Darel Rex Finley in 888

The Edge of Religion

2007.06.21   prev     next

MICHAEL Behe’s followup to his sensational hit Darwin’s Black Box of a decade ago is the just-released The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism. Behe delivers — far from a rehash of old material, this book crystallizes a vital topic barely scratched by other ID writings: Given that some examples of evolution are undisputed (e.g. antibiotic resistance) and others massively in doubt (e.g. bacterial flagellum), where precisely lies the line between what evolution can do and what it can’t? Using mutually reinforcing, from-the-field data, Behe is able to show that the “edge of evolution” tentatively lies somewhere between Orders (at best) to merely Species (at worst).* Locating this edge gives a measure of predictive value to the theory that it lacks in its popular form as a catch-all explanation of any biological adaptation or division. Well-written and to-the-point, Edge of Evolution is a must-have for anyone interested in the ID concept or controversy.


Since, as everyone knows, ID has controversial philosophical implications, no ID book would be complete without a discussion of what its findings mean for philosophy or worldview. Behe here takes what I consider a big step toward truly non-religious ID, but leaves another untaken and without good reasons:

To his credit, Behe avoids delving into the subject of free-will and true choice, which suggests that they are not tied to ID in any necessary way. (Dembski seems to think they are.) Behe also openly tackles the issue of self-reference and the paradox of verifying one’s own reliability (pp. 224-27) and arrives at the same conclusion that I did in Mechanism (pp. 58-76) — that we must simply presume our own rationality and proceed from there. This is another departure from Dembski, who apparently believes that Christianity paves a path out of the self-reference jungle (Mechanism p. 69). And Behe is unafraid to speculate directly (or at least entertain the possibility) that we were designed by something far less than omniscient and perfect.

But Behe is apparently not willing to consider the scenario of multiple designers. Even when defending the intelligent design of the malaria organism against Darwin’s own dysteleological claim that such parasites prove by their evil that they were not designed (p. 238) — a perfect time to bring up the possibility of multiple designers — Behe abstains, going so far as to allow that “the designer” may possibly be “bungling,” “incompetent,” “fallible,” “a dope,” or “a demon” — but not plural. That possibility is not discussed; not even mentioned.

Might our designer(s) be experimenting with life as they create new forms of it? Behe snidely dismisses this possibility as an “amusing fantas[y] of overgrown science geeks” (p. 229), then gives it no further consideration.

And while Behe pays some service to the idea of designer(s) who interfere with the laws of physics after they started this universe, he makes it clear that he prefers to think that just as this universe’s physical laws had to be fine-tuned to permit life (and to permit scientific discovery by that life), so the designer(s) may also have fine-tuned the universe to produce otherwise-extremely-improbable events that conspire to bring about a life-friendly planet (Earth) and then various lifeforms on it.

Is this idea really viable? I suggest that it isn’t. It’s one thing to say that the laws of physics (and the starting state of the particles) were fine-tuned to make a universe compatible with life and scientific discovery. It’s quite another to suggest that the initial state of that universe could be fine-tuned to the degree necessary to create spontaneous, freak assemblies billions of years down the road. How much precision in particle positioning would that require, given that the butterfly effect plays havoc with fine details of even the near future? If, hypothetically, each fundamental particle has 256 bits of data behind it, how much time would that allow for even one fine-tuned protein assembly to occur, in a universe that steps 1045 fps? Not much, I’m guessing. How much extra (and otherwise unnecessary) resolution per particle would be necessary to allow all the design of life to be fine-tuned from the start? Millions of bits? Quadrillions? Why not just interfere later?

Pesky Pool Balls

And even assuming the staggering resolution that would be required to fine-tune events from the start, there’s still the conceptual problem of how. Let’s use Behe’s pool table analogy to illustrate. Suppose I have a computer program that makes balls bounce around my large computer screen, as if the whole screen is a pocketless billiard table. The balls bounce according to straightforward, Newtonian, elastic collisions, much as billiard balls do, and the rules that control their movements are strictly deterministic. No friction rule is applied, so the balls never stop. Now suppose I invite my friend Jim over and say to him, “Watch this.” I start the balls bouncing. They appear to be bouncing around at random, about a thousand of them. He watches the balls ricocheting off each other, and off the sides of the screen, for about five minutes. Then a funny thing happens — without violating their rules of motion, about a hundred balls just happen to fly together into an extremely tight cluster and (of course) immediately smash off of each other and scatter. Jim realizes that the probability of that happening is freakishly low, and that I must have made it happen on purpose.

But how did I do it? Simple. Before Jim came to my house, I manually arranged a hundred balls in a tight cluster, set out 900 other balls in random places on the screen, gave all 1,000 balls random velocities, then started the whole thing running. After five minutes I paused the program, reversed the direction of all the balls, and waited for Jim to walk in the door. What he saw as the starting position was actually the ending position. Due to the deterministic nature of the rules, the 100 balls were destined to return to their tight cluster after five minutes.

Great, you might say, So it can be done! Well, not quite. What if you wanted to make that same thing happen twice, first after five minutes, then again after another five minutes? How do you do that? Answer: You don’t. You can’t. The End. If anyone out there has any idea how to make that happen, please do tell. (Or better yet, make a computer program that demonstrates it.) In the meantime, I will simply repeat my intuitive hunch (Mechanism p. 79) that Dembski’s Law of Conservation of Information rules out the fine-tuned-freak-accident scenario.

And that’s just how bad the situation is for a series of fine-tuned mutations over the history of life on Earth. What about the wholesale rearrangement of code across multiple lines of descent? Behe says that design is “fully compatible with the idea of universal common descent” (p. 232). Does the platypus fit into that statement? Is its DNA being sequenced and studied? Strangely, I haven’t heard much interest in this subject from the ID leadership. If the platypus turns out to be at the genetic level what it appears to be at the morphological level, it screams of experimental design.

Who Was That Masked Engineering Team?

Put together the three ideas above, each irrationally skirted by Behe, and what do you get?

  • Multiple designers

  • Design by experimentation

  • Design by ongoing interference

Looks a lot like human design of cars and computers, doesn’t it? And that’s exactly what you get when you apply the design inference championed by Dembski. The current ID leadership prefers to use that inference to get to design, but gingerly sidesteps the three, above-listed items, though those items actually follow along with the inference. Why would they want to sidestep them? It’s pretty easy to guess — just look at the opposite:

  • One designer

  • Design by prescient knowledge

  • Design by from-the-start fine-tuning, via nearly infinite resources

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Any “pretty conventional Roman Catholic” (p. 228) could tell you what this is describing.

With Edge of Evolution, Behe comes closer to the edge of his religion than does Dembski. But he’s still careful not to cross, even if he has to resort to a triad of omission (of multiple designers), ridicule (of experimenting designers), and untenable scenarios (fine-tuned events) to stay inside the circle.


Update 2007.06.24, 2007.11.08 — grammatical improvement of final sentence


Update 2007.10.29 — Very nice summation of Edge of Evolution’s key point:

“All the negative reviews I’ve read of EoE nitpick at minutae while dodging the big picture. The big picture is that ... p.falciparum under intense scrutiny for billions of trillions of generations did exactly what ID theorists predicted — next to nothing. In contrast the ID deniers tell us over and over that the same evolutionary mechanism (RM+NS), in orders of magnitude fewer generations, turned a lizard into a lemur.”
     —DaveScot, on UncommonDescent.com


*Update 2010.02.16 — Looking back with a few years’ hindsight, we can see that Behe was actually giving evolution the great benefit of the doubt. He assumed that antibiotic resistance could be adequately explained by mutation-selection evolution, but now it’s looking like there’s a complex mechanism in the bacterial cell specifically for dealing with antibiotic chemicals.


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