Michael Behe and the Centre for Intelligent Design

November 29, 2010

Last week, some of the student humanists and the skeptics went to Glasgow Caledonian University to see Michael Behe, the Intelligent Design proponent from the Discovery Institute, who was speaking fot the Centre for Intelligent Design.

It was the same old crap.

That could be the totality of this review, but there are a couple of issues that come out of the talk which I’ll discuss here. He went through the usual stuff about how we recognise things as designed, using the difference between a mountain and Mount Rushmore as an example. I didn’t have much of a problem with this section because he continually referred to ‘the appearance of design’ rather than the fact that something is designed.

Then he went onto the mousetrap claptrap and his baby, Irreducible Complexity in the bacterial flagellum. It’s complete rubbish and purely by coincidence, QualiaSoup has just released an excellent video which includes a section on that very topic, starting at 4.20:

So as you can see, systems can evolve even if they seem irreducibly complex because parts of the system can have different functions, parts that were previously necessary can be lost, and parts themselves can be changed.

It was mentioned in the (very short) question section that parts of a system can have different functions, and Behe’s reply was basically “yes, but look at the definition of Irreducible Complexity that I gave at the start, it says objects are Irreducibly Complex if removal of one part means it cannot carry out that specific function.” That’s fine if he wants to define it that way, but he can’t simultaneously define it that way and claim that Irreducibly Complex systems are a significant obstacle to the evolution of those systems. In order to claim that, he must come up with a system which is truly Irreducibly Complex, in the sense that it couldn’t have evolved through the gradual addition, removal and change of parts and functions. If he has any examples of that, he hasn’t been showing them.

After he’d explained a feature of organisms which he considered a blow to evolution, he then went back to the fact that organisms appear designed. He then said that concluding they are designed is an inductive argument, and then looked up a dictionary definition of inductive reasoning which said that’s the kind of reasoning used in science, and concluded that therefore Intelligent Design is a scientific hypothesis.┬áIf I’d had time for a question I would have asked whether he could see the leap in logic he’s using here. Let’s take a look at it again.

Inductive reasoning is used in science.
Concluding things are designed from their appearance is an example of inductive reasoning.
Therefore that conclusion is scientific.

Using the same logic, I could make the argument that:

Bands played at Woodstock.
U2 is a band.
Therefore U2 played at Woodstock.

I would have pointed out that although inductive reasoning is used in science, there are other things that make a hypothesis scientific, just as there are other things that define bands that played at Woodstock. So for example, how would Behe use the Intelligent Design hypothesis to make specific predictions? What evidence should people look for if they want to disprove his hypothesis? I suspect he wouldn’t have had an answer.

The last part of the talk was phenomenally ignorant. He just boldly asserted that his findings are consistent with findings in other fields such as the fine-tuning of the universe.

There is also an issue with universities hosting speakers such as Michael Behe. Yes, there is a free speech argument to be made, but free speech does not imply that you must give a platform to anyone who wants to speak. You’re free to say what you like but that doesn’t mean I can’t kick you out if you come and say it in my living room. You could say that having both Intelligent Design advocates and evolutionary scientists speak is a form of balance, but the difference is that evolutionary science has gone through peer review and is established, and then it is put into books and taught at universities. Behe and his colleagues can’t get through the peer review process, so they try to bypass it by going straight to writing books and getting talks at universities. I think it’s pretty clear that hosting these kinds of speakers at prestigious locations such as universities gives an air of credibility to a movement that doesn’t deserve it.

The Blind Leading the Stupid

December 12, 2007

I went to the Edinburgh Creation Group talk last night as I do most Tuesdays, where they were showing a 67-minute DVD called “Unlocking the Mystery of Life“, which the ECG describes as “a revolutionary DVD showing evidence for Intelligent Design in molecular biology”. It was not revolutionary in the slightest. It was obviously biased and one sided, emotive and often patronizing. There was very little counter-argument.

I’ll sum the video up in a couple of paragraphs or so. A group of scientists, including notably Paul Nelson, Stephen Meyer (who I particularly ended up despising) and Michael Behe, met up at Pajaro Dunes in Monterey Bay, USA, to “discuss alternatives to evolution”. Basically they all wanted to come up with evidence for ID. The first half of the video was based on the very origin of life and how really really unlikely it is. It was full of dramatic and sometimes very sensitive music, as if these guys are crusaders for truth and justice, but victims of scientific prejudice at the same time. They tried to show how complex and beautiful life is, and several times referred to evolution as “chance”, something that always annoys me profusely. It also tried to show how we can tell things are designed (apparently complexity+familiarity=evidence of design, news to me), and then applied that to animals and plants, which of course isn’t relevant in the slightest, it just explains why we perceive (in this case mistakenly) things as designed.

The second half was about the Bacterial Flagellum. For those of you who understandably haven’t heard about this, take a look at that wiki page. It’s basically a biological outboard motor on certain bacteria, which creationists often use as evidence of Intelligent Design, through something known as Irreducible Complexity. Note that the eye and the wing were previously most commonly used as examples of Irreducible Complexity, until Dawkins replied and explained it. Of course the video went to extreme lengths to compare it to a designed outboard motor, and exaggerated saying it’s “the most efficient machine in the known universe”. If you take a look at it you can clearly see just from the shape of the “propellor” that it isn’t, it would be much more efficient if it had a propellor shape instead of a whip shape. Anywho they explained the problem of the flagellum, said a bit about how complex DNA is, and then left it at that really, saying how once we accept Intelligent Design Theory, then we can carry on with science as a way of exploring the miracle of life.

Now the first section I’m going to only comment on briefly, mainly because I know very little about the origin of life, and anyone who claims to know how it happened is probably mistaken and relying on speculation. There was an analogy I particularly objected to, about how the probability of amino acids randomly joining together to form proteins is like dropping a load of scrabble pieces on the floor and hoping it’ll spell out specific lines from Shakespeare. Well it is, but only if you do it millions and millions of times (because these amino acids didn’t just come together once, but many times), with millions and millions of scrabble pieces (because I’m guessing there were more amino acids than just the number of tiles you get with one scrabble set).

Plus, although I’m no geneticist, it seems plausible to me that there are some other combinations of amino acids that could have created life other than our one, it would perhaps create a different kind of life, but just because the combination we see here creates life, that doesn’t mean other combinations couldn’t have done a similar thing in very simple cells. I know I’m not articulating myself very well, and if anyone knows something to contrary I’d welcome a comment. To continue the scrabble analogy, it would be like not knowing in advance which line from Shakespeare it’s supposed to spell out, so you’d be equally impressed if it spelt out any line from Shakespeare. To use Dawkin’s term from ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’, this increases the PETWHAC (population of events that would have appeared coincidental) quite significantly. Then when you see that all this might have been happening on any number of possible life-supporting planets out there, not just our little Earth, then you see that any mind-boggling coincidence can be reduced to real odds, without stretching the imagination too much. It’s no coincidence that we, as living beings, live on a planet that is one of the ones that has seen an origin of life. I’m no expert, I don’t claim to be, but to me it doesn’t seem as unlikely as they’re making out.

Right, now to the Bacterial Flagellum. I was very surprised that this came up in a supposedly “revolutionary” DVD, seeing as evolutionists have owned this example countless times. The argument is that the flagellum couldn’t have evolved through tiny incrementations in natural selection because it’s irreducibly complex, that is, any one of the parts is useless on its own and would be erased from the gene pool through natural selection, so the whole mechanism wouldn’t evolve.

Now this is interesting for evolutionists, but it’s not impossible. The scientists in the video (particularly Michael Behe) who claim it’s irreducibly complex are blind. Take the example of the wing, which has been used in the past but has since been abandoned by ID theorists. There is an assumption that because something doesn’t function properly without a part, it is useless. To quote Stephen Gould;

“You can’t fly with 2% of a wing or gain much protection from an iota’s similarity with a potentially concealing piece of vegetation. How, in other words, can natural selection explain these incipient stages of structures that can only be used (as we now observe them) in much more elaborated form?”

This is blind ignorance, just like Behe’s claim that the flagellum is irreducibly complex. The 2% of a wing doesn’t have to make the bird ancestor fly, but if it fell out of a large tree, it would be marginally more likely to survive if it had 2% of a wing to slow its fall than if it had nothing at all. 3% of a wing would be even more advantageous, and so on.

The same can be said of the eye (which for some reason Behe still upholds as an example of irreducible complexity). Although you can’t see like we can with just one part of the eye, it’s not difficult to see how it’s easier to avoid predators or catch prey with some kind of visual sense, even if it’s literally just a blurred flash of darkness a second before it’s too late. So you can see how one part of the eye could be advantageous, even if it doesn’t lend sight.

So now how do we apply this to the flagellum? There (that’s evo wiki btw, a resource I found last night) are numerous theories, one of which involves symbiosis between two other forms of bacteria, which seems possible. Another theory says that some of the parts of the flagellum are also present in other parts of the bacterium, so they could have been ‘borrowed’ to form a primitive form of the flagellum which evolved from there.

But in my mind, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched that even one part of the flagellum, say the whip part, could be advantageous on its own. Remember that it doesn’t have to be used for the same purpose, natural selection doesn’t know what future mutations will take place. So the whip could have another advantageous function like increasing the surface area of the bacterium, attaching the bacterium to a solid surface similarly to a bouy’s chain or a plant’s stalk, or aiding its suspension in water, or any number of other possible uses for a big long floppy thing. Then another mutation comes along which allows it to be moved, and then that develops from there by natural selection, making it more and more efficient until it reaches its modern form. Applying Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation is usually the most true. It’s not difficult to see. I mean come on, there’s even a wiki page about this! If it’s such common knowledge on the Internet, why is Behe, a supposed expert on the subject, unaware or ignorant of it, and why doesn’t he address such explanations in this DVD? As it stands it was pretty much a totally one-sided argument.

I also think it’s ridiculous that just because these scientists think they’ve found a hole in evolutionary theory, they immediately jump to the conclusion that if evolution didn’t do it, it must have been God! Goddidit!!

But what’s really frustrating for me is that while I was sitting at the back of the room, laughing to myself at how stupid the whole thing was, I looked around and saw many people who seemed to be taken in by this rubbish. These were people who in previous talks I could tell were undecided on the issue, but this DVD, made by a reputable source (let’s not forget that, worryingly, many of these scientists are University Professors at good universities in the US), has them duped. There was no question and answer section at the end either (understandably because the film-makers weren’t present), so I couldn’t even try to dispute any of the claims made.

Now there was another issue I wanted to bring up here, but this post is already really really long so I think I’ll make a separate post about it tomorrow after my exam (:s). Thanks for reading.

Listening to: Led Zeppelin: I Can’t Quit You Baby