Gross drubs Behe in The New Criterion

The NCSE reports on Paul Gross’s book review of Behe’s “The Edge of evolution”. Like so many other scientists, Gross is not impressed.

Reviewing Michael Behe’s latest book, The Edge of Evolution (Free Press, 2007), in the October 2007 issue of The New Criterion, the biologist Paul R. Gross is anything but impressed. After observing that Behe’s argument from irreducible complexity in Darwin’s Black Box (Free Press, 1996) was quickly recognized to fail, he comments (PDF), “In response, Behe and the [“intelligent design”] movement shifted ground, first redefining I.C. in an effort to meet the flood of negation, finally (in effect) by scanting it in favor of more general claims. The Edge of Evolution is Behe’s heroic effort to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.” Gross adds, “The clear goal is to justify his original claim that the purposeful complexity of life cannot be a product of ‘random mutation,’ that there must be intelligent design, and (en passant) that I.D. is the great scientific discovery of our age.”

Noting that Behe’s arguments have already taken a pounding (in review after review after review), Gross identifies two kinds of scientific flaws: “errors of the model itself and in the associated calculations, and … ignoring important conflicting material in the primary literature.” He gives three examples: Behe’s misunderstanding of a report on the frequency of spontaneous resistence to a drug in the malaria parasite; his unwarranted assumption that mutations in the relevant gene would have to be simultaneous; and his neglect of the experimental and theoretical literature on protein evolution – “the book’s grand argument ignores the known, frequent appearance, by Darwinian pathways, of protein-protein interactions in small populations. There is a vast experimental and theoretical literature on protein evolution.”

Paul R. Gross is University Professor of Life Sciences, emeritus, at the University of Virginia, and holds honorary degrees from the Medical College of Ohio and Brown University. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. With Norman Levitt, he authored Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994); with Nick Matzke, he wrote “Analyzing Critical Analysis: The Fallback Antievolutionist Strategy” for Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design is Wrong for Our Schools; and with Barbara Forrest, he authored Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (Oxford University Press, 2004; reissued in paperback with a new chapter on Kitzmiller v. Dover, 2007).

Now some comments on the review

Gross starts with an important reminder that science does not rule out (super-natural) intervention in the processes of life a-priori, but rather observes that evidence is lacking and scientific hypotheses are fully absent.

Gross wrote:

Nothing in modern biology, which is willy-nilly evolutionary biology, rules out super-natural intervention in the processes of life. But neither is there any scientific evidence for it, although, in principle, evidence might emerge. (Not, I hasten to acknowledge, that science and religion appeal to the same canons of justification.)

Despite the many legal setbacks, ID still insists, against common sense and observation, that it is scientific and continues to gain worldwide support.

Gross wrote:

Despite many defeats, including a disastrous trial of the Dover, Pennsylvania school district, the Intelligent Design (I.D.) movement, which insists that scientific evidence does exist for such super-natural interventions, continues to gain worldwide support. This has little to do with the substance of the target—misnamed “Darwinism.” (It is misnamed because the disciplines of evolution have advanced far beyond Darwin and Wallace of 150 years ago.) The success of I.D. has had nearly—but not quite—everything to do with funding, public relations, a deluge of words, and politics.

Indeed, I would argue that ID’s (limited) success can be found in it misrepresenting science, and the use of conflating language for such terminology as information, complexity and design.

Gross points out that amongst the IDers, only one biologist has attempted to make claims about scientific arguments. While the book is marketed as “a masterwork of logic and science”, the people on the cover are all but biological scientists.

Gross reminds us that the ID argument is actual quite simplistic. Science cannot explain (yet) how a particular system arose through pure “Darwinian” processes and thus we should accept ‘design’.

Behe’s earlier idea about irreducible complexity, formulated in “Darwin’s Black Box”, were quickly shot down by scientists who observed several potential pathways leading to Irreducibly Complex systems. In fact, a close reading of Behe showed that Behe himself, much to the surprise of many ID proponent, had admitted that such pathways could exist, he just considered them, without further elaborations, to be improbable. In other words, the argument of Irreducible Complexity went from a certainty to a possibility. More ironic was that scientists in the early 1900’s had formulated the concept of irreducible complexity and had provided the scientific answers as to how such systems might arise. Faced with these facts, Irreducible Complexity was reformulated to a meaningless argument.

However, as Gross points out Behe’s writings did speak out strongly against Biblical Creationism

The only “bombshell,” however, is the towel thrown in on creationist convictions. Larry Arnhart, a political scientist and advocate of “Darwinian conservatism,” writes for his blog: “[T]he most remarkable feature of the book is [Behe’s] attack on Biblical creationism. . . . Behe says that to treat the Bible as a ‘science textbook’ is ‘silly.’ . . . In embracing Darwinian common descent, Behe accepts the idea that human beings evolved from primate ancestors shared with the Chimpanzees . . . so Behe agrees with Darwin’s declaration that the human species was ‘created from animals.’ . . . Behe also doubts the power and morality of the intelligent designer. . .” (my emphasis). The qualification seems to support Behe’s insistence that he is offering scientific, as distinct from religious or metaphysical, arguments.

Well, the review continues to address Behe’s attempt to show that there must be an ‘edge’ to evolution, how sound are these arguments? I am glad to report that the arguments are as sound as Behe’s comments on irreducible complexity.

Are Behe’s model calculations sound? No. Had these arguments been submitted to peers in biochemistry and molecular biology, those expert in evolutionary genetics—at scientific meetings, via papers in scientific journals—would have enlightened him and he might have gone elsewhere in search of alternatives to Darwinism. But it seems that he did not do this. The scientific flaws are of two kinds: errors of the model itself and in the associated calculations, and (as in Behe’s earlier book) ignoring important conflicting material in the primary literature. It would need a book longer than The Edge to restate the model together with its already noticed (in print and online) errors and omissions. This much, however, can be said:

First, the calculated probabilities, upon which the main argument of the book depends, come from a single report in the literature on the frequency of spontaneous resistance to a drug in the malaria parasite (Plasmodium). That frequency was in the first place a mere guess by its author, and it does not anyway measure the likelihood of what Behe thinks it measures. Reviews swiftly explained this mistake. The facts of drug resistance in this and other pathogens illustrate—by measurement, not just theory—vastly greater probabilities.

Second, Behe assumes simultaneous mutations at two sites in the relevant gene, but there is no such necessity and plenty of evidence that cumulativeness, rather than simultaneity, is the rule. As Nature’s reviewer (Kenneth R. Miller) notes, “It would be difficult to imagine a more breathtaking abuse of statistical genetics.”

Third and finally, the book’s grand argument ignores the known, frequent appearance, by Darwinian path- ways, of protein-protein interactions in small populations. There is a vast experimental and theoretical literature on protein evolution.

That is no reason for Professor Behe or anyone else to stop questioning. Behe has once or twice had a few biologists hopping and their responses have enriched the literature. But success in toppling “Darwinism,” uncovering honest evidence of interventions so far undetected in the history of life, supernatural or otherwise, will come—if ever—only through painstaking work in natural science, which includes rigorous peer review.

Blake Stacey at Science after the sunclipse has collected an extensive overview of reviews of Behe’s work


    * Keith Robeson, “Darwin’s Black Box: Irreducible Complexity or Irreproducible Irreducibility?” (11 December 1996)
    * Richard Wein, “Not a Free Lunch But a Box of Chocolates” (23 April 2002)


    * Publishers Weekly staff, “Nonfiction Reviews: Week of 4/9/2007” (9 April 2007)
    * Brian Switek, “The Edge of Evolution; or Darwin’s Black Box Pt. II” (16 April 2007)
    * Blake Stacey, “The Edge of Evolution” (4 May 2007)
    * Robert Camp, “Behe’s back - Still deluded after all these years” (26 May 2007)


    * Mark Chu-Carroll, “Behe’s Dreadful New Book: A Review of The Edge of Evolution” (31 May 2007)
    * Nick Matzke, “Behe’s bad math” (31 May 2007)
    * SA Smith, “Good Virus, Bad Creationist” (31 May 2007)
    * Touchstone, “Chu-Carroll Savages Behe’s New Book, Dembski Complains” (2 June 2007)
    * Michael Ruse, “Design? Maybe. Intelligent? We have our doubts” (2 June 2007)
    * Pegase, “Intelligent or Silly Design? Behe, MarkCC & Dembski” (2 June 2007, in French)
    * Mark Chu-Carroll, “Dembski notices GM/BM, and he’s not happy!” (3 June 2007)
    * Tyler DiPietro, “Shorter Bill Dembski” (3 June 2007)
    * Jason Rosenhouse, “Ruse and Chu-Carroll on Behe” (4 June 2007)
    * SA Smith, “Look Ma! No math!” (4 June 2007)
    * PZ Myers, “Brain melting…” (5 June 2007)
    * Nick Matzke, “Of cilia and silliness” (5 June 2007)
    * Tara Smith, “Behe pwned again” (5 June 2007)
    * PZ Myers, “Behe’s Edge of Evolution, part I” and “part Ia” (5 June 2007)
    * Brian Switek, “Behe fail science? That’s un-possible” (5 June 2007)
    * PZ Myers, “It just gets worse for Behe” (5 June 2007)
    * John Lynch, “Beating on Behe” (5 June 2007)
    * Jerry Coyne, “The Great Mutator” (5 June 2007)
    * Blake Stacey, “Behe’s Bad Arithmetic and Worse Science” (6 June 2007)
    * SA Smith, “Fitness Landscapes: Behe really, really shouldn’t have gone there” (6 June 2007)
    * Sean B. Carroll, “God as Genetic Engineer” (8 June 2007)
    * PZ Myers, “Behe’s The Edge of Evolution, part II” (8 June 2007)
    * SA Smith, “One Last Behe-Bile Post, I Swear!” (9 June 2007)
    * Douglas Watts, “Wheels off the wagon. . .” (9 June 2007)
    * Gordon Glover, “The Edge of Evolution” (10 June 2007)
    * Richard B. Hoppe, “Behe Blows It (in other words, dog bites man)” (13 June 2007)
    * John Lynch, “Surprising Silence Over Behe’s Book” (13 June 2007)
    * SA Smith, “Behe vs HIV” (13 June 2007)
    * PZ Myers, “The Silence of the Sheep” (14 June 2007)
    * Jason Rosenhouse, “Quote Mining in EoE” (21 June 2007)
    * PZ Myers, “Segmentation genes evolved undesigned” (24 June 2007)
    * Ken Miller, “Falling over the edge” (27 June 2007), quoted and summarized in PZ Myers, “Another nail driven into poor Behe” (27 June 2007)
    * Richard Dawkins, “Inferior Design” (issue of 1 July 2007)
    * Jerry Coyne, “Professor Jerry Coyne Addresses Michael Behe’s Reply to Coyne’s Review of Behe’s New Book” (1 July 2007)
    * Corey S. Powell, “The Simplistic Manifesto” (2 July 2007)
    * Tyler DiPietro, “Salvador Cordova is Pathetic” (4 July 2007)
    * Kevin Beck, “Uncommon Descent manages to fall further” (4 July 2007)
    * SA Smith, “HIV: Keeps getting more impossible-er” (6 July 2007)
    * The Factician, “Review of Pat Sullivan’s review of Dawkins’ review of Behe’s Edge of Evolution” (10 July 2007)
    * The Factician, “Dr. Egnor, can I have a Unicorn?” (11 July 2007)
    * SA Smith, “Michael Behe: I’m calling you out” (19 July 2007)
    * Arthur Hunt, “Reality 1, Behe 0 (22 July 2007)
    * SA Smith, “ERV & HIV versus Behe. Behe loses.” (2 August 2007)
    * Blake Stacey, “Behe on The Colbert Report” (3 August 2007).
    * SA Smith, “ I bring out the best in Creationists: Behe Speaks” (11 October 2007)
    * Jason Rosenhouse, “Tidbits From the RNCSE” (12 October 2007)