Sunday, October 07, 2012

Behe: The Edge of Evolution (1.5th most popular review)

Mathematical purists may object.  But my list of "top ten" most popular Amazon reviews will actually include more than ten items, as will my list of ten least popular reviews.  "What are they teaching them in school, these days?"

And so as suspense grows, numbers shrink, and I resort to fractions to keep readers from knowing not only what the top book will be, but even how long before we reach it.  Think of our dilemma like that of an astronaut approaching the "event horizon" of a black hole, and never able to quite reach it.  But in this case, rest assurred, we will some day arrive, the number of books in the world being limitted, as St. John implicitly recognized. 

Anyway, I skip over the book that actually received the next greatest number of votes -- Elaine Pagel's Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of John, with 176 votes, for at least three reasons: (1) I maxed out on scathing in my last review: I would like to retain the illusion, at least, of being basically a nice guy. (Pagels earns a somewhat more favorable review, overall, but I come down pretty hard on her in places). (2)  There really should be a limit to how many items a "top ten" list contains. (3) Two frequent visitors here, Crude and Rudy, have been talking about Michael Behe on random threads about Lao Zi and Chris Hedges.  That conversation seems to have fizzled amicably, but we probably should maintain a dedicated thread here, if ever they or anyone else decides to take it up, again. 

Michael Behe, The Edge of Evolution 196 + /  61 - 

(****) "Read it with an Open Mind"

Just as a massive star bends light, so emotion warps thought when we approach the question of origins. An eminent professor who takes the wrong position on this subject can lose tenure. A less eminent researcher may lose his job. Depite his forty-some peer-reviewed articles and a tenured faculty position, and the careful, measured tone in which he writes, Michael Behe will be called an "ID-iot," his honesty disputed, and anyone who agrees with him dismissed as an ignorant, red-neck hick who can barely muster the cognitive powers of a good high school student.

In such an environment (and if you doubt my appraisal, read some of the reviews on Amazon), it takes conscious intent to ignore manipulative appeals to the "argument from sociology" and attend to substance.

For the record, Behe is not an "ID-iot." He is a sharp and thoughtful biologist who doesn't think evolution can work on its own. In this book he argues for common descent, but also argues that naturalistic evolution is limitted. He thinks the mechanisms proffered for powering the massive creativity and innovation in nature could not come from mutations alone.

His primary tool for advancing this argument is the evolution of the malaria bug, and of human immune defenses against it, over the past several thousand years. Behe shows that while microbes can and do evolve resistances to medicine, they generally do so by breaking down in some way, as does the human body. Touching briefly on the evolution of e coli and HIV, then on other critters, he makes the case that bugs that evolve rapidly, and within enormous biological communities, mark the limits to naturalistic evolution. The mathematical arguments he brings in to explain and support his more theoretical argument against the power of mutations, which some reviewers take issue with, are not his main line of persuasion, nor, I admit, do they seem fully persuasive as developed here.

This book is not about Irreducible Complexity (IC). Behe defends the concept, and his examples of it, briefly, but that is not the main line of discussion, critics to the contrary. He's offered a lengthier defense of IC elsewhere. (While I've read some of his Dover testimony, and some of the summary given in a critic's book, and agree he could have done better at some points, I think carefully considered written articles provide a better forum for ideas than courtroom drama. As someone who has been known to stutter himself in interviews, I'm not inclined to judge a person's intelligence or argument on how well he holds up against hours of verbal examination by a well-prepared and clever attorney. In Debating Design, he seems to me to do well vs. Kenneth Miller and his famous Type III Secretory System.) But here Behe comes at the question from below, rather from above, looking at the known history of recent evolution among well-studied microorganisms. The book is, therefore, a good compliment to Darwin's Black Box.

Read it, and the discussion that will follow (both sides), and make up your own mind. Don't let the raw emotions so in evidence sway you. Behe is right or he is wrong, but he is not a fool. For me, the primary issue remains the frequency and character of beneficial and creative mutations. Looking into the question a bit myself recently, I found a pattern very like what Behe describes. Ironically, it seems to me the best argument against the position Behe stakes out here that I have seen so far is theological. Why would God create the malaria bug? I asked him that question in an interview: as a scientist, he seemed uncomfortable answering such questions, but they are as relevant as the science. I am still not satisfied that anyone really has the history of life pegged.

1 comment:

Crude said...

Hey, this is an unexpected twist. And here I felt bad for being off-topic in the last thread.

What I admired about Behe re: malaria was that he flat out said that by his measure, malaria was designed (if I recall right), and made it clear what the implications of that was.