Thursday, May 01, 2008

Has Michael Behe Fallen From Favor at the Discovery Institute?

As I noted in my first post on Ben Stein's movie Expelled, the absence of Michael Behe was remarkable. After all, Stein interviewed most of the "senior fellows" at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. So why didn't he interview the most famous one and the one who has been the leading scientist for "intelligent design"?

It is now almost a year since the publication of Behe's new book The Edge of Evolution. The Discovery Institute funded the writing of that book, and it heavily promoted the book when it first appeared. But now if you go to the website for the Center for Science and Culture, there are few references to Behe's new book. The lists for "Essential Readings" and "Books by Center Fellows" include Behe's Darwin's Black Box, published in 1996, but not his new book. Ever since the end of November, the blog for the CSC has given almost no attention to Behe's new book.

I now suspect that my early predictions last year have come true--the folks at the Discovery Institute now realize that Behe's new book subverts their rhetorical strategy, and that it was a big mistake for them to promote it.

In my first posts on the book, I noted at least four points on which Behe's position might be disturbing for the proponents of "intelligent design." (1) Behe accepts the Darwinian evolution of species by common descent, including the evolution of the human species from ancestral species shared with chimpanzees. (2) Behe rejects any attempt to treat the Bible as a "science textbook" as "silly," and he insists there should be "no relying on holy books or prophetic dreams." (3) Behe argues that "intelligent design" is not required to explain the emergence of the lower taxonomic levels of life--orders, families, genera, and species; and so the evolution of species could be fully Darwinian. (4) Behe endorses a version of theistic evolution, because he says that after the "initial set-up" by the intelligent designer, "the universe operates by unbroken natural law," with no need for miraculous intervention in nature.

Behe's Edge of Evolution is a serious intellectual retreat from the strong versions of intelligent design creationism, because he concedes so much to Darwinian evolution on so many crucial points. I suspect that for this reason, he has fallen out of favor at the Discovery Institute because he no longer serves their rhetorical purposes.

I should say that ever since I first read Darwin's Black Box, I have thought that Behe is a serious thinker. Even though I don't always agree with him, his reasoning is always worth confronting. He has an intellectual depth that none of the other proponents of intelligent design have.

Some of my posts on his new book can be found here, here, and here.

13 comments:

RBH said...

Behe has done something that is theologically worse. He has abandoned the Fall. Consider his paragraph from The Edge of Evolution (p. 237):

Here's something to ponder long and hard: Malaria was intentionally designed. The molecular machinery with which the parasite invades red blood cells is an exquisitely purposeful arrangement of parts. C-Eve's children died in her arms partly because an intelligent agent deliberately made malaria, or at least something very similar to it.

According to Behe the disease is designed, and is not a consequence of the degeneration of the biota of earth consequent on the Fall. And without the Fall, the death and resurrection of Christ become meaningless. I think that Behe's sin for the Disco 'Tute is not so much that he has conceded most of evolutionary theory, as you argue. Rather, his apostasy in theological: he has abandoned the only acceptable explanation (for evangelical and fundamentalist Christians) of the existence of pain and suffering.

The Inoculated Mind said...

When I first learned of, met, and interviewed Behe, I thought he was a rather congenial antievolutionist. Still trotting out the same old claims, not doing research to support his ideas, but still congenial. After Dover, however, I saw him turn sour and start talking about the "Liquor Board" judge everywhere, and calling Abbie Smith a "mean girl," in reference to a movie. Then you have Edge which all but proposes that the Designer is wicked. I'm not sure he knows what or where he is at the moment.

John Farrell said...

Quite possible. Perhaps after some thinking, he'll reconsider his commitment to the Seattle-based think tank.

Can you imagine the DI's worst nightmare: Mike Behe and Ken Miller on the same side, touring the country in support of good science education.

Laelaps said...

Laelaps, maybe I was imagining things, but I could have sworn that I saw Behe in a trailer for Expelled. Was he left on the cutting room floor? I'll go back and look and post the link if I'm able to find it, but I can't shake the feeling that I saw Behe somewhere in the promotional materials (even if he didn't make it into the film).

geoffrobinson said...

ID is a big tent and Behe falls comfortably under it. Behe may propose a form of theistic evolution, but it is a real strong form of it. Not just a capitulation to materialism with God thrown in.

His latest book's thesis wrecks the case for Darwinism even further. Because he shows there is no empirical basis for the belief that random mutations do anything useful.

What he grants to the current Darwinian paradigm is common descent. And then he rips the heart out of everything else.

But, as someone who follows the ID movement, you are way off-base regarding Discovery's relationship with Behe.

RBH said...

geoffrobinson wrote

His latest book's thesis wrecks the case for Darwinism even further. Because he shows there is no empirical basis for the belief that random mutations do anything useful.

You might want to read The Edge of Evolution again. As I recall (I've read it through once), Behe doesn't make that claim in it. I've also read Darwin's Black Box, and I don't believe even there that he denies that at least some random mutations are beneficial. If you can provide citations to the contrary I'd be interested in seeing them. Book (DBB or EoE) and page number would suffice -- I've got the second edition of DBB, so if you cite from the first edition I'd appreciate some context to find the citation in the second edition.

Geoff also claimed

What he grants to the current Darwinian paradigm is common descent. And then he rips the heart out of everything else.

Well, actually Behe accepts the role of standard materialistic evolutionary processes as having generated the diversity of life at the species, genus, and family levels. Only when one gets up to classes, orders and phyla does Behe start to invoke guided processes. See, for example, here, where he says

I would suggest that Richard Dawkins re-read my book. In it I clearly state that random evolution works well up to the species level, perhaps to the genus and family level too.

While "random evolution" is a strange phrase (evolution is not a random process) nevertheless he is accepting that whatever it is, it accounts for stuff like the differences between genera within families and species within genera. That's a pretty hefty chunk of diversity for "random" processes to produce.

John Farrell said...

Saying you accept common ancestry but not the mechanisms of variation and natural selection is incoherent--and Behe's been called on this before.

As to 'ripping the heart out of everything else,' you might consider Sean B. Carroll's Making of the Fittest.

geoffrobinson said...

Behe's last book looked at 10 to the whatever power of generations of malaria and HIV viruses. What he found was the power of random mutation to break things that work and that breaking could be useful. But it didn't really build much of anything.

He took it from an inference to what we had (Black Box) to actual observations. I haven't read a good rebuttal to that. And it must be true, therefore there had to have been mutuations isn't a good rebuttal.

And it isn't that Behe doesn't accept the mechanisms of natural selection and mutations. It's just that they don't accomplish a whole heck of a lot (evolutionary speaking) on their own.

RBH said...

To avoid cluttering up Professor Arnhart's blog I'll keep this brief. I note that geoffrobinson offers no citations for his over-general claims so I'll disregard most of his comment. I'll respond to just this:

It's just that they [random mutations and natural selection] don't accomplish a whole heck of a lot (evolutionary speaking) on their own.

Once again, Behe accepts the role of random mutations and natural selection up to the family taxonomic level. To get an idea of the range of morphological variation possible at that level, take a look at the Asteraceae. There's a whole heck of a lot of variation in that family. Of course, they're all still the plant "kind." :)

And I will note that Behe uses as the core of his Edge of Evolution argument the alleged probability of what he calls a "CCC", which he claims is 10^-20. Behe's sole source for that number is a footnote in a review paper, and Behe mis-interprets what that paper says about the probability. See here for what that number actually refers to:

... the centerpiece of the EoE [Edge of Evolution], the value Behe assigns to the ”probability” of occurrence of a protein interaction or binding site, does not agree with what we can and do know about the history of a bonafide multiple simultaneous mutation.

In other words, Behe got the number that is central to his book wrong. Note that the author of that post is a professor of molecular biology at the University of Kentucky, not an amateur off the street.

Michael said...

According to Behe the disease is designed, and is not a consequence of the degeneration of the biota of earth consequent on the Fall. And without the Fall, the death and resurrection of Christ become meaningless.

Sounds like your a creationist and not an ID proponent. You have to take into consideration, Behe is strictly an ID proponent which means all the observational data he concludes comes strictly from science, and not from the Bible, this is why he believes disease was designed rather than from the "fall" which is the Bible says.

ID is mostly secular except for one part "a creator" rather than "natural processes" so it's not uncommon to find these types of conclusions which are contrary to the Scriptures. Richard Dawkins thinks the likes of Behe are being "coy" but in reality, Behe is not a "fundamental creationist" rather he's just an ID advocate who has personal liberal views towards the Bible which happen to be wrong.

NP said...

Behe appears in one of the trailers for Expelled, if I'm not mistaken. They probably didn't include him in the final cut because they wanted to use up time exploring the Darwin to Hitler extrapolation.

RBH said...

Michael wrote

Sounds like your a creationist and not an ID proponent. You have to take into consideration, Behe is strictly an ID proponent which means all the observational data he concludes comes strictly from science, and not from the Bible, this is why he believes disease was designed rather than from the "fall" which is the Bible says.

In fact I'm neither. The question in the OP is why Behe has apparently all but disappeared from the Disco 'Tute's various public manifestations. I suggested an answer: He is too offensive to the religious sensibilities of the YECs who are ID's political base. Political base is what ID and the Disco 'Tute are about, after all. Else why would it go after state boards of education and state legislatures rather than doing real science?

Michael went on:

ID is mostly secular except for one part "a creator" rather than "natural processes" so it's not uncommon to find these types of conclusions which are contrary to the Scriptures.

Actually, Behe says that the greater one's religiosity the easier it is to accept ID (see, for example, his Kitzmiller testimony). To suggest that "ID is mostly secular" is bizarre given the Disco 'Tute's Wedge Strategy verbiage:

Governing Goals
* To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.
* To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and hurnan beings are created by God.


Sure looks secular to me. Right. Uh huh. Sure thing.

Unsympathetic reader said...

Note that Denton fell off the radar after his last book, "Nature's Destiny", came out. In that book Denton noted that common descent was now beyond reproach and that natural mechanisms were sufficient to bridge the gaps between evolving species.

The main ID 'movers and shakers' can barely admit to an Earth over a few thousand years old, let alone agree with the notion of common descent. They're happiest at defining what ID isn't, not what it is. Behe's breach is in making an argument that could fail (It actually has failed). That puts "God" to the test.