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Oh, Behe-ave!

The Behe-ast awakens. A Behe-moth of the Intelligent Design movement. Beep Behe-ep – move over, Darwin! You’re nothing more than an old has-Behe-en. And so on.

As you no doubt already know, Glasgow has recently become the victim of a new and particularly unpleasant infestation – creationism. I say ‘new’, but the positions of the group in question, the ‘Centre for Intelligent Design’, appear to be almost entirely based on worn-out arguments dragged from the dog-eared pages of Intelligent Design books of yore, like William Dembski’s ‘No Free Lunch’ and Michael Behe’s ‘Darwin’s Black Box’.

Which brings me back to that delightfully punnably-named Intelligent Design celeb, Prof. Michael Behe. He’s coming to Glasgow! And he’s giving a talk on ‘what the science really says’ about evolution. So he must be going to say ‘evolution is a scientific fact, the basic mechanisms of which are not doubted by any non-perverse human being’, right? Right? Oh.

ID websites often use pictures of DNA to make their bullshit look more scientific. In that tradition, here's a picture of DNA.

The website of the new centre can be found at http://www.c4id.org.uk. What a quaint little web address! ’4′ instead of ‘for’ – I see what you did there! Down with the kids, keeping it ‘real’, I see. Real like Intelligent Design. Real like Jesus. Real like your ultraconservative theotwattic agenda. Incidentally, I know quite a few people who’d just love to C4 Intelligent Design (metaphorically, of course. Let’s try and avoid a repeat of the Twitter Joke Trial, shall we?).

Anyway. Let’s explore the Centre ’4′ Intelligent design in a bit more detail. In a series of short, boneheaded articles, the Director of the Centre, Alistair Noble, sets out the main claims of Intelligent Design. Now, in this blog article, I wanted to get into the real science of Intelligent Design. I wanted to look at the data they’re providing for their unconventional (to say the least) position. But as I read through the articles, no such evidence was forthcoming. It’s not like they don’t realise this themselves – article #11, ‘ID is Science’, makes some desperate, pathetic excuses for the lack of data forthcoming from ID supporters:

A further objection to the scientific status of ID is that its theorists do not undertake research and publish in the peer-reviewed literature. In fact, this is quite false. The work of, for example, William Dembski on the design hypothesis and Steven Meyer on the Cambrian fossil record are some of a dozen or so papers and articles on research which point to ID and which are in the current scientific literature. And further work is being done in a number of laboratories around the world.

Wow, really?! They’ve actually provided new data which supports an ID hypothesis?! Er, nope. The papers are largely theoretical, or attempts at reinterpreting small, insignificant parts of the literature. Also, in several of the (really pathetic number of) papers, the word ‘design’ isn’t even mentioned. You can find information on (and links to rebuttals of) these papers here.

ID is essentially an interpretation of the data that already exists. There is not much point in gathering more information if you already have enough on which to base your hypothesis.

Wait… so, wait. You’re telling me all the published studies which support the theory of evolution are in actual fact evidence against the theory? Sure, it’s a common thing for scientists to reinterpret the data of others in the light of an alternative theory, but instead of this…

Theory 1 is wrong, for the following reasons, which I’ll set out in my peer-reviewed article. Theory 2 fits the data better, for the following reasons, set out in my peer-reviewed article. Theory 2 may even be slightly amended in the light of the new data, but it still fits the data better than Theory 1.

…which is the usual way, we get this…

Theory 1 is wrong, for the following dodgy reasons which I’ve pulled out of my arse. Since Theory 1 is wrong, Theory 2 must be right. What? You want reasons? Oh. Well… isn’t it obvious? Theory 2 ‘just feels right’.

…which is bollocks. The rest of the claims in the series of articles have been dealt with so many times it doesn’t even bear repeating (though I will rebut them at length on request, in the pub, if given enough Red Bull, and my good friends over at The 21st Floor do a splendid job here). This is perhaps the most shameful thing about the C4ID – there’s nothing new brought to the table. At least the Intelligent Design movement in the US brought us some new, if ludicrous, terms like ‘irreducible complexity’ and ‘specified complexity’ and ‘Casey Luskin’. Flogging a dead horse is bad enough, but given that the horse is one of the paradigm examples of evolution in the fossil record, the C4ID’s mumblings seem tragically ironic.

Now, it isn’t just the big guns like Behe who side with the C4ID. On their FAQ page, they list some ‘established scholars in the scientific community’ who support Intelligent Design. Before we look at it, let’s just think about what ‘established scholars in the scientific community’ might mean. Surely that statement implies a group of scientists who currently publish peer-reviewed papers on some relevant subject? Yes indeed, and don’t call me Shirley. Look – I made a helpful table of all the associated names from the UK:

Name What do they do? Have they published any relevant research?
Norman Nevin Retired Professor of Medical Genetics, Queen’s Uni. (President of C4ID) No. Plenty on genetic disorders, none on evolution
David Galloway Consultant Surgeon in General and Colorectal Surgery, Gartnavel Hospital, Glasgow
(Vice-President of C4ID)
No. Not a scientist
Alistair Noble ??? (Director of C4ID) No. Not a scientist
Andy McIntosh Professor of Thermodynamics and Combustion Theory, Uni. Of Leeds No. Plenty on combustion theory, none on evolution
Stuart Burgess Professor of Engineering Design, Uni. Of Bristol No. Not a scientist (plenty of engineering, though)
Geoff Barnard Senior Research Scientist, Cambridge Veterinary School No. Plenty on mad cow disease and vaginal pH levels, none on evolution
Derek Linkens Retired Professor, Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering, Uni. Of Sheffield No. Plenty on artificial intelligence, none on evolution
Steve Taylor Reader in Physical Electronics, Uni. Of Liverpool No. Plenty on mass spectrometry, none on evolution
Russell Healy ??? (possibly a maths teacher) No. Not a scientist
Arthur Jones Chair of the Association of Christian Teachers No. Not a scientist

Not a single biologist. Not one! We find ourselves, then, in the absurd situation of being asked to accept the word of a motley collection of engineers, medical doctors, and non-scientists on a subject they have no authority on whatsoever. How likely do you think it is that these guys (and it’s always guys, isn’t it? Creationism is a proper sausage-fest) have noticed something that 150 years’ worth of specialist biologists haven’t? And it’s worth reiterating that none of these people have published any peer-reviewed scientific papers in proper journals providing evidence against the theory of evolution.

On the one hand it’s pathetic, but on the other, I feel a certain irriation. Just who do these people think they are? What right have they to tell us the fundamental theory of biology is incorrect? I wouldn’t dare wander into, say, an architecture class and tell them triangles are in fact not the strongest shape, nor would I pop into the Informatics department of my university to tell them silicon can’t carry a charge.

One last worrying thing about these individuals – while Intelligent Design is generally seen as milder and less anti-evidence than full-blown Young Earth Creationism, the vast majority of the people in the above list are… full-blown Young Earth Creationists (just google their names to find their pages on the Answers in Genesis website, for instance). While the website claims that they’re not necessarily 100% opposed to evolution, and there’s no mention of Jesus or Genesis or Adam & Eve or Original Sin or Yahweh or Noah’s Ark, I suspect they’re being disingenuous.

So, given this rather sad showing, one can see why they have to rely on that more famous species, the American Intelligent Design Proponent. Cited are names such as Michael Denton (who has recanted his anti-evolution views and now accepts the science), Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini and Jerry Fodor (who state at the start of their Darwin-criticising book that they accept common descent and that they are ‘outright, card-carrying, signed-up, dyed-in-the-wool, no-holds-barred atheists’), and of course Michael Behe, the sole, sad, biologist in the bunch, whose own Biology Department put a special disclaimer on their website, stating:

While we respect Prof. Behe’s right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.

Heartrending, isn’t it? He can’t even convince the people in his own lab. The likelihood of his having stunning, knockdown proof of Intelligent Design is looking rather tiny.

What can be said of our new Scottish creationist pals, then? At least they’re not hiding their motives behind a front this time, as with the last British creationist attempt, ‘Truth in Science‘. Happily, TiS appears to be defunct (it has had just one news update in the past 13 months), but does this mean the C4ID will just take up the mantle? Of course, this might actually be a good thing, given that TiS appeared to get absolutely nowhere.

I might do a bit of investigative journalism and attend the Behe talk, if I can’t think of anything better to do. What will I expect to see? Tons of creationists lapping up every word? Or an empty lecture theatre? Who knows, but either way, it’s bound to Behe-larious. Watch this space.

  1. Les
    October 4, 2010 at 8:32 pm | #1

    I’ll attend the Behe talk with you if you’re in need of company.
    Also worth noting that Behe reluctantly agreed (in a court case concerning teaching creationism in US school science classes and after some debate over the nature of science) with the assertion “if the definition of science was broadened such that it could include intelligent design, it would also include astrology”.

    • Stuart Ritchie
      October 4, 2010 at 8:46 pm | #2

      DEFINITELY something we should ask him about. I genuinely wonder what his response would be? ‘I was under pressure in the courtroom’, maybe?

  2. Les
    October 5, 2010 at 7:50 am | #3

    Yeah, we should.

    I’ve got a few questions I’d like to ask him. If he mentions his favourite example, the bacterial flagellum, I’d like to ask him why, since it’s now been demonstrated that (as evolution predicted) the parts are evolved from proteins which served independent roles and it is therefore not irreducibly complex. He’s also well aware of this work, but largely ignores it.
    Perhaps more interestingly, if he DOESN’T mention the flagellum, I’d like to ask him why he’s dropped his killer example.

    • Stuart Ritchie
      October 5, 2010 at 10:52 am | #4

      Well, they still mention the flagellum on the C4ID website, so they at least don’t think it’s been discredited.

      If memory serves, I once chatted to Alistair Noble, who said that Behe ‘at least deserves credit because nobody had looked at the flagellum before he did – now there are tons of scientists working on it’. I promptly went home and found several pre-Darwin’s Black Box papers that discussed the flagellum in detail…

  1. January 13, 2011 at 3:07 pm | #1
  2. March 6, 2011 at 12:38 am | #2

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