Evolution Intelligent design/creationism Pseudoscience Science Skepticism/critical thinking

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.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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