Tuesday 30 November 2010

Michael Behe: still flogging the flagellum

Westminster Chapel is a large 19thC Romanesque style evangelical church located in Buckingham Gate, London, opposite its junction with Petty France. On Monday 22nd November I arrived at the appointed hour of 6:30 pm just as the doors were opened. I presented my ticket and was given a question slip and a "Promo Copy — Not for Resale" DVD, Unlocking the Mystery of Life by Illustra Media.

Taking advantage of my punctuality I was able to grab a good position in the centre of the third pew from the front. Before me a large screen hung above a raised stage with a lectern to the right and a drum kit to the left. (I hoped we were not to be subjected to live evangelical music, though faint recorded music emanated from the PA speakers either side of the stage.) The screen above displayed the logo for Justin Brierley's Premier Christian Radio Unbelievable? show, promoting the evening's event, Darwin or Design: An Evening with Michael Behe.

Professor Behe arrived about 6:35, and a little later I noticed Keith Fox take a seat near the front. As seven o'clock approached I estimated that between 150 and 200 people filled the ground floor pews, leaving the galleries empty. (I saw no video cameras, though an official-looking photographer took pictures throughout the evening from various viewpoints, including of the audience).

At about 7:05 Justin Brierley mounted the stage to introduce the evening's proceedings. David Williams, a trustee of the Centre for Intelligent Design was first up, touting the centre's ID merchandise, including DVDs of that disgracefully mendacious film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, and the textbook Explore Evolution. Also available was Michael Behe's book Darwin's Black Box, though strangely not his latest, The Edge of Evolution. After a short introduction from Justin, Prof. Behe took the stage.

I shall not give a blow by blow account of Michael Behe's talk. Justin mentioned that the event was being recorded for later broadcast, apparently including the Q&A, so those interested will be able to hear the talk for themselves. What follows are my comments on what I consider Behe's more contentious points.

Behe used the mousetrap as an example of irreducible complexity and proceeded to speculate as to how it might work if any one of its parts were removed — concluding that of course it wouldn't work, it would be broken. But Prof. Behe knows (I hope) that mousetraps don't reproduce, and that they are, in fact, designed. This IC argument is no better than Paley's Watch. Watches, you'll note, also don't reproduce.

Dean Franklin - 06.04.03 Mount Rushmore Monument (by-sa)-3 new

Would you believe he's still using Mount Rushmore as an example of design detection? But the only reason we can tell that the sculptures of US presidents' heads were designed is because we know what faces look like, and we also have some concept of the shapes that natural erosion can produce on a mountainside. Suppose Mount Rushmore was observed by an alien race who had no concept of human faces — would they be able to detect that the mountain's contours had been designed? Behe's design detection is based entirely on preconceptions and comes down to no more than if it looks designed it must have had a designer.

Behe's problem is in the way he formulates his thesis. He claims that the way to detect design is to look for "a purposeful arrangement of parts", and apparently can't see that this is begging the question. By describing something as "purposeful" he's assuming that it's designed, in a kind of teleological tautology. Once again Behe's "design-detection" is no more than it's designed if it looks designed.

Along with repeating his "purposeful arrangement" mantra, Behe consistently labelled Darwinian evolution as "chance" and "accident" when he clearly knows that these words inaccurately characterise the process. He must be aware that the only accidental or chance aspect of evolutionary theory is random genetic mutation. The component of evolution that causes the actual evolving — natural selection — is far from chance or accident.

Flagellum base diagram enAfter fourteen years of comprehensive refutation, Michael Behe is still flogging the flagellum. Indeed, during the Q&A he was challenged that his examples of irreducible complexity, including the bacterial flagellum, have all been refuted. His response? "They're wrong!"

At one point in the lecture he asserted that the evidence for design is strong, while there is little evidence for Darwinism, going on to describe Darwinism's attempt to explain complexity as "wishful speculation". But intelligent design is itself the ultimate wishful speculation: "it's so complicated it must have been designed."

SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, was raised in the Q&A. SETI is often cited by ID enthusiasts as an example of design-detection, as if to give ID legitimacy by comparison. SETI scientists, however, are not looking for an intelligent signal from space, but for a narrow-band signal. Any modulation of that signal is expected to have been lost (smeared out), so it's unlikely to carry any intelligent content. Comparisons with the efforts of ID proponents are unwarranted.

When challenged by Keith Fox, Behe stated that if ID is correct, evolutionary biologists are wasting their time looking for evolutionary pathways to explain complexity. And yet he insists ID is not a science-stopper. Behe has claimed elsewhere that mainstream science ignores ID for "philosophical reasons", but there's a good reason for that — it's because ID is a philosophical idea, not a scientific one.

Behe claims that complex biological systems are "best explained by intelligent design" — this is a very peculiar use of the word "explained". One might reasonably ask for some — indeed any — details of this explanation. But ID proponents never provide any. Behe's response elsewhere to this criticism, and in the light of apparent flaws in the "design" of nature, is that "we can't know the mind of the designer." This is what I find so profoundly frustrating about ID. In what way can any of this be even remotely described as science?


ID has no evidence of its own. ID proponents carry out no research, restricting themselves to pointing out gaps in evolutionary theory. If something can't currently be explained by evolution, they claim that somebody (the "intelligent designer") must have done it instead. They contend that science is itself unnecessarily restricted in its scope by a priori ruling out supernatural explanations. But science must, if it is to be at all useful to us, restrict itself to methodological naturalism. If science were to accept non-natural explanations for observed phenomena, the scientific method would be irretrievably broken and useless, and scientific progress would grind to a halt.

It was an interesting but frustrating evening. Given the hype surrounding Behe's week-long whistle-stop UK lecture tour I had expected something new. But it was the same old nonsense — indeed the same old non-science.

UPDATE 2010-12-02:
Here's a short, useful video on Behe's irreducible complexity.

Michael Behe's presentation slides are available as a PDF here:

Early in his presentation Behe showed this Far Side cartoon, and went on to say that anyone will recognise that the skewering device was designed for a purpose — to which I would ask, has he never seen a Venus Flytrap? The way Gary Larson has drawn the device indicates to me that it could well be a rare jungle plant that has evolved to capture large animals. The ankle suspension is obviously a plant. So I think Behe clearly missed his point here, exposing his ID presuppositions.

(Go to the presentation PDF for the cartoon caption, though it's not part of Behe's thesis.)