Behe fail science? That’s un-possible

5 06 2007

The early reviews/take-downs of Behe’s new book The Edge of Evolution are starting to come out, and it’s not looking good for the Lehigh professor. Blake Stacey has compiled the various pre- and post- release thoughts on the book (and make sure you check out one of the more humorous lolBehe pictures, too), and PZ has started to dig into the mess that is ID’s “latest and greatest.” I haven’t read it yet, and I’m sure the science blogging community will do a more-than-admirable job in refuting Behe’s assertions, but one of the excerpts PZ posted definitely made me do a double-take. Quoting Behe (via Pharyngula);

A torrent of pain undeniably swirls through the world—not only the world of humans, but the world of sentient animal life as well. Yet, just as undeniably, much that is good graces nature. Many children die, yet many others thrive. Some people languish, but others savor full lives. Does one outweigh the other? If so, which outweighs which? Or are pleasure and pain, good and evil, incommensurable? Are viruses and parasites part of some brilliant, as-yet-unappreciated economy of nature, or do they reflect the bungling of an incompetent, fallible designer?


Whether on balance one thinks life was a worthwhile project or not—whether the designer of life was a dop, a demon, or a deity—that’s a topic on which opinions over the millennia have differed considerably. Each argument has some merit. Of the many possible opinions, only one is really indefensible, the one held by Darwin. In a letter to Asa Gray, he wrote: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living body of caterpillars.”

Wasp larvae feeding on paralyzed caterpillars is certainly a disquieting image, to say nothing of malaria feeding on children. So did Darwin conclude that the designer was not beneficent? Maybe not omnipotent? No. He decided—based on squeamishness—that no designer existed. Because it is horrific, it was not designed—a better example of the fallacy of non sequitur would be hard to find. Revulsion is not a scientific argument.

I wonder if Behe failed reading comprehension, because he clearly misunderstands what Darwin was confiding in Gray. In fact, Darwin’s statement above (that the existence of such horrific natural behaviors like wasps using a caterpillar as a host to raise their own young [reminds me of the ALIEN series]) seems to fit in to Behe’s argument; the pain, suffering, and other horrors of this world appear to rule out the traditional, beneficent, caring God that would intervene in every aspect of life. Instead, Behe is so frustrated by Darwin that he digs into a personal letter in an attempt to discredit the science of evolution altogether, wrongly implying (as is par for the course for creationists) that if Darwin was wrong about anything then all “Darwinists” are in turn wrong and ID is therefore correct. Sounds more like a polemic than a scientific argument, doesn’t it?

From what I can tell so far Behe doesn’t answer any questions about the Designer (=God, in case you haven’t been paying attention), instead asserting that malaria was designed to cause human suffering without considering the implications of this. Obviously, being a Catholic, he thinks he knows who the designer is, so why not just say it and be honest? Isn’t Behe, in fact, going against his own beliefs by being afraid to say he believes God designed the world? In Mark 8:38, Jesus states (The Message translation);

“If any of you are embarrassed over me and the way I’m leading you when you get around your fickle and unfocused friends, know that you’ll be an even greater embarrassment to the Son of Man when he arrives in all the splendor of God, his Father, with an army of the holy angels.”

I also find it interesting that Behe finds himself in an intellectual cul de sac and makes no attempt to find his way out of it. Paley, who laid the groundwork for modern intelligent design in Natural Theology, saw nature as primarily beneficent; we are able to feel pleasure when God could have made everything painful, therefore nature exists for our benefit and things are well. From the excerpts above, Behe seems to realize that all is not well and there is plenty of pain and suffering in the world. Because of his philosophical allegiances, he can’t rely on actual observation and science nor can he throw a bone to the creationists and say it’s all a result of the Fall, so instead he implies that the designer may be a demon or somehow evil, while we know Behe doesn’t personally believe this (unless he’s converted to worshiping Satan, Cthulhu, or a pagan deity). We also know that Behe couldn’t have just forgotten to mention anything because the shadow-games ID advocates play with the identity of the designer has been one of the primary criticisms of the camp for years, so we can only conclude that Behe simply ignores the contradiction or philosophical problem hoping that those who would tend to agree with him will be so dazzled by the rest of the book they won’t think about it. Behe’s book appears to be written for those who would already be inclined to agree, giving them more support, than doing anything interesting or revolutionary; if he had really intended to make an impact he would have listened to past criticisms and done something about it.

When I’ll read Behe’s new book, I don’t know. Just like anyone else who has done a review so far, I don’t really want to; I would much rather read over the theological/philosophical backflips of Gideon Mantell or William Paley because they were at least being honest about their beliefs, however wrong those beliefs might have turned out to be. Not so for the Discovery Institute crowd, and I’m sure if they got their way and ID became the predominant field of “science” in America, the curtain would be drawn back and God would be revealed to be the Designer behind it all. Fortunately for me, I already know the ending and don’t have any problem spoiling it for everyone else; why keep everyone in suspense when the cheesy plot and half-baked dialog aren’t that impressive to begin with?



6 responses

5 06 2007
Science After Sunclipse

Chu-Carroll on Behe’s The Edge of Evolution

Dear Gentle Readers: At the bottom of this essay, I’m collecting links to reviews of Behe’s book The Edge of Evolution, replies to reviews and so forth.
Well, now the burden is off me, and I can devote my book-reviewing time to good books,…

5 06 2007
Chris Harrison

Ah shucks.
I was half way through a post about this, but you’ve seem to already have covered just about everything I was planning to.

Damn you Brian, you early bird!

5 06 2007

Sorry Chris; I couldn’t keep my trap shut after I saw what Behe wrote. If I managed to post a half-assed attempt taking him down, imagine what someone using their whole ass could do. You’re definitely more well-versed in the micro-bio area than I am, so I would definitely be interesting on your take on the subject too. To tell you the truth, I’m surprised anyone considered my take on Behe’s book of value when so many heavy-hitters are already coming out against it.

5 06 2007
Chris Harrison

I haven’t read his book yet, and I’m not sure if I want to contribute to his income by buying the thing. The reviews I’ve read so far tell me it probably won’t be worth it. I’m glad people are reviewing it though, and now I just hope someone like Chu-Carroll posts his critique on the more trafficked places, like

Have you read Matzke’s bit on PT about the book and cilium evolution yet? It’s very humorous.

5 06 2007

I agree Chris; I don’t want to add to the Disco Institute’s or Behe’s funds, and I almost want to see if someone will send me/loan me a copy in an attempt to “convert” me to ID (it happened with so many other books). I’m not too optimistic about the best reviews getting to, though; almost any book can get a 5 star rating if people want it to, no matter how bad it is. Most creationist books I’ve seen, no matter how baseless, get at least a 4, and I doubt Behe’s will be an exception.

I did have a brief look at Matzke’s post; I just finished Jurassic Park today and started Heilmann’s The Origin of Birds so I haven’t devoted as much time to reading blogs as I did to writing. What I did see was great, however, and I’m sure there will be plenty of posts in the near future taking down Behe’s bad math, science, theology, and philosophy.

1 08 2007
Eugenics, re-framed « Laelaps

[…] anticipated book of this past summer (other than the conclusion of the Harry Potter series) was Michael Behe’s Edge of Evolution, which was universally panned by reputable scientists and didn’t seem to make much of a […]

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