06 August 2008

Why I'm not a Behe fan, Part I

Michael Behe's name has come up around here a lot lately. During the lovefest over on Uncommon Descent, they mentioned him both as a scientist and as a Martyr, and here on QoD, a regular commenter named Bilbo has mentioned Behe a few times, noting that he finds Behe's argument in The Edge of Evolution compelling. Michael Behe is a Christian who accepts common ancestry and an ancient cosmos, so you'd think I would be excited about the work of a fellow "theistic evolutionist." But I'm not. There are two issues I'd like to address here, both raised in the UD discussion or by Bilbo or both. I'll tackle them in two separate posts.

1. Behe's fans say that he's a nice guy, and that the evolutionists are "crucifying" him. Both claims seem to be true, but they can't hide some serious problems with his conduct as a scientist. First, he showed contempt for his (former) colleagues when he avoided the process of peer review. Second, his comment-free blog is lamentably characterized by misleading and disingenuous "responses" to criticism that look to be calculated attempts to protect what is nothing more than folk science.

a. Behe exudes an arrogant contempt for the scientific community, exemplified by his neglect of peer review.

Michael Behe, I'm told, is quite a decent gentleman. I don't doubt this at all. He even seems to be a smart gentleman, and I gather that he's a gifted teacher based on his excellent writing. He doesn't tend to directly attack other people (though he can be pretty obnoxious), and he seems uninterested (in general) in Culture War. He doesn't deserve to be mocked, and I think he was treated somewhat unfairly by many critics of ID after the run-in with Abbie Smith at ERV. Mike Behe, it seems to me, is worthy of far more respect than are many of his fellow ID proponents.

But I have written before that Behe is properly an object of scorn in evolutionary biology. What I mean is that while I don't think he should be ridiculed or taunted, I do think he is mostly unworthy of professional scientific respect. Mike Behe has shown contempt for the scientific community in his writing on evolution, especially in The Edge of Evolution. This stance has quite appropriately alienated him from science and led scientists in relevant fields to view him, rightly, with suspicion and to dismiss him as ignorant and/or disingenuous. Behe has excused himself from the company of those who seriously study evolutionary science, and has done this by approaching the complex and fascinating analysis of evolutionary genetics with a malignant combination of arrogant condescension and pitiful ignorance. (Or, alternatively, his integrity has been somehow compromised.) You see, it actually doesn't matter how you couch your words when the message to an entire field of science (about which you know relatively little) is: "Hey, guys, give it up; I just figgered the whole thing out." In fact, in my opinion, there's something pretty creepy about a bland smile on the face of an undistinguished biochemist who claims to have overturned a century of work by some of the best minds in the history of biology.

There is only one new scientific idea in TEoE: Behe claims that random mutation rates are insufficient to generate the genetic diversity that is necessary for evolutionary change. That's it. That is an empirical claim, one that leads to some clear predictions. The claim is, at least in principle, testable. It's not theology, it's not metaphysics, and it doesn't have anything specific to do with "complexity" or any other doctrine of Intelligent Design. Behe's hypothesis, that random mutation cannot drive evolutionary change, is a scientific hypothesis of significant import that should have been carefully constructed and vetted by the professional scientific community. But as near as I can tell, the claim was never subjected to peer review. As far as I know, Behe has not completely formulated his hypothesis (by, for example, analyzing actual measurements of genetic variation in living organisms), and has not attempted to publish it in the professional literature or even to present it to a gathering of scientific experts. Instead, he wrote a popular book, aimed at a lay audience. His ideas are, in fact, almost completely without merit, but even if his radical hypothesis were worthy of scientific consideration, his choice to abandon the scientific community – and to eschew even the most basic review of his proposals by known experts – is an expression of arrogance and contempt that is difficult to overstate.

Richard Dawkins' New York Times review of The Edge of Evolution is pretty crappy; it's really not a review at all, and the hysterical Culture Warriors at the Discovery Intitute are right about that much. But one of Dawkins' final comments on the book summarizes why it is not a worthy contribution to science and why its author deserves to be dismissed as a critic of evolution:

If correct, Behe’s calculations would at a stroke confound generations of mathematical geneticists, who have repeatedly shown that evolutionary rates are not limited by mutation. Single-handedly, Behe is taking on Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright, J. B. S. Haldane, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Richard Lewontin, John Maynard Smith and hundreds of their talented co-workers and intellectual descendants. Notwithstanding the inconvenient existence of dogs, cabbages and pouter pigeons, the entire corpus of mathematical genetics, from 1930 to today, is flat wrong. Michael Behe, the disowned biochemist of Lehigh University, is the only one who has done his sums right. You think?
If you don't find the preceding to be a devastatingly damning criticism of Behe's project, then you either don't understand what those scientists actually did (and you're in good company), or you actually do believe that Michael Behe is the architect of the most cataclysmic scientific paradigm shift since Copernicus. The point is that a person (like me) who knows some evolutionary genetics is left with a more difficult choice: whether to believe that Behe is really that ignorant and arrogant, or to believe that he lacks a full commitment to scientific integrity. While considering those options, one tends not to dwell so much on etiquette and gentility.

b. I find many of Behe's responses to his critics to be suspiciously misleading, and I believe this provides a clue as to why he does not allow comments on his blog or participate in professional discussion of his proposals.
  • When challenged by Richard Dawkins on his failure to have his hypothesis subjected to peer review, he redirected the discussion to a consideration of his publication record in general, and compared it to Dawkins' nonexistent contributions.
  • Confronted with the reality of superfast evolution of domesticated organisms, he redirected the discussion to an irrelevant (but technical-sounding) consideration of "developmental plasticity."
  • He mocked Sean Carroll's accurate claim that Behe's ideas (and errors) involve technically-challenging concepts and theories, obnoxiously implying that it is Carroll who is hiding indefensible claims behind difficult math and biology.
  • Confronted with evidence that, at least in bacteria, beneficial mutation rates are a thousand times more likely than previously thought, he redirected the discussion to the irrelevant consideration of whether many or most beneficial mutations "break things" or not, and concluded (based on no evidence at all) that the report in question most likely involves "degradatory mutations."
Behe's critics make many mistakes. But his responses are indicative of a defender of folk science, not of a serious scientist in a rigorous debate.

In part II, I'll deal with the second issue raised by Behe's admirers:

2. Some of Behe's defenders think that he has effectively answered his critics. He has not, nor has he understood or acknowledged the most important criticisms of his crude claims.

Please review my Rules and policies before posting a comment. Note that comments are closed after a month. If you would like to get in touch with me, visit the About page for contact details, including an anonymous comment form that works all the time.

blog comments powered by Disqus