Monday, 29 November 2010

Creation Watch - Michael Behe at Bournemouth

A report from Roy Thearle.

Bournemouth is a quaint Southern English seaside town with many Victorian buildings, parks and arcades; thus it was a very fitting venue for a presentation that consisted almost entirely of ancient arguments and moth-eaten relics.

Heavy traffic meant I arrived at the hall only a few minutes before the start, but I had enough time to check out the bookstall, which was purely ID material (Darwin's Black Box, Darwin on Trial, Edge of Evolution, God's Undertaker, Expelled and Exploring Evolution - the last of which I am now a proud owner, in addition to a copy of Unlocking the Mystery of Life) and note that the audience was mostly middle-aged or older, though there were a few students in attendance.

[The audience was was approximately 200, somewhat less than the 500 in Glasgow but Bournemouth is a much smaller place.]

Michael Behe was introduced at length by some-one who said he was David from theCentre for Intelligent Design, with the usual website plugs and a comment that some-one has likened Behe to a "slimy toad" on their blog. [Ed. comment: Would be right over the top if C4ID had a blog!]

Darwin's Black Box:
Behe got off to a stunning start when the PowerPoint presentation got stuck on the title slide, and he was left floundering around while it was fixed.  This sideshow was certainly more interesting than the next slide, which was Behe's disclaimer than his views are his alone and not shared by his colleagues at Lehigh University yada yada yada.  This seemed completely unnecessary to me, since Behe could simply have been introduced as the author of Darwin's Black Box without Lehigh ever being mentioned.  But perhaps he was fuelling feelings of oppression.

After a quick shot of a 2005 New York Times op-ed piece he wrote entitled Design for Living, Behe introduced his five point plan:
1) Design is not mystical but deduced from physical structures
2) All agree that life looks designed
3) There are structural obstacles to Darwinian evolution
4) Evolution rests on undisciplined imagination
5) There is strong evidence for design and little evidence for Darwinism
You may have noticed that the above treats evolution and Darwinism as interchangeable - this treatment continued throughout the presentation, and led to a very odd juxtaposition near the end. [1]

Step #1 started well with a method of detecting design: "You can infer design when parts appear arranged to accomplish a function". This was illustrated by a Far Side cartoon of a line of overweight jungle explorers, the first of which had been skewered by a trap, and the third of which was telling the fourth that that was why he didn't like to walk up front.  Behe's point was apparently that the trap depicted was obviously designed, and that the cartoon wouldn't work if you couldn't differentiate designed objects from 'undesigned' objects - which point is rather blunted by the cartoon working equally well if the first explorer is being entwined and eaten by a large snake.  As well as setting a precedent for many of the failures of logic that were to follow, this got me wondering whether Behe's objection to evolution as being grounded in imagination arose partly because he doesn't possess much imagination himself.

The slides continued with pictures of the Sawtooth mountains, the 'Old man of the mountain' rock formation and Mount Rushmore, and the long-familiar claim that design could be detected if you knew of a template that matched the object in question.  Unsurprisingly, Behe didn't say anything about a template against which life or DNA could be compared - possibly because the total lack of any such template immediately scuttles the argument.  Behe also claimed that the "strength of the inference [of design] is quantitative".  This might have been interesting if he'd actually quantified anything, or even suggested how it could be done, but he didn't, so it wasn't.

Step #2 was demonstrated with several quotes from the Behe's apparent nemesis,Richard Dawkins:
"Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose."

"We may say that a living body or organ is well designed if it has attributes that an intelligent and knowledgeable engineer might have built into it in order to achieve some sensible purpose, such as flying, swimming, seeing, eating, ... [A]ny engineer can recognize an object that has been designed, even poorly designed, for a purpose, and he can usually work out what that purpose is just by looking at the structure of the object."

"Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view. Yet the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with the appearance of design as if by a master watchmaker, impress us with the illusion of design and planning."

Checking the full version of the second quote shows that Behe curtailed Dawkins' list. He omitted "reproducing". Draw your own conclusions.

[Ed. comment - the tired old creationist scam of quote mining one's adversaries, then using the quotes out of context - and usually heavily edited - to convince the gullible that biologists and geologists completely opposed to creationism somehow support creationisn. We've seen this deliberate deception thousands of times. One of the worst examples of this sort of deliberate dishonesty is the "documentary" Expelled DVDs of which were on sale during Behe's lectures.]

Step #3 looks like the meat of Behe's argument - structural obstacles to Darwinian evolution. Behe started out with Darwin's quote "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not have been formed by numerous successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find no such case." Nor, apparently, could Behe.

He started by redefining 'irreducible complexity' as being when a group of parts produce a function that the parts themselves cannot produce - a definition that not only differs markedly both from his original 'can't-remove-a-piece' definition and his more recent 'requires-unselected-steps' one.  Then we entered some form of time-warp, as Behe explained why mousetraps are irreducibly complex, and showed us all a diagram of the bacterial flagellum, stating "If it's missing [pieces], you have a broken flagellum."  Behe thinks "Irreducibly complex systems are big headaches for Darwin's theory", but neglected to say why, and failed to mention the many criticisms of his ideas that explain not only how irreducibly complex systems not only could and have been seen to evolve, but also that they would be inevitable.  Behe may have expected his audience to be aware of these criticisms though, since he stopped short of stating that irreducibly complex systems were the case Darwin hadn't found - an omission that undermined everything else he said.[2]

Behe then continued with a wave of quotes and pictures to prove that life was, like, wow, sooo complex, and sooo like tiny machinery, that... ...well, nothing. He made no attempt to explain why complexity was a structural obstacle, or why complex things couldn't evolve. He seemed to expect the audience to wallow in the same awestruck haze as him, believing that something that complex must be designed without ever bothering to connect any dots.

Step #4 was even weaker. Behe produced no evidence for anything - just a single opinion from Franklin Harold that “We should reject, as a matter of principle, the substitution of intelligent design for the dialogue of chance and necessity (Behe 1996); but we must concede that there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical system, only a variety of wishful speculations.” 
After likening evolution to Kipling's Just-so Stories, Behe opined that Harold's principle for rejecting Intelligent Design is that it involves extra-scientific philosophical implications - but didn't bother to produce any further quotes as justification, leaving open the possibility that Harold rejected Intelligent Design on the principle that it's merely creationism in disguise, and not worth discussing in any scientific treatise.

Finally, Behe covered Step #5. Or rather didn't cover it - Behe simply announced that it could be concluded from the previous four steps, despite no evidence for design having been presented, strong or otherwise. I will concede that Behe had produced little evidence for Darwinism.

Behe's next announcement stunned me. Behe actually stated that the strong positive evidence for intelligent design was that Richard Dawkins wrote about life having an overwhelming impression of being designed.

That's not strong positive evidence. It's not even evidence at all, it's an opinion.  Worse, it's an opinion about an impression! If Behe can't differentiate between evidence and opinion, or between appearance and actuality, then I'll never take his musings on Intelligent Design seriously, and I doubt anyone with any sense would either.[3]  I was thinking Behe couldn't do much worse, but he immediately proved me wrong - he said [paraphrased, because I was too staggered and he was too incoherent for note-taking]"Life must be designed because it looks designed, and if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, well then that's in-duck-tive reasoning and so intelligent design was a scientific argument and rationally justified."

The Edge of Evolution:

Next, Behe attempted to dissect Darwinism.  Behe said that common descent was interesting, but trivial because it doesn't explain the original ancestral organisms.  Natural selection is also interesting, but trivial because it doesn't explain how the selected variation occurs.  I was hoping to hear that Intelligent Design was interesting, but trivial because it didn't explain how to make pizza, but instead Behe announced that "The critical claim of Darwinism is the sufficiency of random mutation"[4].

That's a major problem.  Not a major problem for evolution, but a major problem for Behe.  Because Darwin never made any claims about random mutation, let alone about its sufficiency.  DNA wasn't even known to exist until after On the Origin of Species was published, and its genetic nature wasn't discovered until after he died.  All Darwin knew was that variation existed - he didn't know what caused it.  So when Behe juxtaposes random mutation and Darwinism, it's evident that Behe either doesn't know or doesn't care what Darwin actually wrote.  Furthermore, by accepting natural selection and common descent, and criticising only modern genetics, Behe is actually accepting Darwin's theory.  I hope that was worth waiting for.

Moving on, Behe started talking about malarial resistance in humans, and said that the genes for sickle-cell trait and thalassaemia aren't positive mutations - they're just broken in a fortuitous way.  He quoted Sarah Tishkoff: "Thus, the genetic variability maintained at the G6PD locus appears to be an example of a balanced polymorphism that, with the classic examples of sickle cell anemia and thalassemia, represents one of the best examples of natural selection acting on the human genome." and then blatantly engaged in bait-and-shift by exclaiming that this was "the best example of Darwinian evolution", disregarding all the examples that have been found in organisms other than humans.  I had intended asking for this to be clarified during the Q&A section, but after foolishly (gallantly?) surrendering the roaming microphone to a charming young lady who was being ignored by the microphone managers, I didn't get it back until just in time for them to cease calling for questions.  I did manage to speak to Michael Behe afterwards, and he admitted that there did exist better examples of evolutionary processes in bacteria.

Last of all, Behe characterised evolution as consisting of breaking things - illustrated with a story of how a broken bridge was useful in preventing opponents crossing a ravine - and claimed that the tiny fraction of helpful mutations are those that are degrading the genome; a claim that anyone who has read up on ApoA-1 Milano or Lenski's experiment will know to be complete bollocks.

Questions and answers:

1. The Q&A session got off to a bad start with a convoluted question about von Hagen, aplastic anaemia and seeding by three men thousands of years ago. I didn't understand it, and I don't think Behe understood it either despite David's attempted translation. But the attempted answer elicited an interesting point: when Behe talks about the complexity of the foundation of life, he doesn't seem to realise that the existing complexity of cellular structures are a result of billions of years of change, and that ancient cells may have been much less complex.

2. Threefold: suggested Behe was not working at the coalface, asked about Dover, and asked about the type-3 secretory system.  None of Behe's responses were satisfactory.  Behe claimed that he submitted papers to journals, but all he got back were immediate rejections because "we're not publishing anything by him".

[Ed. comment - well at least he is submitting papers; that's very unusual amongst creationists.]

Behe's account of the Dover trial were astonishingly counter-factual. He claimed that he had explained things reasonably, but that the other side had twisted the facts.  He excused the result as being because the plaintiffs produced an array of experts, while on the ID side there was "only me".  While Steve Fuller and Scott Minnich's testimony may have hindered the defence, I think they would object to being disregarded completely.  Behe said there was no evidence that Judge Jones understood the scientific arguments.  But even if that was the case - and it wasn't - surely it would be Behe's fault for not explaining them well enough?  He characterised the TTSS as sharing "not many, maybe a third" of its proteins with the bacterial flagellum, a value which is either backwards or extracted ad rectum.  Finally, he reiterated that irreducibly complexity was dependent on a system's original function and the TTSS could not therefore be a pathway to the flagellum - thus confirming that he neither knows nor cares about exaptation.

[Ed comment: the reader is yet again reminded that the creationists never ever admit to getting anything wrong. Their problem at Dover wasn't Jones. It was that the defendents (the Dover School Board) where a bunch of scientifically illiterate young earth creationist incompetents who lied repeatedly under oath.  The Discovery Institute jumped on the bandwagon before it realised what was going on - that the defence and its lawyers (The Thomas Moore Law Center) were hopelessly out of their depth.  The Discovery Institute's two senior people, Stephen Meyer and Bill Dembski, cut and ran before giving their testimony leaving Behe right up a certain creek without a paddle.  Behe's tale about an incompetent judge is a fabrication.  It was the defence that was incompetent.  Behe made a fool of himself at the Dover trial.  There is a simple cultural thing going on here - many Americans simply cannot stand loss of face.  They are in denial mode.]

3. In response to a comment about the best designs being simple, Behe said thatDarwinian evolution doesn't try out a few things and discard them if they fail.  I guess we can add extinction to the list of evolutionary concepts he misunderstands.

4. "If we evolved from monkeys, how come we've grown hair and not lost hair?"
This was asked by a young boy (who may have fluffed his line).  Both Michael Behe and David responded by pointing to their male pattern baldness.  Behe tried unsuccessfully to explain about chimp brains not being sufficiently understood to determine whether ours could have evolved from them.  Astonishingly, one of the microphone men asked for a round of applause for what he thought was a "perceptive question".

5. What is the spark that makes life work?  Rather than talking about vitalism or somesuch, Behe started explaining about protein-folding and the physical properties of amino-acids, and never got close to an answer.

6. How has the presumption of evolution hindered and/or helped science?  Behe admitted that comparative biology allowed us to use animals to investigate human biochemistry, but then said evolution was overmalleable and brought up Haekel's embryo images as an example of how textbooks could use anything as evidence of evolution.  Apart from the pretence that school textbooks are investigative science, Behe failed to remember that he supports common descent, and would expect embryonic similarity.

7. Are newspaper articles on science to be trusted?  No!

8. Is inductive reasoning the only argument for Intelligent Design?  Is it conclusive?  Could inductive reasoning be used to support evolution too?  Answer: Yes, as much as for any other theory, crickets chirping.

9. Commenting on research censorship, Behe said that although research grant boards often requested proposals for more innovative research than the usual minor advances, they always reject proposals to investigate if evolution is true.  I expect they also reject proposals to test if planets go round the Sun.

[Ed. comment - the Discovery Institute has its own research arm, the Biologic Institute, which, even with private money, hasn't come up with one iota of science. The creationists in the USA have billions of US$ available if they saw a "return on investment".]

10. Is antibiotic resistance a positive mutation?  Behe thinks "no", it's mostly caused by minor changes to protein shape that also reduces protein activity.

11. Behe definitely thinks that the malarial parasite was designed, but must be important for some aspect of the biosphere[5].  He also likened the dangers of malaria to those of cliffs, apparently realising that we have a much better options for avoiding falling off cliffs than we do for avoiding malaria.

12. Does incremental design look like evolution?  Behe dodged this one completely, saying it was a judgement call but "evolution is hopeless".  Behe also dodged the next question on what he meant by intelligence by saying that atoms and molecules aren't.

13. Asked about Australopithecus etc, Behe said they were uglier than us, but reconfirmed common descent.

14. Last question: Is Intelligent Design true because evolution is false?  No - Mount Rushmore shows that design can be identified.

And that was it.  A few people got their (new and old) books signed, though they had to run the gauntlet of some idiot[6] who was jabbering on about how life worked through appetites and that people got older because they wanted too.  Michael also had a long conversation with a home-schooling couple and their daughter who had been on TV and subsequently been accused of brainwashing[7].  Micheal agreed with them that she wasn't brainwashed, and I think I do too.

Summary of the Bournemouth presentation:

Apart from the last few minutes about malaria, Michael Behe's presentation didn't include anything new - just the same tired stuff about of mousetraps, irreducible complexity and flagella.  Most of it could have been taken straight from the Dover trial transcripts, and he spoke as if none of the criticisms or refutations of his ideas had ever existed.  He was very vague, and on the few occasions that he made specific points, he almost always failed to follow through - he didn't say that irreducible complexity couldn't evolve, he didn't say that cellular complexity couldn't have evolved, he didn't say how to infer design.  It was as if he was afraid to commit himself to anything in case it came back to bite him.

Nor was the Q&A session very impressive.  Most of his answers consisted of long rambles on unrelated subjects.  His criticisms of evolution were either off-target or empty, and most of the time he seemed no more educated on the subject than the audience.

[1] Yes, this is a blatant attempt to get you to keep reading
[2] Apart from his pronouncement that the bacterial flagellum is "made up of proteins, which are tiny machines in their own right", which just looks wrong.
[3] A sub-sentence ripe for for quote-mining.
[4] Emphasis his.
[5] Preventing overpopulation by humans?
[6] It wasn't just me that thought this - a number of people were rolling their eyes and making side-comments, while Micheal succeeded to remain polite despite not being able to get a word in edgeways, but the guy just wouldn't shut up.
[7] And apparently they're on TV again on Tuesday night, 30th November 2010

1 comment:

  1. There is an interview with Behe from the Belfast leg of his tour on BBC Sunday Sequence: