Wednesday, February 09, 2005


Thanks, Jay, for linking to the Behe article and LoR’s response, and for your own deft defeathering.

My thoughts, with Behe excerpted in italics:

The first claim is uncontroversial: we can often recognize the effects of design in nature. For example, unintelligent physical forces like plate tectonics and erosion seem quite sufficient to account for the origin of the Rocky Mountains. Yet they are not enough to explain Mount Rushmore.

If we can recognize the effects of design in nature, we don’t need to move on to the other three points, do we? Later, you’ll see Behe attempt to excuse himself by saying that “we can’t settle questions about reality with definitions.” But that’s absurd. To accept this first argument, we must all agree on the meaning of “design,” if we are to all recognize its effects in “nature.” I don’t even want to begin negotiating the definition of nature with Behe.

And what a canard this Mount Rushmore analogy is. We know it was designed. It was chiseled, for Christ’s sake. Behe’s argument for design eventually comes around to elegant microscopic mechanisms—specifically, the clock-like transportation and reproduction at the cellular level—that evolution has not explained yet. That’s understandable. But Mount Rushmore?

Which leads to the second claim of the intelligent design argument: the physical marks of design are visible in aspects of biology. This is uncontroversial, too. The 18th-century clergyman William Paley likened living things to a watch, arguing that the workings of both point to intelligent design. Modern Darwinists disagree with Paley that the perceived design is real, but they do agree that life overwhelms us with the appearance of design.

I don’t understand how this is different than the first point. How is “recognizing the effects of design in nature” different than “the physical marks of design are visible in aspects of biology”? Those who “recognize design” do so by seeing its physical marks. And of course it’s “uncontroversial, too.” These claims are identical; if the first is “uncontroversial,” so is the second. And what a cowardly defense of the claims: by labeling them “uncontroversial,” he’s telling us that we’re wrong to dispute the claims. There can’t be controversy as he sees it, because he designed his argument so intelligently.

“Life overwhelms us with the appearance of design.” Here’s where we begin to understand that Behe’s conception of intelligent design is not scientific at all, and therefore cannot be a “rival” theory. It is perfectly human to react with wonder to the overwhelming aspects of life. But not with science. With poetry, literature, art, and theology, absolutely. But science seeks to make life less overwhelming. Science hypothesizes, tests its hypotheses by collecting and analyzing data, which leads to conclusions and further hypotheses. The second step—testing hypotheses—is extremely important, because one does this by attempting to prove the null hypothesis. In other words, we try to prove that it is chance and randomness driving things rather than the mechanism we think is behind it. If we do not disprove the null hypothesis, we have no explanation, in which case scientists use earlier findings to persevere and develop new hypotheses, and the Behes of the world become overwhelmed and claim that the phenomenon was “intelligently designed.” If the null hypothesis is disproved, we have evidence to support our hypothesis, and we try to replicated to further assure ourselves that it is safe to move on to the next related phenomenon.

For example, Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, once wrote that biologists must constantly remind themselves that what they see was not designed but evolved. (Imagine a scientist repeating through clenched teeth: "It wasn't really designed. Not really.")

How this supports Behe’s argument, I’ll never know. Of course they must remind themselves. Science takes what appears one way to the eye and explains to us what is really going on. Any human being reacts to beauty and elegance first with wonder and intuition. He’s only saying that scientists should be disciplined and not become distracted with those who might argue that their work is in vain. I think he only chose Crick to take out of context because 1) he's dead, and 2) he was an atheist.

In the past 50 years modern science has shown that the cell, the very foundation of life, is run by machines made of molecules. There are little molecular trucks in the cell to ferry supplies, little outboard motors to push a cell through liquid.

The next claim in the argument for design is that we have no good explanation for the foundation of life that doesn't involve intelligence. Here is where thoughtful people part company. Darwinists assert that their theory can explain the appearance of design in life as the result of random mutation and natural selection acting over immense stretches of time. Some scientists, however, think the Darwinists' confidence is unjustified. They note that although natural selection can explain some aspects of biology, there are no research studies indicating that Darwinian processes can make molecular machines of the complexity we find in the cell.

Here Behe engages in self-serving reductionism. Bring it down to the molecular level, marvel at it as a child marvels at a train set, and gloat that science has not yet successfully applied the theory of evolution at this level. But this is the very coal that stokes the scientist’s fire. To intelligent design advocates, this is the dead end upon which they appeal to a first cause. To a scientist, it is not a dead end but a frontier, to which he applies the theory of evolution, a theory that Behe believes intelligent design rivals. But at this point, his theory does not rival: it unravels. He simply gives up.

The fourth claim in the design argument is also controversial: in the absence of any convincing non-design explanation, we are justified in thinking that real intelligent design was involved in life. To evaluate this claim, it's important to keep in mind that it is the profound appearance of design in life that everyone is laboring to explain, not the appearance of natural selection or the appearance of self-organization.

The strong appearance of design allows a disarmingly simple argument: if it looks, walks and quacks like a duck, then, absent compelling evidence to the contrary, we have warrant to conclude it's a duck. Design should not be overlooked simply because it's so obvious.

This is where Behe’s argument truly descends into absurdity. In the absence of a convincing explanation, he forces us to accept his explanation. It is also at this point—despite his earlier claim that intelligent design is not a religiously based idea—that Behe turns to God. His explanation is that what we have not yet explained by random mutation and natural selection was intelligently designed. Here is where the question is begged; nay, groveled to with the utmost prostration: WHO DESIGNED IT?

Absent compelling evidence (not absent compelling evidence to the contrary, because scientists do not assume that his design argument hangs in the void they are trying to fill), a scientist perseveres, continues using science to fill that void. I’m very surprised that Behe uses the walking, quacking duck canard, as it were. It is completely specious, because if there is something out there that walks and quacks like a duck but is not a duck, scientists want to know about it. Behe, apparently, does not.

Still, some critics claim that science by definition can't accept design, while others argue that science should keep looking for another explanation in case one is out there. But we can't settle questions about reality with definitions, nor does it seem useful to search relentlessly for a non-design explanation of Mount Rushmore.

Wow. After deploying an actual, real live canard, here Behe simply descends into non sequiturs and imagery. “Look, look at the pretty sculpture!” The hell we can’t settle questions about reality with definitions. It’s the first thing we have to do. Words are symbols, we use them to prove and persuade, and we have to agree on a shared meaning for those symbols, especially science, intelligence, and design, before we are going to get anywhere.

Besides, whatever special restrictions scientists adopt for themselves don't bind the public, which polls show, overwhelmingly, and sensibly, thinks that life was designed.

And the icing on the upside-down cake: polls! “Overwhelming” polls! Social science! He’s assuming that most Americans intelligently design their opinions.

The worst fallacy available, sitting dusty on the top shelf, and Behe scurries up the ladder and pulls it down: "a majority of people believe it, so it is true." Any person in his right mind is right to recall plenty of other polls and picture a nation of people who believe in angels, who believe that Saddam Hussein was behind September 11, and who voted George W. Bush into a second term as President of the United States. Perhaps, 50 years from now, in the hills of South Dakota, someone will chisel the overwhelmed mugs of Behe and Bush into a butte and call it Mount Thinkless.

Don’t think I’m not taking offense to parts of Light of Reason’s rebuttal to Behe.

The so-called “newspaper of record,” The New York Times, recently regaled us with Charles Murray’s thoughts on the “innate genetic” differences between men and women – and now it entertains us with Michael Behe on “intelligent design.” At this rate, I look forward to being enlightened by Dr. James Dobson on how children should be violently and viciously trained like dogs, and by our Vice President on how to successfully resolve conflicts of interest between one’s business holdings and the claims of public office.

I want to know what these people are thinking. I want the Times to publish this, especially if so many Americans are behind it. Furthermore, it’s bunk to compare Behe and Murray to Dobson and Cheney. Behe and Murray are scientists, whatever their ideological beliefs. We can’t pretend they do not exist. We have plenty of evidence to contradict them, but science never proves anything entirely. We have to leave ourselves open to the possibility, however slight, that these people will somehow discover evidence that there are variations by sex in genetic makeup (beyond the more prominent ones). Dobson is a spectacular moralist and rabblerouser, and it’s high time we stopped giving him so much attention.

I will note that the subtext of Murray’s article, mercifully unspoken for the most part, is given away by one sentence in particular, where its tawdry ugliness becomes all too apparent: “Perhaps knowing that there is a group difference will discourage some women from even trying to become mathematicians or engineers or circus clowns.” “Circus clowns.” An interesting addition to that list of occupations, is it not?

Passive-aggressive inferences don’t help here. I’m guessing any absurd occupation would have gotten the kneejerk liberal deconstruct-the-text-to-find-the-bigot treatment.

The New York Times has shown a distressing tendency of late to reach into the very bottom of the intellectual barrel with regard to scientific debates. In its increasingly limited wisdom, could the Times possibly extend an invitation to a genuine scientific authority like Richard Dawkins to refute this reprehensible nonsense? We can only hope.

These piscine pontificators at the bottom of the barrel are changing society, no matter how fishy their arguments might smell. I’m happy to have them brought within the scopes of those leaning over the barrel.

This criticism of Behe and Murray is quite sound otherwise, but it sullies itself with the tone of someone who reads too many shrill lefty blogs.


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