Michael Behe’s “Darwin Devolves” asks: Has Darwin solved the design problem in biology? Behe says absolutely not, and backs his position with detailed examples. Furthermore, nobody has really solved the famous problem of “irreducible complexity” that Behe described in “Darwin’s Black Box.” But Perry Marshall insists Behe has still omitted vital details and landmark experiments. Bill Cole works closely with Behe, so Perry and Bill discuss: Will Behe’s approach be effective in addressing the shortcomings of mainstream science?
Perry: Hi, this is Perry Marshall. I’m here with Bill Cole. Bill is a man of many interests. He’s a businessman, an entrepreneur, a very heavy science aficionado, and he’s a friend of Michael Behe. Behe wrote a brand new book called Darwin Evolves, which we’re going to talk about today.
I reached out to Bill because I thought the book was very provocative. There were things I agreed with and there were things I disagreed with, and I said, “Bill, what would you think about having a conversation and recording it, because I know that you know Michael,” and you said, “Hey, that sounds great.”
Bill, why don’t you introduce yourself a little more and then explain your connection to Michael.
Bill: Perry, you did a pretty good job there. Yes, I am a business man and I got into this debate about four years ago in very much the same way you did, when I discovered a problem with the theory of evolution, basically the neo-Darwinian explanation. That was pretty severe and it caught my interest, as this theory was believed by almost everybody.
That morphed into a friends and family paper I wrote that ended up getting in the hands of a fairly well-known cancer research scientist, and that relationship commenced about four years ago. It got me to write a first paper, which essentially showed the problems with the prokaryotic/eukaryotic transition, and the probabilistic problems in that transition with such large macro-machines like the spliceosome and the nuclear pore complex, showing that even with the most conservative estimates of prevalence of function in protein space, that the neo-Darwinian mechanism would have grave difficulty trying to build those machines.
That also ended up morphing into me doing some biochemical research that lasted several years and over 300 papers to show how low blood levels of vitamin D were creating cancer risk in the population. That morphed into another friends and family paper, and probably eventually will morph into a full-blown scientific paper in the next few years. So that’s my background.
In attempting to get a partner for research I started blogging, and that’s where I ran into you and where I ran into several other people, and thus I met Michael Behe on a videoconference very much like this videoconference. We hit it off really well and I’ve met him in person since then and we regularly communicate our ideas with each other.
I’ve actually been somebody who has blogged for him because he does not like to get on the blogs, where as you know there’s lots of insults and ad hominem attacks and things like that, but he has worked through me, has done research for me, and actually in one case that research that he did will actually be applicable to your work you’ve done in the natural genetic engineering area of James Shapiro. So I hope that introduction works.
Perry: That’s great. Did you have a prior opinion or impression about evolution before you got into all this?
Bill: No, it was very much like you. It was a theory I simply accepted. I think the thing that piqued my interest is that almost everybody accepts it, and when you find major problems it’s a big “whoa!” So it’s very much how you got into it.
We have a debate here, but I think you and I probably have 98% commonality of how we think about things, so it will be interesting discussing some of the things we disagree with and maybe we’ll close on that commonality today, who knows.
Perry: There’s a fairly famous two-part debate between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris, where they start their conversations by describing the other one’s point of view as charitably as they can so that they can establish some level of common understanding. How about we do that, and why don’t I take a shot at summarizing what Behe is trying to say here, and then you can respond to that.
What Behe says here is, “Hey, I grew up a Catholic. Catholics didn’t have any problem with evolution, not like some of the Protestants do. I was totally into that and it was fine. Frankly, I didn’t question it all that much. Then I got into biochemistry and I was doing that, and that was fine, too.”
Occasionally little glitches in the matrix would surface, like having a conversation with one of his colleagues in the lab and they kind of bumped into some questions they had no idea how to solve, but they kind of shrugged them off.
Then he read I think a Michael Denton book and it was like, “Hey, wait a minute. There’s big problems here.” Then Michael started doing research and it made him angry. It was like, “Wow, it’s not like my professors are bad people or anything, and it’s not like there’s some kind of conspiracy. They’re just repeating what they’ve been told, but man, this dog doesn’t really hunt.”
Then this got him into being a member of the intelligent design movement and writing Darwin’s Black Box, and that was more than 20 years ago, so he kind of figured he was done writing books like that, but lo and behold the thing just kept going and going and going.
What he says in this book is, first the title Darwin Devolves says that the traditional neo-Darwinian mechanisms as used to explain evolution actually only get you backwards evolution, like slow deterioration and degradation. They don’t produce the marvelous levels of order that they’re claimed to produce. Furthermore, random mutations are extremely problematic, and that’s the biggest beef that most dissenters have.
Furthermore, he notes that there are quite a few dissenters from Neo-Darwinism across all kinds of religious and non-religious points of view. There are atheists that have serious problems with Neo-Darwinism. And many of the extended synthesis people and third way kind of people get accused of having a secret liaison with intelligent design.
Another point he makes is that people claim to have solved the irreducible complexity problem that he describes in Darwin’s Black Box, but he says in actual fact they have not, and he goes into extensive discussion about that.
He says that the extended synthesis guys, kind of the new guard of evolution who dissent from Neo-Darwinism, still haven’t really explained all this stuff. They especially haven’t explained where it all came from.
By the end of the book he says, “Look, this still had to come from somewhere and it still shows every sign of intelligent design; therefore, it’s intelligently designed.” We actually know this better than William Paley ever knew it, because we have about 10,000 times more information than Paley had. “Hey everybody, nobody’s solved this. I’m just telling you that’s the score,” and that’s kind of how he ends the book.
In the middle he talks about all kinds of very specific mechanisms and experiments. He says, “Look, they tell you they’ve solved it, but if you look really close at the data, their data actually supports my hypothesis, not their own.”
That is my take on this book. Now, I have disagreements and I’ll get to those later, but this is what I think he’s saying.
Bill: I think again you’re at least 95% accurate in your interpretation. I would say that as far is the irreducible complexity goes, no, that has not been solved or even close to being solved. It’s mostly being solved with straw man arguments, which is they’ll change the argument, and that started with Ken Miller. He would change the argument, where Behe is a very careful scientist. He will say as an empirical scientist you can’t really prove a negative, and he will be very careful not to set himself up that way. The people who have tried to defeat irreducible complexity have had to use straw man arguments to do it.
The fact is that they will do two things. One, they will downplay what is irreducibly complex to something that has two or three parts versus a bacterial flagellum that has 40 parts, and they’ll also say that Behe claims that this cannot evolve, and he doesn’t make that claim. The claim he makes is it’s a difficult challenge for the Darwinian mechanism.
So just to clarify that point, I don’t think we disagree there. I’m just clarifying more details of how the opponents have attacked the argument.
The real problem I see and I think you see, and we have commonality here, is that a flagellum has about 100,000 or more nucleotides to build it. That’s 4100,000 power of possible combinations, and that’s the real challenge. How many combinations can really build a flagellum? It’s most likely well below 4100,000 power, so that’s the real problem when we get back to the DNA.
Behe attacks Darwin’s gradualism by irreducible complexity, saying it’s a structure that you don’t get function until all the parts are working together, and in order to get advantage, which is key to Darwin’s theory, you need the structure fully operational. In the case of the flagellum it’s mobility, so that’s a very important feature of bacteria.
As far as the other thing, just to clarify here, is the design argument. It’s not necessarily an argument from “nobody else could do it, so…designed.” I was in that place four years ago, exactly where you are, but I see some positivism to the argument, and I think you’ve outlined this argument. I watched your Penn State lecture and saw you make this argument, which is the only known cause of a sequence or functional genetic information that we know of is a mind. We know minds can create information.
You have your $5 million prize, which is “I’m going to see if nature can create a communication system,” but so far the only known mechanism we know for creating functional information is a mind.
That’s part of Behe’s book, but that’s more Steve Meyer’s and Doug Axe’s argument. Behe’s argument is also that when we see or observe a purposeful arrangement of parts, that also indicates the existence that a mind was behind it. This is the positive argument of design.
The discussion you and I had four years ago up in Seattle, that long discussion we had, I agree with and I think Behe certainly agrees with this, that the biggest problem of the design argument is that it’s limited. Once you say it’s designed, what do you do next? That’s the biggest limitation of the design argument and that’s been my resistance to it. But now I say, “Okay, let’s make an empirical observation. Let’s make an empirical assessment.”
At this point, the only known mechanism for functional information is a mind, so empirically it’s the best argument we have today. It doesn’t mean that we don’t do what you’re doing, which is try and see if there’s something between the design argument and the actual thing we’re observing.
I think Ken Miller’s best argument is that the design argument is a science stopper, but I would argue back with Ken to say it’s only a science stopper if we make it a science stopper. I think it’s a valid empirical observation. That’s my current thinking.
Perry: Okay. So would it be a good time to get into the specific points of disagreement?
Perry: I want to show my screen and share an illustration I made. I’ve made four little diagrams to analogize what the different camps are saying about evolution.
This depicts creationism. The sun up in the sky is design or designer. The earth is nature. You’re driving your car on the earth and basically the message is “You cannot get there from here.” Various giraffes or zebras or apes or humans were all acts of special creation. There is no macro evolution. There is only micro evolution. This kind of depicts how everything is positioned together.
What Darwinism says is there is no sun, there’s only clouds, and the earth makes its own light and that’s it. There is nothing on the outside. It’s all darkness out there. There is no creator. There is no designer. There is no design. Natural processes make all this stuff…end of story. Then anybody who disagrees says, “Hey, wait a minute. You haven’t explained where the light comes from.”
To put a finer point on it, Darwin believed in a creator. He wasn’t sure what kind of creator he believed in, but when he talks about the first cells he talks about some divine being breathing life into them or something like that, and the rest all took care of itself through his process. The typical atheist position is, “It’s all self-contained and there is nothing on the outside.”
Here’s how intelligent design, in my perception, usually seems to work. Yes, there is a source of light. There’s a sun and it’s way out there on the horizon, so I’ve put it like it’s straight to the west, if you will. Or I guess the way I drew it, it’s straight to the east. Let’s say it’s west, so now it’s like we’re driving our car and we can drive towards the horizon and we can get a little closer to it, but we’re never ever going to get there through purely natural means. It’s different than creationism because there’s kind of this unspecified degree of evolution that in the intelligent design camp there’s all kinds of opinions about, so it’s a pretty big tent.
Here’s how I would depict Evolution 2.0. Evolution 2.0 is kind of like that, but you don’t know how big the earth is. What we do know is you can drive and drive and drive and you can get closer to the sun, and the more miles you cover, the more scientific discoveries you uncover, and there is light out at an endpoint somewhere, but it’s unclear whether that light exists in the realm of the earth or whether it’s 100 million miles away. But it’s also unclear how big the earth is. Maybe the earth has a circumference of 25,000 miles, but maybe it’s 25 million miles, and you just don’t know – the metaphor being we don’t know how deep nature’s toolbox actually goes.
I would say what we do know is that all lifeforms are intelligent. What we don’t know is where the intelligence originally comes from or how deep it goes. I would contend that this picture and this picture are actually very, very different from each other.
If you have a circle with an infinite radius, the circle almost becomes a straight line. To keep with the analogy here, I am suggesting that the sophistication of nature itself might be, for all practical purposes, infinitely deep. We don’t know how many sub- sub- sub-atomic particles there are. We don’t know how many systems within systems within systems within systems are in biology.
When I first met you we were at the Christian Scientific Society meeting, is that right?
Bill: That’s right, in Seattle.
Perry: My book Evolution 2.0 had just come out and the organizers were somewhat simpatico with my book, but somewhat unsimpatico. They invited me and they’re like, “Hey, let’s hear what this guy has to say.” Really, most of the people in the room were card-carrying Discovery Institute intelligent design guys, and I was advocating natural genetic engineering and what has been called the extended synthesis, the Swiss Army Knife toolbox of Evolution 2.0.
I said to Casey Luskin, who was in the meeting – back to this illustration here – I said, “You guys are doing this. Your strategy is never ever going to work because the way you frame this argument is it’s designed and you can never solve this in a naturalistic framework. Your position essentially takes a job away from a scientist. You’ll never get to the design. It’s out there somewhere, where in this picture every mile you drive that car is another paper that a scientist can publish.” I said, “You’re going against the grain of the very scientific enterprise itself the way that you position the sun in your picture. You position it as being infinitely far away so that you can never get to it.”
This picture is saying you might be able to get there, you might not, but what we can say for certain is you can get closer, you can get closer, and you can get closer, and the degree to which you can get closer doesn’t appear to have an endpoint.
I think that’s a critical distinction and I think that’s the mistake that Behe makes. I don’t know that he’s making it intentionally, but he’s not providing a path that the design hypothesis can take a scientist down. He’s just saying, “Hey, you guys haven’t explained this yet. You guys haven’t explained this yet.” And crucially I really think he under-estimates and neglects some of the finer points of the extended synthesis of symbiogenesis, of natural genetic engineering. I really don’t think he gives those mechanisms enough airtime or enough credit, and that’s what I want to talk to you about today.
Let me say one more thing. I’m a very well-known marketing consultant. If you Google me or get on Quora or any place like that you’ll see my name all over the place, and I see part of this as a marketing problem, as a very severe marketing problem.
This is already a bestseller. It’s probably going to be the best-selling book of its kind this year, so congratulations. But everybody who buys it is basically going to be an ID person or creationist and it’s still not going to get taken seriously by the people who most need to take it seriously, because he’s still in this picture, and they’ll never buy this picture. The scientific community will never ever buy this picture, because it takes away their job.
I’m not accusing Behe of trying to take away a scientist’s job, but I just think he has a positioning problem. If he positioned himself a little differently he would effectively challenge scientists to solve it in ways that are productive, rather than making up stories, which is what some of these guys are doing.
So back to you.
Bill: That’s very interesting, what you just pointed out. Honestly, what brought me back to credibility with the design argument was Behe, and I think that’s one of the bases of our relationship. There were comments that have been made by some of the Discovery Institute guys about junk DNA, non-junk DNA, and they made a prediction. Well, they didn’t make any prediction.
One of my conversations is videotaped with Behe. I don’t know if you’ve seen that before, but on YouTube two of our conversations are videotaped, and we basically agreed on everything. I guess we almost agreed on everything. I think he takes common descent a little bit too seriously. We slightly disagree there, but on just the basic scientific ideas we pretty much agree on everything.
I think you’re saying that design’s argument is limited, and I think that’s the scope you said where Evolution 2.0 is trying to chip at this enormous “turtles all the way down” phenomena called biology. I think you’re right and I think that’s exactly what you should be doing, and I think Behe’s argument is truly a niche argument, and I don’t think he’d disagree with that. He knows it’s limited, but I don’t think it’s an argument to be dismissed. I think it’s a niche piece of science. It is not all of science. You’re trying to define a bigger tent in order to do discovery with science.
My position here would be that Darwin has a place at the table. It just happens to be a much smaller place than people are claiming it to be. I think one thing that Behe’s book does is it shows what Darwin’s real place at the table is, and that is showing genetic diversity to the specie level and maybe a little bit to the genus level, but not beyond that. Beyond that we don’t have a good explanation.
I think what Shapiro and you are doing is talking about natural genetic engineering. I think that really so far is adaptive mechanisms. They’re well beyond the Darwinian mechanisms. They’re much more interesting than the Darwinian mechanisms, but at the end of the day they’re still adaptive mechanisms. Until you can show that they’re truly innovative mechanisms I think Behe has a seat at the table here, even though it may be a smaller seat than you have at the table.
Perry: Let’s talk about innovative mechanisms, because I think that’s where the productive conversation is to be had. I want to talk about a few experiments that have been done that I think are big, big, big clues.
Lynn Margulis championed the theory of symbiogenesis. It took her about 20-30 years to get it accepted, but it is accepted now. The weird twist to the story was the Russians already had it thoroughly figured out by the 1920s. It took until the 90s for Americans and people in the west to accept it, and that’s pretty bad. When it takes 70 years for something that makes a ton of sense and has a great explanatory framework to get accepted, it just shows you how entrenched Darwinian theory has been, because symbiogenesis is a massive leaps theory, not a gradual theory.
Bill: But Perry it’s also just a partial explanation.
Perry: So let’s keep chewing on the bone here. When I started writing Evolution 2.0, all of the symbiogenesis information I found was anecdotal, and it was very impressive. If you go to the books in the 1920s it’s all based on physiology. They’re like, “Look, you see that blue-green algae and you see that chloroplast inside the cell? Do you notice they look exactly the same? Hello!” so that was the argument in the 1920s. Then you get to the 1990s and now it’s, “Hey, guess what. The genes are also almost identical, or in some cases are identical.”
You can make a really persuasive case that these organisms shed some of their genes and some of their coding sequences. I said, “Okay, but has anybody actually produced this in the lab?” Well, it turned out yes, but hardly anybody was talking about it.
So I dug and I dug and I found a reference to something and I couldn’t get to it, and I had my local library order me something, and this paper shows up. It’s by Kwang Jeon from the University of Tennessee and he actually did a symbiogenesis experiment. He put Amoeba proteus and X-bacteria together and they fought like cats and dogs for 18 months. It was like a corporate acquisition. You ever been through one of those?
Bill: I’ve been through a couple of them.
Perry: So they fought like cats and dogs, and finally they started getting along. At the end of 18 months he had the X-bacteria living inside the Amoeba and they had done a complete shedding of redundant functions.
An analogy would be we take a Starbucks and we put it inside a Marriott. We have to send in the construction crews and they hook up the water. There’s one water main coming into the building and the Starbucks uses that, and there’s an electrical panel and they hook that up together, and we don’t need two accounting departments. It’s kind of like that. They reduced the redundant functions and when he separated the two they both died.
They sequenced the genomes of these guys and they found they had exchanged DNA, they had shed DNA, their whole genomes had changed to a degree, and you effectively, for all practical purposes, had a new organism that never used to exist before.
Now, if you go to the larger symbiogenesis theory, Margulis and the Russians were saying, “This is exactly how we got mitochondria. This is exactly how we got chloroplasts.” Even though I’m not aware that somebody has created an entire brand new mitochondria merger or a brand new chloroplast-algae merger, I think the evidence that that actually happened is quite persuasive.
What I want to point out is how incredibly sophisticated this is, and I want to point out that all of it is irreducibly complex, but the cells do it anyway. This is the punch line that everybody seems to have missed.
I’ve got a chapter in Evolution 2.0 about irreducible complexity and I say, “Dude, I’m an engineer. Nobody knows about irreducible complexity better than me.” You know that little children’s toy, the Simon Says? You pull the string and the little cow turns around. My neighbor has a 3-year-old and the string broke and it’s done. You have a Simon Says, or whatever that thing is, with a broken string and you have a piece of junk. You can’t do anything with it. Most things are like that, and most things in biology are like that, so Michael is right about the flagellum.
So then I went into the literature and I said, “So has anybody explained this?” and here’s what I found, Bill. What I found was a bunch of papers that said, “Well hey, that gene was already over here and that gene was already over here, so all the Legos are there, so Behe’s wrong.” I go, “Hey, wait a minute. You guys didn’t explain this because you still didn’t explain how the Legos got put together.”
But here’s what really upset me. The creationists go, “It’s irreducibly complex; therefore, God did it.” The Darwinists go, “It’s irreducibly complex, but all the Legos are there and chance could do that.” They never actually explain how it got done. I’m going, “Hey, none of you guys are actually mentioning that the cells are capable of building these complex things and moving around a whole bunch of parts all at one time.”
Bill: I’m going to go back to my baseline on intelligent design is Behe and not the Discovery Institute per se. It’s Behe. So the argument is not “God did it.” The argument is, “Evidence for design,” hard stop. That’s what Behe’s argument is, evidence for design. He may say the designer is an interesting discussion and all that, but that’s not the scientific statement of intelligent design. It’s simply evidence of design or evidence that a mind is ultimately behind this.
As far as where Behe would go on the idea of a eukaryotic cell like an amoeba acquiring a prokaryotic cell and mixing and matching DNA, Michael would be fascinated by that, but he would then ask the question, “Where did the machinery for the amoeba come from? Where did the machinery from the prokaryotic cell come from?” so that’s where the design argument is, and it’s again a niche argument.
Perry: What does Behe actually think? It’s not clear to me, and I might not have read closely enough so help me out here. It’s not clear to me what he actually thinks happened. Does he believe in some kind of natural genetic engineering? Does he believe in common descent? Does he believe in macro evolution? I’m not entirely clear what he thinks.
Bill: That’s sort of by design, to use a pun. He is a hard-core empiricist. He’s looking at the evidence and making a conclusion based on the evidence and he’s making the conclusion he can, based on the evidence. He’s really not a speculator.
In one of our conversations he said there may be no mechanism. It may be just a very fancy pool shot that unveiled the universe and life came about. He doesn’t discount that as a possibility, and then he doesn’t discount some special creation as a possibility. He’s just down to observing the fact that we’re seeing some stuff out there that there’s clear design detection.
It’s the same thing you see, and you’re trying to peel the envelope. He’s not trying to peel the envelope as you are, so I think you guys both have very clear places at the table. You’re just going about it slightly differently, but I think your argument is very important and I think Behe’s argument is very important.
Perry: In Behe’s book he says something very interesting. He says, “If you want to start asking who the designer is, that is a much more complex question than my simple inference that there is one at some point, and I’m not going to get into that because that’s 10 books or 100 books, not one.”
Bill: That’s exactly right.
Perry: In a sense that’s what I’ve done, too. I’ve said, “Look, I’ll go with the pool shot.” Personally I think that’s the most elegant way of viewing it. If we can reduce it down to one giant unknown event, instead of a whole series of who knows how many smaller unknown events, I think that’s a lot more elegant. It’s a lot more parsimonious and it gives us more to discover.
By the way, people bring up a great question. There’s a blogger in the Netherlands who brought this up. I don’t think he’s an atheist, and he has some kind of a spiritual bent but he’s pretty naturalistic when it comes to science. He says, “I just fail to see how this creator of whatever sort helps the situation at all, because every time I press creationists or intelligent design people about so where exactly does this come in, they’re always really vague about it. This is not helpful.” My response is, “Actually, I agree, but here’s where it is helpful and the way in which it is helpful.”
Let’s go back to my earth and sun and car. The sun is infinitely far away. It might as well be farther than you could ever get to. It’s like that infinite point out there, but the earth is unimaginably large as well, and we can travel a lot further. That sun out there, here’s what it is. Here’s the role that it plays. It’s our grounds for believing that the universe and science are orderly.
There’s kind of a proof that this works, and there’s a proof in society that the opposite conclusion doesn’t work. If you look at atheist arguments, specifically atheist arguments, which are easy to find because they’re all over the place, 97% of your DNA is junk because the evolutionary process is so sloppy and inefficient. Or the reason that the universe appears to be so fine-tuned is actually there’s a trillion trillion universes and we just live in the lucky one.
Bill: And that argument has got to be a trillion trillion trillion universes. I mean it’s got to be enormous.
Perry: You solving this with a trillion universes is the most unparsimonious thing ever. And not only that, but implicit in it is that maybe we’ve already found the last vestige of order and then the next scientific discovery is going to just be a bunch of chaos, just like the junk DNA argument. The junk DNA argument has empirically turned out to be outrageously wrong, like ridiculously wrong.
One of the judges on my panel for the prize is George Church, and he’s probably the leading rock star geneticist in the world today. He’s been somehow involved in almost every breakthrough, including CRISPR. He pointed out that the coding sequences in bacteria that program for CRISPR were considered to be junk DNA for decades, and they’re not. Whether CRISPR scares you to death or if you think it’s the coolest thing since the discovery of DNA, or both, that scientific discovery was lurking in the junk DNA all along.
The people that were advocating junk DNA frankly should be fired because they weren’t doing their jobs. That is the effect that an atheist view has on science, that it’s meaningless, it’s nihilistic, there’s no ultimate order, there’s no ultimate structure, it’s ugly, it’s not elegant, it’s inefficient.
My perspective is for the most part nature is incredibly efficient, nature is incredibly effective, nature is incredibly purposeful, and those are hypotheses that always seem to be rewarded. So that’s my infinite point out there. At the end of the day it’s all orderly, but we don’t know how big and how powerful nature is.
In taking the position Behe is taking, he avoids getting into a bunch of arguments that would divide Christians and religious people, because people of a spiritual and religious bent can all agree on the general hypothesis that he’s making – not all of them, but quite a few, especially the evangelicals and protestants. But the problem is he still alienates the scientific community.
When I was talking at the Christian Scientific Society, I kind of got in Casey Luskin’s face and I said, “Listen, people like Shapiro and Margulis are fighting a battle that can be won. Their approach is entirely scientific. It fits with any naturalistic framework.” It’s not a God of the gaps argument. In fact, Shapiro isn’t saying anything about God. He doesn’t go there.
I said, “They are fighting a battle they can win. You are fighting a battle you will never ever win because you’re fighting the economic machine of science itself. How do I get a grant for saying it’s designed?”
That is my problem with Darwin Devolves. I actually agree with 80-90% of what he says, but I think he leaves out important things. I think if he took a position like the one I take, in the short term it would be a more difficult row to hoe. In the long term it would actually get him much further.
This is the problem that I have with the Discovery Institute and everything. There’s this unspecified number of God of the gaps events and I think it’s a huge mistake.
Bill: And that’s where I was with you four years ago, but let me tell you where I think the design arguments should have a seat at the table, and not a replacement for 2.0 or replacement for Darwin but simply a seat at the table.
I’ll go back to the philosophies of Einstein and Isaac Newton, who philosophically came from the orderly universe concept or design concept in science. I think you hit the nail on the head that the reductionist approach has really derailed science, there’s no question about it, and you nailed that on the head.
Where the design argument is important I think – is it a scientific argument or is it a philosophical argument? It’s right on that edge. It teeters on that edge back and forth, and that’s part of the issue with it. But I think as we bring more evidence of design and that becomes front and center, it can be a vehicle to philosophically straighten out the whole idea or philosophy of science when people do a scientific approach.
Let me tell you, I had an experience with this and it went back to the cancer research I did around vitamin D. My first objective was to show why is this runaway cell division happening in the first place? That got back to embryotic pathways that were being activated when there wasn’t enough vitamin D.
Vitamin D is really a hormone. It’s a vitamin that gets converted to a hormone in the body in the blood, and it acts very much like testosterone acts or estrogen acts. It’s basically a key that turns on DNA. So that was the first project I did. It took me about three years to convince him that it was right, and now I’ve successfully extended his theory.
The second assignment I had was that he had epidemiological data that was showing that higher levels of vitamin D were reducing metastasis risk. I’d done the first project and I’d learned the mechanism. How was the cell really controlling itself? It turned out it was controlling itself by degrading the proteins that were actually constantly turning on DNA during embryology. It would activate a degradation mechanism that would continually break those proteins into amino acids, because those proteins were its own feedback loop. It was a protein called β-Catenin, and β-Catenin would transcribe itself. That would create more β-Catenin and that continually goes on in the cell, and the only way to reduce that is to degrade β-Catenin.
This appears to be a designed mechanism. It looks very much as you would say, natural genetic engineering. This is a designed mechanism. I said if the design theory is right, I’ll find a similar mechanism in how angiogenesis was controlled, which is blood vessel creation, which is one of the beginnings of metastasis in the cell, and it turned out that yes, it was the same basic degradation mechanism that was controlling that also. That saved me a lot of time actually, by looking at it with the designed concept.
That’s my one example, but as I have discussions with scientists all the time on the blogs, I see they’re terribly misled when they observe nature and look at it from a reductionist standpoint. That’s where I think the design argument and books like Behe have real value. It’s in bringing that philosophy to the table.
Perry: Try this on for size. What if we say that design in biology is fractal? Not everybody listening knows what fractal means, but fractal means pattern inside a pattern inside a pattern inside a pattern. If you go to YouTube and type in fractal, just hit Enter and start looking and you’ll see all kinds of great videos. You’ll see computer-generated fractals and you can zoom into them and you’ll see the same pattern repeating over and over again.
Trees are fractal. There’s a tree in my front yard and you can see the big branching pattern, but I can zoom in, zoom in, zoom in to branches, twigs, leaves, veins in leaves, veins in veins of leaves, down to the cellular level, and I will probably find literally the same branching pattern at 10 orders of magnitude every time you go in – branches, branches, branches, branches. Same with rivers, same with cracks in the sidewalk. Design is fractal.
Yes, there’s an ultimate grand design. There’s an infinite point out there and it had to come from somewhere, but at all these other levels they’re imitations of the same overall pattern. You say, “I expect to see design at every level,” and I agree.
Let me rewind and talk about my own journey a little bit. I was raised a young earth creationist. I remember this guy coming to our church every night for a week. His name was John Whitcomb, a slightly famous guy in flood geology, and I was totally fascinated. The only problem is I eventually figured out, “No, the universe is pretty old and the earth is pretty old,” and all that started fraying at the edges.
I’m an engineer and engineers very typically look at a hand and it looks very, very engineered. It looks like somebody made an eye and it looks like somebody made an ear and all that, but then when I started discovering people like Barbara McClintock and Lynn Margulis it was like, “Oh my goodness. This kind of fractal pattern of design goes deeper, deeper, deeper, deeper, deeper,” and I actually don’t think it’s like God scooped dirt out of the ground and made an eye. That Genesis story I take as metaphorical or non-specific. I think nature generates eyes through its own fractal intelligence.
I think that view of design is actually very productive, as you said. It’s usually productive to approach from a practical standpoint like solving diseases, solving cancer. It’s usually productive to presume design. In fact, implicitly people do even if they’re a hardcore Darwinist.
It’s worth mentioning that for a long time there’s been this thing out there called the Salem Hypothesis. The Salem Hypothesis says that people with backgrounds in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science, dentistry, and medicine, like medical doctors, tend to be more skeptical about Darwinian evolution than everybody else. It’s a fact.
Bill: Exactly. How to make a circulatory system step-by-step, right?
Perry: Right. Doctors have a job to do, and engineers have a job to do, and computer programmers have a job to do, so it’s very productive to see design.
If I can make another little digression, do you remember there was a book that came out probably around 2004 called Privileged Planet by Guillermo Gonzalez?
Bill: I’ve certainly heard of it, yes. I’ve not read it.
Perry: Here’s what’s in this book, essentially. He’s an astronomer at Iowa State and they get on an airplane and go to India so they can take a bunch of measurements of a solar eclipse, because there was a full eclipse in India.
He notices that the sun and the moon are exactly the same size in the sky from our point of view. He says if either one of them was a little bit different, there would be corona measurements of the sun that we can only make during a solar eclipse that we would never be able to make, and because of that interesting coincidence there’s all this stuff that we know about the universe that we wouldn’t otherwise know.
Then he starts pulling on that string. He’s like, “Well gee, we’re in the perfect galaxy on the perfect edge, the perfect location within the galaxy to see the entire universe from earth.” Then he explains how because of that it actually makes the universe even more fine-tuned for life on earth. He concludes that a universe that’s been designed for maximum discoverability is curiously also optimum for life existing in the first place. So he publishes this book and it created a huge furor and made a bunch of people angry.
I thought I really liked that idea that the universe is designed for maximum discoverability, so I thought what if I run on that idea and what if I pull the string a little harder.
I grew up a young earth creationist. Then I get in my argument with my brother, which I talked about in my book and people have heard, and I go down the evolution rabbit hole. If I sort of have my sophomore engineering hat on, I would look at the genetic code and everything else and I would go, “It’s designed,” in a very simplistic way. Intelligent design, God of the gaps argument, I’ve got the best one.
By the way, I have the best God of the gaps argument of anybody. I’ve got a $5 million dollar prize with judges from Harvard, Oxford, and MIT. I got invited to Arizona State to announce the prize by Paul Davies. Nobody has ever punched a hole in any of it, but I don’t use it as God of the gaps. I say, “This may be solvable, and I’ve got money for you and it’s real money.”
We spent a ton of money on the Securities & Exchange Commission and legal work and I’ve got real investors and they’ve got real money on the line. It’s totally legit. Nobody’s calling my bluff because there is no bluff. Furthermore, if somebody figures this out it’s going to be as big as the transistor and we want to patent it and it’s for real.
I’m not doing God of the gaps, but back to Guillermo Gonzalez. What led me to not do God in the gaps is if the universe is designed for maximum discoverability, then origin of life would therefore be solvable. By the same logic that Guillermo Gonzales used, I ought to advocate that origin of life is solvable, despite the fact that it’s one of the most unsuccessful fields in science so far.
There’s a lot of tension in the view that I take, but I think projecting 500 years in the future, one of two things could happen. The evolution prize could still not be won and it could be one of these 500-year math problems that nobody’s ever able to solve, which is fine because it’s always good to know what you don’t know. Or next year somebody figures out how to get chemicals from code and now all the sudden we have algae on a chip and we can embed it in all the phones and Siri wakes up and artificial intelligence is propelled a million miles forward and we figure out cancer and we figure out all this stuff. Maybe that could happen. I don’t know.
Bill: I think that’s a very legitimate argument. On the other hand, I think the origin of life problem, to me the most devastating part of it is that all the chickens and the eggs need to show up simultaneously, and that’s where you need DNA. Could DNA survive without error correction? Can an organism survive without error correction? Probably not.
The breaking here of what we’re seeing – and I think what you and I agree on – is that the simple-to-complex model doesn’t work, and that’s fundamental to Dawkins’ thinking and all the Neo-Darwinian guys’ thinking. Nothing here is simple. It’s complex. It starts from complexity and that’s the real hard problem to solve.
Perry: I agree. As an electrical engineer, and I’ve been designing things for 35 years of my life or more, I am completely convinced from all the evidence that I’ve seen that life operates in a fundamentally top-down fashion, not bottom-up. To put an even finer point on it, it actually operates as mutually interdependent systems where there isn’t even exactly a top, but that the whole thing is intelligent.
By the way, this is the view of Denis Noble. He’s one of my other prize judges. He’s a Fellow of the Royal Society. He has a Commander of the British Empire medal from Queen Elizabeth.
Bill: He’s a good thinker.
Perry: Absolutely impeccable scientist and he’s a strong dissenter from Neo-Darwinism. What he says in his book Biological Relativity is there is no privileged point of causation in biology. In other words, we used to think the earth was the center of the universe, and we found out actually if you go deep into physics there isn’t even a center of the universe because it’s this weird curved space curvature problem, so you can’t even think of it that way.
What he’s saying is the selfish gene is like the same mistake. He goes, “The gene is not the center of evolution. The gene is not the center of biology. The gene is just an organ in a very complex system.” It’s almost a trailing indicator, not a leading indicator, because the organism is actually editing the gene.
So bottom-up? No. Top-down? That’s a little more like it. Peer-to-peer and mutually intelligent, that’s even more like the truth.
I guess what you have to recognize is that most people don’t even know how their refrigerator works, so how are most people going to figure out how biology works? So you have these ridiculously over-simplified stories that get told, and man, it just ain’t so.
Bill: It ain’t so. The point would be I think the Darwinian materialistic – that being out there is why I see the design argument being so valuable. This really needs to get broken for us to start making more progress. That’s where I think it truly has an important seat at the table, and I think you have a very important seat at the table because you’re looking at this from a non-reductionist standpoint and trying to drill down.
I think you and Shapiro have a very important place in this whole discussion, but I think the design argument is your friend, not your enemy. It’s just limited, but it has a very important message, which is overall when we’re doing science we’re looking at a designed entity. We’re not looking at a random accident.
Perry: I have a prediction to make about this book. This is really new, isn’t it? How long has this been out?
Bill: It was first sold to the public at the end of February, and I’ve read it twice, by the way.
Perry: So a month, and it’s very well-written. I have a prediction. Even though I kind of disagree with the positioning that Behe takes with it and I would have written it differently, my prediction is nobody’s going to put out a truly substantive rebuttal of this book. What you’re going to see is a few troll kind of guys trash it.
Bill: Have you seen the rebuttals?
Perry: Only the ones on Amazon, which are kind of silly.
Bill: If you go onto the Discovery Institute’s platform you’ll see that the first rebuttal was done by Joshua Swamidass, Nathan Lents, and Richard Lenski.
Perry: Together or separately?
Bill: They all did it together initially, and then Lenski did his own series on it, and you’re exactly right. There was really very, very little substance to it. There’s a lot of circular reasoning around Neo-Darwinism. They start with some fairly clean arguments, but then they go into their circular reasoning. In other words, they’ll say, “Whale evolution is proof of this,” where no, first you have to establish that whale evolution is really something that happened, so you see the circular reasoning.
So far your prediction is exactly right. There’s no substantive rebuttal to the book at this point.
Perry: You bring up Lenski. I think the legitimate rebuttal of the book is what I just said, but a couple things. Neo-Darwinism is actually dead. There’s hardly anybody who knows what they’re doing that’s still willing to defend it. Certainly practicing experimental scientists who do experiments aren’t willing to defend it, and to that end I had a conversation with Richard Lenski at a TED-X event in Chicago probably 6 or 7 years ago. We both happened to sit down at the same table during lunch.
I’m like, “Hey, I know who that guy is. He’s the millions of generations of bacteria guy in Michigan,” so I started talking to him. I said, “Hi Richard” and I introduced myself. I said, “I dug up in some journal somewhere a debate between you and James Shapiro in the 90s. You were saying all these bacterial mutations are random, and Shapiro said no, they’re not. So what’s your view on this now?” He goes, “Well, Shapiro ended up being right,” and we talked about that. He said, “Oh yeah, there are definite patterns to how these restructurings happen.”
Bill: This is the tremendous value of your work. At the end of the day where Mike might be wrong is that finch beak variation may be genetic recombination. It may be a very predictable process. It may not be random mutation.
Perry: And it also involves hybridization, but that’s a whole other thing. I said, “Richard, would you agree that the word ‘randomness’ is frequently mis-used and abused by biologists?” and he said, “Yes, I would agree with that.”
I have a comment about Lenski’s experiment. It will never produce any significant large evolutionary events and here’s why. This is my hypothesis but it’s based on Evolution 2.0. I remember reading a study that said if you put birds on an island and there’s no natural predators, the birds will get weaker and sometimes they’ll even eventually stop flying and they’ll just walk around and lay eggs. But if there’s minks or rats or other predators, man, the competition is on.
My business experience and my technological experience is that the only way you ever get large-scale innovations in anything is by bringing outside influences. What Lenski has in his lab is he’s got a tank of all these basically single species of bacteria. They’re not even under evolutionary pressure, other than competing with each other for nutrients.
The only way you’re going to get symbiogenesis or hybridization is if you bring other things in there and you have a competitive eco-system, an eco-system where things can collide. That’s what Kwang Jeon did. He put the amoebas and the X-bacteria together and it was like, “Okay, you guys fight it out” and they did, and they eventually arrived at a truce.
Lenski’s experiment is never going to demonstrate anything beyond micro-evolution, and it’s probably already taught us most everything it’s going to teach us. You have to recognize that macro-evolutionary events are outliers. They do not happen that often, and they only happen in situations of extreme stress. So that’s my prediction about the Lenski lab.
It’s disappointing that most of the rebuttals never get to the bottom of the swamp and get to the real issues. They just go around and around and around in circles and it’s very disappointing. Just defending the same tired Darwinian doctrine doesn’t get us anywhere.
Bill: I agree. I think what you’ve put down here, Perry, is very valuable. I would say the only exception, and maybe you don’t disagree anymore, is that the Behe type argument, given socially where we are, is an important argument to be surfaced. You’re trying to dig out, “Do we have the origin of genetic information?” Right now I think you and I would agree the only known solution today is a mind.
Perry: Let’s say somebody figures out the evolution prize tomorrow. Does that in any way remove the ultimate question? No, because if you stop and think about it it’s like let’s say there’s a self-organizing principle in physics, or let’s say there’s some way that matter can produce consciousness. Now that just kicks the can further down the road, which I’m very happy to do because there will be huge discoveries in that, but it will just raise three more questions.
The pattern I’ve seen in science is every answer leads you to three more question – not one, but three. There’s an answer but then it gets deeper. Then there’s more answers but then those go deeper, and it never stops. I’m not the least bit worried about scientists ever not having a job. I’m not the least bit worried about ever running out of new discoveries and new technologies. It’s going to happen.
Sometimes I wonder do people really understand that? It’s like they don’t have faith that there’s always another discovery coming, which really mystifies me. Isn’t that one of the most wonderful things about being a science geek?
Bill, this has been great.
Bill: Yes, it’s been great. Just in conclusion a couple things not mentioned yet. I think one thing I learned from you is you made the great analogy that DNA and the protein manufacturing process was like a communication system, and one of the basic philosophical or scientific observations is that any noise or any change to a communication system destroys that information. I think what we’re seeing in Behe’s book is the empirical evidence that you were right.
That’s where you and I were very synergistic earlier. That’s exactly what I saw. When I saw that these things were sequence-dependent I said, “This dog doesn’t hunt. There’s no way that this random change argument has any basis in facts,” so that’s exactly how I got on the bandwagon. I think what Behe has done for us is to show us empirically what you and I believed four years ago in this book.
I think another person to be mentioned is Giuseppe Puccio, an Italian scientist and medical doctor who blogs on UncommonDescent.com and he’s done a bunch of empirical work around the introduction of new information throughout evolutionary time. One of the things he discusses is the spliceosome, particularly the central protein which is PRPF8, which is 2300 amino acids. That happens to have almost no homology back into the prokaryotic cells. He talks about the ubiquitin systems and the emergence of vertebrates.
I’ll send you three of his articles on UncommonDescent. I think it would be very interesting for you to see. He shows the insurgence of new genetic information over time, which I think is really an interesting study once you start to think about this from a design perspective versus just a reductionist perspective.
Perry: Let’s put all those links together and we’ll put them in the YouTube and the blog posts and everything, so people can go check things out to their heart’s content. You put together some stuff, I’ll put together some stuff, and hopefully everybody can just have a more informed conversation about all of this.
Bill, thanks for doing this. Hopefully we did more light than heat today. Thank you. Take care.
Bill: Thank you, Perry. Bye.