Professor Jerry Coyne addresses Michael Behe's reply to Coyne's review of Behe's new book

Posted June 30, 2007

Professor Coyne published a review (see of Michael Behe's new book titled The Edge of Evolution. Behe responded on an Amazon blog (see Here is Professor Coyne's rebuttal of Behe's response.


It is clear from Behe's response on his Amazon blog to the negative reviews by Sean Carroll and myself of The Edge of Evolution that he really wants to score debating points, not to have a scientific discussion. I don't wish to engage in a protracted debate with Behe, but let me respond to a few of his assertions. My comments are made in light of two other reviews that have just appeared: Ken Miller's in Science, and Richard Dawkins's in Sunday's New York Times book reviews.


"The Coyne review is one very long mishmash of ad hominem, argument from authority, misunderstanding, and question begging. The ad hominem (questioning my motives, gratuitously citing folks who disagree with me without saying why that's pertinent to my argument, and so on) I will not reply to. The argument from authority is the most incomprehensible part of his essay. Alluding to my participation in the Dover, Pennsylvania court case of 2005, early in the review Coyne writes "More damaging than the scientific criticisms of Behe's work was the review that he got in 2005 from Judge John E. Jones III.

Wow, more damaging than scientific criticisms?! Leave aside the fact that the parts of the opinion Coyne finds so congenial (which are standard Darwinian criticisms of intelligent design) were actually written by the plaintiffs' lawyers and simply copied by the judge into his opinion. (Whenever the opinion discusses the testimony of any expert witness -- for either side, whether scientists, philosophers, or theologians -- the judge copied the lawyers' writing. Although such copying is apparently tolerated in legal circles, it leaves wide open the question of whether the judge even comprehended the abstruse academic issues discussed in his courtroom.) Frankly, it's astounding that a prominent academic evolutionary biologist like Coyne hides behind the judicial skirts of the former head of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. If Coyne himself can't explain how Darwinism can cope with the challenges The Edge of Evolution cites, how could a non-scientist judge?"


Behe excoriates me for claiming that his defeat (and that of intelligent design [ID]) in the Dover case was more damaging than the scientific criticisms levelled at Darwin's Black Box. His mistake here is assuming that "victory" is more pressing in the scientific than in the social arena. But it is Behe himself who has chosen to take his challenge to the social arena, publishing his ideas in a trade book and thereby bypassing the usual scientific route of having these ideas adjudicated by his peers. Both Richard Dawkins (in his review of The Edge of Evolution in The New York Times) and myself have noted Behe's remarkable reluctance to submit his claims to peer-reviewed scientific journals. If Behe's theory is so world-shaking, and so indubitably correct, why doesn't he submit it to some scientific journals? (The reason is obvious, of course: his theory is flat wrong.)

Behe has lost his case in the arena that matters most to all of us: the right of a scientifically misguided -- and largely theological -- theory to be accepted as science in public schools. (Remember that Behe wrote half of a chapter in the second edition of the discredited textbook, Of Pandas and People, at issue in the Dover trial). ID, irreducible complexity -- the whole lot of gussied-up creationist claims -- have been found by the courts to be "not science". Behe's IDeas can't get a place alongside evolution in the public schools. That is far more damaging than a few critiques levelled in scientific journals and highbrow magazines.

It's amusing to see Behe attacking me for ad hominem remarks, and then himself engaging in the same tactic by denigrating Judge Jones. He questions whether Jones really understood intelligent design at all, or simply adopted the plaintiff's claims in the Dover case. In fact, it's palpably clear from Jones's written opinion that he saw right through Behe and his transparent creationism. And you can bet that if the verdict had gone in favor of Behe's side, he wouldn't be impugning Jones as "the former head of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board."


"At some points in his review, it's hard to know whether Professor Coyne simply has a poor memory, or is so upset with the book that he gets confused. He writes "For a start, let us be clear about what Behe now accepts about evolutionary theory. He has no problem with a 4.5-billion-year-old Earth, nor with evolutionary change over time .... and that all species share common ancestors." "Now accepts"? I made that plain in Darwin's Black Box over ten years ago. Throughout the controversy of the past decade over ID, almost every time my work had been cited in a newspaper or journal, it has been noted that I think common ancestry is true. Yet apparently that comes as a surprise to Coyne."


As far as I can see, Behe has indeed changed -- or at least strengthened -- his views on evolution. The best he could say about the idea of the common ancestry of organisms in Darwin's Black Box is that he found the idea "fairly convincing." At the same time (and in other publications), Behe said that he saw no convincing evidence for macroevolution: the transformation of one major form of animal into another. (I was always puzzled at how Behe might accept common ancestry but deny macroevolution.) Now, however, Behe is much stronger about these issues: in Edge of Evolution he baldly states that "common descent is true." He now admits macroevolution as well (i.e., humans and chimps share a common ancestor), although he still claims that it's driven by God-given mutations.

It is important to draw the distinction between Behe and his fellow IDers, lest people mistake ID for a monolithic theory accepted by all its proponents. Behe is one of the few intelligent-design proponents who accepts common descent, macroevolution, natural selection, and an old earth. This puts him severely at odds with his other ID colleagues at the Discovery Institute, including William Dembski and Stephen Meyer.


"The same question-begging is used to "answer" my argument on protein binding sites, but with a special twist. Writes Coyne: "In fact, interactions between proteins, like any complex interaction, were certainly built up step by mutational step ... This process could have begun with weak protein-protein associations that were beneficial to the organism. These were then strengthened gradually..." So, reasons Coyne, we know protein binding sites developed gradually by random mutation because we know proteins have binding sites. So there!

The twist comes when Coyne claims "Behe furnishes no proof, no convincing argument, that interactions cannot evolve gradually." So, apparently to Darwinists, contrary observational evidence doesn't count. Or perhaps Coyne somehow overlooked Chapter 7, where I noted that in a hundred billion billion chances, no such interactions developed in malaria. Or in HIV. Or in ten trillion opportunities in E. coli. I guess he missed where I carefully reviewed the literature on new protein binding sites. Where I showed the disconnected nature of random mutation in Chapters 3 and 4. Well, I suppose if Coyne read The Edge of Evolution with his eyes firmly shut, then he could have missed those discussions."


In a venue like The New Republic, one can't go too deeply into the niceties of probability theory, or technical details about sequential evolution. Nevertheless, the point I made was clear, and has been further sharpened by the reviews of Dawkins, Carroll, and Miller. Behe's arguments were specious for several reasons.

  1. There is no evolutionary expectation that complex protein-protein interactions will evolve in a parasite adapting to a new drug. Any mutation that improves fitness is acceptable, regardless of what it does.
  2. Behe's probability calculations, on which his entire argument rests, are flatly wrong because they assume that adaptation cannot occur one mutation at a time. He uses chloroquine resistance of malaria (CQR) as an example, saying that the parasite always must have two mutations arising together to evolve resistance. As Ken Miller shows, this assumption is false, because one of the two mutations that Behe claims are "required" for CQR is not actually required (Chen et al. 2003, reference accidentally omitted from Miller's piece). It is therefore bogus to take the 1/1020 number as the estimate of the probability of the evolution of a single binding site for CQR. And it is even more bogus to use this as a generic estimate for the evolutionary probability of getting any protein-protein binding site.
  3. The probability calculations are also wrong because Behe's argument is based on specifying a priori exactly which mutations have to occur to be adaptive: the identical pair of mutations that occur in chloroquine-resistant malaria. He neglects the possibility (indeed, the certainty) that many other mutations that cause interactions between proteins and other molecules can also be adaptive.

Behe argues that the evolution of a single protein-protein binding site requires more than 2 simultaneous mutations -- more like 3-6 of them. He adduces no evidence for this major claim, nor does he give a single example of any case in which two or more binding sites must evolve simultaneously for an adaptation to arise. The reviews by Ken Miller in Nature and Sean Carroll in Science cite several examples of the gradual origin of adaptations via the step-by-step accumulation of point mutations in proteins.

Finally, I note that Behe's "response" completely ignores two devastating criticisms of his "scientific" theory. First, as both Dawkins and I point out, if random mutations can't build complexity, how can they possibly have been so effective in artificial selection of plants and animals? Virtually anything you want to select in an animal or plant can be selected: as Darwin said, "Breeders habitually speak of an animal's organization as something quite plastic, which they can model almost as they please."

Also, as I pointed out in my review, Behe asserts quite plainly in his book that the goal of the Designer was "intelligent life." I challenge him to provide a scientific rationale for this conclusion, which he failed to do in his response. If his theory is indeed scientific, as he repeatedly claims, let him give us the empirical evidence for this most interesting hypothesis.


Chen N, et al (2003) pfcrt Allelic Types with two novel amino acid mutations in Chloroquine-resistant Plasmodium falciparum isolated from the Philippines. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy. 47, 3500-3505.

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