Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Behe Debated

Dr. C. Loring Brace, professor and curator of biological anthropology at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan debated intelligent design activist Michael Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and senior fellow of the Discovery Institute at the Cranbrook Institute for Science recently. Reader DP sent us this report of the debate:

Behe is a very slick presenter, kindly, knowledgeable, and quite calm and patient in responding to questions. He began by stating his agreement with common descent and natural selection, but stated flatly that both are "trivial" to the discussion and that random mutation is simply not a feasible mechanism for evolution.

This is a central point to his discussion, but is presented with essentially no support and he was unfortunately never questioned about why he takes this stand. The omission of natural selection from his model is particularly significant as it is in many ways the most important element of Darwinian evolution and explains quite well how environmental conditions create population level transformations in certain situations and not others.

Behe's main argument is that random mutations may in some cases lead to reductions, but there are no natural forces promoting complex phenotypic developments. By removing natural selection from the discussion a priori, he manages to make this position seem reasonable to the uninformed and I think it will be crucial in future confrontations to force a discussion of natural selection - Why doe Behe insist that it is trivial? Does he believe that natural selection can't produce complex transformations?

Over and over Behe used examples that most of us would say support Darwinian evolutionary theory. He argues that sickle cell anemia as a response to malaria is unlikely as a result of random mutation, but he does so by simply asserting it and describing the advantage of abnormal red blood cells. Of course this is a classic example in Darwinian theory of an otherwise deleterious mutation that becomes advantageous in a high pressure environment and is therefore selected for.

He is also very into nanotechnology now. He has moved away from the flagellum as a micro-machine, but now uses other features in precisely the same way. Fortunately there was a nanotech researcher in the audience that confronted him on this, but he simply talked around the question and moved on as if he had answered it. He also uses a strange metaphor of the Borg from Star Trek (not joking) and their nanotechnology, then suggests that Darwinists are the Borg. I didn't really get the point of this exercise except to tell us that we are all brainwashed.

The major strategy that I noticed, and one that seems to be quite effective, is that Behe never asserts any mechanism, never gives any details, never supports any of his claims except to assert (without any real support) that Darwinian evolution can't explain x y or z.

In so doing, he successfully kept nearly the entire discussion focused on alleged shortcomings in the normative models. By doing this, he takes a fringe theory that should come in on a defensive posture and places it on the offensive with standard evolutionary theory in a defensive position for the entire evening.

This feeds the notion that there are problems with evolutionary theory and that it is in question among scientists and it also keeps his ideas entirely out of the light. He never provided any mechanisms, details, or even vague proposals, and this was almost entirely successful.

When I got a chance to ask a question, the very last one of the night at 1:55, I asked bluntly for a description of the mechanism that Behe is proposing and also for some ideas about how we would go about deriving hypotheses and detecting his mechanism in the natural world. His response is essentially that he doesn't have a mechanism or model beyond saying that he assumes guided mutation.

He also goes on to assert that this is standard scientific practice, citing Big Bang theory and gravity as theories that were proposed without any mechanism or potential to test. I followed up, unfortunately off mic so you have to turn the volume all the way up, by noting that valid scientific theories produce knowledge by describing natural phenomena that can be tested in the world and I asked for even a single hypothesis or a 10 year plan for furthering knowledge based on his paradigm.

Of course he was completely unable to offer anything except to talk in a circle about finding the "edge of evolution" and suggesting that drug resistant bacteria may be stopped once we realize that their transformations are not describable by standard evolutionary theory.

The other major theme of the evening was "buy my book." If you listen to the debate, you'll hear him reference it over and over. Most of his answers and assertions sounded like "well I can't describe it for you here, but if you read my book you'll get it."

I still think every one of these discussions should start and end with an insistence that Behe provide a detailed mechanism and prove that it is testable in the natural world. Otherwise it is not only useless, it hinders the advancement of knowledge. All of the other details are really superfluous to that point.

I have also come to believe that the scientific community cannot be defensive to ID, we must become aggressively offensive and point out to the wider community exactly that point - ID is not just a silly diversion with no explanatory potential, it is extremely harmful to science and the production of knowledge in general.

You can listen to audio of the debate here.


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