Uncommon Descent

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12 July 2007

Response to Kenneth R. Miller, Continued

Michael J Behe

Yesterday, in the first part of my response to Kenneth Miller’s review, in which I addressed his substantive points, I ended by showing that a reference he cited did not contain the evidence he claimed it did. In this final part, I more closely examine Miller’s tendentious style of argumentation.

Speaking of throwing around irrelevant references, Miller writes:

Telling his readers that the production of so much as a single new protein-to-protein binding site is “beyond the edge of evolution”, [Behe] proclaims darwinian evolution to be a hopeless failure. Apparently he has not followed recent studies exploring the evolution of hormone-receptor complexes by sequential mutations (Science 312, 97-101; 2006), the ‘evolvability’ of new functions in existing proteins — studies on serum paraxonase (PON1) traced the evolution of several new catalytic functions (Nature Genet. 37, 73-76; 2005) — or the modular evolution of cellular signalling circuitry (Annu. Rev. Biochem. 75, 655-680; 2006).

Now, dear reader, when Miller writes of “protein-to-protein” binding sites in one sentence, wouldn’t you expect the papers he cites in the next sentence would be about protein-to-protein binding sites? Well — although the casual reader wouldn’t be able to tell — they aren’t. None of the papers Miller cites involves protein-protein binding sites. The Sciencepaper concerns protein-steroid-hormone binding; theNature Genetics paper deals with the enzyme activity of single proteins; and theAnnual Reviews paper discusses rearrangement of pre-existing protein binding domains. What’s more, none of the papers deals with evolution in nature. They all concern laboratory studies where very intelligent investigators purposely re-arrange, manipulate, and engineer isolated genes (not whole cells or organisms) to achieve their own goals. Although such studies can be very valuable, they tell us little about how a putatively blind, random evolutionary process might proceed in unaided nature.

Miller’s snide comment, that apparently I haven’t followed these developments, seems pretty silly, since it’s so easy to find out that I followed them closely. You’d think he should have noticed that I cited the Annual Reviews article in The Edge of Evolution in Appendix D, which deals in detail with Wendell Lim’s interesting work on domain swapping. You’d think he easily might have checked and seen that I was quoted in the New York Times commenting on Joseph Thornton’s Science paper when it first came out a year ago. You’d also think he’d then have to tell readers of the review why I thought the papers weren’t pertinent. You’d be thinking wrong.

Much worse, Miller is as subtly misleading when writing about the substantive points ofThe Edge of Evolution as he is when making supercilious offhand comments. Miller writes: “Telling his readers that the production of so much as a single new protein-to-protein binding site is ‘beyond the edge of evolution’, [Behe] proclaims darwinian evolution to be a hopeless failure.” But the book says plainly that it is two, not one, binding sites that marks the edge of evolution. That was not an obscure point. Chapter 7 is entitled “The Two-Binding-Sites Rule”; Figure 7.4 has a line at two binding sites, with a big arrow pointing to it labeled “Tentative molecular edge of evolution.” What’s more, the book goes out of its way to say that Darwinism is certainly not a “hopeless failure”, that there are important biological features it clearly can explain. That’s why one chapter is called “What Darwinism Can Do”.

Regrettably, that’s Miller’s own special style. He doesn’t just sneer and thump his chest, as some other Darwinists do. He uses less savory tactics, too. His tactics include ignoring distinctions the author draws (cellular protein-protein binding sites vs. other kinds of binding sites), mischaracterizing an argument by skewing or exaggerating its claims (“so much as a single …”), and employing inflammatory, absolutist language (“[Behe] proclaims darwinian evolution to be a hopeless failure”). He turns the principle of charitable reading on its head. Instead of giving a text its best interpretation, he gives it the worst he can.

Call it the principle of malignant reading. He’s been doing it for years with the arguments of Darwin’s Black Box, and he continues it in this review. For example, despite being repeatedly told by me and others that by an “irreducibly complex” system I mean one in which removal of a part destroys the function of the system itself, Miller says, no, to him the phrase will mean that none of the remaining partscan be used for anything else — a straw man which can easily be knocked down. Unconscionably, he passes off his own tendentious view to the public as mine. People who look to Miller for a fair engagement of the arguments of intelligent design are very poorly served.

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