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Sunday, November 25, 2018

Michael Behe's third book

I'm looking forward to Michael Behe's third book, which is due to be published in February. As most of you probably know, Michael Behe is a biochemist and a former professor at Lehigh University in Scranton, Pennsylvania, USA. He's also a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture—the most prominent organization pushing Intelligent Design Creationism.

This will be Behe's third book. The first one was Darwin's Black Box (1996) where he argued against evolution by suggesting that some cellular complexes (e.g. bacterial flagella) are irreducibly complex and could not possibly have evolved by natural means. His second book was The Edge of Evolution (2007) where the theme was that there are limits to evolution preventing it from accomplishing significant beneficial changes.

I haven't read his third book but it looks like it will continue the pattern of trying to show that evolution is flawed rather than trying to show evidence of intelligent design. David Klinhoffer has posted a quotation from the new book indicating that the main approach is to argue that evolution can break things but not construct things [For #GivingTuesday, Help Michael Behe Demonstrate that Darwin Devolves].
This book…concentrates on completely unexpected, devastating new problems that could only have come to light after major recent advances in technical methods for probing the molecular level of life. With surpassing irony it turns out that, as with the polar bear, Darwinian evolution proceeds mainly by damaging or breaking genes, which, counter-intuitively, sometimes helps survival. In other words, the mechanism is powerfully de-volutionary.
This is standard propaganda for the Discovery Institute whenever a new book is about to be published. We are subjected to months of promotion including dire warnings about the imminent collapse of evolution because some ID intellectual has finally come up with an irrefutable argument that the scientific community can't ignore [Michael Behe’s Darwin Devolves Topples Foundational Claim of Evolutionary Theory]. None of us can respond because we haven' read the book but when we suggest, based on our knowledge of chicken little and the boy who cried wolf, that there's no reason to fear the collapse of science then we are accused of dishonesty for not reading the book! [Evolutionist Attacks Behe Book’s Title]

Behe is one of the few ID proponents worth engaging because his arguments are much better than those of his colleagues at the Discovery Institute. Behe accepts common descent and limited examples of evolution and he rejects Young Earth Creationism.

You might imagine that Behe would take on his YEC colleagues as fiercely as he fights evolutionary biologists, but he doesn't. I find it very strange that ID proponents who still believe in a young Earth are fans of Michael Behe but I suppose they are happy because Behe is attacking evolution and as long as he keeps the focus on attacking a common enemy they are happy.1

Those of you who read the first two books will recall that they were also about "devastating problems" with evolution that only came to light with new research revealed in 1996 and 2007. For some strange reason the textbooks have not been re-written and the churches have not filled up with new converts. What happened?

Refuting his first book was pretty straightforward because Behe based his argument on his inability to imagine how an irreducibly complex system could have evolved by natural means. All we had to do was show that irreducibly complex systems could evolve without the help of a designer and this turned out to be relatively easy.2

Refuting his second book was much harder—not because he was making a valid scientific argument but because showing where he goes wrong requires a fairly deep understanding of modern evolution. Behe was arguing that many presumed examples of evolution required three or more mutations in order to produce a beneficial effect. He claims that in many cases none of the individual steps are beneficial and some of them might even be detrimental. Thus, three mutations have to occur simultaneously and that's not possible—it's beyond the edge of evolution.

Behe would be correct if the only way to fix mutations was by positive natural selection. That's the old-fashioned, adaptationist view of evolution from the 1960s and it's the view that dominates the thinking of ID proponents. But with the development of Neutral Theory and it's off-shoot, Nearly-Neutral Theory, we now know that neutral and detrimental alleles can be maintained in a population for a long time because random genetic drift is often as potent a mechanism as natural selection.3

Thus, it's relatively simple to imagine how a new system requiring several mutations can evolve under modern evolutionary theory and this extends the edge of evolution far beyond the limits postulated by Michael Behe.4 In fact, it's easy to show that this is exactly how Behe's favorite example, chloroquine resistance to malaria, evolved. But, while such ideas are easy for most of us, they are still very difficult for most creationists, including Behe. You can see for yourself how he resists any explanation involving random genetic drift [Revisiting Michael Behe's challenge and revealing a closed mind].

It's kinda cute to see that the Discovery Institute is still under the illusion that they can discredit evolution and convince the world that a creator god exists. It's been more than 20 years since Intelligent Design became a popular creationist idea and the predictions from back then were that by now we would all be creationists. Instead, evolution is as strong as ever and people all over the world are abandoning religion.

I'm 100% certain that I can refute Behe's latest claim because I've seen it all before. Nevertheless, I will wait until I've read the book so the creationists can enjoy their yearly round of gloating and premature celebration. It's just about the only thing they have going for them these days.

1. Things can go very badly for any creationist who disagrees with their fellow creationist. Look what happened to Sal Cordova [What would happen if Intelligent Design Creationists understood evolution?]

2. [The meaning of "irreducible complexity"] [Blown Out of the Water]

3. see [Evolutionary biochemistry and the importance of random genetic drift] [Learning about modern evolutionary theory: the drift-barrier hypothesis]

4. [Understanding Michael Behe's edge of evolution] [Understanding Mutation Rates and Evolution] [Historical evolution is determined by chance events]


Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

From seeing what various ID proponents expect from this upcoming book Behe seems to have made an entire book out of his paper reviewing various evolution experiments where beneficial mutations were mostly of the "loss of function"-type mutations.

Faizal Ali said...

That's my impression, as well. If so, Behe's claims were already dealt with 8 years ago:

It'll be interesting to see how Behe has responded to the criticisms made there.

Robert Byers said...

Behe is an example of a thoughtful scientist who is convinced evolution doesn't make sense WHILE not because of a YEC creationist foundation.

Science is made of those who question presumptions.
for non yec ID 'ers and evolutionists it does come down to mutationism to have created what was created.
Surely its more then showing how a series of mutations could not cooperate. it must be more about whether mutations could actually do anything complicated and fantastic new complicated systems.

Evolutionisms is famously questioned these days. Its not like 50, or 30, years ago. ID/YEC is doing okay and content and has high expectations.

Whoops. its not the scientific community being confronted. its not the biological community. Its a tiny origin biology community.
ID/YEC is not taking on science or scientists in unrelated fields of speciality( i think by definition thats scientists) .
Just a brigade or so. no divisions or armies.
AND then really just the officer corp

Joe Felsenstein said...

It should be noted re: the Panda's Thumb piece, that since PT moved to github / Disqus that all past comments got lost. Actually, gone but not forgotten -- I am told they are archived and that when the PT "crew" ;earns enough about Github and Disqus they can be restored.

Faizal Ali said...

Behe is an example of a thoughtful scientist who is convinced evolution doesn't make sense WHILE not because of a YEC creationist foundation.

Not quite correct. Behe is an example of a bad scientist who claims evolution does not make sense because of his OEC creationist foundation.

John Harshman said...

So it's just like the previous two books: evolution is this 19th Century fantasy, and modern science shows it to be wrong, but modern scientists, for some reason, haven't noticed.

dean said...

So will this be in the religion section, the "complete bullcrap" section, or the "things so stupid only creationists will believe them" section of the bookstores?

. said...

Hi Dr. Felsenstein,

Fortunately, the Internet Archive has archived the comments of this article. It can be accessed here:

Joe Felsenstein said...

Yes, I should have mentioned that. However it shows only the first tab of comments, 1 out of 16. It did not save the others.

Jmac said...

We are MORE SO looking forward to your FIRST BOOOK on 90% plus Junk DNA thingy. We all hope that by the time you publish your book, there will be still some junk DNA left in the human genome...

Jmac said...

There is some clear indication that the so-called Junk-DNA holds the mystery of Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and other congestive disorders, excluding the confirmation bias...unfortunately...

Larry Moran said...

It will be my tenth book if I ever get around to publishing it.

You don’t need to worry about junk DNA. The evidence that our genome is 90% junk is getting stronger every year.

Larry Moran said...

You do understand, don’t you, that mutations in junk DNA can cause problems even though it’s still junk DNA?

Faizal Ali said...

Even the creationists of the Discovery Institute are belatedly coming around to admitting that most of the genome is probably junk. Here is Ann Gauger, repeating some of the arguments that ID proponents have been stubbornly rejecting for years:

In ENCODE, scientists claimed that the majority of our DNA was functional, meaning it had some sign of biochemical activity. Transcription, methylation, a site for DNA binding, etc., any of these would qualify as functional in some sense. But even ENCODE workers admit they don’t know how much of that “function” will be meaningful.

In the ENCODE sense, most genomic sequence is functional, thus functional sequence is common (20-80 percent was the original range offered). Just remember what function means here — biochemical function, not sequence coding for functional proteins.

In Arguments for Intelligent Design, Definitions and Assumptions Are Important

Jmac said...

Dark matter’ DNA influences brain development

John Harshman said...

I see "dark matter" as an attempt to make a claim gain the cachet of physics and seem sexy, but otherwise vacuous.

Jmac said...

Maybe in your case "dark matter" in DNA had no effect on your brain development after all. Maybe your mother drank too much diet soft-drinks? I've seen enough evidence that artificial sweeteners cause cognitive decline in brain function due to neuronal damage.

judmarc said...

I was born and grew up in Bethlehem, PA, USA, home of Lehigh University, a little less than a 75 mile drive from Scranton. It's a fine university, so please put it in the right place. :-)

Truth said...

Utter nonesense

João said...


have you read the book yet?

I really wanna know your thoughts on it.

Larry Moran said...

I have read the book. It's very much like his first two books in that much of the data is accurate but misinterpreted. I find it interesting that Behe has learned from his critics so he now talks more about nearly-neutral mutations and random genetic drift than he did in his first two books. Unfortunately, he still doesn't seem to appreciate that the modern view of evolution invalidates the central premises of his first two books.

Behe is a classic example of how confirmation bias influences one's view of the big picture. He over-emphasizes any facts that suggest a weakness in modern evolutionary theory and ignores any facts that support and validate evolution.

João said...

Thank you, Larry. I still need to read it, but I heard the same from a colleague.

Well, I don't know what is happening, but I can't see your response to me regarding Richard Buggs. I click on the answer on the left side of the blog, but I am not redirected to your comment. ={

Larry Moran said...

There are 373 comments on that post. You have to scroll down to the bottom of the first page and click on "load more" to see the others.