Poor Behe, now he's in for it

You may have noticed that I haven't commented much on Michael Behe's recent book, The Edge of Evolution, other than to bemoan its presence in the Evolution section of the University of Chicago Barnes & Noble. I have, however, read with some amusement some of the reviews. The most recent is one by--who else?--Richard Dawkins in the New York Times. Because it's behind the Times Select pay wall, I'll just give you a couple of the best quotes. First, he dismisses Behe's most famous book, Darwin's Black Box:

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.

Ouch. That's going to leave a mark! Here's Dawkins on The Edge of Evolution itself:

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.

I love that last part about the mocking barks.

I had been thinking of reading Behe's new book (if I could find a way to score a free copy, as I didn't want Behe to see any of my hard-earned money). After seeing this review, and a number of others, I don't think I'll bother. I have little enough time to read anyway, between my job and the blogging hobby. Indeed, four weeks ago my best friend from high school gave me a reader copy of his new novel that's coming out in September, and, I'm embarrassed to say, I haven't managed to crack its pages yet. I plan on doing so this weekend, and then, by the time I will have probably finished it, the new Harry Potter book will be out.

Hmm. Let's see. Best friend's new novel and the new Harry Potter book?

There's no way Behe's mangling of basic biology can compete. I'll wait for the paperback, by which time no one will care what I have to say about his book anymore; that is, if anyone does care now.

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For my money, the best quote is the incredibly harsh, although deserved:

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 love that last part about the mocking barks.

Cracked me up, and no mistake. Dawkins might be an arrogant s.o.b. whose rhetoric often overreaches his knowledge, but on his home turf the man is an extraordinarily effective writer.

Minor side note, though: in the first extract, he got a rather significant bit of terminology wrong. The logical fallacy he describes is properly known as a false dichotomy or false dilemma.

By wolfwalker (not verified) on 28 Jun 2007 #permalink

The terminology used by Dawkins to describe the logical error/fallacy "arguing by default", I think, is perfect than "false dichotomy" suggested by wolfwaker.

A false dichotomy uses the fallacy of arguing between A OR B (excluding other possibilities). According to Dawkins B(Intelligent Design) which has little evidence is not even worth considering as a possibility.

Behe's work actually illuminates (unintentionally) what I think is the main reason why so many people have a hard time believing that people could evolve through random chance -- they don't quite understand what a mutation is. They think of it as a huge spontaneous change, a la "X-Men", thinking that it would take an extraordinary modification to the genetic code to produce a new trait, when in fact just a few very subtle shifts are all it takes to make huge changes. Primates share a startling amount of the genetic code with Chiroptera, but only one of the two has wings.... Point is, mutations can be very small and have a very large effect, and I don't think very many average Joes realize that. Nor do they realize how complex the expression of genes is. It's not a simple matter of dominant and recessive genes, since genes interact heavily. A mutation might occur in one generation but not have any perceptible effect for a thousand years, waiting for another gene that cancels it out or masks its effect to disappear. It is this very complexity which makes evolution not only possible but *inevitable*.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 28 Jun 2007 #permalink

Thank you, Orac! I'm about to head off to address a secondary biology teachers conference on why ID isn't science... I'll be recommending this page to them.

(PS only found your site this year & thoroughly enjoying it - keep them coming!)

There is a copy of Dawkins' article here.