FW: Michael Behe... by Palevitz

From: Susan Brassfield (Susan-Brassfield@ou.edu)
Date: Wed Jan 26 2000 - 14:24:24 EST

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     The Real Scoop on Michael Behe...
     ...and why creationism is still a bad idea.

    > Several weeks ago, Michael Behe gave a lecture at UGA criticizing
    > Darwinian evolution, and Flagpole ran a cover story on Behe and his ideas
    > ["Taking on Darwin," February 25]. Behe has been hailed as the most
    > refreshing scientific spokesman against evolution in years. But is Behe's
    > message really gold, or fool's gold? According to Behe, cells possess lots
    > of what he calls irreducible complexity. In a nutshell, cells have
    > structures and processes whose functions are so critical that they could
    > not have evolved step by step. After all, half a process would be useless,
    > wouldn't it? The only way it could have happened was at the hand of some
    > designer, presumably with purpose in mind. Sounds logical, doesn't it?
    > Unfortunately, it's wrong.

    > This is the same threadbare Argument From Design that's been around for
    > centuries. You've heard it before: a watch is so complex it could not have
    > assembled randomly. Because even the humblest cell is much more complex
    > than a watch, it too had to have had a designer, presumably a supernatural
    > one. Behe wasn't shy about embracing this philosophy in Flagpole, but he
    > offered the venerable mousetrap as an example instead. Ergo, what good is
    > half a mousetrap? Another example making the rounds is the Rabbi who, in
    > making a case against the role of chance in creation, slyly wondered if
    > his cat had accidentally written a beautiful poem. The problem is, the
    > Argument from Design was dismissed philosophically back in the 18th
    > century by Hume, with help from Voltaire. One can't use human artifice to
    > infer anything about a divine agent.

    > Still, creationists have used purposeful design for years to explain a
    > number of biological processes and structures, notably the bird wing and
    > vertebrate eye. Alas, the argument doesn't hold water scientifically
    > either. For one thing, evolution notoriously recycles old parts.
    > Structures that perform one function are often co-opted to do something
    > else. Genes duplicate, and with subsequent mutations, assume different
    > roles. The fossil and molecular evidence is clear. So, creationists have
    > largely given up on anatomy and retreated to the cellular level, like the
    > crew of the Titanic desperately closing bulkhead doors. Enter Behe.
    > But purposeful design isn't any more logical when applied to cells. And
    > Behe notwithstanding, we know a lot about how cellular structures and
    > processes evolved. Besides, what is irreducible complexity? The concept is
    > probably meaningless. Human cells have nearly 100,000 genes while
    > Mycoplasma, a perfectly respectable bacterium that does all sorts of
    > things, has only 470. It's been estimated that the first primitive cells
    > may have had as few as 50 genes.

    > Behe relies on criticizing evolution: we can't explain its supposed holes
    > and inconsistencies. That's nothing new, creationists have been using that
    > complaint for years because it's the only "evidence" they have. Science is
    > an easy target in that regard because there are always unanswered
    > questions (I could charitably thank Behe for enumerating many fertile
    > areas for continued scientific investigation!). But in the face of
    > uncertainty, good scientists wait for more data or do the experiments
    > themselves; they don't punt in favor of the supernatural. History teaches
    > that explanations usually arrive with new data, and that certainly has
    > been the case with evolution. We know a helluva lot more now than we did
    > just 10 years ago, sweeping aside many creationist claims. If Behe
    > believes in a designer, he has to come up with firm evidence in favor, not
    > just criticism. Sure he can "take on Darwin," as Flagpole put it, but the
    > burden of proof is on him, not the huge majority of biologists.

    > And that's where Behe falls flat. He offers no positive scientific
    > evidence in favor of purposeful design, other than "gee ma, ain't
    > complexity grand," because there is none. In contrast, all of biology is
    > now firmly founded on evolutionary principles, which in turn are supported
    > by a mountain of hard data. Complexity itself isn't evidence for design. I
    > can think of many examples of complexity that are neither supernatural nor
    > purposeful, starting with the chance oilslick on a rain puddle. In the
    > end, all Behe can do is suggest several experiments of dubious premise.
    > For example, he wonders if some primitive ancestor had all the
    > instructions for today's diverse, multitudinous organisms somehow
    > prepackaged, waiting to go. What we already know about organisms,
    > information systems and genetics makes that idea patently silly.
    > Purposeful design is poor science because ultimately it's religion. Sure,
    > Behe is coy enough (and a tad disingenuous) to avoid calling his designer
    > God, but that's consistent with recent creationist strategy. Having failed
    > to convince the Supreme Court that "scientific creationism" is science,
    > they now package it as "intelligent design theory." Behe may be a fresh
    > actor in a new production, but it's an old play. Behe can call his
    > designer whatever he wants he's still resorting to a supernatural
    > explanation of the natural world. Science explains the natural world in
    > material, naturalistic ways using observation and measurement. Because the
    > supernatural is untestable, it's automatically out of bounds.

    > Confronted with this barrier, creationists are trying to change the rules.
    > Why not a little religion in science, so the reasoning goes. Behe seems to
    > be saying precisely that towards the end of his book. It's also inherent
    > in the oft-repeated plea that it's O.K. to be a believer and a scientist.
    > I agree that scientists can be religious people, can compartmentalize all
    > sorts of incommensurable ideas. But there's a line in the sand: if a
    > scientist crosses it and tries to use religion to inform the science,
    > that's a no-no. Let a little of the subjective into science and there is
    > no logical place to stop. Why not accept the ultracreationist claim that
    > the moon's craters were gouged in a battle between angels and the devil?
    > Relax science's insistence on objectivity and its reliability crumbles.
    > Why was Behe here? Probably because much of the Christian Faculty Forum
    > liked what he had to say. That should tell you that Behe's talk was less
    > about science than about religion. This group has been trying to fit into
    > mainstream academic circles by recognizing "the importance of presenting
    > intellectual answers," in their words. They have a funny way of going
    > about it, though. Intellectual refers to the intellect, or the power of
    > knowing, vs. feeling or just plain willing something to be true.

    > That means finding out how the world actually is rather than how one would
    > like it to be. But is this group really interested in the pursuit of
    > rational answers about the natural world, or just groping for proof of a
    > "predisposition" (Behe's word)? Why showcase a decrepit concept like The
    > Argument From Design, which has no hope of scientific verification?

    > Of course it's about religion. Nobody challenges modern biology when we
    > come up with a new vaccine, crop or technology. Few bat an eye when the
    > human genome project discovers a gene for an inherited disease. Yet when
    > the same data point to our inescapable link to the rest of the biosphere,
    > feathers fly.

    > Creationist attacks on science are unfortunate. Religion has been far too
    > important a force for good to be squandered in a competition with science
    > that it cannot win. History amply shows that science is the only reliable
    > mechanism for understanding natural phenomena. Many find science's
    > discoveries difficult or their import troubling. Better for religion to
    > devote its considerable capital providing context for these discoveries,
    > as the Pope has tried to do, by addressing true nuggets such as the ethics
    > of altering the human germline and preserving earth's biodiversity. Let's
    > get on with it, and stop creating pointless confrontations where none
    > should exist.

    > Barry A. Palevitz
    > Barry Palevitz is professor of biology and botany at the University of
    > Georgia


    For if there is a sin against life, it consists not so much in despairing
    of life as in hoping for another and in eluding the implacable grandeur of
    this one.
    --Albert Camus


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