Michael Behe and Intelligent Design Creationism v2.1

Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 8:41 PM Bookmark and Share
Over at bloggingheads.tv, you can watch this video of John McWhorter and Michael Behe (of the Discovery Institute and Dover trial fame) discuss Behe's intelligent design creationism (ID) writings and beliefs.  Why waste the 45 minutes it takes to watch it?  Because it's evolution in action, folks - and you don't see that happen every day. ;)

If you've ever been around any of their cousins the mustelids you probably don't see the initial example of the skunk as something incapable of having evolved by natural selection and mutation.  Alas, we see in this example that ages old  "God of the gaps" fallacy rearing it's ugly head. That mistaken idea that because they (or even the royal "we") don't understand something, that this somehow implies that intelligent design creationism is true.

Skipping ahead to 16:00, another common mistake - that evolution is completely random.  Certainly, the theory of evolution includes random or mostly random mutations - including the single base pair mutations in the protein coding regions of DNA -  but it also involves these and other kinds of mutations in the regions of DNA that regulate gene production, and "bigger" mutations like the insertion or deletion of whole regions of DNA, polyploidy, and so on.  To say evolution "doesn't work" because you can't get enough variation out of single base pair mutations alone is, well, irrelevant even if it was true. 

At 17:30 John sums up the whole ID-God connection by summarizing his understanding of Behe's stance.  After going through Behe's claims that evolution and the process of random mutation is insufficient to explain life as we know it, he says
John:   It seems that ... and this is something that you seem to understandibly pull back from getting too specific about in the book, but correct me if I'm wrong, it would seem to me that your idea is that random mutation alone cannot explain these things and that their must have been some sort of intelligent designer, and that intelligent designer would, I presume, be God. Right?

Behe: Well I certainly think so, I'm a run-of-the-mill Christian, you know, but in the book I try to act as... I'm a scientist and the scientific evidence points to design, it doesn't ... there's no signature on the molecular machinery saying who did it.  If somebody else wants to think it was a space alien or something exotic well they're free to do it.  The structure of molecular machines doesn't force you to believe one versus the other, but certainly I think - and most theists will think that God is a major candidate for the role of designer.
Make no mistake - ID is not science, it's religious in nature no ifs ands or buts about it.  Moving on to the rest of his response...

First - he basically says "random mutation alone" can't explain it, therefore it was God.  This is horrible logic.

Second - the "I try to act as... I'm a scientist" line is hilarious. This has nothing to do with the validity of ID or the rest of Behe's claims, but might Behe sometimes have problems deciding which hat to wear when speaking about intelligent design (creationism)? Like I said... religion, not science.

At 19:30 John, asks him how he's so sure that we've hit a wall and that science just can't explain some things (the implication being that it must have been intelligently designed).  His response (starting at 20:00) is quite telling:
... well, you can never be completely sure in science, it's the nature of the discipline, and I never claimed - and certainly don't now - that I have some sort of logical proof for [intelligent] design...
... in my mind [the evidence is] clearly pointing strongly to design or something very similar to it.
This kind of "no proof" but "evidence" thing is annoying. So far, the only "evidence" I've seen suggesting a designer is the same sort of "evidence" children have that Santa Claus exists.

They see presents, they have an a priori belief that Santa brings them presents, so they find the "evidence" consistent with their beliefs and as such, compelling that their beliefs are true.  Now, if you get rid of that a priori belief and actively look for evidence that would lead you to that belief (i.e. staying up all night on Christmas Eve hiding behind the couch, waiting to see who brings the presents) well then intelligent design simply falls completely apart. There are plenty of other explanations that do a better job of explaining the evidence than ID, and as such scientists see no reason to afford it any standing as a way of understanding the natural world.

But what about my claim that we see Intelligent Design evolving in this video?  Let me explain.

In Dembski's book "Signs of Intelligence," Behe tries to explain what sort of biological evidence we might look for that would point to a designer.  He refers to one such example as the irreducibly complex system:
But what type of biological system could not be formed by "numerous, successive, slight modifications"?  A system that is irreducibly complexIrreducible complexity is just a fancy phrase I use to mean a single system that is composed of several interacting parts, where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to cease functioning.

...[He then explains how a mouse trap doesn't work if you remove one of it's parts.]...

An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly by numerous, successive, slight modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional.  An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution.  Since natural selection can only choose systems that are already working, then, if a biological system cannot be produced gradually, it would have to arise as an integrated unit for natural selection to have anything to act on.
The main point here: it needs to have existed for it to have evolved.  If you could prove something couldn't have evolved, the theory of evolution needs some revising (or, if you commit the fallacy of false dichotomy, this implies intelligent design is true).  Lastly, it'll be important below to notice that we really only need existence here - he says nothing about what kind of function the precursor serves, just that it functions.

Now, to find such system we'd essentially have to prove a negative - so right off the bat we're never going to prove something "irreducibly complex" and we're certainly not in the realm of science, right?  Well actually, no we can prove things are NOT irreducibly complex by showing that such a system can be missing a part but still be functional.

For example early systems ID proponents claimed were irreducibly complex turned out not to be: the bacterial flagellum, the eye and the blood clotting cascade all have substantial evidence suggesting they are not irreducibly complex. There is nothing suggesting they could not have evolved through mutation and natural selection. 

Does this bother Behe? Of course not - he has an a priori belief he isn't looking to disprove, so evidence doesn't matter to him. How does he square up with the evidence against his irreducible complexity claims?  Around 26:00 he addresses this problem after John brings it up by (re?)defining "irreducible complexity".

Now, above, remember we only needed some function of a precursor system for it to be deemed not irreducibly complex. But now, Behe seems to abandon his earlier definition, and adopts a similar but practically very different definition that makes these problems go away.  He responds to John (around 27:45) with

I think what they're doing is that they're mistaking the idea of irreducible complexity. They're infusing what I think of as irreducible complexity with ... their own ideas.  They think that irreducible complexity is that you can't make a machine that does something similar to the machine you're thinking about, with fewer parts. But that's not true, and I wrote about that in Darwin's black box...

I have to pause him here - notice the "something similar" addition to the above definition from Dembski's book?  Why do we need similar function for evolution to take place?  If my grasping fingers make horrible fins for swimming, are they incapable of evolving into webbed fins?  Anyway, he goes on not providing a correct definition (other than adding you must be able to get from one to the other by incremental changes), but by actually using this incorrect definition to refute his critics.
There is something called a bacterial flagellum - I'm sure you're familiar with it. It's kind of like a little rotary motor. Like an outboard motor. And I wrote about that in Darwin's Black box, and said it was irreducibly complex.  And, after the book came out it was discovered that there was a subpart of it that could act kind of like a pump, kind of like a gas pump in your car.  And some people said "Well, if we take this away, it still works - so therefore the flagellum is not irreducibly complex." But I counter that... "Well, no it is because when you take away that part, the flagellum no longer works as a rotary motor."
Did you catch that? Now, it doesn't just need to exist so that it might evolve into a flagellum, any precursor to the flagellum for some reason now has to serve as a flagellum?  Seriously?!

While it might look like a refined more precise definition, this again is just the "God of the gaps" argument. If scientists find evidence of similar building blocks existing to serve other purposes, we still say it's irreducibly complex because we don't have the transitions. Like the endless demand for more and more transitional fossils, this game can go on forever.

This folks, is one of those little tiny mutations that drive the evolution of intelligent design creationism and you can see it happening from the pages of his writing to this video on the web.  Classical creationism (in a quasi-macroevolutionary sense) has evolved to intelligent design creationism under the selection imposed by empirical knowledge and scientific theories about our natural world. It has to adapt, or people stop believing it.  Gravity, the way the earth orbits the sun - these all shaped the evolution of dogmatic religious belief in recent history.

In a quasi-microevolutionary sense - you know, the kind of evolution that even young earth creationists admit happens fast enough to observe - intelligent design itself is also evolving through tiny incremental changes that bring this belief system added fitness.  If a modification makes it more convincing as correct and less clearly wrong, that version will more likely persist - even in the mind of one individual. Intelligent design simply adapts to the shrinking gaps in our knowledge - pushed deeper and deeper into the cracks each time new discoveries are made, each time reinventing itself as it's reiterated in debates, rewritten in books and blogs, each time inching away from any conflict with reality.

Well, then again, maybe the whole thing is really just intelligently designed?


Posted by: Jeff | 9/03/2009 1:08 AM

While I agree wholeheartedly, I'd like to point out one small error. Skunks are no longer considered to be part of the Mustelidae family. They are now classified in their own family, Mephitidae.

Posted by: bobxxxx | 9/11/2009 10:56 AM

Behe is of course an idiot, but perhaps he doesn't believe his own nonsense. Perhaps he's just making things up for the money he makes from his retarded customers.

Posted by: Paul | 9/27/2009 12:12 AM

Jeff - thanks for pointing that out! I came across that fact but somehow neglected to include it. Hopefully the "any of their cousins the mustelids" edit, along with the link to the skunk page will avoid misleading anyone.

Bob - that or he's just struggling to rationalize his religious beliefs with what he knows about reality. More and more I see some of the things that people like Behe say and do as the byproduct of a sort of internal conflict (e.g. their scientific understanding vs. some of their religious beliefs) and less as an effort to intentionally mislead people. So long as they keep that spillage out of the arena of science, they're free to be as conflicted as they'd like! ;)

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