Today's New York Times has eight letters to the editor replying to Michael Behe's op-ed from Monday. The letters vary quite a bit in terms of quality, but none really gets at the heart of the matter.
Before looking at specifics, this may be a good time to remind people that letters to the editor are frequently edited substantially before publication. So it is possible that the blame for the low quality of the letters is attributable to the editor, and not to the letter writers themselves.
Anyway, here's the best of the bunch:
Michael J. Behe demonstrates why the so-called theory of intelligent design should stay out of our science classrooms. His claims of physical evidence are spurious. We see clocks and outboard motors in cells not because they are clocks and motors, but because we have no better analogy.
A century ago, the astronomer Percival Lowell described water-filled canals on Mars for the same reason. When confronted with the unknown, we first perceive it in terms of the known. Perception, however, does not make it so.
Science alone cannot sustain our society; philosophical speculation like Dr. Behe's is vital to our understanding, too. But trying to pass one off as the other serves only to undermine them both.
Monterey, Calif., Feb. 7, 2005
Of course, I don't agree that Behe's speculations provides anything that can be construed as “understanding.” But I love the point about analogies.
Here's another good one:
I must have missed the concept of “if it looks, walks and quacks like a duck, then, absent compelling evidence to the contrary, we have warrant to conclude it's a duck” in my studies of the scientific method.
Yes, scientists describe their observations, but this is not the scientific method. Employing experiments aimed at discovering the “compelling evidence to the contrary” is.
That is the trouble with the design - intelligent or otherwise - theory. Description is not enough in science. That is for religion.
New York, Feb. 7, 2005
The writer is a research assistant professor, Laboratory of Molecular Cell Biology, Rockefeller University.
Sadly, several of the writers followed this approach:
The basic principle of intelligent design is that life is just too complicated to occur by chance, and thus there must be some intelligent entity guiding the process.
A much more likely explanation is that our inability to comprehend these phenomena that appear “designed” merely reflects our own limitations as a species. We only recently discovered fire and the wheel and remain a basically savage society. Why not recognize our own limited capacity to understand complexity?
Our perception of complexity derives from our sense of scale in daily events. Is it any surprise that from this perspective, the evolution of life is beyond our grasp to comprehend? Intelligent design, like other creation myths, is just another way for us to make sense of our world.
A simpler alternative is to embrace our limited ability to comprehend and move on from there.
Richard W. Grant, M.D.
Boston, Feb. 7, 2005
A rather more obnoxious version of the same thought was this brief missive:
It is time for both dogmatic evolutionists and adamant religionists to show some humility in the face of the grand mysteries of the universe.
Brooklyn, Feb. 7, 2005
The view expressed by Mr. Winer, and to a lesser extent Dr. Grant, is often considered very clever and sensible. Only crazy extremists would actually take a stand on this issue. More reasonable people see the big picture and are properly awed by it.
I'm all in favor of showing humility in the face of grand mysteries, it's just that the evolution of life is not one of those mysteries. Evolution is a modest theory about the development of life once it appeared, not a grand theory of everything.
The fact is that we are perfectly capable of understanding the major processes of evolution, Dr. Grant's ruminations notwithstanding. You can find the basic facts in any textbook on the subject.
But the real reason I found the letters dissatisfying was that no one got around to making the obvious point: Behe is wrong when he claims that complex molecular machines pose a fundamental challenge to evolution as we know it. He is wrong to claim that there are no plausible scenarios for describing how specific biochemical systems came to be. He is wrong when he suggests that we can infer design in biological systems by the same process we use to infer that Mt. Rushmore was designed. Behe's arguments should be rejected not because they are unscientific (which they are), or because he is arguing from ignorance (which he is), but because the assertions he is making are demonsrably false.
But no one pointed this out (no one who got published, anyway). And this is in the New York Times, for heaven's sake.