The Case for a Creator: The Smell of Science

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 8

Chapter 8 is devoted to an interview with Michael Behe, the biologist and creationist who coined the concept of “irreducible complexity”. As I’ve already reviewed Behe’s book, I won’t spend a great deal of time rehashing the arguments given in my review. Suffice to say that there is abundant evidence that “irreducibly complex” systems can evolve into existence – we’ve witnessed them doing so, both in the lab and in the wild. In fact, the Nobel Prize-winning biologist Herman Muller described exactly the same concept, and cited it as an expected result of evolution, in 1918.

Instead, I’m going to use the occasion of Strobel’s conversation with Behe to shed light on some of the peripheral issues and tactics used by modern creationists. And the introduction to the chapter, where Strobel meets Behe in his office at Lehigh University, is a perfect example of one such:

Lehigh University’s “Mountaintop Campus,” a seventy-two-acre, eight-building research complex overlooking the hardscrabble city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was littered with brown, brittle leaves when I arrived one autumn afternoon in my search for Michael Behe.

After parking in front of Iacocca Hall, a modern, tan-and-green glass building, I walked up to the second floor. I strolled down a long hallway with laboratories on both sides – the Complex Carbohydrate Research Lab, the Core Chromatography/Electrophoresis Lab, the Molecular Microbiology Research Lab, the Neuroendocrinology Lab, the Core DNA Lab, and the ominous-sounding Virology Lab, with an orange biohazard sign plastered on its door.

The hallway’s wall featured scintillating reading – an oversized reproduction of a technical article by two Lehigh scientists, asking the provocative question: “How Does Testosterone Affect Hippocampal Plasticity in Black-Capped Chickadees?” [p.195]

As an aside: If mainstream science is as implacably hostile to ID as creationists suggest, why is it that Michael Behe is still teaching at this place? One would think that those evil, dogmatic Darwinists would have drummed up some excuse to fire him by now.

But that wasn’t what I wanted to call attention to. Notice how carefully Strobel describes the surroundings, how much detail he pays to the hallways and offices at Lehigh he has to pass through to find Behe (and he must have stopped, at least for a few minutes, to write down the names of all those labs and the exact title of that paper). Having read the other chapters in the book, I can tell you that Behe’s environs get more attention and descriptive detail than anyone else Strobel speaks to. Why do you think that is?

The one thing that creationists crave more than anything else is the appearance of scientific respectability. But they’ve never even tried the traditional way of achieving this, i.e., doing science. Behe, for instance, has never published a paper in any peer-reviewed scientific journal explaining, advocating, or giving examples of the concept of irreducible complexity, and his scientific productivity in general has nosedived since he started advocating ID. As I mentioned earlier, two other leading lights of the ID movement, Jonathan Wells and Stephen Meyer, can each claim a total of one journal article in their entire careers, and these were published in obscure journals under suspicious editorial circumstances. (For purposes of comparison, the most prolific scientists working today publish hundreds of peer-reviewed papers per decade.)

No, creationists aren’t interested in doing real science; they’ve more than sufficiently proved that already, by passing up the countless chances they’ve had to make any meaningful contribution to the scientific literature. They’d rather spend their time writing non-peer-reviewed books for mass consumption, giving talks to church gatherings, lobbying school boards, publishing editorials in conservative media outlets and other friendly venues, and doing all the other activities that are typical of politicians and ideologues, but are not how actual scientists communicate with and convince their colleagues.

But they still crave that semblance of scientific legitimacy, and the way they try to get it is by surrounding themselves with the trappings of science. Hence the careful attention Strobel pays to Behe’s academic environs, as if to say, “See, we’re talking about intelligent design! And we’re doing it in a building where real science gets done! How can you doubt that ID is science when I tell you about all the posters with the big, sciencey-sounding words I had to walk past to meet Michael Behe?”

It’s as if they believe that “science” is something that a person can acquire by proximity, something that clings to them, like a smell. But whether they’ve managed to convince themselves of this or not, it’s a falsehood. Science isn’t a matter of outward appearances, but a way of knowing – a habit of thought, really. It requires subjecting every idea to rigorous skepticism, formulating falsifiable theories that make concrete predictions, and then testing them ruthlessly through experiment and observation. All these things are anathema to the creationists, who, no matter how many white lab coats they dress up in, are not doing science, but advancing a religious idea to serve political ends.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.pippinbarr.com Pippin

    Hey, nice post. I like the kind of ‘semiotic analysis’ of Creationist argument. Would be interesting to see more of this kind of thing, really – look into the rhetoric that goes into the madness.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com/ Steve Bowen

    The I.D movement tries to put science in a no win situation. If they did submit a paper (they claim) it would be supressed as being against Darwinian dogma, rather than the reality, which is that it would be rejected as untestable B.S.

  • http://almsforashes.blogspot.com AlexMagd

    I don’t know what’s worse really; that the creationists worked out that going straight to the public allowed them to get maximum support with minimum evidence, or that people are so scientifically illiterate that that actually works.

  • Valhar2000

    It’s as if they believe that “science” is something that a person can acquire by proximity, something that clings to them, like a smell.

    This reminds of Richard Feynman’s essay on Cargo Cult Science, and the exquisitely appropriate XKCD comic in which a guy criticizes the Mythusters for not being rigorous enough and the Feynman zombie comes along and points out how much of the spirit of science (so to speak) the Mythbusters do get.

    On that note, it is eerie to compare the Mythbusters with these people: one group tries to appropriate as many of the external trappings of the scientific enterprise as they can even while they do their best to undermine it, while the other rejects most of them for the sake of entertainment, but manages to get so much of the mentality that underlies the scientific endeavour right.

  • http://yunshui.wordpress.com yunshui

    “See, we’re talking about intelligent design! And we’re doing it in a building where real science gets done! How can you doubt that ID is science when I tell you about all the posters with the big, sciencey-sounding words I had to walk past to meet Michael Behe?”

    When I read that, I was reminded of my father’s office at his university (this was, admittedly, the office he worked from after he retired). After walking through the shiny new Biology Department, with its huge teaching labs full of shiny equipment, well-appointed library, lecture theatres and great skylit halls, one arrived at a door which opened onto what was, essentially, a windowless broom cupboard with an aging computer in it. On the door was a piece of printer paper listing the room as the office of Professor Yunshui Senior.

    I rather imagine Behe’s office the same way – I envisage Sobel strolling through this elegantly appointed department before arriving at a small, scuffed door bearing a sheet of A4 with “Creashun Sients” scrawled on it. In crayon…

  • jtradke

    @Valhar2000:

    Found the one you’re talking about: http://xkcd.com/397/

  • Dan

    Behe’s research productivity as evidenced by his own website is a good example of why tenure is a bad idea.

    But his own departmental colleagues go out of their way to post a statement on ID and evolution on the department’s web page:

    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.

    The department faculty, then, are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory, which has its roots in the seminal work of Charles Darwin and has been supported by findings accumulated over 140 years. The sole dissenter from this position, Prof. Michael Behe, is a well-known proponent of “intelligent design.” While we respect Prof. Behe’s right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.

    Nothing like having one’s peers consider you a quack.

  • 2-D Man

    The one thing that creationists crave more than anything else is the appearance of scientific respectability. But they’ve never even tried the traditional way of achieving this, i.e., doing science.

    Sure they have! …They’re just not creationists anymore.

    Funny how natural selection works.

  • http://piepalace.ca/blog Erigami

    It’s worth noting that Charles Darwin suggested irreducible complexity would be a possible mechanism to refute evolution in 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. But I can find out no such case.

    (via Wikipedia)

    150 years later, we’re still lacking credible evidence for an irreducibly complex biological structure. Charles Darwin holds his title as “the Man.”

  • Reginald Selkirk

    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. But I can find out no such case.

    Thank you for including the second sentence, which the Creationists generally leave off. When you read the rest of the paragraph it becomes even more clear that Darwin was more attuned to the situation than his opponents:

    No doubt many organs exist of which we do not know the transitional grades, more especially if we look to much-isolated species, round which, according to my theory, there has been much extinction. Or again, if we look to an organ common to all the members of a large class, for in this latter case the organ must have been first formed at an extremely remote period, since which all the many members of the class have been developed; and in order to discover the early transitional grades through which the organ has passed, we should have to look to very ancient ancestral forms, long since become extinct.

    Behe relies on this evidence being lost to time in order to make his argument from ignorance.

  • http://oneyearskeptic.blogspot.com/2009/12/introducing-one-year-skeptic.html Erika

    But they still crave that semblance of scientific legitimacy, and the way they try to get it is by surrounding themselves with the trappings of science.

    This sentiment also applies to non-Christian pseudoscience. Any time a scientific study supports some small part of a pseudoscience, it becomes the psuedoscientists’ crown jewel. It does not matter if the authors of the study say the group is misusing it. It does not matter if the study is ambiguous or discredited. Any bit of scientific support makes their whole set of beliefs “RealScience™”, however unconnected the rest of their claims may be from reality.

  • paradoctor

    The poet Piet Hein wrote:

    You will conquer the present
    suspiciously fast
    if you smell of the future
    and stink of the past.

  • Caiphen

    I know so many people who are fooled by this creationist rubbish. They’re brainwashed by Xianity into believing they’re ‘born again’ and they are favoured by God because of their committment, creating almost like a drug induced high. When they’re emotionally dependant on this high they’ll believe any creationist crap.

    Myself being an ex born again Xian was just like them. The only thing that can pull a brainwashed fool out of it is the scientific method and nothing else. The only critisizm I have against Daylight Atheism is this, we need to even press harder against this evil called Christianity for humanity’s sake.

  • Ben

    Speaking as a Christian and someone who has trained as a scientist, I’m uncomfortable with the Intelligent Design movement. Not just because it’s dubious science, but because it takes a ‘god of the gaps’ approach. ID looks for gaps in our understanding of how certain things came to be and says, “Ta da! That can only be explained by God!” But as our understanding of our world grows the gaps in our knowledge shrink and God seems to get smaller and smaller. A more Biblical approach is to say that God created and sustains everything through mechanisms (eg. physics, evolution) that can be explored by science. Science doesn’t lead me to doubt the existence of God, it leads me to think how amazing he must be.

  • Caiphen

    ‘A more Biblical approach is to say that God created and sustains everything through mechanisms (eg. physics, evolution) that can be explored by science.’

    Says you. How about all the other countless Xians out there who’d disagree with you. Charles Darwin was the one who forced part of Xianity to at least be partly scientific. If it wasn’t for him all of that religion would be still vomitting the same biblical nonsense.

    I too was at one stage a theistic evolutionist. But then I realised, damn, it’s nothing but god of the gaps reasoning.

  • Valhar2000

    A more Biblical approach is to say that God created and sustains everything through mechanisms (eg. physics, evolution) that can be explored by science.

    I have to agree with Caiphen on this one. Ben, I’m sure you are quite sincere when you say this, but there are a lot of people who call themselves Christians who disagree vehemently with you. I cannot call you a real christian, or call them them the real christians; from my point of view, there are many different christianities, all of them with followers who believe that theirs is the better one.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com/ Steve Bowen

    To be fair to Ben and ignoring the no true scotsman element, the hypothesis that a deity created the universe via natural mechanisms isn’t a wholly irrational stance. It opens up a whole other receptacle of annelida philosophically and theologically but is not of itself unreasonable.

  • Caiphen

    Steve

    There’s still no reason to believe in such a God. There’s no evidence of her, just stories made up by hallucinating individuals.

    Deistic Anthony Flew would probably shoot me down in pieces I admit.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    A more Biblical approach is to say…

    I’m with Caiphen and Valhar2000 on this. I applaud Ben on being more scientifically reasonable than some other Christians, but to say that his interpretation is more in tune with the Bible has no basis.

  • 2-D Man

    A more Biblical approach is to say that God created and sustains everything through mechanisms (eg. physics, evolution) that can be explored by science. Science doesn’t lead me to doubt the existence of God, it leads me to think how amazing he must be.

    I’d just like to point out that this kind of reasoning might not have you arrive at the god you intended to produce as an end product. That your god uses natural selection, where species are required to kill each other suggests that he sees us as cosmic gladiators rather than actually loving us.

    BTW, being amazing is not always a good thing. (amazing, also amazing, still amazing)

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Science doesn’t lead me to doubt the existence of God, it leads me to think how amazing he must be.

    Unquestioned premise spotted.

  • exrelayman

    Just wishing to: thank paradoctor (comment 12) for sharing the poem, and refer all who have not yet been exposed to it to the wonderful article ‘science vs religion’ at this site

    http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/science-vs-religion/

    Ebon: loved ‘sciencey’.


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