Those of you who follow the Biologos site may have noticed a recent series of articles by Dennis Venema. In this series of articles Dr. Venema purports to recount his journey from being an ardent ID supporter to being an ID critic. The latest installment, Part 4, can be found here.
In Part 4, Venema explains how reading Michael Behe’s second book, The Edge of Evolution, caused him to do a complete about-face. As a graduate student in biology, he had greatly admired Behe’s first book, Darwin’s Black Box, but now, as a new junior faculty member, he decided that Behe’s arguments in The Edge of Evolution were all wrong, and as a result, he decided that he must reject Behe and ID.
A number of questions are raised by Venema’s account. First of all, the argument in Behe’s first book, Darwin’s Black Box, is logically independent of the argument in the second book. Darwin’s Black Box centers on the theoretical difficulties for Darwinian mechanisms raised by irreducible complexity, whereas the second book is a wholly empirical argument about what Darwinian mechanisms have in fact accomplished in the case of microorganisms. So even if Behe’s empirical arguments in his second book could be proved completely invalid, it would not follow that his arguments in the first book were invalid. Venema does not explain why he threw out the first book on the basis of alleged flaws in the second.
A number of other questions are raised by Venema’s account of the alleged flaws in Behe’s second book. Here is his argument in full:
“To this day I wish I could have recorded myself reading those opening chapters of EoE. It was not long before the first suggestion of a frown would appear. Not many pages hence the frown would deepen into a furrow. I could hardly believe what I was reading: where was the Behe of Darwin’s Black Box that had so captivated me years ago? Though it is not polite to recount it (and I want to be clear that I hold no animosity towards Dr. Behe, but merely want to share my initial reaction) I clearly recall putting EoE down on my desk thinking, “What is this?” I was shocked: I had fully expected to once again be amazed and amused watching Behe take evolution down a peg or two. Yet here I was, knowing virtually nothing of evolution, and already I was seeing nothing but holes in Behe’s argument. Later on, when Behe began to discuss a topic I was familiar with (population genetics) I confirmed what I suspected: Behe was out of his area of specialty and out of his depth. Later work would convince me that this pattern applied to the whole of the book and the core of Behe’s arguments. My note pad was filling up, but not with what I had expected.
“Before I had finished Edge of Evolution, I was done with ID. I would lose my faith in ID not by comparing it to the science of evolution, but by reading one of its leading proponents and evaluating his work on its own merits. ID, I decided, was an argument from analogy, ignorance and incredulity. I was looking for an argument from evidence. Due to an interesting set of circumstances, I was able to read Behe both as a credulous lay reader and as a skeptical trained scientist. Behe, I realized, hadn’t changed: I had changed, and what a difference it had made.”
A number of points should be noted. First, if Venema, by his own confession, at the time knew “virtually nothing of evolution,” what made him qualified to criticize Behe’s work, to see the alleged “holes” in his argument?
Second, even Behe was “out of his area of specialty” when discussing population genetics, that by itself does not invalidate the argument he was making. A scientist from a different field might make some slips or errors in commenting on another field, but what needs to be shown is that the specific slips or errors are such as to be fatal to the argument the scientist is making. It is so typical of Biologos columnists to say things like: “On Page 259 Meyer misnames this chemical, and therefore he is scientifically incompetent, therefore ID is false.” But in fact what has to be shown is that the misnaming of the chemical, or the error in population genetics jargon, is such as to invalidate the argument of an entire book, or chapter, or paragraph. Never has any Biologos columnist ever done this, and Venema has again failed to do it here. He simply makes vague unspecified charges about Behe’s incompetence, without showing how the argument is invalidated by said incompetence. This is the lazy man’s way of arguing, not the scientist’s way of arguing, and Dr. Venema should not be proud of it.
(I might add by way of parentheses that it is very odd for Dr. Venema, a leading player on Biologos, to complain about ID people writing outside of their specialties, when on the Biologos site, many columnists — Karl Giberson, Darrel Falk, Oliver Barclay, Ard Louis, and others, frequently write columns about, or make comments about, theology and the history of ideas — fields in which they are completely incompetent — and say embarrassingly ignorant things. Perhaps Dr. Venema can take his complaint about non-specialists to the Biologos management and get something done about the theological and historical dilettantism of the scientists there. But I digress.)
Third, how does it follow that if Behe is wrong, all ID theorists are wrong? Did Venema take the time to read the careful argument in No Free Lunch by William Dembski? Did he read The Design of Life by Dembski and Wells, with its careful critique of Darwinian mechanisms? Did he read the many essays by Paul Nelson, Stephen Meyer, Richard Sternberg, David Berlinski, etc. which have either argued for ID or criticized Darwinism, and show the flaws in those? How can he know that ID is entirely wrong when he has found flaws in the argument of only one book by one ID proponent? The lack of logic in Venema’s conclusion is staggering, and makes the case that biologists need to add a good strong liberal arts component to their education, so that they can learn to reason competently.
(Of course, we know how Venema has dealt with Stephen Meyer’s book, Signature in the Cell. A few months back, he wrote a series of columns on that book which purported to be a refutation of it. Interestingly enough, almost of all of Venema’s comments in those columns concerned Darwinian evolution, which was not the topic of Meyer’s book. The topic of Meyer’s book was the origin of the first life. Venema did not provide one shred of evidence that Meyer had made any errors in his research and critique of chemical evolutionary theories of the origin of life. Nor is this surprising, as Venema knows next to nothing about origin-of-life theories; his field is fruit-fly population genetics, and he has published nothing at all in the origin-of-life field. So it’s understandable why he might stay away from criticizing Meyer in the area where Meyer did his Ph.D. work. But the staggering thing is that Venema was not able to grasp, even when it was pointed out to him by several commenters, that his critique of Meyer was off-topic. Again, one wonders what kind of general intellectual training a scientific education these days provides, when a Ph.D. in Biology cannot keep his focus on the argument that is on the table.)
Finally, if Behe was so wrong, why did Venema not publish, in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, or in a major newspaper or general-interest magazine, a review of The Edge of Evolution, pointing out its many faults? What was stopping him? Dawkins, Carroll, Coyne, Ruse and many others did so. Why didn’t Venema, if he was so sure that he was right? Venema makes sweeping generalities about Behe’s incompetence, but when it comes time to trot out the evidence, he is missing in action.
And that’s not the only place Dr. Venema has been missing in action. He says he was an ardent supporter of ID. Really? Then how come no one in the ID movement has any memory whatsoever of his support? What conferences did he organize to bring in pro-ID speakers? What positive book reviews of ID books did he write on Amazon, or in his local newspaper, or in any other venue? On what internet debating sites did he sign his name to defenses of ID against its critics? Where on Panda’s Thumb or Pharyngula or TalkOrigins will we find his sterling defense of ID? On what platform did he debate Eugenie Scott or P. Z. Myers?
Overall, Dr. Venema’s series on why he abandoned ID is much like his series of articles on Signature in the Cell — an intellectual washout. It contributes nothing to the serious discussion of ID notions and ID arguments. If this is the best argument that Biologos can marshal against ID, its days are numbered.