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Misotheist’s misology: Richard Dawkins attacks Michael Behe

Atheopathic ID foe digs himself into logical potholes

Professor Michael Behe
Professor Michael Behe

Jonathan Sarfati

First published 3 July 2007; last updated 18 May 2021

We have received a number of questions about a recent article by one of the world’s leading antitheistic propagandists, the eugenicist Clinton R. Dawkins: a review of Michael Behe’s new ID book, The Edge of Evolution. It is not surprising that the New York Times would love Dawkins—this is the paper whose reporter Walter Duranty whitewashed the murders, famines and show-trials of ‘the greatest living statesman’, Dawkins’ fellow evolutionist Stalin, and won the Pulitzer Prize, which the Times still displays.

So rather than respond to the enquirers individually, it was instructive to analyse Professor Dawkins’ rant itself, point-by-point, as we did with Scientific American. One colleague thought it would be an entertaining game of ‘spot the fallacy’, and it is also a good chance to demolish arguments that oppose God as Paul commands (2 Corinthians 10:5) and to follow the biblical command to be ‘Christ-like’ even down to His skilful use of the challenge-riposte method.

Professor Richard Dawkins
Professor Richard Dawkins

Note: after this article was first published, we reviewed Behe’s book in the Journal of Creation: Clarity and confusion. New readers should also check CMI’s views on the Intelligent Design Movement.

Inferior Design

By Richard Dawkins
New York Times
1 July 2007

I had expected to be as irritated by Michael Behe’s second book as by his first. I had not expected to feel sorry for him.

What is ‘sorrow’ under an evolutionary perspective, where we are nothing but rearranged pond scum? Dawkins said in River Out Of Eden (1995):

‘The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.’

So shouldn’t he be indifferent to Behe, under his own perspective?

The first—Darwin’s Black Box (1996), which purported to make the scientific case for “intelligent design”—was enlivened by a spark of conviction, however misguided.

Right, right. Yet Dawkins refused to debate Behe face-to-face about his first book, pleading ignorance of biochemistry.

The second is the book of a man who has given up.

What Dawkins means is ‘giving up’ on a materialistic explanation. Apparently ‘giving up’ is what only creationists are meant to do in the face of an apparent difficulty, e.g. ‘why would God make junk DNA’ or ‘why would God wire the retina backwardly?’ which are two of Dawkins’ arguments—which are really theological arguments against a Creator rather than scientific ones for evolution.

But new discoveries show that it would have been folly for creationists to give up. Now we know that far from being 97% ‘junk’, at least 93% of the genome is transcribed, and the so-called junk is transcribed into RNA about 50 times as much as the gene regions. And a new discovery of a fibre-optic plate in our eyes, which funnels the light through the nerve net without distortion, demolishes his ‘eye is badly designed’ claim—see Fibre optics in eye demolish atheistic ‘bad design’ argument. So if evolutionists are allowed to appeal to possible solutions in the future, which they frequently do when it comes to the huge problems in chemical evolutionary origin-of-life theories, then the same allowance must be given to creationists. See also this discussion about how creationists should deal with apparent difficulties.

But science should not be dogmatic about materialistic explanations, despite Dawkins and Lewontin, but should try to find the most logical explanation. Dawkins himself said in his famous book The Blind Watchmaker, ‘Biology is the study of extremely complicated things that look as if they were designed by a creator for a purpose.’ So it is perfectly logical to argue that if they look designed, then perhaps they were designed.

Trapped along a false path of his own rather unintelligent design, Behe has left himself no escape. Poster boy of creationists everywhere, he has cut himself adrift from the world of real science.

Dawkins cut himself off from real science decades ago when he became the poster boy of antitheists the world over. Now he spends his time inventing just-so stories masquerading as science. Real operational science has no use for evolutionary story-telling when it comes to real research—see Is evolution really essential for biology?

Dawkins has also cut himself off from the logical basis for science itself. Historically, biblical Christianity provided the basis for the assumptions required for science to work, which is why modern science first flourished in Western Europe while it was stillborn in places like ancient Greece and China.

And real science, in the shape of his own department of biological sciences at Lehigh University, has publicly disowned him, via a remarkable disclaimer on its Web site: “While we respect Prof. Behe’s right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally and should not be regarded as scientific.”

As has been noted, academic departments along with major TV and newspaper newsrooms produce little but groupthink (aka ‘collective position’), where conservative lecturers are rarer than an African American at a KKK convention. A study that found a huge predominance of secular leftists in university faculties concluded:

This suggests that complaints of ideologically-based discrimination in academic advancement deserve serious consideration and further study.

This groupthink and viewpoint discrimination would explain why ideas that don’t work in the real world, like socialism, survive in these places where they don’t actually have to work.

As the Chicago geneticist Jerry Coyne wrote recently, in a devastating review of Behe’s work in The New Republic, it would be hard to find a precedent.

Coyne? One of Dawkins’ fellow antitheists, equally long on abusive ad hominem attacks and question-begging and short on substance. Behe has responded to Coyne and other hostile reviewers on Amazon.

For a while, Behe built a nice little career on being a maverick. His colleagues might have disowned him, but they didn’t receive flattering invitations to speak all over the country and to write for The New York Times. Behe’s name, and not theirs, crackled triumphantly around the memosphere.

Memes are one of Dawkins’ most vacuous ideas, and that’s saying something!

But things went wrong, especially at the famous 2005 trial where Judge John E. Jones III immortally summed up as “breathtaking inanity” the effort to introduce intelligent design into the school curriculum in Dover, Pa.

Things must be desperate when Dawkins, like Coyne, appeals to a man like Jones as an ‘authority’ as he completely lacks scientific training. Jones’ previous claim to fame was head of the local liquor advisory board. Even worse, his pronouncements on ID were parroted almost verbatim from the ACLU, including demonstrable factual errors. But Jones knew that toeing the ACLU party line was a sure road to finally being noticed and fêted by the mass media. See our previous discussion.

After his humiliation in court, Behe—the star witness for the creationist side—might have wished to re-establish his scientific credentials and start over. Unfortunately, he had dug himself in too deep. He had to soldier on. The Edge of Evolution is the messy result, and it doesn’t make for attractive reading.

Dawkins should look in the mirror, because his own books have become shriller with age, to such a degree that some of his fellow atheists are embarrassed by him.

We now hear less about “irreducible complexity,” with good reason. In “Darwin’s Black Box,” Behe simply asserted without justification that particular biological structures (like the bacterial flagellum, the tiny propeller by which bacteria swim) needed all their parts to be in place before they would work, and therefore could not have evolved incrementally. This style of argument remains as unconvincing as when Darwin himself anticipated it. It commits the logical error of arguing by default. Two rival theories, A and B, are set up. Theory A explains loads of facts and is supported by mountains of evidence. Theory B has no supporting evidence, nor is any attempt made to find any. Now a single little fact is discovered, which A allegedly can’t explain. Without even asking whether B can explain it, the default conclusion is fallaciously drawn: B must be correct.

Darwin and Dawkins frequently appealed to apparent difficulties in creation theory to argue for evolution, as shown above. So why should creationists not do the same, using the disjunctive syllogism (either things made themselves or they were created; if they could not have made themselves, they must have been created)?

Incidentally, further research usually reveals that A can explain the phenomenon after all: thus the biologist Kenneth R. Miller

Miller is notoriously unreliable and disingenuous—see Mutilating Miller.

(a believing Christian who testified for the other side in the Dover trial)

Just an example of how God-haters parade these supposedly Christian evolutionists as ‘useful idiots’. This was Lenin’s term for his dupes in the West who were too naïve to realize that they were undermining their own professed faith (see The Skeptics and their Churchian Allies). See what Dawkins really thinks of such compromising churchians.

beautifully showed how the bacterial flagellar motor could evolve via known functional intermediates.

Miller, in whom Dawkins has so much faith (when it suits him) has no expertise in this motor, unlike Scott Minnich who refuted his claims. Miller claimed that the flagellum evolved from a secretory apparatus, but Minnich showed that in reality, the type-III secretory apparatus (TTSS) or injectosome must have devolved from the flagellum (a more complex structure), if one did arise from the other. Note also, it is not a fallacious argument to appeal to a genuine authority, as Minnich is, on the flagellum.

Moreover, Dawkins and Miller are out of step even with evolutionary experts on the TTSS, who are agreed that the flagellum preceded the TTSS:

  • “It seems plausible that the original type III secretion system for virulence factors evolved from those for flagellar assembly.” [Mecsas, J., and Strauss, E.J., Molecular Mechanisms of Bacterial Virulence: Type III Secretion and Pathogenicity Islands, Emerging Infectious Diseases 2(4), Oct–Dec 1996 | doi:10.3201/eid0204.960403.]
  • “We suggest that the flagellar apparatus was the evolutionary precursor of Type III protein secretion systems.” [Nguyen L. and 4 others, Phylogenetic analyses of the constituents of Type III protein secretion systems, J. Molecular Microbiology and Biotechnology 2(2):125–44, Apr 2000 | ]
  • “Phylogenomic and comparative analyses of these systems argue that the NF-T3SS arose from an exaptation of the flagellum, i.e. the recruitment of part of the flagellum structure for the evolution of the new protein delivery function. … We show that NF-T3SSs evolved from the flagellum by a series of genetic deletions, innovations, and recruitments of components from other cellular structures. Our evolutionary analysis suggests that NF-T3SSs then quickly adapted to different eukaryotic cells while maintaining a core structure that remains highly similar to the flagellum.” [Abby, S.S. and Rocha, E.P.C., The Non-fagellar Type III Secretion System evolved from the bacterial flagellum and diversified into host-cell adapted systems, PLoS Genetics 8(9):e1002983, Sep 2012 | doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1002983.]

This really should not be surprising. Evolution teaches that bacteria evolved before plants and animals. But they always had to swim, so it makes sense that the swimming machinery preceded the secretion machinery that would be needed only once multicellular life evolved.

Update, 18 May 2021: In fact, the flagellum and TTSS are more different than first thought. A paper in Cell first affirms that the leading evolutionary theory is that the TTSS came from the flagellum, contra Dawkins and Miller. Then it goes on to explain that many components, although thought to be homologous, are actually very different:

Although the flagellum has been proposed to be the evolutionary ancestor of T3SSs, the structure of the flagellar motor is significantly different from that of the T3SS basal body. The rod in the basal body of the Salmonella T3SS consists of two proteins, PrgJ and PrgI, and adopts a relatively simple helical structure. In contrast to the tight contacts of the T3SS rod with the secretin channel and the inner membrane ring, the flagellar rod has few contacts with the LP ring to facilitate its high-speed rotation and torque transmission. In addition, unlike the C24-symmetric inner membrane ring assembled by PrgH and PrgK in the Salmonella T3SS, the MS ring of the flagellar motor is composed of 34 FliF subunits with mixed internal symmetries. Therefore, the flagellar motor has evolved special structural elements for bacterial motility. []Tan,J. and 10 others, Structural basis of assembly and torque transmission of the bacterial flagellar motor, Cell 184(10):2665–2679.e19, 13 May 2021 | doi:10.1016/j.cell.2021.03.057.]

It is highly disingenuous to propose an explanation that defies even the best evolutionary theories, without telling the readers (or a judge without a scientific background).

Behe correctly dissects the Darwinian theory into three parts: descent with modification, natural selection and mutation. Descent with modification gives him no problems, nor does natural selection. They are “trivial” and “modest” notions, respectively. Do his creationist fans know that Behe accepts as “trivial” the fact that we are African apes, cousins of monkeys, descended from fish?

Of course: see our interview with him that’s almost a decade old! Just like Coyne, Dawkins seems not to have read Darwin’s Black Box where Behe makes his errant theistic evolutionary beliefs clear. But it’s a problem we see with a number of ID people who happily accept an old earth and various compromises: in their own field of expertise, they have shown that the establishment wisdom is wrong, such as in molecular biology. But they don’t seem to question that the conventional wisdom might be wrong in other areas as well, such as geology. See also ID theorist blunders on Bible.

Further, they seem naïve in thinking that abandoning the biblical timescale will win them friends among the materialists. As shown by Dawkins’ review, the materialists accept no compromise at all. So their opponents may as well ‘be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb’ in accepting the full biblical picture, even for pragmatic reasons (aside from the best reason: that it is true).

The crucial passage in The Edge of Evolution is this: “By far the most critical aspect of Darwin’s multifaceted theory is the role of random mutation. Almost all of what is novel and important in Darwinian thought is concentrated in this third concept.”

What a bizarre thing to say! Leave aside the history: unacquainted with genetics, Darwin set no store by randomness. New variants might arise at random, or they might be acquired characteristics induced by food, for all Darwin knew.

This much is true. Darwin had sympathies for the Lamarckian theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics. But in the neo-Darwinian theory of today, random mutations are the source of the raw material on which natural selection can act.

Far more important for Darwin was the nonrandom process whereby some survived but others perished. Natural selection is arguably the most momentous idea ever to occur to a human mind,

So he does praise creationists after all—since this ‘momentous idea’ was first conceived by the creationist Edward Blyth, 25 years before Darwin wrote Origin.

because it—alone as far as we know—explains the elegant illusion of design that pervades the living kingdoms and explains, in passing, us.

Here Dawkins begs the question about whether this elegance is an ‘illusion’ that must be explained away by anything but actual design.

Whatever else it is, natural selection is not a “modest” idea, nor is descent with modification.

But let’s follow Behe down his solitary garden path and see where his overrating of random mutation leads him. He thinks there are not enough mutations to allow the full range of evolution we observe. There is an “edge,” beyond which God must step in to help.

Maybe Behe is using a god-of-the-gaps argument as Dawkins says, but then maybe not. Behe has usually appealed not to ignorance but precisely what we do know about biochemistry. The argument for design relies on the principles of causality (everything that has a beginning has a sufficient cause) and analogy (e.g., we observe that intelligence is needed to generate complex coded information in the present, so we can reasonably assume the same for the past). And because there was no material intelligent designer for the first life in the universe, it is legitimate to invoke a non-material designer for life.

Selection of random mutation may explain the malarial parasite’s resistance to chloroquine, but only because such micro-organisms have huge populations and short life cycles. A fortiori, for Behe, evolution of large, complex creatures with smaller populations and longer generations will fail, starved of mutational raw materials.

Rather, see the problems with error catastrophe when Dawkins’ own Weasel program is modified with realistic selection coefficients and genome size—see Weasel, a flexible program for investigating deterministic computer demonstrations of evolution.

But Professor Dawkins actually avoids engaging Dr Behe’s argument and misconstrues it badly. Behe shows that chloroquine resistance likely involves two specific mutations occurring together in the one gene. This explains why resistance to chloroquine took a long time to develop, whereas resistance to other anti-malarial drugs, which only needs one mutation, occurs within weeks. Behe works out the probability of this double mutation occurring in the same gene, using other scientists’ figures for the malaria parasite’s (Plasmodium falciparum) population, etc.

If it took so much time for a double mutation to occur in an organism that has a huge population and short life cycle (and therefore huge opportunity for all manner of mutations to occur), then how long would it take for a double mutation to occur in an organism like a human, with a long generation time and small population? Behe showed that it would never occur even with evolutionary time assumed. And this is just one double mutation in a gene. So, any adaptation that requires two specific mutations in one gene to work, will never evolve in a human, and yet such must have happened numerous times if humans arose through evolutionary processes. Dawkins has sidestepped Dr Behe’s argument entirely, as he has sidestepped arguments on other occasions (see Skeptics choke on Frog: Was Dawkins caught on the hop?).

Behe also points out that the chloroquine-resistant parasites do worse than the non-resistant ones where there is no chloroquine. This suggests that the double mutation is informationally downhill, as usual. It seems that the reason that the parasite is resistant to chloroquine is that concentration in the parasite’s vacuole is reduced, and one mechanism is impaired uptake. According to one paper:

Chloroquine-resistant parasite isolates consistently have an import mechanism with a lower transport activity and a reduced affinity for chloroquine.

This is the same principle that we have pointed out for some antibiotic-resistant bacteria, where resistance is conferred by a mutation impairing a cell pump so the germ pumps in less of its would-be executioner.

If mutation, rather than selection, really limited evolutionary change, this should be true for artificial no less than natural selection. Domestic breeding relies upon exactly the same pool of mutational variation as natural selection. Now, if you sought an experimental test of Behe’s theory, what would you do? You’d take a wild species, say a wolf that hunts caribou by long pursuit, and apply selection experimentally to see if you could breed, say, a dogged little wolf that chivies rabbits underground: let’s call it a Jack Russell terrier. Or how about an adorable, fluffy pet wolf called, for the sake of argument, a Pekingese? Or a heavyset, thick-coated wolf, strong enough to carry a cask of brandy, that thrives in Alpine passes and might be named after one of them, the St. Bernard? Behe has to predict that you’d wait till hell freezes over, but the necessary mutations would not be forthcoming. Your wolves would stubbornly remain unchanged. Dogs are a mathematical impossibility.

A straw man. Many of the dog breeds involve selection of pre-existing genetic information or information-losing mutations. For example, the small breeds seem to have a mutation that causes reduced production of an important growth regulator IGF1. Dawkins has not shown that any of these dog breeds have a specific double mutation in one gene, so he has not countered Behe’s argument.

Don’t evade the point by protesting that dog breeding is a form of intelligent design.

That’s not the issue. Rather, artificial breeding involves selection coefficients far larger than usual in nature. Also, sometimes artificial selection props up information-losing mutations or homozygosity. The main point is that dog breeding doesn’t involve mutations that increase information content. See the principles involved in adaptation and natural selection applied to dogs. Dawkins has not even shown that any of the changes in the breeds of dogs are actually adaptive (helpful to survival of the dog), let alone an increase in genetic information.

It is (kind of),

No, the problem is that artificial selection can use very high selection coefficients and also preserve creatures that would die in nature. But we need not defend Behe’s specific claim, even assuming that Dawkins has represented him fairly. We advise against differentiating micro-and macro-evolution, and point out examples of rapid speciation, a prediction of the Creation/Fall/Flood/Dispersion model.

but Behe, having lost the argument over irreducible complexity,

Ipse dixit. A former liquor board chairman’s word is not enough to decide scientific truth!

is now in his desperation making a completely different claim: that mutations are too rare to permit significant evolutionary change anyway.

From Newfies to Yorkies, from Weimaraners to water spaniels, from Dalmatians to dachshunds, as I incredulously close this book I seem to hear mocking barks and deep, baying howls of derision from 500 breeds of dogs—every one descended from a timber wolf within a time frame so short as to seem, by geological standards, instantaneous.

Again, Dawkins could be right in his criticism of Behe—even a stopped clock is right twice a day. But it doesn’t hurt biblical creationists at all.

If correct, Behe’s calculations would at a stroke confound generations of mathematical geneticists, who have repeatedly shown that evolutionary rates are not limited by mutation. Single-handedly, Behe is taking on Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright, J. B. S. Haldane, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Richard Lewontin, John Maynard Smith and hundreds of their talented co-workers and intellectual descendants.

Elephant hurling. J.B.S. Haldane discovered a problem now called Haldane’s Dilemma, which is still a huge difficulty. This relates to the issue that Behe argues: that for organisms with long generation times there has just not been enough time for evolution to create anything even as simple as the Plasmodium chloroquine resistance mechanism that he describes. Fisher also pointed out that the smaller the change, the smaller the selection coefficient on average, which Dawkins’ programs and just-so stories usually ignore. But biophysicist Dr Lee Spetner has shown that such considerations undermine neo-Darwinism because most mutations, good or bad, cannot effectively be selected for by natural selection.

Notwithstanding the inconvenient existence of dogs, cabbages and pouter pigeons,

Not that they were any inconvenience to creationists before Darwin or now. See National Geographic woof worse than its bite! and Eat your Brussels sprouts!

the entire corpus of mathematical genetics, from 1930 to today, is flat wrong.

No, actually, Dawkins shows his ignorance of the anti-evolutionary implications of population genetics. But he is not alone; evolutionists have been sweeping the implications under the carpet for over 40 years. Walter Remine has done a stirling job of trying to publicize the anti-evolutionary implications—but he got a paper rejected by a secular journal because ‘everyone knows about it’. Apparently not Professor Dawkins. See the paper: Cost theory and the cost of substitution—a clarification (technical).

Plant geneticist Dr John Sanford, the inventor of the Gene Gun, has also given a fresh analysis of the anti-evolutionary implications of population genetics, showing, with modern measurements of mutation rates, that the human genome cannot be very old, which is consistent with the biblical account of creation thousands of years ago. Sanford’s book, Genetic entropy and the mystery of the genome, details his analysis. Dr Royal Truman reviewed the book in Journal of Creation 21(1), 2007.

Michael Behe, the disowned biochemist of Lehigh University, is the only one who has done his sums right. You think?

Behe is disowned not for any lack of quality of research, but solely for failing to toe the materialistic party line. Similarly, the atheistic Gedankenpolizei made sure that the best astrophysics researcher at another university (in terms of publications and funding brought to the department) was denied tenure solely for disagreeing with naturalistic dogma in cosmology. See Darwinian thought police strike again: ID-advocate astronomer denied tenure at Iowa State University.

The best way to find out is for Behe to submit a mathematical paper to The Journal of Theoretical Biology, say, or The American Naturalist, whose editors would send it to qualified referees. They might liken Behe’s error to the belief that you can’t win a game of cards unless you have a perfect hand. But, not to second-guess the referees, my point is that Behe, as is normal at the grotesquely ill-named Discovery Institute (a tax-free charity, would you believe?),

Yes, so what? There is a huge difference between tax-free and taxpayer-funded. No one is forced to pay for the former; the latter gorge on funding coerced from taxpayers. Some examples of the latter include museums, universities and publicly funded broadcasters like the Australian ABC, British BBC and American PBS that push atheistic dogma unchallenged by informed criticism.

where he is a senior fellow, has bypassed the peer-review procedure altogether,

Hardly surprising. It is crass for Dawkins to demand that Behe submits ID papers to peer review when the peer reviewers have stated that they wouldn’t accept ID papers a priori! But it would be really surprising if Behe did not have some competent biologists review his book before it went to print—informal peer review.

On the rare occasion when an ID paper makes it past the gates, the establishment punishes said reviewers (see The Smithsonian/Sternberg controversy) or overrules them on ideological grounds (see Chemists in stew about intelligent design). So it is more common for creationists to be less obvious about their conclusions (see some of the papers documented in Do Creationists Publish in Notable Refereed Journals?), or to bypass the censorship completely in peer-reviewed creationist journals.

Robert Higgs, an economist with many years experience as a researcher, university professor and peer reviewer, had this to say in <http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/38532.html> Peer review, publication in top journals, scientific consensus, and so forth (emphasis added):

‘Peer review, on which lay people place great weight, varies from important, where the editors and the referees are competent and responsible, to a complete farce, where they are not. As a rule, not surprisingly, the process operates somewhere in the middle, being more than a joke but less than the nearly flawless system of Olympian scrutiny that outsiders imagine it to be. Any journal editor who desires, for whatever reason, to knock down a submission can easily do so by choosing referees he knows full well will knock it down; likewise, he can easily obtain favorable referee reports. As I have always counseled young people whose work was rejected, seemingly on improper or insufficient grounds, the system is a crap shoot.

‘Personal vendettas, ideological conflicts, professional jealousies, methodological disagreements, sheer self-promotion and a great deal of plain incompetence and irresponsibility are no strangers to the scientific world; indeed, that world is rife with these all-too-human attributes. In no event can peer review ensure that research is correct in its procedures or its conclusions. The history of every science is a chronicle of one mistake after another. In some sciences these mistakes are largely weeded out in the course of time; in others they persist for extended periods; and in some sciences, such as economics, actual scientific retrogression may continue for generations under the misguided belief that it is really progress.

‘At any given time, consensus may exist about all sorts of matters in a particular science. In retrospect, however, that consensus is often seen to have been mistaken.’

gone over the heads of the scientists he once aspired to number among his peers,

Yes, Behe was naïve in thinking that his scientific peers were as open-minded as they profess to be, rather than the closed-minded materialists they proved to be in reality.

and appealed directly to a public that—as he and his publisher know—is not qualified to rumble him.

Pot, meet kettle. So it’s OK for Dawkins to write popular-level books for the benefit of his atheistic thralls who are blind to his fallacies, while Behe should stay silent?

Posted on homepage: 14 July 2007

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