Sad Finch

While efforts to foist creationism on public school biology students have failed, such attempts continually arise like The Phoenix, a bird with as much claim to being real as any creationist argument.


While the legal losses have been declarative, adherents have latched onto a solitary, isolated line from a 1987 defeat and have sucked it dry for more than 30 years. The sentence suggested teachings about human origins which fail to incorporate biology may be permissible if the purpose is secular.


There is no such animal, literally or figuratively, but proponents used this single utterance to invent the notion of Intelligent Design. In this concept, any deity or higher being, not necessarily the Biblical one, could have created life. The façade is so transparent that no follower of any religious subset besides U.S. evangelical Christians have ever embraced the idea, and a publication lauding Intelligent Design has as its cover Leonardo DaVinci’s The Creation of Adam.


ID proponents include virtually no biologists, and we could count on one evolved opposable-digit hand how many of them have done molecular biology research. While ID proponents are nowhere to be found in peer-reviewed journals, their banter is a regular feature on Christian media. There, biologists are portrayed as confused, stubborn, disillusioned, frustrated, or immoral, which even if all true, would be ad homimen attacks unrelated to the scientists’ research, findings, or writings.

Proponents embrace the god of the gaps fallacy, gleefully plugging their favored deity into any crevice science has yet to fully explain. But our focus today is on one of those who is among that literal handful of molecular biologists who endorse ID: Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe. He accepts that microevolution through random mutation diversifies organisms into species and genera, and perhaps even families. But he feels something more is needed to explain large-scale evolutionary transitions. Into this gap, which he creates from feelings and not evidence, he wedges the Christian god. He never says that verbatim, but he does allow his evangelical Christian followers to accept this interpretation and promote it.

In a review of Behe’s latest book, Darwin Devolves, John Jay College biology professor Nathan Lents writes that Behe purportedly undertakes to prove that evolutionary processes are insufficient to generate adaptive innovations, yet the author spends precious little time addressing this.

Further, Behe dedicates precious few paragraphs addressing key evolutionary mechanisms that serve to undermine his thesis. Consider horizontal gene transfer, which occurs when genetic material moves from one species to another, usually through a virus. For example, Lents explains, deer ticks evolved defenses against bacteria through genes that came from those bacteria.

While uncommon, such horizontal gene transfer can have profound effects on a species’ eventual lineage. Behe dedicates nary a word to this in Darwin Devolves.

Also unmentioned by Behe is exaptation, which refers to an organism co-opting a structure for a new function. Lents cites the example of mammalian middle ear bones that were adapted from jaw bones in our reptilian ancestors.


Now, when Behe writes that natural selection cannot fully account for the planet’s molecular biodiversity, he is right. But we know that because of scientific discoveries made since Darwin, not because of ancient religious texts or the writings of an iconoclastic microbiology professor who bypasses peer review.


In an attempt to bolster his view that natural selection in insufficient, Behe writes that that Richard Lenski’s e. coli experiment shows that mutation and natural selection serve only to “break or blunt genes.” But Behe misinterprets the experiment and ignores that its controlled environment is deliberately artificial. Lents notes that bacteria in the experiment have access to unlimited food, static temperatures, high oxygen, and are without competitors, pathogens, or threats to their immune system.


Behe also dismisses finch diversification, announcing he is unimpressed with their becoming about 18 species across five genera. He compares finch diversification to the adaptive radiation of animals during the Cambrian explosion more than 500 million years ago. He gloats that finches failed to become a new phylum, class, or even order.


Lents answers that the Cambrian explosion took place over a much longer time and involved simpler animals which produce much faster than finches.


With an online treasure trove of overwhelming evidence available, lay persons who latch onto a favored position in lieu of science are without excuse. But a harsher criticism should be leveled at anyone whose experience and education should be used to correct those lay persons instead of comforting them.

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