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In the Controversy over Intelligent Design, Seeking Genuine Dialogue

John G. West

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Imagine you know someone who tells your friends you are his “hero.” In fact, this person lavishes praise on you for bravery and sincerity. He emphasizes how much he admires you. He stresses that you and he share many of the same beliefs, even though you differ on some things.

A couple of days later, you discover that this same person has sent your co-workers an article he has co-authored denouncing you. His article claims you “ignore evidence,” “misrepresent” the state of your field, and are even engaged in a “quixotic” quest. Reading through the article, you learn that it actually misstates your position, makes misleading claims, and ignores your responses. Still later, this same person tells others that he had an obligation to critique you because your views are tantamount to believing that “1+1=3.”

The same person starts issuing public challenges to you to engage in “dialogue,” pledging that he wants you “to get a fair hearing” — all the while insisting to others that you don’t respond to your critics (even though you have done so extensively).

Is this person’s approach likely to produce genuine dialogue? If not, what might be a more constructive way forward?

“A Fair Hearing”

I’ve been pondering those questions since reading the recent post “I Agree with Behe” by biologist Joshua Swamidass. An evangelical Christian, Swamidass is a sharp critic of intelligent design and a defender of evolution — not that those two concepts need to be mutually exclusive (see Jay Richards’s introduction to God and Evolution). In his post, Swamidass talks about how much he admires biochemist Michael Behe for his bravery and for helping him eventually embrace Darwin’s idea of common ancestry. He calls Behe his “hero” (or did: he has now cut that sentence). Swamidass acknowledges disagreements with Behe, but stresses how much they agree. 

Swamidass ends his article with a plea for Behe to engage him on his online discussion site. He says: “I want him to get a fair hearing.” What could be more reasonable than that? 

And yet… just a few days earlier, to a different audience — this time Michael Behe’s scientific peers — Swamidass co-authored another article. That article bore the blistering headline: “A biochemist’s crusade to overturn evolution misrepresents theory and ignores evidence.” I agree with Swamidass that you can admire someone and still disagree with him. But typically if you admire someone, you strive to treat that person with respect, accurately describe his position, make sure any critiques are fair and accurate, and avoid cheap shots. 

Is this how Swamidass and his co-authors critiqued Behe in Science? 

The review in Science claims that Behe “misrepresents theory and avoids evidence.” It calls his effort to critique Darwinian evolution “quixotic.” Indeed, there is little in the review to suggest that any of its co-authors admire Behe or share common ground with him at all. Instead, they warn readers (cue the scary music) that Behe’s work has “excited creationists,” and tell them that Behe’s ideas were refuted by a world-renowned scientific authority — a federal judge in Harrisburg, PA! (The judge, by the way, cut and pasted his critique of intelligent design virtually verbatim from lawyers working with the ACLU — and ended up misquoting and misrepresenting Behe as a result.)

Misrepresenting Michael Behe

The Science review misrepresents Behe right from the start: “In 1996, biochemist Michael Behe introduced the notion of ‘irreducible complexity,’ arguing that some biomolecular structures could not have evolved because their functionality requires interacting parts, the removal of any one of which renders the entire apparatus defective.” (emphasis added)

Well, no. Behe doesn’t claim that irreducibly complex systems can’t evolve. He claims they are extremely unlikely to evolve by unguided natural selection and random mutations. There is a difference. A more accurate statement would be: “Although Behe accepts much of modern evolutionary theory (such as common descent), he thinks it highly improbable that irreducibly complex systems can be produced by an unguided Darwinian process of natural selection acting on random mutations.” Stated that way, Behe’s position might appear reasonable even to some readers of Science. And if your goal is to give Behe “a fair hearing,” surely you would want to state his position as accurately as possible, right?

The Science review also repeatedly charges Behe with not responding to his critics. As I have already described elsewhere, Behe has responded to most of the critics cited in Science. When confronted with this fact, Swamidass has stressed that they were reviewing Behe’s new book, Darwin Devolves, not what he said elsewhere. But as I pointed out earlier:

[T]he tenor of Swamidass and company’s claim is that Behe doesn’t respond to contrary evidence. They don’t say, “Behe has responded to this evidence, but we fault him because he didn’t reprint his responses yet again in this new book” — likely because they know that such an admission would make their overall claim look silly.

There’s more. The review in Science claims: “Missing from Behe’s discussion is any mention of exaptation, the process by which nature retools structures for new function and possibly the most common mechanism that leads to the false impression of irreducible complexity.” Well, technically true. The exact word “exaptation” doesn’t appear in Behe’s book. But as Behe points out, the argument represented by the term does. Swamidass et al. ignore what Behe said in the book on the topic — all the while criticizing Behe for not responding to his critics.

What Real Dialogue Means

Does this kind of review demonstrate a commitment to give Behe “a fair hearing”? You can decide for yourself.

For me, real dialogue isn’t achieved by saying you admire someone, but by responding seriously and fairly to his arguments. 

After the Science review appeared, Behe and others began to respond in detail to the various criticisms that had been leveled in the review. Like the Science review itself (which, remember, charged that Behe was on a “crusade” that “misrepresents theory and ignores evidence”), some of these responses were pointed. But they also were substantive, highlighting Behe’s extensive previous replies on many of the issues raised in the review.

Now that Swamidass knows Behe has responded previously to most of the very points raised in Science, has Swamidass taken the time to go through Behe’s extensive responses and lay out why he thinks Behe’s responses are unpersuasive?

“A Great Honor”

Alas, for the most part, no. Instead, Swamidass has defended his Science review by suggesting that Behe’s errors are so illogical that they are on the same level as someone who can’t do the simplest form of math: “I just don’t think that 1+1=3, and I think I have a right and obligation to say this.” He has claimed that his Science review is like “kryptonite” to Discovery Institute, and “we are watching them melt before our eyes.” (Does this mean that Swamidass views himself as Lex Luthor?) At the same time, Swamidass seems to suggest that Behe should be grateful to him for his blistering review: “[I]t is a great honor to be reviewed in the prestigious journal Science. I’m humbled to bestow this honor on Behe….” 

Swamidass even faults Behe and others for not consulting him and his co-authors before responding to their critical review: “We offered to clarify any questions they had about the review. They… declined, and instead fired the PR machine up.”

The odd thing about these responses is that they themselves seem to represent PR: Rather than actually respond to someone’s critique, you dismiss it without dealing with it.

When pressed to respond to the fact that Behe has responded to many, many scientific critics over the years, Swamidass finally concedes that Behe “has responded to many other refutations.” But this “does NOT mean,” says Swamidass, that:

  1. He has responded effectively.
  2. He has responded to the strongest refutations.
  3. He has responded to all legitimate refutations.

This is progress — an explicit acknowledgment that Behe has in fact engaged with his scientific critics “many” times. Swamidass’s first two points raise legitimate questions for discussion, although they require more than mere assertions to establish. His third point is potentially so broad as to be unserious. In principle, of course, you should respond to “all legitimate refutations.” In reality, it depends on what one classifies as “legitimate.” There are not enough hours in the day to respond to every troll or every rehashed argument — or to reviewers who studiously ignore your previous responses. 

The Case of Chloroquine Resistance

Let’s apply Swamidass’s first two concerns to a specific case he himself has raised: chloroquine resistance. Behe’s new book briefly mentions this topic from his previous book The Edge of Evolution. The review in Science, however, treats chloroquine resistance as major topic of Behe’s new book (it isn’t) and faults Behe for not responding in his new book to a 2008 journal article by Durrett and Schmidt and a 2014 journal article by Summers. Presumably Swamidass thought these articles were the “strongest refutations” of Behe’s position on the subject, since they were the ones Swamidass and his co-authors cited in their Science review. 

So did Behe fail to respond to these two articles? 

Not at all. In fact, Behe not only responded, he wrote extensive responses. Of course, this fact was left unmentioned in the Science review. No matter. After the review came out and Behe’s previous responses were pointed out, did Swamidass seriously engage them? As near as I can tell, no. 

Swamidass’s treatment of the 2014 Summers paper is instructive. Instead of responding to what Behe has written about that paper, Swamidass first points people to a blog post by biologist Larry Moran — known for regularly berating intelligent design proponents as “IDiots” (including in the very post Swamidass recommends!).

But did Behe ignore Moran’s article? Nope. Indeed, Behe engaged in an extensive online debate with Moran. So does Swamidass explain why he thinks Moran is right and Behe is wrong? Nope again. He simply states: “Yes, I know that Behe responded (unconvincingly) to Moran.” 

An Assertion Isn’t a Demonstration

In other words, Swamidass simply asserts that Behe’s responses to Moran weren’t convincing. But an assertion isn’t a demonstration, and it certainly isn’t a constructive example of dialogue. 

Perhaps recognizing that this kind of non-engagement isn’t sufficient, Swamidass reaches back to a 2009 blog post by Arthur Hunt and cites it as another refutation of Behe. Here he actually quotes from Hunt’s post and tries to offer an actual criticism, even glancingly mentioning one of our responses to him. Now I don’t know if Behe ever responded to this particular blog post by Hunt — or if he even needs to. Given that Behe has written lots of responses on the topic (responses to which Swamidass has not replied), perhaps there is nothing new to say or perhaps his other responses were sufficient. Regardless, I don’t think citing yet another article removes the responsibility of engaging with Behe’s many prior responses. It certainly doesn’t establish that Behe hasn’t responded to the “strongest refutations” against him on this topic. 

Recall that in Science, Behe was originally faulted for not responding to two specific articles about chloroquine resistance — but then it turned out, he did respond to them. Next Swamidass pointed to a blog post by Larry Moran. For myself, I’m not convinced Moran is a great example of someone Behe needed to respond to (perhaps I’m just put off by Moran’s habit of calling people “IDiots”). Regardless, Behe responded to Moran as well. Swamidass apparently doesn’t think Behe’s responses to all these people are convincing — but he doesn’t explain why. Finally, Swamidass finds another blog post from a decade ago and faults Behe for not responding to THAT. I have to admit I’m not especially impressed by this mode of interaction.

If dialogue simply means raising as many new objections against someone as you can, but never having to respond to their previous replies, then that doesn’t seem very constructive.

An Invitation with a Barb

However, if dialogue means a genuine exchange of ideas, where each party responds seriously to the other’s best arguments — then that is definitely worth pursuing. That’s why ID proponents have engaged extensively with their scientific critics over the years. This has already been established with regard to Behe. But it’s true of others as well. For example, Discovery Institute published two entire books devoted to engaging scientific critics of the ideas raised by Stephen Meyer: Signature of Controversy and Debating Darwin’s Doubt. 

Swamidass would like Behe to come to his online discussion site to debate his book with commenters on the site. That’s admirable, but I’m concerned that his invite seems to come attached with a barb: The intimation that if Behe (or others) choose not to participate in Swamidass’s comment board, then they are not really engaging with their critics or the scientific community. That is of course false. Comment boards are one way to engage your critics, and Behe can certainly decide for himself whether he wants to participate in them. But given that there is often more heat than light in online forums, he may well decide that it isn’t the most productive way to have a serious exchange of ideas about his book. If Behe decides to respond to critics in other ways, I hope Swamidass will respect that decision without trying to weaponize it (i.e., falsely claim that Behe doesn’t engage with critics just because he doesn’t participate in Swamidass’s discussion board). 

Behe has written a book, now others are critiquing it (even before it is out!), and Behe and others are responding to the critiques. Regardless of whatever else Behe chooses to do, he is definitely engaging his critics and will continue to do so. To me, this kind of back and forth is more amenable to serious discussion and reflection than quick volleys on a discussion board.

The way to extend this kind of dialogue is to enter into it by writing a thoughtful article. To his credit, noted biologist Richard Lenski has begun to engage Behe’s arguments in Darwin Devolves. Good for him! I’d encourage Swamidass to do the same. If serious points are raised, I’m sure that Behe — and others — will respond in coming months, just as they have already done with regard to the Science review. 

Assuming that Behe’s critics don’t ignore these responses (or dismiss them as part of Behe’s “PR machine”), this will result in a genuine — and stimulating — exchange of ideas. 

If you want to enter into the larger discussion and see what all the fuss is about, I’d encourage you to pre-order Behe’s book, which is finally out next week.

Photo: Michael Behe, a scene from Revolutionary: Michael Behe and the Mystery of Molecular Machines.