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Darwinian Devolution

Darwin Devolves: The New Science About DNA That Challenges Evolution

By Michael J. Behe

Publisher: HarperOne

Pages: 329

Price: $28.99

Review Author: Terry Scambray

Terry Scambray lives and writes in Fresno, California.

With the dethronement of God in 19th-century Europe, many intellectual eager beavers sought out materialistic explanations for just about everything. Charles Darwin was the most renowned of those who stepped into the breach by trying to explain how life had made itself without any outside help. In conforming to the Zeitgeist, however, he made a crucial mistake.

Though animal breeding was an ancient practice, Darwin was deeply impressed by changes that allowed breeders to select the sizes and shapes of dogs and the colors of pigeons. He thought this “artificial selection” explained how “natural selection” had selected the fittest in nature to survive. But artificial selection of desirable traits in animals is induced by humans with a purpose in mind, whereas natural selection, according to Darwin, had to be purposeless, accidental, and mindless. As logic teachers warn, the fallacy of false comparison is the ruination of many an earnestly constructed argument.

Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University, has been confirming the truth of that warning with a vengeance for the past 20-plus years — not with a logic primer but with high-powered microscopes and high-speed computers. What these devices have done is akin to what the telescope did for astronomy in displacing previous visions of the cosmos. Likewise, microscopes and computers have profoundly altered our view of life and thereby altered the discourse on modernity’s plenary explanation for life: Darwinian evolution.

That is, for those willing to look and to listen.

These new tools have confirmed what everyday people have noted and about which poets have rhapsodized: the ineffable harmony and beauty of nature. But everyday people and poets don’t know the half of it; for at the microscopic level, at the DNA level, which is the basis for life, another dimension has been revealed that is “of fathomless elegance — a seemingly never-ending parade of sophisticated structures, brilliant organizational arrangements and well-nigh incomprehensibly complex systems,” Behe writes.

According to Darwin, the twin dynamics of mutation and natural selection account for such systems. These dynamics are demonstrated in polar bears, which separated from their brown-bear cousins hundreds of thousands of years ago — a separation triggered at the genetic level by two damaging mutations. One was in a gene called APOB, which is involved in metabolizing fat and helps polar bears ingest copious amounts of seal blubber. The second gene, LYST, codes for skin pigmentation and probably made the fur of polar bears white. Computer analysis of these genes shows that each mutation damaged their original functions.

This squashing of genetic information by mutations initially helped one or several bears, perhaps, to survive in the new, frigid environment to which they had relocated for whatever reasons. Then, as bears with intact genetic information began to die off or remain in warmer climates, the lucky losers of genetic information began to grow in numbers, then predominate, until finally bears with these two traits became ubiquitous in their Arctic home. So, the polar bear, Behe writes, “adjusted to its harsh environment mainly by degrading its genes that its ancestors already possessed. Despite its impressive abilities, rather than evolving, it has adapted predominately by devolving.” What this “portends for our conception of evolution,” Behe explains, is “the principal topic” of Darwin Devolves.

We are familiar with another mutation that bends a normally round blood cell into a sticky, sickle-shaped cell. These sickle cells then clog up the oxygen-carrying capacity of hemoglobin, causing sickle-cell anemia, a painful and life-shortening disease. For some reason, though, people with this disease are resistant to malaria. (Was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the upbeat American philosopher of “Compensation,” correct when he wrote, “Every defect in one manner is made up in another”?)

Another, less significant, more cosmetic change occurs in individuals whose DNA has a slightly damaged gene dubbed OCA2, which restricts the production of melanin in their irises, turning their eyes blue. (So it’s not Crystal Gayle’s unrequited love that made her “brown eyes blue.”)

Behe offers another example of a mutation that breaks off one-third of the protein in a gene that influences the nervous system of horses. This impaired gene causes the horse that carries it to maintain a smooth trot, a trait that has been bred by horse breeders. Likewise, scientists have discovered that certain overweight old people, a group to which Behe unhesitatingly claims membership, seem immune to developing diabetes because they carry a mutation that “destroys a gene used by pancreas cells where insulin is made.”

Behe discusses many similar cases, such as a large study showing that people who bear the mutant gene APOC3 have lower cholesterol levels. Another mutation in the alphabet soup of genes, this one dubbed ABCC11, causes earwax to become dry, which could lead to hearing loss.

Behe also reports on the changes wrought by mutations in the iconic finches of the Galapagos Islands. Much ink has been spilled to promote these small birds as exemplars of “evolution in action.” But, Behe writes, “As modest as the evolutionary results are on the surface, there is even less to the Galapagos finches than meets the eye.” On the surface, the average size and shape of the tiny beaks of these small birds have seesawed, sometimes becoming smaller, sometimes bigger, seemingly correlated with the availability of the type of food the birds are able to forage. But once again: What is going on genetically in the catbird seat, as it were, that is causing this pattern of change?

Not until 2015 was an answer to this question available. A team of scientists tallied the complete sequence of genes in a cell (i.e., the genome) of an array of finches on the archipelago, which, in sum, included over a hundred billion nucleotides. As Behe reminds us, most mutations are neutral, so identifying the relevant mutations is like searching for, in this case, a broken needle in a haystack. With the help of computers, six master genes associated with beak and head development were isolated; then this finding was correlated with the differences between blunt-beak and pointed-beak finches. The gene most strongly associated with this difference codes for a protein consisting of 326 amino acids, and, of these, two differ between the pointiest-beaked finch and the bluntest-beaked!

Behe compares these mutations, sometimes called genetic “copying errors,” to two misspellings of one letter each within two long sentences — errors that are insignificant. Similarly, these changes are barely discernible in the beaks of these finches. Not to put too fine a point on it, the changes in the finches are for the birds, or, as Behe sums up the Grand Narrative of the Galapagos Finches, “Millions of years of selection have left the finches very, very close to where they started.”

Whether it’s the change between brown bears and polar bears or in a horse’s gait or in the production of earwax and insulin in humans, “very often the quickest way for Darwinian evolution to mitigate a problem is to break something,” Behe concludes.

So, what does this portend for Darwinian evolution?

Behe concludes that these findings demonstrate that “random mutation and natural selection are two edged swords.” As they enhance survival, they destroy “a species’ store of genetic information,” which is the catalyst for evolutionary transformations. In other words, this situation is like being on a sinking boat and struggling to make it ashore by tossing overboard equipment that would be required for a long voyage. But after you make it to safety, you might be marooned. To change metaphors, mutations may emerge victorious in battles for survival, but they are Pyrrhic victories.

Mutation, selection, or any other “nonintelligently planned process cannot produce descendants that differ from their ancestor at the level of family or higher,” Behe writes. He explains that if biological classification is an eight-digit number, then the mutation-selection process can only account for the dimes and pennies columns of life. In other words, the chump change that misleads observers is conflated with the big-money transactions, the transformations between the higher biological classifications, like the transformations from turtles to eagles that Darwinism requires.

So, if most mutations warp or destroy what’s already in the DNA of an organism, and circumstances permit the organism to live or die, where’s the step-by-step pathway upward to the new and improved versions, the evolutionary progress that Darwin’s science supposedly demonstrated? Darwinian change is supposed to be vertical, a bottom-up movement. Instead, what Behe sees is a top-down movement: Organisms arrive with their genetic complexity intact, undergo mutations, and, as a consequence, sometimes move horizontally, back and forth within a species. Behe recounts Darwinists’ various self-organizing theories, but none accounts for the type of change in question, let alone for the sophisticated cellular machinery itself.

Behe’s 1996 bestseller, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, is devoted to showing that no incremental Darwinian program is capable of explaining even something as simple as a mousetrap, with its several interacting parts that must be constructed, assembled, and set in the correct sequence or it won’t catch mice. Thus, a mousetrap is “irreducibly complex.” Though Behe uses the mousetrap to simplify his point, the blood-clotting cascade of mammals is his go-to example of the myriad dynamics in nature that are irreducibly complex.

As Behe rightly notes, though “a cottage industry has strained” to discredit the mousetrap comparison, the best that his critics can do is insist that Behe prove a negative: that a mousetrap could not have arisen by accident. As Behe responds, if no evidence exists that the Darwinian routes to self-assembly exist, “there’s no requirement to hunt forever for the Loch Ness monster.” Besides, he writes, “if Russell Doolittle himself, one of the very top researchers in the area of blood clotting, cannot account for a system of the complexity of the clotting cascade by Darwinian processes, nobody can — nobody in the whole world.”

Behe wrote in his second book, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (2007), that “purposeful design could only account for the foundations of nature, the fine tuning of the universe, through the elegant machinery of the cell. Without all that basic stage setting, life could not exist.” That is, putting together something of an almost infinite number of parts involves a plan, a purpose, and a design — or, to use Aristotle’s term, “a final cause.” Behe notes that to invoke design is neither a recent nor a religious explanation.

Design advocates argue that purpose or design in any domain has only one source based on our current knowledge. That source is the mind, or intelligence. Many associate this view with William Paley’s idea that just as a watch has a watchmaker, so also nature had a Divine Watchmaker. Once again, a less-refined framing of this idea has probably existed in all cultures and times, and we have evidence from anthropology. William of Conches, one of the 12th-century Scholastic realists and a soft Platonist, put it this way: “Intelligence is the force of the intellect whereby man perceives the immaterial, after reason has made him certain of the cause of its existence.”

As Behe painstakingly demonstrates, chance and accident can only work on what already exists. Chance and accident cannot make, plan, or organize; to suggest otherwise — indeed, to base science or a worldview on these twins — is to court the proliferation of the very nonsense the academy tolerates. Yet the science disciplines insist on telling us that the order in nature is accidental; then they return to their work by assuming the consistency of natural laws and of their own minds to make sense of it all. As Alfred North Whitehead dryly observed, “Scientists animated by the purpose of proving themselves purposeless, make an interesting subject for study.”

In Darwin Devolves, Behe describes a group of insects, planthoppers, that have strange bumps on their hind legs, thought to have no present purpose. However, entomologists relying on high-speed videos are able to see that these bumps are the teeth of gears that give this insect the ability to jump hundreds of times its body length. In order to achieve the high speed necessary for its amazing jump, Behe writes, the planthopper’s hind legs “must begin to flex in synchrony very quickly, more quickly than it takes for a full nerve impulse to reach the legs. If one leg is triggered before the other, the insect would lose power and tumble erratically. With the gear teeth engaged and the gears spinning at an astonishing fifty thousand teeth per second, as one leg starts to move, the gear rotation starts the other leg moving as well, and the bug gets maximum power and coordination for its efforts.”

As National Geographic exclaimed, “This insect has gears. GEARS!” But the sophistication and complexity of eyes and brains are even more subtle. As Behe writes, “It is easy to be talked out of one’s impressions of design for the brain and the eye, especially by an authority in a lab coat, [but about these gears] there can be little ambiguity. The stark clarity of them is a rebuke to nonpurposive accounts.”

Since Behe’s work first appeared more than 20 years ago, his Catholicism and his proposal that intelligent design is the best scientific explanation for nature’s complexity have been mocked and patronized. But no critic has explained how Darwinian mechanisms even begin to account for what is routinely claimed for them. As for his Catholicism, in 2009 Behe remarked, “You can be a good Catholic and believe in Darwinism. Biochemistry has made it increasingly difficult, however, to be a thoughtful scientist and believe in it.”

Despite this, Darwinism survives because science is now defined exclusively as the study of mindless, material causes. But as the celebrated Cambridge rhetorician and literary savant I.A. Richards wrote, “All definitions are essentially ad hoc. They are relevant to some purpose or situation, and consequently are applicable over only a restricted field or ‘universe of discourse.’” Of course, Socrates relentlessly pointed this out, and any worthy debater or novice attorney knows how to manipulate an argument by stipulating a desired definition. Richard Lewontin, emeritus professor of biochemistry at Harvard and a Marxist materialist, demonstrates this with rare candor when he admits a “willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense” to the point of “patent absurdity” because of “a prior commitment to materialism. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

Behe counters his mockers as he declares, “The epidemic of tongue-tied Darwinists unable to explain how their theory might account for the real functional intricacies of life continues to this day.” Further, “Any claim that there is scientific warrant to believe mutation and selection can account for the foundation of life is the barest pretense of knowledge.”

One such pretender of knowledge (there always being such an immense number within the species) is Daniel Dennett, professor of philosophy at Tufts University. Also co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts, Dennett opines that Darwin’s non-cognitive, mindless dynamic of natural selection is “the single best idea ever had. In a single stroke the idea of natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning and purpose.” As for those who do not believe this, Dennett calls for the “caging and disarming” of parents who teach their children the Bible at the expense of Darwin. Behe concludes, “The whole field of evolutionary biology is disconnected from reality. Breathing the thin air of abstract theory for too long can induce hallucinations, and we start to imagine phantasms transforming themselves into whatever we wish to see.”

The pathway of Western civilization, from the grittiness of the Bible through the symmetries of the classical tradition, followed by the medieval Enlightenment — Jerusalem and Athens meeting in Rome — has been a movement toward realism, clarity, and seeing things as they are. The West’s predominant pathway has led to techniques and instruments that help us to see: Giotto adding depth to his radiant mosaics by his invention of perspective; cameras being continuously refined so as to add clarity and depth to photography, videos, and movies; and geniuses like Galileo and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek developing the telescope and microscope to add precision to our picture of nature. Michael Behe is a fellow sojourner in this illustrious quest who has added profound depth to our understanding of nature and who has had the courage to tell us what he sees.


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