Rich Lenski takes down Michael Behe and his ID creationism: Part IV

Rich Lenski, an evolutionary biologist at Michigan State, has put up his fourth (and penultimate) post on his website (Telliamed Revisited) criticizing Michael Behe’s new Intelligent Design book, Darwin Devolves: The New Science About DNA That Challenges Evolution. You can see the post, which is his most thorough yet, by clicking on the website below. (I’ve posted takes on the first three parts here, here, and here.)

It’s a good read and easily comprehensible to the layperson who knows just a tad of biology. What Lenski describes is an experiment on the evolution of viruses in the lab. And that experiment demolishes Behe’s claim that if something looks “irreducibly complex”, it could not have involved natural selection acting on sequentially-occurring mutations, and therefore required the mutagenic intervention of The Great Intelligent Designer. (Behe, a pious Catholic, of course thinks that the Designer is the Christian God, but, to try to make ID look religion-neutral, he has hedged and said that the Designer could be some other “being” like space aliens. Why either gods or aliens would alter evolution by making mutations rather than creating species de novo is clearly beyond our poor powers of comprehension.)

The experiment also contradicts Behe’s contention that evolution almost always relies on adaptive but broken or inactivated genes (natural selection can sometimes favor such genes because they reduce fitness by making proteins that are no longer useful). Behe (who has distorted the evidence for this claim in his polar bear story) likes this view because it implies that evolution eventually stops without the Designer’s intervention, for if adaptive evolution always relies on inactivated genes, then it’s supposed to wind down. (That is not true, even if the vast bulk of evolution rested on “broken genes”, which it does not. And there are many adaptations we know of that involve changes in genes that don’t inactivate them.) At any rate, the viral evolution observed in Lenski’s lab certainly did not involve broken or deactivated genes.

I’ll let you read about the virus experiment yourself; here’s Lenski’s conclusion, and he tells me that there’s one more part to go in his series. Behe should be nursing a bruised tuchas now.

As Nathan Lents, Joshua Swamidass, and I wrote in our book review, “Ultimately, Darwin Devolves fails to challenge modern evolutionary science because, once again, Behe does not fully engage with it. He misrepresents theory and avoids evidence that challenges him.”

If you’ve followed the logic and evidence in the three systems I’ve written about—polar bears adapting to a new diet, bacteria fine-tuning and even evolving new functions as they adapt to laboratory conditions, and viruses evolving a new port of entry into their hosts—you’ll understand why Behe’s arguments against evolution aren’t taken seriously by the vast majority of biologists. As for Behe’s arguments for intelligent design, they rest on his incredulity about what evolution is able to achieve, and they make no testable predictions about how the designer intervenes in the evolutionary process.

Speaking of Lents, he’s written a longer piece in Skeptic Magazine about Behe’s book (click on the screenshot). If you’ve read the pieces by Lents and Lenski that I’ve highlighted on this site (e.g. here), you won’t learn much new, but it’s a good summary of the problems with Behe’s book, and a good place to refer curious readers who want a one-stop review of Behe’s nonsense..

As for Behe’s book, it’s not doing anywhere as well as his first two books, particularly Darwin’s Black Box. Although there are all five-star reviews from the benighted ID crowd, undoubtedly an orchestrated thing, they aren’t enough to get the book above the 2000 mark. Either readers are tired of ID or tired of Behe, but neither he nor the Discovery Institute can be pleased at the lame sales record. Note, though, that the book is #1 in both creationism (which is what it is) and Developmental Biology, which it certainly isn’t:



  1. Martin
    Posted March 7, 2019 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    I’m astonished that Behe continues to peddle intelligent design in 2019. I saw Kenneth Miller take apart Behe’s fantasies at a panel discussion at the Museum of Natural History in NYC way back in 2002, and Behe was there to hear it! Behe’s stubbornness is pathological.

    • Posted March 7, 2019 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      It is very strange to us, but it can only be thus because Behe honestly believes in his views. He has a kind of “cognitive HEPA filter” that simply ignores the counter-facts.

      • Martin
        Posted March 10, 2019 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

        This is what make it pathological. At the AMNH event I went to in 2002. Behe admitted in response for a request for evidence for ID, he said “we have our work cut out for us.” And Miller replied “You sure do!”

  2. Posted March 7, 2019 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Space aliens???

    • ratabago
      Posted March 7, 2019 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

      Yes. Who presumably were themselves designed by Space Aliens, who were in turn designed by Space Aliens, who were…

      It’s Space Aliens all the way down!

      It’s a dopey idea floated by Fred Hoyle, who also hated, and completely misunderstood, evolution. But what choice does Behe have? The second he admits ID’s designer is his conception of a personal god he fails in his aim of getting his personal sectarian view taught in science classes.

  3. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted March 7, 2019 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Lenski’s work is great, meticulous and on a close to gigantic scale. It is, of course, much more than a demolition of ID. The latter he takes in his stride, as it were.
    What I always ask ID’rs (yes, I know that it isn’t new or original, but nevertheless extremely pertinent): where did this intelligence some from? If a bacterial flagellum is irreducible complex (it is not), how complex the intelligent designer must be? Did this designer just ‘poof!’ into existence, or did it evolve?

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted March 7, 2019 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      Come, not some, ‘edit’ function direly needed.

  4. Steve Gerrard
    Posted March 7, 2019 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Nice to see bacteriophage getting a little love, they seem long forgotten most of the time.

    It’s a nice example of a new function that needs 4 mutations, but which can nevertheless happen in weeks! The intermediate stages, with only some of the needed mutations, were beneficial to the existing function, as well as setting the stage for the new function. Irreducible complexity reduced!

    • Posted March 7, 2019 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      In our biology courses, phages are still taught and loved, only their antitermination is forgotten. Our students have no idea what they dodge.

  5. Michael Fisher
    Posted March 7, 2019 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    From Amazon I can see the back cover of the book [&/or dust jacket] & there I see this:

    Praise for Michael J. Behe and Darwin Devolves

    Followed by five ‘review blurbs’. Forget blurbs 3, 4 & 5 as they are by ID hacks who review a lot of the publications from the ID lie factory.

    But reviews 1 [unknown author] & 2 [H. Allen Orr, co-author of Speciation with our Jerry]?? Rather cheeky & dishonest to present these two blurbs, from august persons & outlets, as being “Praise” when we can be absolutely sure they will not be!
    [I say “will not be” because the reviews don’t appear to be up yet or they’re not available online]


    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 7, 2019 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      No wonder I couldn’t find reviews 1. & 2. – they date from 23 years & 14 years ago.

      QUOTE 1. Design for Living By James Shreeve, 1996.

      “When examined with the powerful tools of modern biology, but not with its modern prejudices, life on a biochemical level can be a product, he says, only of intelligent design. Coming from a practicing scientist [– he is a biochemist at Lehigh University –] this proposition is close to heretical”


      QUOTE 2. Devolution. Why intelligent design isn’t. By H. Allen Orr, 2005.

      “[Behe] is the most prominent of the small circle of scientists working on intelligent design, and his arguments are by far the best known”


    • Posted March 10, 2019 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      Excellent work Fisher. Don’t forget the third error on the cover. 3/5 had problems.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted March 10, 2019 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

        Thank you. I read your piece.

  6. Posted March 7, 2019 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne, what are your thoughts on this response from Behe on Polar Bears, and our response to him?

  7. Rob Munguia
    Posted March 8, 2019 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the posts regarding intelligent design. These posts help to address this issue to the evolution undergraduate students with more arguments and evidence.

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