California Literary Review

Michael Behe on The Edge of Evolution

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September 24th, 2007 at 9:45 am

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Dr. Michael J. Behe

Michael Behe is a Professor of Biological Science at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He argued in his 1996 book, Darwin’s Black Box that the cell structures of living organisms are “irreducibly complex” and cannot be explained by Darwin’s Theory of natural selection. This concept launched the intelligent design movement. His latest book is The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism.

Can you summarize the thesis of your new book?
The book is called The Edge of Evolution and the gist is to find reasonable estimates for the limits of what Darwin’s theory — natural selection acting on random mutations — can actually accomplish. Clearly Darwin’s process can account for some small changes in biological systems, such as antibiotic resistance. But can it account for more complex systems, such as the intricate molecular machinery that science has discovered in the cell? Up until recently that question was impossible to answer because the molecular mutations underlying biological changes were unknown, and also because we couldn’t examine really vast numbers of organisms.
But in the past ten years all that has changed. As I detail in the book, the molecular changes underlying resistance to malaria by humans, resistance to antibiotics by the malarial parasite, and other well-studied systems show that random mutation is incoherent — that is, a series of mutations usually has little to do with each other, and doesn’t add up to a new molecular machine. What’s more, most evolutionary changes are ones which either break or degrade genes — and these are the helpful mutations! But you can’t build new molecular machinery by breaking genes. I conclude that Darwinian processes account for little of the machinery of life, and that most positive evolution must be nonrandom — guided somehow — and I argue that result fits well with the fine-tuning of the universe discovered by physics.
In Richard Dawkins’ review of your book in the New York Times, he points to the hundreds of very different dog breeds that have evolved in a relatively short period of time. And although this was done through controlled breeding, he claims that your theory would not allow for such variation in so few generations – it would be mathematically impossible. How do you respond to that?
I would suggest that Richard Dawkins re-read my book. In it I clearly state that random evolution works well up to the species level, perhaps to the genus and family level too. But at the level of vertebrate classes (birds, fish, etc), the molecular developmental programs needed would be beyond the edge of evolution. Darwinian evolution works well when a single small change in an organism’s DNA produces a notable effect. That’s what happens to give the various breeds of dogs. But when multiple, coordinated changes are needed for an effect, chance mutation loses its power.
Have you published this theory in a peer-reviewed journal? Have other scientists put forth a challenge to this quantitative argument?
No, no journal these days would touch a paper which investigates intelligent design with a ten foot pole (unless the paper aims to debunk ID). However, all the science I rely upon for my argument in the book is indeed peer-reviewed, from the best, most relevant journals. My conclusions are rather straightforward deductions from data in the literature. As you might expect for such a controversial topic, some scientists have stumbled over each other to challenge my argument. I’ve examined their writings closely and think none of them touch the heart of my argument.
Is there any way to test the concept of a designer? Is there any evidence of his or her actions interceding in the development of life on earth?
Well, it depends on what you mean by “test” and “evidence”. If you and a friend walked by Mount Rushmore, even if you had never heard of it before, you would immediately realize that the faces on the mountain were designed. Not for a moment would you think they were the result of random forces such as wind and erosion. Your conclusion of design would be certain, because you would see how well the pieces of the mountain fit the purpose of portraying an image.
Whenever we perceive a “purposeful arrangement of parts” we suspect design. The more parts there are, and the more clearly they fit the purpose, the more confident our conclusion of design becomes. In the past fifty years science has discovered a very purposeful arrangement of parts in the cell’s molecular machinery. That is the evidence for the involvement of a designer in life on earth.
Do you believe a designer only set the universe in motion, or do you think a designer intercedes occasionally?
Well, as a Christian I think God has intervened in human history. But in order to set up the general universe — including the design apparent in cells — I think God could have done that in a single instant, which unfolded over time.
Why is intelligent design science? Isn’t it just giving up on finding a scientific explanation for something that we don’t yet fully understand?
Intelligent design is science because it is based completely on physical data — the molecular machinery of cells — plus ordinary logic. Whenever we see systems in our everyday world of a certain degree and kind of complexity (like clocks), we always have found them to be designed. Now, much to our surprise, science has discovered similar systems in the cell. I see no reason to withhold the conclusion of design for cellular components. So the design of cellular machinery is an inductive argument based on physical evidence — a scientific conclusion.
When the motions of the galaxies away from the earth was first observed in the 1930s, that led to the Big Bang hypothesis. Many scientists of that time hated the idea of a beginning to nature, because it seemed to have theistic overtones. What if they had said that the Big Bang hypothesis was simply giving up on finding a scientific explanation for something that we don’t fully understand yet? If they had, physics would have missed out on a lot of progress. Science has to follow the evidence wherever it leads, or it ceases to be science. Right now the biological evidence is leading to the conclusion of design.
But that’s how they might have phrased it – “a beginning to nature” not “a designer got things started.” Do you appreciate the concern that many people have about introducing a “designer” into science textbooks?
Yes, I do appreciate people’s concerns about explicitly talking of a “designer” in textbooks. Nonetheless, science is supposed to be a no-holds-barred search for the truth. Throughout the history of science we’ve had to get used to a lot of ideas that people thought were odd. There’s no reason to shy away from the concept of a designer just because it makes some people uneasy.
Where do your Christian beliefs diverge from a literal interpretation of the Bible? I’m thinking of those areas that might conflict with our current understanding of the universe.
I’m a Roman Catholic; I never was taught a literal interpretation of the Bible. In fact, I was taught Darwin’s theory of evolution in parochial school. As far as I’m concerned, the universe and earth are as old as most physicists say they are, and life developed over immense ages. My main point of disagreement with the standard scientific story is that I think most of the development of the universe and life was set up; little was left to chance.
I’m curious if you’ve ever read mystics such as Sri Aurobindo or Ken Wilber, who take a spiritual, purposeful, but non-Christian view of evolution.
Gee, no, I haven’t. I’ll have to look them up.
Do you have any second thoughts about irreducible complexity, the theme of your first book? Do you consider this quantitative approach a better challenge to Darwinism?
I think irreducible complexity is a swell concept, which easily gets across the problem for Darwinian evolution to a general audience. It shows us quickly that Darwin’s theory is the wrong answer for much of life. However, the more quantitative approach in The Edge of Evolution actually builds on the concept of irreducible complexity, and allows us to put numbers on the likelihood of random processes building a coherent structure. It can show us that design reaches much deeper into life than we otherwise would have thought.
  • Bob

    A psalmist, far wiser than all evolutionists put together, said thousands of years ago, “The FOOL hath said in his heart, There is no God.”

    I refuse to respond or comment further–it’s a waste of time and energy to dialogue with deliberate dishonesty. Over and out . . .

  • Robert Ellis

    Bob 11-6-08 might be on to something. As Paul says, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

    In other words, all the above arguments could be reduced to the simple fact that the powers of darkness are terrified beyond comprehension because they know that their time is short. In a last-ditch and desperate effort to undo all the good that God has done, they stir up the masses to protest anything worthy.

    The gays protest the Prop 8 ban on gay marriage in California. The feminists protest all things male in general. The atheists protest Christianity and all forms of it. The macro-evolutionists protest the intelligent design proponents.

    The shrill voices of hate and fear protest everything that even slightly suggests a coming end of the age, a return of Christ in power and glory, a final judgment of all the living and the dead. For the believer no fear is present in any of these events. For the one shackled to unbelief, all these events stir up terror and rage and hatred beyond control. This anger goes much further than the insanity of political correctness. These violent reactions are truly a spiritual battle between invisible forces: the powers of light against the powers of darkness.

    In that sense, Bob is correct: no point exists in saying or responding to anything further. It’s a done deal, “over and out.”

  • Bob L

    Reading dr. Behes book about Darwins black box Surprisingly I finally found the last piece of info I needed for my theories on investing. Reading it I realized that the VAST majority of people cannot think logically for themselfs (thus they believe in evolution). Most people follow the crowd which causes stocks and gold and housing and whatever else you can invest in to fluctuate way more than it should. Causes stocks to go way lower and way higher than they should. For the past few years I have made a bunch of money on different stocks because of this. Recently PMI which I made a 500% profit on in the past two months. Thanks Dr Behe!

  • bobxxxx

    Intelligent design = magic. Behe invokes magic to solve scientific problems. That makes him a preacher, not a scientist.

  • Fedorov

    Very interesting discussion indeed. ID rules.

    P.S.
    To Neil Johnson
    Your words are one of the most sane here, and your self-restrain and decency are pretty good. I second your and Dr. Behe’s vision of the problem.
    Thank all of you, gentlemen.

  • Gandalf

    Hi everyone. Just wondering if we could get this interesting thread back into action. We are seeing how molecular biology is revealing the workings of the cell as more and more complicated. Pretty soon, we may see evidence of human genes foreseen in the nuclei of bacteria. That would be a shock to both camps (ID and materialist). It would mean that the end was seen from the beginning and that Aristotle was finally right about something besides logic- biology ! The organic theory of life development. It’s not so far-fetched if we can already technically clone an organism from the information of one cell. (See movie “Sleeper” by Woody Allen). So, my question to all is how did DNA evolve? I understand that the DNA of bacteria is virtually as complicated as human DNA (except numerically). Watson and Crick in ’53 never dreamed of what we are now discovering about the complexity of DNA

  • janet

    I know this is a ways back in the comment thread, but:

    Ravilyn said: “And fittingly we too would mix up belief in Jesus with belief in 6000 year old universe and all other myths you guys believe in.”

    It has been my experience (i am in no way saying that this is normative) in such debates about evolution, creation, ID, God, no God, etc. that those who believe in God are looked down upon because they believe in silly stories laid out in the Bible, that their faith is unfounded and just a “fairy tale.” Yet, it sounds like an INCREDIBLE leap of faith is required in order to believe in evolution. To believe that there is nothing, and then all of the sudden by no outside force, there is a single-celled organism just sounds…well, anything but logical. So you say that there is a perfectly logical and scientific reason as to how that first organism came into being without help, but you just haven’t found that out yet. Well, it takes a lot more faith to believe that that thing just popped out of nowhere than to believe that it was made by an intelligent being. wouldn’t you say so? why do people who believe in the Bible have to be ridiculed as believing in myths, when it is far more ridiculous to believe in something coming from nothing?

    p.s. ravilyn, you shouldn’t have to mix up the belief in the resurrection of Jesus with a 6,000 yr. old universe with the story of Noah. If a Christian is going to take any part of the Bible as true, they should take the whole text as true.

  • Caroline

    All I am going to say is: Pascal’s Wager. Empirically prove to me that there is not a God, since a lot of this discussion is based on what we can and cannot physically sense…By the way, maybe the eye evolved…but why is it not perfect then? Doesn’t evolution imply the betterment of something? Isn’t that why people think it is beneficial in the first place? Intelligent design does not imply working towards perfection, or even improvement. Intelligent does not INHERENTLY connotate either of those things, although it COULD be characterized by them. And if that’s the case, how can we trust only what the human senses behold to be true when we know that they are fallible? A lot of the time?

  • Caroline

    Also, how come not all creatures have reason then? the human being’s ability to reason, whether it has been used for better or for worse, is our defining quality and it has shaped the way we have always lived, and all of the diverse ideas about morality that we assume,

  • Jorg

    Caroline

    1.Pascal’s wager is a logical fallacy.

    2.Evolution does not imply “betterment”, but only a (potential) adaptation to prevailing conditions. It is a tinkerer, not an “improver”, and its target is moving all the time. There is no teleonomic quality to it: it does not look ahead or plan, which is why so many adaptations that were useful at some point cease to be eventually, and, given enough time, atrophy unless they incur no fitness cost on the individual bearing them.

    3.Not all creatures have reason for the same reason not all creatures have wings: the power of abstract symbolic thought and self-representation is an expensive trait. Our brains consume a large percentage of our body’s energy just to function sluggishly (if the thought processes of many people on the interwebz are any indication). As a matter of fact, it is better explained as a side-effect of evolution: perhaps an emergent property of the complexity of our brain. I’d say it is not necessary to survival (and, again, using humans as an exmaple, perhaps detrimental to it!)

    Anyway, your objections are easy to deal with since they are strawmen: I recommend picking up an introductory textbook on evolutionary theory and making your way through it. YOu don’t have to agree with it, but it will prevent you from making incorrect statements and arguing against non-existent positions.

  • Jorg

    Gandalf: yes, the molecular machinery of the cell is amazing and complex, However, that in itself does not eman that it has been designed, and there are virtually no molecular biologists (I know, this sounds like an appeal to authority, but not quite: merely a mention of expert opinion) who think that it does. Despite all the huffing and the puffing, evolutionary theory is as strong as ever. Besides the fact that it is supported by oodles of evidence, there is absolutely no competing paradigm that holds any water whatsoever.

  • Fedorov

    Jorg, In my opinion you are mistaken about molecular biologists. They are not numerous of course, but nevertheless there are some of them including Behe.

  • Peter Willey

    Behe`s view is no more or less absurd than many other scientists views. Big Bang cosmology is hardly an example of good science, yet is the consensus view. Origin of life studies still flounder, no breakthrough in understanding looks imminent,wether or not positing ID is helpful is at least debateable.Evolution leading to some sort of intelligent becoming is demonstrated by the appearance of H.Sapiens. Science progresses when dogma is overcome,not when it rules, and distinguishing fact from dogma is not always easy or obvious.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Marc-Bergeron/1519927721 Marc Bergeron

    evolution says absolutely nothing about beginnings

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Marc-Bergeron/1519927721 Marc Bergeron

    what the hell was that?

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