Creationists at Bloggingheads: The Fallout

Sean Carroll and Carl Zimmer will no longer be appearing on bloggingheads. They explain why.


A few weeks ago we were a bit startled to find a “Science Saturday” episode of featuring Paul Nelson, an honest-to-God young-Earth creationist. Not really what most of us like to think of as “science.” So there were emails back and forth trying to figure out what went on. David Killoren, who is the person in charge of the Science Saturday dialogues, is an extremely reasonable guy; we had slightly different perspectives on the matter, but in the end he appreciated the discomfort of the scientists, and we agreed to classify that dialogue as a “failed experiment,” not something that would be a regular feature.

So last week we were startled once again, this time by the sight of a dialogue between John McWhorter and Michael Behe. Behe, some of you undoubtedly know, is a leading proponent of Intelligent Design, and chief promulgator of the idea of “irreducible complexity.” The idea is that you can just look at something and know it was “designed,” because changing any bit of it would render the thing useless — so it couldn’t have arisen via a series of incremental steps that were all individually beneficial to the purpose of the object. The classic example was a mousetrap — until someone shows how a mousetrap is, in fact, reducibly complex. Then you change your choice of classic example. Behe had his butt handed to him during his testimony at the Kitzmiller vs. Dover trial over teaching intelligent design in schools; but embarrassment is not an arrow in the ID quiver, and he hasn’t been keeping quiet since then.


Last week the linguist John McWhorter spoke to Michael Behe. Behe, like Paul Nelson, is part of the Discovery Institute, your ultimate destination for Intelligent Design–a k a the progeny of creationism. So now Bloggingheads had two people from the Discovery Institute on in the space of a few weeks. Behe has written a couple books on intelligent design, in which he makes various claims about what evolution can’t do. He tells us it can’t produce complex biology; it can’t even account for drug resistance in the past few decades in malaria parasites. So the great Intelligent Designer who shall not speak his/her/its name must be responsible.

Behe has published his arguments in non-academic books–the sort I write. He does not have a trail of peer-reviewed papers to back it up. The closest he’s got is a single paper on a computer model he published five years ago, which doesn’t even mention intelligent design. What’s more, it was promptly and effectively rebutted by the evolutionary biologist Michael Lynch for making all sorts of unwarranted assumptions about biology. The paper has been virtually uncited since. In other words, Behe has not opened up a new field in which other scientists have published lots of new research.

Instead, biologists point out basic errors in Behe’s description of evolution. Reviewing his latest book in Science, University of Wisconsin evolutionary biologist Sean Carroll wrote, “Behe relies on invalid assertions about how genes and proteins evolve and how proteins interact, and he completely ignores a huge amount of experimental data that directly contradicts his faulty premises.”