An Anonymous Review Of A Paper By Behe

Michael Behe has submitted some of the ideas from "Darwin's Black Box" to peer-reviewed scientific journals. So far, he reports, his paper has been rejected. Well, every scientist, myself included, has had a paper rejected. And, journals rarely publish negative results. In his case, it doesn't help that the paper isn't quantitative, and offers no new experimental results. He's going to have to find a less prestigious journal, or else jump sideways to a philosophy journal.

The following is the review one (unnamed) journal got from the most senior of its anonymous reviewers.

Review of "Obstacles to gene duplication as an explanation for complex biochemical systems" by Michael Behe.

In the section "Meaning of explanation," the author harps on the extreme difficulty of elucidating complicated cellular interaction systems and of tracing the evolution of biological complexity. It is ironic that he should voice his concerns just as technical as well as conceptual progress has opened the door to investigating on a much larger scale than heretofore the mechanisms of development, and the increase in gene interaction complexity along certain lines of descent. Michael Behe is depicting a hopeless situation for the biological sciences, or at least for their evolutionary aspects, just as biology is proceeding through a glorious age.

A classical error of people who believe that complex gene interaction systems and other complex biological systems present an insuperable difficulty to evolutionary science is to imply that every component of the system has or has had only one function. In reality, every gene, or its ancestors, or its duplicated brothers and cousins, or all of these, usually exert multiple functions and can be re-mobilized for building up new complex systems or can be dropped from a complex system without being dropped from the functioning genome. The function of the system itself may change (an oft quoted morphological example: folds that act as gliders related to wings); intermediate stages function differently from the terminal stage considered, but do function, indeed. If evolutionary pathways were difficult to find, nature faced these difficulties and solved them. The scientist's job is just to follow nature, and that he believes he can do.

It is interesting to show - Behe examines this claim - that by knocking two genes out of this cascade, the resulting organisms are less abnormal than those that have lost only one of two genes. Yet, it is by no means necessary to be able to provide such a demonstration. Not being able to provide it does not authorize anyone to consider the system as "irreducibly" complex, in Behe's metaphysical sense of irreducible.

On the other hand, the mutational acquisition of modified or new functions by duplicated genes has been witnessed many times by sequence comparisons and other approaches, and there is no trace of an "irreducible" difficulty here either, despite Behe's claims.

This reviewer is no authority on the blood clotting cascade, but if a plausible model for its evolutionary development, compatible with all known facts, has indeed not been generated so far, the remaining question marks are not threat to science - on the contrary, they are a challenge added to thousands of other challenges that science met and meets. In this instance, too, science will be successful.

Is that too bold a prediction? On the contrary, it is not bold. If science, in the modern sense of the word (defined by its method), were only just beginning its career, onlookers would naturally be divided into optimists and pessimists. But, as young as science still is, its accomplishments have verified over and over again that the world of the observable and the measurable is understandable in terms of the observed and measured. Pessimism in this respect has come to lack intellectual status.

In the face of this evidence, Dr. Behe's stance is quasi-heroic, but it is heroism at the service of a lost and mistaken cause. He is not deterred by the fact that molecular biology is only about 50 years old, that during this period it has generated an almost overwhelming amount of fundamental understanding, that more understanding is obviously on its way; further, that the study of the molecular bases of development had to wait for its turn: it was able to take off seriously only within the last decade. All of these studies will be amplified if there is peace in the world, and many biological problems that Dr. Behe today uses as drums to proclaim his faith will be solved in ways that cannot be but disappointing to him.

The trust expressed by the present referee is based on the lessons of several hundred years of history of science. It is really a very short history judged in terms of human history in general, and, considering the recorded accomplishments, it takes a fair amount of intellectual `chuzpah' to reproach science for the understanding that it has not yet achieved.

This reviewer thinks that there is a great deal of misunderstanding around the role of intelligence in the world. The world itself, through the interactions that take place under the reign of natural law, manifests a sort of intelligence - an intelligence much greater than our intelligence - out of which our intelligence has very likely arisen as a product. No wonder, then, that, to our intelligence, the universe appears intelligent: there is a close kinship between the universe and our mind - as one would expect, since our intelligence is shaped so as to permit us to get along in the world. (". . . So as to permit us ...": language often induces us to seem to express the presence of an intent when none is implied; none is here.) Consistently to use the phrase "intelligent design" instead of God is almost cheating, since this use has an ambiguous relation to the presence in the universe of a sort of intelligence that, except perhaps in a pantheistic sense if one wishes to think so, has no implication regarding the existence of a God. God, here, stands for a being that combines consciousness, will, and universal power.

Of course science has its limits, but they are surely not where Behe places them; they are not, indeed, in the realm of biological evolution. The perception of science's limits will evolve as science itself evolves, and the limits won't furnish an argument in favor of intelligent design in the sense of a design imagines by a universal `person.' The argument will be in favor of the finiteness of the analytical powers of the human mind. The limits of science will probably be recognized as being, in part, imposed by the position in the universe of the intelligent (human) observer. Whatever God's role in the universe, if any, biology will be understood without reference to him. That is implied by the essence of science.

Behe wants to be able to say that this is not so, and he needs to say it very quickly, because every day any conceivable ground for making his statement shrinks further. The faith of scientists is that the world of phenomena can be understood, and that the transformations of this world leading up to the present state of affairs can be understood. Developments conform every day that, progressively, scientists are winning this bet. Whatever is discovered, the most surprising as well as the less surprising, will be part of nature: the supernatural has no place in the observable and measurable.

Metaphysicians who want science to speak out in favor of their beliefs, if not demonstrate them, are already put in a tight spot by the science of yesterday and have nothing to fear more than the science of tomorrow.

In this referee's judgment, the manuscript of Michael Behe does not contribute anything useful to evolutionary science. The arguments presented are weak.

Incidentally, publication in a scientific journal of this article could not be construed as anything resembling a First Amendment right. Naysayers such as Michael Behe have not been muzzled. They have repeatedly aired their point of view, and so be it.

If Behe were right in spite of all, it would become apparent in due time through failures of science. It would be very much out of place to denounce such failures now, since they have not occurred. Having not yet understood all of biology is not a failure after just 200 years, given the amount of understanding already achieved. Let us speak about it again in 1000 years. Meanwhile, metaphysicians should spare scientists their metaphysics and just let the scientists do their work - or join them in doing it.

Last modified: 5 August 2000

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