Behe demolishes Darwin (yet again!)

Michael Behe has a new book coming out, Darwin Devolves, which according to the mendaciously mislabelled Evolution News “Topples Foundational Claim of Evolutionary Theory.” I am unlikely to be sent a review copy, so I am relying on the Evolution News summary.

In brief, Behe continues to assert the existence of irreducible complexity in animal organs, while maintaining that

Darwinian evolution proceeds mainly by damaging or breaking genes, which, counter-intuitively, sometimes helps survival. In other words, the mechanism is powerfully de-volutionary. It promotes the rapid loss of genetic information.

and encapsulates this conclusion in what he calls the First Rule of Adaptive Evolution:

Break or blunt any gene whose loss would increase the number of offspring.

I reviewed Behe’s earlier statement of this Rule some years ago, in PandasThumb, and friends have suggested that I repost it. So here it is. (I am proud to say that it has already been reposted by Peaceful Science.

Since this First Rule of Adaptive Evolution, the pinnacle of Behe’s argument, was already spelt out in the earlier work, there is little that I need add to my original review below, beyond pointing out that even this puny statement of the obvious came with a debilitating disclaimer

It is called a “rule” in the sense of being a rule of thumb. It is a heuristic, useful generalization, rather than a strict law; other circumstances being equal, this is what is usually to be expected in adaptive evolution

and reminding Behe that he is himself the product of a massive increase in genetic complexity, the doubling and redoubling of the genome that separates him from his early notochord ancestors.  The original review follows [note: in that review I referred to “E.Coli acquiring the ability to metabolise citrate under anaerobic conditions”; that should be “aerobic conditions, in the absence of a reducing agent”. h/t Monica Lewis. this does not, however, affect the logic of the argument]:

Behe’s review in context, or what’s the point?

The Panda's ThumbAs you know by now, Behe has actually had a paper published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal (Behe M.J., Quarterly Review of Biology 85(4), 2010, 419-415). Well, not exactly a paper, more of a literature review. Well, not exactly a literature review, more a review of previous reviews, reinterpreting their findings according to his own criteria. The publication itself is shoddy piece of work. I have written numerous reviews myself, and would never have dreamed of basing them on earlier reviews, rather than my own up-to-date literature search. But let that pass.

Behe constructs an elaborate apparatus for classifying mutations as “gain”, “modification”, or “loss” of what he calls a Functional Coded Element (FCT). The definition is skewed to make “gain” as difficult to prove as possible. The process needs to be understood at the molecular level, rather than simply in terms of phenotype expression. This enables him to dismiss as of unproven relevance the Lenski group’s famous demonstration of E.Coli acquiring the ability to metabolise citrate under anaerobic conditions [correction; tht should have been “under aerobic conditions, in the absence of a reducing agent]. Moreover, advantageous removal of inhibition is treated as “loss”, but advantageous disruption of a function by IS duplication and insertion is classified as “modification”, rather than “gain”. Using these restrictive and asymmetric criteria, Behe classifies most sufficiently well-understood mutations in laboratory-bred bacteria as loss or modification, although he does recognise a few gains.

Why bother with this eccentric-seeming enterprise? Here we need to look at the broader context of Behe’s involvement with the Discovery Institute.

The context makes him a colleague of William Dembski, who notoriously claims that undirected evolution cannot even in principle generate novel information. So Behe is concerned to minimise the importance of cases where evolution has demonstrably done just that. The techniques he uses invite analysis along the lines of the deconstruction by Boudry et al. of creationist strategy, which (through good luck, or cruel judgement, who knows?) appeared in the same issue of Quarterly Review of Biology as the article under discussion. (Boudry M., Blancke S., Braeckman J., Quarterly Review of Biology 85(4), 2010, 473-482.)

The advocates of supernatural causation start with the bold initial claim: that organisms cannot acquire new functions by natural processes, since new information cannot be generated without the intervention of an intelligence. Notice that this is a claim that such things cannot happen, even in principle.

But there are numerous well-known counterexamples, many of them discussed in this review.

The next stage is rhetorical dismissal of such counterexamples. Here the strategies include limiting the search (ignoring the massive creative role of gene duplication and polyploidy in eukaryotes, and of horizontal transfer followed by selection in bacteria themselves), narrowing the criteria (new functions don’t count unless they can be demonstrated to arise from additions, rather than any other kinds of alterations, to the molecular machinery), and inventing additional constraints (creation of a new category, the FCT, classifying the process as a loss if either material or function is lost at any stage in the change being discussed, dismissing changes in function as mere transformations, rather than novelties). This stage switches the emphasis from what is possible in principle, to the demand that each case be demonstrated in practice, and fully analysed in detail, at the molecular level.

Finally, any counterexamples still surviving this moving of the goalposts and restricting and tilting of the playing field are dismissed as untypical, and therefore unimportant. Another leap of logic, as the present case shows. For even if losses (according to Behe’s criteria) outnumber gains, losses are in general unlikely to be dramatic without being lethal—there are some obvious well-known exceptions, such as the evolution of parasitism—whereas dramatic gains such as gene duplication, horizontal gene transfer, or polyploidy, can and do have the most profound effects imaginable.

The whole process is a study in indirection, closely related to the technique of the stage magician. We are supposed to nod our heads wisely, and agree that real and difficult problems have been raised, rather than noticing displacement of our attention away from the initial claim. This, let me remind you, was that something is impossible even in principle, and was more than adequately refuted by the very first counterexample.

The ultimate in indirection is the promulgation of a new rule, rising phoenix-like from the ashes of the old, while pretending to the same level of significance. In the present case we have, to quote the article’s peroration:

This reasoning can be concisely stated as what I call “The First Rule of Adaptive Evolution”:

Break or blunt any functional coded element whose loss would yield a net fitness gain.

It is called a “rule” in the sense of being a rule of thumb. It is a heuristic, useful generalization, rather than a strict law; other circumstances being equal, this is what is usually to be expected in adaptive evolution. (Emphasis in the original)

In other words, when it is advantageous to lose an element of the molecular machinery, selection pressures are likely to lead to its loss.

Did we really need 27 pages of prime journal space to tell us this?

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on November 27, 2018, in Darwin, Evolution, Science and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. If they didn’t try to pollute kids minds, Creationists arguments can be incredibly amusing.


  2. Two articles on so-called “orphan genes” demonstrate how selective Behe is.
    New “information” in the form of de novo genes arise frequently in non-coding regions of DNA.

    The life cycle of Drosophila orphan genes
    Nicola Palmieri, Carolin Kosiol, Christian Schlötterer
    eLIFE Feb 19, 2014

    Origin and Spread of de Novo Genes in Drosophila melanogaster Populations
    Li Zhao, Perot Saelao, Corbin D. Jones, David J. Begun,
    Science 14 Feb 2014:
    Vol. 343, Issue 6172, pp. 769-772

    Carl Zimmer has a nice popular article in the NYTimes

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am pretty sure this video from the Discovery Institute is the very definition of ironic; Stephen Meyer assumes evolution to be true and uses the tools of evolutionary biology to conclude the bacterial flagellum could not evolve and had to be intelligently designed.


  4. Amazing isn’t it? Behe discover evolution works by modifying the genomes of the previously existing generation. Something the rest of science has known for almost 70 years. And still they wonder why they are referred to as IDiots.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin and commented:
    Michael Behe hasn’t changed his tune (mostly wrong notes!) since he publish Darwin’s Black Box in 1996. his is a god of the Gaps argument and can be summed up as godofthegapswrappedupin amino acids.

    Iintelligent Design has been a failure


  6. Dr. Braterman, shouldn’t the above read “E.Coli acquiring the ability to metabolise citrate under aerobic conditions” and not anaerobic? Wikipedia states that the inability to grow aerobically on citrate is a defining characteristic of E. coli. Or am I reading this wrong?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Indeed, as I understand it, wild type E. coli can as you say metabolise citrate aerobically. It is the ability to metabolise it anaerobically that Lenski’s modified strain had acquired.


    • I think it’s the reverse: “The inability to grow aerobically on citrate, referred to as a Cit− phenotype, is considered a defining characteristic of E. coli as a species”

      Anaerobic metabolism is natural to the wild type while aerobic citrate metabilism is the evolved trait. I’m seeing a contradiction with what you are saying and with what I’m reading about regarding Lenski’s experiment and it’s very confusing.

      Thanks for your help


  8. Ok thank you! I just want to make sure I’m understanding this stuff so I can answer the creationists in the event these topics are brought up again in defense of Behe.


    • My thanks to you for correcting my own muddle. Behe ties himself in knots trying to trash Lenski. (Definition of chutzpah; an ant climbing up an elephant’s leg,with intent to rape) The big ones here are gene duplication followed by divergence in function, and the emergence of orphan genes from the junk (see excellent Zimmer article that Michael Fugate links to in the Comments). My favourite is gene duplication followed by the emergence of red-green colour vision; if that doesn’t qualifiy as new information,what possibly could?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Woah- gene duplication needs a new binding site. And then to change its function it will need several specific mutations. Yet the paper “Waiting for TWO Mutations” says that is far out of the reach of natural selection and drift.


      • For the avoidance of tedium, I ration creationists here to two comments, but because you were so quick off the mark I’m letting you keep three. The well-known fallacies in the Axe-Behe-Dembski school of probabilistic analysis are to assume that all steps have to happen at once, and that there is only one way to skin a cat. Why these are fallacies I leave to the readers

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Attack Dr. Behe and ID all you want. That will never provide any support for your position’s claims. Intelligent Design is NOT anti-evolution. Perhaps you should first educate yourselves into what you are trying to argue against. Or better yet find some evidence that actually supports your position along with a methodology to test your claims. That would be a start.

    ID exists in large part to the total failure of evolutionists to find anything that supports them. And by the way, ID does not require supernatural causation.


    • Eyes they have, and see not


      • True, you have eyes and cannot see. Good call. On the other hand I was an evolutionist until I started looking at the evidence. Your position doesn’t have any. You don’t even know how to test the claim that ATP synthase evolved by means of natural selection and drift. But I am sure that won’t deter you.


    • If you are racing against no one, you don’t need to be very good to win. If you can increase catalysis by the tiniest fraction, you get selected. You don’t need perfection – not even close, just to be better than nothing.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Joe G.
      Could you tell me what ID is? I’d really like to know.

      “Intelligent Design is NOT anti-evolution.”

      Good to know. But what is it then?

      “Perhaps you should first educate yourselves into what you are trying to argue against.”

      You’ve done that, right? Excellent. That puts you ahead from the start.
      So…what is ID?

      “Or better yet find some evidence that actually supports your position…”

      So…that means you have evidence to support your position?
      What is it exactly? Spell it out for us what it means for you since you’ve taken the time to educate yourself and you have (presumably) evidence to support your position.

      “ID exists in large part to the total failure….”

      Nope. No scientific theory exists due to total, partial or even itty-bitty failure of an other scientific theory. That’s not the way scientific theories have ever worked.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I don’t know much about science , but I know sarcasm when I see it. The “educate yourself” phrase is a marker of someone pretending superior knowledge.


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