More criticisms of Behe’s new ID book

I won’t belabor these two new critiques, as you can read both pieces for yourself, and I’m just keeping you up to date as Behe’s new creationist Intelligent Design book, Darwin Devolves heads to press in a week.

Actually, although IDers frenetically argue that their theory is NOT creationism, it really is a species of creationism, for it posits that God The Intelligent Designer creates new mutations required for important adaptations to evolve, mutations that couldn’t accumulate by natural selection alone. The only difference between Behe and, say, Duane Gish is that whereas Gish thought that God made birds, squirrels, and trees, Behe thinks that God made the mutations required for natural selection to bring about birds, squirrels, and trees.

I wonder whether, at the Discovery Institute, the Christians and Orthodox Jews ever ponder how their God has Himself “devolved” from a majestic de novo creator to a Heavenly Mutagen—a Divine Alpha Particle.  Why did God want to make new forms by tweaking the DNA in undetectable ways rather than just poofing them into existence? Such are the mysteries of biological theology.

Speaking of devolving, Nathan Lents has yet another critique of Behe on The Human Evolution Blog, this time centering on the word “Devolves” in the book’s title. Click on the screenshot:

It’s a short critique involving Lents’s claim that the term “devolve” is a neologism coined by Behe and doesn’t make any sense. He thinks this on three grounds, and I agree with about 2.5 of them. I quote (indented); flush left text is mine:

Misunderstanding #1: Behe seems to think that evolution is the accumulation of  complexity. If so, it’s no wonder that he has such angst about it. The reality is that evolution is aimless, sloppy, and produces clunky solutions as often as it does elegant ones. Our own bodies are filled with glitches and goofs left over from the imprecision of natural selection. This may be deeply unsatisfying to some, but nature cares little about our satisfaction.

This fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of evolution is a serious error, especially for someone who has dedicated his career to critiquing modern evolutionary theory. But it not the only one.

Agreed, since to Behe “devolution” is the loss of a trait or a reduction of complexity, yet sometimes losing a trait or becoming simpler is adaptively useful (fleas, for instance, lost their wings).

Misunderstanding #2: Behe’s notion of “irreducible complexity” demands that natural selection can only work if every single step on an evolutionary path is advantageous. We know that’s not true. Populations of organisms harbor a great deal of genetic diversity generated by gene duplications, neutral mutations (and even slightly deleterious ones), recombination, and even rare but dramatic events like chromosomal duplications or rearrangements, and horizontal gene transfer (which may actually be not as rare as we thought). Evolutionary forces then act on all that diversity in unpredictable ways. In Darwin Devolves, you will not find discussions of any of this. Behe either ignores or quickly dismisses these phenomena, despite the key role they play in the generation of the very complexity that Behe doesn’t think that nature can build.

Agreed. Behe apparently does not discuss alternative pathways for building adaptations that look “irreducibly complex” but in reality involve either straight natural selection, neutral evolution as an intermediate, or even slightly deleterious mutations, as well as important processes like gene duplication.

Misunderstanding #3: Behe frequently speaks as though natural selection (which he often calls Darwinism) is the only evolutionary force. In reality, natural selection is joined by genetic drift, neutral theory, exaptation, gene flow, sexual selection, hybridization, punctuated equilibrium, frequency-dependent selection, and dozens of other forces. Behe constantly repeats his refrain that natural selection cannot account for everything we see in nature. Yeah, we know. And we’ve known that for a very long time.

Well, here I think Lents has made some semantic errors. For instance, neutral theory is really a theory of selectively neutral alleles that evolve largely through genetic drift, so it’s not something separate from drift, and it’s a theory, not an “evolutionary force.” Exaptation, frequency-dependent selection, and sexual selection ARE subsets of natural selection, not something entirely different. Punctuated equilibrium is not known to be responsible for the evolution of any adaptation, at least not in the convoluted form presented by Gould and Eldredge. And Lents leaves out a truly unique evolutionary force: meiotic drive—evolution occurring through differential segregation of alleles at meiosis. Finally, both exaptation and punctuated equilibrium are not “forces” but phenomena.

Behe does err if he indeed neglects genetic drift in the evolution of adaptations, as it’s undoubtedly been important, including in some pathways Behe sees as “irreducibly complex”. But if I were Lents I wouldn’t leave myself open to criticism by saying that “exaptation” and “frequency-dependent selection” are forces different from natural selection.

Now you might say that my criticism of this one small part of Lents’s piece is going to make Behe happy, as he’ll crow, “See, Coyne takes issue with Lents’s criticism of my book,” but that’s bullshit. As Steve Gould said in his essay “Evolution as fact and theory” (he’s referring to his colleagues’ attempts to make him stop criticizing traditional evolutionary theory because that would play into the hands of creationists)

But most of all I am saddened by a trend I am just beginning to discern among my colleagues. I sense that some now wish to mute the healthy debate about theory that has brought new life to evolutionary biology. It provides grist for creationist mills, they say, even if only by distortion. Perhaps we should lie low and rally around the flag of strict Darwinism, at least for the moment—a kind of old-time religion on our part.

But we should borrow another metaphor and recognize that we too have to tread a straight and narrow path, surrounded by roads to perdition. For if we ever begin to suppress our search to understand nature, to quench our own intellectual excitement in a misguided effort to present a united front where it does not and should not exist, then we are truly lost.

Make no mistake: I’m on Lents’s side here, but I do criticize the way he categorizes “evolutionary forces.” That, however, should give no succor to Behe. But he’ll take what he can get—he’s a creationist, for crying out loud.

Finally, Rich Lenski, whose work on E. coli was apparently criticized in Behe’s book, has published part two of a three-part critique of Darwin Devolves on his (Lenski’s) website Telliamed Revisited (click on screenshot):

Being a nice guy, Lenski is trying to handle the irascible Behe with kid gloves, claiming that he and Behe agree about at least two things. The first is that Behe “remains upbeat about [Lenski’s] research” Second, that both Lenski and Behe are both interested in and fascinated by evolution. But that tiny speck of agreement is where the comity ends, for then Lenski pulls out his cudgel:

Whether for secular or religious reasons, we humans are deeply interested in where we came from and how we came about. In my own small way, I take pleasure in knowing that my lab’s research helps people get a glimpse of how evolution works.

I’m concerned, though, when these scientific and religious perspectives get intertwined and confused, even when they concern those big, important questions that interest all of us. I get even more concerned when I see what I regard as non-scientific ideas (such as “intelligent agents” introducing “purposeful design” by unstated and untestable means) being used to undermine the admittedly imperfect (and always subject to revision) understanding of evolution that science provides to those who want to learn. And I am most disturbed when these confusions appear to be part of a deliberate “wedge” strategy with ulterior sociopolitical motives. People will undoubtedly have diverse views about whether scientific explanations are adequate and/or satisfying ways to understand the world, but I see danger in trying to undermine scientific methodology and reasoning to advance religious beliefs and political goals.

This is Lenski’s kindly way of saying, “Stop injecting your religion into science, you duplicitous git, because it doesn’t help us make progress.”

24 Comments

  1. Michael Fisher
    Posted February 19, 2019 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Evolution in action:
    BEHE > BEEH > BEER > BEERS

    • rickflick
      Posted February 19, 2019 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      Now that’s refreshing.

  2. Posted February 19, 2019 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Since Behe is so interested in the evolution of complexity, while studiously ignoring the omniprescence of neutral evolution, he would really get his boxers twisted in a bunch over the theory of constructive neutral evolution. This is where neutral evolution is proposed to accrete unnecessary complexity into cells. It is rather technical, but Larry Moran had an article about it a while ago: https://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2015/09/constructive-neutral-evolution-cne.html . It really does seem that many of the ‘molecular machines’ that cells have are needlessly complex, and this theory is an attempt to explain why.

    • Posted February 21, 2019 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      To me, the idea that previously independent proteins could become a complex without a selective advantage seems too strained. E.g. once they become mutually dependent, every change in the quantity of one of them would affect the other. I see here an apparent disadvantage that needs an advantage to be overcome.

      It also seems to me that there must be a confusion about the spliceosome – to me, it is the introns that have appeared without a selective advantage (to their host), while the spliceosome itself offers a clear advantage.

      A quote from the Sandwalk post:
      “The evolution of modern hemoglobin, composed of two alpha subunits and two beta subunits is an example of a well-known structure that probably evolved in this manner. We already know that a single subunit can function on its own because that’s what myoglobin does.”

      Yes, a single subunit can function on its own, but it cannot offer the cooperative advantage that is the hallmark of hemoglobin and is tragically missing in patients with thalassemia major. And, if needless formation of complexes is really so widespread, why has myoglobin remained free of it?

      These ideas seems to me weird, like Gould’s punctuated equilibrium. The author of my paleontology textbook (R. Carroll) has found it necessary to include an entire chapter cautioning readers against this theory. It died spontaneously when Gould stopped advocating for it, but I have an uneasy feeling that in such cases we have to rely on mere luck. This luck seems to be absent when neutral evolution is concerned. The first thing that was mentioned about evolution was its adaptive character, and nevertheless it is increasingly denied today, for which I see no good reason.

  3. Derek Freyberg
    Posted February 19, 2019 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Over at “The Sensuous Curmudgeon”, Paul Braterman points us to Behe’s longer response to Lents et al.’s review at Evolution News (where of course you cannot comment): https://evolutionnews.org/2019/02/train-wreck-of-a-review-a-response-to-lenski-et-al-in-science/.

    • Posted February 19, 2019 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

      Well, let’s see what he has to say…
      He just demands more evidence (while then ignoring the evidence). For example, on gene duplications:
      “Instead, to show how wrong I am about the role of gene duplication/ random mutation/ natural selection, they point to “overwhelming evidence that this underlies trichromatic vision in primates (8), olfaction in mammals (9), and developmental innovations in all metazoans through the diversification of HOX genes (10).” The cited articles are from the years 1999, 2003, and 1998, respectively. And, as anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the topic would guess, the articles simply describe the occurrence of the genes. The authors of the articles don’t even try to argue — let alone experimentally investigate — that the diversification and integration of the genes into slightly different functions could have occurred through blind Darwinian processes.”

      Okay…. but “anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the topic” would know about real time examples of innovation by gene duplications. Lenski describes a fine example in his LTEE. Gene duplications are also well known in various cases of antibiotic resistance and in insect resistance to insecticides. It is found when we are looking in large populations that are under intense selection. *Sigh*.

  4. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted February 19, 2019 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    It is “odd” that despite the Nature review linking to the old discovery of evolutionary pathways to flagella a creationist asked for biological evidence in the comments to Lents’ article. But also and again similar evidence to the evolution of eukaryotes, a question that the last few years have had a similar discovery track.

    They need to keep up, and start a yet narrower magic-of-the-gaps argumentation.

    Well, here I think Lents has made some semantic errors. For instance, neutral theory is really a theory of selectively neutral alleles that evolve largely through genetic drift, so it’s not something separate from drift, and it’s a theory, not an “evolutionary force.”

    I would be happy to trivially exchange “forces” with “mechanisms”. And personally I am less bothered by conflating a mechanism (drift) with its description (neutral theory) in the same way that we tend to confuse quantum physics with quantum mechanics. But I don’t teach the subject!

  5. James
    Posted February 19, 2019 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    A few quibbles.

    Sexual selection, neutral theory, and other mechanisms listed aren’t merely subsets of natural selection. These were separated early on–in Darwin’s book, in fact–because they explain very different things. By applying the concept of natural selection (ie, environmental mechanisms) you would never arrive at a peacock; the whole point is that sexual selection often acts in ways that work against what we’d expect from natural selection. This may sound like minutia, but it provides an important framework for processing these concepts.

    Expand the definition of natural selection enough, and it envelops everything about evolution, including what we humans do (we’re not special creations, after all). It’s more useful to keep the definition narrow, the way it traditionally is defined. This gives us the opportunity to pars out how much each contributing factor contributes to any observation.

    As for punctuated equilibrium, of course it doesn’t explain any specific adaptations. That’d be like saying that 4/4 time in music explained a specific chord. PE is a theory about the tempo of evolution. I also contend that the concept isn’t terribly convoluted. Organisms generally adapt to their local environment quickly, and once they have selection tends to be confining. Put another way, once you reach a local fitness maxima any changes by definition are detrimental. So most evolutionary change will be concentrated in short bursts, followed by long periods of little change.

    Finally, to say somethings “…a theory, not an “evolutionary force” is wrong. Evolution is both a theory (an explanation of a broad body of facts) and an observation (directly seeing organisms change through time). This isn’t an either/or situation.

    • Posted February 20, 2019 at 4:53 am | Permalink

      Sorry but I disagree. I spent a lot of time fighting with Gould and Eldredge about PE, and it not just a theory about the tempo of evolution. If you can say that, then you haven’t read Gould’s explanation of the mechanism of PE.

      I disagree about sexual selection: if you knew that females preferred a tail for one reason or another, natural selection creates a peacock. Sexual selection is just natural selection involving mate choice, and blurs into “traditional” natural selection: if a male’s sperm swim faster than another male’s, is that sexual or natural selection? It’s BOTH. By the way, Doug Futuyma, who wrote the best textbook on evolution, agrees that sexual selection is a subset of natural selection.

      Your last paragraph is incoherent: a force is something that causes changes in allele frequency. The neutral theory explains what happens when the “force” of genetic drift operates.

      Finally, no biologist believes that “natural selection” involves only the organism’s external environment. Any change in biochemistry that ultimately improves reproductive output will be selected for; it doesn’t have to have anything to do with the external environment except insofar as the organism survives and reproduces in an environment.

      By the way, Lents agrees with me that he was sloppy about that list in the ways I pointed out. He’s revised that list of evolutionary “forces” (see here).

      If I were you, I’d start by reading Gould’s several papers on how punctuated equilibrium causes episodic change in organisms. And then read the rebuttals by Charlesworth, Slatkin and Lande, or by Charlesworth and me. But I don’t want to argue further about this.

      • James
        Posted February 20, 2019 at 7:01 am | Permalink

        “If you can say that, then you haven’t read Gould’s explanation of the mechanism of PE.”

        Thanks for the laugh this morning. I was trained in paleontology by one of Gould’s students, so I’m reasonably certain I understand the theory.

        Rather than replying to what amounts to refusals to read what I wrote (you never address WHY I believe separating the various forces that cause selection to be important), name-dropping, and personal attacks, I will simply thank you for reminding me why I should walk away from this comments section.

        • Posted February 20, 2019 at 7:35 am | Permalink

          I don’t care whether you were trained in paleontology by Gould himself, you apparently haven’t followed the many discussions by Gould and his critics about the MECHANISMS of PE.

          You say this: ” PE is a theory about the tempo of evolution.” Well, it’s also a theory about the mechanism that produces that jerky tempo, which involves small population size, maladaptive evolution through genetic drift, the toppling of “Galton’s polyhedron” onto another face via founder effects, and so on. That mechanism, as population geneticists has shown, is refuted by both theory and empirical observations.

          Before I kick you out the door so you don’t have to walk away, here are a few references that you apparently missed by being trained by a students of Gould:

          Coyne, J. A. and B. Charlesworth. 1996. Mechanisms of punctuated evolution (technical comment). Science 274:1748-1749.

          Coyne, J. A. and B. Charlesworth. 1997 Punctuated equilibria (technical comment). Science 276:338-340.

          And the most important critique:

          Charlesworth, B., R. Lande, and M. Slatkin. 1982. A neo-Darwinian commentary on macroevolution. Evolution 36:474-498.

          These references also contain all of the references to Gould and Eldredge’s papers about the MECHANISMS of punctuated equilibrium (note the word “mechanisms” in the title of the first critique?)

          No, you clearly don’t understand punctuated equilibrium, no matter who trained you.

          There were no personal attacks, by the way, just refutation of your arguments.

          Have a lovely day!

  6. Gordon Davisson
    Posted February 19, 2019 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    Actually, although IDers frenetically argue that their theory is NOT creationism, it really is a species of creationism, for it posits that God The Intelligent Designer creates new mutations required for important adaptations to evolve, mutations that couldn’t accumulate by natural selection alone.

    I’m afraid I must disagree; intelligent design would flee in blind panic from any such specific statement about what it posits.

    Ok, I’m exaggerating (and anthropomorphizing) a little, but not too much. ID accepts a great many possible mechanisms for a designer to implement their designs: guided mutation, guided selection, various forms of front-loading (injecting hidden “information” into the initial genome, state of the universe, or whatever), rigged selection functions (the “active information” Dembski at all talk about), rigged laws of physics, direct creation of organisms, etc etc etc.

    Really, what ID posits is that at some unspecified point or points, one or more intelligent but otherwise unspecified entities intervened in unspecified ways (for unspecified reasons) that produced detectable effects on life and/or the universe and/or something.

    IMO the reason they’re this vague is itself clear: they can avoid getting into trouble with inconsistencies in their story by not having a story. It allows them to point out something that suggests separate creation and something else that suggests genetic front-loading of a common ancestor, and pretend that these both point to the same conclusion, ID, despite the fact that they point to conflicting histories of how that ID was implemented.

    They have taken the advice of Piet Hein to heart: “If no thought your mind does visit, make your speech not too explicit.”

    • Ronan Hyde
      Posted February 21, 2019 at 4:02 am | Permalink

      Apophatic biology?

  7. Vaal
    Posted February 19, 2019 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    The usual Creationist response to ID being torn apart by experts is: “Look at how they are attack Behe. His critique really hit a nerve; that means he’s on to something!”

    Yeesh.

  8. Bilbo Baggins
    Posted February 19, 2019 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    Mike Gene’s answer on why God would want specific mutations:

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/because-of-us-2/

    • Posted February 20, 2019 at 4:13 am | Permalink

      That’s not an answer to my question, which is why God created by making mutations instead of poofing us into existence de novo. Instead, we get verbal pabulum:

      So it would not matter if Dawkins/Gould was correct. Because even if chance and natural selection brought us into existence, well, then that’s what would be needed to bring us into existence. God is still in control because this very reality where chance and natural selection brought us into existence would not exist and be sustained if God had not wanted to commune with us. God choose to create this reality whereby chance and natural selection brought us into existence because that is our reality and our history. From God’s perspective, beyond our space-time reality, our emergence was inevitable and foreknown because the very reason this reality was chosen into existence is precisely because God knew it would spawn us, regardless of the mechanism. Creation runs through us and exists because of us.

      If you think that’s an answer, you didn’t read the question.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 20, 2019 at 4:39 am | Permalink

      Mike Gene? Surely not his real name? Or is it? I checked out the “About” page for that blog & he says he set up the site to counter Richard Dawkins & ‘new atheists’ he regards all that as part of a ‘Hate Movement.’

      Astonishing victimhood.

    • Posted February 21, 2019 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      To me, it is curious that God, if he introduces or allows the mutations, is not satisfied with specific wanted mutations but instead provides all sorts of unwanted mutations, leading to albino animals instantly spotted by predators, flies with rudimentary unfit wings etc. I do not cite human examples, because Christians have argued to me that the suffering of children with inborn errors of metabolism and other horrible genetic disorders are part of the price we are paying for our Original Sin.

      Anyway, the idea of an omniscient and omnipotent God responsible for such suffering inevitably gives him a third quality, sadism. However, I am more generous and regard him just as an entity unable to sort out 4 nucleotides correctly.

  9. Posted February 20, 2019 at 2:03 am | Permalink

    ‘God from a Divine Alpha Particle?’ I’ve sometimes wondered what the result would be if we gave believers a blank sheet of paper and a pencil and asked them to draw their God? Puzzlement? Bewilderment? Refusal?

    • rickflick
      Posted February 20, 2019 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

      We could perform an experiment: test all ages from 2 on up. At the age they couldn’t draw anything, you’d know how long it takes to become deluded.

  10. Posted February 23, 2019 at 1:40 am | Permalink

    Your article includes this quote: “Agreed, since to Behe “devolution” is the loss of a trait or a reduction of complexity, yet sometimes losing a trait or becoming simpler is adaptively useful (fleas, for instance, lost their wings).”

    Absolutely! And how else does a sub-group specialize to fit into a new ecological niche if they don’t DE-specialize from their earlier condition?

    Tetrapod fishes climbed up onto land, right? Imagine if Behe refused to call this evolution because these Tetrapods eventually lost their gills?

    Does Behe require that true evolution from Fish would mean tetrapods always kept their moist, even gushing, gill slits for the next hundreds of millions of years? Ick….

  11. Posted February 23, 2019 at 1:40 am | Permalink

    Your article includes this quote: “Agreed, since to Behe “devolution” is the loss of a trait or a reduction of complexity, yet sometimes losing a trait or becoming simpler is adaptively useful (fleas, for instance, lost their wings).”

    Absolutely! And how else does a sub-group specialize to fit into a new ecological niche if they don’t DE-specialize from their earlier condition?

    Tetrapod fishes climbed up onto land, right? Imagine if Behe refused to call this evolution because these Tetrapods eventually lost their gills?

    Does Behe require that true evolution from Fish would mean tetrapods always kept their moist, even gushing, gill slits for the next hundreds of millions of years? Ick….

    • rickflick
      Posted February 23, 2019 at 6:53 am | Permalink

      That’s an interesting way of putting it. Evolution, for Behe, is a one way street. Wrong. It’s has two faces.

      • rickflick
        Posted February 23, 2019 at 7:17 am | Permalink

        I seem to have mixed metaphors. Perhaps a new species will emerge.


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