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Irrelevant Design

This was posted ages ago at The 21st Floor, but for completeness I’m going to put it here too.

Don’t get your flagellum in a knot, but here’s another post about creationism. As promised in a previous post, some friends and I visited Glasgow Caledonian University to see Michael Behe’s talk, ‘Darwin or Design?’, hosted by our dear friends at the Centre for Intelligent Design. It was, in a word, appalling. Here’s why.

Depressed to see that the lecture theatre was full, but heartened by the fact the audience mostly comprised elderly couples and awkward, spotty, young mouth-breathers (ID, thank the Designer, is clearly not a mainstream phenomenon), we took our seats. After some fawning introductions, Behe took the stage, and summarised the five simple points of his argument. Here they are (possibly slightly paraphrased):

1. Design isn’t mystical or spooky. We can deduce it from the attributes of a system.
2. Everyone agrees that biological systems look designed.
3.  There are structural obstacles to ‘Darwinism’.
4. The claims of ‘Darwinists’ are just-so stories.
5. Bottom line: little evidence for ‘Darwinism’, lots for design.

Well! Let’s hope he has some new arguments, then, because that stuff looks like the same old bollocks he’s been churning out since Darwin’s Black Box in 1996. With bated breath, we awaited a feast of new evidence, but Behe simply regurgitated the partially-reheated leftovers of dead arguments. Entering this intellectual graveyard is frustrating, but worth doing nonetheless. I’ll respond to his points in turn.

1. & 2. Design – it’s just obvious!

Spot the flaw in the following argument, which was Behe’s opening gambit. If a friend asked you where a mountain came from, you’d rightly say ‘geological forces’. But what about the Old Man of the Mountain in New Hampshire? Well, it sort of looks like a face, but it’s not very complex, so probably just good ol’ geological forces again. How about Mount Rushmore? Well! Look at how complex it is! It contains information – these carvings are Presidents of the USA. It’s very detailed and specific. It must’ve been designed!

Look, Prof. Behe! Evidence for design!

Oh, for heaven’s sake. We don’t come to the conclusion that things are designed because they look designed, but because we saw someone design them. Anyone with half a brain can tell you that things aren’t always how they appear (no matter how many times Behe uses the ‘if it walks like a duck…’ argument). The reason we think cars are designed is that we can go and visit the car-designing offices and the car-making factories. The reason we think Mt. Rushmore was designed is, well, look at the picture on the left. When was the last time you saw someone design or make a tree? Or a bird? At this point, the analogy absolutely breaks down, and Behe – not to mention seemingly every other creationist on Earth – just can’t get his head around this basic point.

We were then shown a slide with lots of titles of biochemistry papers which use the word ‘machine’. See, other people think biochemical systems are machines, too! Astonishingly, this part was the only point at which Behe referenced peer-reviewed scientific literature. For a ‘scientist’ giving a ‘scientific’ talk, this is highly unusual – backing up your points and making careful, evidence-based arguments is crucial. If nobody else has the evidence you’re looking for, you should do the research yourself, and get it published somewhere respectable, before making any public claims – isn’t that just basic scientific responsibility?

But Behe hasn’t published any peer-reviewed papers providing evidence against the theory of evolution. What the hell does he do all day long? ‘My name is mud’, he explained to me when I chatted to him after the talk, as I felt a pang of sympathy (of which more later). ‘I try to publish articles, but nobody accepts them’. Isn’t it amazing, though, that not a single other biologist has found any evidence to suggest that the foundational theory of biology is false? Isn’t it funny that no independent groups are confirming his theory, if it’s so obvious? But wait – what exactly is his theory? This leads us nicely to…

3. & 4. Irreducible Complexity and Just-So Stories

You’re not gonna believe this, but he’s still talking about the bacterial flagellum and how ‘irreducibly complex’ it is. The man certainly has a lot of nerve, given how many times his argument’s been refuted. Nevertheless, let’s lay it out again. Here’s his definition, from Darwin’s Black Box:

By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.

OK, but what exactly does ‘effectively cease functioning’ mean? Maarten Boudry and colleagues, in a paper about to be published in Quarterly Review of Biology, point out that Behe has a history of changing his definition of irreducible complexity to evade criticism. Firstly, there are two ways you could take the statement above: 1) If you take a part away, the system can’t do the job it does now, but it could potentially do other semi- or un-related jobs. This is a weak and trivial claim, obvious to evolutionary biologists. 2) If you take a part away, the system can’t do anything at all, even jobs unrelated to the job it does now. This is a strong, mad claim, with no evidential basis.

Boudry et al. document how, when Behe’s critics show that definition 2 is patently false, he dodges and accuses them of ‘building a straw man’. He then reverts to definition 1, which is no problem for the theory of evolution: a part which has one function now might have had completely different functions in the past – just think of the parts of our reptilian ancestor’s jaw, which are now our ear bones. In front of our audience, Behe expounded definition 2, but when questioned performed exactly the type of evasive manoeuvres Boudry et al. have outlined. Indeed, when pushed, Behe admits he accepts that common descent is true. But to accept that, one has to go with definition 2, not 1, for reasons outlined by Nick Matzke in an email to me:

…if complex biochemical system A has genes ABCDF and complex biochemical system B has genes CDFEG, then there was a common ancestor system that had at least genes CDF.  When one is, like Behe, claiming that system A is “irreducible”, and couldn’t function without all of its parts, the proof of the existence of a system that existed and presumably functioned with just parts CDF is pretty crashingly obviously pertinent information that shouldn’t be ignored.

Take evasive action!

Irreducible complexity is erroneously held up as killer for the theory of evolution in principle. That is, there’s no way you could build a plausible evolutionary account of, say, the bacterial flagellum, because it must be impossible to evolve. But when a plausible evolutionary pathway for such a system is outlined (as Pallen & Matze do here, in a must-read paper), Behe and the creationists perform another evasion, asking instead for every single detail, mutation by mutation, of how the system was evolved (in other words, they move from asking for a plausible scenario to the actual scenario). Imagine a jury, when faced with highly compelling evidence that a defendant was guilty, asking to see details of every single neurotransmitter firing through his brain before they came to a decision – clearly this would be irrational, irrelevant, and unfair. Sure, everyone would be interested to see that stuff, but it’s not likely we’re ever going to have such information. Someone tell that to Michael Behe.

In any case, a huge amount of progress has been made on the evolution of the bacterial flagellum, and the other systems Behe claims are irreducibly complex (such as the immune system; see here). Nobody’s suggesting we know everything there is to know about these systems – there’s still a host of unanswered questions. But in the face of all this active science, Behe is left looking like a madman standing in the middle of a busy motorway, ranting and raving that the internal combustion engine could never work.

5. The bottom line

According to Behe’s lecture, there’s very little evidence for Darwinism, but loads of evidence for design. What I hope I’ve shown in this post is that, a) if one wants to make such claims, one had best back them up with solid evidence; b) there’s plenty of evidence, both plausible and actual, for Darwinian evolution of even complex systems; c) Behe’s ‘evidence’ for design is not evidence, but supposition – supposition by an idiot, signifying absolutely nothing.

One last insult remains to be mentioned. Behe claimed that the two main parts of Darwin’s theory  – common descent and natural selection – are ‘trivial’, and really not of much importance to biology. Reader, I ask you to compare the majestic, evidence-filled Origin of Species and Descent of Man to the pitiable, weaselly, thoroughly-refuted, disingenuous works of Michael Behe. Who comes off best?


Interestingly, my fellow skeptics and I weren’t the only ones disappointed by the talk. Afterwards, as I was trying to get Behe to answer a straight question, a wide-eyed woman with a Virgin Mary necklace pounced on the good professor, and brashly asked him: ‘WHO IS THE DESIGNER?!’. A clearly discomfited Behe responsed with ‘um… well… it’d have to be someone very intelligent, who’s been around for a long time…’. The woman nodded her head, staring at Behe, and said ‘yes, eternal and all knowing – like GOD. I was disappointed you didn’t mention GOD in the talk’.

Utterly irrelevant to working scientists, too pussy-footed to please creationists and the religious, the lonely and pathetic professor from LeHigh University will return home to continue to be alienated in his own biology department

In opening his NY Times review of Behe’s The Edge of Evolution, Richard Dawkins states: ‘I had expected to be as irritated by Michael Behe’s second book as by his first. I had not expected to feel sorry for him’. Professor Dawkins, you are not alone.

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