Re: Behe Review (yet another)

David J. Tyler (
Mon, 11 Oct 1999 14:50:14 GMT

On Thu, 7 Oct 1999, R. Joel Duff wrote:

"Just wanted to inform everyone that there is yet another review of
Behe's book that has just come out in Biology and Philosophy
14:593-605 (1999). "Irreducible Complexity and The Problem of
Biochemical Emergence" by Bruce Weber (Dept. Chem. Biochem. CSU
A lot of the same stuff but also includes some commentary
on the two years since the publication and prior reviews"

Having now read this review, I thought a few comments might be
appropriate. Weber does include "same stuff" material, but I find his
general argument fascinating.

In brief, Weber does not respond using any of the standard
neo-Darwinian arguments. There is nothing of the "Climbing Mount
Improbable" approach here to explain the origin of complexity. Rather
he builds his response around self-organisation and emergence.
"[Behe] virtually ignores a whole area of current research on
self-organizing, emergent phenomena" (p.595).

Weber has a paragraph on the bacterial flagellum. After reviewing a
number of issues, he writes: "The self-organizing tendencies of
biochemical systems may help guide the formation of complex, pattered
structures that can subsequently acquire functional value for which
improvements can be selected. This does not pretend to provide a
complete explanation, but it does suggest directions for future
research .. .." (p.595) This argument is typical of many others, and
from it I note two things. First, there is a tacit admission that
neo-Darwinism is not delivering a satisfying response to Behe.
Second, that a full response to Behe cannot be put together at this
point in time, so an exploratory, initial response is necessary -
pointing to where the answers may come.

Similarly, in the discussion of blood clotting, the response it to
point the way to a discovery of answers. "We are at the point of
accumulating enough data from DNA sequences and three-dimensional
structures of proteins to make a number of tests of putative
evolutionary explanations in the near future". (P.597).

Although Behe does not major on abiogenesis, Weber devotes several
pages to discussion of this topic, primarily focusing on emergence and
self-organization. Stuart Kauffman, for example, is suggested to have
provided "important insights". Whilst Behe does briefly critique
Kaufmann, Behe is far more concerned about the answers neo-Darwinism
gives to the origin of irreducibly complex systems. Weber may have
things he wants to say here, but they are hardly adequate responses to

After abiogenesis, Weber does move on to the domain of Darwinian
evolution. But he does not wish to relinquish his interest in
emergence and self-organization. "Selection may not have to do
everything, nor only in a gradual manner, since selection can be
allied with self-organization to generate order and organization,
sometimes in a global manner. Clearly, neither does self-organization
have to do everything by itself. Nor should any rational person
expect that chance alone could generate order out of chaos. All three
should be considered as acting together, to various degrees in
specific instances, in order to generate robust explanations of
emergence. The application of 'complex systems dynamics' to
biological problems is still in its infancy". (p.600).

I have quoted this at some length because it seems to me (a) that
although Darwinians could adopt this emphasis, it has not emerged from
mainstream neo-Darwinism, (b) that the major answers necessary to
respond to Behe are suggested to come from complex systems dynamics,
which is still in its infancy. (b) seems to me to suggest that the
established neo-Darwinian views are impotent to address Behe's

To reinforce this latter point, take Weber's comment on page 601: "We
can respond to [Behe's arguments] in at least two ways. First,
biologists with greater imagination and information may come up with
explanations invoking only selection; second, the application of
complex systems dynamics may show how to understand the emergence of
the type of functional complexity that concerns Behe. Either is an
incomplete work in progress, which is the characteristic of a living
science that works with a human perspective". In other words, we do
not have satisfactory answers yet!

So why not acknowledge that Behe may be right and that the data
compels us to make the design inference? "The demand for an immediate
and complete explanation that can only be satisfied by a "God's-eye
view" would not create a new paradigm so much as inhibit research on
the problem of emergence. The very idea is inconsistent with the
fundamentals of science". (p.601). So there we have it: 'Behe cannot
be defeated by logical argument (with our present state of knowledge),
so we portray his view as inhibiting research and we apply a
demarcation principle so that the design inference lies outside
science altogether.'

One further avenue is explored in Weber's critique: that of
developmental biology. "It can take remarkably few genetic changes
to produce major morphological changes. .. .. A given trait or
complex structure might arise from a rather small number of changes in
organization of the developmental genes, taking advantage of
duplicated and divergent genes that may have arisen by neutral or
self-organizational processes. Developmental biology is being
transformed by molecular genetics, and problems for evolutionary
biology that might seem intractable to Behe, or indeed many others,
may soon be tractable". (p.602).

Here again I observe two things: (a) that if evolutionary change is
thus explained by this type of developmental change, the traditional
arguments of neo-Darwinism are revealed to be suited only to explain
minor adaptations (finch beaks and lizard legs) driven by natural
selection. (b) that if the major evolutionary innovations are linked
to mutations in the developmental genes, we are back into a discipline
in its infancy. There is much talk, but very little hypothesis
testing. The outcomes may well turn out to be contrary to Weber's

Weber adds: "A number of ways in which developmental biology might
inform evolutionary theories lie outside of the Darwinian Research
Tradition. One new approach, however, that may be compatible with
Darwinism is Developmental Systems Theory. This approach, which
emphasizes the role of the entire organism's life cycle on the
developmental pattern, shares at least some conceptual territory with
the complex system dynamic approach to evolution in a mutually
illuminating manner." (p.602)

As I indicated at the outset, I find this very interesting. The
preponderance of "may be", "we will probably see", and "it might have
been possible" phrases reveals a highly tentative position that is on
the defensive against Behe's argument. Intellectual credibility is
preserved only by the assertion that the understanding Behe offers
lies outside science. Neo-Darwinism has little to contribute: but if
we think hard enough, we might be able to find a niche for it in the
emerging theory of evolution, so that we can talk about "progress"
rather than a paradigm shift.

I confess to having an interest in this debate, because I have a
review article of Behe's book on the web. After reading this critique, I
can think of a number of ways of strengthening my recommendation that
people read and digest what Behe has to say.

On a number of occasions, I have commented on the problem that
Theistic Evolutionists (or fully-gifted creationists) have in
addressing the topic of design. At very least, I would expect these
people to see the necessity for emphasising self-organisation and
emergent phenomenon in order to realise God's design
conceptualisation. At least, this allows the Christian who believes
in design to develop a coherent position. However, the only writer to
do this is Michael Denton ("Nature's Destiny") - who rightly sees that
this means a rejection of the relevance of neo-Darwinian theory. The
Weber review stirs me to return to this argument: many people who are
outside the Christian community are seeing the impotence of Darwinism
and are exploring other avenues. Why is it that the Christian
Theistic Evolutionists are so accommodating to neo-Darwinism, which is
so strong on theory but so weak when it comes to handling the data of

Best regards,
David J. Tyler.