Response to critics concerning peer-review
Michael Behe, Discovery Institute
© 2000 Michael Behe. Originally published at the Discovery Institute’s website.
All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission. [Last Modified: 28 May 2002]
Much of the material shown posted as “responses to critics” on this website was originally submitted to several science journals for consideration for publication. In every case it was turned down. Below I have included the correspondence between the journals and myself. Names of journals and individuals have been omitted. The take-home lesson I have learned is that, while some science journal editors are individually tolerant and will entertain thoughts of publishing challenges to current views, when a group (such as the editorial board) gets together, orthodoxy prevails. Admittedly the conclusion is based on a small number of experiences, yet years go by while the experiences accumulate. So far my experience with philosophy journals has been quite different, and I have published a reply to specific criticisms in Philosophy of Science (Behe, Michael J. (2000). Self-organization and irreducibly complex systems: A reply to Shanks and Joplin Philosophy of Science 67, 155-162.)
A Brief Response
I initially emailed the editor of a journal in the field of evolution about the possibility of publishing a full-length reply-to-critics paper. As seen below, he suggested a very much-shortened paper. The shortened version essentially consisted of section II from the article “In Defense of the Irreducibility of the Blood Clotting Cascade” on this website. I argued that Darwinian scenarios need to include more than just a general invocation of gene duplication to be justified. The correspondence includes: (1) an email from the editor to me; (2) my letter back to him; (3) his letter rejecting the manuscript; (4) the criticisms of the reviewer; (5) a response letter from me.
[The following is an email from the editor of the journal.]
Subject: Re: inquiry about submission
Date: Mon, 7 Jun 1999 10:21:54 ?0500
From: [the editor]
To: "Michael J. Behe" <MJB1@LEHIGH.EDU>
I'm torn by your request to submit a (thoughtful) response to critics of your non-evolutionary theory for the origin of complexity. On the one hand I am painfully aware of the close-mindedness of the scientific community to non-orthodoxy, and I think it is counterproductive. But on the other hand we have fixed page limits for each month's issue, and there are many more good submissions than we can accept. So, your unorthodox theory would have to displace something that would be extending the current paradigm.
What I would suggest you do is to write something quite short—a letter—that would fit in, say, three pages or so of [the journal]. Then, if your letter is sufficiently provocative and lively, I might have an easier time convincing the other editors of its worth.
[The following is my next response to the editor.]
June 11, 1999
Dear Professor . . . ,
Here is the short response to critics that I discussed with you earlier, which I would like to be considered for publication as a letter in the [journal]. I hope you find it to be fruitfully provocative. The text is a little less than 3,000 words, which I calculate should fit in about three pages, as you suggested. Since it is a short letter, I didn’t include an abstract; if one is needed, the first paragraph could serve. I have listed the names of a few potential reviewers on an attached page. Best wishes.
Michael J. Behe
Professor of Biological Sciences
[The following the editor’s response to my letter]
July 12, 1999
Dear Dr. Behe,
Because of the controversial nature of your letter to [this journal], and concern about whether it would be appropriate for a scientific journal, I asked a senior [journal] advisor to take a look at your submission. As you will see, the accompanying review identifies many apparent flaws in your arguments, and also questions the basic premise of your arguments, that complex systems cannot be dissected to reveal individual components’ roles. I concur with this reviewer’s sentiment: complex systems are being unraveled!
So, I am going to take the liberty as Editor not to seek additional reviews, and deny the request to have your letter published in [this journal]. I would like to encourage you to seek new evidence for your views, but of course, that evidence would likely fall outside of the scientific paradigm, or would basically be denials of conventional explanations. You are in for some tough sledding.
[The comments of the senior advisor follow]
Review of “Obstacles to gene duplication as an explanation for complex biochemical systems” by Michael Behe.
In the section "Meaning of explanation," the author harps on the extreme difficulty of elucidating complicated cellular interaction systems and of tracing the evolution of biological complexity. It is ironic that he should voice his concerns just as technical as well as conceptual progress has opened the door to investigating on a much larger scale than heretofore the mechanisms of development, and the increase in gene interaction complexity along certain lines of descent. Michael Behe is depicting a hopeless situation for the biological sciences, or at least for their evolutionary aspects, just as biology is proceeding through a glorious age.
A classical error of people who believe that complex gene interaction systems and other complex biological systems present an insuperable difficulty to evolutionary science is to imply that every component of the system has or has had only one function. In reality, every gene, or its ancestors, or its duplicated brothers and cousins, or all of these, usually exert multiple functions and can be re-mobilized for building up new complex systems or can be dropped from a complex system without being dropped from the functioning genome. The function of the system itself may change (an oft quoted morphological example: folds that act as gliders related to wings); intermediate stages function differently from the terminal stage considered, but do function, indeed. If evolutionary pathways were difficult to find, nature faced these difficulties and solved them. The scientist’s job is just to follow nature, and that he believes he can do.
It is interesting to show—Behe examines this claim—that by knocking two genes out of this cascade, the resulting organisms are less abnormal than those that have lost only one of two genes. Yet, it is by no means necessary to be able to provide such a demonstration. Not being able to provide it does not authorize anyone to consider the system as “irreducibly” complex, in Behe’s metaphysical sense of irreducible.
On the other hand, the mutational acquisition of modified or new functions by duplicated genes has been witnessed many times by sequence comparisons and other approaches, and there is no trace of an “irreducible” difficulty here either, despite Behe’s claims.
This reviewer is no authority on the blood clotting cascade, but if a plausible model for its evolutionary development, compatible with all known facts, has indeed not been generated so far, the remaining question marks are not threat to science—on the contrary, they are a challenge added to thousands of other challenges that science met and meets. In this instance, too, science will be successful.
Is that too bold a prediction? On the contrary, it is not bold. If science, in the modern sense of the word (defined by its method), were only just beginning its career, onlookers would naturally be divided into optimists and pessimists. But, as young as science still is, its accomplishments have verified over and over again that the world of the observable and the measurable is understandable in terms of the observed and measured. Pessimism in this respect has come to lack intellectual status.
In the face of this evidence, Dr. Behe’s stance is quasi-heroic, but it is heroism at the service of a lost and mistaken cause. He is not deterred by the fact that molecular biology is only about 50 years old, that during this period it has generated an almost overwhelming amount of fundamental understanding, that more understanding is obviously on its way; further, that the study of the molecular bases of development had to wait for its turn: it was able to take off seriously only within the last decade. All of these studies will be amplified if there is peace in the world, and many biological problems that Dr. Behe today uses as drums to proclaim his faith will be solved in ways that cannot be but disappointing to him.
The trust expressed by the present referee is based on the lessons of several hundred years of history of science. It is really a very short history judged in terms of human history in general, and, considering the recorded accomplishments, it takes a fair amount of intellectual “chuzpah” to reproach science for the understanding that it has not yet achieved.
This reviewer thinks that there is a great deal of misunderstanding around the role of intelligence in the world. The world itself, through the interactions that take place under the reign of natural law, manifests a sort of intelligence—an intelligence much greater than our intelligence—out of which our intelligence has very likely arisen as a product. No wonder, then, that, to our intelligence, the universe appears intelligent: there is a close kinship between the universe and our mind—as one would expect, since our intelligence is shaped so as to permit us to get along in the world. (“. . . So as to permit us . . .”: language often induces us to seem to express the presence of an intent when none is implied; none is here.) Consistently to use the phrase “intelligent design” instead of God is almost cheating, since this use has an ambiguous relation to the presence in the universe of a sort of intelligence that, except perhaps in a pantheistic sense if one wishes to think so, has no implication regarding the existence of a God. God, here, stands for a being that combines consciousness, will, and universal power.
Of course science has its limits, but they are surely not where Behe places them; they are not, indeed, in the realm of biological evolution. The perception of science’s limits will evolve as science itself evolves, and the limits won’t furnish an argument in favor of intelligent design in the sense of a design imagines by a universal “person.” The argument will be in favor of the finiteness of the analytical powers of the human mind. The limits of science will probably be recognized as being, in part, imposed by the position in the universe of the intelligent (human) observer. Whatever God’s role in the universe, if any, biology will be understood without reference to him. That is implied by the essence of science.
Behe wants to be able to say that this is not so, and he needs to say it very quickly, because every day any conceivable ground for making his statement shrinks further. The faith of scientists is that the world of phenomena can be understood, and that the transformations of this world leading up to the present state of affairs can be understood. Developments conform every day that, progressively, scientists are winning this bet. Whatever is discovered, the most surprising as well as the less surprising, will be part of nature: the supernatural has no place in the observable and measurable.
Metaphysicians who want science to speak out in favor of their beliefs, if not demonstrate them, are already put in a tight spot by the science of yesterday and have nothing to fear more than the science of tomorrow.
In this referee’s judgment, the manuscript of Michael Behe does not contribute anything useful to evolutionary science. The arguments presented are weak.
Incidentally, publication in a scientific journal of this article could not be construed as anything resembling a First Amendment right. Naysayers such as Michael Behe have not been muzzled. They have repeatedly aired their point of view, and so be it.
If Behe were right in spite of all, it would become apparent in due time through failures of science. It would be very much out of place to denounce such failures now, since they have not occurred. Having not yet understood all of biology is not a failure after just 200 years, given the amount of understanding already achieved. Let us speak about it again in 1000 years. Meanwhile, metaphysicians should spare scientists their metaphysics and just let the scientists do their work—or join them in doing it.
[My next letter to the editor follows]
July 19, 1999
Dear Dr. . . . ,
Well, I guess I should have expected it, but I have to admit I’m disappointed. For the record I’d like to point out that the “senior [journal] advisor” who reviewed my recent submission (“Obstacles to gene duplication . . .”) didn’t react to my actual arguments in the paper, but to associations he made. The manuscript did not argue for intelligent design, nor did it say that complex systems would never be explained within Darwinian theory. Rather, it just made the simple, obvious, and unarguable point that gene duplication by itself is an incomplete explanation. Apparently, however, my skepticism about Darwinism overshadowed all other points. Everything I wrote beyond the first sentence was pretty much ignored or dismissed without engagement. I should also point out that, on the one hand, my paper discussed published experiments on specific genes in the clotting cascade of mice, the published misinterpretation of those experiments, and why that shows we need more information than sequence similarity to explain the origin of the cascade and other systems. The senior advisor, on the other hand, discussed our “glorious age” of biology, the history of science, how the world has “an intelligence much greater than our intelligence,” God as “a being that combines consciousness, will, and universal power,” and so on. Yet he thinks he’s being scientific and I’m being metaphysical. Go figure.
I must admit I’m quite surprised by your current stance, Dr. . . . . In our email correspondence you wrote that you were “painfully aware of the close-mindedness of the scientific community to non-orthodoxy” and that you would entertain a manuscript from me that was “sufficiently provocative and lively.” That led me to believe that I could express skepticism of Darwinism and still have a hearing. But then in your rejection letter you worry about “the controversial nature of your letter to [the journal]” as if you weren’t expecting controversy, and you choose to send the manuscript to be reviewed by someone who says things like “If evolutionary pathways were difficult to find, nature faced these difficulties and solved them” (so there!)—not exactly the sentiments of someone with an open mind. Well, perhaps you’ve had a change of heart. That can happen if one discovers that the “close-mindedness of the scientific community” has some bite to it. But as the senior advisor bravely writes, “Let us speak about it again in 1000 years.” Perhaps by then the readers of [the journal] will be able to handle skepticism.
Michael J. Behe
Professor of Biological Sciences
A Lengthy Response
Later in the summer of 1999 I submitted a lengthy “Reply to Critics” paper to a biology journal that publishes long articles. Included in the article was most everything shown on this website with the exception of the articles on mousetraps, “The Acid Test,” and sections III and following of the article on blood clotting. Here follows the correspondence, starting with the response I received, my reply, a second letter from the journal, and my final reply.
[The response of the editor follows]
23 July 1999
Dear Dr. Behe:
Thank you for submitting your manuscript, “Reply to My Critics,” to [this journal]. Although the manuscript is interesting, it is our firm policy not to publish articles that are primarily rebuttals to criticism. Thus we cannot publish your article in its present form.
Although I have no idea whether the proposal I am about to make would receive the endorsement of the other editors, there would be no point in even presenting it to them without your concurrence. The notion of intelligent design is one that may warrant further exploration, even though the topic has been dealt with extensively by both practicing scientists and philosophers of science. Should this exploration take the form of contrasting viewpoints in articles by two persons, published in the same issue, on the more general aspects of the topic, then our editorial policy of presenting current issues of significance in the biological sciences might be satisfied.
Recast in more general terms, your article could present the “pro” side of the issue, and in that context it could address some of the criticisms that have appeared since your book was published, but it would have to provide a much broader perspective. In particular, it would have to assume a readership that is not familiar with your book, at least not in any detailed way. An accompanying article could present the “con” side of the issue, again taking a general perspective. No doubt your book would figure prominently in both articles, but the theme would be modern concepts of intelligent design rather than a specific publication.
This approach would almost certainly reach a broader readership than a detailed response to specific criticisms. It also has the added advantage of allowing you to present a synopsis of your entire case rather than just defending specific aspects of it. Such a paired set of articles would imply that the topic is important, and therefore would attract additional readers.
Let me know whether this proposal is agreeable to you. If so, we could discuss it at length at a future meeting of the editors (which may not be possible until Fall). I have no particular person in mind to present a contrasting viewpoint, and certainly we will not seek to identify one until we know what your response is to this suggestion.
We do appreciate your interest in [this journal] as a forum for your ideas, and perhaps it will be possible to work out a mutually agreeable arrangement.
[My next response follows]
August 4, 1999
Dear Professor ...,
Thanks very much for your letter of July 23. Yes, the proposal you outline would be agreeable to me—to contribute an article from a broad perspective discussing the “pro” side of modern concepts of intelligent design, to appear in the same issue as an article taking the general “con” side. I agree that such an arrangement would have advantages, including attracting the attention of a larger readership. I’d be glad to discuss specifics with you if the proposal receives the endorsement of the other editors. Please let me know when a decision is reached. Best wishes.
Michael J. Behe
Professor of Biological Sciences
[The editor’s next response follows]
9 February 2000
Dear Dr. Behe:
We are sorry to have been delayed in getting back to you about the possibility of organizing a dialogue on the question of purposeful intelligent design. We have explored the notion with a number of individuals and have had extensive discussion among ourselves over a period of time.
The editors have concluded that the journal should not undertake this project. The reasons are varied, but primarily they reduce to our general feeling that it is not possible to develop a meaningful discussion when the fundamental assumptions of the arguments are so different: on the one hand, the concept of intelligent design beyond the laws of nature is based on intuitive, philosophical, or religious grounds, while on the other, the study and explanation of all levels of the living world, including the molecular level, is based on scientific fact and inference.
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.
Although the editors feel that there has already been extensive response to your position from the academic community, we nevertheless encourage further informed discussion in appropriate forums. Our journal cannot provide that forum, but we trust that other opportunities may become available to you.
[The editorial board]
[And my final response is below]
February 22, 2000
Dear [editorial board members]:
Thank you for your letter of February 9 informing me that you have decided not to organize a dialogue on the question of purposeful intelligent design in the pages of [your journal]. I nonetheless very much appreciate the time and consideration you have given the issue. I agree with you that “the fundamental assumptions of the arguments are so different.” In fact, your letter itself confirms this. While you attribute the conclusion of intelligent design to “intuitive, philosophical, or religious grounds,” I attribute it to the same “scientific fact and inference” you claim for Darwinian evolution. I suppose this is one of those issues where people disagree about what “science” means. Again, however, I do appreciate your considering the project. Best wishes.
Michael J. Behe
Professor of Biological Sciences