Three Misrepresentations on Darwin Devolves' Back Cover

Design

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #1

We found three fairly large misrepresentations on Darwin Devolves back cover, just one page of text. The first one @Art Hunt first noted, but now @Jerry_Coyne has pointed out two more (Behe and his publisher distort his reviews, pretend that they praise his work « Why Evolution Is True). There is also the polar bears too, still waiting for a clarification from Behe…

#1. Misrepresenting The New Yorker (Allen Orr, @Jerry_Coyne’s Student, in 2005)

Under the heading Praise for Michael J Behe and Darwin Devolves the book’s back cover includes this quotes:

Michael J. Behe, a professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University (and a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute), is a biochemist who writes technical papers on the structure of DNA. He is the most prominent of the small circle of scientists working on intelligent design, and his arguments are by far the best known.
Devolution | The New Yorker

Orr’s final assessment of why biologists reject ID (which deserves much repetition):

Biologists aren’t alarmed by intelligent design’s arrival in Dover and elsewhere because they have all sworn allegiance to atheistic materialism; they’re alarmed because intelligent design is junk science.

Of note, Orr critique of Behe is relied upon by us here: Which Irreducible Complexity?. Orr is the one who first raised Muller’s Two Step to Behe, a critique that remains valid and Behe ignored. So Orr, therefore, is quoted as a supporter of Behe, but his critique is ignored in the Darwin Devolves book.

Orr, H. A. (1996) “Darwin v. Intelligent Design (Again).” Boston Review, December 1996/January 1997. [Free Text, Boston Review]

Orr, H. A. (1997) “Is Darwin in the Details?: H. Allen Orr Responds” Boston Review, February/March 1997. [Free Text, Boston Review]

#2. Misrepresenting The New York Times (James Shreeve, 1996)

Under the heading Praise for Michael J Behe and Darwin Devolves, the back cover includes this quote too:

In ”Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution,” he argues that the origin of intracellular processes underlying the foundation of life cannot be explained by natural selection or by any other mechanism based purely on chance. When examined with the powerful tools of modern biology, but not with its modern prejudices, life on a biochemical level can be a product, he says, only of intelligent design. Coming from a practicing scientist — he is a biochemist at Lehigh University — this proposition is close to heretical.

Shreeve is does not agree with Darwin’s Black box (and is not even a scientist)

Mr. Behe may be right that given our current state of knowledge, good old Darwinian gradualist evolution cannot explain the origin of blood clotting or cellular transport. It doesn’t provide a mechanism for genetic inheritance either – but does that mean that James Dewey Watson and Francis Crick, who discovered the structure of DNA, shouldn’t have gone looking for one? Before an investigator declares the cell to be God’s last holdout, he must consider other natural causes for the origin of biochemical complexity, including the spontaneous organization of componenets [sic] suggested by complexity theory itself. Mr. Behe remarks on the vagueness of complexity theory itself. Mr. Behe remarks on the bagueness [sic] of complexity theory today – a curious charge, coming from a creationist – but what about its future, or that of paradigms as yet unconceived? Shouldn’t we leave something for our children and grandchildren to puzzle out besides which systems int he cell are intelligently designed and which are not? Because something is beyond our understanding today does not mean it will be beyond theirs.

Shreeve is not praising Behe. He is just explaining Behe’s thesis. This quote was from back in 1996, over 20 years ago. It does not take into accouont the last twenty years of Behe’s work, nor does it take into account Darwin Devolves. This quote is highly misleading, at best, if not out right misrepresentation.

#3. Leisola Quote Misrepresents Behe

Behe already appears to have denounced one quote on this cover as a misrepresentation of his thesis. already. Matti Leisola is a supporter of Behe. When Behe responded our review in Science, he was very clear that the representations of his argument, such as Leisola’s, are incorrect.

As first noted by @Art, Matti Leisola writes:

Behe introduces new molecular-level facts that sink the Darwinian view of life once and for all: Darwinian mechanism sometimes helps survival of an organism but always by damaging or breaking genes. The conclusion is clear: life is the product of a mind.

This characterization of his book, Behe has specifically denounced:

It has been my experience that one very common way for opponents to try to discredit an argument is to exaggerate it, to ignore distinctions an author makes, and/or to change carefully qualified claims into bizarre absolutes. Why, here’s an example right here:

What Behe is saying is that harming genes is the only way that unguided mutations can ever help an organism.

Even as he quotes us, he leaves out the qualifying phrase for the paragraph “In the grand scheme of things,” which indicates we are not strawmanning Behe. His complaint does not apply to us, but it does apply to Leisola.

Given this pattern of misrepresentation, it seems reasonable to ask Behe and the publisher to clarify how they understand these back cover “errors” (or one sort another) too. So much confusion on just one book cover!

#4. Inside The Book, The Polar Boars

It is often said, “don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” This level of misrepresentation is common inside the book too, not just on its cover. It is a good thing that we didn’t review the cover in Science (which we did not have), and focused instead on the inside of the book. As one example, still unaddressed by Behe, let us remember the Polar Bears, and what Behe wrote about ApoB:

Darwin Devolves: They determined that the mutations were very likely to be damaging

Behe is paraphrasing the beginning of the paragraph (https://www.cell.com/abstract/S0092-8674(14)00488-7), in which the authors write:

Due to a lack of appropriate functional studies of polar bears, we were unable to directly identify causal variants. Nevertheless, we assessed the impact of polar bear—specific substitutions on human proteins for top-20 genes under positive selection by computational predictions: a large proportion (ca. 50%) of mutations were predicted to be functionally damaging (Figures 4C and 4D, Table S7).

The authors did not determine the mutations to be damaging. They ran a program that gave some results that included the term “damaging”, and they (for a good reason) came to a different conclusion. On ApoB, one of the "damaged proteins, they write it is likely to be working more effectively. This make sense, because Polar Bears may need an effective ApoB, because they eat so much fat.

We suggest that the shift to a diet consisting predominantly of fatty acids in polar bears induced adaptive changes in APOB, which enabled the species to cope with high fatty acid intake by contributing to the effective clearance of cholesterol from the blood.

However, the end of that same paragraph shows something else. The authors did not determine the mutations to be damaging. They ran a program that gave some results that included the word “damaging” in its output, and then they (for a good reason) came to a different conclusion. On ApoB, one of the "damaged proteins, they write it is likely to be working more effectively. This make sense, because Polar Bears need a really effective ApoB because they eat so much fat.

We suggest that the shift to a diet consisting predominantly of fatty acids in polar bears induced adaptive changes in APOB, which enabled the species to cope with high fatty acid intake by contributing to the effective clearance of cholesterol from the blood.

In making a key point in support of his thesis, Behe said the authors claimed something that they did not. The same paragraph he quotes from show this is not true.

In his first response to @Nlents and @art pointing this out, Behe called them “incompetent”(Lents and Hunt: Behe And The Polar Bear's Fat). In his second response, to his credit, Behe provides new evidence that calls into question whether this was a gain or loss of function (we do not know for sure without more experiments). Behe, however, does not retract this misrepresentation in his book (Behe on Lessons From the Polar Bear Studies). Nor does he defend his initial claim was correct. He just ignores the mistake that was made.

In contrast, DI and Behe complained vigorously that he had been misrepresented. We responded by explaining how DI and Behe misread our review, and that we have not misrepresented his book in several places. We have explained this elsewhere (e.g. Perplexing: Michael Behe’s Critics Falsely Claim He Ignores Exaptation and https://discourse.peacefulscience.org/t/mungs-quixotic-correction/4876 ). There are remaining disagreements between us, but disagreements are not misrepresentations. In contrast, here, Behe just ignored the misrepresentation that was pointed out to him. This is not the right way to handle such concerns.

The Big Picture

Coyne concludes:

HarperOne, the religious branch of HarperCollins Publishing, used the New Yorker and NYT quotes just to give an aura of authority to Behe’s work: “look, he was praised by the fancy New York media”. But he wasn’t, and if you read the full reviews you’ll see that neither reviewer accepts Behe’s contention that things that look (to Behe) irreducibly complex must have been the product of a Great Mutagenic Designer.

This seems to be true. It is egregious to quote attempts to state Behe’s theses in the past, by critics, as endorsements of Behe on the current book. It is very unfortunate that such an important book for ID has misrepresented others, both in these three examples, and elsewhere. This is a problem that is not merely about its cover, but also continues into the content of the book.

This is why, in our Science review (Darwin Devolves: The End of Evolution?), we concluded:

Ultimately, Darwin Devolves fails to challenge modern evolutionary science because, once again, Behe does not fully engage with it. He misrepresents theory and avoids evidence that challenges him.

I hope that Behe sets the record straight soon. I’m not sure if Behe has ever explicitly retracted a mistake. Perhaps someone can indicate where he has, but I have not yet seen a retraction even once from him. I’m concerned that if corrections to such a clear and important error are not made, we will not be able to trust Behe to retract more subtle errors, that may be just as important. For this reason, I hope that Behe sets the record straight on these four misquotes, three from the back cover and one from the first chapter.


Behe's response to Lenski's first post
(S. Joshua Swamidass) split this topic #2

25 posts were split to a new topic: Comments on Devolves Back Cover


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #4

Some important questions, and responses, arose in the comment thread that I want to bring up to higher visibility

Behe May Not Be Directly Responsible

Though the error with Polar Bears is certainly on his footstep, the back cover may not be, and we want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

This is Fixable for Behe

This seems to be a large error on someones part. This how @Nlents and I would handle this as scientists, and what we would (frankly) expect of each other.

This is Not A Personal Attack

We Are Engaging Behe’s Scientific Arguments

We are not dismissing Behe’s arguments because of this issue. We are engaging the science in depth and in detail.

On most of the technical details, currently, the ball is in Behe’s court. We have responded to (nearly?) all of the substantive posts from ENV from Behe and the DI. We have posed questions back to him. We are waiting for his response. With a review out from @Jerry_Coyne, @paulbraterman, and one in Evolution next week, we understand they are under the gun, and may not respond soon. We are glad to see that @Wayne_Rossiter has shown up to answer some of our questions here: Leisola: Cited to Attack Darwin Devolves, Study Devolves on Close Inspection.


(Nathan H. Lents) #5

I’ve heard it said that part of the DI and ID code of conduct that they all agree to adhere to is to never criticize or find fault with each other (no matter how divergent the views) and never admit any errors. This will certainly test that considering both how visible and how blatant the error was. If Behe tries to spin or deflect this, he’ll have shown that he cannot be trusted. But if he apologizes and admits it was an error, he’ll win back some credibility and weaken the theory that DI lives by the code of conduct mentioned above. The choice should be ridiculously easy to make.