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July 7, 2004 9:50 PM

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Darwin's Black Box
by Michael J. Behe

The Blind Watchmaker
by Richard Dawkins

Quantum Evolution
by Johnjoe McFadden

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Evolutionary Responses - Part I

by Andrew Zimmerman Jones


I have watched and listened with interest to the response to my article in the October issue. My response, unfortunately, has been delayed due to the holiday season, my own procrastination, and further review of the subject.

Previously On...
Neo-Darwinian evolution runs on the premise of gradual, stepwise, random mutations. As these mutations occur, some lead to a better chance of survival, some to a worse chance. The ones that lead to a worse chance are weeded out because the lifeforms that have them tend to die before they can reproduce (a process known as natural selection).

There has long been an argument along the lines of "What use is half a wing?" These arguments have been well dealt with, because even a flap of skin provides some minor benefit, as demonstrated by flying squirrels.
From a biochemical standpoint (as presented in Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box) the situation gets more complex. Looking at certain systems biochemically (i.e. Cilia, blood clotting, immune system, and cellular reproduction itself), Behe makes the case that there is a certain point below which the system does nothing at all. These systems are "irreducibly complex." These systems function like elaborate Rube Goldberg machines, and if one component is taken out the whole system falls apart. If this is true, then where did the original, most basic forms of these systems come from?

In other words: Biochemistry leads to the understanding that what were viewed as tiny steps now appear to require - at some point during their development - a giant leap. Neo-Darwinism does not allow for giant leaps as part of the theory.

The Blind Zoologist
Frank G. Pollard recommended Dawkins' book as an argument against the idea of irreducible complexity. There are a number of ways in which The Blind Watchmaker is a poor counter.

First, Dawkins' book was published in 1986. Behe's was published in 1996. Behe's book refers to Watchmaker and was written in part to refute it. To my knowledge, no book has come out on the topic to refute Behe.

Second, The Blind Watchmaker is a work of propoganda. This isn't just my opinion - Dawkins states so quite clearly at the beginning. Similarly, Frank's first letter claimed that Behe is telling creationists what they want. Dawkins is writing to tell evolutionists what they want. The intentions behind the writing have no bearing on the arguments' merits.

Third, Dawkins often seems to base his view of facts on his opinions, rather than basing his opinions on the facts. His logic frequently forms circles of the type: Because of natural selection, we see that this series of events is what brought this body part into form. Because this body part exists, therefore, we see that natural selection is the only explanation.

These circular arguments are common in evolutionary science (and in their creationist counterparts). Most of the articles in the Journal of Molecular Evolution take an assumption of neo-Darwinism, model based on that, and use it to support neo-Darwinism. (Behe's description of the precise ways this is done is nicely detailed, but I won't bore you here.)

Dawkins even goes to the extent of saying that evolutionists "despise ... scientific creationists..." Such comments do not make for objective, open-minded science.

Dawkins writes with the tone of a man who knows that the scientific community will stand behind him. Behe is equally aware that the people who read his work will try to find any hole, so he is much more meticulous in his approach.

Incredulity and Imperfection
At one point, Dawkins berates a form of argument that creationists use, which he terms the "Argument from Personal Incredulity." The argument, when used by creationists, uses terms like "it is hard to understand," "it is absurd to believe," "I cannot see how," and the like. This is a bad argument - even when used by evolutionists.

From an evolutionist, the argument "I can't believe that an intelligent designer would do this" (which Dawkins does use) is simply the Argument from Personal Incredulity turned to their advantage. It holds no more value for them than it does for creationists. Behe refers to this argument, on the part of evolutionists, as the "Argument from Imperfection." Because life is not perfect, they say, there cannot be an intelligent designer behind it.
In short, the Argument from Imperfection implies an understanding of the designer's motivations and capabilities. From that is extrapolated a contradiction. The problem lies in that we only assume we could have such an understanding.

For an example, I'll start with an assumption. "Parents do not beat their children." We begin with this assumption, but we know that, in fact, some children are beaten. Therefore, we can conclude that "Parents do not exist." Granted, this is an obviously faulty argument. It is faulty because my initial assumption is incorrect. (We will ignore whether these people deserve to be called parents.)

But, if I went out on the street, and randomly asked people in a survey to describe parents, I consider it reasonable that very few people would say "Someone who beats their child." In fact, most people would probably list traits of parents that are inconsistent with someone who beats children. Perhaps I am not being cynical enough, and most people would list a whole litany of horrid traits parents possess. It would, largely, depend on who you asked.

Similarly, just because a majority of people make assumptions about the qualities a designer would need doesn't mean that they are correct in those assumptions. Whether or not the designer is omniscient, we know that we are not.

Fields of Interest
Dawkins is a zoologist, not a biochemist.

Behe's affront to neo-Darwinism is founded entirely on biochemistry. He does not despise people who believe in evolution because, until the current understanding of biochemistry, it made perfect sense.

In his book, Dawkins clearly states that he has virtually no knowledge of biochemistry. There are two specific points where it comes up, and in both he refers to consulting a colleague about the specifics. (Neither of the references have any bearing on the systems that Behe discusses.)

I was asked if Behe is a working scientist. As a fan of science fiction and philosophy, I've come across many cases where people who are not working scientists have profound insights. Regardless, it is a perfectly valid point that should be addressed.

Michael Behe is a professor at Lehigh University, a private university in Pennsylvania. He has been published in the Journal of Molecular Biology, DNA Sequence, and at least one other journal. His work seems to be mostly devoted to DNA analysis. The Lehigh University website (http://www.lehigh.edu/~inbios/behe.html) has a link to faculty pages, and contains an overview of the research that he is performing.

In short, Behe is a working scientist, and he works in precisely the field that he is writing about. Dawkins is a world renowned zoologist and evolutionary biologist - but he is admittedly not an expert in biochemistry. Their work deals with different orders of magnitude and, to paraphrase a famous saying, "The designer is in the details."

Evolutionary Findings
Prior to researching the last article, I was a firm believer in neo-Darwinism. Looking into the matter more closely, one discovers how few facts (and how much conjecture) there is in the theory of evolution.

What has the study of evolution (and paleontology) actually discovered? Quite a lot. Enough, at the very least, to anger people who want to take Genesis word for word.

We know that there was not one specific time when all current lifeforms were snapped into being out of the primordial clay. There was a point in time where all life on the planet was single-celled. Later on, it was multi-cellular. Still later, there developed lifeforms more complex, with organs, bone structures, and the like. These lifeforms changed further over time, developing into either new species or variations of the old ones. There were several points in our history where there were mass extinctions. Life replicates through DNA strands, which are incredibly complex and can mutate. Testing on these DNA strands show statistical similarities between the known species on the planet, including humans. It is so improbable that these similarities are coincidental that it is virtually impossible. Oh, yes, and the world is much older than 6,000 years. These are the facts, and they are undisputed ... at least by me.

So, we now have the parameters. Any alternative theory of evolution would necessarily have to accommodate these facts.

In addition, a complete theory of evolution would have to also explain how the complex biochemical systems came into being. If we truly understood the origin and development of life, it seems clear that we would be able to create it. As of now, we still don't even really understand how to go about it. As Johnjoe McFadden says, "... we have not succeeded, despite numerous attempts, synthesizing life in the laboratory.... [scientists] cannot achieve what the lowliest life forms on Earth manage with ease: make life. Our failure to put the ingredients of life together and obtain anything living suggests something must be missing from our list."

The origin of life still, despite all the success of evolution theory, amounts to nodding sagely and saying, "Then a miracle occurred." Next month, we'll delve briefly into alternatives that fit these minimum requirements.

© 2001 by Andrew Zimmerman Jones