The Case for a Creator: ID on Trial

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 8

The best place to settle a scientific debate is in the peer-reviewed journals and the larger research community – a strategy which, as we’ve noted, the creationists have steered well clear of. This means, when they inevitably attempt to push their beliefs into public schools anyway, that we have to take them to court, and that’s where most direct encounters between science and creationism take place.

However, though it’s not an ideal forum for the advancement of scientific knowledge, the trial format does have its advantages. For one thing, we can cross-examine creationist witnesses and force them to answer direct questions – an opportunity not available on the internet, where they can hunker down behind the ramparts of their blogs and avoid all hostile or critical feedback. And when they’ve been put to the test in this way, they haven’t come out of the experience covered in glory.

In chapter 8, Lee Strobel gives Michael Behe the opportunity to repeatedly make assertions like this one:

“Complex biological systems have yet to be explained by naturalistic means. That’s a fact.” [p.216]

In the cozy environment of Strobel’s interview, this claim meets with no skepticism. Not a hint is given that evolutionary biologists have made any progress in explaining the origin of any complex biological system. But on another occasion, Behe had to defend these views in a considerably less friendly forum, and he didn’t fare nearly as well.

In 2004, the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania voted to include references to intelligent design in their biology curriculum. The ensuing lawsuit, Kitzmiller v. Dover, became a landmark in the evolution wars – not least because several prominent creationists agreed to appear as witnesses for the defense, among them Michael Behe.

The Talk.Origins Archive has complete trial transcripts, which you can read through if you want. However, I want to highlight an exchange from day 12, when Behe was cross-examined by Eric Rothschild, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. Behe had claimed in his testimony that “the scientific literature has no detailed testable answers to the question of how the immune system could have arisen by random mutation and natural selection”.

Even compared to all the other falsehoods told by Behe, this stands out as his wrongest claim yet. The origin of the immune system has been a topic of active research for decades, and we’ve made enormous strides in our understanding of how it evolved. The key hypothesis, called the transposon hypothesis, makes several surprising predictions that have been verified by subsequent work. This seemed the ideal point to attack Behe when he took the witness stand, which led to this exchange:

Q. I’m going to read some titles here. We have Evolution of Immune Reactions by Sima and Vetvicka, are you familiar with that?

A. No, I’m not.

Q. Origin and Evolution of the Vertebrate Immune System, by Pasquier. Evolution and Vertebrate Immunity, by Kelso. The Primordial Vrm System and the Evolution of Vertebrate Immunity, by Stewart. The Phylogenesis of Immune Functions, by Warr. The Evolutionary Mechanisms of Defense Reactions, by Vetvicka. Immunity and Evolution, Marchalonias. Immunology of Animals, by Vetvicka. You need some room here. Can you confirm these are books about the evolution of the immune system?

A. Most of them have evolution or related words in the title, so I can confirm that, but what I strongly doubt is that any of these address the question in a rigorous detailed fashion of how the immune system or irreducibly complex components of it could have arisen by random mutation and natural selection.

Q. There’s also books on the immune system that have chapters on the evolution of the immune system?

A. Yes, and my same comment would apply to those.

Q. I’m just going to read these titles, it sounds like you don’t even need to look at them?

A. Please do go ahead and read them.

Q. You’ve got Immune System Accessory Cells, Fornusek and Vetvicka, and that’s got a chapter called “Evolution of Immune Sensory Functions.” You’ve got a book called The Natural History of the Major Histocompatability Complex, that’s part of the immune system, correct?

A. Yes.

Q. And here we’ve got chapter called “Evolution.” Then we’ve got Fundamental Immunology, a chapter on the evolution of the immune system.

A lot of writing, huh?

A. Well, these books do seem to have the titles that you said, and I’m sure they have the chapters in them that you mentioned as well, but again I am quite skeptical, although I haven’t read them, that in fact they present detailed rigorous models for the evolution of the immune system by random mutation and natural selection.

Q. You haven’t read those chapters?

A. No, I haven’t.

Q. You haven’t read the books that I gave you?

A. No, I haven’t. I have read those papers that I presented though yesterday on the immune system.

Q. And the fifty-eight articles, some yes, some no?

A. Well, the nice thing about science is that oftentimes when you read the latest articles, or a sampling of the latest articles, they certainly include earlier results. So you get up to speed pretty quickly. You don’t have to go back and read every article on a particular topic for the last fifty years or so.

Q. And all of these materials I gave you and, you know, those, including those you’ve read, none of them in your view meet the standard you set for literature on the evolution of the immune system? No scientific literature has no answers to the question of the origin of the immune system?

A. Again in the context of that chapter, I meant no answers, no detailed rigorous answers to the question of how the immune system could arise by random mutation and natural selection, and yes, in my, in the reading I have done I have not found any such studies.

The list of books and papers that Rothschild piled up on the witness stand, as you can see from the photograph, is extensive, and Behe admitted that he hadn’t read any of them. Yet despite this, he continued to insist that it was not possible that any of them contained an explanation good enough to satisfy him. If you want to see the list for yourself, the NCSE has an annotated bibliography – listing all the titles and excerpting their subject matter, to show how they directly address the origin of the immune system – the kind of detailed, testable scientific hypothesis that, according to Behe, does not exist. (See also Evolving Immunity.)

After forty days and forty nights of testimony (really), the Kitzmiller trial concluded, and Judge John E. Jones – a conservative George W. Bush appointee – issued a strongly worded decision which concluded that ID was religion, not science, and that teaching it in public school would be an unconstitutional state endorsement of religion. Behe’s testimony was singled out for criticism, as Judge Jones wrote:

…in Darwin’s Black Box, Professor Behe wrote that not only were there no natural explanations for the immune system at the time, but that natural explanations were impossible regarding its origin. However, Dr. Miller presented peer-reviewed studies refuting Professor Behe’s claim that the immune system was irreducibly complex. Between 1996 and 2002, various studies confirmed each element of the evolutionary hypothesis explaining the origin of the immune system. In fact, on cross-examination, Professor Behe was questioned concerning his 1996 claim that science would never find an evolutionary explanation for the immune system. He was presented with fiftyeight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system; however, he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was not “good enough.”

Christian apologists like Lee Strobel go out of their way to present ID advocates in the best possible light, asking them easy, leading questions and ensuring that their answers go uncriticized and unchallenged. But in an open environment where they don’t control the terms of the debate and must confront the evidence, creationists meet with disaster time and time again. Is it any wonder that scientists have little regard for ID advocates, considering that their major arguments, like fragile hothouse flowers, must be carefully shielded from contact with the evidence lest they collapse?

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.

  • topher

    I have to thank you for these posts. I have been given other of Strobel’s books by well-meaning family and it is great to see him taken down. His MO is the same in all the books as you demonstrate here. So keep up the good work.

  • http://onewomansopinion.grooving2music.com Toni

    This almost literally took by breath away. An excellent example of my definition of religion…holding a belief that cannot be proven, or even shown plausible, held even when proven impossible. Thank you for your condensation–I could never make it through all the legal docs.

  • The Tofu

    Wow. That’s pretty much the textbook definition of willful ignorance right there.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Yet despite this, he continued to insist that it was not possible that any of them contained an explanation good enough to satisfy him.

    That’s because there isn’t. It’s the ID equivalent of YEC’s “molecules to Man”; applying a far higher (unreachable) standard to the “other guy’s” evidence. “A series of “plausible pathways” coupled with comparative genetics won’t, indeed can’t, be a complete enough line.
    That Behe doesn’t bother to even test his own hypothesis (while studiously remaining willfully ignorant of the science that others are doing that conflicts with it) shows that he doesn’t really care what the real answer is. He’s got his own and, facts aside, his is right, dagnabit!

    Christian apologists like Lee Strobel go out of their way to present ID advocates in the best possible light, asking them easy, leading questions and ensuring that their answers go uncriticized and unchallenged.

    And how is that any different than 90%+ of the rest of the media? Seriously, most “journalists” are nothing of the sort. When Stewart and Colbert are the best reporters on [commonly watched*] TV, and Cheney was the Times’ “anonymous source” during the run-up to the war, something has gone terribly wrong.

    *Maddow’s probably the best serious journalist, which is kind of sad, as nobody but those preconditioned to her message watch MSNBC.

  • JulietEcho

    Wow. That’s pretty much the textbook definition of willful ignorance right there.

    Word.

    Strobel’s books are a complete waste of paper.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    I forgot a bit (and this probably would have gone better in an earlier Strobel page). Being credulous, ignorant and with little more than the pretense of objectivity (provided by “I was a reporter”), Strobel represents, at worst, the average of his breed. Take a look at most medical science reporting, for example. A bunch of it is just an advertisement for whatever the subject is (and most of the remainder is pretty pictures from Hubble or breathless overstatements of whatever the latest fossil find “really means”). Tech and investment coverage is even worse (advertisements and shillery, respectively).
    The problem with Strobel isn’t that he’s a bad reporter; the problem is that reporters are bad reporters. When they aren’t selling you something, they’re keeping you scared (“New Al Qaeda cell rumoured!” “This common household object could kill you!”), but they’re mostly just apologists for the status quo.

    Behe’s just an idiot.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I don’t think Strobel’s tactics are quite the same. The main difference as I see it is that Strobel knows ahead of time what conclusion he wants to reach, and asks his interviewees only the questions that he knows will give them an opportunity to assert that conclusion. The principal failing of the traditional media, on the other hand, is that they have no editorial judgment and are perfectly willing to place the viewpoints of cranks and real experts on equal footing, presenting the assertions of both sides without challenge or critique.

    Granted, this may be largely a difference of degree.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Agreed. I probably phrased it poorly. I do that, sometimes. Did I mention I’m doing other things at the same time? You try typing and juggling chainsaws simultaneously!

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Like that’s an excuse. I’d suggest you concentrate on the blog here, eh.

  • Kevin Morgan

    Summed up in a nutshell, creationists ask us to keep an open mind when considering their arguments. They say, “What will it take for you to believe?” and with some serious thought we can honestly point to certain criteria for proof of a supernatural creator. However, when one asks the creationist what would convince him/her that there is not God, the answer takes one of two forms, either:

    1. Nothing can change their minds, their faith is absolute and beyond questioning, or,
    2. they set the bar incredibly high and move it whenever it’s reached.

    Which is why I will no longer waste my time debating with creationists.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    However, though it’s not an ideal forum for the advancement of scientific knowledge, the trial format does have its advantages. For one thing, we can cross-examine creationist witnesses and force them to answer direct questions – an opportunity not available on the internet, where they can hunker down behind the ramparts of their blogs and avoid all hostile or critical feedback.

    Hmmm, that reminds me of William Dembski’s The Vise Strategy: Squeezing the Truth out of Darwinists

    Behe: “Most of them have evolution or related words in the title, so I can confirm that, but what I strongly doubt is that any of these address the question in a rigorous detailed fashion…

    And what happens when ID proponents are asked to provide any details on their alternative explanations? Here’s Dembksi again from 202:
    As for your example, I’m not going to take the bait. You’re asking me to play a game: “Provide as much detail in terms of possible causal mechanisms for your ID position as I do for my Darwinian position.” ID is not a mechanistic theory, and it’s not ID’s task to match your pathetic level of detail in telling mechanistic stories. If ID is correct and an intelligence is responsible and indispensable for certain structures, then it makes no sense to try to ape your method of connecting the dots. True, there may be dots to be connected. But there may also be fundamental discontinuities, and with IC systems that is what ID is discovering.

  • http://reasonvsapologetics.blogspot.com jim

    ‘But there may also be fundamental discontinuities, and with IC systems that is what ID is discovering.”

    This is what it always comes back down to, isn’t it? Discontinuities. Holes in the theory. Can’t connect every dot.

    God of the gaps.

    ‘…pathetic level of detail…’

    I thought this phrase was particularly amusing. Sort of like ‘pitifully high IQ’, or ‘feeble mountain of facts’. LOL!

  • Zietlos

    You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!

    Bread and circus. Or cirrus, in this case, since Behe clearly had his head in the clouds. I think it is fairly easy to say that anything can come from anything in our beautiful world. When it comes down to it, nothing is irreducibly complex. There is always a source. Postmodern-wise, the simulacrum: there is only copies, the original is long since gone, if it even existed at all.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Jim,
    Your comment reminded me of pastor Ray Mummert’s famous lament:

    We’ve been attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture

    in regards to the teaching of evolution in schools.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Thumpalumpacus “I’d suggest you concentrate on the blog here, eh.”
    And leave chainsaws left unjuggled? I think not!

    OMGF, how about “We have to stand up to these experts!”?

  • Caiphen

    Behe reminds of one of my pathetic attempts, as a teenager, at trying to defend my actions after kissing my best friend’s sister.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    If you think that’s tough, try substituting “sister” for “mom”.

  • Caiphen

    Damn Modus

    You’ve just added a yuck factor. But I guess it’s inevitable that this thread goes south, after all the post is on a remarkably laughable topic.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    I wouldn’t call it “adding a yuck factor”. I prefer to think of it as me raising the bar on lowering the bar.

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    Modus,

    Was it good? :P

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Your mom? I hardly think that’s an appropriate question. Also, yes.

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    Aha, well played sir. Well played indeed.

  • KacyRay

    Stewart and Colbert aren’t reporters – Stewart is a media watchdog and Colbert satires conservatism. Still, you get better news from them than you would watching any major news outlet.


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