John's Reviews > The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism

The Edge of Evolution by Michael J. Behe
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's review
Jan 12, 2012

did not like it
bookshelves: creationist-intellectual-porn, books-i-own, pseudoscientific-crap
Read in June, 2007

The Abyss of Reason: The Limits of Michael Behe’s Scientific Thinking

Theodosius Dobzhansky, the great Russian-American population geneticist, one of the prominent biologists responsible for the Modern Synthesis Theory of Evolution, observed that “Nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. It was true when he stated that decades ago; it is truer still today given the abundant wealth of excellent data from a diverse host of biological sciences: molecular biology and biochemistry, developmental biology, ecology, population genetics, systematics and paleobiology. All of which points clearly to both the fact of biological evolution and the key role of Natural Selection in producing the rich biological diversity of our Planet Earth. Claims which biochemist Michael Behe has tried so valiantly to deny in his “The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism”, proclaiming that Intelligent Design, not Evolution, is the best explanation for our planet’s biodiversity. However, all that Michael Behe has demonstrated so well in his latest diatribe against “Darwinism” is the constricted, twisted limits of his own scientific thought via extensive illogical reasoning, an improper understanding of probability theory, and a profound ignorance of evolutionary biology. Indeed, in his latest book, Michael Behe has descended into the dark, deep abyss of reason; it’s a senseless journey that any thoughtful potential reader of his book should refuse to undertake.

In the opening chapter “The Elements of Darwinism”, Behe presents a stereotypical portrait of “Darwinism”, or rather, the Modern Synthesis Theory of Evolution, hinting that he’s found excellent examples that refute it in his cursory examinations of the origins and transmittal of the diseases Malaria and HIV/AIDS. He also briefly alludes to the notion of an adaptive landscape that’s played such a crucial role in our understanding of population genetics and speciation, presented all too simplistically as if his intended audience was teenagers with limited attention spans, not presumably well-read, highly educated, adults. In the second chapter, “Arms Race or Trench Warfare?”, Behe ridicules the very notion of a co-evolutionary arms race between predators and prey, quickly dismissing the Red Queen’s hypothesis as a “silly statement” from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”, ignoring the existence of a substantial body of supporting scientific literature (Like so many great ideas in science, it was proposed independently, almost simultaneously, by two scientists; evolutionary biologist and paleobiologist Leigh Van Valen – who coined the term “Red Queen” - and evolutionary ecologist Michael Rosenzweig in the early 1970s. I should also note too that this was demonstrated clearly in the PBS “Evolution” television miniseries episode which illustrated the Red Queen through an intricate biochemical “arms race” between garter snakes and their highly toxic salamander prey.). In the chapter entitled “The Mathematical Limits of Darwinism”, Michael Behe offers some bizarre probability values (How did you compute them, Professor Behe, using which probability distribution? A Normal Distribution? A Binomial Distribution? A Poisson Distribution – that would make ample sense if the events described by him are indeed as rare as he states.) that purportedly support his contention of rare, random variation as something highly unlikely to produce anything other than the microevolution he does allude to, but never mentions explicitly (I am indebted to another customer reviewer, S. Allen, for pointing out the egregious error which Behe made in computing the probability of a malarial parasite producing a double mutation – and also erring in assuming that these mutations had to occur together, when the original scientific paper he cited from strongly implied that they did not (I’ll let the reader decide as to whether this was indeed wishful thinking on Behe’s part, or a gross distortion of the available published scientific evidence; I am inclined to believe the latter, because of other similar examples I have spotted elsewhere in this book.).).

More than half of “The Edge of Evolution” is devoted to pointing out the foibles of evolution as if random mutation was the key mechanism responsible for natural selection and then trotting out Intelligent Design as the more reasonable explanation for biological diversity, by stating once more, arguments he presented in his earlier book “Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution”. Surprisingly Behe refers again to his “mousetrap model” in support of his concept of “Irreducible Complexity”, without acknowledging Kenneth Miller’s effectively brilliant, devastating refutation which is posted at his personal website, Behe gets so mired in discussing the details of his biological “nanobots”, that he forgets the real reason why he refers to them, as the mechanistic rationale for explaining Earth’s past and present biodiversity as an artifact of Intelligent Design. Moreover, he does not offer any compelling alternative hypotheses that would support Intelligent Design as a more likely scientific theory accounting for this diversity. Instead, he refers again, and again, to how well-designed various cellular structures are, as if the citations by themselves, clearly demonstrate that these structures were indeed the products of Intelligent Design.

My most serious reservations about “The Edge of Evolution” are not just limited to Behe’s failure to demonstrate convincingly, from a scientific perspective, that Intelligent Design is a better theory than the Modern Synthesis Theory of Evolution (which has the Darwin/Wallace Theory of Evolution via Natural Selection as its central core.). Repeatedly, Behe has resorted to simplistic logical reasoning in trying to persuade his audience of the merit of his ideas (For example, in the chapter, “Arms Race or Trench Warefare?” he describes the co-evolutionary arms race between the ancestors of the modern cheetah and the gazelle in a literary style that’s more suited for Aesop’s Fables than a book that purportedly tries to present a viable scientific alternative to evolutionary theory.). He also misinterprets “The Spandrels of San Marco”, the classic scientific paper by paleobiologist Stephen Jay Gould and population geneticist Richard Lewontin, in the chapter entitled “The Cathedral And The Spandrels”, as a sterling example of Darwinism’s failure, when that was not the authors’ rationale for its writing nor how it is perceived today by many evolutionary biologists. While claiming to accept the reality of evolution as evidence for common descent, he ignores the fossil record, in instances like his terse dismissal of the Red Queen, and thus neglects the importance of appreciating the history of life in attempting to understand the origins of Planet Earth’s current biodiversity (For example, distinguished marine ecologist Geerat Vermeij has offered substantial evidence of a co-evolutionary arms race from his extensive studies of the marine fossil record; a most remarkable achievement since Vermeij has been blind almost from birth. Vermeij discusses this in admirable, eloquent prose in his book “Evolution and Escalation”.). Behe doesn’t appreciate the importance of the adaptive landscape – which he refers to as the “fitness landscape” - towards our understanding of the processes responsible for speciation, wrongly attributing it to British population geneticist Ronald Fisher, when it was actually derived by his American counterpart, Sewall Wright (Both of whom made key contributions to the Modern Synthesis theory – which Behe refers to as the “Neo-Darwinian Synthesis” – yet another incorrect usage of scientific terminology which appears too often in this book.). Last, but not least, Michael Behe lacks the literary eloquence of superb writers – and evolutionary biologists – Ernst Mayr, Stephen Jay Gould, Niles Eldredge, Edward O. Wilson, and Richard Dawkins, to name but a few, and he has offered to us, his unsuspecting readers, the literary equivalent of the RMS Titantic’s ill-fated maiden voyage.

Simon and Schuster truly has had a glorious history of introducing many distinguished writers of fiction and non-fiction to the world, ranging from the likes of Ernst Hemingway to Frank McCourt. It published distinguished evolutionary biologist – and paleobiologist – Niles Eldrdege’s first book for the general public, “Time Frames”, an engrossing memoir on the origins of the evolutionary theory known as “Punctuated Equilibrium” (which Eldredge proposed with his friend Stephen Jay Gould back in 1972). Regrettably, its excellent publishing history was tarnished with the original publication of “Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution”; now it is tarnished again with “The Edge of Evolution”. Clearly Michael Behe doesn’t deserve favorable recognition of the kind bestowed upon both Hemingway and McCourt, but rather, more intense scrutiny, and indeed, more condemnation, in the future, from his scientific peers and an interested public who recognizes that Intelligent Design is not just bad science, but a bad religious idea pretending to be science (The verdict which was issued by Republican Federal Judge John Jones at the conclusion of the 2005 Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District trial in which Michael Behe appeared as a key witness for the defense; oddly enough he doesn’t mention the trial nor its verdict in his book.). Those who believe he is due favorable recognition are condoning the ample lies, omissions, and distortions present in his latest book, and are all too willing to join him in his self-created abyss of reason.

(Reposted from my 2007 Amazon Review)
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