Michael Behe is currently on a speaking tour around the UK (tour website here), organised by the newly founded Centre for ID UK. Last night, I attended Behe’s Glasgow lecture. The evening was entitled “Darwin or Design – What Does the Science Really Say?” As is to be expected, Behe spoke both articulately and persuasively, developing a powerful cumulative positive case for design based on the nanotechnology which pervades life at the level of the cellular world. Behe is a very gifted speaker, especially when it comes to conveying his scientific ideas and concepts to an audience without a scientific background.
Representatives from the Scottish Humanist Society were also in attendance, and took the liberty to hand out anti-ID literature outside the venue. Nothing wrong with that, of course. ID has nothing to fear from people listening to both sides and critically evaluating the strength of the respective cases. Unfortunately, however, the literature was disappointing – it recycled, in large measure, material from the NCSE and from Wikipedia: hardly your most reliable sources of information when it comes to ID. Many of the objections presented therein were, in fact, addressed during the course of the presentation. Tellingly, when it came to the Q&A, the humanists were seemingly unable to articulate a reason why we ought to reject Behe’s arguments, and it was somewhat of an anticlimax.
Nonetheless, I thought that it might be worth posting a brief response to this literature here. One of the two pieces of literature which I picked up was a pamphlet headed “It isn’t Intelligent and it isn’t Design. ID is Bad Science – ID is BS”. When one turns the page, one is confronted with four headings, and I will discuss each in turn.
“What’s wrong with Intelligent Design?”
“Intelligent Design (ID) is not a scientific theory, and its premises are deeply flawed, scientifically and philosophically. ID makes no testable predictions. It is simply an argument by default, saying that because science has not yet fully explained the development of complex organisms, there must be a supernatural explanation. The Centre for Intelligent Design’s attempt to promote ID as science is profoundly misguided.“
But ID does make testable predictions. But first it is important to be clear on what we are talking about when speaking of ID. The proposition of ID refers to the idea that we can infer, from evidence, that certain features of the world are best explained and understood in terms of intelligent causation. Defined thus, ID may be falsified by a demonstration that the explanatory filter for detecting design incorporates false positives. Behe argued last night that a complex and functionally specified arrangement of parts is a reliable indicator of design. As part of our everyday experience, we make this judgement frequently. This is an easy proposition to test and to falsify. ID predicts that, if a feature is best explained as the product of purposeful intentionality, the feature will exhibit this property. ID, as it concerns living systems, also predicts that we will find large volumes of information – defined here as complex specified irregularity. This is precisely what is exhibited in the complexity and sequence-specificity of the nucleotide base pairs intrinsic to the molecules of DNA and RNA, and the amino acids which comprise proteins.
I would argue that it is also a prediction which is specific to ID that we should find higher levels of information in living systems – beyond that which is found in DNA. DNA encodes for proteins, but it does not alone determine how these proteins are organised into cell types, or how those cell types are differentiated into specific tissues and organs, or how these are ultimately arranged into body plans. For a thorough critique of the “transcription factors only” model of development, I highly recommend a 2002 paper by Adrian Bird in Genes and Development.
ID also predicts that the ratio of functional to non-functional amino-acid sequences with respect to forming a functional structural binding domain should be extremely low. This would represent a formidable challenge to the view that random mutations alone are sufficient to search the vast sea of sequential possibilities within reasonable time allocations. This prediction has been met (see, for instance, here and here).
One further ID-inspired prediction is the expectation that the non-coding regions of the genome (“junk DNA”) will turn out to exhibit function. This prediction is now fulfilled virtually on a daily basis (see, for instance, this video response to the “junk DNA” argument against ID made by Francis Collins).
Hopefully one can see that ID is not a ‘god-of-the-gaps’ type argument. It is founded on positive evidence and is based on a standard historical scientific methodology of inductive reasoning.
The humanist pamphlet continues,
“Scientific studies have explained a great deal about how life evolved, but much has still to be learned. Michael Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and a senior fellow of The Discovery Institute, argues that some biological structures like the eukaryotic cell and the bacterial flagellum are too complex to have evolved by stages. But this is not true, since such intermediate stages are actually found in many organisms. Behe is following in the footsteps of the 19th century theologian William Paley who famously said, ‘It’s too difficult; god must have done it.’“
The writer appears to be conveying that this is a direct quotation from William Paley (as opposed to a caricature of his argument). However, no citation is given for this, and I have not been able to locate the quotation in any other source. If I am mistaken, perhaps someone would be kind enough to post the reference in the comments box on this blog.
Darwinist arguments regarding supposed intermediate structures (such as the Type-III Secretion System in the case of the flagellar apparatus) have been responded to so thoroughly and so many times, and it is not worth responding further here. Readers who are interested in pursuing further information with regards this claim may do so by reading this peer-reviewed paper by Meyer and Minnich. Suffice it to say that a demonstration of homology or a progression of forms is not, in and of itself, a causal explanation. The phylogenetic evidence is also suggestive that the T3SS is an evolutionary biproduct of the flagellar system, rather than the other way round (see, for instance, here).
If flagellum biosynthesis were to be expressed simultaneously with the Yop T3SS, flagellin monomers would likely be exported out the needle-like structure as well as the flagellar basal body, potentially limiting the efficiency of both systems. The potential for cross-recognition between Type IIIexported proteins in the same cell explains why the segregation of these systems by specific environmental cues is necessary. Expression of a flagellum under host conditions would result in a loss of polarised secretion of Yop proteins into the cells of the host. Flagellin is also a potent cytokine inducer – display of flagellin to the macrophages by direction injection via the Ysc secretin would strongly countermand the Yersinia’s anti-inflammatory strategy.
“Why is science so important?”
“Science constantly strives to explain the world around us by formulating hypotheses, and testing by observation. This produces evidence to explain how the world came to be as it is. Peer review ensures that only the best theory survives, until a better one comes along. Michael Behe has never submitted his theories to peer review, and he has no supporters among scientists. Behe’s own department at Lehigh University officially opposes his views and the theory of intelligent design.”
This paragraph is in error on several counts. First, Michael Behe has submitted his theories for peer review. His first book, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (The Free Press, 1996) was peer reviewed. Behe also contributed a chapter to Darwin, Design and Public Education and Debating Design – which are both peer-reviewed books. He has also published a pro-ID paper in Protein Science [M.J. Behe and D.W. Snoke, “Simulating Evolution by Gene Duplication of Protein Features That Require Multiple Amino Acid Residues,” Protein Science, 13 (2004): 2651-2664.]. For another peer-reviewed paper authored by Behe, supportive of ID [Behe, M.J., Self-Organization and Irreducibly Complex Systems: A Reply to Shanks and Joplin, PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE 67:155-162 (March 2000)], see here. For a non-exhaustive listing of other peer-reviewed papers, books and publications, see here and here.
Second, it is simply false to state that Behe has no supporters among scientists. See, for example, the Dissent from Darwin list of PhD-holding signatories.
The pamphlet subsequently goes on to quote from Judge Jones III’s Dover ruling, in which he stated that ID “presents students with a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory, directs them to consult a creationist text as though it were a science resources, and instructs students to forego scientific inquiry in the classroom and instead to seek out religious instruction elsewhere.”
Quite aside from the fact that Jones’ ruling at Dover was baseless and founded on erroneous facts, it is not the place of a district judge to make pronouncements on questions related to the philosophy of science – in this case, the problem of demarcation. ID is entirely a scientific agenda. While it may have metaphysical – even theological implications – the theory does not require theological premises. To claim that potential theological implications make it a religious concept leads one into absurdity. Such would render the Big Bang cosmology (which has positive theological implications) also a religious view. It would also render Darwinism (which potentially has positive anti-theological implications) a religious view. Scientific theories ought to be evaluated and justified on the basis of their own merits, not on the basis of unwelcome metaphysical implications.
The pamphlet subsequently conveys an illustration of the vertebrate eye, with the following caption:
“Bad Design: In the human eye, the wiring (the nerves) are in the wrong place, in front of the light detection screen (the retina), which also creates a blind spot. (Thanks to evolution, our brain processes the images from both eyes to compensate, and ‘fill in’ the blind spots.”
This argument has been made, and responded to, so many times,that it is a wonder it is still made in such a casual fashion. However, recently identified functional reasons for this design challenge the old Darwinian claim. Biologist George Ayoub has shown, for example, that the vertebrate retina provides an excellent example of what engineers call a constrained optimisation, in which several competing design objectives are elegantly balanced to achieve an optimal overall design.
Light at various wavelengths is capable of inducing degenerative effects on biological machinery. The retina is clearly designed with the inbuilt purpose of withstanding the toxic and heating effects of light. The eye is well equipped to protect the retina against radiation from the outside world. Besides the almost complete exclusion of ultraviolate radiation by the cornea and the lens together, the retina also serves a crucial role in protection against such damage — for example, producing substances with combat the damaging chemical by-products of light radiation.
The photoreceptors, therefore, need to be in direct contact with the retinal pigment epithelium, which plays an essential part in sustaining them. The retinal pigment epithelium, in turn, requires to be in direct contact with the choroids. Both of these are required in order to satisfy the nutritional requirements and thus prevent overheating the retina from focused light (as a consequence of the heat sink effect of bloodflow).
If, conversely, the human retina were ‘wired’ the other way, these two opaque layers would need to be interposed in the path of light to the photoreceptors , which really would be bad design!
“Who’s behind Intelligent Design?”
The pamphlet goes on to quote from the Wedge Document, alleging that the Discovery Institute’s stated goal is nothing less than “to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.” It further notes that “Its goals are to see ID theory as the dominant perspective in science, and to see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life.”
This is somewhat rich coming from the Humanist Society Scotland, the website of whom is saturated with atheistic and anti-religious material. There’s nothing wrong with being critical of Christian theism, or even ID. But to claim that the motivations of a movement which propagates a theory disprove the said proposition is simply predicated on a fallacy – and also cuts both ways. ID – and indeed Darwinism – must stand or fall on the basis of its scientific merits – not on the basis of the religious views of its proponents.
“What is the Centre for Intelligent Design?”
The last section also argues from guilt-by-association, pointing out that the C4ID’s president, Norman Nevin, is openly a young-earth creationist. I am personally not a young-earth creationist. But ID is not chiefly concerned with the age of the earth. It is more primarily concerned with the detectability of the products of design. The ID community encompasses individuals with religious faith and those with none – from young-earth creationists (such as Nelson, Nevin and Woodward) to those who go so far as to accept common ancestry (such as Behe).
“10 + 1 Questions for Professor Behe”
The humanists also distributed an A4 page headed, 10 + 1 Questions for Professor Behe. Most of the issues raised have already been addressed here. One point which is worth responding to, however, is the quotation from Behe’s witness at Dover. Question 6 asks “Does Behe still concede, as he did under oath in 2005 that ‘there are no peer reviewed articles by anyone advocating for intelligent design supported by pertinent experiments or calculations which provide detailed rigorous accounts of how intelligent design of any biological system occurred?’ If not, why not?”
An assertion that there are no peer-reviewed papers arguing, or claiming to document, how the design took place (that is, was implemented) is not to say that there are no peer-reviewed papers arguing either against Darwinism or supporting ID. A theory of design detection is quite different from a theory of design implementation. However, five years after Dover, this statement is no longer correct. Some models have been proposed with regards the mechanism of ID (see, for example, Michael Sherman’s 2007 paper in the journal, Cell Cycle).
In conclusion, I have to confess to a certain degree of surprise that the arguments were so weak. Given Richard Dawkins’ mantra that anyone who claims not to believe in evolution is ignorant, stupid or insane, one would expect some really quite strong evidence to be offered in support of the said proposition. However, when pressed on what this evidence actually is, it is always a tremendous anti-climax. When one looks at the desparate measures to which the humanists are made to resort, one may have a heightened confidence in the strength of the arguments put forward by the ID community.
Darwinism is in BIG trouble.