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
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
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