Monday, 29 November 2010

Creation Watch - Michael Behe in Leamington Spa

On 20th November 2010 a BCSE member and a school science teacher went along to one of Behe's UK presentations (at North Leamington High School).  She was not impressed by either his science or his intellectual honesty.

It appears that he was accompanied by a minder who described himself as a lawyer.  The venue was full to capacity with the event attracting some 300 people, nearly all of whom appeared to be religious and pro-Behe and, worryingly, included students from the University of Birmingham.

Behe faced very few hostile questions.  Our BCSE member also overheard talk during the coffee break which give a very interesting insight into the real motivations of people there;
“I overheard somebody saying “we're advertising this website to lots of heads of science, it's good because it only has the secular evidence.”” “I told him I worked in a school and asked what the website was. He said it's 'the world around us', 'virtual museum'.”
This is almost certainly part of the web site of the British young earth creationist organisation Genesis Agendum.   Andy McIntosh of Truth in Science has long been involved in Genesis Agendum.   As we say, Intelligent Design is just a front for creationism.  Our BCSE member was also told that the Genesis Agendum web site is being pushed at schools.  Still, what was on sale during the break was clearly pure Intelligent Design material.  They included Behe's 1996 book Darwin's Black Box, the DVD Expelled, No Intelligence Allowed, John Lennox's book God's Undertaker, has science buried God, Behe's 2007 book Edge of Evolution and the book Explore Evolution.  The latter is intended to be a supplementary text book and at the end of the evening the organisers pushed it as particularly useful for pupils wanting to argue with their biology teachers.

Specifically the person doing the pushing and claiming this appears to have been the lawyer acting as Behe's minder. The US National Center for Science Education and the BCSE have has shredded the "science" in this book - see here.  It is not suitable for schools.

Needless to say, no mention was made of what biology teachers thought of Explore Evolution.  The BCSE is well aware of the history of this dubious book in the UK – it is the successor of the discredited book "Of Pandas and People" and has been distributed to school libraries by Truth in Science, an openly young earth creationist organisation.  The BCSE has an open letter to school librarians warning of the book.

The book (British edition) has also been reviewed by BCSE member Ashley Haworth Roberts.  He doesn't think much of it either.  It has been described as "creationist nostalgia", so old and tired are its arguments – see the National Center for Science Education's web site here and here.


Our BCSE member concluded that Behe is “a slippery character” who answers questions like a politician – i.e. he doesn't. Her view was that the Questions and Answers session was more telling than the presentation. He doesn't answer well and sounds flustered a lot of the time.  He takes far too long to answer each one and waffles on and repeats himself dreadfully.  He appears flustered unless the question is friendly one.  However, the entire event was as slick and well done.  At the Leamington Spa presentation those on the floor were either able to ask him questions directly or through written questions submitted during the coffee break.

The set up is important for those expecting to go to future Behe presentations. Our BCSE member believes that people should write their questions in advance “so that they can use the questions from the floor as an opportunity to tackle him about the fact he hasn't answered the previous question properly". As she says, he “answers like a politician”.

Our BCSE member suggests that “if you know of anyone that may be going (even from other places like secular societies) please let them know they'll need at least two people per question or one verbal for every written question to deal with the very annoying fact that Behe does NOT, NOT NOT answer the questions and will ignore salient points. Therefore you'll need the original question plus someone to pick him up on that.” “The kindest thing to say is he's not a character you'll warm to. He takes too long to answer questions and waffles, repeats himself and gets flustered by hostile questions.

She thinks it is “useful to have the full evolutionary pathway of the bacterial flagellum (see Talk Origins) plus something about genes not all being degenerative and know a bit about malarial parasite resistance. His argument was all were degenerative in some way and he used mutations on haemoglobin gene leading to sickle cell, alpha and beta thalasemia, and hereditary persistence of foetal haemoglobin. Then point mutations on G6PD gene leading to anaemia and something else. Basically try and get in a question about mutations that aren't degenerative. I could only think of nylonase and didn't have time to ask it.

My written question was that the bacterial flagellum and many other things he stated are Irreducibly Complex in his book have since been shown not to be. Take away parts of the bacterial flagellum and you get a different but equally functional system called the type 3 secretory system. Where does that leave the argument for Intelligent Design? My question was put with a similar one - hasn't Ken Miller already shredded the bacterial flagellum argument?

Behe's answer astounded me. He referred to Ken Miller and that fact he now wears a mousetrap tie pin. Miller had "misrepresented" his definition of irreducible complexity to mean if you took away parts it wouldn't function whereas (I think) he actually meant it doesn't function as a bacterial flagellum. Behe ignored the fact that my question clearly said take away parts you get a functioning secretory system. He seemed to be saying that the bacterial flagellum could only have evolved from a bacterial flagellum. It could never have been anything other than a bacterial flagellum.

Comments from the BCSE

BCSE member Professor Paul Braterman comments:

This is a special case of the general creationist tactic of redefining terms so narrowly that the counterexamples don't count.  Like saying that fossils aren't really "intermediate forms" because they don't represent the actual split, or that any example of information creation doesn't count because it isn't sufficiently complex.  Here, Behe says that the precursors to the BF don't count because they weren't flagellae.  By this criterion, anything is irreducibly complex because it didn't become exactly what it is until the step at which it became exactly what it is.

Counterexamples to his absurd claim that no novelty has ever been observed in experiments on evolution include:

Multiple Duplications of Yeast Hexose Transport Genes in Response to Selection in a Glucose-Limited Environment http://mbe.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/15/8/931

Historical contingency and the evolution of a key innovation in an experimental population of Escherichia coli (citrate-using variant)http://myxo.css.msu.edu/lenski/pdf/2008

I find this typical of ID-Creationist reasoning.  They pose a real problem.  They are offered a solution. They then redefine the problem until it becomes in principle insoluble.  For Behe, the by now well known steps in the evolution of the flagellum are as irrelevant as Miller's stepwise evolution of the mousetrap, because the problem is redefined so that nothing but the complete flagellum (or Behe's own mousetrap) would count as a solution.  Just like Behe's YEC colleagues, who dismiss the rich fossil record of hominid evolution on the grounds that we cannot show that this or that specimen was an actual intermediate form.

Behe does indeed say that until it became a flagellum, it was not functioning as such, and so its flagellicity (if I am allowed to coin such a term) is indeed irreducible.  Fair enough, but he cannot have it both ways.  If (definition A) irreducible complexity merely means that all parts must be present for a feature to fulfil its function, the flagellum is indeed irreducibly complex, but this trivial fact presents no challenge to the science of evolution.  However, if (B) irreducible complexity means that something could not possibly have arisen by the natural processes of variation, duplication, and selection, then the work that our BCSE member mentions proves that the systems that Prof Behe points to with such confidence are not irreducible at all.  Unconsciously perhaps (I'm being as kind as possible), Prof Behe and his followers slide from one definition to the other, committing the familiar fallacy of equivocation.  The bacterial flagellum is irreducibly complex under definition A, but definition B says that nothing irreducibly complex can emerge by natural selection, therefore the bacterial flagellum could not have emerged by natural selection.  My car is a lemon, lemons are yellow, therefore my car is yellow. I'm afraid that's all there is.

The Q & A Session


More Questioning of Michael Behe.

A question from the floor asked “Doesn't popular culture see support for Darwin everywhere – e.g. the eye written up in National Geographic.  What is the answer to evolution from Intelligent Design?”.  Behe answered that “these things (evolution) are just Just So stories.  It's at the molecular level that things grow up.  The eye example is repeated in National Geographic from an essay first written by Darwin.  It's just some story given to suckers [yes he said suckers] who don't know the difference."  He then referred to a paper where the final line of the abstract was most studies of recent evolution involve loss of traits (back to the old no new info argument). He concluded we don't have a clue how novel traits could have evolved.

Question (from the floor): "Is Intelligent Design a theory or a hypothesis in which case how can you test it?"
Answer from Behe: "A theory - a general explanation". "It needs to be falsified."  He then asked which philosopher had said things needed to be falsified - very worryingly a lot of people were able to say Popper so they've either got scientists in or have pushed the philosophy angle well.  Behe continued that Intelligent Design can be falsified and lots of people have been trying (he forgot to add the word successfully).  He then went on to the work of Richard Lenski on growing e coli and putting it in fresh cultures, etc..  In 50,000 generations of e coli no beneficial mutations were reported.  All mutations are breaking genes (again it is worth noting how often he pushed this point) or turning off genes.  The system is degenerative.  Behe said that Intelligent Design would be falsified if Lenski got e coli to develop an irreducibly complex system.  Lenski hasn't, he hasn't even got part way to something like a bacterial flagellum e coli as mutations are degenerating.

Question (written): Hasn't Judge Jones and the Kitzmiller (Dover) trial killed Intelligent Design.
Behe's answer: The gist of it was (he went on for ages) Jones is a lawyer and has a degree in English.  In his summing up and in everything he's written he's relied on what he's been told by his advisors (scientific) and briefs.  He's become a celebrity because of it and appeared in magazines, etc..  This is a philosophical issue, not science.  Jones couldn't have found for Intelligent Design because people didn't want him to.  Basically Jones relied on expert evidence because he's not a scientist.

[This is astonishing, The founder and driving force behind the Intelligent Design movement, the very man that Behe worked with in the 1990s to develop the Wedge strategy, the very man who argued in Darwin on Trial that evolutionary biology is bad science, is a lawyer with a degree in English.  Step forward Phillip Johnson.  Note carefully the title of the book.  Johnson acted as both judge, prosecution lawyer and jury.  The creationists/fundamentalists love this sort of rhetoric because they thing those that don't agree with them are basically criminals.]

Question (our BCSE member from the floor): "Weren't all his scientific colleagues in agreement with Jones, weren't most of the scientific community agreed it was religious and secondly why were there still no open peer reviewed papers supportive of Intelligent Design in the literature."

Behe's answer: He answered the second question first saying you couldn't publish a paper about Intelligent Design unless you said it was silly or nonsense because of (see above Jones answer).  He would be publishing a paper soon in Cell.  Before he got chance to answer the first part of the question, his minder stopped him on the grounds that only one question could be asked.

Question: "Why if there is increasing evidence for ID why do scientists argue against it?"

Behe's answer: A reason is sociological.  "Bad blood between science and religion."  Scientists don't know much about Intelligent Design, he claimed. [They do.].

Question: "How close does the Haldane dilemma (HD) come to falsifying evolution?"

Behe's answer: He told us the HD deals with the number of beneficial mutations needed for a mutation to spread and take hold.  Haldane has calculated the number of mutations that must take hold to build a structure is unsustainable - too high, particularly in larger species.  Because they could not reproduce quickly enough to spread the mutation, it requires that all organisms without the mutation would have to die to allow that to happen.

Question: "Is it possible to believe in ID but not God?"

Behe's answer: "Complicated but yes".  Some people (a group called the Raelians) believed space aliens were the designer or time travellers.  Behe thought that when taken with history and theology, it was God.

Question: "What is his reaction to theistic evolution - God did it via evolution."

Behe's answer: Theistic evolution is a fuzzy phrase.  It's the idea that God made the universe with potential through laws God made and God knew life would result and that chance alone and natural selection were sufficient.  He disagreed.  Chance will not lead you to what we've got even with the helping hand of natural selection.  Evidence backs up Intelligent Design, according to Behe.

Question: "SETI applies algorithms to stuff from space to ascertain if intelligence behind them. Why are we not happy to apply those same algorithms to RNA and DNA when they clearly signal intelligence."

Behe's answer: Some people just don't want there to be a God or Intelligent Design.  Some people think the current evolutionary theory can explain biological complexity.

Behe's PowerPoint Presentation


As for Behe's PowerPoint presentation, one of the first arguments seemed to define what Intelligent Design is.  It showed a cartoon of a man being caught in a trap.  Behe suggested that we can recognise that the trap is designed. “Is it a religious conclusion?  No.  It has separate parts and is arranged to fulfil a function.”  Basically Behe argues we detect design.  “Intelligent Design is based on strength of inference.  It is quantitative.  The more parts we have the more precise their function the more confident we are they're designed.”  Design is not mystical, he suggested.  It is deduced from physical structure of a system.

Behe then went on to point out that everyone agrees aspects of biology appear designed, quoting from Richard Dawkins' book, The Blind Watchmaker, that complicated things give the appearance of being designed for purpose; “Dawkins believes this happened by evolution.  Why does Dawkins think they look designed.  Is it aesthetics (flowers pretty) or are puppies designed to look cute?  No Dawkins gives engineering reasons.  Living bodies look designed.  Knowledgeable engineera would look at the structure and see purposeful arrangement of parts.  Even Dawkins agrees.”

Behe's view is that the appearance of design is quantitative (worth remembering that as it seems to be his only scientific rationale – he didn't define how much was enough for design though). "Even Dawkins appreciates appearance of design is overpowering".

According to Behe, this was also addressed by Darwin.  If a complex organism could not have been formed by numerous successive and slight modification evolution falls down.  Natural selection is gradual, each step a small improvement.  If a biological system looked like it improved in large leaps it would not look like evolution.  It would be design.  What sort of system looks like it couldn't be put together by evolution?

Then he got to irreducible complexity being something of a system of different parts.  Parts interact to the same effect.  No part stands alone.  Therefore evolution could not produce it.  Astonishingly after the Intelligent Design fiasco at the Dover trial, he went on to repeat the old saw of the mousetrap.  The number of different parts couldn't function alone. How could you evolve a mousetrap.  You could start with the wooden block and hope the mouse tripped over then add bit to help it trip.  Ah, how Behe chuckled at that.

He claimed that the evidence of irreducible complexity in cellular and biochemical systems is all over the place – it is difficult now to find anything that is not complex. Behe then rolled out the other old saw - the bacterial flagellum.

Behe argued that people still trying to find out how the bacterial flagellum is put together remove any one part and it doesn't function.  People look at the bacterial flagellum and realise it's a machine.  Are other things like that?  Yes, all over the place, Behe added.  He then went on to a 10 year old copy of the journal Cell which had been devoted to macromolecular machines. He showed chapter headings like cell coding protein machines, polymerase and replicase machines, etc., etc..

Next we had a picture/diagram of a cilium-acts like an oar in eukaryotic cells.  Behe pointed out it had been published in a journal of nanotechnology.  We then had a bit about borgs in star trek (they are half human half machine, inject nanotechnology into others to make them borgs).  We are, according to Behe, all borgs because we're all run by complex nanotechnology which must have been designed.

[Well, if these machines are, indeed, designed, there also must be a supernatural manufacturer/assembler of them. Behe appears not to address this problem. Indeed, BCSE fails to understand that if the process of Intelligent Design takes place, when does it happen, how often does it happen, how is it implemented and where can we see the process in operation today. Of course, it is all very odd for the Intelligent Designers that Intelligent Design is never observed happening today.]

Behe then went on to claim that Grand Darwinian claims rest on undisciplined imagination, claiming that we now we now have proof Darwin does not explain life.  Evolution is Just So stories.  Evolution has been fruitless in description of complex life.

Behe believes that many reject Intelligent Design on principle rather than evidence; it has a philosophical implication, therefore people shy away from it.  Behe says he understands that so he suppresses his beliefs and just follows the science.  The bottom line, though, is that there is, in his view, still strong evidence for design, little for Darwinism.

Then the Powerpoint presentation moved on to a duck, asking what it is.  “It's a duck.”  Behe argued that philosophers know two modes of reasoning.  The inductive argument shows it is a duck, asking whether design is philosophy or science?  Inductive reasoning is the use of established facts to draw conclusions.  This kind of logic is used in science.  According to Behe, we use the same inductive reasoning when see something that looks designed to say it is designed.  Inductive reasoning is used in science-ergo Intelligent design is is science.  Hence Intelligent Design is rationally justified, not faith based.
He then went on to his book Edge of Evolution.  A key issue, according to Behe, is where it is reasonable to draw line between what is designed and not.  Darwinism is a multipart theory, with 3 major issues.
1) Common Descent.  That' according to Behe, doesn't tell us where we come from or how past organisms give rise to present.  Therefore it is interesting but trivial.
2) Natural selection - species might change.  He doesn't argue with notion strongest will survive and pass on genes but natural selection is no more than interesting but trivial.
3) Random mutation is controversial.  We can't investigate because evolution takes a long time and lots of generations, but in last ten years we've learnt about the malaria parasite.

Behe went on to discuss how mutations that have arisen to give resistance in the form of the sickle cell, adding a list of various mutations that confer protection against malaria.  All helpful mutations are degenerative and have side effects.  Most 'good' mutations are the result of throwing away or breaking of genes, he claimed.  He referred to it as random mutation in a china shop.  "We have a genome full of finely tuned machines and random mutations break them."  His analogy was decreasing the wind resistance in your car by breaking off the wing mirrors.  His point is that so called beneficial mutations are destructive or degenerative.

He then presented a sort of bar divided up - with those at the top that he would say were obviously intelligently designed (the big bang, cells, bacterial flagellum, etc.), a smaller section at the bottom with things that clearly were evolution (the strongest survive, etc..) and a grey area bit in the middle that he called the edge of evolution.

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