Sunday, October 14, 2012

Jerry Coyne's critique of Behe, revisited

Has it been five years, already, since Michael Behe's The Edge of Evolution came out?  Someone quoted a more recent article by Jerry Coyne yesterday about how science and religion are fundamentally at odds.  I happen to be reading a soon-to-be published manuscript right now, kindly sent me by an eminent historian of science, showing how Christianity (and Greek theism, before that) actually encouraged the birth and growth of science.  So even if Behe's book is no longer new, this general topic seems perennial. 

Coyne is cited as writing:

It is in our personal and professional interest to proclaim that science and religion are perfectly harmonious. After all, we want our grants funded by the government, and our schoolchildren exposed to real science instead of creationism. Liberal religious people have been important allies in our struggle against creationism, and it is not pleasant to alienate them by declaring how we feel. This is why, as a tactical matter, groups such as the National Academy of Sciences claim that religion and science do not conflict. But their main evidence--the existence of religious scientists--is wearing thin as scientists grow ever more vociferous about their lack of faith. Now Darwin Year is upon us, and we can expect more books like those by Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson. Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works.

This is like the lawyer of a gold-digging bimbo married to a software billionaire claiming that it is in his "personal and professional interest" to reconcile the happy couple.  Right, Jerry.  Having interacted (briefly) with you on your blog (motto: "Free of religious badthink for 1004 days!"), I have a different idea of where your heart is, and what your motivations are, and harmonizing science and religion, or treating religious believers as anything better than pond scum, don't seem to be high on your priority list.  Nor is my experience unique.

Anyway, this reminds me of Coyne's review of Michael Behe's The Edge of Evolution, also in The New Republic.  I thought I'd reproduce my review of his review (originally posted to begin a thread on Amazon) here, so we can keep it real about motives.  The scientific issues are also interesting, I think. 

Jerry Coyne, "The Great Mutator," review of The Edge of Evolution in The New Republic, June 18, 2007

(1) Coyne began by discussing how Behe's department at Lehigh disclaims ID, and how the faculty are "unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory." Coyne added, "To my knowledge, such a statement is unique. Biology departments do not customarily assert publicly that they support a theory known for more than a century to be true." For example, chemistry departments don't say, "we are unequivocal in our support of atoms."

There's a bit of confusion here, either on the part of the department, Coyne, or both. What Behe challenges, as he makes clear, is the hypothesis that biological systems arose exclusively by undirected mechanisms, in particular by chance mutations. (Chance in the sense of unplanned.) The mechanism by which new variation arises in biology has NOT been known for over a century. It follows that challenges to that mechanism could not have been known to be false. Crick and Watson discovered the shape and function of DNA in 1953. That was the true beginning of the study of how new genetic material arises. In the broader sense (common descent and change over time), Behe DOES believe in evolution, as he makes clear here.

And obviously, the alleged fact that intelligent agents have never interferred in the course of evolution (a universal negative, which no one can even possibly know to be true) is not as easily demonstrated as that atoms exist.  So Coyne is engaged in massive hubris, in comparing the alleged falsity of ID, to the existence of atoms.

(2) "In the scientific community a failure to understand something does not automatically count as evidence for divine creation."

 I don't think Behe ever says it does, in Darwin's Black Box, on two counts. First, his argument is explicitly based not on a lack of understanding, but what we do understand - the characteristics of designed artifacts. Second, he doesn't assume (as a scientist) that ID necessarily requires "divine" action. An intelligent agent need not be a divine agent.  So this, too, is a bit of a straw man.

(3) "More damaging than the scientific criticisms of Behe's work was the review that he got in 2005 from Judge John E. Jones III."

This is an extraordinary critique from a scientist. 

Coyne's previous paragraph was about the scientific reception DBB received. Behe rightly found it odd that Coyne seems to say a judge's arguments are "more damaging" than those of scientific critics. To be fair, Coyne may have only meant that Judge Jones' ruling had a greater political or PR impact. But in fact, he dedicated twice as much space to Judge Jones than to his scientific colleagues. This is a truly bizarre argument from a scientist: it would be as if Alvin Plantinga, when contradicted by Stephen Law on a point of philosophy, appealed to Judge Judy or Judge Roy Bean to settle the issue.

(4) Coyne also fails to acknowledge that most of Jones' ruling was actually copied from lawyers on the anti-ID side. "Jones's 139 page verdict for the plaintiffs was eloquent, strong, and unequivocal, especially coming from a churchgoing Republican." Only most of it didn't come from him. Very little, in fact. 

(5) Coyne further writes of Behe's "fatal assertion that the plausibility of the argument for ID depends upon the extent to which one believes in the existence of God."

This seems philosophically naïve to me. In every argument, a person's willingness to admit a given conclusion depends not only on the evidence given for or against a proposition, but also the "background knowledge" she brings to court. This is why it matters which jurors you pick: black or white, male or female, educated or uneducated, where they grew up, how they see the world. 

The same is obviously true of the origins debate, but not necessarily in a way that is more "fatal" to Behe's position than to Coyne's. It may be that believers have more freedom to consider options that are closed to atheists, for example. A believer may consider it possible that God created through evolution, by intervening in the evolutionary process, directly, 6000 years ago, or through a series of archons and demiurges. One is free to consider the scientific evidence for each proposition without ruling it out from the get-go. A non-believer may be more constrained. He may feel FORCED to assume the strictest Darwinism, regardless of the evidence. This, I suppose, was probably Behe's point. If so, pointing this out is in no way "fatal" to ID in the way Coyne suggests - it might actually mean, "We theists have the freedom to consider more possibilities objectively."

(6)  It's rather pathetic, really. Basically, (Behe) now admits that almost the entire edifice of evolutionary theory is true: evolution, natural selection, common ancestry.

 But as Behe points out, he "admitted" this at least as early as Darwin's Black Box. This is a serious error for a reviewer to make.

(7)  His one novel claim is that the genetic variation that fuels natural selection - mutation - is produced not by random changes in DNA, as evolutionists maintain, but by an Intelligent Designer. That is, he sees God as the Great Mutator.  

This does not strike me as so trivial as it does Coyne. The claim is that nature cannot produce new biological structure on her own. In other words, Darwin did not succeed in explaining how microbes turned into monkeys, manatees, mollusks, and man, and neither has anyone since. "The explanation of seeming design by solely materialistic processes was Darwin's greatest achievement," says Coyne.  If that is so, it is not so trivial, then, to claim (as Behe does) that Darwin's explanation fails.

(8) Coyne offers a helpful explanation of what biologists mean by "random" when it comes to "random mutations." He then reprises the evolution of malaria, largely as Behe describes it. After a very long discussion of these two points, he notes that Behe describes the changes accomplished by malaria and HIV as "chaotic and tangled," which do not tend to construct any complex new mechanisms.  In Behe's view, naturalistic evolution is merely a sort of "trench warfare" in which progress without outside intervention can only be very limited. 

Coyne responds:

In the light of evolutionary theory, these conclusions are truly bizarre. No sane evolutionist has ever claimed that an adaptation of a parasite to a host will produce complex biochemical chances. Evolutionary theory predicts only that parasites will adapt, not how they will adapt . . . What does Behe expect? A red blood cell with hands to throttle the parasite? A malaria parasite with a cunning brain to outwit the sickle cell protein? HIV and malaria are doing pretty well at reproducing themselves . . . in their present environments. That is all evolution can do.

Now that truly is a surprising claim. Evolution is supposed to allow dispersion into new environments and novel adaptions to those environments. And that's one of Behe's arguments. In simple cases, he thinks evolution, on its own, DOES explain dispersion. But why hasn't malaria adapted to spread in cooler environments? The point is that where adaption involves much complexity, even fairly simple roadblocks serve to thwart even an astronomically large number of reproductive events from working around roadblocks.

Coyne argues long and hard in response to Behe's argument from the history of pathogens, but he doesn't really even try to show how that history supports the claim that complex biological mechanisms arise naturally. Maybe they do, but he doesn't show that. He points out that organisms like the tape worm have evolved by losing complex organs. All right, fine, but that doesn't address the questions Behe is asking, about how evolution could have produced complex organs and functions among living creatures. 

(9) In regard to the bacteria flagellum:

Behe's claim that no intermediate stages could have existed was refuted. Ken Miller . . . showed how flagella and cilia could have their precursors in mechanisms that the cell uses to transport proteins . . .

Miller's argument, quoted by many of Behe's critics, may carry some weight as a possible answer to the question, "How could such contraptions evolve?"   I asked Behe about that specifically, and was not entirely satisfied with his answer.  At the same time, I don't think Miller's response refuted Behe's argument as he actually gave it.   Behe's argument seems to have been (it's been several years since I've read the book as a whole, but Behe offers quotes to back his version up) NOT that no possible intermediate could exist, but that no intermediate version of an IC mechanism could exist.   In other words, some smaller subunit could always serve some sort of function somewhere, if nothing else, as a paper weight. But lose one part of a whole IC machine, and the machine no longer serves its present purpose.  (Of course you can make paper weights from anything with much concentrated mass.)

Again, my point here isn't that the TTSS might not have served as a "precursor," nor that it could not possibly serve as a partial answer to the challenge Behe issued in DBB. (Questions I haven't resolved for myself yet.) My point is that scientists like Coyne seem too easily satisfied, standing up and doing the "Wave" when Miller shouts, rather than asking incisive and skeptical questions of their own theory.  Also, he misrepresents Behe's original argument in the process - or at least is not very fair to it.   

(10)  Judge Jones . . . ruled that there was no convincing evidence that evolution could not have produced (the cilia). 

An almost surreal critique, from a respected biologist. Are law courts the proper forum for establishing scientific certainty?  And judges who borrow 90% of their conclusions verbatin from the side they favor, are the final word for establishing facts in biology? 

(11)  In his new book, however, Behe simply ignores his critics, repeating his bankrupt claim that there is `no Darwinian explanation for the step-by-step origin of the cilium.

In all this long article, though, Coyne never claims that there is a "Darwinian explanation for the step-by-step origin of the cilia," or point to where one can be found. Saying that Miller thinks he has found one single "precursor" is a long, long ways from answering the challenge I fairly distinctly remember Behe issuing in DBB- like pointing to a single stone in the Sea of Galilee, and saying "that's how Jesus walked across." Miller gave only the beginning of an explanation, at best. 

(12)  The way to understand the evolution of cilia is to get to work in the laboratory, not to throw up our hands and cry `design.' 

Coyne is begging the question, which is whether in fact the cilia evolved or was designed.

(13)  Behe's bizarre and unrealistic assumption that for a protein-protein interaction to evolve, all mutations must occur simultaneously, because the step-by-step path is not adaptive. Yet Behe furnishes no proof, no convincing argument, that interactions cannot evolve gradually. 

I agree this is probably a weakness of this part of Behe's argument.

(14)  To get an idea of the power of truly random mutations coupled with selection, we need only look at the successes of animal and plant breeders over the past few centuries . .. they have turned the wolf into breeds as diverse as the greyhound, the dachshund, and the Chihuahua, and the wild mustard into cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts . . . Since human beings cannot produce miracle mutations, we are limited to selecting whichever ones arise - that is, random ones . . . a severe rebuke to Behe's view that evolution cannot work unless God helps it along . . .

This response simply does not come to grips with Behe's argument. Again, as I pointed out in reply to Dawkins, there is no attempt here to describe any new helpful mechanisms that mutations have coughed up, or even point to any specific mutations at all. Again, Behe admits that species can evolve. (And dogs, after all, can breed with wolves, so they are not all that far separated.) And again, it is questionable whether any kind of dog, especially those most "evolved," could compete with wolves, coyotes, and foxes in a natural environment. If mankind disappeared today from the face of the earth, in ten thousand years, would visitors from outer space even find a genetic trace of canis familiarus in surviving strains of wolves? Coyne needs to show much more at this point if he wants to appeal to the evolution of dogs as an argument against Behe's argument.

(15)  ID is deeply unscientific in its assertion that certain aspects of evolution . . . required supernatural intervention.

Again, that is NOT Behe's position. He argues that life requires "intelligent design," and that SCIENCE cannot identify the designer - whether supernatural or superhuman, but still natural. (As, by the way, Michael Shermer also suggests.) Second, there is nothing "deeply unscientific" about recognizing limits to science. If archeologists determine that a stone was molded by an intelligent agent, rather than by nature, that is hardly a betrayal of science.

The assumption that science must be able to explain everything, is itself not a scientific but a philosophical assumption, and therefore contradicts itself.  It is bad philosophy, not good science. 

(16)  The first problem is that Behe's `scientific' ideas are offered to the public in a trade book . .. In fact, Behe has never published a paper supporting intelligent design in any scientific journal . . .

Now that it has been established that an editor can lose his job for publishing such a paper, he probably never will.

But this is not a genuine problem.  Coyne is committing a form of the generic fallacy. 

(17)  Behe's ideas would never pass muster among scientists, despite the fact that anybody who really could disprove Darwinism would win great renown. 

The more I read attacks from fellow biologists on Behe, of which I have read many that start at "vitriolic" and trend down from there, and on anyone who offers even the faintest support for Behe, the more I doubt the willingness of most biologists to entertain such a disproof. (Whether because they share that anger, or are intimidated by it.)  Sociologist of religion Rodney Stark said of his "experience that nothing causes greater panic among many of my colleagues than any criticism of evolution." (Glory of God, 176)  It has become clear to me, too, that some evolutionary biologists will never tolerate dissent on this subject, no matter what the facts may be, and will go to extremes to suppress it.

All of which proves nothing either way about the intellectual status of the theory or of critical arguments against it, but it makes me cautious about the argument to scientific consensus in this case.

(18)  If the goal was perfection, why are some features of life (such as our appendix or prostrate gland) palpably imperfect? 

This is a theological question, and perhaps the strongest objection to ID. Of course ID proponents question the assumption - we must be cautious about saying precisely what the goal of creation might be. In effect, ID proponents beg off on the theology, and ask us to stick to the science. An interesting role reversal. But I agree Coyne is offering a strong objection here. This is a special class of problems in theodicy, which has always been the hardest philosophical question for theists to answer, often even to their own satisfaction.

(19)  It is disingenuous of IDers to pretend that the Great Designer is unknown. ID has deep roots in fundamentalist Christianity, and its advocates are not fooling anyone.

In fact, the biologist whose book Coyne is reviewing is a Catholic, who was taught evolution in the parochial school he attended. He entertained doubts about evolution after reading a book by geneticist and (apparently) agnostic Michael Denton. This seems to be little more than a conventional appeal to the fear of fundamentalism, or fear of being spotted on the "wrong team." 

(20)  Science long ago dispensed with the notion of a scala natura: a progressive ladder of life with humans at the top. 

This is confused. If we talk about value and meaning, then of course that is a philosophical, moral, or religious question, not a scientific one.  Fortunately most scientists are well-rounded and human enough to recognize that in fact, some organisms are more significant than others. (At least after office hours.) If we're talking about complexity or intelligence, then even science must recognize a scale in nature. But Coyne seems to be artificially narrowing the subject to the criterion of adaptability, or how long a species has evolved.

So what scientific reason can there be for singling out just one species as the Designer's goal? How do we know that the goal was not butterflies or sunflowers?

When scientists ask such stupid questions, I despair of common sense in the academy. If science cannot tell us that people are more significant than sunflowers, that only goes to show the limits of science, not that Pascal and petunias are morally equivalent. A scientist with no theology ought at least to supplement his intellectual diet with a little philosophy, or the common sense God gave a gopher. 

(21)  But questions about the goals, the powers, the limitations of the Designer are precisely what must be answered if ID is to become scientific. 

On the contrary, questions about purpose lie outside the realm of science, as generally understood. If you want to know WHY a person does something, you have to get to know that person. If he is smarter than you, you may never fully understand his motives. If he is God, then you certainly won't ever fully understand. Again, this fact describes the limits of science, but does not make the problem of determining when and if an object displays design inherently unscientific.

(22)  Behe waffles when confronted with the testability problem of ID . . . He then waffles even more when implying that ID does not even need to be testable . . . Intelligent design . . . makes no predictions. It is infinitely malleable in the face of counterevidence, cannot be refuted, and is therefore not science.

Whatever Coyne may say about ID in general, it is certainly true that in this book, Behe makes very bold predictions. If he is right, no protein-to-protein interaction will ever be observed to evolve by normal mutational pathways in the lab. No complex cellular mechanism will be observed to evolve. And in fact, other critics (like Carroll and Levin) point to such predictions with delight, and claim not that Behe's arguments are not falsifiable, but that they can easily be proven false.

Something that can be proven false, is falsifiable. One or the other of these claims needs to go. The attempt to claim both that ID is unfalsifiable, and that it makes claims that have been proven false, at the same time, should make us wonder about the objectivity of the critics.

One thing is certain: Behe is not being overly cautious in Edge of Evolution: he makes very bold predictions.

(23)  Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.

One wonders, then, at the confidence some critics display in the fact that no biological event in the history of Planet Earth can possibly have been touched by divine hands. What begets that colossal and sweeping confidence in an assertion they themselves admit is unfalsifiable?  Could their own great confidence itself be the product of that ignorance, as Coyne's aphorism implies? 

All in all, Coyne's long review makes some interesting points, and does (I think) succeed in challenging Behe in spots. There are some issues here that Behe and his colleagues need to address, I think. It seems to me the review suffers, though, from over-confidence, too much dependence on sometimes dubious philosophy and theology, and at times, a lack of seriousness. I don't think Coyne really addresses the heart of Behe's argument. In effect, he concedes that the pathogens Behe discusses haven't made much progress, in all that time; but attempts to "explain the facts away." But again: if these pathogens couldn't or wouldn't develop complex new mechanisms in 10 to the 20th tries, (and Behe points out that some cellular mechanisms do mechanically destroy dangerous intruders, the joke about little hands to the side), how have mammals (for example) developed blowholes and bladders, brains and bipedalism, wings and wigwams, in exponentially fewer tries? Behe asks what seems to me an honest question, which still waits (at least in view of critical reviews I have read so far) for a truly effective answer.

Postscript: For some reason, this post is getting hundreds of views, but so far no comments.  If you're one of its anonymous readers, feel free to open the conversation: others are likely to see what you have to say. 

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