Uncommon Descent

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24 June 2007

Response to Critics, Part 1: Jerry Coyne

Michael J Behe

Dear Readers,

Major reviews of The Edge of Evolution have begun to appear. Because the conclusion of the book is so controversial, it’s no surprise that responses by some Darwinists so far have been pretty emotional and defensive. I’ll be writing brief replies here to unfavorable reviews by the most prominent academic Darwinists, just to point out important miscues and errors. Later, after more reviews are in (several more major reviews are expected in the next month), I’ll write a comprehensive response. To date three reviews have been published by well-known evolutionary thinkers: Jerry Coyne (professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago); Sean Carroll (professor of developmental biology, University of Wisconsin); and Michael Ruse (professor of philosophy at Florida State University). Unfortunately, all three fail to grapple with the data presented in The Edge of Evolution, and Coyne and Carroll continue the venerable Darwinian tradition of substituting imaginary scenarios for evidence. I’ll start with the longest review and end with the shortest.

Jerry Coyne for The New Republic

In the June 14th issue of The New Republic Jerry Coyne writes an exceptionally lengthy, 7500 word review. Coyne is an eminent evolutionary biologist whose specialty is fruit fly genetics, which he employs as a tool to study speciation, his real interest. (He teamed up with University of Rochester biologist Allan Orr several years ago to write a book entitled Speciation.) Furthermore, he is a frequent contributor to the popular press, with articles and book reviews in the pages of The Times Literary Supplement andThe Guardian. So not only does he have a sharp scientific mind, he can write clearly for a general audience, too. I knew of course that Coyne strongly dislikes intelligent design, but was hopeful as I first started his review that he would engage the book’s arguments and offer thoughtful counterpoints, which could help sharpen my own thinking. (It’s been my experience that the more thoughtfully Darwinism is engaged, and the more experimental evidence is brought to bear, the more its manifest problems come to light.)

Alas, it was not to be. The Coyne review is one very long mishmash of ad hominem,argument from authority, misunderstanding, and question begging. The ad hominem (questioning my motives, gratuitously citing folks who disagree with me without saying why that’s pertinent to my argument, and so on) I will not reply to. The argument from authority is the most incomprehensible part of his essay. Alluding to my participation in the Dover, Pennsylvania court case of 2005, early in the review Coyne writes “More damaging than the scientific criticisms of Behe’s work was the review that he got in 2005 from Judge John E. Jones III.”

Wow, more damaging than scientific criticisms?! Leave aside the fact that the parts of the opinion Coyne finds so congenial (which are standard Darwinian criticisms of intelligent design) were actually written by the plaintiffs’ lawyers and simply copied by the judge into his opinion. (Whenever the opinion discusses the testimony of any expert witness — for either side, whether scientists, philosophers, or theologians — the judge copied the lawyers’ writing. Although such copying is apparently tolerated in legal circles, it leaves wide open the question of whether the judge even comprehended the abstruse academic issues discussed in his courtroom.) Frankly, it’s astounding that a prominent academic evolutionary biologist like Coyne hides behind the judicial skirts of the former head of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. If Coyne himself can’t explain how Darwinism can cope with the challengesThe Edge of Evolution cites, how could a non-scientist judge?

At some points in his review, it’s hard to know whether Professor Coyne simply has a poor memory, or is so upset with the book that he gets confused. He writes “For a start, let us be clear about what Behe now accepts about evolutionary theory. He has no problem with a 4.5billionyearold Earth, nor with evolutionary change over time …. and that all species share common ancestors.” “Now accepts”? I made that plain in Darwin’s Black Box over ten years ago. Throughout the controversy of the past decade over ID, almost every time my work had been cited in a newspaper or journal, it has been noted that I think common ancestry is true. Yet apparently that comes as a surprise to Coyne.

His reasoning goes downhill from there. To hear him tell it, I “come clean” about an ancient earth and common descent — which I’ve always thought the evidence supported — because “[t]here is simply too much evidence for any scientist to deny these facts without losing all credibility.” But according to Coyne there is also simply too much evidence to deny that random mutation and selection can explain evolution. So how does he reconcile that, in his telling, I worry about my reputation in the one case but not the other? It’s impossible to tell — I’m afraid his thinking is quite a muddle. Perhaps if he reflected a bit on why he’s so upset, even though he acknowledges I agree with what he claims is the great bulk of evolutionary thinking, he would realize that the question of randomness versus design is actually the crucial point, both scientifically and otherwise. The rest are details.

Finally, in any future dictionary of logical fallacies, wherever there is an entry on the topic “begging the question”, it’s a safe bet there’ll be a picture of Jerry Coyne next to it. He writes:

Creationists equate the chance that evolution could produce a complex organism to the infinitesimal chance that a hurricane could sweep through a junkyard and randomly assemble the junk into a Boeing 747. But this analogy is specious. Evolution is manifestly not a chance process because of the order produced by natural selection – order that can, over vast periods of time, result in complex organisms looking as if they were designed to fit their environment. Humans, the product of nonrandom natural selection, are the biological equivalent of a 747, and in some ways they are even more complex.

So, you see, we know random mutation plus selection produces order in life because biology contains order! What’s not to understand? There’s plenty more of that kind of thinking, such as when he writes we know Darwinian processes can produce coherent results because the fossil record shows coherent changes!

The same question-begging is used to “answer” my argument on protein binding sites, but with a special twist. Writes Coyne: “In fact, interactions between proteins, like any complex interaction, were certainly built up step by mutational step … This process could have begun with weak proteinprotein associations that were beneficial to the organism. These were then strengthened gradually…” So, reasons Coyne, we know protein binding sites developed gradually by random mutation because we know proteins have binding sites. So there!

The twist comes when Coyne claims “Behe furnishes no proof, no convincing argument, that interactions cannot evolve gradually.” So, apparently to Darwinists, contrary observational evidence doesn’t count. Or perhaps Coyne somehow overlooked Chapter 7, where I noted that in a hundred billion billion chances, no such interactions developed in malaria. Or in HIV. Or in ten trillion opportunities in E. coli. I guess he missed where I carefully reviewed the literature on new protein binding sites. Where I showed the disconnected nature of random mutation in Chapters 3 and 4. Well, I suppose if Coyne read The Edge of Evolutionwith his eyes firmly shut, then he could have missed those discussions.

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