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From Intelligent Design to BioLogos, Part 4: Reading Behe

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August 18, 2011 Tags: Design, Lives of Faith

Today's entry was written by Dennis Venema. You can read more about what we believe here.

From Intelligent Design to BioLogos, Part 4: Reading Behe

For those familiar with my work here at Biologos, it might come as a surprise to know that until relatively recently I was a supporter of the Intelligent Design Movement (IDM). In this series of posts, I tell the story of my transition to the view that God uses evolution as a creative mechanism. In the third post in this series, I described how I had been invited to write an essay on “Christianity and Biology” for an edited volume, and simultaneously thrown into a crash-course on the Kitzmiller trial that tested the constitutionality of teaching Intelligent Design (ID) in the U.S. public school system. In this post, I describe my second encounter with the work of Michael Behe, a leading proponent of ID whose work I had found so compelling in the past.

Upon returning from the conference, I set to work on revising the essay. It turned out to be a lot more work than I had expected: in the end, only 10% of the original piece remained. The original had also avoided the creation / evolution issue almost completely, so there was lots to be done. As I had decided, I intended to start my research by reading Behe’s then-new book Edge of Evolution (EoE). I wanted to give the ID movement a fair chance to make its best case before I looked into the evidence for evolution. I checked with my pro-ID colleague down the hall, and sure enough he had a copy I could borrow. I poured myself a cup of coffee, closed my office door, readied note pad and paper, and settled in.

Losing my (ID) religion

To this day I wish I could have recorded myself reading those opening chapters of EoE. It was not long before the first suggestion of a frown would appear. Not many pages hence the frown would deepen into a furrow. I could hardly believe what I was reading: where was the Behe of Darwin’s Black Box that had so captivated me years ago? Though it is not polite to recount it (and I want to be clear that I hold no animosity towards Dr. Behe, but merely want to share my initial reaction) I clearly recall putting EoE down on my desk thinking, “What is this?” I was shocked: I had fully expected to once again be amazed and amused watching Behe take evolution down a peg or two. Yet here I was, knowing virtually nothing of evolution, and already I was seeing nothing but holes in Behe’s argument. Later on, when Behe began to discuss a topic I was familiar with (population genetics) I confirmed what I suspected: Behe was out of his area of specialty and out of his depth. Later work would convince me that this pattern applied to the whole of the book and the core of Behe’s arguments. My note pad was filling up, but not with what I had expected.

Before I had finished Edge of Evolution, I was done with ID. I would lose my faith in ID not by comparing it to the science of evolution, but by reading one of its leading proponents and evaluating his work on its own merits. ID, I decided, was an argument from analogy, ignorance and incredulity. I was looking for an argument from evidence. Due to an interesting set of circumstances, I was able to read Behe both as a credulous lay reader and as a skeptical trained scientist. Behe, I realized, hadn’t changed: I had changed, and what a difference it had made.

Gaining Evolutionary Creation

Having rejected ID, I began to look into the evidence for evolution. I can also clearly recall this transition, and, if memory serves, it happened on the same day I rejected ID. This transition, however, required only ten or fifteen minutes - just as long as I needed to read the first research article on my reading list: the 2005 Nature paper comparing the human and chimpanzee genomes. I put the finished paper down on my desk, said “well, that’s that, then” out loud to my empty office, and sat back in my chair. The contrast with ID could hardly have been starker: here was nothing but argument from evidence. As a geneticist, I was fully capable of evaluating that evidence, and it was compelling. Humans and chimps were close relatives, and I was no longer an anti-evolutionist. Game, set, match. Moreover, my eyes were now open to the wonder and scope of evolution as a foundational theory of biology: everywhere I looked, evolution informed what I knew, whether in cell biology, genetics, immunology or developmental biology. In an instant, the pieces clicked together, and I reveled in the deeper understanding.

As the essay took shape, I was able to put my brand-new outlook on to paper in a coherent form. As I knew, other Christians had walked this road before, and I found two books especially helpful: Finding Darwin’s God by Ken Miller, and The Language of God by Francis Collins. Though colleagues at TWU counseled against being “too open” about my new views, I was determined that the essay reflect what I thought to be the best way to put science and faith together. In the end, the essay would receive positive reviews despite its embrace of evolution as one of God’s creative mechanisms, and its lack of support for the Intelligent Design movement, Young-Earth creationism or Old-Earth creationism. For better or for worse, I had nailed my colors to the mast.

Looking forward, looking back

Though I didn’t know it then, the coming years would provide additional opportunities for engaging science-faith issues. What I had previously largely avoided was now an area of interest, and a natural fit for both my training in the sciences and my commitment to evangelical Christianity. It would also provide an opportunity to make amends for a previous mistake: a story I will relate in the next, and final, segment in this series.


Dennis Venema is professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. He holds a B.Sc. (with Honors) from the University of British Columbia (1996), and received his Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in 2003. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signaling using the common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism. Dennis is a gifted thinker and writer on matters of science and faith, but also an award-winning biology teacher—he won the 2008 College Biology Teaching Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers. He and his family enjoy numerous outdoor activities that the Canadian Pacific coast region has to offer. Dennis writes regularly for the BioLogos Forum about the biological evidence for evolution.

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Uncle Bonobo - #64158

August 22nd 2011

I’ve already addressed Bilbo’s comments.  Behe’s common descent argument is inconsistent with his argument that there’s an “edge to evolution.”

Behe apparently is simutaneously suggesting that all living things are related by common dsecent but that evolution from common ancestors is not popssible by merely natural means, requiring a vast number of supernatural interventions.  As he says, malaria is designed.  How then does he reconcile “designed’ maraia with the claim that malaria and humans both share a common ancestor? 

Boes Bilbo agree that all living creatures today descended form a small pool of common ancstors?  Onther than Behe, no other ID supporter agrees with that proposition.


beaglelady - #64164

August 22nd 2011

I suggest that Dennis’s continued refusal to admit this means that he is
engaged in duplicitous behavior, which I am beginning to believe is
rather common among the members and guest contributors of Biologos.


That’s quite an accusation! It’s likely that Dennis stopped reading this thread after a few days and is working on his next post.


Dennis Venema - #64169

August 22nd 2011

Hi Bilbo, 


I haven’t been following this thread much because I have a pressing family matter I am attending to (and have been for several weeks, and will be for the next few weeks as well ). I certainly never meant to imply that Behe rejects common descent - as Darrel notes correctly above, it is well known that he accepts it. Don’t forget, Behe claims that common descent is a “trivial” matter (going off memory here, don’t hold me to a direct quote) in EoE. I certainly don’t consider common ancestry to be a “core argument” of EoE, and I’d be surprised if Behe did himself. 

Best,

Dennis

Uncle Bonobo - #64166

August 22nd 2011

“Nor have you explained why a vast series of supernatural events would not be a satisfactory position.”

Not shoud I have to.  The history of science is replete with instances of replacing supernatural explanations for observed phenomona with natural explanations that work better.  Posidon no longer controls the tides. Jupiter’s thunderbolts now have a natural explanaiton.  Tlaloc no longer brings rain.  Zerachiel no longer sheperds the planets in their orbits.  In every instance where supernatural explanations for events have been called into doubt, those explanaitons have been replaced by natural ones.  There has never been an instance where natural explanations have been replaced by supernatural explanations.


Behe’s “series of miracles” is not science.  It is no better than ESP, astrology, voodoo or UFO abductions.


Bilbo - #64213

August 24th 2011

Dennis:  “I certainly never meant to imply that Behe rejects common descent - as
Darrel notes correctly above, it is well known that he accepts it.”

Then you need to explain why you wrote this:

“This transition, however, required only ten or fifteen minutes - just
as long as I needed to read the first research article on my reading
list: the 2005 Nature paper comparing the human and chimpanzee
genomes. I put the finished paper down on my desk, said “well, that’s
that, then” out loud to my empty office, and sat back in my chair. The
contrast with ID could hardly have been starker: here was nothing but
argument from evidence.”

Since Behe argued from comparison of the human and chimpanzee genomes that they had a common ancestor, what exactly is the stark contrast between the Nature paper and Behe’s argument?  I expect that there wasn’t a stark contrast.  I expect that you hoped your readers (such as Christine here) weren’t aware that Behe made such a comparison and argued from the “evidence,”  just as the Nature paper did.  I expect that you have an axe to grind against Behe and ID and will use any means at your disposal to try to make both of them look bad. 


Alan Fox - #64228

August 25th 2011

i>I expect that you have an axe to grind against Behe and ID and will use any means at your disposal to try to make both of them look bad. 

br>
Bilbo, really! Behe and the rest of the ID movement don’t need any help in this area.

Bilbo - #64214

August 24th 2011

Uncle Bo:  “Behe apparently is simutaneously suggesting that all living things
are related by common dsecent but that evolution from common ancestors
is not popssible by merely natural means, requiring a vast number of
supernatural interventions.  As he says, malaria is designed.  How then
does he reconcile “designed’ maraia with the claim that malaria and
humans both share a common ancestor? “

By claiming that not all the mutations that resulted in malaria and humans were random with respect to nature.  Once again, Uncle Bo, there is no inconsistency. 

“Boes Bilbo agree that all
living creatures today descended form a small pool of common ancstors? 
Onther than Behe, no other ID supporter agrees with that proposition.”

Yes, I think the evidence supports the view that all living creatures are descended from a small pool of common ancestors.  It’s probably more accurate to say that no other leaders in the ID movement agree with that proposition.  Mike Gene accepts common descent, though he wouldn’t identify himself with the ID movement.  And there are other ID proponents who accept common descent. 

“The history of science is replete with instances of replacing
supernatural explanations for observed phenomona with natural
explanations that work better….  There has never been an instance where natural
explanations have been replaced by supernatural explanations.”

We once thought that all swans were white, also. 

“Behe’s
“series of miracles” is not science.  It is no better than ESP,
astrology, voodoo or UFO abductions.


Behe offers a different solution in EoE than a series of miracles:  one where the designer (the “uberphysicist”) chooses to actualize one of the few possible universes where all the right mutations occur.  If such a scenario were possible, there would be no “series of miracles.”  

Whether or not ID is science doesn’t concern me.  The question is whether or not ID is the best explanation for the origin of life and possibly for its evolution.  I think the answer is yes.


Alan Fox - #64229

August 25th 2011

<i>The question is whether or not ID is the best explanation for the origin of life and possibly for its evolution.  I think the answer is yes.</i>

br>
Well as evolution does not attempt to nor is intended to explain the origin of life on Earth, of course it is no explanation at all for the arrival of living things on Earth. I am puzzled that you say ID has an explanation for the OOL. Can you link me to a good summary? I am also puzzled that you suggest ID have an explanation for the observed facts of evolution on Earth. Where do I find that?

Alan Fox - #64230

August 25th 2011

Beaglelady, thanks for pointing out the “red X” button. I think the software here demonstrates stochastic events amazingly well!


Uncle Bonobo - #64241

August 25th 2011

“Behe offers a different solution in EoE than a series of miracles:  one where the designer (the “uberphysicist”) chooses to actualize one of the few possible universes where all the right mutations occur.”

In that case, there’s no need for intellgent design at all.  The rules of this universe dictate the result once the pre-universe selection was made.  We study those rules.  We include them in the theory of evolution.

“We once thought that all swans were white, also.” 

I’m disappionted in this intellectually dishonest non-sequitur.  Did black swans somehow become supernatural? 


Bilbo - #64269

August 26th 2011

Alan:  “ I am puzzled that you say ID has an
explanation for the OOL. Can you link me to a good summary?”

ID is the explanation:  Some form of intelligence that was able to cause (directly or indirectly) the precise arrangement of parts of the first living cells.

 “I am also
puzzled that you suggest ID have an explanation for the observed facts
of evolution on Earth. Where do I find that?”

I think there is more doubt about ID being the best explanation for evolution.  If Behe’s argument is right (note the “if”), the once again, ID says that there was some intelligence that was able to cause (directly or indirectly) the needed non-random mutations in evolution.

You will probably be disappointed that I am not being more specific as to what form of intelligence.  That’s because I do not think there is enough evidence to help us decide.  The atheist Fred Hoyle seemed to think that it was ETs.  I (and most IDists) tend to think that it was God, at least for the most part.


Bilbo - #64270

August 26th 2011

Uncle Bo: “In that case, there’s no need for intellgent design at all.  The rules
of this universe dictate the result once the pre-universe selection was
made.  We study those rules.  We include them in the theory of
evolution.”

Behe’s point was that the needed mutations (or simultaneous or series of mutations needed) were too improbable to happen without someone making sure that they did.  When that “someone” ensured that they would happen is a secondary question.

“I’m
disappionted in this intellectually dishonest non-sequitur.  Did black
swans somehow become supernatural? “

Sorry, my fault for not making myself clear.  You offered an inductive argument against supernatural intervention, based on previous success of coming up with natural explanations.  My point was that an inductive argument is just that:  inductive.  Simply because science has always come up with natural explanations in the past does not guarantee that it will come up with natural explanations in the future. 


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