Over at the intelligent-design site Uncommon Descent, the ever befuddled Denyse O’Leary has already glommed onto the review I wrote yesterday of Michael Behe’s new paper. And, exactly as I predicted, she distorts Behe’s conclusions:
So, not only must the long, slow process of Darwinian evolution create every exotic form of life in the blink of a geological eye, but it must do so by losing or modifying what a life form already has.
In other words, she’s extended Behe’s conclusions, based on viral and bacterial evolution in the lab, to evolution of “every exotic form of life” on the planet. This is exactly what one cannot do with Behe’s conclusions.
If you read Behe’s paper, or my take on it, you’ll see that Behe restricted his conclusions to the types of mutations that create adaptations in certain short-term laboratory experiments on viruses and bacteria. He concluded that adaptive mutations in these experiments usually involved either inactivation of genes or genetic elements, or point mutations that modified, but did not qualitatitively change, gene function. In these studies one doesn’t often observe the evolution of entire new genetic elements—Behe calls them “functional coded elements” or “FCTs”—in the lab.
Importantly, there were two critical caveats about his conclusions that restrict their relevance to evolution as it’s happened in nature. Indulge me while I repeat these:
1) The experiments Behe reviewed deliberately excluded important sources of mutations that create new genes and gene elements of evolution in naturally-occurring bacteria and viruses. Those studies are not, then, a good model for what actually happens during microbial evolution in nature, which is known to involve uptake of new genes and genetic elements from other species via horizontal DNA transfer. And this type of evolution involves the appropriation and creation of new FCTs.
2) Behe’s conclusions also can’t extend to eukaryotic species (those with “true” complex cells), because we know that in those groups the creation of new FCTs via gene duplication and other processes has been hugely important in evolution in nature.
See yesterday’s post for a more detailed explanation.
O’Leary either didn’t read what I wrote or, more probably, chose to ignore it.
She further distorts what I said:
This, apparently, got evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne’s recent attention:
“Anyway, Behe reviews the last four decades of work on experimental evolution in bacteria and viruses (phage), and finds that nearly all the adaptive mutations in these studies fall into classes 1 and 3. We see very few “gain of FCT” mutations. Although this is not my field, the review seems pretty thorough to me, and the conclusions, as far as they apply to lab studies of adaptation in viruses and bacteria, seem sound.”
It looks as though Coyne must now actually take Behe’s argument seriously.
Bad of her to leave out these parts that I wrote:
Behe has provided a useful survey of mutations that cause adaptation in short-term lab experiments on microbes (note that at least one of these—Rich Lenski’s study— extends over several decades). But his conclusions may be misleading when you extend them to bacterial or viral evolution in nature, and are certainly misleading if you extend them to eukaryotes (organisms with complex cells), for several reasons . . .
While Behe’s study is useful in summarizing how adaptive evolution has operated over the short term in bacteria and viruses in the lab, it’s far less useful in summarizing how evolution has happened over the longer term in bacteria or viruses in nature—or in eukaryotes in nature. In this sense it says nothing about whether new genes and gene functions have been important in the evolution of life. Granted, Behe doesn’t make such a sweeping statement—his paper wouldn’t have been published if he had—but there’s no doubt that his intelligent-design acolytes will use the paper in this way.
Thanks, Ms.O’Leary, for confirming my prediction.
UPDATE: I’ve changed the title from “Discovery Institute” to “IDers” to reflect the fact that O’Leary was commenting on Uncommon Descent which, as far as I know, is not a formal arm of the DI. But the the DI’s approbation will surely come in time.