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A Very Singular Revolution

By (August 1, 2007) One Comment

The Edge of Evolution

By Michael Behe
Simon & Schuster,

In 2006, Professor Michael Behe produced Darwin’s Black Box, in which, despite the fact that he’s professor of biological studies at Lehigh University, he puts forward the concept of “irreducible complexity,” which insists that there are certain biological features and mechanisms, the combination of whose components couldn’t have evolved but must have been created in place.The “black box” in the book’s title makes reference to the heavily-shielded data recorder aboard commercial airliners. These black boxes typically make the news only after such a plane has crashed, usually with many casualties. Their place in the iconography of American culture is that of ultimate truth-repositories. The data at the crash-site might be exhaustive and relatively straightforward, but it doesn’t matter: the black box, once it’s found, will tell us what really happened.

It’s a cannily chosen metaphor, embedding the ultimate truth of your contention in the fuselage of your enemy’s wreckage, putting your faith in the iconography of final accuracy.

Behe has written a follow-up to Darwin’s Black Box called The Edge of Evolution, in which he covers much the same ground, concentrating on such distinctly non-theological subjects as malaria and sickle cell hemoglobin (about which he did his PhD dissertation). In the new book, Behe expounds on the concept of evolution’s limitations, on finding the precise spots where standard Darwinian principles are insufficient to explain visible reality. Behe is willing to grant, with a tone of smarmy magnanimity, that certain crude mechanics of the evolutionary process might be at work in the world—he’s not a religious fanatic, for Christ’s sake—but he spends 250 pages good-naturedly pointing out the limits of that process, the holes in the theory. If the subtext of Darwin’s Black Box was “look at irreducible truths,” the subtext of The Edge of Evolution is clearly “this far, but no further.” In both cases, a gigantic amount of weight is being quietly placed on the fact that Behe is a secular academic, not a revival-tent Bible-thumper. As God-fearing Christian William Shakespeare wrote, “the Devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape.”

The Edge of Evolution is a deeply deceitful book, a screed for religion-inspired mental apathy masquerading as a disinterested inquiry into scientific truth. It lies to its readers on virtually every page, pumping out a noxious atmosphere of half-truths, leading assumptions, wheedling insinuations, and intellectual cowardice. If it were possible for mere text to be evil, this book would easily qualify.

“Life on earth,” Behe writes, “developed over billions of years by utter chance, filtered through natural selection. So says Darwinism, the most influential idea of our time.”

This is wrong. Not only is Darwinism not the most influential idea of our time (that would be Christianity), but it says something quite different: that although life started by random chance (something, it should be pointed out, that is also true in the Book of Genesis), it has been ceaselessly shaped and molded—not the meaningless “filtered”—by evolution through natural selection. This is the book’s first sentence, but already the drama of that “utter chance” has set the stage.

Behe centers his discussion of Darwinism on what he calls its three central ideas: mutation, natural selection, and common descent. He focuses on common descent—the contention that all living things in the world today descended, ultimately, from one common ancestor—as the first snag to catch his befuddlement: “How could one kind of ancestral animal develop over time into creatures as different as, say, bats and whales?”

This is wrong. One can almost hear the true believers snickering in the background—what silly ideas the godless have! But like any charlatan’s trick (staffs into snakes comes to mind), appearance is made to camouflage reality. In reality, as any eighth grade science student could attest, bats and whales are astonishingly similar creatures: both warm-blooded, both gregarious among their females, both sporting forelimbs adapted for moving them through an element alien to their genetic forebears, both utilizing sound to map their world and manipulate their prey, both highly intelligent, both incapable of maneuvering on dry ground, etc., etc. The point the Lehigh University professor of biological sciences was trying to make, apparently, is that whales are ever so much bigger.

As much as anything else, he’s writing about a process: can the process of Darwinism account for the genetic record of life as we know it? The carefully gradual nature of Darwinian evolution is his main concern: “This point is crucial: If there is not a smooth, gradually rising, easily found evolutionary pathway leading to a biological system within a reasonable time, Darwinian processes don’t work.”

This is wrong. Evolution need not be stately and gradual—Darwin absorbed that idea from the great naturalists of his time, most especially the geologist Sir Charles Lyell, but he leaves open the possibility of a more unruly timetable, and others, most popularly the late Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould, have expanded on scenarios under which natural selection would be compressed or even improvised.

But it doesn’t matter: Behe has a story to tell. To dramatize this question he frequently resorts to colorful little anecdotes (his yearning to call them parables is so palpable as to be embarrassing). The one he chooses for evolution in general is Iacocca Hall on the campus of Lehigh University. When he looks at it, he tells us, he knows immediately that is was a carefully planned and executed feat of architecture, not a natural phenomenon. He is sure that ground was bought, plans were laid, materials were gathered, workers were assembled, and the tower was raised with purpose and planning. It’s bitterly telling that he states all this as a matter of faith alone—for all he or his readers know, the construction of Iacocca Hall was a pig’s breakfast from start to finish. For all he knows, it was notoriously so, getting lampooned in all the local papers. He isn’t interested in toodling over to Lehigh’s archives to find out: seeing is believing.

Likewise when it comes to the smooth process of evolution. The parable he provides in this case again centers on Iacocca Hall, which has a room at the top of its tower than can only be accessed by a series of stair flights. In his analogy, he imagines climbers of those stairs finding a step missing. No big deal, he tells us, virtually everybody (including a middle-aged “couch potato” such as himself! Lest ye thought him more than man!) would be able to make a leg to the next step. But if several steps were missing, that would be different: only athletes would be able to bridge the gap. And if an entire flight were missing, well, that would be the end of the ‘theory’ that steps get you anywhere, now wouldn’t it? He writes: “Of course the stairway to the tower room in Iacocca Hall is an analogy for Darwinian evolution … As with scaling physical heights, so too with ascending biological heights.”

This is wrong. His analogy would only apply to the long ascent of Darwinian evolution if we were inside the tower, so to speak, able to see it all. But we are looking at a record millions and sometimes billions of years old, filled with gaps that are understandable when one takes into account the boring fact that not all living organisms in Earth’s history have had the foresight to die in a way most useful for the forensic anthropology departments of Yale and Princeton.

By assuming the opposite, Behe invalidates his analogy on its face. The accurate version would be to stand outside the tower, knowing there are steps within and knowing there are gaps of varying distances on the stairs. You send in everybody, athletes, couch potatoes, and just plain folks, and you wait. Lots of people come back out, defeated. But what do you do when you see through the tower room windows that some people did, in fact make it to the top (as they obviously did in reality, since only then could they tell parables about Iacocca Hall)? You can either a) assume that the gaps were manageable, or perhaps not really there at all, or b) maintain that those lucky summiteers were spirited there by faerie folk, who were 1) always patiently watching and 2) gave a crap about whether or not a handful of humans got a bird’s eye view of Lehigh’s campus. It’s never in doubt which option Behe favors, although he’s canny enough never to come out and say it.

(Canny, though not “clever,” the adjective he uses endlessly to describe scientists and their experiments, a precisely-chosen condescending adjective, perfect for the way it connotes both childishness and trickery)

What he does say is that the whole concept of evolution, though viable in a rudimentary schoolroom way, has its limits. These limits are at present only dimly visible, but Behe nevertheless tries to discern them, since that is, after all, his subject today:

It is time to get beyond either or thinking. Random mutation is a completely adequate explanation for some features of life, but not for others. This book looks for the line between the random and the nonrandom that defines the edge of evolution.

This is wrong. No matter how calmly you phrase things, no matter what sniveling, quisling language-compromises you make, the instant, the very instant you put forward that studiously innocuous word “nonrandom,” you are no longer speaking English or any other language proper to a professor of biological science; once you open that little door of “nonrandom,” you are shrieking into blood-spattered caves where innocents wait in chains for their evisceration. Such imagery is of course foreign to the painstaking dialogue Behe believes he has established between himself and all those “clever” Darwin-adherents out there, but it obtains nonetheless: when you say “nonrandom,” you are saying “intended,” and when you say “intended,” you are saying “intended by somebody,” and when you are saying “intended by somebody,” you have opened a discussion about who that somebody is, what he wants you to believe, how he wants you to behave, and what he wants you to do with the people who don’t believe what you believe. There is precisely nothing Michael Behe can do to forestall this, and there’s precious little evidence in his lying, sanctimonious book that he would if he could (at every point where he talks about the sheer probabilities against natural selection when measured against the age of the Earth, it’s clear his bafflement comes from the fact that he’s measuring that age in thousands of years, not billions).

Behe says it’s time to move beyond either or thinking, but the simple little word he uses to facilitate this, “nonrandom,” brooks absolutely no compromise or rival. Either there is an endless universe of natural processes unfolding slowly before diligent scientific inquiry, or there is a chaos-bordered universe ruled over by an unseen and unaccountable other being. Where there are other beings there need be no science—indeed, science is impertinence in the face of any being that can sequence nucleotides as a hobby. The very idea of an “edge” for evolution when the thing on the other side of that edge can presumably manipulate the forces of time and matter is under the best of circumstances ludicrous.

Nevertheless, Behe tries to be careful delineating that edge. Towards that goal, at the beginning of his book, he engages in a game of badminton between the polarities of his question:

On the one hand: malaria. “An ancient scourge of all mankind”—“the take-home lesson of malaria is: evolution is relentless, brushing aside the best efforts of modern medicine.”

This is wrong. Not only is evolution not “relentless,” since that implies forward-thinking intent, but malaria is not the “scourge” of mankind, only the scourge of impoverished third-world countries in the tropical environment the virus favors. Despite Behe’s dramatics about the relentless ascent of the scourge, it is tame and meek in all medically-advanced areas of the world, including those right in the middle of malarial plague-zones. The upper middle class rug-merchants and spice dealers of Sierra Leone give no more thought to malaria than do the plastic surgeons and computer programmers of Manhattan. That “brushing aside the best efforts of modern medicine” business is pure stagecraft, intentionally omitting the fact that “the best efforts of modern medicine” are only stymied in areas where all parts of a basic medical infrastructure are impaired or missing. But Behe goes on:

On the other hand: sickle cell disease, which has a “silver lining” of protecting its victims from malaria, through a slight mutation “nothing at all complicated.” “Yet despite having a thousandfold more time to deal with the sickle mutation than with modern drugs, malaria has found no way to counter it.”

This is wrong. Behe can’t first characterize all random mutations as totally unlikely Hail Mary passes and then turn around and say some aren’t “at all complicated.” Are there simple and complicated random mutations, or are all of them equally unlikely? If some are less complicated than others, Behe had better be quiet about it, since that would effectively kneecap his book. In any case his contention goes begging for substantiation: malaria is not sentient; it isn’t looking to “find” any way to counter sickle cell—as Behe himself points out, it does quite well on its own, thank you. It doesn’t say “I’m completely successful where I am, but I notice there are places where I’m not, and I want those places.” Only one thing in the entire history of life on Earth has ever said this, and it isn’t malaria. Malaria has exploited what worked for it with extravagant success; it has not bothered with anything else, as Behe knows full well. He could explain the workings of his specialty disease to his readers better than anybody, but he chooses not to, just like he chooses not to explain or even speculate on why a controlling Other Being would only grant a “silver lining” against malaria to those already afflicted with a different disease. There is a deep, sickly hypocrisy running through this book, but its author is either unaware of it or is at pains to deny it. So he goes on with his badminton match:

On the one hand: HIV, which is famously drug-resistant—“random changes during viral replication, combined with the selective pressure exerted by medicines, allow drug-resistant varieties of HIV to prosper in a quintessentially Darwinian process.”

This is wrong. The HIV virus owes virtually nothing of its changes in the last two decades to random mutation; rather, in that time the virus has virtually exclusively altered as it alteration finds, in response to “the selective pressure exerted by medicines.” Behe can’t trumpet such changes as a pure example of Darwinian evolution when he’s already written, “Yet until the random mutation appears, natural selection can only twiddle its thumbs.” If ever an example disproved this assertion, it’s HIV, and yet Behe has the nerve to mention it over a mountain of dead bodies who, when they lived, would have liked nothing better than for HIV to be stupid enough to mutate blindly. But he’s got a badminton game to play, so we move on.

On the other hand: E.coli—the bacterial inhabitant of the human intestines, intensely studied in laboratories for roughly thirty thousand generations, with one noticeable result: degradation. “Apparently, throwing away sophisticated but costly molecular machinery saves the bacterium energy. Nothing of remotely similar elegance has been built. The lesson of E.coli is that it’s easier for evolution to break things than it is it make things.”

This is wrong. Bacterium may not be the brightest animals in the phylum, but they know when they’re in Elysium, and they act accordingly. No living creature is going to retain “costly molecular machinery” when faced with seventy years of assured existence, of cellular homogeneity. For Behe’s point to carry any weight here, he would have to check in with the undomesticated strands of E.coli (which, as anybody who follows the evening news knows, are slightly more rambunctious than their thousand-generation-tamed laboratory brethren). Behe’s tepid, explicitly Christian invocation of an ethos in which it’s better to create than to destroy just oversimplifies a discussion he’s already infantilized straight back to the nursery. But he’s not done with his little back-and-forth game:

On the one hand, notothenioid fish in Antarctica—in the past 10 million years, slow Darwinian changes in the fish’s DNA have given them the ability to retard the growth of ice crystals within their blood—“A triumph of natural selection.”

Miraculously, this is right as far as it goes—but it doesn’t go far, since Behe immediately links it with the following shuttlecock stroke:

On the other hand, malaria again—it won’t develop in its mosquito hosts in non-tropical environments. “Why can fish evolve ways to live at subfreezing temperatures while malaria can’t manage to live in merely cool temperatures?”

This is wrong. Ultimately, as Behe should know, this is fundamentally wrong. Malaria knows no competition among its own kind, knows only predation from humans and their drugs. Notothenioid fish were driven—or drove themselves—to a new and at first glance barbarous environmental niche in order to escape predation, or at least in order to exploit an unexploited place. As noted, malaria has no Darwinian need to conquer cooler climates; it does quite well where it is, and it always has. Notothenioid fish, on the other hand, were almost certainly prompted into their anti-freeze environment by competitive forces entirely in line with the Darwinian worldview.

And it’s that “almost” on which Behe ultimately hangs his hat, because, as his Iacocca tower parable makes clear, his main argument against a strictly Darwinian explanation of life on Earth is that this explanation has gaps, that not all intermediary forms are in the fossil record. His own creationist explanation (he calls it “design”), he contends, is every bit as scientific as Darwinism and a whole lot more complete. Of course in order to contend this he has to come up with a definition of what constitutes science, which has previously been rather inconveniently defined by the stubborn secular world as a discipline entirely devoid of faerie folk. He’s a paid professional, though, and he gets around this obstacle easily enough; his “rough and ready” definition of a scientific conclusion is: “any conclusion that relies heavily and exclusively [sic] on detailed physical evidence, plus standard logic. No relying on holy books or prophetic dreams. Just the data about nature that is publicly available in journals and books, plus standard modes of reasoning.”

Based on his own definition of what constitutes science (a definition, the reader will notice, that justifies a flat Earth, witchcraft, and phrenology, to name just three idiocies once anointed by journals, books, and “standard logic”), he assures his readers, “design” certainly qualifies.

He’s happy to note that critics object to this for two reasons: first, that “design” isn’t testable, that it makes no specific predictions, and second, that it invokes mysterious powers or inexplicable beings. Behe counters these objections mainly with rhetoric, which at least has the virtue of not being another parable. He makes much of the fact that evolutionary scientists have made faulty predictions in the past, plus those missing steps:

Those who stick with Darwin even if they can’t rigorously envisage supposed random pathways to complex systems are in no position to demand that design theorists escort the designer to the next science conference.

This is wrong. They are in exactly that position. For a hundred years, mankind’s deepening knowledge of biology and genetics has consistently proven that evolution by random mutation and natural selection is the organizing principle of life on this planet. At clever “science” conferences (the word speaks volumes about the real leanings of Behe’s mind) all over the world, exciting work is being done to further understanding of cellular development, genetic mutation, and paleobiology. If Behe and his coven want to write books saying “wait, stop—it’s all too complex, it couldn’t have evolved the way you say, something had to make it,” they are explicitly enjoined to give evidence of their “designer” (Behe calls Him/Her/It the “uberphysicist,” always and tellingly singular) at the next “science” conference. It’s no good pointing at gaps in the Darwinian record, especially with so many of them getting filled in with each passing year; no, you’re obliged to show proof, even if it means walking your uber-bogeyman right through the conference doors. Habeas corpus.

But then, if that were to happen, we’d all get as clear a look at this “designer” as we’ve had at alleles and mitochondria, which raises the question of what exactly that sight would entail. Behe is at his most openly fraudulent when he’s trying to pretend his “designer” could be anything other than a kindly old (white) man with a flowing beard. Toward this end he takes the creationist’s now-obligatory swipe at the guy who started all this “science” nonsense:

Of the many possible opinions [on the nature of “design” and the “designer”], only one is really indefensible, the one held by Darwin. In a letter to Asa Grey, he wrote: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficient and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living body of caterpillars.”

Wasp larvae feeding on paralyzed caterpillars is certainly a disquieting image, to say nothing of malaria feeding on children. So did Darwin conclude that the designer was not beneficent? Maybe not omnipotent? No. He decided—based on squeamishness—that no designer existed. Because it is horrific, it was not designed—a better example of the fallacy of non sequitur would be hard to find. Revulsion is not a scientific argument.

It need hardly be pointed out that willful ignorance isn’t a scientific argument either, and anybody who attempts to score points with conservative Republicans by mocking Darwin (a man who shot, dissected, and vivisected more animals than Behe has ever even seen) as squeamish is exercising a powerful amount of willful ignorance. Add to that the implication that Darwin was an atheist and willful ignorance begins to look a lot like something worse.

That something worse runs throughout this iniquitous book, occasionally coming close enough to the surface to glint in the sunlight, before diving down below malaria charts and cell diagrams. It’s what propels Behe’s richly unbelievable claim that in putting forward his supernatural version of how life began and keeps going, he’s somehow speaking up for the underdog:

In recent years Darwin’s intellectual descendents have been aggressively pushing their idea on the public as a sort of biological theory-of-everything. Applying Darwinian principles to medicine, they claim, tells us why we get sick. Darwinian psychology explains why some men rape and some women kill their newborns. The penchant for viewing the world through Darwinian glasses has spilled over into the humanities, law, and politics. Because of the rhetorical fog that surrounds discussions of evolution, it’s hard for the public to decide what is solid and what is illusory. Yet if Darwinism’s grand claims are just bluster, then society is being badly misled about subjects—ranging from the cause of illnesses to the culpability of criminals—that can have serious real-world consequences.

Leaving aside the fact that for a creationist to accuse somebody else of creating a “rhetorical fog” to confuse the public about science and not be struck by lightning is proof positive that there is no God, we can see the baleful glint again: what kind of new world is being invoked here? What does it reject? Who are its guardians, and whose labs are they shutting down? Rational, balanced debate is not being called for here—how can it be, when the observable, measurable facts are all on one side? What’s being called for here, the ugly stain running through this oh-so-civilized book, has a darkly familiar feel to it, and that’s because the West has experienced it before, when it was called the Inquisition.

Behe, our benevolent couch potato, would reject such a claim utterly. He’s dealing in science, he would respond, and in this scurrilously false claim he is seconded by his publisher (and by every bookstore in the country), which has categorized his work as science. Simon & Schuster has not seen fit to confine Behe’s rantings to his book itself; rather, in a move even an atheist writer would be tempted to call sinful, it’s taken the normally objective dust jacket copy and quietly turned it into polemic. This isn’t Behe writing, this is the conclusion of the publisher’s notice, on the jacket of a book found in the science section of the bookstore:

Although it will be controversial and stunning, this finding [that most of life’s mutations have been “nonrandom”] actually fits a general pattern in recent decades: The universe as a whole was fine-tuned for life. From physics to cosmology to chemistry to biology, life on earth stands revealed as depending upon and endless series of unlikely events. The clear conclusion: The universe was designed for life.

This is wrong, and it’s addedly depressing to contend this against an entire publisher rather than one academic disgrace. The universe is one vast panorama of things that kill life—radiation, vacuum, solar explosions, unimaginable collisions. Even the solar system has yet to reveal the slightest sample of life outside of Earth. And although Earth’s chemical composition and position relative to the sun certainly give it great potential for life, that life obviously need not be human (especially given the frequency of near-total worldwide extinctions that have occurred in the planet’s history). These things are incontrovertible, except at that great religious publishing house, Simon & Schuster.

At one point, Behe writes: “Is the conclusion that the universe was designed—and that design extends deeply into life—science, philosophy, religion, or what? In a sense it hardly matters.”

Finally, this is wrong. It matters. In a world gripped in the greatest wave of dangerous religious zealotry seen in the last five hundred years, in a world every day engulfed in religious fundamentalism of all stripes, and saddest of all, in a world where a professor of biological sciences can dress religious fundamentalism in the sheep’s clothing of science and be warmly aided in doing so by a major allegedly secular publisher, it matters now more than ever.

Two hundred years ago, the great historian Edward Gibbon wrote about a new crop of pseudo-intellectuals infesting a tottering empire:

Consuming their reason in these deep but unsubstantial meditations, their minds were exposed to illusions of fancy. They flattered themselves that they possessed the secret of disengaging the soul from its corporal prison; claimed a familiar intercourse with demons and spirits; and, by a very singular revolution, converted the study of philosophy into that of magic.

Would that he were here now. A new crop needs scourging.

Steve Donoghue used an early inheritance to build a powerful observatory in the Rhineland, which, after Tycho Brahe’s sudden death, was the most significant source of astronomical data in Europe. He met Kepler once in a beer hall in Prague and begged him to abandon the flawed Ptolemaic system, though to no avail. Presently he stargazes for fun and, just as fun, hosts the literary blog SteveReads.