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The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism Hardcover – June 5, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
With his first book, Darwin's Black Box, Behe, a professor of biology at Lehigh University, helped define the controversial intelligent design movement with his concept of "irreducible complexity." Now he attempts to extend his analysis and define what evolution is capable of doing and what is beyond its scope. Behe strongly asserts, to the likely chagrin of young earth creationists, that the earth is billions of years old and that the concept of common descent is correct. But beginning with a look at malaria and the sickle cell response in humans, Behe argues that genetic mutation results in only clumsy solutions to selective pressures. He goes on to conclude that the statistical possibility of certain evolutionary changes taking place is virtually nil. Although Behe writes with passion and clarity, his calculations of probability ignore biologists' rejection of the premise that evolution has been working toward producing any particular end product. Furthermore, he repeatedly refers to the shortcomings of "Darwin's theory-the power of natural selection coupled to random mutation," but current biological theory encompasses far more than this simplistic view. Most important, Behe reaches the controversial conclusion that the workings of an intelligent designer is the only reasonable alternative to evolution, even without affirmative evidence in its favor.
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"With this book, Michael Behe shows that he is truly an independent thinker of the first order. He carefully examines the data of evolution, along the way making an argument for universal common descent that will make him no friends among young-earth creationists, and draws in new facts, especially the data on malaria, that have not been part of the public debate at all up to now. This book will take the intelligent design debate into new territory and represents a unique contribution to the longstanding question of philosophy: Can observation of the physical world guide our thinking about religious questions?"
-- Professor David Snoke, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Pittsburgh
"In The Edge of Evolution Michael Behe carefully assesses the evidence of what Darwin's mechanism of random mutation and selection can achieve in well documented cases, and shows that even in those cases that maximize its power as a creative force it has only been able to generate very trivial examples of evolutionary change. Could such an apparently impotent and mindless force really have built the sophisticated molecular devices found throughout nature? The answer, he insists, is no. The only common-sense explanation is intelligent design."
-- Michael Denton, M.D., Ph.D., author of Nature's Destiny
"In crystal-clear prose Behe systematically shreds the central dogma of atheistic science, the doctrine of the random universe. This book, like the natural phenomena it so elegantly describes, shows the unmistakable signs of a very deep intelligence at work."
-- JEffrey M. Schwartz, M.D., Research Psychiatrist, UCLA, and author of The Mind & The Brain
"Until the past decade and the genomics revolution, Darwin's theory rested on indirect evidence and reasonable speculation. Now, however, we have begun to scratch the surface of direct evidence, of which this book offers the best possible treatment. Though many critics won't want to admit it, The Edge of Evolution is very balanced, careful, ¬and devastating. A tremendously important book."
-- Dr. Philip Skell, Evan Pugh Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, at Pennsylvania State University, and member of the National Academy of Sciences
"With this book, Michael Behe shows that he is truly an independent thinker of the first order. In a day when the media present all issues in the football metaphor as two teams fighting, the intelligent design debate is presented simplistically as authors who are lapdogs for young-earth creationists versus evolutionists who are lapdogs for atheists. Michael Behe is no lapdog. He carefully examines the data of evolution, along the way making an argument for universal common descent that will make him no friends among young-earth creationists, and draws in new facts, especially the data on malaria, that have not been part of the public debate at all up to now. This book will take the intelligent design debate into new territory and represents a unique contribution on the longstanding question of philosophy: can observation of the physical world guide our thinking about religious questions?"
- Professor David Snoke, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Pittsburgh
"Until the past decade and the genomics revolution, Darwin's theory rested on indirect evidence and reasonable speculation. Now, however, we have begun to scratch the surface of direct evidence, of which this book offers the best possible treatment. Though many critics won't want to admit it, The Edge of Evolution is very balanced, careful, and devastating. A tremendously important book."
-- Dr. Philip Skell, Evan Pugh Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, at Pennsylvania State University, and member of the National Academy of Sciences --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
The opening argument of the book is so simple and obvious one wonders why one hasn't heard it before. In the past sixty years, man has thrown every drug he could at malaria. Malaria developed resistance to some within days. For others, it took years. But despite having millennia to evolve resistance, malaria has never developed a way to avoid being destroyed by the Sickle mutation, which changes the shape of human hemoglobin so that it gels in the presence of an invasive bacterium such as malaria. Likewise, malaria can only survive in warm climates. This fact is so obvious that it's difficult to perceive its significance. But on further reflection, its significance raises important questions for Darwinism. We are told that by random mutation and natural selection, Darwinian evolution can build sophisticated molecular machines. But despite the vast number of malarial cells (far more than all the mammals who have existed in the history of the Earth), malaria cannot evolve to survive in cooler climates?
This intuitive insight is then developed in a more rigorous fashion throughout the book. While malaria develops resistance to most drugs within days or weeks, it took ten years for it to develop resistance to Chloroquine. This is because chloroquine resistance requires two mutations, one of which, taken alone, is deleterious. Hence, the two mutations must appear simultaneously. Stepwise mechanisms are ruled out by natural selection, which would remove either mutation if it appeared alone. Because of the rapid speed at which malarial generations pass, adequate time is provided for random mutation to search sequence space. In order to acquire the probability of two mutations appearing simultaneously, one must square the probability of one mutation appearing. If the number of organisms exceeds that probability, then it is likely that the double-mutation will appear. But what if an organism needs three or more mutations? Well, then one would need to cube the probability, and then lift it to the fourth power. The probability decreases exponentially until it is beyond the number of all the organisms that have ever existed during the history of life on Earth.
That is how one arrives at the edge of evolution. The argument is concise, evidentially based, and persuasive. Apart from this, Behe explores the nature of beneficial mutation and the mechanism of design. As to the former, he points out that virtually all observed beneficial mutations operate by breaking a preexisting function in order to save energy. Rather than an arms race in which each side becomes more technically adept, Darwinism is trench warfare, where each side is progressively driven backwards by the necessity of moment-to-moment combat. As for the latter, Behe tentatively embraces a providential account of design, where God frontloaded the entire history of the cosmos into the Big Bang so that events of extraordinarily low probability would necessarily occur, including the development of intelligent life. I find this philosophically problematic, as it seems to presume determinism. But this is a minor flaw.
I have frankly been mystified by the poor quality of the responses to Dr. Behe's case. The abuse he has received is beyond the pale. Having read Kenneth Miller's critiques of this book, it is questionable as to whether he even understood the book's main argument. He has suggested that chloroquine resistance can evolve in stepwise fashion- this has now been experimentally disconfirmed, but besides that, it leaves him without an explanation of why it has arisen so rarely relative to resistance to other drugs. Others have responsed to Behe's suggestion that two new protein-protein binding sites are beyond the edge of evolution by pointing to new protein-viral binding sites, which Behe explicitly distinguished from protein-protein binding sites- a virus has many more options for binding, since it merely needs to break the function rather than perform a specified function in a molecular machine. And so on. Despite the vitriol, responses to the substance are lacking.
Highly recommended for those interested in the debate. Before you criticize intelligent design, read its most astute proponents and read their critics. You might be surprised.
The Edge of Evolution’s purpose is to provide a “sober appraisal of what Darwinian processes can and cannot do.” It juxtaposes this objective against the notion that Darwinism is an all-or-nothing affair, where one must either accept the entire theory, or dump the baby with the bathwater. On Behe’s view, both avenues are mistaken. In fact, he highlights certain merits of Darwinian theory throughout the book and devotes an entire chapter to “What Darwinism Can Do.” Readers unfamiliar with Behe’s views will quickly learn that he affirms common descent, and also regards random mutation and natural selection as viable explanations of certain natural phenomena. His main thesis, however, concerns the limits of these central Darwinian mechanisms, which mustn’t be ignored in light of compelling scientific data.
To that end, Behe frames his argument within ten chapters which are accessibly-written for a popular audience. While some material is necessarily technical, a corresponding appendix provides a helpful primer, though the main points come through regardless of one’s mastery of the details. Similarly, chapter 1 (“The Elements of Darwinism”) provides sufficient background information with respect to the basic contours of Darwinism, while chapter 2 sets the stage for discussing evolutionary limits by contrasting competing Darwinian paradigms: “Arms Race or Trench Warfare.” The statistical components upon which Behe basis his conclusions receives thorough treatment in chapter 3, “The Mathematical Limits of Darwinism,” while chapters 4 and 5 survey “What Darwinism Can” and “Can’t Do,” respectively. Chapter 6 (“Benchmarks”) defines criteria by which to assess the proposed limits, while chapter 7 delves into their applicability to protein-binding processes. Behe uses chapter 7 to address possible objections to his argument, and then “crosses the edge” in chapters 9 and 10 to explore the implications of nonrandom mutation and the extent to which such considerations apply to the universe at large.
An inherent liability of any popular treatment which tackles technical matters, is the risk of losing an audience, either in a maze of technicalities or through sheer boredom; thus, to be effective, even persuasive data and sound reasoning must be made accessible and engaging. Thankfully for his readers, Behe hits the mark on both counts. Setting the argumentation aside for the moment, The Edge’s greatest strengths are its masterful and frequent use of analogy to illustrate abstract points, along with its appropriate wit and light-hearted humor, which make it truly enjoyable to read. With respect to analogy, it deserves mentioning that Behe is careful not to use it as anything more than a teaching device (i.e., he avoids arguing the analogy). Similarly, and also to his credit, he avoids other common informal fallacies such as attacking strawmen and ad hominems.
Of course, if The Edge was merely an enjoyable read at the expense of cogency, then it would rightly suffer a fate of ineffectiveness. But here again, Behe hits the mark—this time, by way of concrete examples based on credible research and sound mathematical reasoning. For example, he appeals to the work of Oxford malariologist, Nicholas White, in citing that resistance to the anti-malarial drug, chloroquine, requires approximately 10^20 replications of the malarial cell (a factor that Behe refers to as a “chloroquine complexity cluster,” or “CCC”)—a beneficial mutation (from the standpoint of malaria). He further reasons that a cluster which exhibits twice the complexity of CCC (a “double-CCC”) would require 10^40 replications to achieve a beneficial mutation, since the odds against two independent events is the multiple of the odds against each event. Finally, in light of University of Georgia research, which estimates that the entire number of cells throughout Earth’s history is just shy of 10^40, Behe observes that “we have no statistical right to expect that random mutation can include the changes that have been credited to it” beyond the threshold of a double-CCC—the tentative edge of evolution.
Behe also introduces criteria which prove helpful in distinguishing random from nonrandom mutation: steps and coherence. With regard to steps, he observes that if two mutations must occur before conferring a net benefit on an organism, then evolutionary explanations which appeal to merely random mutation encounter significant problems. By way of analogy, Behe invites readers to imagine a single missing step on a stairwell; though a couch potato could likely traverse the obstacle, a frail old man could not. He likens the couch potato in this scenario to malaria, given its ability to figuratively skip steps by virtue of its vast probabilistic resources (i.e., a population size of ~10^20); whereas the frail old man represents humans and large animals, whose population pales in comparison at ~10^9. Citing the observation of evolutionary biologists, Jerry Coyne and Allen Orr—that the goal of a theory is not to determine what is theoretically possible, but what is biologically reasonable—Behe concludes that random mutation is reasonable to a point, but suffers severe limitations when evolution must traverse multiple steps.
Of course, this brief review merely skims the surface of a few key points, though Behe’s insightful project merits a much closer look by readers interested in the possible limits of Darwinian evolution. To that end, The Edge of Evolution is highly recommended for anyone who appreciates an engaging and substantive treatment of a topic that has not only permeated the life sciences, but has overflown into many other aspects of contemporary thought. As mentioned, the style makes this work accessible to a diverse audience, including high school and college students who have perhaps accepted the notion that Darwinian evolution is an unassailable theory that defies all limits.
Malaria can evolve resistance to drugs, but it has not and probably never will develop resistance to Sickle cell hemoglobin; there is a limit to what Darwinian evolution can do.
Another example is fish who live in the antarctic that have a special anti-freeze "protein" in their blood which prevents ice crystals from forming in freezing cold water. This extremely rare and lucky mutation is not really constructive, because it's just a bundle of incoherent material that happens to act as antifreeze for the fish.
But in all of these example (the best examples of Darwinian evolution), there is a loss in some other aspect of the organism. To say that this same random process lead to the eagle's eye and the human brain is laughable. Darwinian evolution doesn't have a prayer.