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The Skeptical Biochemist: Is There an Edge to Evolution? Part 1

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October 16, 2010 Tags: Design
The Skeptical Biochemist: Is There an Edge to Evolution? Part 1

Today's entry was written by David Ussery. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

An Analysis of Michael Behe’s book, The Edge of Evolution

In the 12th century, the Danish king set aside a large area of forest along the eastern coast of the island of Zealand, as a Royal Hunting grounds. The area was fenced-off a few hundred years later, and is now open to the public. Fortunately for me, I live close to the “Deer Park,” and early in the morning, before many people get out of bed, I go for a run there. I am often truly impressed by what I see in nature, such as the majestic stare of a stag looking at me, as I go by, or the noise and sight of a flock of geese flying overhead. As an individual, I have no problem saying that what we see around us can point towards transcendence – there is grandeur and beauty. When discussing the Intelligent Design movement with my oldest brother, Steve, he asked me what was wrong with the idea that we can see God in nature—that is, that the goodness and design we see around us is surely an argument pointing towards God. I told him I don't have problems with this line of thinking. Having thought about this some, I realized that this idea is very common in the Bible, and for example Jesus often seemed to point to this in parables. However, as a scientist, I am deeply skeptical of claims that one can use science to somehow ‘prove’ God exists (or to ‘prove’ there is no God, for that matter). In 1661, around the same time the Danish king fenced-off the area around the “Deer Park,” one of the first chemists, Robert Boyle, wrote a book called The Sceptical Chemist. (Hence the title of this review.) Boyle was a devout Christian as well as a very good scientist; I will come back to Boyle later.

This brings me to mention the target audience of this review. Of course anyone can read this, but it is intended mainly for educated readers who are interested in the science/religion dialogue, and in particular are interested in Intelligent Design, and either have read or want to read The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, by Michael Behe (Free Press, New York, 2007). I have heard from some of my friends and family that they find this book “convincing” from a scientific point of view. Before I go into a discussion of the book, I want to give the reader a bit more perspective about myself. I grew up in Springdale, Arkansas, and am the youngest of five children. Some (not all) of the members of my family are “young earth creationists,” that is, they think that the world is less than 10,000 years old. I first heard of Mike Behe about 25 years ago, when I was a Ph.D. student, working on showing that alternative DNA helical structures could exist inside of living cells. Behe had published a paper with Gary Felsenfeld, showing that methylation of certain DNA sequences could greatly facilitate the formation of left-handed Z-DNA, and that Z-DNA did not like to be wrapped around the nucleosome. Probably for most people, that last sentence doesn't make much sense, but for me, this was a paper that I was very fond of, as these results pointed in the direction of perhaps some sort of biological meaning. I eventually got my Ph.D. (in biochemistry/molecular biology from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine), did a post-doc at the Institute of Molecular Medicine, Oxford University, and about 12 years ago moved to Denmark, where I have been the leader of the comparative microbial genomics group at CBS (the Center for Biological Sequence analysis, a bioinformatics center in the Department of Systems Biology, at the Technical University of Denmark).

Now that I've laid down my philosophical and personal perspective I can get on with the review. I feel that this is a necessary background as, after I reviewed Darwin's Black Box more than 10 years ago, I was accused by several readers of being critical of Behe not based on the science, but because I “wanted to promote atheism,” which is certainly not the case. I will struggle to give what is written in Edge of Evolution a fair hearing - let's see how well the scientific evidence supports what is written in the book.

First, I want to start on a positive note - there are (at least) two things that I liked about the book:

  1. Behe does a good job of describing the logical outcome of thinking in contemporary molecular biology. For example, IF in fact DNA is really some sort of computer code, where did this information come from, how is it maintained, and Who wrote it? IF in fact the mutational frequency of DNA is in the range of 1 change per hundred million base-pairs (that is, the DNA polymerase incorporates the “wrong” base about once ever hundred million times), then how can we explain the incredible diversity we see around us?

  2. Behe is writing from the point of view of a non-materialist. Thus, he seems to think that there is more to the world than what we see around us, and this is in contrast to many other vocal atheistic scientists

I will now make my way through the text, in order of the chapters. In my opinion, the book starts well, and then begins to veer off in strange directions - but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Chapter 1 - The Elements of Darwinism

I agree with Behe when he says that “Darwin's theory has to be sifted carefully, because it's actually a mixture of several, unrelated, entirely separate ideas”: random mutation, natural selection, and common descent. He then goes on to say that of the latter, “in brief, the evidence for common descent seems compelling,” but that he feels “random mutation is extremely limited.” Later in this chapter, he states “Evolution from a common ancestor, via changes in DNA, is VERY well supported. It may or may not be random.” [page 12, emphasis in the original] This will in fact be the main focus of the rest of the book - whether “random mutation” alone can generate enough diversity on which natural selection can work , in order for evolution to occur. So just to flesh this out a bit—in Behe's defense, clearly he is not a “young earth” creationist, who thinks that the world is less than 10,000 years old. He has no problem with the world being about 4.5 billion years old, and life slowly evolving from the first single-cell bacteria appearing almost as soon as fossils could form, through another 4 billion years as mostly single-celled or tiny microscopic organisms, and the very recent appearance of larger plants and animals a bit less than a half-billion years ago. This is all fine and accepted to be true—it is just the MECHANISM for how this might have happened that is being considered. Just as a minor point, one thing in this chapter that is stated as fact, isn't quite right in my opinion—“By far the most critical aspect of Darwin's multifaceted theory is the role of random mutation. Almost all of what is novel and important in Darwinian thought is concentrated in this third concept.” Perhaps this is true today, but certainly when Darwin published his Origin of Species, the critical novel, important and new idea, in contrast to the current thought, was that of common descent—in fact Darwin hadn't a clue about HOW diversity was generated, but the whole point of his book was to demonstrate the evidence for natural selection and change of species (common descent) over time, in contrast to the idea that each individual species had been recently created by God, a few thousand years ago. And common descent, Behe admits, is supported by “compelling evidence”—so we are in agreement here. Evolution has happened over billions of years, and there is “compelling evidence” for evolution by common descent.

In my next post we will examine where Behe and I part company.

David Ussery is an associate professor of comparative microbial genomics at the Center for Biological Sequence Analysis at the Technical University of Denmark and on the faculty at the University in Oslo, Norway. Ussery is the co-author of Computing for Comparative Microbial Genomics and has authored or co-authored 130 articles for science and professional journals. He is also a frequent public speaker on the topic of bacterial genomics.

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Darrel Falk - #34892

October 16th 2010

As we start this series, I would like to make one request.  If anyone knows of a person who holds a faculty position in a Department of Biology (or its equivalent) in a research university anywhere in the world who would disagree with the science in Dr. Ussery’s posts,  please have them contact us at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).  We are not aware of one person out of the tens of thousands of biologists who hold faculty positions of that sort, who would disagree with the assertions made by Dr. Ussery in this series.  If we can identify anyone in this category, we will let you know. 

We make this point, because some have proposed there is controversy within the discipline of biology about evolution—i.e.some think that Behe’s ideas may well be held by other reputable biologists.  if they are, we want to bring the controversy (among those who hold biology faculty appointments) to the forefront.  This is just the first of a multi-part series, the next of which will be posted on Monday.  Please stay tuned.

Thanks for your help on this matter.

Darrel Falk,
President, The BioLogos Foundation

pds - #34920

October 16th 2010


Will you be inviting Prof. Behe to respond?

Bilbo - #34922

October 16th 2010

Ussery:  “...but certainly when Darwin published his Origin of Species, the critical novel, important and new idea, in contrast to the current thought, was that of common descent….

I don’t believe this is correct.  I’m pretty sure the idea of common descent had already been proposed some time earlier.  Darwin’s new idea was natural selection acting upon variation.  He didn’t know what caused variation, but believed that it was not directed.

Bilbo - #34923

October 16th 2010


Would Lynn Margulis and James Shapiro count?  Neither one of them thinks neo-Darwinism can account for most of evolution.  And though their arguments are not as detailed and specific as Behe’s, it is clear that their rejection of neo-Darwinism is for the same reasons.

Bilbo - #34924

October 16th 2010

Oops.  I’m sorry.  I keep misspelling “Darrel.”  Not on purpose, I promise.  My friend at work spells his name as “Darryl.”  Thus the mixup.

conrad - #34927

October 16th 2010

The big prejudice Dr. Falk show here is common to all biologists and most college administrators.


I have been interested in this for too many years to want to count,... and every time I mention it in academic circles they say,..... “yes you should speak to our biology professor”

WHAT? Ask him about the phase change that produced the original light?
  Ask him about the collision that created the moon?

One problem with this site is that it was a biology guy who started it!
[Although I love Francis Collins.]

But biologists think they OWN ALL DISCUSSIONS OF CREATION!
And they are downright incompetent in cosmology and physics.

The atheists are taking over string theory and Biologos still wants to talk ONLY about common descent.

  People who want to defend God are going to need bigger bullhorn.

We should be challenging this guy Leonard Mlodinow not Behe.

Darrel Falk - #34930

October 16th 2010


Shapiro and Margulis would count if they would publicly endorse the science presented by Michael B in “Edge of Evolution,”  and point out where they think David Ussery has it wrong. 

With regard to Darwin, you are correct that common descent was “in the air” to some extent.  Indeed, his grandfather was a strong proponent of this.  But, as Dave says, the combination of this with natural selection was novel….as was his very thorough analysis of the whole matter.  This was much, much different than the approach taken by his grandfather or anyone else.


Mike would be most welcome to engage Dave here in the Comments section of course.  However, I would be happy to talk with him about the possibility of a full-fledged blog (or two?)  which would help to provide an update especially in light of the new genomics data which may well be revolutionizing some of his thinking (or perhaps not?) on the “Edge of Evolution.”  I think all of us would love to know his thoughts in light of the enormous amount of new data.  For starters see, Trends in Microbiology 18:11-19.  However, I think you’ll all find this set of posts interesting…even Michael!

Gregory - #34932

October 16th 2010

conrad, oh, the irony! usually i think you post too much & say too little, acting as if you ‘own’ BioLogos!

but in this case I totally agree with you in criticising people who think “biology OWNS THIS CREATION TOPIC.”

don’t forget mathematics; e.g. the recently cited gem here (thanks BioLogos AND Uncommon Descent!), Barrow telling Dawkins that he is “not a real scientist.”

there is also irony in Darrel’s appeal to Department of Biology Faculty the world over; the same question could be asked to Department of Philosophy Faculty re: the ideology of Darwinism & Universal Evolutionism.

Feel sorry for Ussery that comments in this thread already are directed at the agenda behind posting his message, rather than at his challenge to Behe. Will be interested to see how this thread & series turns out re: two biochemists arguing in public on a science & religion Blog.

“as a scientist, I am deeply skeptical of claims that one can use science to somehow ‘prove’ God exists” - Ussery

So is Behe.

First, Usser capitalises ‘intelligent design.’

Second, so far, it seems there is *NO END* to evolution in Usser’s view. Thus, conrad’s sharp point stands.

‘Now that my philosophy is laid down’...?

Gregory - #34934

October 16th 2010

Oops, my mistake spelling Ussery! No offense meant. (Maybe confused with Bishop Ussher…)

Barry - #34940

October 16th 2010

conrad - #34927

“But biologists think they OWN ALL DISCUSSIONS OF CREATION!
And they are downright incompetent in cosmology and physics.”

But Behe’s book has nothing to do with “Creation”. Darwin had nothing to say about “Creation”. The theory of evolution has nothing to say about “Creation”.

What does a cosmologist have to say about DNA replication? What does a physicist have to say about frame shift mutation?

I’m confused. What’s your beef?

Gregory - #34944

October 16th 2010

Re: Conrad’s comment on hyper-biologism.

I did ‘empirical’ research on the educational backgrounds of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (i.e. all Fellows) in 2007 and have now done the same with BioLogos’ Team Members and Leading Figures (though I doubt at least two of the ‘Leading Figures’ would identify themselves with ‘BioLogos’).

The top 3 fields by educational background:

Discovery Institute’s CSC:
Philosophy - 10
Biology - 7
Theology - 7

BioLogos Foundation:
Biology - 9
Theology - 7
Physics - 4

I didn’t count the Thread Authors (http://biologos.org/blog/author/), but imagine the pattern would generally hold.

Conclusion: by percentage, BioLogos is much more biology-heavy than is DI-CSC. They are both well-represented in theology, though BioLogos is less diverse than DI-CSC in terms of its repeated focus on evangelicals. The absence of philosophers at BioLogos is the most obvious difference between them.

Peronal remark: there is not a *single* anthropologist, sociologist or psychologist at either BioLogos Foundation or DI-CSC.

conrad - #34952

October 16th 2010

Well Greg,

You surely don’t see anybody who is ready to discuss D-branes do you!

So on the new “theory of everything” we abstain!

Jeffery L - #34954

October 16th 2010

Speaking as a historian of American politics and foreign policy, it would be great to have one or two historians of science weigh in from time to time on BioLogos. It might help us avoid lengthy debates over what Darwin “really said” or what was “really new” that he introduced with Origin of Species.

Paul - #34956

October 16th 2010

“there is not a *single* anthropologist, sociologist or psychologist at either BioLogos Foundation or DI-CSC.”

James Kidder describes himself as a palaeoanthropologist and he has written for Biologos. Was he among those you counted? It would also be interesting to compare where the individuals are employed elsewhere; how many hold academic positions at universities etc. I suspect very few of those from the DI with qualifications in science are actually doing any science.

Gregory - #34957

October 16th 2010

No, I didn’t count James Kidder. Just those listed in Team Members and on the Leading Figures (Resources) page under the label ‘BioLogos.’

And yes, I agree with you that it would be interesting to learn more about the affiliations.

In response to the question of ‘doing science,’ it makes sense to highlight I. Lakatos’ contention that only about 7% of scholars are actually scientifically innovative, while the other 93% are giving commentary on and promoting the work of the innovators.

Dave Ussery - #34958

October 16th 2010

Just a bit more background here - I work in a bioinformatics group - which is very interdisciplinary - that is, there are physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, medical doctors as well as biologists, all working together.  So my own personal view is certainly not that ‘biology’ owns anything.  Science is in a sense unified. 

I started out as a chemist, then worked in a physical chemistry group, on DNA structures, then came into molecular biology from a more ‘physical’ point of view.  So I’m not really a ‘biologist’ in that sense….  I just spent the past two days (Thursday/Friday) teaching all day in a course at Oxford University, in their Zoology department.  Some of the students there are more classical biologists, but many of them are interested in genomics. 

I have a collection of more than a thousand books on Creationism / Evolution.  My first book in the collection dates back to 1972, when I was 12 years old!  These books cover a broad range of topics.  I am currently reading a biography of Robert Boyle (“BOYLE - Between God and Science”, by Michael Hunter).  Boyle would not have considered himself a ‘scientist’ even, because the term had not been coined yet!

conrad - #34960

October 16th 2010

Dave we appreciate your contribution.
Don’t take our free-for-all commentary as anything personal.
I’m sure you will make some very intelligent comments.


  But some of us will end up saying stupid things in the process,.. so it usually ends in a draw.

But we just like to have subject matter to sink out teeth into

So thanks,... in advance,.... for whatever it is you are going to say!

Gregory - #34961

October 16th 2010

Thanks for more information David! I can certainly appreciate the interdisciplinarity of many scholars & am glad to hear about yours. I hold degrees in three different fields & my current working group is made up of scholars across a range of natural-physical, applied & human-social sciences. Yet sociobiology still hovers over the human-social sciences!

Freely I admit I’m *not* qualified to assess Behe’s arguments, nor your critiques of them in bio-chemistry or in other natural-physical sciences.

When it comes to ‘Darwinism,’ however, as an ideology that crosses the boundaries from natural-physical to human-social sciences, I’m on stronger ground than BioLogos realizes given that it (still!) calls Darwinism “the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection” (from Questions). To me, someone who studies ideology professionally, this is an inadequate definition of ‘Darwinism.’ That’s why I was curious @ how you define it. : )

Also, it seems you accept ‘intelligent design’ (i.e. the classical theological argument to/from God) but not ‘Intelligent Design’ (the particulary ‘theory’ put forward by Thaxton, Johnson, Behe, Dembski, Meyer, etc. since the late 80’s or early 90’s). Is this correct?

Gregory - #34962

October 16th 2010

A good resource showing how/why ‘Darwinism’ is as much ‘ideology’ as it is ‘science’ can be found here: http://www.human-nature.com/rmyoung/papers/paper60h.html

“Darwinism IS Social” - Robert Young

Another helpful resource is Steve Fuller’s “The New Sociological Imagination” which speaks of the “Biological Challenge to Social Science” and shows how ‘eugenics’ is not a dead ‘ideology’ but rather continues to exist today in various forms. Would BioLogos address the topic of eugenics sooner or later?

Indeed, unless a person can come up with an ‘edge’ or ‘end’ of evolution, as both a science *AND* as an ideology (called evolutionism), the danger for monotheism is quite obvious. Evolutionism as ideology allied with a ‘scientistic’ worldview denies the possibility of even the small-id ‘intelligent design’ which David accepts, in saying “I have no problem saying that what we see around us can point towards transcendence”.

Indeed, if one cannot identify *any* limits to Darwinism, as the subtitle to Behe’s book suggests, then are they not somehow on the slippery slope compelled to embrace a ‘universal Darwinism’ proposed by you-know-who?

Dave Ussery - #34965

October 16th 2010

C.S. Lewis says that it’s important to distinguish “evolution” vs. “Evolutionism”.  I personally try to avoid using the word “Darwinism” - this seems to be a term mainly used by the anti-evolutionists!

Actually, what I have said is that I don’t have problems with other people using the classical argument, whilst I DO have major problems with the modern Intelligent Design movement, pretending to be ‘scientific’, when they are not.  I personally enjoy a feeling of transcendence when I go running in the deer park - but this does not mean that I really think I can use nature to give me a detailed account of God.  I guess right now I like best the approach described by Allister McGrath, in his “Open Secret” book, as well as his “A Fine Tuned Universe”.  Basically he argues that we need a new version of natural theology - not one based on a mechanical universe (which can easily give rise to deism), but one where a person, as a Christian, can see nature in a different level. 

don’t know if that makes sense or not.  It’s past 11 p.m. here in Denmark, and I’ve been traveling today - just flew back from the UK this afternoon - it’s time for me to get some sleep I think..

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