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.
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.