Michael Behe: Kafka at the Dover Trial

The Dover Trial was fifteen years ago. Michael Behe is a Catholic biochemist, and he was one of the star witnesses in the trial advocating Intelligent Design. Scientists do not usually find themselves in court rooms. The whole experience would certainly have been disorienting for me.

In this exchange, moderated by guest, Behe gives us his take on the Trial. Here is how he puts it:

By the time the whole thing was finished I had a lot more sympathy for the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, and a much sharper understanding of the term Kafkaesque: “Marked by surreal distortion.” On reflection I’ve concluded that it pretty much didn’t matter what I said on the stand, nor what any of the other expert witnesses on either side said. The outcome of the case was decided long before the trial began. It was decided when the hoopla started, when the media cast the whole affair in terms of stereotypical heroes and villains, and when the judge consulted old Hollywood films for better perspective. A courtroom is no place to discuss intellectual issues.

Behe, Michael J. A Mousetrap for Darwin. Discovery Institute Press, in press.

Read the plot of the novel at Wikipedia. Kafka’s trial certainly was surreal.

I am a computational biologist, and now find myself a friendly critic of Intelligent Design. Fifteen years ago, however, I was not sure where I stood. The Dover Trial was one of the central and defining events of my time in graduate school. So this was a remarkable opportunity for me, a chance to talk directly with one of the key participants in this moment of history.

Mike and I certainly have our disagreements. Nathan H. Lents, Richard Lenski, and I reviewed his last book, Darwin Devolves, a couple years ago. It was not a positive review. But I actually agree with Behe on more than most people expect. Still, in the end, Intelligent Design looks like a “garden path” to me.

The tension between our agreement, on the on hand, and our disagreement, on the other, makes conversation with Mike exciting for me. We are both Christians that believe God created humans through a providentially governed process of common descent. We also do not see clear biochemical evidence for God’s guidance in human evolution. So where exactly do we disagree? Honestly, on human evolution, I am not exactly sure. Maybe you can help us figure out that puzzle.

The exchange in this conversation was fun. We discussed Irreducible Complexity too. I explain why I’m not convinced by his argument, and Behe agreed to give look at and respond to what I’ve written about this in the past. We wondered about the meaning of Darwinism, and tussled over the right understanding of “exaptation.”

For all our public disagreements, and there are many, Mike was very kind to me. He agreed to read my book sometime soon, and let us know what he thinks. I am looking forward to hearing what he thinks, I really am. The Dover Trial was a flash point of conflict, but this dialogue certainly seemed like peaceful science.

Pat Flynn moderated the exchange on the Dover Trial on his podcast. He generously released the video to Peaceful Science, and released the audio in his podcast.

Earlier this year, Mike and dialogued at Texas A&M University. If you missed that exchange, the video is available now. Though, in all honesty, hearing about the Dover Trial from Mike was a treat. Kafkaesque indeed.

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Dr. Swamidass is the founder of Peaceful Science. He is an associate professor at Washington University in Saint Louis where he runs a computational biology group using artificial intelligence to explore science at the intersection of biology, chemistry, and medicine.


Notable Replies

  1. I think you did really well @swamidass. And I have to say I think Behe was extremely confused on the topic of exaptation. Clearly the taking of an existing structure and rearranging it so it serves another function is an example of exaptation. Under that clearly canonical definition of exaptation, Michael Behe is demonstrably incorrect to say there have been no examples of exaptation resulting in novel functions and structures in experimental biology.

    Just to pick one recent example I wrote about on this very forum, the rearrangement of parts from different genes resulted in a novel chimeric transporter:

    Here’s an example where gene fusion of different genes (the exaptation of parts already existing of protein coding genes serving other functions) results in a novel function:

    Of course, the repurposing of the promoter for the rnk gene which occurred spontaneously in the Lenski long-term evolution experiment, through gene duplication, resulted in a novel phenotypic function: The Cit+ phenotype. Hence it is another textbook example of exaptation resulting in a novel function(see figure for how this occurred):

    I have a post on Panda’s Thumb explaining how experiments have shown that pieces of already existing protein coding genes can be copied and rearranged into new functional genes, which would also qualify as examples as exaptation:

  2. I think it needs to be said that irreducible complexity is a real thing. Some functions really are irreducibly complex in the sense that, if you remove a part from the system, it stops having some function. For example, if you remove the filament from the bacterial flagellum then it really does stop functioning as a propulsion system. Problem is that doesn’t make it functionless. If you take away the filament, you still have the flagellar type-III secretion system, which works just fine as protein export machine.

  3. Yeah that doesn’t make any sense, he’s just clearly wrong. If you rearrange parts and you get some new function, then those parts really have been exapted to perform a new function. No ifs or buts that I see, he’s just wrong. I’m 100% with you on this.

  4. Well, not very much of the discussion there was actually about Kitzmiller. But to the extent it was, I mostly find myself strangely in agreement with Behe, except to the extent that he disparages the intellectual capability of Judge Jones.

    I think that it is a mistake to assume – as Behe seems to have assumed, in going into the Kitzmiller litigation – that litigation in a common-law court is a process meant to discover some sort of ultimate truth. It is a mistake to assume that even those who practice law believe this – indeed, they believe it less than anyone else does. Litigation is war, and as Sherman said, “War is all hell.”

    Understand this: we have, in contrast to much of the civilized world, a deep commitment to the notion of an adversarial system of justice. The civil law model, of an inquisitorial system where judges take an active role in establishing the facts and the law, has certain arguable merits, and you’ll find that system in most European countries. But our system is and has always been one based upon combat: the notion is that a rule-bound, refereed combat in which each side strives to put forth the best case it can will tend to produce legitimate results. If you are an expert and you don’t face harsh cross-examination, frankly, that probably is because your testimony isn’t very important. If your testimony is very important, as Behe’s unquestionably was here, then you should expect the sharpest sort of conflict. The judge is only a referee as to the fairness of that conflict, both procedurally (what kinds of questions can be asked?) and substantively (what is to be made of the conflicts between witnesses on both sides?).

    Next: does anyone think that debate in a courtroom and deliberation upon scientific expert testimony is a good way to resolve a scientific dispute? No. Nobody thinks that, least of all those who practice litigation. So why do we do it?

    We do it because the adversarial system is based upon cases or controversies. Courts do not reach out into the world to find disagreements and resolve them. They take parties who are at loggerheads, one of whom has refused to back down from some stance and the other of whom has decided that, that being the situation, it must after all be war. And the case is ABOUT that conflict. It is about flesh-and-blood people. In this particular case, it was about religious extremists who chose to take a stand, and citizens who decided they weren’t bloody going to take it any longer. That’s the conflict. It is the role of the lawyers, in that conflict, to analyze that conflict, break it down into issues, frame those issues and endeavor, to the extent those issues are issues of “fact” rather than of “law,” to bring evidence to the court. It is then the role of their adversaries to explain away, contradict, and/or discredit that evidence.

    Behe talks about Jones being an English major, lawyer, and “failed politician” as though any of these things have anything to do with it – as if to ask how such a miserable creature could be presumed capable of understanding the illuminating insights of a Behe. The fact is that nobody expects a US District Judge to come to a case pre-loaded with expertise bearing upon the very points at issue. I have litigated, before these judges, all of these matters:

    • The extent and nature of floodwater behavior and management in river plains;
    • The uniqueness and patentability of particular modes of creating the timbre of the individual notes on a church organ;
    • The relationship between prison overcrowding and inmate-on-inmate violence;
    • Police approaches to domestic violence, and the effectiveness of those approaches;
    • The manner of termination of a municipal cemetery management contract;
    • The nature and consequences of a collective bargaining agreement governing the closure of a manufacturing plant, as bearing upon the entitlement of then-disabled workers to pension benefits;
    • The scope of visibility afforded a school bus driver by various configurations of mirrors, and the effectiveness of additional mirrors and other equipment in preventing children from being run over;
    • The impact upon fish populations of construction of small run-of-the-river hydroelectric plants on mountain streams;
    • The feasibility of anadromous fish passage through particular types of drainage ways;
    • and so on, and so on.

    We do not expect – and could not reasonably expect – our system to have, as its judges, people who come to the bench richly aware of the full range of technical issues with which they may have to cope. What we do expect is that the parties will choose experts well. What we do expect is that judges will be intelligent and patient. And – though the trendline is rather ugly in recent years – for US District Courts the intellectual quality of our judges has been, on the whole, excellent. Our state courts are quite variable, not just because of the quality of the judges but also because they tend to have excessively large dockets and limited staffing as compared to a US District Judge.

    Behe’s argument that Jones did not understand the evidence seems to be based primarily upon Jones pulling passages from the writings of the plaintiffs’ lawyers. But these passages, it must be understood, are from the parties’ proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. These proposed findings and conclusions are REQUESTED by the court from the parties for just this purpose. While on this occasion he did not suggest that this was plagiarism, he and others have done that elsewhere and it is really misleading. The purpose of these proposed findings is for use in the ruling. That’s why the judge asked for them, and that’s how they were used. The fact that they were used in this case, as they are in almost every case that goes to bench trial, is truly unremarkable and says absolutely nothing about whether the judge subjectively understood or did not understand the testimony. The likelihood of the judge having uncritically accepted them is basically nil, and he and his law clerk(s) will have worked on this ruling for quite a while to get it right.

    What does the case resolve? That’s the subject of some misunderstanding all up and down the spectrum of views. But it’s fair to say that when the law is confronted with an issue of fact (is ID a scientific theory?) it seldom if ever purports to resolve that fact for all parties, for all purposes, and for all time. Remember: the whole adversarial system is based upon the case or controversy. The system is built to render decisions not primarily for their far-reaching effects but for their proximate effects upon the behavior of the parties. The public sees it differently because the law people tend to hear about is the far-reaching law: Brown v. Board of Education, or Roe v. Wade, or Korematsu v. United States – cases which, for good or for ill, have massive policy consequences and which raise basic issues about human freedom, autonomy and equality. What you don’t hear about is the daily grinding-through of thousands upon thousands of disputes, each of which turns on its own particular details. We have “landmark” cases because sooner or later, amid those undistinguished cases, a conflict arises which encapsulates something with a depth and breadth that – due to our regard for legal precedent – means that it will mean more to those who are in its wake than it means to the very persons involved. That is the exception, not the rule. Let’s talk about what a ruling like Kitzmiller actually means – something liable to be overstated by people from all sorts of points of view.

    A final judgment after trial precludes parties from relitigating the facts, except under narrow special circumstances. It establishes, likewise, the “law of the case” which means that (again, barring certain special circumstances) the parties may not reargue the legal issues. It resolves the claims which were presented, and so here it establishes that the defendants did violate the plaintiffs’ civil rights under the First Amendment, and were liable for that violation under the Civil Rights Act of 1871.

    But those are the effects upon the parties: upon the Kitzmillers and other plaintiffs, and upon the Dover Area School Board, and upon the individual defendants on that Board. The effects of the decision more broadly are not so strong. Because this is a decision of a trial court, any other trial court in America (state or federal) stands at the same level and is not “bound” by any principle of stare decisis. Another trial court could hypothetically face the EXACT same facts and rule in the other direction. In any case very similar to Kitzmiller, there is no doubt that the anti-ID party will point to it and insist that the same answers should follow; but he will know, when so doing, that the value of the ruling is advisory only. The pro-ID party is free to argue that Jones got it wrong; he is free to argue that newer and better evidence shows that whether Jones was wrong or not, he would be wrong under the evidence we now have; he is free to argue that the circumstances and details of the new case are sufficiently different as to make the Kitzmiller ruling wholly irrelevant.

    The law doesn’t presume to decree, for science, what is or is not science. But the law must presume to decree, for the law, what is or is not science, when that issue is squarely put at the center of a case or controversy as it was in Kitzmiller. A court faced with a case where the parties do not put it in issue, or where the merits may be resolved without reaching the issue, may decline to decide it. But when, as here, the parties on both sides are in full agreement that the scientific character of ID is at issue, the court has no choice but to resolve that question on the basis of the evidence presented by those parties.

    Whether one considers this process “Kafkaesque” is, I suppose, a matter of opinion, and Behe is certainly entitled to his. But having been before some adminstrative boards now and then in my career who, as a colleague put it, “really put the ‘quasi’ in ‘quasi-judicial’,” I can’t agree that there is anything Kafkaesque – or even terribly unusual – about how this case proceeded. If this is Kafka, well, call me Gregor and watch what you do with the bug spray.

  5. Avatar for Art Art says:

    I watched the discussion. Here are some of my thoughts:

    1. Like @Puck_Mendelssohn , I thought that Behe was not in the best of moods. My suspicion is that he wanted to have a discussion with Josh the reviewer of his book, and not Josh who agrees with Behe about many things (such as the common ancestry of humans and apes). I am just guessing, but I think it possible that many over the years have used his views on human evolution to try and drive a wedge between himself and the greater ID and Christian community, and he is sick of this.

    2. Can we please just drop all the “mousetrap” claptrap? It was a lame analogy in 1996, and it has long since served any usefulness it may have had. I cannot believe people still argue against (or for) IC using this example.

    3. If it were me, I would grant Behe that IC circa 1996 was an interesting idea. I would also stress that, 25 years later, it has been laid firmly to rest as an impediment to evolution. Sure, maybe every experiment on every IC system one may imagine has not been done. But we know that IC can evolve – incrementally, in one fell swoop, by many different mechanisms. Pointing to an IC complex and proclaiming that, because the experiment Behe imagines has not been done, intelligence is required to explain its origins is not a valid or even useful scientific approach. Hammer Behe each and every time he resorts to “the experiment has not been done, therefore design”. Challenge him – can he describe positive experimental evidence that supports his claims about intelligence and the origins of IC? Can he point to any data that says specifically that, for example, the bacterial flagellum cannot possibly have evolved without intelligent intervention? If he cannot, then the precedent provided by many, many examples rules the day rhetorically and scientifically. (And incidentally, “purposely arranged parts” is not positive experimental evidence for anything. It is a euphemism for “it looks that way to Behe”. And the only thing it shows is that Behe has very, very poor eyesight.)

    4. It was interesting to hear Behe so clearly state his misrepresentation of Nick White’s review (the one where Behe got his 10^20 number). It did not take 10^20 parasites to evolve two point mutations (which is what Behe asserted in the discussion, and also his second book). Once again, for those who have forgotten, here is the complete passage from the review (White, N. J. 2004. Antimalarial drug resistance. J. Clin. Invest. 113:1084-92) Behe pulled the number from:

    “Chloroquine resistance in P. falciparum may be multigenic and is initially conferred by mutations in a gene encoding a transporter (PfCRT) (13). In the presence of PfCRT mutations, mutations in a second transporter (PfMDR1) modulate the level of resistance in vitro, but the role of PfMDR1 mutations in determining the therapeutic response following chloroquine treatment remains unclear (13). At least one other as-yet unidentified gene is thought to be involved. Resistance to chloroquine in P. falciparum has arisen spontaneously less than ten times in the past fifty years (14). This suggests that the per-parasite probability of developing resistance de novo is on the order of 1 in 10^20 parasite multiplications.“

    In the discussion with @swamidass, Behe asserted that 10^20 parasites was the number needed to get the two point mutations in PfCRT he is so fixated on. The complete paragraph from the cited review tells a very different story. IMO, Behe should be called to account for this discrepancy, and invited to revise his estimate of “the edge of evolution”.

    1. What the heck was Behe going on about disulfide linkages? Is he really claiming that new disulfide linkages in proteins cannot evolve (originate, rearrange, or whatever)? Maybe someone can paste some quotes from wherever he has claimed this.

    2. @swamidass , Behe wanted you to talk more about his latest book. You should have taken the opportunity to ask him if he was going to correct his claims about the polar bear genome in any revisions. Will he explain that the polar bear mutations he went on and on about are not actually fixed in the polar bear genome? These genes are actually not “broken” in the ways he claims. He owes his readers some corrections.

  6. Yeah, I’ve been wondering that for some time. As I said in my Amazon review:

    I think one of the things that people have generally failed to appreciate is that Behe’s arguments have no relevance to the thing that gives most creationists fits: the fact that humans are apes, monkeys, primates, mammals, et cetera. To use his ideas about cellular novelty for those purposes you’ve got to turn to very, very loose analogy and even if one thought it did work at the cellular novelty level, it completely stops working at the metazoan level.

  7. Ah. Well, yes, it is that, in part. It is also typical DI dishonest culture-war-mongering.

    I particularly like the way they keep calling the plaintiffs the “ACLU.” The DI never can resist the culture-war stuff. The plaintiffs were ordinary parents, victims of a vicious and willful attack upon their constitutional liberties by their own school board, aided and abetted by deceptive DI propaganda. When their own local government turned against them, they turned to the courts and obtained the relief to which they were entitled. Having sought and obtained justice, they will always be villains to the DI and its ilk.

  8. Avatar for NLENTS NLENTS says:

    This is kind of what I say in my upcoming Skeptical Inquirer article. When IC was first introduced, it helped to draw focus to molecular evolution in terms of fleshing out the theoretical framework of particular examples (blood clotting, flagellum, etc.) and especially in how this stuff is presented to the public (especially the evolution of the eye, which went from hand-waving to extremely detailed accounts). So, in this way, Darwin’s Black Box could charitably be seen as a contribution to science. But the challenge was always rhetorical, not scientific. There were no weaknesses exposed, just gaps in theoretical development.

    I, too, was shocked by this. He doesn’t seem to know how his very poor use of these estimates makes him look very uninformed.

    We have talked about doing this together, the three of us, and I’m still game.

    He doesn’t seem to know any of this, but I cover it in my Skeptical Inquirer article and Josh is working on something also (not yet for public consumption). @swamidass, since Art did a lot of this, and is known to the folks where you will be submitting your article, you should engage him in the effort. I’m here to help as well, but my fingers are already all over this even though, in reality, it wasn’t me who did most of the heavy lifting.

  9. Yes, it might have been. But the DI did not consider the value of that to be as great as the value of post facto bellyaching. That, I am sure, was a strategic decision as their counsel cannot have been unaware that petitioning the court to modify particular statements, if in error, was likely to succeed.

    I’ll try to put some time into this. It may take a while. I have a colonoscopy on Thursday, and my nation has one tomorrow, so other commitments may intervene.

  10. Ken Miller is already scheduled with @Nlents and I for the 10th.

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