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Dawkins Attacks Behe in New York Times, But Where’s the Science?

Perhaps the most striking feature of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion is its lack of science. I had thought that this was an anomaly, but Dawkins’ New York Times review (out Sunday) of Michael Behe’s The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism is the same patchwork of fallacies devoid of science as The God Delusion.

Let me count the ways…

First, Dawkins begins by trying to discredit Behe, noting that Behe’s own department has distanced itself from Behe’s work on intelligent design (ID). But this is not a refutation of Behe’s work. Rather it is poisoning the well.

Second, Dawkins claims that Jerry Coyne’s review of Behe was devastating. Great. Then why doesn’t he recount the argument rather than claiming someone else has already refuted Behe? This is a subtle argument from authority.

Dawkins says Judge Jones and the Dover Trial humiliated Behe. OK, but what exactly is the argument that humiliated him? What was the scientific evidence that undermined his case? Surely the fact that such technicalities would be complicated is not too much for the Charles Simonyi chair for the public understanding of science to relay to us. Dawkins writes that The Edge of Evolution is Behe’s attempt to soldier on and stage a comeback from the Dover defeat. Too bad that Dr. Behe was at work on The Edge long before the Dover school district ever enacted its policy.

Fourth, Dawkins asserts that The Edge of Evolution contains “little” about irreducible complexity, implying that Behe is backpedaling. In fact, The Edge actually extends the arguments Darwinism from irreducible complexity. Behe argues that irreducible complexity represents a form of biological complexity that random mutations cannot produce. But it’s an extreme example well beyond the reach of Darwinian processes. The quest of The Edge is to find the limit of how much biological complexity Darwinian processes can produce. And Behe finds that the limit is far below irreducibly complex machines. In other words, after this book, the case for evolution has gotten worse, not better.

That said, even though irreducible complexity is not the focus of the book, Behe nonetheless devotes much space to showing how the argument for irreducible complexity itself has only gotten worse for Darwinians. As it turns out, we now have more powerful microscopes and have found that there are irreducibly complex systems regulating the irreducibly complex systems! Behe points out that there are little trucks that build the irreducibly complex cilium. They bring in parts and take them away. The trucks even have forward and reverse motors! And they know when to stop work and conserve energy if there is damage. Moreover, these machines assemble via a complex set of assembly instructions that represent far greater complexity than the final irreducibly complex machine itself. Thus Behe says that biology contains not just irreducible complexity but “irreducible complexity squared” (pg. 93). I encourage you all to read this part of The Edge. See especially Figure 5.2.

Fifth, Dawkins misrepresents Behe as claiming that ID is correct because Darwinism can’t account for irreducibly complex (IC) systems. In other words, Dawkins wrongly understands ID as merely a negative argument against evolution, thus missing the true structure of the argument. Behe actually claims that Darwinian processes are insufficient for making IC systems and that intelligent processes are (note the positive aspect) capable. He is saying that when the two theories’ explanatory powers are compared, ID wins out, and we infer that ID is the best explanation.

Dawkins is stuck using old-school deductive arguments. But Behe is using a form of argumentation common to the historical sciences, viz., Inference to the Best Explanation, or abduction. It is a comparative style of argumentation where one lines up all the possible explanations and asks which ones are able to produce the phenomenon in question, among other things.

Dawkins also says that Behe’s claim that the bacterial flagellum will not work properly without all of its parts is “without justification.” Unfortunately for Dawkins, knockout experiments have been done, and so this assertion is not without justification. For example, Scott Minnich, microbiologist at the University of Idaho, testified at the Dover Trial about his knockout experiments which found that the flagellum is irreducibly complex with respect to its 35 or so genes. Judge Jones ignored this testimony, and so does Richard Dawkins. Why doesn’t Dawkins know the relevant science?

Finally in this regard, Dawkins again resorts to the “someone else refuted Behe” argument. He claims that at trial Ken Miller “showed how the bacterial flagellar motor could evolve via known functional intermediates.” Again, this is just false. What Miller did was to point to another irreducibly complex system, the Type III Secretory System and claim it as an intermediate–even though the best evidence shows it is derivative of the flagellum and not the other way around.

Sixth, Dawkins gets a kick out of telling audiences around the world that evolution is “not random” because natural selection selects for function rather than randomly. This is true but trivial. Dawkins fails to mention that all of the novelty which natural selection has to work with comes from random mutations! The creative part of the process is blind, as Dawkins himself has beautifully shown in his books. So Behe is correct to focus in on seeing what random mutations can produce. For if it cannot produce the right mutations, in the right quantities, in the right amount of time, then natural selection cannot act to preserve them!

Seventh, about ¾ of the way through the review Dawkins makes his first and only actual attempt at countering Behe with evidence. If Behe is correct that random mutations cannot produce the many precise mutations necessary to create the variety of species we observe today, asks Dawkins, then why do we observe such variation in dogs that we know humans have bred? But it is here that I wonder if Dawkins even read The Edge of Evolution. In it Behe claimed that changes within species are well within the creative power of natural selection and random mutation. Behe has claimed that the creative limit of the Darwinian process is somewhere between orders and genera. Perhaps Professor Dawkins missed the chart on the first page. Strawman.

At this point it seems that Dawkins’ argument amounts to “Wow! Look at the varieties of dogs that have been produced relatively recently! Surely Darwinism, then, can produce much more over a long time without the help of intelligent breeders!” And it is precisely because this sort of fuzzy argument is prevalent among hopeful Darwinists that Behe’s work in The Edge is important. Behe looks at studies of actual organismal populations to place limits on what random mutation can produce. Even Darwinists must admit that given the age of the earth and population sizes there must be some limit to what a Darwinian process can produce in a given population in a given amount of time. Dawkins should spend his time arguing (from the same body of data) for his own notion of where this limit lies rather than bashing Behe for attempting to define such limits at all.

Eighth, Dawkins chides Behe for daring to state something contrary to the beliefs of great evolutionary mathematicians and geneticists. Perhaps Dawkins will try to imagine if Darwin himself were not allowed to make an argument because the authorities of his day disagreed with him. This is another argument from authority and is completely invalid. (For fun, try inserting “Galileo” or which ever pathbreaking scientist you wish into the penultimate paragraph where you see “Behe.” It won’t totally make sense, but I think you’ll get my point.)

Finally, Dawkins says Behe must publish his work in scientific journals. Well, first of all, he has. As one example, Behe published computer modeling of the evolution of binding sites in different sized populations in the journal Protein Science. Second, as concerns intelligent design, I think Dawkins has already shown why pro-ID papers are dead-upon-arrival by revealing to us the prejudices of even Behe’s own department!

Indeed, Dawkins should find irony in the fact that The Origin of Species was not originally published in a scientific journal but as a book. But that aside, how on Earth can Professor Dawkins, who systematically refuses to debate ID scientists, chide Behe for not being willing to “rumble” for his ideas in the public square? This is shameful.

Logan Paul Gage

Logan Paul Gage is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Dr. Gage received his B.A. in history, philosophy, and American studies from Whitworth College (2004) and his M.A. (2011) and Ph.D. (2014) in philosophy from Baylor University. His dissertation, written under the supervision of Trent Dougherty, was a defense of the phenomenal conception of evidence and conservative principles in epistemology.



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