Behe: the Bore Before the Storm

Call me a wonk if you like, but I actually slogged through the Dover trial transcripts for Michael Behe’s testimony. I do hope you appreciate, gentle readers, the sacrifices I make for you.

The nutshell version: Is Intelligent Design science that should be taught in school? It depends on what your definition of “is” is.


(By the way, some of this is incomplete because some of the PDF files of the transcript given to the ACLU of PA and the NCSE were corrupt. Y’know, this seems like a bad flashback to the days of Kermit and Xmodem. I seem to remember that we had such a thing as checksums in the 80s, though. Why, in an age when we can look up the nearest strip joint on our cell phones that talk toBluetooth-enabled hearing aids, we can’t reliably copy a binary file from A to B without dropping a few bits in the middle? Is MD5 chopped liver?)

For those not familiar with court proceedings, the way this happened was in several stages. First, Behe was presented as an expert witness for the defense (the ID side) on the subject of Intelligent Design. First, the defense lawyer did a direct examination, trying to establish for the court that Behe was qualified to be an expert witness. Then the plaintiffs’ lawyer cross-examined him on qualifications, meaning that he asked questions not to poke holes in ID itself, but in Behe’s qualifications as an expert witness.

After he was found to be an acceptable expert witness, the defense did a direct examination, asking him questions trying to establish that ID is scientific or at least a nutritious part of this complete curriculum. Then the prosecution ripped into him, trying to demolish ID. And that’s when the fun began.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The examination on qualifications went smoothly, without major incident, and he was admitted.

In the direct examination, he defined Intelligent Design as

Intelligent design is a scientific theory that proposes that some aspects of life are best explained as the result of design, and that the strong appearance of design in life is real and not just apparent.

Okay, so it’s a scientific theory, just like plate tectonics or quantum mechanics, right? That’s good to know.

Professor Miller […] sees [ID] simply as an attack on Darwinian theory. And it is not that. It is a positive explanation.

I’m glad he cleared that up. It’s so easy to get confused on this point, seeing as how ID proponents seem to spend all their time railing against the nasty Darwinistas instead of giving positive evidence for ID.

Behe also gave a definition of design, from his book, Darwin’s Black Box:

What is design? Design is simply the purposeful arrangement of parts. When we perceive that parts have been arranged to fulfill a purpose, that’s when we infer design.

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t “purpose” imply intelligence? So he’s saying that if we see parts that have been put together by an intelligent being, we can conclude that an intelligent being was involved. That’s begging the question. I’m a bit surprised that the prosecution didn’t point this out. Then again, they had plenty to work with without delving into semantics. Behe provided plenty of that.

ID proponents have to pretend that ID isn’t just creationism, because you can’t teach creationism in school. So it’s natural that Behe would say as much. But he also said ID doesn’t say anything about the age of the Earth (it could be billions of years old, or 6000), that it doesn’t conflict with common descent in general, or of humans and other apes specifically, or the rate of evolution (could be slow and gradual, or it could be instantaneous). He also doesn’t deny that large-scale evolution has occurred and continues to occur, nor does he deny the existence of mutations and natural selection.

So what’s left?

His point, he claims, is that evolution is supposed to proceed through natural selection (sexual selection being a type of natural selection; and transposition, lateral transfer, etc. are forms of mutation which merely provides the variation on which natural selection can operate), and evolution proponents haven’t provided enough data to show conclusively that natural selection is, indeed, capable of doing everything it’s supposed to have done. A fair point. Or it would be, if there weren’t literally libraries full of research articles and books on this very subject.

Note that Behe isn’t making any friends among the old-school creationists, and presumably by extension the Discovery Institute. The whole point of the IDists’ Big Tent strategy was to unite all of the anti-evolutionists together to fight the common enemy, and after Darwinism had been defeated, they could squabble over who was right: the Young-Earth Creationists, the Intelligent Designists, the People’s Front of Judea, etc. If the redneck yahoo masses learn just how much mainstream science Behe agrees with, they’ll take their ball and their mindless voting block and go home. They’re already less than thrilled with ID for not officially acknowledging God.

Behe also introduced the notion of Irreducible Complexity (IC). A system is irreducibly complex if every part is necessary to its function. The idea is that evolution couldn’t just accrete all the parts one by one, because the whole thing doesn’t work until the last part is in place, so there’s nothing for natural selection to operate on.

Behe’s favorite example of IC is the bacterial flagellum, a hair-like thing that sticks out of certain bacteria and rotates like an outboard motor, propelling the bacterium. He identifies the various proteins of which it is built, and says that if you take away any of those proteins, you no longer have a working flagellum.

Okay, fair enough. However, if you take some of the parts away, you do get a working Type Three Secretory System (TTSS), a tube that the bacterium uses to expel waste products. This doesn’t prove that IC or ID is wrong, though: yes, there are papers that propose that the flagellum evolved from the TTSS. But there are others that propose that the flagellum came first, and the TTSS evolved from it. And still other papers that propose that they both evolved from some other precursor structure. In other words, evolution is wrong because it offers too many explanations.

After this, I kind of skipped past the remaining seven or eight weeks of Behe’s testimony. He went off into lectures on biochemistry, pointing out just how complicated all this stuff was, presumably for maximal gee-whiz effect. But it got boring after a while. Unlike the judge, I had a fast-forward buton, so I used it.

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