Behe…yeah, he’s over and done with

When Michael Behe published Darwin’s Black Box, there was a loud “Huzzah!” from the creationists — they had new buzzwords, like “irreducible complexity”, for the first time in 50 years, and they had a scientist with a legitimate Ph.D. to cite as an authority claiming evolution couldn’t happen. The “science” was crap, but it was a strong rhetorical play, and we had to respond vigorously to it. It was garbage, but all the back-and-forth enhanced Behe’s reputation. I read it thoroughly and contributed to online discussions about the fallacies in it.

Then he came out with a second book, The Edge of Creation, and the creationists all went “huzzah?”, because there was nothing new in it, no spark of rhetorical flourish they could use in debates, but there was an implication that caused them worries. Behe was claiming you could see the hand of the Designer in ongoing processes, and that It was actively engineering diseases and parasites to kill us right now. Whoops. It was still garbage, but it didn’t trigger a surge of creationist activity that needed refutation. I skimmed it, threw it aside, ignored it.

Now he has a third book, Darwin Devolves, where he returns to the same old stagnant, tainted well and says the same old things, and it’s only going to inspire the die-hard Behe fanchildren, and isn’t going to challenge any scientists at all. I’m not going to pick up a copy. Not going to read it. Not going to critique it. Everything has already been said, he has nothing new that we need to refute, and he’s nothing but yet another crackpot…just one who has a tenured position at a legitimate university, even if he is something of a pariah to his colleagues.

But because he got creationists excited 20 years ago, someone had to suffer through his book for Science magazine, and the sacrificial victims are Nathan Lents, Joshua Swamidass, and Richard Lenski, who write that a biochemist’s crusade to overturn evolution misrepresents theory and ignores evidence.

Behe is skeptical that gene duplication followed by random mutation and selection can contribute to evolutionary innovation. Yet there is overwhelming evidence that this underlies trichromatic vision in primates, olfaction in mammals, and developmental innovations in all metazoans through the diversification of HOX genes. And in 2012, Andersson et al. showed that new functions can rapidly evolve in a suitable environment. Behe acknowledges none of these studies, declaring an absence of evidence for the role of duplications in innovation.

Behe asserts that new functions only arise through “purposeful design” of new genetic information, a claim that cannot be tested. By contrast, modern evolutionary theory provides a coherent set of processes—mutation, recombination, drift, and selection—that can be observed in the laboratory and modeled mathematically and are consistent with the fossil record and comparative genomics.

Deja vu, man. These are exactly the complaints everyone made about Darwin’s Black Box: he didn’t seem to understand modern evolutionary theory, he ignored the multiple mechanisms of evolutionary change, he blithely pretended the evidence against his thesis didn’t exist, and he just sailed on, smug in his ignorance. Nothing has changed. His formula is the same. The same counter-arguments still apply.

Let’s all just ignore this rehash, OK?


  1. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Frankly, I think it’s worse than that–Behe and the other IDiots really don’t raise any objections that weren’t raised in Darwin’s time, and Darwin, himself, anticipated most of these. “Irreducible complexity” was anticipated by Darwin in his discussion of the human eye. And Darwin’s responses, while not completely satisfactory adumbrate to a large extent the modern responses. And none of the IDiots have come up with an adequate response to the stupidity in “intelligent design”–something I am acutely aware of every time I feel the pain in my 59 year old back and knees. Or when my macroscopically evolved brain tries to comprehend quantum mechanics.
    Even Behe’s arguments aren’t intelligently designed.

  2. says

    I agree. The only thing Behe did was come up with a splashy facade for the same old crap anti-evolutionists have been saying for over 150 years, and it’s wearing thin.

  3. hemidactylus says

    I had long thought irreducible complexity to harken back to Cuvier’s correlation of parts and that in the long term Geoffroy won the infamous form-function debate. For those on the creation side the contrast is better encapsulated as Paley’s functionalism versus Richard Owen’s emphasis on structure and its thematic nature. Sure conditions of existence are important as organisms superficially adapt within their respective niches, but at a deeper level such adaption is mere variation on a theme where the laws of form reside. Darwin was well aware of this contrast that carries over to the present day in that duplication and divergence is but a molecular version of vertebrate forelimbs transforming into wings of birds or grasping arms of primates. Susumu Ohno himself was aware of the transformations that yielded reptilian jaw articulation and mammalian ear ossicles if I recall his book Evolution by Gene Duplication correctly. Throw in Gould on historic origin vs. current utility and exaptation and it’s a wrap. God of the gaps (ID and Behe’s IC) lacks imagination and is a throwback to Cuvier and Paley.

  4. Matt G says

    Behe is like a stuck record. Like a stuck record. Like a stuck record. I can’t wait until ID becomes “the dominant paradigm in biology”. Any day now!

  5. marcoli says

    And another thing, it is a terrible title. To “devolve” means to give your authority to a lower authority. Then there is “de-evolve”, which is to evolve to an ancestral state. Neither of these make sense here, and so the book stops making sense beginning with the title.

  6. says

    Religion has been failing to convince scientists that god is real for thousands of years. Behe’s lying about a caricature of evolution doesn’t push their case forward. Even if evolution were wrong (at this point I’d say that it can’t be wrong) Behe is still a catholic. Speaking of “wrong”…

  7. chrislawson says

    The God of the Gaps argument gets a lot easier when you refuse to see the gaps that closed decades ago.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    Behe’s theme song?

    I do remember one thing.
    It took hours and hours but..
    By the time I was done with it,
    I was so involved, I didn’t know what to think.

    I carried it around with me for days and days..
    Playing little games
    Like not looking at it for a whole day
    And then… looking at it.

    To see if I still liked it.
    I did.

    I repeat myself when under stress.
    I repeat myself when under stress.
    I repeat myself when under stress.
    I repeat myself when under stress.

    I repeat…
    The more I look at it,
    The more I like it.
    I do think it’s good.

    The fact is..
    No matter how closely I study it,
    No matter how I take it apart,
    No matter how I break it down,

    It remains consistent.
    I wish you were here to see it.

    I like it.

  9. answersingenitals says

    The great irony of Intelligent design is that it anthropomorphizes god, insisting that he functions in his processes the exact way that humans do. As a (now retired) aerospace engineer, I’m well aware that (human) intelligent design has a large Darwinian component to it with a lot of “cut and try” (and a lot of discard) and a lot of brainstorming to evaluate randomly composited comfigurations. Just look at all the extinct technologies that intelligent designing mankind has foisted on the world. I think that what the IDers really want to promote is not creation by Intelligent Design (ID) but creation by Divine Fiat (DF). One does not create the Heaven and Earth in one day using a design process. It requires a god who just imagines it and commands (a la Star Trek’s Capt. Picard) “make it so”. ID actually denigrates the omnieverything god of the bible to a mere human level.

  10. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Chrislawson #12, definitely.
    Behe was a expert witness for the defense during the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial (the video of the PBS NOVA reenactment of the trial is no longer available online. Link to written report). Behe stated that no books on evolution and immune system were written due to the “complexity”. The plaintiffs lawyer stacked about a dozen books with titles containing the words evolution and immune system. Nothing like having your your perjury exposed in court. I can only conclude Behe was willfully ignorant, and didn’t do the background checks any beginning/competent scientist should do in his situation. Presuppositional liar, bullshitter, and perjurer exposed under oath in open court.

  11. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    The Nova episode I mentioned in my #13 Was season 35 episode 5. May still be available through various streaming/downloading services.

  12. zetopan says

    The stack of books is not the only thing that tripped up Behe, showing that he was a willfully ignorant moron. At that same trial Behe admitted that his definition of a scientific theory that would include ID would also have to include astrology. After his testamony Behe said “I think that went well”. “Clueless” in the dictionary should include a photo of Behe.

  13. zetopan says

    Another point: Creationists imagine that “devolve” means evolution in reverse. When evolution goes from complex to simple (which does happen) it is still evolution. The opposite of evolution is stasis, you know like all of that creationist “research” that never goes anywhere.

  14. says

    For those who are interested, you can still watch NOVA’s “Judgment Day,” the story of the Kitzmiller trial, on Youtube:

    PS: Behe’s never quite gotten over the demonstration that his favorite poster child, the bacterial flagellum, is not irreducibly complex, even by his own definition, something I pointed out with glee at the trial. ;-)

  15. chrislawson says

    kenmiller: the really sad thing was that everything Behe said about bacterial flagella was known to be wrong long before he wrote Darwin’s Black Box, he just didn’t care to do any research or ask anyone with expertise.

  16. imback says

    #18 @kenmiller: By coincidence I am at this moment reading your book, The Human Instinct, only in chapter 2 at the moment. Nice to see you stop by!

  17. KG says

    Religion has been failing to convince scientists that god is real for thousands of years. – Marcus Ranum@9

    Er… no. At least well into the 19th century, probably well into the 20th (there’s some room for doubt because explicit atheism was still likely to be socially costly between these dates) it’s as certain as anything about people’s beliefs can be that the overwhelming majority of scientists and their predecessors, natural philosophers, were religious believers.

  18. John Morales says

    KG, taking the quotation literally (which may not have been the intention),

    … it’s as certain as anything about people’s beliefs can be that the overwhelming majority of scientists and their predecessors, natural philosophers, were religious believers.

    Which entails that at least some weren’t, so it holds as an existence claim if not an universal one.

  19. KG says

    John Morales,

    I can out-pedant you any day! That the overwhelming majority of A were B does not entail that any A were not-B: it leaves the matter open.

  20. says

    See how the Fates their gifts allot
    For A is happy, B is not
    Yet B is worthy, I dare say
    Of more prosperity than A

    Is B more worthy?

    I should say
    He’s worth a great deal more than A

    Yet A is happy!
    Oh, so happy!
    Laughing, Ha! ha!
    Chaffing, Ha! ha!
    Nectar quaffing, Ha! ha! ha!
    Ever joyous, ever gay;
    Happy, undeserving A!
    Ever joyous, ever gay;
    Happy, undeserving A!

    If I were Fortune, which I’m not,
    B should enjoy A’s happy lot
    And A should die in misery
    That is, assuming I am B

    But should A perish?

    That should he
    Of course, assuming I am B

    B should be happy!
    Oh, so happy!
    Laughing, Ha! ha!
    Chaffing, Ha! ha!
    Nectar quaffing, Ha! ha! ha!
    But condemned to die is he;
    Wretched meritorious B!
    But condemned to die is he;
    Wretched meritorious B!

    —Quintet from “The Mikado” by Gilbert & Sullivan

    ps: My rapper name is Meritorious B

  21. Nathan Lents says

    Thanks so much, everyone. Also, you are all awesome, but none more so than he with the profile name “answers in genitals.” I needed that laugh today!