He keeps saying the same ol’ debunked crap over and over again, and nowadays when a paper comes out that shows he was completely wrong about something, he spins it into a triumphant vindication for his sycophantic fans, who are all, apparently, abysmally innumerate. The hobby horse he’s been riding for the past few years is the evolution of chloroquine resistance in the malaria parasite: he claims it is mathematically impossible. And that’s the secret of his success: he dazzles creationists with bad math. Really bad math. The kind of math creationists have been fallaciously using for decades.
Ken Miller has a tidy new article exposing Behe’s ridiculous rationalizations.
Behe has been challenging a lot of people to disagree with his estimate, 1 in 1020, for the origin of a specific mutation in the resistance pathway. It’s a crude sleight of hand; no one was disputing that number. We were complaining about how he then misused it as a parameter in his further calculations.
Apparently emboldened a week later, on July 21, 2014 he posted an open letter challenging his critics (myself included) to dispute that 1 in 1020 probability for a CCC. As he put it, “Talk is cheap. Let’s see your numbers.” Such language implies, of course, that these multiple critiques were based on Behe’s numbers. But they weren’t. The problem was not, as Behe now tries to claim, that anyone disputed the odds of developing resistance to chloroquine. Behe’s arguments about an “Edge” to evolution were wrong for a far more fundamental reason.
First, he misrepresented the data in a paper that documented the detailed steps required to acquire chloroquine resistance — it’s what he’s always asking for, a step-by-step description of every transformation in a biochemical pathway, it’s delivered to him, and then he starts mangling the data. Behe claims that one particular step, the K76T mutation, is impossible, because it is so deleterious that it could never get a toe-hold in the population. This is wrong.
But Behe was dead wrong about it being “strongly deleterious.” In fact, it seems to have no effect on transport activity at all. A neutral mutation like this can easily propagate through a population, and field studies of the parasite confirm that is exactly what has happened. In fact, a 2003 study recommended against using the K76T mutation to test for chloroquine resistance since that same mutation was also found in 96% of patients who responded well to chloroquine. Clearly, K76T wouldn’t have become so widespread if it were indeed “strongly deleterious,” as Behe states it must be. This is a critical point, since Behe’s probability arguments depend on this incorrect claim.
So Behe’s denial relies on false assertions that particular steps in the multi-step evolution of resistance are impossible, and then he pulls the stunt I’ve seen creationists do over and over again for over 30 years. They multiply probabilities together, an operation which only applies if all of the mutations occur at once in the same individual, and if each specific mutation is the only, necessary change that must occur. It’s not.
But the math is wrong, and it’s easy to see why. Chloroquine resistance arose in just a decade and a half, and is now common in the gene pool of this widespread parasite. Introduce a new drug for which the odds of evolving resistance are also 1 in 1020, and we can expect that it will take just about as long, 15 years, to evolve resistance to the second drug. Once you get that first CCC established in a population, the odds of developing a second one are not CCC squared. Rather, they are still 1 in 1020. Behe gets his super-long odds by pretending that both CCCs have to arise at once, in the same cell, purely by chance.
I recall sitting in a creationist lecture in the 1980s, and the guy leading us through his ‘mathematical’ disproof of evolution. You see, there are 20 possible amino acids in each position in a protein. So the probability that the first amino acid, for example, is lysine is 0.05. Then the probability of the second amino acid being arginine is also 0.05, which means that the probability of a specific two amino acid peptide being lys-arg is (0.05 * 0.05), or (0.05)2. Which means that the probability of a 1000-amino acid protein existing is (0.05)1000, or effectively zero, therefore impossible.
It’s exactly the same game Behe is playing. It was crude, stupid, and ridiculous when J. Random Creationist was doing it, and it’s even worse when a guy with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, who ought to know better, panders to the mob of creationists who don’t even grasp middle school mathematics by using fallacious operations in probability.
Miller is right to not expect a retraction.
In July of this year, Casey Luskin, professional spokesman for the Discovery Institute, demanded that Behe’s critics apologize to him. I certainly do agree with Mr. Luskin that an apology is in order, but it’s not the one he’s been demanding.
The real apology, which is long overdue, should be promptly sent out to all of those who have been taken in by Luskin’s and Behe’s continuing misrepresentations and distortions of the science of protein evolution. Knowing the Discovery Institute, however, I’m not holding my breath waiting for it.
I suspect that Behe knows exactly how he’s misleading his readers — it is so transparent that it has to be intentional. Don’t expect him to admit to malicious dishonesty.
Luskin, of course, probably doesn’t have a clue.
Larry Moran points out that I overstated Behe’s argument: Behe thinks it is barely possible that chloroquine resistance evolved (it’s at the edge of evolution), and that anything more complex than an adaptation requiring more than two mutations could not have evolved.
Hmmm. It’s almost as if they don’t care when they’re caught out by real scientists because they know their target audience doesn’t include real scientists, the science literate or even those with a single shred of respect for science. It’s like they know perfectly well that they can flat-out lie to people’s faces and still sell books, attract funding and be lionised as mavericks, game-changers and paradigm-shifters and not the petty, penny-ante used-god salesmen they truly are.
Raging Bee says
My question is, isn’t Behe more than a little tired of Behe?
And how much of a target audience does he even have anymore? Does anyone in the right-wing establishment have any use for him?
I’d kinda expect Sal “Wormtongue” Cordova to chime in with his own bad math. Has he done so, or has he got tired of his own schtick?
The probability for a lysine at the first amino acid position is more like 0.00
Another question for Behe:
If he argues that the malaria parasite couldn’t have become drug-resistant on its own, then he must be arguing that goddidit.
How can he honestly ask anyone to worship this malevolent being who apparently goes around expending considerable effort to infect more people with malaria, despite our best efforts to protect them? Is there any conceivable sense in which this being could be called a “God of Love”?
Raging Bee says
So this is just another case of a creationist pointing to something and saying “That’s so improbable it can only be God’s work!” Sort of like a drunk-driving accident that just happens to kill that particular family — have you ANY CLUE how improbable it is that it happened exactly the way it did?!
Reginald Selkirk says
I am reminded of a book by J.B. Rhine, defending his ESP experiments of the mid-20th century. He offered to supply the data from his experiment to any other researcher, with the expectation that they would analyze it to get the same result, which would constitute replication of the experiment. This is daft, because the original data was untrustworthy, having been obtained under poorly controlled (if not outright fraudulent) conditions. GIGO.
As I said in my comment on the other board, some people aren’t interested in providing anything meaningful to the discussion, they are interested in giving the impression of winning as they are on a power trip and want people to follow them.
I have suggested (admittedly in a speculative fashion) that this psychological drive stems from a desire to be the alpha male among a group of apes (we are apes) that was inserted into the evolution of our ancestral ape that never completely left us. The notion of a “God” is often male and one can see this is as a potential extension of the desire to be in the alpha male position if this god is essentially an extension of one’s ego. Sounds kind of Freudian doesn’t it?
So is Behe proposing that God has tweaked the malaria parasite to make it resistant to drugs, and thus to kill more people? I’d think his creationist supporters would have found that repugnant, as well as bad math.
Ten-to-the-twentieth? Come back when you have real big numbers?
– A Chemist
If you are implying that every protein starts with an M, remember there are alternative start codons, post-translational modifications and IRES.
No!!! I see your mistkake. You are thinking like a normal person.
A creator god like Behe’s, the Intelligent Designer, is a creator god who makes life forms. According to Behe, it is isn’t just chloroquinine resistance. His god also made the malaria organism to be a highly effective pathogen.
Some other products of the Designer. HIV, TB, polio, smallpox, flu, tapeworms, hepatitis A, B, C, whooping cough, measles, and so on.
Behe’s god and the god of his followers, is a Sky Monster god. They don’t have any problem with that at all. (Why should they? Gods are just sockpuppets. They made the Sky Monster themselves.)
So if we extend their mathematical error to the probability of our DNA being as similar as it is to any other living thing on earth purely by chance, does it become even more astronomically unlikely than it already is?
I love when Miller sticks to the science he’s an expert in. He really does it so very well.
Behe claims anything with more than two mutations is impossible due to his misuse of math.
1. I found a drug resistance example on NLM in a few minutes once, that had five mutations. Five is greater than 2, as Behe should know.
2. He’s assuming that these mutations have to be simultaneous and no one mutation has any effect. That is usually wrong. Evolution happens one step at a time usuallly.
3. If a phenotype requires more than simultaneously two mutations, it will be difficult or impossible. That isn’t much of a constraint though. There are usually mutiple pathways to achieve the same end state.
consciousness razor says
I want to know how [insert extraordinarily unlikely thing here*] is more likely if there’s a god than if there’s not a god. Do they ever even think to make that kind of calculation? I don’t think it would look good for them, but wouldn’t that at least be more interesting to them than this useless bullshit?
*With or without mangling all of the math. In fact, it could be something that’s extremely likely, because that’s irrelevant. Just something with a probability in the range of zero to one, so any old thing will do. Then tell me what this has to do with believing in a god, and we might eventually get to your god specifically. Fuck, it’s just so mind-boggling that anyone would take this shit seriously.
Rey Fox says
Yeah. I kinda figured Intelligent Design was dead in the water by now, and all it’s cdesign proponentsists had either disappeared or gone full creationist. The science people weren’t fooled by the faux-science veneer of ID, and the religious people didn’t care.
If you’re a Christian it’s more likely because God is acting to protect his instrument of divine justice, malaria. Because He loves us.
As Larry Moran and others have pointed out, you have the wrong hobby horse. He isn’t claiming that the evolution of malaria resistance is impossible. In fact his argument relies on it being possible. Then he imagines the pathway by which it must be achieved (which turns out to be wrong), and imagines further that anything more complex than that must be impossible. Which it probably would be, if the pathway he imagines were correct.
Pierce R. Butler says
… it is so transparent that it has to be intentional.
What an unscientific statement!
Why doesn’t our esteemed host calculate the probability that “a guy with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, who ought to know better” could make such a mathematical error? Show your work!
Kevin Kehres says
Ken Ham will tell you that dog introduced death into the world because Adam and Steve ate the IQ-raising sin-fruit. Before then, they didn’t even know the difference between right and wrong. So they ate the fruit — and dog punished them because they did something terribly wrong — even though they didn’t know the difference between right and wrong before they ate the fruit — and it was kinda dog’s fault for putting the fruit in the garden in the first place, since he had to know that they would eat it — because he’s supposed to be all-knowing, but didn’t know Adam and Steve would eat the IQ-raising sin-fruit, but he did really because that’s the reason for Jeebus to come to earth and have a really bad weekend so that dog could forgive you for the fact that Adam and Steve ate the IQ-raising sin-fruit even though you had NOTHING to do with it.
What’s amazing to me is that some people actually think that’s a coherent story.
Blake Stacey says
Hey, I’m willing to dispute the 10^20 number: it’s an offhand guesstimate made by somebody else who doesn’t bother to distinguish a mutation arising from a mutation becoming common. It’s a bogus figure, plugged into a worthless argument.
Alternate start codon or not, those come with their own t-RNA and those are almost always loaded with a Met . Obvious exemptions don’t make the 0.00 much greater.
Post translational modification (methionine removal) is an issue, yes. But it is also not THAT common. Some proteins have to be chopped down heavily in order to activate them but the translated sequence usually (almost always) had that Met on the amino term. See insulin for example.
Aren’t IRES mRNA level only? I am not aware those are translated at any point but my Bio 101 is pretty much out of date here.
My point above was, not every AA has the same probability within a sequence. Proline always has a lower probability than others, and that’s for very good reasons!
I just went through this comment thread, and calculated the odds of these commenters coming up in this order. Then I calculated the odds of the words in their comments coming up in that particular order. Then I calculated the odds of random letters making those words. Then I calculated the odds of random pixels forming those letters. Then I made up this comment and posted it at this exact place and time, thereby disproving something.
Last Embryo Standing says
I really enjoyed reading Abbie Smith’s takedown of Behe. It seems he has only gone downhill since then.
Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says
I loved the scene in Nova’s Judgement Day, where Behe claimed there was no information on evolution and the immune response. And the lawyer for the plaintiffs dropped a dozen text books on the edge of the witness stand with titles like “Evolution and the immune response” and similar, obviously the same topics. Behe’s jaw dropped, and the actor playing the judge gave Behe a look as best described as what one finds on the sole of one’s shoe when somebody doesn’t clean up after their dog….
Alexander the Good Enough says
Liars for Christ™ lie with the Devil!
David Marjanović says
I’m not sure he asks people to worship. He has written about this question, and appears to have concluded that the Designer is, in fact, evil.
Err… how does he suppose it evolved then? Seems not a great idea to dispute the evolution of something that obviously evolved within the last century…
It was impossible for resistance to chloroquine to evolve and spread in a few decades. And it is also impossible for bumblebees to fly and the earth to move. I think I heard this story before.
I faintly recall that he may have been implying that there was might be more than one designer — the Good Designer(s) designing God Stuff™; the Evil Designer(s) designing Evil Stuff™.
Or am I thinking of these (not by Behe)?
While Hoppe calls Behe’s Designer malevolent,
I am not sure now if Behe himself ever did so explicitly.
#28 & #29: Behe does not claim that chloroquine resistance didn’t evolve. He agrees that it did evolve. He thinks it’s just inside the edge of evolution, not outside.
#31, OK, but you’d think something that happened in less than half a century would be well away from the “edge” of what’s possible in millions of years…
this is a horribly dishonest argument for Behe to be making.
it really DOES boil down to goalpost moving, and nothing more.