I disagree with PZ. This is not a good review. Actually, it's a very bad review. Like many of the published reviews of The Edge of Evolution the author seems to have been reading a far different book than the one I read. Powell says,
To reach this conclusion, Behe makes a number of invalid assumptions about how molecules evolve and interact. He alleges that, because many functional adaptations require multiple changes in proteins, two or more mutations must occur together at the same time in the same gene and only rarely can several mutations "sequentially add to each other to improve an organism’s chances of survival." But in fact natural selection does work on transitional forms, as molecules and traits evolve stepwise. Stepwise evolution has been well documented; one good instance of this is the emergence of color vision. Mutations add up little by little, leading to major changes to proteins over time.The essence of Behe's argument is not that it's impossible to evolve a double mutation if each one is beneficial. The whole point of the book is that stepwise evolution requires that each step is beneficial. The evidence, according to Behe, shows that many cases involving double mutations involve intermediates that are disadvantagous. Thus, the double mutant had to arise in a single step and this is highly unlikely.
Behe isn't always as clear as he should be but he does make it perfectly clear that he accepts the mechanism that Powell describes. Thus, Powells' criticism is inappropriate and this makes it a bad review. Apparently Powell didn't read the section on the evolution of antifreeze proteins in fish (pp. 77-81) where Behe describes each of the many steps that lead to the modern antifreeze proteins.
Each step would have given the fish some protection against freezing water. Thus, Behe concludes,
Even though we haven't directly observed it, the scenario seems pretty convincing as an example of Darwinian evolution by natural selection. It's convincing because each of the steps is tiny&mdash'no bigger than the step that yielded the sickle cell mutation n humans—and each step is an improvement.The Discovery review points out that complex combinations of mutations can arise in a stepwise manner by standard Darwinian mechanisms. It implies that Behe never thought of this in his book but that's total nonsense. Of course he did. Behe doesn't deny that phenotypes requiring multiple steps can be produced by random mutations, as long as each step is beneficial. The essence of his argument is that it's impossible to generate phenotypes that require multiple random mutations if the intermediates aren't beneficial.
I'm not arguing that Behe is correct. In fact, I'm preparing a series of postings that will challenge some of his ideas. What I'm objecting to is the mischaracterization of Behe's arguments in many of the published reviews. If you're going to criticize Behe then challenge the argument he makes in the book; namely, that most stepwise pathways are impossible because the intermediates are less fit than their parents.
Powell makes another common mistake in his review. He says,
Behe makes another big, related error in the way he interprets how proteins work together. He contends that for even three proteins to evolve in a cooperative association is wildly improbable, "beyond the edge of evolution." Within a protein, five or six amino acids (components of proteins) need to change simultaneously for it to bond with another protein, according to Behe. From this he concludes that it is impossible for proteins’ interaction to evolve, again requiring life to have been programmed for success from the start. Plenty of evidence contradicts this assertion, however. Many proteins within cells interact with other proteins in ways in which only two or three amino acids are critical for binding.Behe admits that you may only need three or four selected changes in order to generate a new binding site (p. 114). He agrees that the evolution of a single binding site is within reach of evolution but the simultaneous generation of two binding sites is beyond the edge of evolution because the probabilities are so low. The point is that there are many complexes that require the interaction of several different proteins and the intermediates—where only two proteins interact—are not beneficial. Refuting Behe's real arguments requires a little more effort than the superficial criticism of arguments that Behe is not making.
Such simple binding sites can arise frequently in proteins. And such interactions form the networks that regulate all sorts of physiological processes in cells and organisms. Cell biologists and biochemists are increasingly finding that, in truth, protein interactions and networks are easy to evolve. Behe should know this—but he has a long history of alleging evolutionary impossibilities and ignoring the scientific literature.Powell is completely missing the point here. Behe does not deny that such complexes exist, nor does he deny that they evolved in the sense that they arose in organisms whose ancestors didn't have them. Once the mutations occurred, they became fixed in the population by natural selection. Furthermore, Behe does not deny that these networks are "easy to evolve." In fact, they are so "easy to evolve" that they cannot be explained by natural selection acting on random mutations as "Darwinism" requires. Thus, mutations cannot be random.
You don't refute Behe by pointing to examples of evolution by common descent or natural selection; this includes evolution of protein complexes. That's not the point. The point is that "Darwinian" evolution, according to Behe, must require small steps where each step is beneficial and this cannot be demonstrated. Indeed, in many cases the intermediates will likely be detrimental. The conclusion is that multiple mutations have to occur simultaneously as in some drug resistance. For most populations the probability of this happening by random mutation is very small. The fact that it happened is evidence of directed mutation, or so Behe thinks.
In order to show that Behe is wrong you have to demonstrate that his understanding of evolution (i.e., "Darwinism") is wrong and this has led him to false conclusions about probabilities. Many reviewers have failed to do this, possibly because they accept Behe's version of Darwinism.
You can read Michael Behe's responses to his reviewers on the Amazon.com site [Michael Behe's Amazon Blog]. I think it's fair to say that Behe makes some good points (and many bad ones) when he accuses his reviewers of misrepresentation.