Behe and his publisher distort his reviews, pretend that they praise his work

Blurbs on books are usually selected by the publisher, but they’re always, at least in my experience, vetted by the author. Here, sent in a comment by reader Michael, is a reproduction of the back cover of ID-creationist Michael Behe’s new book, Darwin Devolves: The New Science About DNA that Challenges Evolution (you can also see these quotes on the Amazon site):

Note that there are two respectable reviewers here : my first student Allen Orr (now a professor at Rochester) and James Shreeve, Executive Editor for Science at National Geographic (Axe and Leisola and Carlson are IDers themselves and either creationists or affiliated with the Discovery Institute). Did Orr and Shreeve really praise Behe? Of course not: these are statements taken out of the context of the full review of Darwin’s Black Box.  Creationists, of course, are good at that. First they take biologists’ scientific statements out of context, making them seem as if they’re favoring ID, and now, in book blurbs, they blatantly pretend that Orr and Shreve are praising Behe. Let’s look at the sources of the quotations.

Here’s Orr’s review of ID and Behe’s views in the New Yorker in 2005 (click on screenshot), and the quote Behe and HarperOne (the publisher) use is below it:

The quote on the book cover:

Michael J. Behe, a professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University (and a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute), is a biochemist who writes technical papers on the structure of DNA. He is the most prominent of the small circle of scientists working on intelligent design, and his arguments are by far the best known.

What you don’t see from the excerpt is that Orr’s piece completely dismantles Behe’s Argument for Design from Irreducible Complexity (as well as Dembski’s “No Free Lunch” argument), so the publishers are pretending that Orr liked Behe’s work. I’ll let you read the New Yorker article for yourself to see how Orr demonstrates why Behe’s arguments for a Designer aren’t dispositive because there are always Darwinian alternative pathways, even though we may not know which one was taken. As always, the ID tactic that when you don’t understand how something evolved, to punt and say, “Well, that means God did it”, is simply a dumb and unproductive program. Where’s the independent evidence for God, or, in Behe’s cynical euphemism, “The Intelligent Designer”? Absent that, ID is an ungrounded speculation, rightly rejected by Judge John Jones as Christianity in disguise.

Orr’s final assessment of why biologists reject ID:

Biologists aren’t alarmed by intelligent design’s arrival in Dover and elsewhere because they have all sworn allegiance to atheistic materialism; they’re alarmed because intelligent design is junk science.

Here’s Shreeve’s New York Times review from 23 years ago (click on screenshot):

The full quote excerpted on Behe’s book cover:

In ”Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution,” he argues that the origin of intracellular processes underlying the foundation of life cannot be explained by natural selection or by any other mechanism based purely on chance. 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.

Unlike Orr, Shreeve is not a working biologist, but he still sees the problem of punting to God in our ignorance (he does tout complexity theory, despite the fact that, as Orr notes, good old natural selection provides plausible means for the evolution of systems that look irreducibly complex):

Mr. Behe may be right that given our current state of knowledge, good old Darwinian gradualist evolution cannot explain the origin of blood clotting or cellular transport. It doesn’t provide a mechanism for genetic inheritance either – but does that mean that James Dewey Watson and Francis Crick, who discovered the structure of DNA, shouldn’t have gone looking for one? Before an investigator declares the cell to be God’s last holdout, he must consider other natural causes for the origin of biochemical complexity, including the spontaneous organization of componenets [sic] suggested by complexity theory itself. Mr. Behe remarks on the vagueness of complexity theory itself. Mr. Behe remarks on the bagueness [sic] of complexity theory today – a curious charge, coming from a creationist – but what about its future, or that of paradigms as yet unconceived? Shouldn’t we leave something for our children and grandchildren to puzzle out besides which systems int he cell are intelligently designed and which are not? Because something is beyond our understanding today does not mean it will be beyond theirs.

HarperOne, the religious branch of HarperCollins Publishing, used the New Yorker and NYT quotes just to give an aura of authority to Behe’s work: “look, he was praised by the fancy New York media”. But he wasn’t, and if you read the full reviews you’ll see that neither reviewer accepts Behe’s contention that things that look (to Behe) irreducibly complex must have been the product of a Great Mutagenic Designer.

Only somebody who was intellectually dishonest would sanction the use of these misleading blurbs on their book. But of course Behe and the Discovery Institute are very anxious for this book to do well (it isn’t) because they see it as a pathway to public and scientific acceptance of Intelligent Design. Too bad they’re wrong.



  1. GBJames
    Posted March 8, 2019 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    If there is anything a Creationist is good at it is distortion! “Good”, by some definition at least. 😉

    • W.T. Effingham
      Posted March 8, 2019 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      Creationists are also “good” at deception. They use deceptively similar book titles to appear impartial (e.g.:Undeniable”) and author pseudonyms (Dan Barker-not the one we “infidels” know from FFRF) to confuse and distort readers’ who are not likely to catch on.

      • W.T. Effingham
        Posted March 8, 2019 at 10:53 am | Permalink

        Edit:distort readers’ understanding of…

  2. Posted March 8, 2019 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    As always: every quote used by a creationist has an equal and opposite rest of the quote.

  3. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 8, 2019 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Reckon it’s no surprise that those who would play fast and loose with the science would play similarly fast and loose with reviews by wrenching quotations from their context.

    • Posted March 8, 2019 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      Can one sue for slander in these contexts?

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted March 8, 2019 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

        Well, Ken’s the better man to provide an opinion for USian law, but here (UK) you’d have to show that one’s reputation had been materially harmed. Which would be hard considering the intellectual standing of the ID movement here – which standing is approximately that of a 1metre person standing in 2metre deep sewage slurry. There might be a better chance in America, but that’s Ken’s territory.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 8, 2019 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

        A bit outside my own field of expertise, but I think the answer is “no,” as long as the quote itself is accurate. There’s such thing as “false light” defamation, but it’s not recognized in all jurisdictions. And I’m not sure the elements (or actual damages to the people quoted) could be established here.

  4. Randall Schenck
    Posted March 8, 2019 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    The ugly truth in the publishing business is supported all the way to the top because if Amazon does it, it must be good. Bad science getting poor reviews is not good for business so your only chance to get a fair review is to do a hell of allot more reading. Even for the average atheist follower of christian interference in our schools and government, this Behe seems to live on.

  5. Posted March 8, 2019 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    The quoted sentences from Shreeve and Orr are mere statements of fact, but one needs to be more careful in choosing words. If you call an IDer a “prominent ass” he is likely to take the “prominent” part as a compliment.

    • Posted March 8, 2019 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      I’m not disagreeing with them as statements of fact; I’m disagreeing with them being touted as approbations for Behe and his work. When I told Orr about this yesterday, he was appalled.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted March 8, 2019 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        How did Dawkins once describe a request to “debate” a creationist as “that’d look better on your CV than on mine.
        Writing a review of a creationist’s book is probably now on Dr Orr’s list of things his CV can live without. And likewise, Dr Orr is off the Disco’Tute list of people who can be tricked into doing reviews.

        • Nicolaas Stempels
          Posted March 9, 2019 at 1:00 am | Permalink

          I appear to remember that Richard Dawkins attributed it to an Australian biologist (with even a remark about an Australian accent), but on Quora it is attributed to Robert May, president of the Royal Society early this Century

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted March 11, 2019 at 10:58 am | Permalink

            “Is good line! I must have said it!”
            There are a handful of “first sightings” of Newton’s “apple” story, and more of Haldanes “inordinate fondness for beetles”. These things get passed around, consciously or sub-consciously.

  6. Posted March 8, 2019 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Unholy crap! What’s next? Taking a peripheral sentance out of a Richard Lenski review and quoting it?

  7. Posted March 8, 2019 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    I wish those throwing shade on Intelligent Design would avoid words like “heretical” which have a religious connotation. Orr’s “sworn allegiance to atheistic materialism” is even worse as it seems to imply that it is based on faith, not evidence and reason. At a minimum, it paints this debate as a popularity contest.

    • Posted March 8, 2019 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      I think it is impossible to write a meaningful text without using phrases that can be quoted this way.

      • Posted March 8, 2019 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think it is that difficult. When writing a book review, one needs to be careful. While there’s no way to be absolutely sure nothing can be quoted out of context, it should be easy to avoid words like “heretical” and “allegiance”. After all, there’s usually only a handful of sentences in the introduction and conclusion of such reviews that are quotable.

  8. Posted March 8, 2019 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    James Shreeve mentions we do not at present know the origin of blood clotting. I don’t know all the bits of this issue, but the complex blood clotting cascade seen in mammals has all the elements of evolution by natural selection from earlier ancestors in a series of steps. A bit like how a complex eye could evolve from a simple eye, and the simple eye (and its essential proteins) evolving from other cells and other proteins. The latter via gene duplication and exapation.

    This article by Miller and Levine goes into it, in rebuttal to Behes’ assertion that the mammalian blood clotting cascade could not have evolved. On the contrary, it has the hallmarks of a system that did evolve.

  9. Roger
    Posted March 8, 2019 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Just when you thought they couldn’t sink any lower.

  10. Posted March 8, 2019 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    The lesson is that we have to be careful how we write reviews, check whether any phrase can be taken out of context.

    For the quote-savvy, any writing can be quoted creatively to support any view.

    For example, the two sentences “Creationism is wrong. Evolution is right” can be quoted creatively as “Creationism is … right”.

    • Posted March 8, 2019 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. The only way to be as careful as needed to avoid such deceptive “quoting” is to write nothing at all.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted March 8, 2019 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

        I don’t always agree with Maya, but in this respect she’s absolutely right.

        (This may be quoted as ‘I … always agree with Maya, … she’s absolutely right’ 😉

  11. Posted March 8, 2019 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I used to think that Behe was misguided, not a charlatan. Now I think he is the latter – unless he comes out and condemns his own publisher.

    • W.T. Effingham
      Posted March 8, 2019 at 1:56 pm | Permalink


    • Posted March 8, 2019 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      I have not picked thru the above with required care, but in general these sorts of promotional blurbs are made by a publisher outside of control of the author. The publisher is a charlatan at the very least.

      • Posted March 11, 2019 at 11:27 am | Permalink

        That’s why I said if he has an ounce of integrity he will condemn his publisher (publically) and let the chips fall as they may.

    • Posted March 8, 2019 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      I suppose he is both.

  12. Posted March 8, 2019 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    The huge variety of organisms should point toward multiple designers, not just one! And designers that compete for the best designs.
    Eg.predator-designers compete with prey-designers.

    • Posted March 8, 2019 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      We’re still looking for the designers’ signatures in the DNA.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted March 9, 2019 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      Good point, if there is a Creator, whose side is he on? The cheetah’s or the antelope’s, the turtle baby’s or the crab’s? I think Dawkins (among others?) made that point.
      At least where the measles virus is concerned we know, by allowing us to invent the vaccine, he clearly chose our side! (and as an added benefit He allows children to avoid the ‘immuno-reset’ that measles causes, Hooray!)

    • Posted March 11, 2019 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Some “gnostics” seem to have thought this, sort of. Not with different animals, but with different parts of creation.

  13. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted March 12, 2019 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Creationists pretty much invented the policy of systematically lying for Jesus. The left should leave that to them instead of emulating it by lying for Social Justice. It is just too easy to debunk and discredits the liars.

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