Back in the 1990s, when Behe first came out with his idea of
irreducible complexity, I recall that there was some consternation in our little community of anti-creationist activists. Behe had done something novel: instead of denying all of the accumulated evidence, he instead turned the focus on the gaps in our knowledge. It’s something of a cunning plan, if you think about it; the scientific literature is full of papers where scientists say that now we understand Step X, but we still need to figure out Steps Y and Z, so let’s work (and get funded) for Y. In a sense, it’s brilliant, because instead of relying on creationist ignorance to advance his argument, he would use honest scientific ignorance instead.
So, have we worked out every single step in the evolution of the blood clotting pathway? No? Then all the gaps are filled in with
God Design. Flagellum? Nope. Must have been design then. Resistance to anti-malarials by plasmodium? Clearly, if you haven’t isolated every genotype in the progression of the resistance, there is room for an invisible magic man done did it.
His other clever shuffle was to admit that there are natural processes at work, so every evolutionary change is the consequence of both the understood mechanisms and what he claims are necessary miraculous events, but that you can’t always tell which steps are caused by mutation/selection, and which are Designed. Which means that the scientists have to do all the work of documenting every step, while Behe sits back, does nothing, and gives credit to his unnamed Designer for all the parts that aren’t done. As Matt Herron points out:
Dr. Behe admits (in The Edge of Evolution) that there is “…great evidence that random mutation paired with natural selection can modify life in important ways,” so his view is that life’s diversity and complexity are best explained by a combination of natural and supernatural processes. In fact, I think that’s a fair summary of intelligent design in general. So to falsify intelligent design for a particular example, it’s not enough to show that natural processes are mainly responsible for its origin. No, you’d have to show that supernatural causes played no role at all, no matter how minor.
That’s the funny business that has kept him going for a quarter century now. He doesn’t have to do the work of showing that any of his hypothetical supernatural mechanisms actually operate anywhere, he does not have to test for Design, and in fact he has zero positive evidence for any of the processes that he claims must have been ticking away for millions of years. Meanwhile, real scientists have been measuring and demonstrating the phenomena described by modern evolutionary theory — drift, selection, recombination, etc. — and identifying specific instances of these mechanisms in action. Behe shrugs them off. He’s built a rationalization that allows for the existence of natural processes while demanding that all of the gaps be filled in with his Designer…who seems to be a reflection of his Catholic faith.
It’s infuriatingly dishonest, but he’s found a thriving niche. All the scientists think he’s a kook, while all the creationists who are so gullible that they believe in a great flood and 6000 year old earth look upon him as some kind of super-scientific genius.
Marcus Ranum says
His dishonesty shows how weak his faith is.
I’m sure he’s doing important research to find the traces of the hand of god, so we can all be amazed.
Well, if he’s going to claim that some godling is going whammy and creating a special change, he needs to show that godling in action. A nice little 8×10 picture of that happening would be perfect.
Otherwise, he’s not proving anything, he’s handwaving things away that he can’t manage to explain.
Michael Behe, Soooper Genius!
Which is a bit weird, because Behe, so far as I can recall, accepts that the Universe is ~13.7Gyo and that the Earth is about ~4.55Gyo, and that evolution has taken place over that long span of time — with his only quibble being about mechanisms.
I’ve pointed this out to YECs, and asked, “OK, so what makes Behe wrong (about the age of the universe and Earth) and YEC right, given that you think he’s right about GODDIDIT when it comes to making animals evolve?”
I’ve never received a satisfactory answer.
Say, doesn’t AIG have a page on the topic?
I note that the AIG page on ID was written a decade ago. I guess they haven’t had any reason to come out with any updates since then.
Rich Woods says
@Marcus Ranum #1:
Until he finds God’s actual fingerprints and compares them against the FBI’s serial killer database, I will be somewhat less than impressed.
Rich Woods says
And even then I will insist he also compares them against Europol’s database, because you just can’t trust that bastard…
the perfect mobia strip paranoid rational, an endless one sided argument loop
An important flaw of Behe’s irreducible complexity is his claim that certain things could not have evolved in natural ways. How is anyone ever going to prove such a claim? Every example so far – the eye, the flagellum, even the mouse trap – has been refuted. All Behe has proven is his lack of imagination, but we already know that creationists suffer from that.
“there was some consternation”
That wouldn’t have lasted long if internet already had been common.
“how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.”
Of course since then IC has been falsified:
Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says
I’m still waiting for conclusive physical evidence for Behe’s deity/designer. As it is, if you have mutation—>genome change, versus mutation—>selection by deity/designer—>genome change, the former wins using Ockhams razor, as it lacks an unnecessary step, which involves a phantasm.
miles links says
Nerd,11. You can help me out here: I am also waiting for a (scientific, not philosophical!!) answer to my question about your genetics post here: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2016/11/02/i-am-a-racist-too/comment-page-1/#comment-1047944
Is it loss of a chromosome? Perhaps – as I have thought further- is the missing 5% lost through conversion from X chromosome to Y chromosome?
slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says
[expanding on the quote…]
It’s too easy to point to phenomena that currently aren’t fully explained and jump to the inference that ‘goddidit’. The real task for IC proponents to point to unexplained phenoms and show that they are impossible by all known possibilities.
Seems their only rationalization is “I can’t figure it out, so therefore […]”
I seem to recall common legend that Feynman would argue that a True Scientist™ would respond, when presented with such an unexplained phenom, with “hmm that’s interesting” (and then go work on figuring it out).
Seems Behe is arguing for the easy solution to the parenthetical part of Feynman’s solution. Instead of working to figure it out, just say “goddidit” and *smack hands*
perhaps Nerd is referring to the <5% Denisovan and/or Neantherthal DNA that those of us whose ancestors migrated out of Africa 50K or so years ago carry around. Of course they were still human, just not modern humans – so maybe not.
Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says
Miles, Chris61, I refer to the claim that a deity/designer has anything to do with the genome without definitive evidence of the existence of such a phantasm. Without being able to point with solid physical evidence to a designer, like being able to interview it, it is nothing but the old Sidney Harris cartoon. More definition is required from Crebots/IDiots.
PZ Myers says
I think you’re attaching way too much specificity and importance to that arbitrary 5% number. The average human varies by about 4 million base pairs from the reference genome, which a variance of about 0.1%. To argue that someone is less than human using that degree of diversity, or even something 50 times greater, is absurd.
miles links says
#16, PZ, thanks Prof! As a math point barely remembered from highschool, does that mean there can be 4,000,000! unique humans? Massive number. An amusing meme combining stars, atoms and Neil dGTyson comes to mind!
consciousness razor says
Minor nitpick: a more current figure for that, according to wiki, is about 13.799±0.021 billion years. I don’t like calling that “the age of the universe,” since we don’t know whether there was time before that, but enough nitpicking.
Still, it’s kind of a big “quibble” (if those come in sizes?) to claim there is any sort of supernatural mechanism. OECs may want it to be consistent with lots and lots of disparate facts, in order to avoid denying so much compelling evidence. It could save them a little pain, if somehow things worked out very favorably for them; but it’s not obvious that we could recover everything required, when something so fundamental is supposed to be lurking all over the place and having who knows how many effects.
I don’t really know what to expect from a supernatural influence, if it would mean violating energy conservation or something along those lines. However it goes, there would need to be some way for it to change the physical state that would’ve occurred without that influence. Whenever it isn’t affecting anything, you could of course expect to get results consistent with it not existing at all; but there isn’t a clear way to tell how it should differ from a naturalistic theory, because OECs don’t seem to have a definite theory of their own that would allow for such a comparison.
So, they might say they can happily use normal/natural science to explain most results (or some class of them or whatever they would say). But they’re not at that stage of the game yet. How would they know anything like that, until they actually put down something definite and see whether there is anything to it?
If there’s some weird energy source that has no natural explanation, for example, then when and where do we see this? Should the universe be exploding any minute now? Was it supposed to be colder? Or is there some extra heat released during who knows which biological process? When did some molecule get nudged in a direction it wasn’t supposed to go? Or whatever it may amount to, why should we conclude this means goddidit, if we did see things like that? Anyway, the point is, since we can’t answer such questions, he can’t very well tell us that he’s only quibbling about some minor hard-to-detect things and mostly agrees otherwise, since no one seems to have any clue how hard it’d be to detect or what we’re even supposed to be looking for.
miles links says
I am no biologist (psychologist by training, minimal DNA biology knowledge required (nor given!) during training), but I have enjoyed learning on my own since then. I don’t want to force information onto anyone, but I would like to see if my own beliefs are correct.
Your comparison seems to be unfairly weighted towards your own argument. The case you put forward is “mutation—>genome change, versus mutation—>selection by deity/designer—>genome change”, which you correctly (in terms of the Occam’s razor argument) identified as meaning that “the former wins…as it lacks an unnecessary step”. However, it only lacks an intermediate step within this argument’s framework, not within reality. The pathway which you present for our side is itself missing the very same step with which you use to beat Behe: selection. In fact, I think there might even be TWO extra steps on our side, which would completely reverse your simplistic Occam’s razor to give the point to Behe.
Here is how I would choose to re-write your argument:
“…you have mutation IN A GERM CELL—>MAKES THE ORGANISM MORE FIT FOR SURVIVAL–>MUTATION IS SELECTED FOR BY VARIOUS MECHANISMS AND BECOMES THE PREDOMINANT ALLELE–>genome change, versus mutation—>selection by deity/designer—>genome change, the LATTER wins using Ockhams razor, as it lacks an unnecessary step, which involves NATURAL SELECTION.
miles links says
“BECOMES THE PREDOMINANT ALLELE WITHIN A SPECIES”
1. It’s an assertion without proof or data. And may be dismissed without proof or data.
Yes, everything we see can and did evolve and often we know in detail how.
2. More specifically it is a logical fallacy. The fallacy of claims from ignorance and personal incredulity.
A fallacy which proves nothing.
Behe has nothing and never had anything but unproven claims and fallacies.
I think some folks here, including #19 Miles Links, are misunderstanding Occam’s Razor. A lot of people, even a lot of scientists, do. Occam’s Razor does NOT necessarily favor the “simplest” explanation nor the explanation with the fewest number of steps. Occam’s Razor also does not favor the “most plausible” explanation, nor the explanation which includes the “smallest number of individual assumptions”. These are all MISUNDERSTANDINGS of Occam’s Razor.
In fact, Occam’s Razor favors the LOGICALLY WEAKEST explanation which adequately explains the observed data. “Logically weakest” means the explanation which IMPLIES THE LEAST TOTAL AMOUNT OF EXTRA STUFF. Occam’s Razor can favor a more complex explanation–for example, if Expl A posits five finite forces, and Expl B posits two potentially infinite forces, then Expl A is more complex–more forces, more possible interactions–but Expl B implies more extra stuff–infinitely powerful forces are always more stuff than finite forces–so Occam’s Razor favors Expl A even though Expl B is simpler.
Occam’s Razor can also favor an explanation which makes a greater number of individual assumptions, if they are small, weak assumptions which, taken together, imply only a little extra stuff, over another explanation which makes a smaller number of assumptions, each of which is bigger and stronger and implies more extra stuff. Just as a few very large jars can contain more total whiskey than many small jars together.
A God-explanation implies an infinite amount of extra stuff, actually several infinite amounts of extra stuff: infinite power, infinite intelligence, infinite lifespan, infinite volume/extension, plus a personality with some human-like traits such as love, jealousy, anger, desire to be worshiped and obeyed. So Occam’s Razor ALWAYS disfavors any God-explanation unless no other possible explanation is adequate to explain the observed data.
miles links says
#22 handsomemrtoad, Thanks!
consciousness razor says
It’s not clear what’s supposed to count as “extra stuff.” That may be the only issue for me.
Why should we have a preference for theories which say that there is less stuff, compared to those which say there is more? Why is it a good principle, that we should take seriously in all manner of cases without ever looking at any specific data, to claim that we should believe an infinite (or large) amount of whatever is less plausible than a finite (or small) amount of whatever? Where is the idea supposed to come from, that the world shouldn’t have just as much stuff in it as the amount your theory implies (no matter how much that is), because it’s somehow better or more rational to believe there is less stuff?
If my theory was just that there is the planet Earth, and I have some very clever and convoluted approach to explaining away all things which look like they aren’t on Earth, then there’s clearly a problem with it, but what exactly is the problem? A theory which says there’s a very large universe beyond that looks like it has “extra stuff” and should be disfavored according to this interpretation of the principle. That would be the wrong conclusion to make, because there is a very large universe and no reason to think smallness or less-stuffness is something rational people ought to believe is true of the world, no matter what evidence is thrown at them.
I don’t think that’s how Ockham’s razor should be understood (in cases when it is a useful rule of thumb). Instead, you don’t want needlessly complicated theories, when simpler ones will suffice. I would have to make lots of incredible and highly suspicious assertions to support my theory that the universe beyond Earth (or just myself) doesn’t exist, which is the basic problem for a theory like that. And if you ask, say, many-worlds people about this sort of thing, I think they’re right to say that the (extremely large) number of worlds isn’t how we should be measuring the parsimoniousness of their theory — what they won’t admit to is that their theory is an unnecessarily complicated and extravagant way of explaining the data.
The purpose we have for explaining things is to understand them, and they are less comprehensible (or may be totally incomprehensible) when they can’t be explained well and completely, without much additional theoretical (or metaphysical) baggage and without tossing out what appears to be solid evidence. So, you’re not doing the best explanatory job that you could, if you have something with less baggage (which may not involve more or less existing “stuff”) that does the job better. That’s how goddist theories look to me. It’s not so much that there’s this extra god thing that we don’t need, but that the backflips required to give a complete account of that thing (along with all of the other things, however numerous or infinite those may be) are too strenuous and give you a negative return on your investment so to speak. It’s making the theory worse, and you have a better approach which makes it easier to understand what’s going on.
John Morales says
Exactly. It’s a heuristic, only applicable when insufficient knowledge is at hand, and in itself only tentative at best.
Matthew Herron says
Exactly, and how could you ever? The systems Dr. Behe is talking about mostly evolved hundreds of millions or billions (bacterial flagellum) years ago, and we all agree that they required a large number of steps. How could you ever possibly demonstrate that none of those steps were tweaked by god? Even in what is arguably the best-case scenario, Richard Lenski’s Long-Term Evolution Experiment, how could you show that this or that mutation (say, Cit+) wasn’t divinely influenced? There is no experiment you could ever do that would show that god never intervened. In spite of Dr. Behe’s protests to the contrary, intelligent design is in principle unfalsifiable.