1 March 2010
A malodorous argument for Darwinian evolution
Michael J Behe
University of California evolutionary biologist John Avise has penned a book, Inside the Human Genome: A Case for Non-Intelligent Design, and gotten it published by a top academic publishing house, Oxford University Press. Avise, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, has for decades been a leading researcher in evolutionary and ecological genetics. He has written hundreds of research articles and over a dozen books. Clearly he has an impressive scientific mind.
Which makes it all the more astonishing that his new book shows all the intellectual savvy of a typical late-night college dormroom bull session. As his subtitle announces, Avise is anxious to show that, despite the claims of certain renegade biochemists, the molecular features of the human genome discovered by science in the recent past show no traces of intelligent design. They are chaotic, haphazard, a mess. Any designer with the smarts of at least, oh, say, John Avise, would have done a much better job.
Avise tries to steal three bases on a bunt. He claims that both [Darwinian] evolution and intelligent design can explain the functional parts of the genome, but only evolution can explain the dysfunctional parts (because a beneficent God would not have made those). So he points to what he deems to be poor design and, voila!, that proves the most intricate, functional molecular machines arose by random mutation and natural selection. No actual separate demonstration of that is thought necessary. In fact, Avise makes only the most cursory attempt to address the scientific argument for ID. His chapter 5 is in large part devoted to answering (after a fashion) my Darwin’s Black Box. Yet in the chapter Avise’s only attempt to explain one of my book’s examples of irreducible complexity is to cite Liu and Ochman’s (2007) dubious endeavor to tag all bacterial flagellar genes as descendants of one amazing prodigy gene. The rest of the chapter is pretty much hand waving.
Avise’s main theme is that genes can break, leading to genetic diseases. He has a figure outlining human chromosome 2 and the regions of this chromosome to which various diseases map, such as abetalipoproteinemia and Waardenburg syndrome. A nearby table lists genetic metabolic diseases compiled in Mendelian Inheritance in Man. His whole argument can pretty much be summed up in one brief quote: “Lesch-Nyhan syndrome hardly seems like the kind of outcome that would be countenanced by a loving all-powerful Diety [sic].” (p. 64) In other words, the theological argument from evil — the same argument Darwin gave when he proclaimed that no beneficent God would allow wasp larvae to feed on the living bodies of caterpillars.
Well, it does not follow that, because the parts of my car can break, the car was not designed. Nor does it follow that the Ford motor company is evil. Of course Avise is making a brief against a “loving all-powerful” entity, which does not describe Ford. Yet, beginning with the Book of Job, throughout history philosophers and theologians have wrestled with the problem of evil. I’m no theologian, so I can’t rigorously evaluate those arguments. But Avise is no theologian either and, despite writing an entire book that revolves around the problem of evil, he doesn’t even attempt to engage those philosophical arguments.
The bottom line is, if you’re the kind of person who thinks that because some people smell bad due to a certain genetic disease (trimethylaminuria, p. 64) it follows that Darwinian processes made the eye, this is the book for you. Other folks will conclude that the academic standards of Oxford University Press have slipped a few notches.
Liu,R. and Ochman,H. 2007. Stepwise formation of the bacterial flagellar system. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A 104:7116-7121.