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Monday, September 26, 2005

Michael Behe: will he renounce Intelligent Design?

Bonnie posted a link to "My Conversation With A Cell Biologist About Evolution," and I appreciate it (She also posted a link to a follow-up, on the same blog, The Dawn Treader). The post, on Intelligent Design (ID), is interesting, and so are the comments. The author says he interviewed a professional scientist whose work has been published in academic journals. The blogger is not such a scientist. However, it is clear that he believes in ID, and that the scientist, does, too. Some of the commenters don't. I have comments, pertinent or not, so extensive that I decided to post them on my own blog.

Lest there be any doubt, I believe that there is an omnipotent God, and that He was directly involved in the origin of the universe, of living things, and of humans, and that at least some attributes of the way things are were designed by God. If that makes me an IDer, then I am one.

excerpt:
Blogger: "Is evolution practical in any way to your research?"

Prof: "Your average scientist just uses the word evolution. It is not part of the investing process. Here is the bottom line. Three words. Observable. Reproducible. Testable." [note -- surely investing should have been investigating.]

For what it's worth, which may not be a lot, as it's almost four decades old, I have a Ph. D. in genetics and zoology. My doctoral research, which has been justifiably forgotten by everyone except me, was on relationships between pigeon and dove species, as measured by their blood antigens. Evolutionary relationships were assumed by me, and, as far as I know, by all others involved in the work of my laboratory. We didn't try to test the theory of evolution, at least not to disprove it. It was assumed that natural selection works, and had worked, and that similar species were related to each other by common descent. We did study various similarities between species. I believe that the Prof. is right on the mark.

Forget evolution, whatever that means, (see this post, and the two previous ones it refers to) if you can, for a moment. Although Ph. D. stands for Doctor of Philosophy, I have never taken a course in philosophy, and any expertise I have in the subject has been picked up after I received the degree. That is true of most scientists, at least in the U. S., I believe. I was trained well, at a famous institution, and had acquaintance with three or four Nobel prize winners, and some others who could have been given one. At no time do I recall anyone ever considering the philosophical underpinnings of what we were doing. We never heard of reductionism, determinism, or epistemology. Plumbers probably aren't trained in economics, labor relations, ethics, metallurgy, ceramics, hydrology, and the like, but in how to use their equipment, and in what plumbing hardware is made of, and how it's supposed to work. Based on my experience, biologists are usually trained like plumbers. They learn how the hardware of the cell and the organism are supposed to work, and what they are made of, but not the foundational underpinnings of their fields, or in how their field affects society.

What am I saying? I'm trying to say that scientists don't often question the fundamental assumptions of their field. They just work assuming that they are true. That's one reason for resistance to alternatives to evolutionary theory.

The interview goes on to indicate that it might be dangerous to one's career to stand up for ID, at most universities. Probably.
Now, back to evolution. If ID is seen as an attack on the idea of evolution, most biologists will not be happy. Why? Well, one reason is that "evolution" means many things. (ID, also, is not a single coherent set of beliefs--there are serious differences among IDers.) One thing evolution may mean is genetic change under the influence of selection. No biologist that I have ever heard of doubts that such change has occurred. For example, insects have become resistant to insecticides within recent history. For another, the different races of humans have all descended from a single small group. These facts support the idea of evolution. New varieties have arisen. (They don't contradict the Bible, either. In fact, the Bible teaches the second fact.) If evolution, in a sense more fundamental than the appearance of new varieties, occurred, and many types of organisms descended from a few, then you would expect similarities between these different types of organisms, with the amount of similarity depending on how close the relationship is. Similarities, with the amount corresponding closely to the supposed degree of relationship, are found. I know of no biologist who questions this. (They may question the reason for it.) These two ideas, change caused by selection, and similarities, are accepted facts. They can be, and almost always are, related to ideas of evolution. When evolution is questioned, it is seen as an attack on fundamental and accepted facts. If a physicist was told that there is no gravity, or are no electrical charges, she would be extremely skeptical of the teller. Similarly, the first reaction of most biologists to ideas that are said to contradict evolution will be to reject them.

It is also true, of course, that there may be opposition to ID for less valid reasons, such as denying the possibility of a supreme being, or rebelling against religious parents.

What am I saying? I'm saying that there may be what seem, to an honest person, to be reasons to question the sanity of someone proposing ID, and there may also be atheism at work.

Lest there be any doubt, I appreciate the post, and the candor of the anonymous professor.

However, I have trouble with something said in response to a comment:
It would especially be helpful to see Behe himself acknowledge that his confidence in gradualism has been restored. Though I don't know Behe personally, I suspect he has enough integrity to admit when his ideas have been soundly reversed. A good scientist should know when to run up the white flag.

So the writer is not willing to give up on ID unless Michael Behe, credentialed biological scientist, (and author of Darwin's Black Box, one of the cornerstones of ID literature) is willing to recant his support for ID? That's asking an awful lot of Behe. I don't know Behe or the person who made the statement quoted immediately above, and I'm not doubting their integrity, but there is a difference between deliberate dishonesty and self-deception. Almost everyone, surely including me, sincerely believes and supports many things in spite of the evidence--our kids should be in the game, not on the bench; our political party is right, etc., when an unbiased observer would disagree. Scientists usually believe in theories they personally have invested in, even if the evidence is against them. That's just the way people work. I would be amazed if Behe wasn't like that--he's a person. A term which applies in this case, as I understand it, is Cognitive Dissonance. Although good scientists, and others, should know when to run up the white flag, we usually don't even know it, let alone do it.

Thomas S. Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a significant work. Part of what he said is summed up in this quote:
"a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." (Kuhn's source is said to have been Max Planck.) Scientists, probably even Behe, won't give up their cherished beliefs easily.

We should be willing to accept evidence that Behe's ideas are wrong, should there be any such evidence, regardless of what Behe might do with that evidence.

(I know, this cuts both ways. Even if ID was completely convincing to an unbiased person, it would be expected to take a generation for it to be accepted generally.)

As I understand Behe, and "gradualism," Behe has no problem accepting at least some gradualism.

* * * *

Corrections made, and item reposted: I erred, and mistakenly attributed a name to a poster/commenter. This has now been fixed, I hope.

6 comments:

TGirsch said...

Excellent post. I have a few comments:

The blogger is not such a scientist. However, it is clear that he believes in ID, and that the scientist, does, too.

As I suggested on Jeff's site, I don't really believe he (the post author, Jeff) actually is an IDer. He's more correctly classified as an Old Earth Creationist, in my estimation. IDT, as I've seen it, accepts many aspects of evolutionary theory that Jeff would explicitly deny. This is a large part of why his support for ID has always puzzled me a bit.

I think he likes ID only insofar as it's a challenge to naturalistic evolution that's gaining some traction in the general public. But I don't suspect that Jeff likes the conclusions of ID (as presented by Behe and Dembski) any better than the conclusions of naturalistic evolution.

Now, as to this:

Evolutionary relationships were assumed by me, and, as far as I know, by all others involved in the work of my laboratory. We didn't try to test the theory of evolution, at least not to disprove it. It was assumed that natural selection works, and had worked, and that similar species were related to each other by common descent.

Possibly so, but in the course of your studies, did you make any discoveries that ran directly afoul of those assumptions? Many of the most important scientific discoveries in history have been made accidentally, while looking for something else. If your assumptions here were unwarranted, it stands to reason that there should have been some results you found that didn't make sense, or seemed to contradict those foundational assumptions.

I'm trying to say that scientists don't often question the fundamental assumptions of their field. They just work assuming that they are true. That's one reason for resistance to alternatives to evolutionary theory.

This is true not just of biologists, but of most scientists in all fields of science. But again, just because they're inclined to believe those assumptions are true doesn't mean they are incapable of being convinced otherwise in the face of evidence to the contrary. In fact, they are in the best position to find (even if not immediately recognize) such evidence.

This happens all the time in science, and is what could be expected to happen if these assumptions turned out to be wrong. And it may still happen. :)

Last note: Kuhn's work was important, but it doesn't look like it actually panned out in real life. Relativity didn't gain acceptance only after those who embraced Newtonian physics had all died, and quantum mechanics didn't wait around for relativity's supporters to die, either. :)

The Dawn Treader said...

Martin,

Great post. As the writer of the post you are referring to :-), I would like to respond. By the way, no offense taken in mis-identifying me earlier. :-)

Re: "So the writer is not willing to give up on ID unless Michael Behe, credentialed biological scientist, (and author of Darwin's Black Box, one of the cornerstones of ID literature) is willing to recant his support for ID?"

As Tgirsch correctly says, I am a progressive (old-earth) creationist ... day-age creationist ... whatever term suits you. So if Behe recanted and suddenly became a materialist and in effect said, "just kidding", I wouldn't give up on ID or theism or any of my core beliefs. It would merely weaken one (but by no means the only) argument against naturalistic evolution.

Now, even though I am not employed by the Discovery Institute, and even though I am not engaged in any political struggles to broaden teaching in public schools, I do think Behe has some strong points. Has Behe been successfully answered? I cannot tell. Tgirsch, who btw is a friend and fellow blogger though we disagree about most things ;-), continually tells me that Behe's argument has been reduced to rubble. However, those who have allegedly pummeled Behe's argument into the ground, seem to be apologists for evolution.

For example, I followed one exchange between Behe and Miller ... Miller is an anti-IDer. In the thread I read, it became quite clear that Miller's alleged trouncing of Behe's argument was vacuous. Miller did not address Behe's core argument ... Miller got side-tracked with mousetraps.

I have only found one other debate ... however, it was not a transcript ... it was someone's notes ... and the scribe was anti-ID ... and unsurprisingly, declared Behe the loser.

So ... according to anti-IDers, Behe has been discredited and is therefore either pig-headed, blind or evil.

I don't find this terribly helpful or convincing to hear those who oppose Behe to say he has been debunked.

I am not waiting for Behe to renounce ID and then I will be convinced ... I am looking for an unbiased transcript of Behe and another biochemist who are debating the real argument. The series of emails between Behe and Miller was quite helpful ... I wish they had kept it up. I'll keep looking for something like that.

Once again, though, ID is larger than Michael Behe (iow, Behe does not address cosmological ID, explanatory filters, the origin of information etc). I think tgirsch is correct in stating that Behe's argument is an argument against one component of naturalistic evolution.

Re: "These two ideas, change caused by selection, and similarities, are accepted facts. They can be, and almost always are, related to ideas of evolution. When evolution is questioned, it is seen as an attack on fundamental and accepted facts."

I don't find change caused by selection and similarities to be terribly controversial ... nor do most creationists, even the young-earth variety. So how do you recommend distinguishing between the little "e" evolution you describe and the kind Richard Dawkins' likes to write about? It basically sounds like you are suggesting that the controversy is due to language -- if so, how do we fix the language so that scientists understand what the real controversy is about?

Re: "As I understand Behe, and "gradualism," Behe has no problem accepting at least some gradualism."

When did you complete Darwin's Black Box (curious)? How "up" are you on Behe and his debates?

Re: "Scientists usually believe in theories they personally have invested in, even if the evidence is against them. That's just the way people work. I would be amazed if Behe wasn't like that--he's a person."

I suppose that is mostly true. Then there is the shocking case of Anthoy Flew. Not a scientist, but a person. A philosopher. One of the world's most famous atheists. Written quite a few books actually ... debated theists for the better part of four decades. Then, announced this year that he rejects atheism after carefully considering the evidence for design and following it where it led. Now maybe scientists are more pigheaded than philosophers ;-) ... but I doubt it. :-)

I could completely have misjudged Behe ... he may be an evil person, or self-deluded, or stupid, or incompetent, or too stubborn to admit he is wrong. From everything I have heard from those who know him or have met him, none of those terms fit. But, who knows?

I appreciate your comments ... sounds like you, me and the anonymous professor (a real person who will become unanonymous in the not-too-distant future) are pretty much on the same page.

What would you say to an interview for the Dawn Treader?

My last interview with a real scientist grabbed the attention of some interesting folk ... what say you?

Jeff
Mr. Dawn Treader

TGirsch said...

Jeff:

Tgirsch ... continually tells me that Behe's argument has been reduced to rubble.

That may overstate things a bit, but essentially, it's true. Every important example given in Darwin's Black Box has indeed been shown false. That is, most of the examples of supposed "irreducible complexity" he gives has been found in a less-complex version.

However, those who have allegedly pummeled Behe's argument into the ground, seem to be apologists for evolution.

And this is relevant why? By that standard, I can dismissively wave away any evidence presented by an ID supporter simply because they're an "apologist for ID." You know better than that.

In the thread I read, it became quite clear that Miller's alleged trouncing of Behe's argument was vacuous. Miller did not address Behe's core argument ... Miller got side-tracked with mousetraps.

Side-tracked? The mouse trap is Behe's signature comparative example! Why? Because it's something a layperson can wrap their head around. Behe has only backed away from the mousetrap as an unimportant example because it has been debunked. Which, interestingly, is what he has also done with blood clotting and the bacterial flagellum. But I suppose those debunkings are "vacuous," too.

I don't find this terribly helpful or convincing to hear those who oppose Behe to say he has been debunked.

But why not? This is actually insulting, when you think about it, because you're assuming that all who debunk him do so because they are somehow ideologically opposed with what he's positing, rather than simply unconvinced by his argumentation.

What you're doing here seems eminently unfair: you're basically eliminating any source that doesn't buy Behe's arguments as somehow unfairly biased against Behe. In this way (knowingly or not) you can conveniently sweep any of his detractors under the rug.

I am looking for an unbiased transcript of Behe and another biochemist who are debating the real argument.

I still don't see how this will necessarily help. Unless you get over your prejudice against anyone who "opposes" Behe, it's not going to matter much.

Then there is the shocking case of Anthoy [sic] Flew.

Not that shocking, really, and I'm not sure how it helps your point. Once in a while, people can be made to change their minds. This doesn't mean that Behe will, whatever the evidence. (And lots of people convert in the opposite direction as Flew, so this proves exactly what?)

I could completely have misjudged Behe ... he may be an evil person, or self-deluded, or stupid, or incompetent, or too stubborn to admit he is wrong.

See, this type of characterization really aggravates me, because it forces us into a false dilemma that doesn't accurately represent real life. Despite your setup, we can conclude that Behe is wrong and perhaps doesn't realize that he's wrong without passing wrathful judgment on his intelligence or character. He could be honestly mistaken, and this wouldn't make him "stupid."

It seems to me that you're putting way too much of this on Behe's character rather than on the substance of the debate. If Behe is wrong and doesn't see it, it doesn't matter why that is in the grand scheme of things. As you've already pointed out, this is bigger than just Behe. Suffice it to say that just because Behe doesn't think he's wrong doesn't mean he's not wrong (and that's what you seemed to be arguing).

Martin LaBar said...

Gentlemen:
Thank you so much for commenting. For ease of reading, I have decided to
respond to some of your remarks in my next post, which should be

here
.

The Dawn Treader said...

Every important example given in Darwin's Black Box has indeed been shown false. That is, most of the examples of supposed "irreducible complexity" he gives has been found in a less-complex version.

First, a less-complex version is not what it takes to disprove Behe's argument. E.g. showing a light spot instead of a human eye does not prove naturalistic, unguided, gradualism in the form of numerous, small, mechanistic steps. What it shows is two complex objects and it gives no pathways to describe the origin of either one.

Second, show me a simpler form of a bacterial flagellum ... or cilia ... or retinal cells ... or infectious fighting white blood cells ... or protein transcription ... or any of the other systems Behe unpacks. The author of the transcript you showed me referred to one possible pathway -- for blood clotting -- that was it.

And this is relevant why?

Because your entire argument is based on an appeal to authority. You haven't read DBB -- nor have you or anyone else explained naturalistic mechanisms for explaining the development of the many systems Behe talks about. I simply get appeals to authority.

re: mousetraps

Because Miller, like you apparently, still does not understand that the argument is one about developmental stages -- not simpler forms. It is an argument about going from version 1.0 to version 1.1 without breaking ... and the direction is from simpler to more complicated, not vice versa. No one is arguing that we started out with really complicated eyes and then ended up with light sensitive spots ... or I have really missed something in biology class.

This is actually insulting, when you think about it, because you're assuming that all who debunk him do so because they are somehow ideologically opposed

... or, as you have succinctly put it, they could just be wrong. Let's not make character an issue here ... we can make worldview an issue if you like, but we don't need to bring character into it.

Let's focus on the argument.

Not that shocking, really, and I'm not sure how it helps your point

I offered it in response to Martin's suggestion that it would be highly unlikely for Behe to reverse himself on something which has defined his life -- his own pet theory. It happens.

It seems to me that you're putting way too much of this on Behe's character rather than on the substance of the debate.

Ok ... let's take character out of it and proceed. Now, about the bacterial flagellum ... :-)

I am also interested in hearing Martin's viewpoint ... since you and I know each other's view fairly well.

Martin?

TGirsch said...

Jeff:

First, a less-complex version is not what it takes to disprove Behe's argument.

Well, it doesn't disprove Behe's argument as much as it shows the argument to be pseudoscientific. His examples of IC turn out not to be IC, and we're left without a scientifically rigorous definition of what actually constitutes IC. That is to say, there's no independently verifiable litmus test for whether or not something actually is IC.

What we're left with, then, is an infinite regression: okay, well if that's not IC, then take away another part, and that would be IC.

But let's face it, we're never going to agree on whether or not Behe has been debunked. Another commenter has provided you with a highly detailed debunking of Behe and you dismissed it out of hand.

Second, show me a simpler form of a bacterial flagellum

What would be the point? Given your "First," answering your "Second" would be completely pointless.

Because your entire argument is based on an appeal to authority.

And yours isn't? Virtually all of your knowledge of evolutionary theory comes from what its detractors say about it. We've been through this many times, but we're both required to make some appeal to authority in this instance, because neither of us is trained in biology, and thus we are unqualified to weigh all the facts without expert assistance.

You haven't read DBB -- nor have you or anyone else explained naturalistic mechanisms for explaining the development of the many systems Behe talks about.

Amazing how you can chide me for using an argument from authority, and then one sentence later, make an argument from ignorance. :) Fact is, we're closer to understanding those mechanisms than we were when Behe wrote DBB, but we may never fully understand them. And as long as there's even the slightest thing that can't be explain, ID supporters will continue to point to that and exclaim "See!"

You want to convince me otherwise? Come up with a better explanation. And no, I don't believe "Some mystery intelligence did it" counts as a "better explanation."

No one is arguing that we started out with really complicated eyes and then ended up with light sensitive spots ... or I have really missed something in biology class.

Actually, you apparently missed something in ID class. Because eyes themselves were once thought to be IC, and as more simple versions were discovered, the goal posts have shifted to "well how could that have evolved naturally?"

Let's not make character an issue here

Fine, but you're the one who made it an issue in the first place. I'm glad you see the folly in it, and are willing to take it off the table.

I offered it in response to Martin's suggestion that it would be highly unlikely for Behe to reverse himself on something which has defined his life

Actually, I didn't take Martin to have argued that. I took him to mean simply that it wouldn't be all that surprising (or difficult to understand) if Behe didn't reverse himself, not that it would be "highly unlikely" for him to do so. That larger point is that whether Behe thinks Behe is wrong isn't relevant to wether or not Behe actually is wrong. For that, we must rely on the evidence, not Behe's opinions.

That's why I think Martin wrote this post, and that's why I think he took exception to your pinning so much on what Behe thinks.