Behe Jumps the Shark

Nick Matzke has also commented on this, but the op-ed is so bad I can’t resist piling on. From the very first sentence, Michael Behe’s op-ed in today’s NY Times is an exercise in unwarranted hubris.

In the wake of the recent lawsuits over the teaching of Darwinian evolution, there has been a rush to debate the merits of the rival theory of intelligent design.

And it’s all downhill from there.

Intelligent Design creationism is not a “rival theory.” It is an ad hoc pile of mush, and once again we catch a creationist using the term “theory” as if it means “wild-ass guess.” I think a theory is an idea that integrates and explains a large body of observation, and is well supported by the evidence, not a random idea about untestable mechanisms which have not been seen. I suspect Behe knows this, too, and what he is doing is a conscious bait-and-switch. See here, where he asserts that there is evidence for ID:

Rather, the contemporary argument for intelligent design is based on physical evidence and a straightforward application of logic. The argument for it consists of four linked claims.

This is where he first pulls the rug over the reader’s eyes. He claims the Intelligent Design guess is based on physical evidence, and that he has four lines of argument; you’d expect him to then succinctly list the evidence, as was done in the 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution FAQ on the talkorigins site. He doesn’t. Not once in the entire op-ed does he give a single piece of this “physical evidence.” Instead, we get four bald assertions, every one false.

The first claim is uncontroversial: we can often recognize the effects of design in nature.

He then tells us that Mt Rushmore is designed, and the Rocky Mountains aren’t. How is this an argument for anything? Nobody is denying that human beings design things, and that Mt Rushmore was carved with intelligent planning. Saying that Rushmore was designed does not help us resolve whether the frond of a fern is designed.

Which leads to the second claim of the intelligent design argument: the physical marks of design are visible in aspects of biology. This is uncontroversial, too.

No, this is controversial, in the sense that Behe is claiming it while most biologists are denying it. Again, he does not present any evidence to back up his contention, but instead invokes two words: “Paley” and “machine.”

The Reverend Paley, of course, is long dead and his argument equally deceased,
thoroughly scuttled
. I will give Behe credit that he only wants to turn the clock of science back to about 1850, rather than 1350, as his fellow creationists at the Discovery Institute seem to desire, but resurrecting Paley won’t help him.

The rest of his argument consists of citing a number of instances of biologists using the word “machine” to refer to the workings of a cell. This is ludicrous; he’s playing a game with words, assuming that everyone will automatically link the word “machine” to “design.” But of course, Crick and Alberts and the other scientists who compared the mechanism of the cell to an intricate machine were making no presumption of design.

There is another sneaky bit of dishonesty here; Behe is trying to use the good names of Crick and Alberts to endorse his crackpot theory, when the creationists know full well that Crick did not believe in ID, and that Alberts has been vocal in his opposition.

So far, Behe’s argument has been that “it’s obvious!”, accompanied by a little sleight of hand. It doesn’t get any better.

The next claim in the argument for design is that we have no good explanation for the foundation of life that doesn’t involve intelligence. Here is where thoughtful people part company. Darwinists assert that their theory can explain the appearance of design in life as the result of random mutation and natural selection acting over immense stretches of time. Some scientists, however, think the Darwinists’ confidence is unjustified. They note that although natural selection can explain some aspects of biology, there are no research studies indicating that Darwinian processes can make molecular machines of the complexity we find in the cell.

Oh, so many creationists tropes in such a short paragraph.

Remember, this is supposed to be an outline of the evidence for Intelligent Design creationism. Declaring that evolutionary biology is “no good” is not evidence for his pet guess.

Similarly, declaring that some small minority of scientists, most of whom seem to be employed by creationist organizations like the Discovery Institute or the Creation Research Society or Answers in Genesis, does not make their ideas correct. Some small minority of historians also believe the Holocaust never happened; does that validate their denial? There are also people who call themselves physicists and engineers who promote perpetual motion machines. Credible historians, physicists, and engineers repudiate all of these people, just as credible biologists repudiate the fringe elements that babble about intelligent design.

The last bit of his claim is simply Behe’s standard misrepresentation. For years, he’s been going around telling people that he has analyzed the content of the Journal of Molecular Evolution and that they have never published anything on “detailed models for intermediates in the development of complex biomolecular structures”, and that the textbooks similarly lack any credible evidence for such processes. Both claims are false. A list of research studies that show exactly what he claims doesn’t exist is easily found.

The fourth claim in the design argument is also controversial: in the absence of any convincing non-design explanation, we are justified in thinking that real intelligent design was involved in life. To evaluate this claim, it’s important to keep in mind that it is the profound appearance of design in life that everyone is laboring to explain, not the appearance of natural selection or the appearance of self-organization.

How does Behe get away with this?

How does this crap get published in the NY Times?

Look at what he is doing: he is simply declaring that there is no convincing explanation in biology that doesn’t require intelligent design, therefore Intelligent Design creationism is true. But thousands of biologists think the large body of evidence in the scientific literature is convincing! Behe doesn’t get to just wave his hands and have all the evidence for evolutionary biology magically disappear; he is trusting that his audience, lacking any knowledge of biology, will simply believe him.

After this resoundingly vacant series of non-explanations, Behe tops it all off with a cliche.

The strong appearance of design allows a disarmingly simple argument: if it looks, walks and quacks like a duck, then, absent compelling evidence to the contrary, we have warrant to conclude it’s a duck. Design should not be overlooked simply because it’s so obvious.

Behe began this op-ed by telling us that he was going to give us the contemporary argument for Intelligent Design creationism, consisting of four linked claims. Here’s a shorter Behe for you:

The evidence for Intelligent Design.

  • It’s obvious.
  • It’s obvious!
  • Evolutionary explanations are no good.
  • There aren’t any good evolutionary explanations.

That’s it.

That’s pathetic.

And it’s in the New York Times? Journalism has fallen on very hard times.

This article was first published on Pharyngula and appears here by permission.

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