Friday, May 04, 2007


A pretty amazing debate has been going on in the webpages of But first, a little about what it is about. The webpage is the one displaying Michael Behe's "Darwin's Black Box", a book that has stirred up unnecessary muck, although not unpredictably. Behe is a biochemist with some credible credentials, but incredible assertions. He is the infamous guy who popularised the concept of "irreducible complexity" in the late 1990s. Behe's contention simply put was (and is) that the biological world is so complex, that only a designer could have made it. That's because if we considered any one of the tiny, fundamental units of life, such as an eye, it is quite clear that taking away any one of the myriad parts that comprise the eye would render it completely non-functional. Thus, it is inconceivable (to Behe) that the eye could have actually evolved gradually, and that all the parts should have been put together, already formed, by some intelligent designer. Enter ID, creationism in a dapper although embarrassingly ostentatious outfit.

There are holes as big as empty space in Behe's whole framework. In one fell swoop, he pushes so many issues under the rug that the rug can no longer bear the presence of all of them, and splits wide open. Behe makes a general philosophical argument, gives it a fancy name, and simply proclaims that it is true by default, the classic demonstration of the "argument from ignorance". He does not look at any contradictory evidence, and even when it is overwhleming, deems it insufficient without any justification. Most importantly, Behe offers not one iota of positive evidence for his own assertions, including the stupendous lack of explanation for the complexity of his intelligent designer who designed such a complex world. Science only partially progresses by elimination of alternatives. It needs solid positive proof to be useful and real. Also, a scientific theory does not collapse only because some detail in it is simply challenged. There are many details in evolution that are debated by scientists. But that does not mean that they don't believe in evolution itself, because there's monumental evidence from a stunning variety of scientific disciplines in support of the truth of evolution. In fact, it is staggering how many different questions in different fields seem to come under the purview of evolution as their answers are revealed everyday. In this context, I have to say that the efforts of Behe and his cronies to discredit evolution are an abomination upon science, and display at most a juvenile understanding of the scientific method.

But needless to say, Behe has been the poster boy for creationists in the last decade, who want to furtively bring creationism to the schools under the guise of scientific jargon. Behe deliberately has chosen the field of biochemistry for his crusade (and crusade is the right word, because his spiels are all based on faith), because he wants to enter creationism through the backdoors of hard science. Most of his creationist patrons probably don't even understand what he says, but no doubt dance with glee when they hear him citing scholarly notions and hijacking them to support his purpose.

Behe was also an apologist for the creationists in the infamous Dover creationist trial of two years ago, where twelve parents of school children had brought a suit against the teaching of creationism in science class. Behe was a defendent for the creationists, and among others, Kenneth Miller the Brown University Professor was an expert witness for the plaintiffs. One of Behe's arguments in Darwin's Black Box is that the immune system is too complex to have evolved by natural selection, ergo, it must have been, by default, designed. During the Dover trial, Behe was shown more than fifty peer reviewed journal publications that dealt with the evolution of the immune system. Not only could he not refute them, but he confessed that he had not read any of them. In the end, the attorney for the plaintiffs as well as the judge roundly scolded Behe and his ilk, and cited their "breathtaking inanity" for simply touting that complex structures arose by the work of an intelligent designer, and for implying that there surely could not be any need to actually study where they came from. In an embarrassing moment for Behe, the plaintiffs' attorney said that while serious scientists were engaged in studying the evolution of the immune system and finding new therapies for diseases, Behe and his sympathizers were not only misleading the public, but were doing absolutely nothing to advance the future of science and medicine. In fact, I feel more pity than anger for Behe, who is clearly an intelligent and educated person, and yet wants to waste his time advancing crackpot causes and not actually making a difference by doing scientific research.

The most vocal opponent of Behe has been Brown University professor Kenneth Miller, and I would strongly recommend his book "Finding Darwin's God" for anyone who wants a good understanding of evolution (including a clear refutation of the belief that evolution is a product of chance), as well a very spirited and convincing reply to Behe's assertions of irreducible complexity. The bacterial flagellum, probably the only example of a true motor in nature, is an astounding factoid of life's complexity. Without doing any research, Behe had again simply proclaimed that it was irreducibly complex. However, Miller showed that there are several examples of other flagella in nature, which show some of the components of the bacterial flagellum and yet work, even if not as well; what is most bothersome that Behe has frequently either not just been aware of the literature, or more believably has shown deliberate ignorance of it. This principle extends to all those other systems which Behe claims are irreducibly complex. The bottom line is, yes, many complex structures in nature can be shown to be made up of independently functioning partial components, and we can follow an evolutionary history for the presence of all these components. For those which are not, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that they were designed by any Yahweh or Zeus.
The humble and yet stunning eye was always one of the favourite targets of creationists, and they used to cite Darwin's own quip about his incredulity at the eye's functioning:
"To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree."
They also conveniently ignore what he said next:
"Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certainly the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, should not be considered as subversive of the theory."
There it is; The Reluctant Mr. Darwin demolished irreducible complexity a hundred and fifty years ago.

So, if Darwin himself laid to rest all such troubling questions about irreducible complexity more than a century ago (it is truly remarkable to discover how prescient- and right- the man was), why is there a 85 comment debate on the webpage showcasing Behe's book? The debate is in the comments section of a certain J.M. Ridlon, who seems to know evolution inside out. Incidentally, and again it should not be surprising, the book has received four stars and 575 reviews, which means that most of the reviews have been favourable. This can mean several things; firstly, that sensible people simply did not comment. But what I am more certain about is that most of the reviews were probably written by intelligent folks, probably and unnecessarily fence-sitters, who got impressed with Behe's scientific exposition and felt convinced that at the least, there were serious flaws with evolution. It's very sad if such a thing happened. To these of course we can gently say only one thing; read a good book. Start with Climbing Mount Improbable, that alone will suffice and help you understand evolution a little better.

On the other side of the debate is a cabal of dissenters who keep asking Ridlon to prove with complete certainty all the assertions that he makes. What surprises me is that even these dissenters seem to be intelligent and well-read, and yet they show a deliberately woeful ignorance of the scientific method. However, after trudging through the 83 comments and being highly impressed with Ridlon's knowledge of evolution, it becomes clear; these dissenters don't really want to prove evolution wrong and creationism right. In fact, the comments clearly show that they steer clear from trying to affirmatively expound upon creationism; not surprising since they don't have a shred of evidence for the existence of an intelligent designer. All they do is take potshots,some quite learned sounding ones, at evolution. And then it becomes clear; they want to create "reasonable doubt" about evolution to then allow creationism to be also taught as an "alternative theory" in classes. As it is with many other creationists, they want educators to "teach the debate" where there is none, and they are mustering every effort they can to try to actually convert their arguments into a true debate. After every comment, J.M. Ridlon has given a detailed response, showing how their arguments are wrong.

But now, I have a suggestion for him; J. M. Ridlon, don't bother. These folks are just out to make a political point, not a scientific one. This is not science, it is the manifestation of the dredges of human nature. So no matter how much you convince them about the known certainty of evolution, all they will do is ask, "But, are you one hundred percent certain?". When you, as a good scientist will say that of course not, but that does not tarnish evolution, they will simply turn Bill O'Reillyesque and shout "That's it! That means the whole theory is wrong. We are right, you are wrong!" Now, do we watch Bill O'Reilly except when we want some 'white noise' in the background to help us sometimes fall asleep? Then, J. D., I suggest that you do the same about this comment-fest. It's not about science.

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