Jack Russell Terriers and Cockroaches: A Challenge to Richard Dawkins

Michael Egnor

Richard Dawkins reviewed Mike Behe’s new book The Edge of Evolution in the June 30 New York Times Book Review. Dawkins offered no surprises. Much of the review was simply a sneer:

I had expected to be as irritated by Michael Behe’s second book as by the first. I had not expected to feel sorry for him…[this] is the book of a man who has given up. Trapped along a false path of his own rather unintelligent design, Behe has left himself no escape. Poster boy of creationists everywhere, he has cut himself off from the world of real science.

Nothing new here. Dawkins uses the standard Darwinist ad-hominem attacks. What’s remarkable about the review is Dawkins’ lack of substantial scientific criticism of Behe’s point in Edge of Evolution. Behe makes the observation that there are limits to the amount of specified complexity that random mutation and natural selection can generate, and that there is reason, based on evidence such as the biochemistry of drug resistance of the malaria parasite, to infer that random mutation and natural selection may be adequate to explain some, but not all, observed biological complexity. It’s a fair and obvious question: how much functional biological complexity can random mutation and natural selection actually generate? Can it account for all of the biological complexity that we actually observe?

Dawkins answers Behe in three ways. First, after the sneers, he quotes Judge John E. Jones’s decision in the Dover case, labeling the Dover citizens’ efforts to discuss intelligent design and to freely criticize Darwin’s theory in schools “breathtaking inanity”. Then he extols biologist Ken Miller’s speculations as to how the bacterial flagellar motor ‘could have’ evolved as offering decisive refutation of Behe’s concept of irreducible complexity. Neither of Dawkins’ answers involves a scientific refutation of Behe.
Finally, Dawkins offers science, and I assume it’s his best shot. He points out that dog breeding provides evidence that mutation rates don’t limit evolutionary change. He cites Jack Russell terriers! We’ll leave aside Dawkins’ highly questionable assumption that the variation with which dog breeders work is primarily the result of new mutations, rather than established variation in the population. In his dog breeding analogy, Dawkins uses a bit of ‘pseudo-Darwinism’, a rhetorical tic in which Darwinists try to defend Darwin’s theory of random variation and natural selection by invoking either non-random variation (bioengineering) or artificial selection (breeding). Dawkins’ invocation of pseudo-Darwinism means one thing: he doesn’t have actual convincing examples of the generation of significant new specified biological complexity by real Darwinism- random mutation and natural selection. Which is Behe’s point.
Dawkins was unable to offer a convincing example of natural selection, so he used artificial selection. I’ll use an example of the real thing:
Imagine that I am a microbiologist, and I culture bacteria in a medium containing an antibiotic, and put the culture of bacteria in an incubator while I go on vacation. I return a week later. When I open the incubator, I find two changes in the culture. The bacteria have developed resistance to the antibiotic, and there are cockroaches crawling in the petri dish. I conclude two things:
1) Random mutation and natural selection are likely responsible for the bacterial resistance to the antibiotic.
2) Random mutation and natural selection are not responsible for the cockroaches. They didn’t evolve from the bacteria in a week. They came from somewhere else (they crawled into the incubator from the outside).
Yet, according to Darwin’s theory, cockroaches really did evolve from ‘bacteria-like’ ancestors over billions of years. So, what’s the threshold of time after which I could plausibly infer that random mutation and natural selection was an adequate explanation for the cockroaches, starting with bacteria? How long would I have to leave the bacteria in the incubator before it would be plausible to infer that the cockroaches evolved from the bacteria? A million years? A billion years? Perhaps a trillion years?
So I ask Dr. Dawkins:
1) How long could I leave the bacteria in the incubator before I could reasonably infer that the cockroaches evolved from the bacteria by random mutation and natural selection? Please provide me with the experimental evidence (data and journal references) that you use to arrive at your answer.
2) If you can’t tell me, then why isn’t Dr. Behe’s question- what are the limits to what Darwinism can accomplish- a fair question?

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.