Behe’s book sliced and diced again—by members of his own department

If you go to the website of the biology department of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, where resides the ID creationist Michael Behe, you’ll find this disclaimer:

To my knowledge, this is unique not only in science, but in any academic department, for here you see an entire department disowning the intellectual oeuvre of one of its members. The disclaimer is there because Michael Behe has tenure and can’t be fired, though he spends his life pushing a discredited form of gussied-up creationism. Rather than lose students who might think the entire department approves of Behe’s Biblically-based ideas, and thus embarrass their whole department, they put up the disclaimer. They tolerate him because they have no choice, but they don’t accept his work.

Although I’m unaware of any review in the popular press (save mine in the Washington Post) of Behe’s new book, Darwin Devolves, it has been reviewed in the scientific literature, most notably by Lents, Swamidass, and Lenski in Science. And, of course, all reviews by real scientists have been negative, for ID has been lame and discredited for years, emasculated by the Kitzmiller et al. vs. Dover Area School District trial. (Behe testified in that case and embarrassed both himself and fellow IDers). Behe and his Discovery Institute can’t abide this criticism, and have struck back, but their blows are ineffectual. Just today their flaccid house organ, Evolution News, issued four distinct attacks on me alone. I’m bursting with pride!

Now today a new review appeared in the prestigious journal Evolution. The kicker is that it’s by two members of Behe’s own department: assistant professor Gregory Lang, who works on microbial evolution, and assistant professor Amber Rice, an organismal evolutionist. I don’t think they need fear loss of tenure for writing this, as all the department save Behe spurns intelligent design, but it is a delicious irony. You can read their very critical review, which pulls no punches about their creationist colleague, by clicking on the screenshot below (reference at bottom, pdf here).

It’s a good review (by “good” I mean “well thought out and well crafted”, not “approving”), and shows that there are critical thinkers and good writers in that department. It’s also muy negative, and I’ll give one or two excerpts to show that Lang and Rice pull no punches:

Darwin Devolves contains a few factual errors and many errors of omission that have been pointed out by others (Lents and Hunt 2019; Lents et al. 2019), but it is two critical errors of logic that undermine Behe’s central premise that degradative mutations cripple evolution. First, Behe falsely equates the prevalence of loss‐of‐function mutations to the inevitable degradation of biological systems and the impossibility of evolution to produce novelty. By selective presentation of data, he exaggerates the role of degradative processes in evolution. Second, as he has previously, Behe attempts to argue from analogy, equating proteins with machines and convincing us that machines cannot evolve. Calling a flagellum an outboard motor may have some merit as a teaching tool, but it is not reality. Showing that a hammer cannot evolve into a fishing rod tells us nothing about real constraints on protein evolution.

Many of their comments mirror mine and Lents et al.’s, but they add even more about the notion of “irreducible complexity” and Behe’s persistent but flawed analogies between organisms and human-designed machines.

And they faced the same dilemma I did: should I review this travesty of a book and draw even more attention to Behe’s views? But they, like I, decided that Behe needed a scientific rebuttal lest people think his views were acceptable to scientists.

. . . By reviewing Behe’s latest book, we run the risk of drawing attention—or worse, giving credibility—to his ideas. Books like Darwin Devolves, however, must be openly challenged and refuted, even if it risks giving publicity to misbegotten views. Science benefits from public support. Largely funded by federal grants, scientists have a moral responsibility (if not a financial obligation) to ensure that the core concepts of our respective fields are communicated effectively and accurately to the public and to our trainees. This is particularly important in evolutionary biology, where—over 150 years after On the Origin of Species—less than 20% of Americans accept that humans evolved by natural and unguided processes (Gallup 2014). It is hard to think of any other discipline where mainstream acceptance of its core paradigm is more at odds with the scientific consensus.

Why evolution by natural selection is difficult for so many to accept is beyond the scope of this review [JAC: my take is here]; however, it is not for a lack of evidence: the data (only some of which we present here) are more than sufficient to convince any open‐minded skeptic that unguided evolution is capable of generating complex systems. A combination of social and historical factors creates a welcoming environment for an academic voice that questions the scientific consensus. Darwin Devolves was designed to fit this niche.

I don’t think there will be amiable feelings in the biology building when Behe encounters these two. But he’ll be retiring soon—or so I hope, as he’s 67. In the meantime, he’s and the IDers are going to emit lots of tirades about his colleagues on Evolution News, as none of them can tolerate—much less learn from—criticism.  In the acknowledgments section, though, Lang and Rice play nice. After taking the guy’s book apart, they applaud his collegiality, demonstrating the maxim of my advisor Lewontin when dismantling someone politely: “give with one hand and take with the other”. To wit:

. . . Finally, we acknowledge Michael Behe—despite our academic differences, we maintain that Mike is an easygoing departmental colleague with whom we continue to share the day‐to‐day tasks of academia.

I can live with that, though I don’t really believe the “easygoing” part.

____________

Lang, G. I. and Rice, A. M. (2019).  Evolution unscathed: Darwin Devolves argues on weak reasoning that unguided evolution is a destructive force, incapable of innovation. Evolution. doi:10.1111/evo.13710

44 Comments

  1. Randall Schenck
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    The treatment of Behe by his colleagues may mean we have a different definition of colleague? Still our buddy, co-worker, cohort or whatever it is. We won’t let our reputations be hurt as long as we we do not agree with his biology. What about the people he teaches in the class. Just put up a little sign with a disclaimer saying – Watch out for this guy.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

      The treatment of Behe by his colleagues may mean we have a different definition of colleague?

      It’s not a killer sort of difference. There was a fellow in my undergraduate class who was also a YEC (he also had one of those God-Squaddy infestations that required not using any form of medicine but “faith” – I don’t think I ever bothered asking him what sept, and the avoidance of medicines only came to our knowledge during a 2 week field mapping course as the snow whipped horizontally and the colds spread).
      Mineralogy didn’t fuss him : “God changed the diffusion rates and set up the isotope ratios to test our faith.” Palaeontology he could do but didn’t do more than the minimum necessary. Sedimentology he was quite well into, and the last I heard of him he was doing water resource geology/ hydrology – precisely where his “flood geology” beliefs wouldn’t actually get significantly in the way, because in the UK, most of the water resources are actually the result of deposition from glacial melting floods.
      Nice guy. He didn’t stand on principles at the bar – he’d take his orange juice while we had our pints or whiskies and he’d stand a round once an evening. Stick to talking about sports, geology or hill-walking and he was perfectly fine company. Sometimes he’d join the after hours hillwalking crew on field trips.

  2. Ken Pidcock
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Actually, Michael Behe is an easygoing colleague. I can’t claim to know him well, but I have served on a graduate committee with him and have held conversations with him. He’s a nice guy with an intellectually dishonest mission.

    • Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      I said that because I’m heard other stories about his lack of “easygoingness,” but I’ll keep those to myself.

  3. Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if Behe will be “woo hooing” that review.

  4. W.T. Effingham
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    ID-iots come in a variety of types. Although they try to give the impression that they have “New and Improved” ways of showing The Godless Heathens their bullet-proof discoveries, they FAIL miserably. Whether it’s Behe with his version, Dembski, Johnson, and others with their spin, or Jason Lyles with his versions of cosmology,it does seem to have a common theme..Irreducible Complexity ®. Nope, wrong and worse than wrong. Complex- Yes. Irreducibly? Not!

  5. Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Is there a mandatory retirement age for professors in the USA?

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      Probably would be considered age discrimination.

      • phil
        Posted March 15, 2019 at 1:47 am | Permalink

        That certainly applies in Oz. Two aging academics (IIRC) took Sydney University to court and won, disallowing the university to retire them at age 65.

  6. Steve Pollard
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    That is a pretty devastating takedown. It could have been an easy option for the authors to pull their punches, given that they have to carry on coexisting with Behe in their SCR (or the LeHigh equivalent). But they didn’t. Good for them.

    And it is great to see that they cite one of our host’s papers in their detailed refutation of Behe’s flawed thesis.

  7. rickflick
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Behe is a textbook case of putting you hopes in front of your data. Perhaps, after he’s gone, his name will continue as an example of what can go terribly wrnog.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      Faith doesn’t just bend the truth, it warps it.

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Behe and his Discovery Institute … have struck back, but their blows are ineffectual.</blockquote.

    They're the science world's version of Chuck Wepner, the "Bayonne Bleeder," a fighter known for his dirty tactics, who got hammered every time he came up against a top contender, from Muhammad Ali to George Foreman to Sonny Liston, and ended his ring career in a clownish fiasco against a pro wrestler.

  9. bapu@arekapudi.com
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Congratulation Jerry! Thanks for your valuable contributions to the humanity!

    Bapu

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Just read Behe’s piece “Bullet Points for Jerry Coyne” at Evolution News.

    Glad to see he didn’t take your criticism personally. 🙂

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

      My favourite part of Behe’s whingefest over at the Discotute today, is where he quotes Jerry:

      Behe does not rely on the Bible as a science textbook. Rather, he admits that evolution occurs by natural selection sifting new mutations and that all species are related via common ancestors

      & his reposte is this:

      But we’ll call him a “creationist” anyway, to milk that epithet for all it’s worth

      Does that mean the self-confessed Catholic Behe is unhinged or does he think the conscious agent that sometimes ‘fixes’ evolution is natural – an alien from another dimension or some such? Very peculiar.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted March 13, 2019 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

        reposte riposte

    • rickflick
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

      So, I read it too. It felt like the devolution of a human mind. He might have been thinking bullets more than points.

  11. Eli Siegel
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Richard Lindzen’s MIT colleagues have been very public in criticizing his denial of the link between human activity and climate change.

  12. Heather Hastie
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always wondered how Behe got a job in the first place, let alone tenure. Surely there should be some academic basis for the granting of tenure? I would have thought that views like his in a job like his would make tenure impossible.

    • Ryan
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

      From what I understand for most of his career he stuck to biochemistry.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted March 13, 2019 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

        Thanks.

      • Posted March 13, 2019 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

        That is right. You can do lots of research in the field, and even be pretty competent at it, while just not bringing up the ‘E-word’.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

      See my comment in response to #1 about my classmate who is (TTBOMK) working in water resources. My … “friend” might be a touch strong, but “colleague” is perfectly good … steered around the bits of geology that came into conflict with his personal beliefs, got good enough exam results, then went into a sub-field where his wider beliefs didn’t conflict with the day-to-day nature of his work. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if, to this day, none of his workmates knew what his God-Squad beliefs really are. We didn’t find out until 4/5 of the way through a 4 year course.

  13. Posted March 13, 2019 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    I would have hoped that the ID’ers would have figured out by now that you can’t really ‘do’ even a slightly convincing paradigm shift in a field while committing enormous factual errors and obvious omissions. Members of that field will take you apart, and sort of enjoy doing it.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

      Maybe they look at Wegener’s success and think “that’s how to do it”?
      Neglecting that Wegener got the mechanism utterly wrong. He didn’t even have a driving force in the first version and had one that was acting in the wrong direction and was wildly too weak in “v.2”. A lot more evidence was accrued later (Du Toit, in particular), but Wegener was dead by then. Du Toit and Holmes then added a credible driving force in the early 1930s time for WW2 when new technology (marine magnetic sondes for submarine-hunting) started providing really good, model-restricting data. When it was declassified.
      Just because it’s a paradigm shift doesn’t mean it didn’t take 40 years to get moving, and another 20 years to bulldoze away the opposition.

      • Posted March 13, 2019 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

        Those are interesting details that I did not know about.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted March 14, 2019 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

          I suspect most of the people who puff the “plate tectonics revolution” as a revolution don’t know them either. I take is as an object lesson in “punctuated equilibrium” – what looks from the outside to be a sudden lurch in characteristics actually had a lot of structure going on in the obscure corners.

      • W.Benson
        Posted March 14, 2019 at 9:51 am | Permalink

        Me neither. Thanks! I had been led to believe that Wegener was geology’s Charles Darwin.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted March 14, 2019 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

          Geology’s Charles Darwin was probably the Secretary of the Geology society for several years in the 1840s who kept it on a more-or-less even keel through the tribulations of subdividing the Palaeozoic, put important flesh of observations of the rate of Earth processes onto Lyell’s uniformitarian ideas, found a shipload of fossils – very important guy. You may have heard of this geologist – one Charles Darwin. I believe the biologists stake a claim to him too, but Darwin paid his annual fees to the Geology Society, not the Linneans.
          It’s an important part of the mythology of the “plate tectonic revolution” that Wegener was ignored because (1) he was a meteorologist, and (2) he was German, but in fact his ideas were mostly ignored because they introduced very new ideas and he tied them onto a really poor, inadequate mechanism to power them. In short, not very good.
          A near contemporaneous parallel : Einstein published in 1905 his explanation of the photo-electric effect (today’s label : quantum mechanics, chapter 1), his explanation of Brownian motion (today’s label : the reality of atoms), his thoughts on the electrodynamics of moving bodies (today’s label : relativity) and his mass-energy equivalence (e=mc²). At the time (well, 1921/22), the Nobel committee thought the gong should go for the photo-electric effect, considering the others a bit wishy-washy and too distant from the real world.
          Hindsight is the only known case of 100% clarity of vision.

          • Posted March 16, 2019 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

            Yes, that is something that repeatedly gets forgotten when touting pioneers: there’s a world of difference between coming up with the idea and validating it. Wegener deserves credit for thinking outside the box, but the hard work of validation was done by people actually investigating and refining their geological investigations to provide the hard evidence needed. Sadly, that’s hard work, and much less glamorous than touting a wild maverick, so attention disproportionately goes to Wegener.

  14. Posted March 14, 2019 at 1:18 am | Permalink

    And of course we won’t see the Catholic Church criticize Catholic creationists, because they’re members of the same tribe.

    -Ryan

  15. Posted March 14, 2019 at 2:51 am | Permalink

    It appears that Lehigh’s hiring procedures for their science department are not very rigorous. Publishing a “disclaimer” about one of their faculty’s books must be extremely embarrassing.

    • rickflick
      Posted March 14, 2019 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      Behe deserves to feel embarrassed too. Just imagine being part of an organization that didn’t want you around but couldn’t fire you. Passing colleagues in the hall with your head down. I’d have to hide in my office until everyone had gone home before bolting for the back stairs.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted March 14, 2019 at 9:40 am | Permalink

        If I were biochemist Professor Behe & believed the crap I’d written in my three books what would I do? I’d design an experimental protocol to put it to the test. Behe’s had years to do exactly that, but instead he straw mans someone else’s experiment. None of this makes sense to me since various people claim he is sincere & yet his actions [& inactions] say otherwise.

        If he’s sincere then he must also be off his rocker.

        • W.Benson
          Posted March 14, 2019 at 9:55 am | Permalink

          Isn’t being of you rocker a prerequisite for being a “sincere, intelligent, and well-read” creationist like Behe?

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted March 14, 2019 at 10:03 am | Permalink

            I have no answer – living with two worldviews at once is a good symptom for it, but it must be driven by emotion mustn’t it? Holding two ideas as true that conflict requires an emotional investment. I think. Like how mums love even evil sons.

            • rickflick
              Posted March 14, 2019 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

              You think, maybe, she was lying to me? 😢

              • Michael Fisher
                Posted March 15, 2019 at 1:12 am | Permalink

                Nah. You nice 🙂

    • Ryan
      Posted March 14, 2019 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      Behe wasn’t hired as an evolutionary biologist. My guess is that his views on the subject were not known (and the books published) until it was much too late, i.e. he was tenured.

  16. Hrafn
    Posted March 14, 2019 at 3:32 am | Permalink

    And, of course, all reviews by real scientists have been negative …

    There has been a reasonably positive one in the New York Journal of Books: https://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/darwin-devolves

    Admittedly, the scientist in question is a retired Chemistry professor at a Christian college, who appears to fairly actively promote religion, so this outlier is not altogether unexpected.

  17. Posted March 16, 2019 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for posting this review, Jerry! I’ve just read it through, and I was fascinated by all the references to protein interactions and evolution. Even if I couldn’t always follow the technical terms, I feel I’ve learned to appreciate the flexibility of biochemistry a lot more.

    There was a particularly good paragraph near the end (it talks about the “OmpF receptor” and the “J protein”) that reminded me of Cairns-Smith’s “arch and scaffolding” point. As explained by Dawkins: a structure might seem “irreducibly complex” now (the arch), but there actually are ways to evolve to that state (the scaffolding), even if the scaffolding now no longer exists or holds.

    Thanks again for posting this. It’s been a real scientific treat indeed. 🙂

  18. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted March 16, 2019 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    All I’ll suggest with this comment is to read over the Wikipedia entry on Michael Behe, where I learned is Ph.D. thesis from U. Penn, which I think is a decent school, is on sickle-cell hemoglobin biochemistry.


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