Behe ‘replies’ to TREE review

| 97 Comments | 2 TrackBacks

Well, Michael Behe has responded to my TREE review of The Edge of Evolution in a 3-part series posted on his blog. And the Discovery Institute has put up something lauding the reply.

The funny thing is how both Behe and the DI claim that I don’t address the substance of Behe’s book, all while ignoring the substance of my review, which addressed the substance of Behe’s book. All they can do is splutter that I am a biased reviewer who until recently worked at NCSE and therefore I must be wrong. (This, by the way, is how you know when you’ve got creationists where you want them.) I’ll make a list of my points and the non-replies below. It’s pretty shocking what they missed, considering my review was only 800 words or so, one of the shortest ones out there.

Here are the links to Behe’s three-part reply: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

OK, let’s take stock. Each point below lists my scientific criticism and then the reply from Behe.

1. Criticism: Behe claimed that the bacterial flagellum had 4 additional required regulatory proteins. But these proteins are not universally found in bacterial flagella. Behe reply: none.

2. Criticism: Behe claimed that the eukaryotic flagellum/cilium was actually a case of “irreducible complexity squared” because a complex multiprotein system called intraflagellar transport (IFT) was required for cilium assembly. But this system is missing in malaria parasites (and Drosophila sperm, actually) which successfully build cilia anyway (they just build it in the cytoplasm which removes the need for the transport system). Behe reply: nada.

3. Criticism: Behe’s claim that chlororquine resistance (CQR) occurs only by a rare lucky double mutation in 1 in 10^20 parasites is contradicted by research which shows that resistance alleles don’t always have the double mutant, and that in fact numerous resistance alleles with 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. mutations exist. Behe’s number is derived from an offhand guessestimate in the literature that considered only alleles that swept to high frequency in populations via natural selection, which only counts the “winning”, best resistance alleles, whereas what needs to be counted is the number of mutants which give selectable resistance, which are known to exist and to represent intermediate stages between the nonmutant gene and the “winning” resistance gene.

Behe’s Reply:

The most reliable data we have on the independent occurrence of resistance is that which surveys not just the mutations in the pfcrt resistance gene itself, but looks at surrounding DNA sequences for sequence heterogeneity. If drug resistance arose many times, easily and frequently, DNA surrounding the resistance gene would be expected to be as heterogeneous as other DNA regions in the genome. On the other hand, if resistance arose rarely with difficulty, heterogeneity would be suppressed around the resistance gene because of something called “hitchhiking” with the selected DNA. In several thorough studies, DNA heterogeneity was seen to be quite suppressed around pfcrt (6,7) (the chloroquine resistance gene), meaning that the resistance gene arose rarely and swept through a population.


6. Volkman,S.K., et al. 2007. A genome-wide map of diversity in Plasmodium falciparum. Nat. Genet. 39:113-119.

7. Wootton,J.C., et al. 2002. Genetic diversity and chloroquine selective sweeps in Plasmodium falciparum. Nature 418:320-323.

My surreply: all this data shows is that the advanced CQR alleles spread because of a selective sweep, which I stated in my review. All this means is that in a particular region, out of many alleles accumulating resistance mutations one at a time (and spreading relatively slowly with weak resistance), one of them got to the “best” combination first and subsequently beat out all the competition. This tells you nothing about how many times weak resistance alleles that are transitional to the “best” combination of resistance mutations originate. The data I cited, from India where this diversity of weaker resistance alleles still exists, shows that Behe’s “miraculous double mutant origin of CQR” model is wrong.

4. Criticism: Because Behe’s 1 in 10^20 number is wrong, his estimate for the probability of evolving a protein-protein binding site (which was based on equating CQR to a binding site, since CQR mutants and binding sites both involve a combination of several important amino acids) is also wrong. Reply: none.

5. Criticism: Behe’s decision to square the probability to get the probability of evolving 2 binding sites is wrong, both because this assumes that these 2 binding sites have to evolve at once (contradicted by the previous objections to the “irreducible complexity” argument) and because an experiment evolving binding sites managed to accidentally evolving two different binding sites to a target protein without squaring the population size. Reply: none.

6. Criticism: Behe is wrong to think that evolution says a protein-protein binding site should evolve in any situation. Behe’s reply: evolution doesn’t predict anything about where binding sites should evolve. Surreply: Sure it does. But you have to at least have a system where protein-protein binding is an important factor, e.g. different receptors on two different host species for a virus. An evolutionary response to a small molecule like chloroquine doesn’t cut it.

7. Criticism: Protein-protein binding sites actually aren’t hard to evolve, see antibodies, snake venom proteins, and especially the recent evolution of snake venom proteins within genera and species. Reply: none.

8. Criticism: Behe is driven not by science but by his mistaken but obsessive-held view that evolution is “random” in a metaphysical sense meaning “purposeless.” Behe’s reply: “Wasn’t it Darwin himself, we are constantly assured, who based his theory on ‘random’ variation?” Surreply: The word “random” does not appear in the Origin of Species. Search for yourself. Darwin based his theory on natural selection, which is nonrandom. The source of variation was unknown. But thanks to Behe for proving my point – for him, evolution = randomness = purposelessness = no God or meaning of life, this is precisely why he keeps playing the same old game: set up an all-at-once chance event as if it were a good model for a gradual evolutionary process operating under the guidance of natural selection, then declare the all-at-once chance event wildly improbable, then infer ID and thereby rescue the world from the purposelessness which is somehow produced by mere description of a physical process.

By my count, Behe only bothered to give it a try on 3/8 points, only gave it a significant shot on one, and was easily shot down on all three. If anyone wonders why Behe has repeatedly failed to convince when he has informed opposition – for example, in the scientific community, or in court – now you have your answer. He gives excuses rather than answers, and when problems are pointed out, he mostly just hopes that his fans will remain ignorant of them.

[Added in edit: Filled in some stuff on the randomness point which needed a bit more. May discuss further in the comments if warranted.]

2 TrackBacks

Dear Gentle Readers: At the bottom of this essay, I’m collecting links to reviews of Behe’s book The Edge of Evolution, replies to reviews and so forth. Well, now the burden is off me, and I can devote my book-reviewing time to good books,... Read More

The deadline for submission of blog posts for the 2nd Science Blogging Anthology is over. We have received 468 entries (after deleting spam and duplicates - the total was 501) and a jury of 30+ judges has already started reading... Read More


Why does Behe still bother? Has he just dug himself so deep that he feels he might as well keep digging and see if he comes out the other side, or is he just that out of touch with reality that he still believes he’s right? Bit of a waste of a scientific career really. All his replies (when he actually bothers to give one that is) just consist of “I’m saying this, therefore it must be right”.

No surprize here, considering that people like Ray Martinez also think in terms of absolutes rather than ever look at things objectively. If someone does not WANT to understand reality, you can’t force him to.

I appreciate you taking the time to critique Behe’s work. I agree with what Rob said, it just seems like a waste of scientific effort. After all, what would it mean if Behe was correct? That some “intelligence” has a hand in or creates biology? How is that helpful? It doesn’t get us any closer to Christianity or even a tri-omni God. Perhaps a Deist God but is that what IDers want?

Oh Nick, don’t you understand creationist-speak yet after all this time? The “substance” isn’t the scientific content. Never has been. It’s window dressing, pseudosci gibberish to make the rubes’ eyes glaze over and convince them it’s all scientifickal and stuff.

No, the real “substance” is whether you accept the philosophical underpinnings uncritically, the way any good fundy should. I.e., since you have not received The Truth and therefore prostrated yourself before the Almighty, you have not addressed the “substance.”

Two points:

1) It seems like this discussion of the origin of resistance is assuming that the resistance alleles arose after (i.e., implicitly in response to) the application of chloroquine (chlororquine?). This is a common misconception. It implies that the selective force induces the mutation: a Lamarckian idea. In fact, application of a selective force simply changes the selective coefficients of alleles that already exist in the population. Any large population of organisms possesses a ‘bank’ of variation (NO implication of foresight intended!). Many of these alleles are/may be slightly deleterious under current circumstances, but this position can change when circumstances change. I predict that if you could look closely at malaria parasites that have never been subjected to Chloroquine, you would find the requisite resistance alleles at low frequency.

2) On ‘randomness’. Creationists, seem to use the word differently than ‘we’ do. To us, ‘randomness’ describes the nature of the variation in populations (i.e., not dependent on need). It seems that creationists (How can this structure evolve randomly?!) use it in to mean ‘unguided’, a sense in which we might say ‘random walk’, which is a very different idea. In discussions with creationists, we need to spell out clearly what the term means. (Of course, the endpoint of any ‘random walk’ is extremely unlikely, so their argument from incredulity fails to the anthropic principle [or some similar principle applied to Insects, fungi, whatever.)

Well, Prof. Behe has at least wised up in one respect. He has disabled comments on all 3 parts of the reply in his Amazon blog.

Prof. Behe has wised up in one regard, at least. He has disabled comments on all 3 parts of the reply in his Amazon blog.

Yes, but they were disabled before but posting was still possible. Was this Behe’s doing or Amazon? I prefer to believe the latter. Nevertheless many good comments once again were “censored”

When Behe starts off his reply with a reference to

a former-head-of-the-Pennsylvania-Liquor-Control-Board-appointed-judge

it makes me just sad. Why can’t this guy just address the subject and let the by now well known and rehearsed earlier assignment of judge Jones’ lie?

It seems to me Behe treats science with the same kind of respect that we are accustomed to from astrology and other ID-related sciences.


As you probably know, Behe even admitted under oath at the trial that to accommodate ID, the rules of science would have to also include astrology.

As you say, Behe deems it necessary to start the review with a reference to Jones’ position as LCB head, as well as how his decision was “copied almost word for word,” even though that’s completely irrelevant to Nick’s claims. Yet, he finds it necessary to start his review with “Like almost all reviews by Darwinists, [Matzke’s] begins with a genuflection to the Dover trial…”

I used to call Dembski the king of chutzpah, but I think Behe has dethroned him.


Now that Behe has disabled comments on his blog, I guess he will show up here, right?

Noting PvM’s comment I should say “Now that Behe or Amazon has disabled comments on his blog…”

Either way, he’s welcome here, where comments will not be disabled.

What I find particularly sad about Behe is that, by virtue of having academic tenure, he is a genuine waste of educational resources. I certainly wouldn’t want to be taught by a professor who, despite all evidence to the contrary, persists in clinging to an interpretation of biological data that is neither logically tenable nor scientifically acceptable.

The fact that he refuses to address the substantive criticisms of his work, and refuses to engage in any kind of rational scientific debate about it, indicates that what he is doing ain’t science.

When was Darwin’s Black Box published? The late ’90s IIRC. In the last 8+ years, how much data has Behe’s lab turned out based on his ID “science”? None at all.

He’s just a waste of space.

Nigel D: The fact that he refuses to address the substantive criticisms of his work, and refuses to engage in any kind of rational scientific debate about it, indicates that what he is doing ain’t science.

The fact that he hasn’t bothered to physically do any scientific experiments, using or not using Intelligent Design, in the past 11 years since Darwin’s Black Box came out indicates that what he’s been doing isn’t science, and suggests that he won’t be doing science for a very long time to come.


You’re right. I should have said “… is one of several things that indicates what he is doing isn’t science.”

But I stand by my last sentence: Behe is a waste of space.

A far more productive researcher could use the money he is wasting, and the University office space he occupies, to actually teach students some worthwhile biology.

Not to sound spiteful, but, I agree. Is Behe even the least bit interested in renewing his tenure, or is he content to rot on his misbegotten laurels at the DI?

Lehigh’s Biology Department’s disclaimer is still up.

Department Position on Evolution and “Intelligent Design” The faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences is committed to the highest standards of scientific integrity and academic function. This commitment carries with it unwavering support for academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. It also demands the utmost respect for the scientific method, integrity in the conduct of research, and recognition that the validity of any scientific model comes only as a result of rational hypothesis testing, sound experimentation, and findings that can be replicated by others. The department faculty, then, are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory, which has its roots in the seminal work of Charles Darwin and has been supported by findings accumulated over 140 years. The sole dissenter from this position, Prof. Michael Behe, is a well-known proponent of “intelligent design.” While we respect Prof. Behe’s right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.

I don’t know about Lehigh, but tenure doesn’t “come up for renewal” at most schools.

But you would think that Behe should get the message at some point. If I were a biology student at Lehigh, I would avoid his classes. If that turns out to be the case, how is Lehigh justifying paying Behe?

I started a thread entitled “Re: The TREE review of The Edge of Evolution, etc.” in the Customer Discussions area of The Edge of Evolution on Amazon. Feel free to post comments related to Nick Matzke’s review or Behe’s responses over there.[…]A8XKZTAZM/1/

what happened to freedom of speech. the editors continue to make the fiat decision to remove anything i have to say regarding the topics at hand. what a bunch of prejudiced individuals. you have absolutely minimal evidences (no matter how you want to construe the reasonable definition of scientific processes towards working toward supporting you hypothesis regarding chemicals to living ecosystems)to support you vastly qualitative wishful thinking personal agenda driven assertions (on the public tit) in order to continue your “livelyhood” regardless of what real evidence demonstrates!!!!!! you pack of illegitimate social-suckers!!!!! I dare you to post this you mental midgets!!!!!

To be fair, there’s perhaps little point in Behe answering 4) if he thinks he’s answered 3). But ignoring fully half of all your points is still pretty dismal. Especially damning is his avoidance of the two points on flagella, given how central an example he’s made it for so long.

I’ve wondered before, and I still wonder:

Could Lehigh U actually sack Behe for, y’know, not actually doing his job?

I wonder if his job description mentions such radical concepts as “teaching biochemistry to students” or “conducting scientific research”? He seems to devote far more time to his career as an antiscience writer than to either of these items.

Behe may eventually surpass Dembski in vacuousness. He haven’t yet assimilated the latter’s ability to fuzzify definitions or regularly shoot himself in the foot, but given time I’m sure he will go the way of all denialists.

Could Lehigh U actually sack Behe for, y’know, not actually doing his job?

Interesting idea. But if they had wished to go that way they should perhaps not have issued the disclaimer that isolates Behe from representing their view.

The larger issue of Behe engaging in anti-scientific activities remains. I can’t see how it would cut into free speech to sack educators or scientists for private activities not compliant with the moral of a field. You could say that it shores up the equally important right of free organization.

But ultimately it may be a question about how employees should be treated, which is quite another kettle of fish.

Again, issuing fair warnings, wouldn’t it be possible to argue that an employee must be fit for his job? If we don’t hire pedophiles as preschool wards or teachers, why should we hire denialists that damage science? Assuming we can identify denialists from those who have a healthy skepticism on some issue, and I contend that we can - Behe demonstrates that amply.

Nigel D Wrote:

Could Lehigh U actually sack Behe for, y’know, not actually doing his job?

It’s very difficult to fire a tenured professor. Plus, if they did, we’d ever hear the end of it; The DI would have a much bigger martyr to whine about than Guillermo Gonzalez. If anything Lehigh should keep Behe as a reminder to Gonzalez and the like to be smarter, and wait until after getting tenure before selling out to pseudoscience. Instant gratification is so unbecoming of a conservative. Then again, IMO these aren’t real conservatives but authoritarians.

Torbjorn, those are good points.

I think, at the end of the day, it comes down to the precise wording of Behe’s contract with Lehigh. I have no idea how such things are done in the USA, and I’m not a lawyer, but, if the contract stipulates such things as research and teaching and he is demonstrably not doing such things, then he is in breach of contract.

Of course, if Lehigh did sack him, you can just imagine how much fuss the DI will make of it: “the only ID advocate with a relevant tenured position sacked for his personal opinions - it’s another example of the liberal lefty pinko Darwinist conspiracy”.

BTW, for the record I think that selling out to pseudoscience even after getting tenure is morally wrong. But like deliberately misreprsenting evolution in Sunday School, which I also find reprehensible, it is legal, and probably must be in a free country.

In discussions with creationists, we need to spell out clearly what the term means.

I think it is needed in all discussions, since “random” may mean so many different things, the classical “equi-probable” (very lawful :-P), “stochastic” (lawful), “non-deterministic” (non-lawful), et cetera.

It took me a while to be informed that biologists means “not dependent on need”. Is that the same as the more specific “uncorrelated with need”?

his mistaken but obsessive-held view that evolution is “random” in a metaphysical sense meaning “purposeless.”

Much as I think NOMA is inappropriate and that this is on a higher level a sign of a clash between agent-free natural laws and agent-full theological ideas, on the basic level this is absurd.

We, as natural agents, can use natural objects to a purpose, for example a rock as a make-shift hammer. Similarly we use variation and selection for the purpose of breeding. So purpose isn’t contingent on that an object is created by an agent, but that it is used by an agent. (One can argue about the purpose in creating objects that aren’t used, but I think purpose falls back on the processes then used. In any case it doesn’t matter here.)

Behe is making much ado over an impossible distinction.

I think some people don’t understand tenure. The whole point of tenure is to protect professors who advocate unpopular views. People like Behe in other words. Sure, giving someone tenure includes the risk that you give them the lifetime job of advocating crank views, which is why getting a tenured position is so hard and why considering whether or not someone is a crank is a perfectly good thing to take into account when deciding to award a tenured position.

But there is no way to take away Behe’s job without nuking the whole tenure system. In fact, everyone should positively support his right to do what he is doing. Kevin Padian has said the same thing repeatedly.

(Plus, I think he teaches general biochemistry, so it’s not like he does nothing. Even when you have tenure there are various other things you have to compete for – lab space, merit-based pay raises, etc. I imagine Behe hasn’t done so well with those given lack of research. But that’s a different issue.)

Here is Behe’s “disclaimer” at Lehigh.

Official Disclaimer My ideas about irreducible complexity and intelligent design are entirely my own. They certainly are not in any sense endorsed by either Lehigh University in general or the Department of Biological Sciences in particular. In fact, most of my colleagues in the Department strongly disagree with them.

I am sure different universities have different rules and contracts, and I don’t have a clue of what kind of contract Behe has with Lehigh.

However, tenure is designed to protect “controversial” views and research. I think any of us would be appreciative of such protection if we had embarked on a long and arduous research task that would take decades to complete even if we were successful.

The difficulty here is having an administration that understands whether or not what Behe is doing constitutes legitimate research of a long-term nature. Unfortunately, one of the hallmarks of a quack is the repeated use of the phrase “They all laughed at …”.

There is also the problem of the post-modernist philosophy that is suspicious of science and would see the controversy over Behe as an example that confirms their claims that science is only a social construct that is put in place by political means. I have no idea how many university administrators subscribe to this kind of crap, but there would very likely be faculty members who would support Behe without having the slightest idea what he is talking about.

If students started refusing to take his classes and Behe couldn’t fulfil his contractual obligations (whatever those are), then Lehigh might have a case to put pressure on him to get back to doing some research and giving students something to do that will advance them toward their professional goals.

So there are many obstacles to putting Behe back on track.

On the positive side, we all get to see the crap he churns out and can find ways to advise the public about it.


In my haste I managed to forget Behe is tenured.

I guess one could have a discussion whether tenure should protect what can be positively identified as anti-science. But as Nick says it doesn’t matter because the purpose with tenure is to have a bullet-proof system to protect people from others actions, regardless if they have a basis for them or not. Conflicts have a way of ruining work and reputations, and people may take advantage of that. As I understand it, the system works well compared to previous systems, or is at least assumed to do so.

Now I remember that last time this discussion surfaced, someone noted that it is quite a trick to first become tenured and later come out as a denialist crank. We won’t see many Behe’s, so we might as well enjoy the ones we have. :-P

Bach asks:

Lighten up, open your mind and be tolerant…is that too much to ask?

To new ideas? No, not at all. To old descredited ideas like creationism, whatever it’s name is this year? Yes, it is too much to ask, because it is a waste of time and resources in a world with a limited amount of each. It is especially so given the complete lack of science done by the proponents of those old discredited ideas.

Bach, it would help your misbegotten charade if you were to learn how to organize your thoughts, do some research before you make accusations, and most importantly, learn how to spell correctly.

”Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Even today, geology does not show any finely graduated chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection to evolution theory.”

Feh. Who did NOT know this was from Origin of Species, since it is second only to the “eye” passage as a favorite nugget from the cretinist quote-mine.

Bach is such a classic troll! “Not a creationist”!? Lying is second-nature to them.

Thanks to trrll for this “The lack of respect genuine scientists have for ID/creationists is not due to their departure from accepted theory–it is due to the fundamental dishonesty. And you with your distortions of Darwin’s words, appear to be following along this sad path.”

Bach seems to think that a person like Behe is criticized for not “believing” an orthodoxy of evolution. This is just no way to define this situation. His science is being criticized to the point that it can not stand up as science.

The big argument that Stein et al and our friend Bach, is that they want to sell to the general public (read as less scientifically educated than scientists) is that Science is persecuting them. Expelling them. Belittling them. Conspiring to eliminate their faith. Where does this paranoia come in? I know its part biblical to feel that the true faithful must be persecuted, but why pick on science?

I for one am forever grateful to the Science and what it has done for me personally (career and health) as well as inspiring me (any thing to do with the Hubble telescope fills me with awe.) These folks just need to stick with Dyson’s two windows idea. Both religion and science look at the same world from different points of view. God does not have to be proved. Believe or don’t. Just quit trying to distort science to serve your religious ends. Leave it at that and say good evening to Mr. Bach.

– sigh– I feel like Charlie Brown, trying to kick the football.

I suppose it’s remotely possible there was a “celocantyh debacle.” I have no idea what a “celocantyh” is, so I really couldn’t say. But finding living coelacanths was certainly no debacle, as numerous people pointed out to Bach. You would think he could have at least been polite enough to correct his spelling, to show that he had read what people took the trouble to explain to him.

He started out the same way all the creo trolls do– pretending to be interested in learning something. But no. His mind is made up, and no amount of sweet reason will change it. He doesn’t understand evolution, and he doesn’t understand how science operates. And he doesn’t want to understand.

He doesn’t understand, either, what Jesus of Nazareth was trying to teach people about honesty, humility and respect for others. But I suppose that’s not our problem.

I have no idea what a “celocantyh” is,

Something fishy, no doubt.


To get back to Behe’s tenure status at Lehigh. Tenure is so important to the free propagation of ideas that we have to be prepared to tolerate a few screwballs. During my more than 30 year career in academia I have met some of those: A Holocaust denier who made detailed calculations of the duty cycle of crematory ovens An anthropologist who thought the main purpose of his discipline was to undergird the literal truth of the bible Three or four young-earth creationists in the physics department (including one who taught astronomy!) A guy who thought – and freely told his classes – that sexual relations between a professor and his student were not only proper but desirable A chemist who thought he had revolutionized elementary-particle theory with his theory of triondynamics A chemistry professor who published articles showing how the movement of women into the workplace was the cause of most of the evils of society …and several more I can’t even remember. All in all, these folks stick out like sore thumbs but constitute a small minority of faculty members. I suppose they can be compared to the small number of unfortunates who have sickle-cell anemia as a consequence of the evolution of malaria resistance in a much larger population.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Nick Matzke published on November 6, 2007 4:11 PM.

National Science Teachers Podcast was the previous entry in this blog.

Buckingham: the gift that keeps on giving is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.



Author Archives

Powered by Movable Type 4.361

Site Meter