Review of Michael Behe, Darwin Devolves: The New Science About DNA That Challenges Evolution (New York: HarperOne, 2019), 342 pages, hdbk.
The author of this new book is well known for his earlier works Darwin’s Black Box and The Edge of Evolution. In the former book Michael Behe argued that biological systems, more especially the molecular makeup of incredibly complex structures in the cell, could not have arisen via evolutionary pathways. Natural selection and mutation were simply not capable of building the city-like features that had only recently been discovered. Nor could evolution explain how these structures (like the bacterial flagellum) be constructed as functioning wholes by the processes available to it. The “irreducible complexity” of the structures meant that everything had to be put together at once in just the right way so that the molecular machine would work. Not only this, but in The Edge of Evolution Behe showed that the assembly system of the flagellar itself, with its instructions, had to be in place all at once in order for the machine to be constructed. As he notes in an appendix at the end of Darwin Devolves,
Twenty years on, there has been a grand total of zero serious attempts to show how the elegant molecular machine might have been produced by random processes and natural selection. – Darwin Devolves, 287
The main argument of The Edge of Evolution was that the mechanism of evolution was competent to account for developmental changes up to the level of class, but could go no further. Since that book was published and new research such as he mentions in the present book has come to light Behe has revised that estimate down to the level between family and genus (Ibid, 155-156).
The Thesis: Survival through Devolution
And so we come to Darwin Devolves. Using the most up-to-date research, among which is the ongoing 25 plus year old lab experiment with E. coli of Richard Lenski, the sequencing experiments of Joseph Thornton, and the extensive work of Peter and Rosemary Grant with “Darwin’s Finches’ on the Galapagos Islands, Behe arrives at the conclusion that it is overwhelmingly more common for living systems to fix a problem by deletion than by making something new. He illustrates it this way,
Suppose you lived in a crude walled area on a hillside. Persistent heavy rains have recently led to water accumulating inside the walls and rising at a rate of a foot per day. You, who are under 6 feet tall, have less than a week to solve the problem before you drown. One possible solution is to build a mechanical pump to eject the water [from accumulating debris]… A possible solution is to simply forego repairing one or a few of the small holes in the wall on the downhill side of your compound that form by accident everyday, allowing the water to flow through. Of course the second course of action is the only realistic one. You have an urgent problem that needs to be solved right now…
Now suppose ten years have passed. One day, quite by accident, pieces of debris that could be made into a pump fall into your compound… But what purpose would a pump now serve?… The need for a pump has long since passed, so you throw away the unnecessary junk. – Ibid, 247
In similar fashion, damaging a gene can ensure the survival of the organism.
The book demonstrates that this is in fact the way things go in the real world (as opposed to the simulated world often relied upon by the scientist). In fact, the book opens up with the case of the polar bear, which is of the same genus as the brown bear. Adapting to the new colder environment it (somehow) found itself in, “Ursus maritimus has adjusted…mainly by degrading genes that its ancestors already possessed. Despite its impressive abilities, rather than evolving, it has adapted predominantly by devolving”. – Ibid, 17
It appears then that, “Darwinian evolution proceeds mainly by damaging or breaking genes, which, counterintuitively, sometimes helps survival.” – Ibid, 37 (emphasis in original). Moreover, because of their economy and utility, these degraded genes will be positively “selected” and will therefore spread. (cf. 183-187). This comes with a cost: the more information is lost, the more limits are introduced to what an organism can do (i.e. how it can “evolve”).
Behe spends several chapters going over the most recent accounts within evolutionary science that actually challenge neo-Darwinian theory. These are necessary, but I found them to be a little tedious. The results of these approaches have been unspectacular.
More interesting are his discussions of Lenski’s important long-term experiment (172-179). When all is said, the author contends that after 50 thousand generations and counting, “it’s very likely that all of the beneficial mutations worked by degrading or outright breaking the respective ancestor genes.” (179).
Chapter 9 is called “The Revenge of the Principle of Comparative Difficulty.” Behe raised this issue earlier on (27-29). He defines it thus:
If a task that requires less effort is too difficult to accomplish, then a task that requires more effort necessarily is too. – Ibid, 28
Behe says that most of Darwin’s defenders are blissfully ignorant of this principle, which is why they make such wild and extravagant claims for evolution. Referring to his earlier discussion of the findings of Joseph Thornton’s groundbreaking work on steroid receptors (206-213), he quips,
Perhaps you have read that Darwin’s theory also explains politics, the law, literature, music, love, the universe – even mind itself. It just has trouble accounting for a disulfide bond. – Ibid, 245
In the last chapter Behe allows himself a little more freedom to emote. He addresses the the now common dogma that the mind does not in fact exist, and that all our thoughts, our beliefs, our memories, our aspirations, our knowledge, are merely the result of firing of neurons. This of course is absurd, for science extinguishes itself in such a idea. But anything to avoid purpose! That is the enemy. Purpose points to a Purposer, and that won’t do at all! The specimens of daft quotations from evolutionists in this chapter is something to take in. One is reminded of the biblical truth that the sinful mind is a sophisticated God-avoidance mechanism. Behe pushes back on this foolishness:
A basic aspect of reason is our ability to recognize the existence of other minds. If we lose confidence that we can perceive the work of another mind through the purposeful arrangement of parts, we are stuck in a solipsistic universe… – Ibid, 274-275
Darwin Devolves contains much else which is worthy of attention. Behe only writes books when he thinks he has something important to say. He does here!
The book is jargon-free, except on those occasions when it is necessary to name something. As readers of Behe will know, he has an enviable ability to turn a phrase, and great felicity with illustrations. Being a young-earther, I do not endorse every position of the author, but this book is recommended.