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Polar Bear Seminar: On Retracting — and Not Retracting — Errors 

Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a five-part series taking a closer look at Michael Behe’s arguments that polar bear genes experienced adaptive mutations that were damaging. Find the full seminar here.

This concludes our seminar on polar bears in light of Michael Behe’s discussion of them in Darwin Devolves. The book is important, extending the frontiers of the argument for intelligent design, otherwise it wouldn’t justify this extended treatment. Answering Behe’s critics is important too, for the additional reason that their criticisms are almost all ill-founded, and have failed in seeking to besmirch Behe’s scholarship. With opponents of ID, this experience is all too familiar. 

As noted in the first post in this series, there is one justified allegation of a very small error in Behe’s book. Biologists Nathan Lents and Arthur Hunt identify it in their blog post. Look again at the paragraphs from Darwin Devolves quoted at the beginning of the series. Behe writes there that in polar bears, the “most strongly selected mutations” are found in the gene APOB. This is not quite correct. From Table 1 in Liu et al. (2014), of the 20 genes they evaluated, APOB had the second most strongly selected mutations, not the “most strongly selected” mutations. Lents and Hunt note this but they concede that the mistake is trivial:

First of all, as shown in Table 1 of the paper, APOB harbors the second most strongly-selected set of variants, not the first, but we can let that one slide.

The gracious attitude is appreciated. Though it makes no difference to Behe’s arguments, he acknowledges the mistake, as he told us:

I mistakenly wrote in Darwin Devolves that APOB was the most highly selected gene in the evolution of polar bears from brown bears. In fact, as was pointed out by Nathan Lents and Arthur Hunt, it is actually the second most highly selected gene. I appreciate the correction.

Unexhausted Errors

As seen in this series, the multiple other accusations against Behe on polar bears all turn out to be mistaken. But in the dialogue with his critics, that doesn’t exhaust the total of errors committed. As was reported here last month, Nathan Lents, a biologist at John Jay College, posted an article at the website Adventures in Poor Taste that made about as fundamental a mistake as one could imagine. It comes in his descriptions of Behe’s views about chloroquine resistance. Lents claimed Behe argued that chloroquine resistance could not evolve:

In The Edge of Evolution, Behe made the grand claim that natural selection couldn’t even coax the malaria parasite into resistance to chloroquine because it requires at least two mutations. 

Lents drew on that misunderstanding to make other misstatements about Behe’s view. He claimed that because a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) article identified some of the mutational pathways by which chloroquine resistance can evolve, Behe’s failure to mention the article implied “academic dishonesty”:

Given that the article was published in the top-tier (and open-access) journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and directly rebuts a specific claim that [Behe] made, there is no way that he could have missed it. His omission borders on academic dishonesty.

In fact, Behe fully acknowledges that chloroquine resistance is within “the edge of evolution.” He is entirely clear that it can and does evolve. This forms the very basis for his testing what is or is not within limits of the Darwinian mechanism. In The Edge of Evolution, he even calls chloroquine resistance an evolutionary trait that shows “evolution is powerful” (p. 45) and “a crystal clear example of Darwinian evolution in action.” (pp. 51-52) 

As for the PNAS paper whose “omission” supposedly made Behe guilty of “academic dishonesty,” that’s wrong again. Rather than ignoring it or missing it, Behe discussed it in no fewer than ten articles here at Evolution News. He did so because it directly vindicates his arguments that chloroquine resistance requires at least two simultaneous mutations before any resistance is acquired. This, according to Behe, is the main genetic reason why chloroquine resistance arises so rarely. 

A Promised Retraction

So to review what we’ve seen so far: 

  • Behe’s error is trivial and has no bearing on his argument. Nonetheless he admitted it and thanked Lents for pointing it out. 
  • Lents’s error derives from a fundamental misreading of Behe’s entire argument in The Edge of Evolution, and he enlisted this error for the purpose of calling Behe “dishonest” — erroneously of course. Will Lents admit his quite significant mistake?

In a discussion at Joshua Swamidass’s website Peaceful Science, someone asked Lents about this. He wouldn’t say whether he had made an error, but promised a retraction if he had:

If I did, I would certainly admit to it and correct the error, as I did once before. 

Another critic of intelligent design participating in the thread, John Harshman, affirmed to Lents that he had in fact made a mistake:

You did, and you should. Chloroquine resistance is used as an example of the edge of evolution.

Initially, Swamidass did not take a position on the question but he promised Lents would correct any error:

Give it time. @nlents said if he made an error he will fix it. He had done so once before. Remember the exchange on sinuses? I’m not concerned about his ability to concede a point.

It’s good to have friends who believe in you. Lents also wrote, “I’ll have to read it all again carefully (a practice the DI folks should consider adopting!).”

Presumably by “it” Lents means Behe’s book The Edge of Evolution. But note his comment about rereading books carefully, and Swamidass’s comments about an exchange about sinuses. That alludes to a previous interaction between Lents and Evolution News contributor Michael Egnor. The topic, worth a review in the present context, was the supposed poor design of the sinuses. 

Poor Design and the Sinuses

In his book Human Errors, Lents argued that the human maxillary sinuses are marked by “poor design.” Why? Because mucus must sometimes leave the maxillary sinus by flowing upward, against the force of gravity. Dr. Egnor, a neurosurgeon, replied to Lents here at Evolution News, observing that our sinuses are well designed, don’t normally drain through the force of gravity, and that some people actually have maxillary sinus drainage ports exactly where Lents says they should be. 

In support of the latter claim, Egnor cited a medical paper, “The drainage system of the paranasal sinuses: a review with possible implications for balloon catheter dilation.” Lents took exception. He replied with the accusation that Egnor had engaged in a citation bluff because the paper “is discussing accessory drainage in the paranasal and frontal sinuses, not the maxillary sinuses” (emphasis added). As he also wrote at Peaceful Science:

You will notice that the article is all about the paranasal sinuses not the maxillary sinuses. Totally different structures!

Lents ranted that writers associated with Discovery Institute are “dishonest” and he claimed that Dr. Egnor, in particular, had set out to take advantage of ignorant readers. In Lents’s words, “They made an obvious error, got caught, and then just pretend it didn’t happen.” This is in contrast to Lents, who boasted about how he corrects his mistakes:

I’ve made mistakes, some I caught, others someone else caught. I always correct it the best I can. That’s what honest people do. 

We then replied to Lents, observing that he made an error about sinus anatomy terminology, which eliminated his basis for claiming Egnor mistakenly cited the paper: 

No, there was no error [on Egnor’s part] to correct. On the contrary, it’s Lents’s description of nasal anatomy that is wrong, at an elementary level. The maxillary sinus and the paranasal sinuses are not “totally different structures.” The maxillary sinus is one of the paranasal sinuses! The paper Egnor cited was discussing the maxillary sinus as well as the other paranasal sinuses.


To Lents’s credit, he ended up posting a retraction about sinus terminology on his Human Errors blog. As he noted, “They did correctly point out one mistake I made in terminology.” He makes it sound like a trivial error, but in fact his error formed the basis for his attacking Mike Egnor’s integrity, alleging that Egnor had wrongly cited a paper and refused to correct the record. Lents acknowledged his faulty terminology, a small matter, but never retracted any of the unwarranted personal attacks he made against Michael Egnor on the basis of his error. Of course that is a much bigger problem.

Why belabor this history? Because Behe’s critics are still raising the sinus episode, and citing it (as evidence that Lents will retract his errors) while demanding that Behe make retractions. You will notice the irony. Lents, who refused to acknowledge his own false portrayal of Egnor, now throws mud at Behe. Caught in a major goof, Lents again has not yet acknowledged it nearly two months after the error was first pointed out.

All this started with the triple-authored review of Behe’s book in the journal Science. That review was full of errors as we have documented here, among other responses. Meanwhile the critics demand that Behe retract errors that aren’t errors. They make personal attacks that are themselves based on factual errors — errors they either only partially retract or do not retract at all. This is Lents’s style, in particular. Maybe Lents read The Edge of Evolution, maybe he didn’t. If he did read it, and somehow thinks that Behe argues that chloroquine resistance cannot evolve — a position Behe repeatedly rejects in the book—what are we to make of that?

Swamidass and Sinuses

During Joshua Swamidass’s recent webinar focused on Behe’s book, Swamidass was asked if Lents had indeed committed an error about Behe and chloroquine resistance. To Swamidass’s credit, he affirmed that Lents had made a mistake in characterizing Behe’s arguments about chloroquine resistance. But he then seemed to defend Lents, recalling the “sinus” episode where Lents admitted an error. He said this in order to reassure everyone that Lents would admit his mistake about The Edge of Evolution this time around too. So far, it hasn’t happened. 

After the webinar, Swamidass wrote to Lents: 

@NLENTS you need to watch part of this too. They asked about out what looks like a mistake you make in explaining Behe’s position. If that isn’t either retracted or better explained, I expect they will be pressing you on this.

Lents replied:

Oh jeez, what are they upset about? In any event, here’s the thing. Why should I care about them pressing me? Considering how they never ever admit their many mistakes, missteps, and deceptions, why should I give a hoot about their concerns? Behe doctored the hell out of a chart to try to convince people I am incompetent. Methinks he doth protest too much.

Remember, it was Lents himself who wrote, “I’ve made mistakes, some I caught, others someone else caught. I always correct it the best I can. That’s what honest people do.” 

Perhaps Lents will ultimately correct himself and apologize. If he does, good for him. We write all this, again, simply to point out that Michael Behe is being subjected to demands for corrections and retractions over issues that aren’t errors, by people who make serious errors about his arguments — errors that they seem to be in no rush to correct.

Photo credit: Andy Brunner on Unsplash.