Design, I am of the suspicion that this was most definitely not a profile in courage, and that John McWhorter likely does believe that he is a victim of a witch-hunt of sorts. Instead of entreaties by his more scientifically inclined friends convincing him of the mendacious nature of Michael Behe's contentions, I suspect that John McWhorter is simply attempting to dampen the embarrassment which will ensue as his openness to Intelligent Design becomes common knowledge in his social circles. He admits familiarity with Sean Carroll's book Endless Forms Most Beautiful, so his knowledge of the field isn't constrained to Intelligent Design. Rather, he has surveyed the arguments and deep in his bones he does not feel that the standard model of evolutionary science can explain reality as well see it to his satisfaction.

But that's irrelevant. Deep in their bones to most people quantum theories do not really make sense either; they defy and contradict our intuitions, but robust testaments to the predictive power of science they remain. From the comments made in this diavlog I suspect John McWhorter believes that keeping an open mind is the decent thing to do, and he does not find the arguments of Michael Behe et al. implausible on the face. I believe that John McWhorter should perhaps trust his no doubt numerous acquaintances of scientific education, training and vocation who will attest to the fact that Behe's work is riddled with error, misrepresentation and distortion.

You can watch the exchange here. Discussion of Behe's most recent book here.

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McWhorter seems to be completely phased by the probability argument and doesn't seem to be aware of the principle of co-adaptation. Its illustrative that an intelligent guy like him can have so little knowledge of basic evolutionary biology but I guess it shouldnt surprise us. Its amazing that the co-adaptation point is not more widely known as our entire technological society is full of examples of items suddenly gaining novel purposes rather than requiring tiny incremental improvements until we finally reach a functional item.

I think Darwinists (I know that word is generally used by creationists as a pejorative, but whatever) belittle guys like Behe unjustifiably. In fact, most sanctimonious liberals who accept evolution becuase they see it as the enlightened belief system aren't even in the same universe as Behe intellectually. Many of the ID guys, Behe, Kurt Wise, etc., are extremely smart and educated. It's just their ideological and philosophical bias precludes them from considering alternative explanations.

Behe's "irreducible complexity" theory is actually quite interesting and a rather profound idea. But in advocating it, he simply ignores all explanations of how these systems could have arisen naturally.

I actually had a professor who was probably third tier in the Intelligent Design movement. He's occasionally mentioned in lists of professors opposing evolution and he's written a few articles in defense of ID. He was actually my favorite professor and a brilliant guy in his field.

I am reminded of the physicists who, investigating certain paranormal claims, were completely taken in - and failed to notice glaring faults in their experimental designs which professional skeptics (most specifically James Randi) noted immediately.

It's a mistake to conflate intellectual processing power with intellectual competence, especially outside a person's field of training and regular endeavors.

The vast majority of people cannot evaluate statements at all. A smaller number can evaluate statements within their expertise. Vanishingly few are generally competent at analyzing contentions.

Behe's "irreducible complexity" theory is actually quite interesting and a rather profound idea.

Um, no. It is neither. It's just the desire for Special Creation looking for a pseudo-respectable draping to cover itself.

behe came to his beliefs in his 30s, and he's a roman catholic so there's no religious or philosophical reasoning which makes them necessary as an article of his faith. so his intellectual progression is probably simpler and more straightforward than someone like william dembski, who has admitted a great deal of admiration for the doyens of the young earth creationist movement, though he isn't one himself. behe just doesn't accept evolution as it is now as an explanation for the features of life.

as for whether it's interesting, i lean toward not too interesting, mostly because the general framework of irreducible complexity has been around for centuries. behe added a molecular biological twist which was novel to many, but if william paley knew of molecular biology he could probably do better.

McWhorter sounds like a new religious convert in that video. (e.g. Behe is the most important book McWhorter ever read; McWhorter wishes he could change his career so he could be a scientific foot soldier in Behe's pseudo-paradigm).

I do not sense that McWhorter's atheism or belief in evolution are very well intellectually grounded. On the other hand, the religious conversion of the Raving Atheist, who did have a very strong intellectual grounding in his atheism, further helped me realize how important the social dimension is to belief and self-identification.

McWhorter probably won't convert unless we first sense that his social-support group is shifting. I seriously doubt this will happen. He knows, and we know, how his bread is buttered.

By Jason Malloy (not verified) on 28 Aug 2009 #permalink

Behe's "irreducible complexity" theory is actually quite interesting and a rather profound idea

It is easily empirically disprovable.

Google "phylogenetic profile". Form a matrix with rows = microbial species and columns = proteins (indexed by, say, GI number).

In particular, select the subset of columns which correspond to various components of the flagella (FlgA, FlgB, etc.).

Cluster this submatrix by rows.

You will find that there are species (such as Yersinia pestis) which have only some rather than all of the proteins of the flagella. They use only the base proteins of the flagella as a base for a secretion mechanism to attack prey cells, rather than as a rotary base for a flagella tail.

In other words, the flagella is demonstrably reducibly complex, as the base is useful in its own right without the tail.

In fact, in looking at that matrix you will see several other conservation patterns -- mixing and matching of flagella proteins in different combinations.

@ Jason Malloy:

So the Raving Atheist did actually convert? I remember about 2 years ago, he all of a sudden started posting these cryptic posts about not insulting anyone. Everyone assumed he has some religious experience, but I thought he had just got weary of the anti-religious approach. When did he actually admit that he had converted? Are you sure this isn't some hoax perpetrated by him or a former adversary?

@ others:
Something interesting can also be completely false, as Behe's irreducible complexity idea proves. I wasn't supporting it, just pointing out I found some his arguments interesting.

. When did he actually admit that he had converted?

here's his conversion post. he's now the 'raving theist.' in real life he developed a close relationship to christian convert dawn eden due to their pro-life beliefs. so i think malloy is right, his social group shifted and eventually he came to see the light.

john mcwhorter is married to a jewish woman and lives in the new york area. so i suspect he's not running with evangelical christians right now.

OneSTDV -- I'm a fan of your blog, wasn't intending to jump down your throat :)

Just thought I'd post a technical argument as to why I disagree with Behe rather than simply asserting it. Behe, like
many people, doesn't really understand how probabilistic phenomena can produce deterministic results. In particular, he basically doesn't understand that evolution is a stochastic optimization process. As such he mischaracterizes it in ways that are obvious to technically minded practicioners -- kind of like the way Boas, Gould, Diamond, and Lewontin tortured (and in the case of Boas, fabricated) their data points.

For example, irreducible complexity essentially asserts the presence of an insuperably steep hill in fitness space -- with no possible road to access the top of that hill by a sequence of mutations. But many different forms of data prove this wrong, not least of which is the comparative genomic evidence referenced above.

You might also check out Koza's work on evolutionary algorithms as that's also relevant.

Caledonian, I hadn't heard about those gullible physicists (before you mentioned them). It is surprising to me. Is there a link with information?


I suspect Caledonian may have had Project Alpha in mind - and possibly Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff of the Stanford Research Institute, both physicists, who declared themselves convinced of Uri Geller's authenticity back in 1975.

That's one of several cases. Randi has written about some others. Sadly, I don't have immediate references - but you should check out his work, regardless. It's generally useful stuff.