Reviewing Behe's "Darwin Devolves"


(Nathan H. Lents) #1

I’ve been commissioned to review Behe’s new book, out next year, so I am reading it now. I’m about 70 pages in and so far, all I’ve seen is, “Gee, this stuff is complicated!” I am hoping it gets better because supposedly Behe is the best of their bunch. Ken Miller thinks highly of him, despite their public tussles. He better get somewhere fast in this book or I don’t think I will accept the commission to review it because there’s nothing to review!

Lents and Swamidass: Our Questions for Behe’s Darwin Devolves
Side Comments on Bad Design of the Eye
(S. Joshua Swamidass) #2

I’ve never seen Behe say anything unkind. But I have some info relevant to that review…

(Nathan H. Lents) #3

What do you mean?

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #4

The Question of T-urf13

So, back in August, @Art pointed out the formation of a novel complex protein, T-urf13 (

The IC Argument is a Strawman Argument

This was also in response to my explanation of how IC has been an inconsistent and ultimately incoherent argument: Which Irreducible Complexity Argument?. I won’t reproduce it here, but the summary is that Behe relies on a strawman in this argument, and also shifts his argument.

A Response from Behe Requested

A ID supporter here forwarded this on to Behe…

Behe’s Response on The IC Strawman

This the responses we got from him.

Behe’s Response on T-Urf13

@Art and @Swamidass’s Response

To which @Art responded (Behe and Hunt: Irreducible Complexity and Numerology),

And I wrote…

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #5

So here is the thing @NLENTS, Behe publicly acknowledged these arguments against his position by two qualified scientists, myself and @Art. Rather than answer them, he promised to engage them in his upcoming book, the book you are reviewing.

If you were asked to review his book, I’d like to know if he addresses these issues or not. If not, I think he should be called out on it. If he does, it would be great to see that he represents them correctly and engages them cogently. You are in a unique position to press this point with him. Please do.

(Nathan H. Lents) #6

Okay. I’ll file this away and then see if I come across his response. I’m reading three books right now, as usual, so it goes kinda slow.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #7

If it doesn’t come up, please do raise the issue in your review.


Can someone answer definitively for me if Behe would be ok with acknowledging that a natural non-darwinian process is responsible for IC? Because That seems very plausible. For example, perhaps horizontal gene transfer, NGE, and some really “smart” cells are responsible for IC. Natural saltational processes would be responsible for some examples of IC.

Would Behe consider himself defeated or vindicated?

This is where I find Denton and Sternberg to be helpful. They would be vindicated. Behe, I’m not sure. Sometimes, he seems to insist on some sort of outside intelligent input and sometimes, he seems ok with Denton’s views.

@jongarvey @Eddie @Agauger,

Any thoughts?


That only raises the question of what Darwinian and non-Darwinian mean, and it can mean very different things to different people.

Reading between the lines, Behe has often limited evolution to direct pathways (which is probably what he means by “Darwinian evolution”). That is, if something like the mammalian middle ear evolves then all of the features have to start out as parts of the middle ear and only evolve function as part of the middle ear. What Behe seemingly refuses to address or include are indirect pathways where parts that evolved for a different function evolve to take on a different function. I mention the mammalian middle ear because this IC system evolved from exaptation of bones that served other functions, notably in the reptilian lower jaw.

I am hoping that maybe Behe starts to address exaptation and scaffolding in his upcoming book.

(Edward Robinson) #10

Mark, here is something Behe wrote in 2009 in answer to a question which partly overlaps with yours:

I can’t say for sure that his view is exactly the same today, but I’ve seen no evidence of a major shift in his view on this question since then. Back then, anyway, it seems that he saw both Denton-like “front-loaded” approaches and Meyer-like “interventionist” approaches as legitimate within the framework of intelligent design theory. And God could be the designer, either way.

Of course, if in his new book he explicitly champions supernatural intervention as the only way design could find its way into nature, then his older statement would be superseded. But for now, I think the older statement likely captures his current view.



Elsewhere, he seems to suggest that if IC can be explained by NGE, his argument has been defeated:

“The underlying point of all these criticisms that needs to be addressed, I think, is that it is possible future work might show irreducible complexity to be explainable by some unintelligent process (although not necessarily a Darwinian one). And on that point I agree the critics are entirely correct. I acknowledge that I cannot rule out the possibility future work might explain irreducibly complex biochemical systems without the need to invoke intelligent design, as I stated in Darwin’s Black Box. (Behe 1996, 203-204) I agree I cannot prove that studies of self-organization will not eventually show it to be capable of much more than we know now. Nor can I definitively say that Professor Shapiro’s ideas about self-designing cells might not eventually prove true, or that currently unknown theories might prevail. But the inability to guarantee the future course of science is common to everyone, not just those who are supportive of intelligent design. For example, no one can warrant that the shortcomings of self-organization will not be exacerbated by future research, rather than overcome, or that even more difficulties for natural selection will not become apparent.”


@jongarvey I think you said on your blog that Behe would probably find @Perry_Marshall 's explanation of IC perfectly acceptable. From that quote, I really don’t know if that’s true.

Yet if he accepts Denton’s thesis, then NGE would be a perfectly acceptable explanation of IC. Behe needs to come to a more concrete position. If he is simply arguing against a 100 percent random (the odds of any mutation are as good as the odds for any other mutation) process, that’s fine. He’s won. But if he’s arguing against ANY natural explanation, it will probably be shown that he has lost at some point (perhaps already).

I find Behe extremely confusing.

(Ann Gauger) #12

Behe acknowledges natural processes can accomplish limited evolutionary change. Changes in cyclid fishes, finch beaks, antibiotic resistance, citric acid metabolism, loss of eyes in cave fish, loss of ant wings spring to mind readily. But none of these things are irreducibly complex by Behe’s definition.

Whether a natural non-Darwinian process can account for IC is the main question. What you find plausible I find totally implausible. What are really “smart cells” and how do you know they exist? Are they merely speculation? What IC structure can be shown to be within reach, even in part, of HGT or NGT? Note: a type III secretory needle is not even close to a flagellum. They can be transferred by HGT, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

I specialize in looking at what kinds of changes can be accomplished in a few mutations. 2 or 3 point mutations can accomplish very little, rearrangements perhaps more. Changes to a DNA binding site might be within reach. But the genes themselves which are to be regulated have to exist and be able to interact. Most transpositions are harmful, not helpful. To get an IC structure it has to assemble in the right way by way of well-fitting parts whose expression is suitably timed.

Denton allows for self-organizational processes, Sternberg perhaps, but he does not think it would ever happen without guidance of some sort. I don’t know where you got that idea.

I don’t know what Behe addresses in his book, but I suspect he may view exaptation and scaffolding with skepticism. In fact, I am fairly sure he will make the point that they are hypothetical ideas, created to solve the problem of IC, but without genuine examples. If I am wrong, please give me references.

He has actually stated his position quite clearly. If ID is a hypothetical idea without experimental demonstration, then it must be acknowledged that exaptation or scaffolding are hypothetical ideas without experimental demonstration.
If ID advocates cannot show that scientists will never find a natural explanation for IC structures or processes, then neither can materialist scientists show that their confidence is based on experiment, not blind faith in the power of evolution to find a way.

Sorry, still in the midst of a move. But the unequal treatment of what should be acknowledged as two hypothetical scenarios bugs me. Just because you favor one idea over the other does not make it more plausible. Plausibility must be demonstrated, not merely imagined.

An egregious quote:

“One can envisage [imagine] the ur-flagellum arising from mergers between several modular subsystems: a secretion system built from proteins accreted around an ancient ATPase, a filament built from variants of two initial proteins, a motor built from an ion channel and a chemotaxis apparatus built from pre-existing regulatory domains.”

(Nick Matzke and Mark Pallen, “From The Origin of Species to the origin of bacterial flagella,” Nature Reviews Microbiology (2006).)

Indeed. One can envisage. But where are the experiments? We can’t prove the negative. Can anyone demonstrate the positive?

I imagine this will draw comments but i am about three levels of comments behind.


@NLENTS, do you have any thoughts on why you were chosen to review Behe’s new book? Did the people who commissioned you just not understand your intent in writing Human Errors?

Behe accepts common descent.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #14


(Nathan H. Lents) #15

Well, I can’t guarantee that I’ll raise it in my review because there’s obviously a word count limit and there will likely be issues of my own that I’ll want to raise. But you have definitely given me some things to look out for and I thank you for that. Also, good questions and other context by @agauger, @Mark, @T_aquaticus and others, so I’m going to bookmark this thread and consider it carefully while I finish the book and collect my thoughts.

(Edward Robinson) #16


Of course, the phrase “natural explanation” itself requires exposition: does it mean explanation by chance mutations, by natural laws, or by what? Does “natural” imply “non-directed”? If an organism has the ability reconstruct its genome, as in Shapiro (I assume you are referring to this when you use the initials NGE) does that count as “natural” change? Is Shapiro suggesting that the changes he is talking about are purposive? It may be that the lack of clarity you find in Behe goes back to a lack of clarity in Shapiro. If Shapiro more frankly declared that organisms are literally trying to evolve toward certain ends, Behe might be interested in that idea – if enough evidence were in support of it. A purposive organism, in control of its own evolution, would fit within the notion of intelligent design, where intelligent design is construed broadly to include design by the organism as well as design by an external agent.

Whether Behe discusses Shapiro and other alternatives in the new book, I don’t know for sure, but it was my understanding that he was going to discuss both natural genetic engineering and the extended evolutionary synthesis (EES). I’m content to wait until February, when Behe’s new book comes out, to see if he adds or subtracts anything from his previous statements. Until then, I’d rather not speculate.


By the way,


I’m not sure what you mean by “guidance.” I’ll try to find this later, but in one of his books, Denis Lemoureaux cites a private communication with Denton where Denton says he doesn’t think there was any divine intervention in the evolutionary process.

If you mean that organisms naturally grow into preexistent Platonic “forms,” then I guess this could be seen as guidance. As strange as it may sound to some, from what I’ve seen, Lamoureaux greatly admires Denton’s work and they might actually have very similar views. The biggest difference might be that Lamoureaux places himself outside ID, while Denton places himself inside.

(Dan Eastwood) #18

Shapiro is clear that he does not support Intelligent Design. From his web site:

It has come to our attention that THE THIRD WAY web site is wrongly being referenced by proponents of Intelligent Design and creationist ideas as support for their arguments. We intend to make it clear that the website and scientists listed on the web site do not support or subscribe to any proposals that resort to inscrutable divine forces or supernatural intervention, whether they are called Creationism, Intelligent Design, or anything else.

(Edward Robinson) #19

Yes, I know that Shapiro has distanced himself from ID. However, he seems to be objecting to ends in nature that are supernaturally imposed on organisms from the outside. It’s not all that clear whether he denies that organisms can naturally propose and achieve ends for themselves, working from the inside. That is, it’s not clear where he is heading with his notion of natural genetic engineering. It’s conceivable that he has a quasi-Lamarckian teleology of some sort in mind. And while that wouldn’t quite be ID, it would be akin to ID in being teleological. But since this thread is about Behe, not Shapiro, I won’t speculate further on Shapiro.

(Dan Eastwood) #20

Agreed, it’s not useful to speculate what someone else thinks, but that doesn’t stop ID advocates from claiming Shapiro’s work supports ID (despite the disclaimer).