Back and Forth with Jerry Coyne, Part 1

Originally published at Michael Behe's Amazon Blog

Dear Readers,

University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has responded at to my reply here on to his review of The Edge of Evolution in The New Republic. Here I will respond back — not to everything he wrote (nor to other posts and replies on that website), but only to what I think are the more important points of his original response. Because it quickly gets awkward to include all of the context, I will just quote the portions of his response that I specifically address here. Readers who want to see the full back-and-forth should read his posted review and response. 


It is clear from Behe’s response on his Amazon blog to the negative reviews by Sean Carroll and myself of The Edge of Evolution that he really wants to score debating points, not to have a scientific discussion.


I assure Professor Coyne that I want nothing more than a frank scientific discussion. From the tone of his original review in The New Republic, I felt the same way about him regarding debating points. The tone of his response is much more civil, which I appreciate.


Both Richard Dawkins (in his review of The Edge of Evolution in The New York Times) and myself have noted Behe’s remarkable reluctance to submit his claims to peer-reviewed scientific journals. If Behe’s theory is so world-shaking, and so indubitably correct, why doesn’t he submit it to some scientific journals? (The reason is obvious, of course: his theory is flat wrong.)


Long ago I posted some of my correspondence with science journals on the Discovery Institute website. I urge readers to examine that, and decide if they agree with me. It is my conclusion, based on much experience, that broaching the topic of intelligent design in an evenhanded manner is intolerable to mainstream science journals. (On the other hand, philosophy of science journals are much more tolerant.) As one science journal editor politely wrote to me:

As you no doubt know, our journal has supported and demonstrated a strong evolutionary position from the very beginning, and believes that evolutionary explanations of all structures and phenomena of life are possible and inevitable. Hence a position such as yours, which opposes this view on other than scientific grounds, cannot be appropriate for our pages.

In fact, if one is a known ID proponent as I am, even publishing simple, extensively qualified criticisms of aspects of Darwin’s theory is extremely difficult, and a journal that does so gets pummeled by protest emails, as Protein Science did when it published a paper by David Snoke and myself.

Professor Coyne thinks he knows better about my not publishing in science journals. He writes: “The reason is obvious, of course: his theory is flat wrong.” Well, of course I disagree. Here’s a snippet from his review of Darwin’s Black Box in Nature in 1996 that I think supports my view. There he wrote: 

There is no doubt that the pathways described by Behe are dauntingly complex, and their evolution will be hard to unravel. Unlike anatomical structures, the evolution of which can be traced with fossils, biochemical evolution must be reconstructed from highly evolved living organisms, and we may forever be unable to envisage the first proto-pathways. It is not valid, however, to assume that, because one man cannot imagine such pathways, they could not have existed.

So even though “we may forever be unable to envisage” how unintelligent processes could produce some “dauntingly complex” system, Coyne is not willing to concede that maybe, just maybe, unintelligent processes did not produce them. Rather, ID proponents apparently are assigned the burden of proving that no one could even imagine a pathway. Good luck. What are the chances that a manuscript on intelligent design submitted to a science journal would be published if a fellow with his views, quite common in the science community, were a reviewer?

One journal editor wrote to me: “… I am painfully aware of the close-mindedness of the scientific community to non-orthodoxy, and I think it is counterproductive.” If the science community is close-minded to “ordinary” non-orthodoxy, it is implacably close-minded to the non-orthodoxy of intelligent design. As a practical matter, given the sociological realities of the relevant scientific community, the choice for an ID scientist such as myself is either to publish outside science journals or to not publish at all.


He questions whether Jones really understood intelligent design at all, or simply adopted the plaintiff’s claims in the Dover case. In fact, it’s palpably clear from Jones’s written opinion that he saw right through Behe and his transparent creationism. And you can bet that if the verdict had gone in favor of Behe’s side, he wouldn’t be impugning Jones as “the former head of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.”


Professor Coyne should compare the written document signed by Judge Jones to the plaintiffs’ lawyers “finding of fact” brief, given to him about a month before he issued his opinion. Here’s a short excerpt. The lawyers’ brief reads in part:

The assertion that design of biological systems can be inferred from the “purposeful arrangement of parts” is based on an analogy to human design. According to Professor Behe, because we are able to recognize design of artifacts and objects, that same reasoning can be employed to determine biological design.

Professor Behe testified that the strength of an analogy depends on the degree of similarity entailed in the two propositions. If this is the test, intelligent design completely fails.

Jones’ opinion reads:

Indeed, the assertion that design of biological systems can be inferred from the “purposeful arrangement of parts” is based upon an analogy to human design. Because we are able to recognize design of artifacts and objects, according to Professor Behe, that same reasoning can be employed to determine biological design. Professor Behe testified that the strength of the analogy depends upon the degree of similarity entailed in the two propositions; however, if this is the test, ID completely fails.

As I said, whenever the opinion discusses expert testimony — on either side, by scientists, philosophers, or theologians — Jones simply reproduced that text (sometimes very lightly copyedited) from the lawyers’ document. I myself could happily copy from, say, a scholarly book on string theory, or Kant, or Aquinas, but my copying those words would be no evidence that I understood them. Similarly, as I said, there is no evidence Jones understood the academic issues discussed in his courtroom. Those who have hailed Jones as some sort of philosopher-king have been badly misled.

Coyne has a fair point, that I probably wouldn’t mention Jones’ former political job at the helm of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board if he had ruled differently. It’s a frailty of human nature that one usually doesn’t examine things too closely if they go your way. On the other hand, Coyne and other Darwinists would almost certainly make the same points I’m making now if some judge had ruled against them, and simply copied defendants’ lawyers documents in his ruling. They would certainly chide him for his lack of apparent understanding of their own arguments.

Read Part 2 of Michael Behe’s response to Jerry Coyne here.

Michael J. Behe

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael J. Behe is Professor of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. He received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania in 1978. Behe's current research involves delineation of design and natural selection in protein structures. In his career he has authored over 40 technical papers and three books, Darwin Devolves: The New Science About DNA that Challenges Evolution, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, and The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, which argue that living system at the molecular level are best explained as being the result of deliberate intelligent design.