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The Great Mutator

The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism by Michael J. Behe

Reviewed by Jerry Coyne
The New Republic Online

"Browsing the websites of different colleges, a prospective biology student finds an unusual statement on the page of the Department of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University. It begins:

The faculty in the department of biological sciences is committed to the highest standards of scientific integrity and academic function. This commitment carries with it unwavering support for academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. It also demands the utmost respect for the scientific method, integrity in the conduct of research, and recognition that the validity of any scientific model comes only as a result of rational hypothesis testing, sound experimentation, and findings that can be replicated by others...."

Read the entire New Republic Online review.

17 Responses to "The Great Mutator"

    Norman Freitas June 14th, 2007 at 1:40 pm


    The best response to the nonsense equating "Creationism" - renamed "Intelligent Design" - as a science, as well as the best arguments in defense of science, particularly the science of evolution I have seen.


    barbary pirate June 18th, 2007 at 2:20 pm

    I keep having this dream in which the human race is so caught up with the debate over evolution vs. creationism that it fails to procreate, leading to its extinction.

    Does anyone have any data on creationist vs. evolutionist birthrates?

    clifford gunapalan June 19th, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    Evolutionary biologist Prof.Jerry Coyne, a man whose professional life is dedicated to the theory of evolution cannot be expected to be the most unbiased source for reviewing anti-evolutionist Micheal Behe's latest book. And it shows. This review is full of accusations, innuendos, blatant misrepresentation through an evolutionary perspective of scientific findings and unsubstantiated claims for transition fossils/species.
    Behe is simply following the science where it leads him and he is taking the reader along for the journey. The biological evidence that he points to is real and irrefutable. His ideas are based on the latest understanding of biochemistry and biology. His ideas are not based on the assumptions of evolution unlike those of Prof.Coyne.
    This review demonstrates that people who are threatned by the theological implications of irreducible complexity can only flail and cry foul.
    The public should stop listening to the scientists and start learning the science and then make up their own minds.

    Jim Ryan June 20th, 2007 at 12:31 pm

    Clifford, you fail to address the actual arguments and evidence at issue. In addition you assert that Coyne is biased and feels "threatened." You "flail and cry foul." So, you come across as someone who is simply biased and feels threatened.

    Just back it up, turn it around, and present evidence refuting this article.

    clifford gunapalan June 22nd, 2007 at 8:15 am

    I believe you clicked on the following link to get to this page:
    "Voice your OPINION about this review by
    posting a comment on the blog"
    Suggest you read it again.

    A. Rubin June 23rd, 2007 at 8:53 am

    Jerry Coyne describes the "successes of animal and plant breeders over the past few centuries...Virtually every fruit, vegetable, and meat that we eat has been drastically remodeled by the artificial selection of wild ancestors. All these changes have been immeasurably faster than evolution in the wild, which takes hundreds of thousands to millions of years. And all of these changes have involved selection of random mutations."

    Coyne may add, as well, genetic engineering that currently assumes a larger role in ongoing evolution, beyond artificial (intelligent) selection of random mutation supplied by nature.

    Thus, Evolution theory doesn't preclude intelligent human (or extra terrestrial) intervention, design included, in the process of evolution. The sudden emergence of human CIVILIZATION within the last ten thousand years may point in this direction.

    Coyne says that "Perhaps we will never understand every step in the evolution of a complex feature, just as we cannot know everything about the development of human civilization from archaeology. But is the incompleteness of our knowledge a reason to invoke God? ” But by the same argument – incompleteness of our knowledge – should allow us to raise the possibility of past breeders and genetic engineers intervening in the process of evolution at particular junctions when the rate of evolution underwent a quantum jump.

    In addition, there is the possibility of catastrophic events which create an ample supply of "random" mutations and changed environments for natural selection to work and thus produce punctuated evolution.

    Steve June 23rd, 2007 at 9:16 am


    Nobody thinks that what you've posted isn't your opinion. It's just that your opinion is wrong, that's all.

    Brian Myres June 23rd, 2007 at 3:00 pm

    This is a wonderful review, pointing out the foibles of people like Behe. Coyne's biology and philosophy are right on. I truly believe it's a psychological disorder of people who've been infused with religious dogma....they can't get past it and so come up with nonsense like Behe has written. Behe has no idea of what constitutes science and what constitutes silliness!

    clifford gunapalan June 25th, 2007 at 11:06 am

    Microevolution & small scale speciation can be observed in nature. Plant & animal breeders can artificially select FOR charachteristics from wild types. But the fitness of these newer subspecies is diminished in the wild. Only the wild type survives well in the wild. Fresian bovines don't survive long in the wild. Microevolution and speciation ultimately lead to extinction not survival of the fittest. The disappearance of many species without human intrusion is testament to that.
    Dogmatically clinging on to Natural Selection to the exclusion of all other explanations will not help explain biodiversity.
    Science is about cause & effect. Theories are the framework. As a theory, Evolution/Natural Selection can explain Microevolution/Speciation. But it lays claim for a much longer period of natural history. It has not explained macro evolution,irreducible complexity, convergence, the origins of birds and many other issues in a scientifically rigorous manner. The cause may or may not be supernatural. Simply because many supernatural explanations have been discarded through science does not mean that all natural phenomena can be or has been explained through a naturalistic worldview. To think otherwise is dogmatic. Prof. Jerry Coyne is dogmatic because he is an evolutionary biologist. The dogmatic 'steady state' theory of the universe that had held sway since the beginning of human history was destroyed only in the last century with the 'Big Bang' theory. In time the "Limits of Evolution" will be found and mankind will be enlightened.

    Steven Cox June 26th, 2007 at 12:06 pm

    One of Coyne's arguments lacks integrity. He continually suggests ID is thinly veiled creationism. This isn't true, although it might be in some cases.

    I don't believe for one minute the world is 10,000 years old, neither do I think fundamentalist Christianity provides much, if any, wisdom to the world. But, I think Darwin is so obviously incorrect it is almost funny.

    The eye has over 30,000 genes. All species have eyes. Dinosaurs had eyes, insects have eyes, species that were geographically disconnected from all other areas have eyes. The eye must have been evolved over an amazingly short period of time and been developed in a proto ancestor that pre-existed prior to the distinction between reptiles and mammals and fish and insects, and so on. Each of these genes must have randomly been mutated, incrementally, offering little or no advantage to the organism, yet somehow all of these changes resulted in a proto eye in an organism that pre-dates the splitting of insects from mammals. And seemingly, this proto eye somehow went all around the world, even to areas that were geographically cut off.

    And you beieve in this? Why? Because you were taught it in school? Forget creationism, or ID for that matter. Look at the improbability of natural selection being anything other than one small tool in evolution.

    Now having decided Darwin's theory, brilliant as it was, just can't answer all the questions, and, it can't even come close to doing so. Think about that. Now what? If you take your academic blinders off for a minute you have to add something else? And, what is it?

    I've thought about this for a long, long time, and the problem is, nothing works. Darwin is a piece of the puzzle, but it can only be a small piece.

    ID might be an answer. It is no less reasonable than Darwin. Obviously, fundamental religious theories are absurd, but adding some sort of focussed evolutionary 'sense', that is a movement towards something can't be completely tossed out. And, it can't be because it happened that way. It is kind of being wilfully blind to ignore what actually happened because you don't like the idea.

    What is likely is there is some sort of aspect of life that is shared intelligence. So, a reproductive advantage in one species can be shared somehow with another species. Otherwise one species must have randomly developed an eye in such a short period of time it is unreasonable to think it could happen. And somehow this jumped from area to area and to every type of living thing. This can't have happened. If Intelligence can be shared, then randomness can be shared. That might work.

    What that is, I'm not sure. It can be that genes can be influenced by senses or mind in an as yet unknown way. This could be an aspect of ID. Not in the way a religious person thinks, but it is still an aspect of Intelligence moving towards something.

    Right now we can't define mind, consciousness, nor thought, nor intelligence for that matter, in anything other than the most rudimentary ways. Ignoring intelligence, clearly the most dominant aspect of life, in favour of randomness, clearly not the most dominant aspect of life, but also undeniably an aspect that can't be ignored, is not reasonable.

    The anti ID'ers out there do Darwin a disservice and help creationism. The Darwinists hold to an untenable theory, but one that has some strength. This allows the fundamentalists to attack it in favour of their own loony theories.

    There is a huge middle ground that needs to be explored.

    Of course, the big problem is nobody can get anywhere in the academic community, the area that defines these types of issues, without being a staunch supporter of Darwinism. So, these alternative discussions can't take place.

    The academy pretends to represent free thinking, but doesn't. Too bad. Thank God for the internet. Or, should I be thanking Darwin?

    Colin June 26th, 2007 at 2:34 pm

    Oh dear oh dear. A nice little rant which is veiled as a book review! If evolutionary theory is true why then do you feel it is your job just to get angry at someone who disagrees with you rather than take on board the challenges and answer them?

    matt jacobson July 9th, 2007 at 2:32 pm

    The reviewer's fundamentalist religious commitment is evident throughout the review - if only he could recognize it himself.

    And as for the theory of evolution or ID being subject to the scientific method - now there's an article of faith.

    Andrew Troup July 18th, 2007 at 5:28 am

    I think Coyne might be raising the bar unnecessarily high for evolution when he concedes:

    "It is indeed true that natural selection cannot build any feature in which intermediate steps do not confer a net benefit on the organism."

    It seems to me that mutations would be 'tolerated' (ie neither promoted nor punished) if the net effect of individual intermediate steps was neutral. By this means, several haphazard steps could accumulate even if neither or none of them was beneficial, and then be 'promoted'if and when their combined effect conferred a benefit.

    I don't know that this happens, but I can't see why it couldn't.

    When Darwin wrote in On the Origin of Species, "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down."
    I'm not aware that he at any other point qualified these modifications by saying that they must individually confer benefits, and it would certainly increase the scope of the available palette of variations if this were not essential.

    I'm no scientist so I'll pick an analogous macro-evolutionary example, so it's not really evidence, just musing: there are attributes of species in places like Galapagos and New Zealand which can in no way be described as beneficial; it seems to me they have survived because the lack of competition for that ecological niche has not caused them to be punished out of the gene pool.

    Take the blue-footed booby. It will indiscriminately feed *anything* in its nest - a rag doll, in one experiment !

    Yet, somehow, the "if it's in the nest, feed it" reflex is so remarkably blinkered and exclusive that it will disregard its own starving and pathetic offspring, though it be dying immediately alongside the nest.

    An even more striking example is found in New Zealand, where two species of native parrot are almost diametrically opposed in terms of intelligence and apparent degree of refinement of fitness for survival.

    The first is the kea. This mountain parrot is (in some tests) better at solving mechanical problems than dolphins and chimpanzees. It appears to have a highly developed sense of humour, and is almost uniquely gifted at teaching behavioural routines to others of its species.

    The kakapo, on the other hand, is Stan Hardy to the kea's Laurel. Fat, frumpy and clueless, it cannot fly, in fact it doesn't even walk particularly adroitly, and its reproductive strategies make the giant panda look like sex on wheels.

    The kea ekes out a precarious living in the high alpine environment, at the interface between bush and snow, where survival is on a knife edge - there are very few sources of essential fats in the natural environment, especially during winter.
    Furthermore,until a few hundred years ago, there was a formidable predator in the shape of a native eagle larger than any modern eagle. The kea is a very fancy flier, and a remarkably destructive beak would make it no pushover as prey if cornered.

    The latter evolved in a predator-free forest with ample food, protected from eagles by the thick canopy, in an essentially vacant niche (no mammals other than a couple of inconsequential bats). The vacancy of the niche appears to be matched only by the vacancy of its intellectual and strategic accomplishments, which are frankly negligible, especially by parrot standards. Consequently a huge human effort has to go into keeping this bird from inevitable extinction.

    If these variations on a closely related theme represent the work of an intelligent designer, he she or it clearly has a wonderfully whimsical sense of humour, and possibly a distinct lack of forethought, in failing to equip the kakapo (along with dozens of other native birds) to have any chance of unaided survival once humans arrived on the scene.

    If these examples are representative, natural selection looks increasingly less like intelligent design as the competition for survival tapers off.
    Darwin does not talk of 'survival of the fit', but "fittest". A slob can still be the fittest, given bad enough company. (Yes, I know, he didn't mean fit that way ... ve make ze joke, yes ?)

    This seems to me consistent with natural selection being essentially indifferent to individual changes, as long as they don't drop the organism down the pecking order with respect to the alternatives.

    This might be an important distinction to anyone trying to unpack the probabilities of accumulations of haphazard variation.

    Andrew Troup July 18th, 2007 at 5:31 am

    I should have said:
    The kakapo, on the other hand, is Hardy to the kea's Stan Laurel.


    Ken August 6th, 2007 at 9:36 pm

    ID is not going away guys, so get used to it. And make sure along the way you maintain your integrity by being honest with your "reviews". A review means you've read the book or article being "reviewed". By trying to make them look ignorant or always attempting to pin the "fundamentalist" label on them only shows that you don't know much about these individual authors and that you probably haven't read their works. Making these kinds of claims about these authors only shows that it is you and not them that are ignorant. I am sitting at my table right now looking at a bookshelf full of ID books and not one of them is a "fundamentalist" and none of them are "ignorant" or stupid. Remember this, we all have presuppositions, a worldview we operate from within, and it controls all we think and believe. It's just that some of us have acknowledged that "fact", while others are still living what Socrates called an unexamined life, all the while thinking they've come out of the cave.

    WT(Ted) Hinds August 24th, 2007 at 7:03 pm

    Jerry Coyne displays a 9th grader mistake in his review.

    Coyne wrote, "Behe furnishes no proof, no convincing argument, that interactions cannot evolve gradually. In fact, interactions between proteins, like any complex interaction, WERE CERTAINLY BUILT UP STEP BY MUTATIONAL STEP, with each change producing an interaction scrutinized by selection and retained if it enhanced an organism's fitness."

    That is the perfect example of circular reasoning: assuming he has proven his case by restating his premise.

    Coyne and his colleagues are in serious intellectual trouble, and they know it.


    Linda Parent October 8th, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    OK Clifford,you have made your point. Now please contact me so that we can further discuss this.

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