Friday, November 26, 2010


Michael Behe at Charles Darwin House

I was privileged to be in the invited audience for a discussion between molecular biologist and design theorist Prof Michael Behe and theistic evolutionist Prof Michael Reiss at Charles Darwin House, London, on Monday 22nd November.

I took extensive notes during the meeting. Here's my outline of their presentations and discussion (direct quotes are in quotation marks), along with some commentary [within square brackets]:

1) Behe's Presentation

Should ID be taught as science? Yes, if any other theory purporting to explain the same data is taught.

Science is not co-extensive with rationality, and rationality includes the ability to discern other minds through their physical effects; so there are problems with rules excluding this form of reasoning from science, in that they create a strain between science and rationality.

We spot the activity of other minds through noticing 'the purposeful arrangement of parts' (and Richard Dawkins agrees with this). [I agree, but as Behe himself admitted, his design detection criteria here is rather sketchy.]

2) Reiss' Presentation

Science 'Makes no mention of God' - it proceeds without presuming anything, either positively or negatively, about God [thus opening up the possibility of a mismatch between the scientific explanation and the true explanation of something]

There is 'nothing disreputable' about appealing to God to explain what science cannot explain, but doing so may be premature (i.e. science might explain it later [and it may not!]).

'My prediction' is that ID examples (e.g. bacterial flagellum) will eventually be explained by conventional scientific means [i.e. he issued a 'promissory note'].

Behe is not necessarily saying that God 'interfered' within the universe to cause the flagellum to come together.

Nothing serves as a proof of God's existence - but if one already has faith in God then one can draw certain inferences about God from the data of nature.

Education about ID is best done in RE rather than in science because of the expertise of the teachers, but 'I'm all in favour of student's critically examining' arguments 'for and against' evolution.

Discussion (led by Justin Brierly of Premier Christian Radio)

JB) Has the irreducible complexity of the flagellum been disproved?

B) Criticisms are not rigorous, only comparing protein sequences etc., but even if those results were true they don't solve the problem.

R) Both ID and standard evolutionary theory lack a complete explanation for these systems, my prediction, which 'may be a mistaken prediction', is that evolutionary theory is the correct explanation; but the available data is sketchy (e.g. there are no fossils for this), whereas ID is a 'scientific council of despair'.

B) Was Big Bang theory a scientific council of despair? Big Bang was thought to be a 'science stopper' at the time it was first proposed. I bet £10 that we will not have solved these problems within the standard paradigm in ten year's time. Our understanding of life is getting more complicated not less complicated [waving scientific article entitled 'Life is Complicated'].

JB) Is a design inference not allowed within science?

R) The problem is not with an inference to design, but whether such an inference is 'within science or outside of it'. ID 'sits without' science by definition. Mainstream science did at least consider the Big Bang theory, it rejects ID.

JB) Can ID ever become the dominant paradigm?

B) Yes. Anti-Darwinism is currently more wide-spread then ID though. The cut off is over invoking intelligence as an explanation; but the question should be 'is this explanation true or false'? What if ID is true but outside science by definition? What do you define science as and what do you teach in science class then?

R) I do not want children taught that science can explain everything. e.g. Maths is more fundamental than science. Moral philosophy is another example.

B) [Waving article from 'Cell']: We do not understand evolution of new traits.

JB) The Dover Court Case - is ID religious?

R) ID can make no reference to religion. However, most supporters are religious, e.g. Christians with a creationist ancestry. Still, one can conceive of ID without a deity.

B) It doesn't matter who suggests and idea, but rather whether or not it is true. The Dover school board were Creationists, but 'I present myself' as a counter example to this ID stereotype.

JB) Does ID raise theological problems?

R) Not a theological problem, ID has a long history. I 'prefer' the idea that God gave nature self-sufficient capacities to evolve itself [interesting a priori judgement here].

B) Maybe evolution is more theologically elegant, I don't know, but scientists are meant to follow the evidence, not a priori notions from theology! There doesn't have to be any 'interference' (a loaded word) by God to achieve the design implementation; that can 'unfold'.

R) Is Behe saying 'no miracles'? [I think he is invoking divine middle knowledge]

B) Lenski experiments [on generations of evolving bacteria, which showed only \improvements' based on ditching and breaking genetic information]

R) Polyploidy given as an example of an increase, indeed by a factor of two, in information caused by evolutionary mechanisms [but this is a bad example, as it involves duplicating information not creating new information - photocopying a book doesn't increase the amount of information one has]

B) Biological textbooks say we do know what happened and Darwinism does explain it - but professional biologists know that this is not true.

R) I'd love to see improved quality in UK textbooks.


I thought this was an excellent discussion that built upon some common ground and highlighted some key areas of debate. Reiss did not attack a 'straw man' of ID, as so many do. He was clear, for example, that ID is distinct from Creationism, that it doesn't mention God and that it needn't invoke divine intervention. It also struck me that Reiss agreed with Behe's claim that standard evolutionary biology does not have the ability to explain a great deal at the moment, including things that scientific textbooks say are explained by evolutionary theory. Finally, it stuck me very clearly that while Reiss was content to issue promissory notes on the basis of an a priori theological preference and an a priori definition of 'science', it was Behe who was constantly citing scientific evidence, waving peer reviewed scientific articles around, and calling for science to follow the evidence wherever it led.

During the Q&A time I asked Michael Reiss how he would handle the dilemma posed to his position that ID wasn't science if (as he explicitly admitted it might be) ID were true? Would he simply redefine what he meant by 'science' (to include ID), or would he shunt money from the university science department to the philosophy/theology department to better understand the reality of nature? Which fork of this dilemma would he pick?

In response, Reiss said that if ID were true then this wouldn't merely require a tweaking of our definition of 'science', but would be a really big paradigm shift. It wasn't clear to me that his reply answered the question, unless he was picking the re-definition fork and saying that this would be a big change - but, as I say, it wasn't entirely clear to me if this was what he meant.

The event is due to be broadcast on Justin's Unbelievable show on Premier Radio in the near future.

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