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September 19, 2007

William D. Rubinstein raises some questions for the advocates of intelligent design: The Edge of Evolution: The Search For the Limits of Darwinism - Michael J. Behe

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

The Edge of Evolution: The Search For the Limits of Darwinism
by Michael J. Behe
Pp. 320. New York: Free Press, 2007
Hardback, £14.73

The Edge of Evolution is a successor volume to Michael J. Behe's well-known anti-Darwinist work, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (1996). In that book, he argued that many biological phenomena are, as he termed it, "irreducibly complex", and simply cannot be explained by chance and random piecemeal evolutionary changes, as is central to orthodox Darwinism. Behe is professor of Biology at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, and the author of more than forty technical papers. He thus cannot be dismissed as some sort of Fundamentalist crackpot from the hillbilly belt, and, in this, he is similar to a growing number of professionally-trained scientists who are very dubious about the claims of orthodox Darwinian theory. In The Edge of Evolution Behe extends his argument to demonstrate that Darwinian models of evolution simply do not work in practice.

Before examining his claims, however, it might be worth putting in a personal word. About two years I wrote an on-line column on this site attacking the orthodox Darwinian theory of evolution, making what I thought were some obvious and common sense objections to it, above all that no one has ever observed speciation (the coming into existence of new species of animal or plant life), while there are no clear-cut examples of transitional species. If orthodox Darwinism is a valid theory, these should be observed on an everyday basis, and should have been observed innumerable times, in the 150 years since The Origin of Species first appeared.

On the contrary, in the natural world stasis is obviously the rule. New species do not come into existence to fills "niches". If there is, say, a destructive forest fire, when plant and animal life returns to the devastated area, these are invariably existing species, well-known to naturalists, not new ones previously unknown. The fact of stasis strongly implies that evolution, when it occurs - and I made clear that I did not doubt that it does occur, and has for billions of years - occurs extremely rapidly, perhaps literally overnight, and that there must be a force guiding these changes which is cunning and intelligent - but not necessarily supernatural, as I took great pains to say. I also emphasised that, while I am not a scientist, I can pick out logical and observational fallacies as well as the next man, and also that I am emphatically not a Creationist. I do not believe in the literal truth of the Bible, and have no reason to doubt the earth is billions of years old, or that humans are descended from primates, just as science maintains.

I had assumed that I had made a reasonable case for an arguable viewpoint. I was not, therefore, prepared for the storm of abuse which followed. I received something over one-hundred hostile replies on this site and perhaps twenty more, even more venomous and often defamatory, sent to my private email address. Although I have written on a good many controversial and emotive topics over the years, nothing I have ever written has ever generated the kind of abuse, often virtually hysterical, as did this show of force by so-called "scientist". While I have an extremely thick skin, being on the receiving end of this onslaught gave me a good insight into what an "uppity Negro" must have experienced in rural Alabama in 1910 when confronted by a gang of armed, hooded, screaming Ku Klux Klansmen after midnight.

It is therefore with some personal as well as intellectual interest that I was glad to read Behe's new book. In it, he surveys just what orthodox Darwinism can and cannot explain. Darwinism, in his view, does successfully explain that all species have a common origin. But it cannot explain how one species evolves into a new one. Even "simple" components of a cell or other living structure are so complex - Behe gives the examples of cilium and flagellum in green algae- that they simply cannot be explained by random, chance mutations. More significantly still, he gives the examples of studies of malaria parasites and AIDS viruses, where quadrillions (not mere billions) of these microorganisms have existed but simply failed to "evolve" to "improve" upon their ability to destroy their human hosts. The ordinary pathways of Darwinian evolution simply cannot account for real "jumps" in the evolutionary chain. The actual evidence from nature, when the generational process has been speeded up trillions of times compared with higher species of life, simply fails to show evolution, only stasis.

Behe is an excellent writer, and his argument can be understood by any reader. He states at one point that he is a Roman Catholic, but this never intrudes into his discussion - far less so, I might add, than does the fact that Professor Richard Dawkins is a militant atheist intrude into his writings. Behe's work is one of a growing number by proponents of "intelligent design", many of whom are active and widely-published scientists. Another good place to learn why this viewpoint exists and is apparently growing is in Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals who Find Darwinism Unconvincing (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 2004), edited by William Dembski, which includes fourteen essays, mainly by scientists, who all seriously question Darwinian orthodoxy.

What Behe does not do, however, and nor does anyone else, is to offer any plausible insights into why, how, or when speciation actually occurs, or any clue as to its guiding force. Is this guiding force situated inside the cell, and at what (presumably molecular) level? What triggers it? To what extent is this trigger ever a response to an unfilled natural niche, and to what extent not a response to external factors? What percentage of new species are successful and what percentage badly-designed failures? How rapidly does speciation actually occur? Given that there are apparently no transitional species, only fully-developed ones, does this occur in literally only one generation (the evolutionary perspective known as "saltation")? "Intelligent design" theorists ought certainly to be addressing these questions, given their valuable critique of the failures of orthodox Darwinism.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. He is the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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I am going to stir up the muddy waters and make them even muddier.

First, I will address the following to the practitioners of “Intelligent Design” and all forms of “Creation Science”. I took it from “Learning in War-time”, a chapter in the book “Fern-seed and Elephants” by C.S.Lewis:

By leading that [learned] life to the glory of God I do not, of course, mean any attempt to make our intellectual enquiries work out to edifying conclusions. That would be, as Bacon says, to offer to the author of truth the unclean sacrifice of a lie.

These po-mo days, of course, “edifying” can mean what-you-will. A certain lady by the name of Golombok at the University of Cambridge makes her enquiries work out to the conclusion that it doesn't matter if children are brought up in “alternative” family groupings.

While I have never even touched a book by Behe, Darwinian Fairy Tales by David Stove looks worth a read (provided someone else buys it – I prefer to spend my money on math books. On the other side of the argument, I was thinking of getting “Why Darwin Matters” by Michael Shermer, until I read that he was an ex-Evangelical. Now Darwin Does Matter, but I don't want to be told why by an apostate with an axe to grind. In the 19th Century, Evolution was seized upon by Libertines and Utilitarians; these days the proponents of Darwinarianism have a more advanced, but still anti-religious agenda.)

I would suggest that Professor Rubinstein get hold of Simon Conway Morris's The Crucible of Creation which explains matters much better than I can. Though I would like to add – maybe in a million years, if anyone's around then, they would regard people like ourselves as a “transitional species”.

Now I'll get this one posted before the Mad Mullah of Minnesota stirs up his Taleban to attack the Professor, or the site is swamped by “Dawleks” chanting ex..ter..mi..nate! To such people I will address this ancient Chinese story:

A certain man became very rich, and built himself a big house and started to collect all the most refined books and objets d'art that he could. All his old stuff, anything that could be regarded as vulgar or uncouth, was ruthlessly thrown away. He invited in a friend to show him his new collection.

“Is there anything vulgar or uncouth in this house?” he asked.

“One one thing” his friend replied, laughing.

“What is it, what is it?” the rich man asked eagerly. “Tell me what it is and I will throw it out!”

“The only vulgar or uncouth thing in this house,” his friend replied, “is you!”

Posted by: Hinmeigeng at September 20, 2007 05:52 PM

William D. Rubinstein writes:

'While I have an extremely thick skin, being on the receiving end of this onslaught gave me a good insight into what an "uppity Negro" must have experienced in rural Alabama in 1910 when confronted by a gang of armed, hooded, screaming Ku Klux Klansmen after midnight.'

A reader responds:

It's sad to see one of the stalest clichés of anti-white racism trotted out on the Social Affairs Unit website. American blacks kill more of each other in a single year than the Ku Klux Klan has managed in its entire existence. They also kill large numbers of American whites. Mr Rubinstein would presumably, in classic liberal fashion, blame all this on white oppression. Those who accept this explanation deny blacks what they grant freely to whites: free will. In other words, they believe blacks are, in the terms used above, a transitional species between fully human whites and our non-human ancestors. Could anything be more racist?

Posted by: Laotsu at September 20, 2007 06:39 PM

Laotsu, I don't believe that Prof Rubenstein was attempting to perpetuate this particular falsehood - I take his work on exposing the myths of rescue (which are really attempts to hold Britain and America as culpable in the Final Solution) as evidence that he is unlikely to hold this point of view.

There is a, however, a difference between a mob attacking an "uppity n#gger" in Alabama and regular gang and criminal violence. Namely that the Klan members (although I'm not sure if the Klan was actually operating in 1910) were trying to keep black political participation suppressed. They were acting out of outrage that a black was appearing to challenge the established order (and self evidently correct order at that as far as they were concerned). This is why he compared the mob attacks upon him to this. It is made worse by the fact that he is a Professor, and a highly intelligent man (although no scientist), when it is usual to simply write off those who have trouble with evolution as either stupid or ignorant. I read some of the attacks, I my personal feeling (and I don't have a problem with evolution) was that people have so much invested in evolution that it is virtually an article of faith, and they react accordingly if someone expresses doubt. Quite ironic really.

You are quite right, however, that there is definite racism in pretending that Blacks in America are somehow incapable of being responsible for their own actions.

Posted by: PT at September 21, 2007 10:15 AM

Concerning the last posting, I am not an "anti-white racist" and not a "classical liberal," and the poster has edgregiously missed the point of my analogy.

Posted by: Bill Rubinstein at September 21, 2007 10:39 AM

Mr Rubinstein -- I've now read your previous essay and think I can explain why, although you "have written on a good many controversial and emotive topics over the years, nothing" you "have ever written has ever generated the kind of abuse" you received for the essay. It's because you have some grasp of the other "controversial and emotive topics". Of biology and evolution, on the other hand, you plainly have almost no grasp whatsoever. I'm sorry if you were abused, but you did say some extremely foolish things.

Returning to the KKK: I understood the "point" of your analogy perfectly, but if you are not an anti-white racist, as you claim, you should have refrained from making that point by means of an egregious anti-white cliché. The Ku Klux Klan is often invoked by liberals as a symbol of whites' unique malevolence and evil, but far fewer blacks died under its hands than die today at their own. Far fewer whites died at black hands too. If you want a better analogy in future, then I hear that the treatment of "uppity" dissidents in 21st-century Zimbabwe is far from gentle. It also has rather more contemporary relevance than what was happening in rural Alabama in 1910. Inter alia, the liberals who put Mugabe in power are still promoting "anti-racism" today, often with references to the KKK just like yours.

Posted by: Laotsu at September 22, 2007 07:46 PM

Laotsu. Please take a step back. I understand in the US in particular there is a semi-official policy to blame whites for everything, but give them credit for nothing. In the UK we have Trevor Philips claiming that it was the Turks who "saved England" from the Spanish Armada (they apparently "held back" the Armada for weeks at the request of Queen Elizabeth). And here I was thinking it was Drake, Hawkins and good luck with the weather.

Many of those who attack Prof Rubenstein are likely to be amongst those who continually moan about the activities of the KKK, so the comparison would particularly sting for them. He hasn't tried to portray himself as an expert on biology. It is more a case that he is an intelligent man who has some difficulty with the concept of evolution. The rush to ridicule and condemn (often using the ad homonym) tends to convince such people that those who attack them are either unsure of their facts, or simply have little foundation. I think that some people are put out by the idea that the intelligent and educated can have doubts, since it means they can't simply write all such people off as ignorant, toothless morons from the Ozarks.

Evolution hasn't been "proven right", it is merely a good, satisfying and rational explanation for the diversity of life and the changes we can see by examining the fossil record (no doubt the best one science currently has). Other, more detailed, theories can be developed within its framework, which most of biology is based on. It is not really a falsifiable theory though. What criteria, for example, would prove evolutionary theory to be false? The "flat earth" theory is disproved by circumnavigating the world. The idea that the sun was a large lump of burning coal was disproved by spectral analysis. The aether was disproved the Michelson-Morley experiment. But what could disprove evolution? We should guard against it becoming an "article of faith". It is not dogma, but a scientific theory. One that has great power, but like all scientific theories, it should be open to doubt and to challenge. It should surely be strong enough to overcome this. The fact that it is hard to imagine how evolution could be "disproved" means that we must be extra vigilant against allowing it to become dogma to us.

Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not some creationist, and I don't consider myself a proponent of ID (I actually know very little about it's specific claims and claimed proof). I simply think that it is better to stay with a calm, rational argument instead of name calling. It isn't "science" if we do that, nor is it a way to convince people who have doubts. Remember, the dogma that Galileo was condemned for contravening wasn't just the Bible, but even more the Aristotelian view of the universe, which the Catholic Church had embraced.

Posted by: PT at September 27, 2007 02:28 PM
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