Behe on The Colbert Report

Last night, Michael Behe was Stephen Colbert’s guest on The Colbert Report. It was, shall we say, educational.

BEHE: Nobody was searching for the limits of Newton’s theory when Newton first proposed it. He thought that he had solved all of physics. But then when —

COLBERT: You mean about how — how apples fall?

BEHE: Apples fall, cannonballs go. But then —

COLBERT: Mm-hmmm.

BEHE: But then when —

COLBERT: He invented the cannonball? He invented the dive — the cannonball?

[audience laughs]

BEHE: Cannonballs fly.

Oh, yes. It’s nice to know that nobody checked to see if Newton was right, or if “universal gravitation” was really universal.

Wait. You say that it was Edmund Halley who used Newton’s laws to predict that comets travel in elliptical orbits, and that the comet seen in 1456, 1531, 1607 and 1682 would return in 1758? How could Halley say such a thing, after Newton had made his view clear that all comets travel in parabolic paths? It’s in the Principia, for Heaven’s sake! And you say that Halley was the one who realized that the stars are not fixed to a “celestial firmament” but instead move through space? How dare you imply that the views of one person are not the entirety of science! Sir, how dare you have the temerity to insist that people did not take Newton at his word but instead used his theories to make predictions about the world which they could then compare to observations to — I can hardly even articulate such a heretical notion — see if Newton was wrong.

What! Are you telling me it was the French, those wine-swilling, toad-munching surrender monkeys, who had the audacity to test Newton’s prediction that the Earth is an oblate spheroid? Sir, you could tell me all you want about the 1735 expeditions to Peru and Lapland under Charles-Marie de La Condamine and Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis respectively — the former of which incidentally brought back the first rubber and curare Europe had ever seen — but the mere suggestion that Newton’s word was not good enough is so repugnant I refuse to consider the matter further.

It gets better:

But when quan — quantum physics was discovered, and Einstein’s theory of relativity, it was seen that Newton’s theory was — had limits.

OK, stop right there. First of all, in the early years of the twentieth century, when Einstein and company were at work, there were well-known and widely recognized problems which classical physics wasn’t able to solve. Physicists had discovered that Newton’s ideas and the work of the people who stood on Newton’s shoulders didn’t do a good job of describing certain phenomena. Anyone with a glancing familiarity with the history of science should be able to list a few: blackbody radiation, the propagation of light through empty space, the specific heats of gases, atomic spectra, the ability of alpha particles to pass through solid matter as if it were almost empty, and so forth. If you want to play Einstein to Darwin’s Newton, you have to have those kinds of problems: you can’t be the Einstein of evolution without the blackbody radiation of biology.

Behe has a long way to go before finding anything even remotely troublesome with modern evolutionary biology. His take on genetics and biochemistry varies between deceptive and delusional. He ignores most of the different ways mutations can happen, pulls numbers out of context and interprets them to mean basically whatever he wants them to mean, leaves out well-known facts about the organisms he uses as examples, makes horrible blunders about the history of disease, and tells bald-faced lies about HIV. It’s no wonder that his publisher couldn’t even get one serious biologist to say something nice for The Edge of Evolution‘s dust jacket.

No challenge to evolution means no “Einstein” status for Michael Behe.

BEHE: Darwin thought when he came up with his theory that the cell was a little blob of jelly.

OK, stop the YouTube hamster wheel again. Robert Brown, a British biologist, discovered the cell nucleus in 1831. By the time Darwin and Wallace proposed the mechanism of natural selection, people already knew that cells had some kind of internal structure. Everything we have discovered since about what goes on inside cells has only supported the evolutionary thesis.

Behe goes on to mangle both Darwin’s take on the origin of life and the modern knowledge of that subject, claiming that because cells are so complicated now there’s no way anything simpler could have arisen then. He calls the cell a “nanofactory” and says that DNA is “computer code.” Colbert asks about “irreducible complexity,” Behe compares the internal workings of a living cell to “trucks and buses,” and we get to this:

COLBERT: Yeah, ’cause if you take away the parts of the mousetrap, all you have is wood, a piece of metal and a spring, and there’s no other possible use for any of that stuff.

Colbert then takes the discussion up to the G word:

COLBERT: Everything science learns push God — pushes God back! We used to see mystery everywhere, and explain it with God, but now everything science explains, God gets smaller. I think it’s time for God to fight back.

BEHE: Well, ah [audience laughter] It turns out he has, because you were wrong — the more and more that science discovers —

COLBERT: I was what?

[audience laughs]

COLBERT: Thank you for stopping by! [shakes hand] Michael Behe, everybody!

Behe had already admitted that “Intelligent Design” is religion, when he profiled Richard Dawkins for Time Magazine. It’s nice to get confirmation, of course.

Thanks to the crew at the Panda’s Thumb for pointing me to this entertaining video experience.

15 thoughts on “Behe on The Colbert Report

  1. Interesting, I heard Colbert’s last line as “I was what?”, sounding offended at the suggestion that he was wrong. But perhaps the brain-rot induced by listening to Behe for that long had spread to my ears by that point.

  2. I heard Colbert’s last line as “I was what?”
    That’s what I heard, too. It’s not brain-rot, though: it’s part of the schtick that Colbert is an arrogant pundit (like O’Reilly and the other folks he lampoons) who is never wrong about anything.

  3. Yeah, I think youse guys are right. What with all the pausing and rewinding I did while typing my (partial) transcript, I’m not surprised I got a little blurry by the end.

    CITOKATE. :-)

  4. [Someone prepped Steve very well and I think the audience got the references: Behe looked the fool.

    Bruce said this on August 3rd, 2007 at 20:22 pm]

    Behe always comes across as a fool.

  5. “COLBERT: Yeah, ’cause if you take away the parts of the mousetrap, all you have is wood, a piece of metal and a spring, and there’s no other possible use for any of that stuff.”

    Colbert has hit the nail on the head: a complex structure which has a specific function can evolve from something that had a different function. Just like the bits of metal, wood and spring in a mousetrap can be used for different purposes (such as a paperweight) flagella have proteins which are similar to proteins with different functions. These proteins did not have to evolve from scratch specifically for flagella, anymore than trees grow just to produce material for mousetraps.

  6. I am educated enough to know that practically every sentence coming out of Behe’s mouth there was verifiably false, but when I watched the video I was amazed to find that he sounds intelligent … to the extent that I can actually understand how the less well-informed gobble up this garbage like it’s well-reasoned fact. Interesting, really.

  7. It’s hilarious how Colbert can be on his side, agreeing with him, and Behe still comes out of the interview looking worse off than when he came in. Of course, you’ve got to expect that when he’s spewing out completely wrong information.

  8. So once again Behe shows how clueless he is about the nature (and history) of science, claiming that it operates like religion. He thinks (or pretends to think, for the sake of his audience) that Newton was viewed like a religious prophet, with scientists bowing down before his oracular pronouncements, never daring to question them, and that Einstein and the originators of quantum physics are more recent prophets whose revelations are similarly pulled out of the, um, air, and are now gospel. He thinks we give Newton, Einstein, etc. (including Darwin) the ultimate religious worship of unquesting faith, instead of giving them the ultimate scientific respect of questioning/testing/verifying/attacking/using/finding-the-limits-of their theories.

    He’s pathetic.

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