Jerry Coyne has published a very long review of Michael Behe's book The Edge of Evolution, for The New Republic. Coyne is a biologist at the University of Chicago. When I learned of this review's existence I grew very excited. With plenty of space with which to work and writing for an audience of sophisticted nonscientists, I figured Coyne would take the opportunity to present some really interesting science and give Behe a proper drubbing.
Alas, it was not to be. Simply put, his review of EoE is a terrible piece of work. It's all snideness and ridicule with very little in the way of good arguments. It really infuriates me when someone like Coyne is given such a terrific platform, several thousand words in a classy magazine like The New Republic, and then writes as if the whole project is beneath him.
Behe may be worthy of contempt and his arguments not worth wasting time on, but if that is your attitude then don't ride into print on the subject. If you are going to write a long review of Behe's book, you treat his arguments with the utmost seriousness and refute them point by irresistable point. That's far more effective than all the snideness and one-liners in the world. This was a perfect opportunity to present some real science to an audience that would have appreciated it, and Coyne declined the invitation.
Coyne begins by discussing the anti-Behe statement from the Lehigh Biology Dept. To anyone who is not already anti-Behe that will look like a vicious, ad hominem attack. Everyone knows ID is unpopular among scientists, the question Coyne is supposed to be answering is whether that unpopularity is merited. If you're going to mention this statement at all, you do it at the end of the article. First you demolish his arguments, then you point to that as the reason for Behe's colleagues finding him embarrassing. Placing this at the beginning of the review makes it look like Behe is right. The mean old scientific establishment is coming down on one poor guy with unorthodox views.
There then follows paragraph after tedious pargraph recounting some of the history of ID. This goes on way too long, I kept yelling at my screen for him to get to the science, but even worse is the way it is written. Virtually every sentence is written with a tone of sneering contempt. I make fun of creationists for writing like this, for thinking that in every sentence they have to keep reminding their readers who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Now here's Coyne doing the same thing.
At one point he writes:
The reviews of Darwin's Black Box in the scientific community were uniformly negative, for two reasons. First, we do understand something about how these pathways might have evolved in stepwise fashion, though we are as yet admittedly ignorant of many details. (It is harder to reconstruct the evolution of biochemical pathways than the evolution of organisms themselves, because, unlike organisms, these pathways do not fossilize, and so their evolution must be reconstructed entirely from living species.)
I kept waiting for him to explain some of what we know about the evolution of complex systems and how we know it. Instead Coyne says almost nothing to back that statement up. It looks precisely like the groundless, dogmatic assertion Behe says it is.
And Coyne follows this with the argument that lacking a good explanation now is no reason to give up on the problem and attribute it to design. That's a reasonable point, but making it one of your lead arguments right out of the gate is rhetorically very weak. Behe claims that all currently suggested naturalistic theories for the origins of complexity are utterly inadequate. They're not even close, according to him. You don't answer that by saying, well, who knows, maybe we'll discover something new in the future. The fact is that biologists have the resources today, in the present, to shed a lot of light on the evolution of complex structures. That's the point you hammer home. The not giving up can come at the end, when you're showing that Behe has o good ideas of his own to offer.
Section two is a bit better, where he explains the basics of evolution by natural selection. But at one point he tells us that scientists have much evidence that genetic mutations are random in the usual technical sense. Seeing as how that is precisely the point Behe is challenging, it might have been nice for Coyne to describe some of that evidence. Instead he's too busy speculating about Behe's motives implying, based on nothing, that Behe is not sincere in his acceptance of common descent but rather concedes it out of some sort of political consideration. This is totally inappropriate this early in the review. You earn the right to speculate about motives only after you show that the guy's arguments are so ridiculous that it's reasonable to think there's some insincerity in his views. If his arguments are good, I don't care about his motives. Coyne never gets around to actually doing that, however.
So what does he do with the space that might have been dedicated to, you know, presenting some facts useful for assessing Behe's arguments? He presents an argument from authority. And which authority did he find to make it clear the flagellum is the product of evolution?
Indeed, the whole problem of the evolution of cilia was argued before Judge Jones in Harrisburg, who ruled that there was no convincing evidence that evolution could not have produced this structure, making legal doctrine from something biologists already knew.
Are you kidding me? In a paragraph meant to impress people with the idea that Behe is snowing nonscientists with a wealth of technical detail, Coyne uses as a counterargument that we managed to convince a Judge that the flagellum evolved? This is embarrassing. How could anyone on the fence read that and not come down on the side of the ID folks?
Sadly, Coyne isn't yet through being foolish. In a five-paragraph section meant to persuade us that the cilium could have evolved gradually, he devotes one whole paragraph to challenging Behe to provide his own explanation, and talks about the vacuity of design theorizing. That's a fine thing to point out in a later section, when Coyne is discussing Behe's own views on the matter. But in a discussion of cilium evolution it looks like this:
BEHE: The cilium could not have evolved gradually. COYNE: Could to! And how do you explain it Mr. Big Shot?
Real convincing. And then, having just shot himself in the left foot, he then turns around in the next paragraph and shoots himself in the right by talking once again about how just because we don't know the details of cilium evolution now doesn't mean we never will. You might as well just concede Behe's point and be done with it! We can say a lot about cilium and flagellum evolution, but no one reading Coyne's essay would have the slightest idea about any of that. Instead, they would think the only difference between Coyne and Behe is that Behe thinks the problem is insoluble, whereas Coyne holds out hope that maybe someday we will be able to say something.
Section five has a few decent points about the futility of elementary probability calculations in discussing protein evolution, but some specifics would have been nice. After all, one of Behe's main charges is that evolutionists wave their hands a lot but never get around to showing the details. Alas, there is nothing in this essay to counteract this view.
But then Coyne totally steps in it with this one:
Consider the evolution of whales from terrestrial animals, now documented by a superb fossil record. The fossils show a wolf-like creature gradually becoming aquatic, with the hind limbs being reduced and finally lost, the forelimbs transformed into flippers, and the nostrils gradually moving atop the head to form the blowhole. How can anyone say that these changes (which of course look planned at the end) are unconnected or incoherent? They represent a case of natural selection eventually turning a land animal into a well-adapted aquatic one.
How on Earth does Coyne conclude, on the basis of a handful of fossils, that a wolf-like creature evolved into an aquatic mammal by natural selection acting on random genetic variations? The mechanism is the only issue here. The fossils certainly provide strong evidence of evolution and common descent. But Behe accepts all that. One of Behe's main arguments is that evolutionists routinely use evidence of common descent as if it is also evidence of a particular mechanism. Behe will delightedly use this as an example of that phenomenon in his subsequent talks.