Michael Behe and Darwin's Black Box

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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How do you review nothing? Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box is a touchstone of the Intelligent Design movement. Criticize Intelligent Design and you'll be told "Oh, you need to read Michael Behe." Well, here it is. I've read Behe, and nowhere in his book is there a single scientific statement in the sense of something that can be tested.

"Black box" is scientific slang for a system whose internal workings are unknown and not pertinent to a problem. For most people, their computer or automobile engines are black boxes. In Darwin's day, the inner workings of the cell, let alone molecular biology, were black boxes, the details of which were ignored, but now we can address those issues. Hence the title of the book.

Behe's strategy is to tackle a challenge by Darwin head on.

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find no such case.

Give him credit for tackling a key challenge. Behe tries to do just that. He fails.

The good news is that Behe quotes the science correctly and avoids some of the more egregious fallacies of creationism. The bad news is that Behe argues, in effect, that we have a right to postulate a supernatural explanation for any unexplained anomaly whatsoever. Behe's reasoning might be summarized as God of the Gaps meets Missing Links meets Gulliver in Lilliput.

As a geologist, I have one advantage over biologists in analyzing Behe. I can come up with examples from completely outside of biology that demolish many of Behe's claims. I can come up with non-biological, purely natural systems that are irreducibly complex, for example.

Chapter 1. Lilliputian Biology

After some opening sections to provide background, Behe lays out the problem in:

Little Jumps, Big Jumps

Behe imagines a ditch separating you from your neighbor. If you find your neighbor in your yard, and he explains he got there by jumping the ditch, you'd probably believe him if the ditch is only four feet wide. As it gets wider, you'd get more skeptical. If the ditch were an impassible canyon 100 feet wide, your neighbor would have to come up with another explanation. Behe asks us to imagine that he claims that he came across gradually, that every so often buttes rose up in the canyon, that he stepped to each in turn, and they eroded away after him.

Behe notes "On a small scale, Darwin's theory has triumphed...it is at the level of macroevolution - of large jumps - that the theory evokes skepticism." Indeed. Creationists have pretty much lost the war on microevolution and even the hard core creationists more or less openly admit it happens. But what exactly is macroevolution? Basically it means any level of evolutionary change larger than can be confirmed by direct observation. In other words, creationists claim to win all the battles they don't lose outright.

Behe's fundamental fallacy - or rhetorical device - is presenting an analogy that makes crossing a gap physically impossible unless something extraordinary happens. The whole image of jumping is a slanted argument. He uses this image because he insists "unbridgeable chasms occur even at the tiniest level of life." But are they in fact unbridgeable? Suppose, instead of a canyon, you and your neighbor are separated by a four foot wide path. Crossing it is trivial - you don't even need to jump at all. Make the path a two-lane road and you can still cross in steps. Give the road heavy traffic and you may have to wait for breaks, analogous to the buttes in the canyon, except these are entirely plausible. Make it a twelve lane expressway, and there will have to be quite a few breaks to get all the way across. But you don't need to wait for a break across all twelve lanes - you can cross a lane at a time and even passing cars won't get you if you avoid the wheels. Just hope you don't get hit standing on the lane divider. But nobody ever said natural selection was a guarantee of survival. (Behe actually does use the highway analogy in a later context, but the difference between crossing a highway and evolution is that you can take many generations to cross.)

One of the most remarkable passages in the whole book is in this section:

Thus biochemistry offers a Lilliputian challenge to Darwin. Anatomy is, quite simply, irrelevant to the question of whether evolution could take place on the molecular level. So is the fossil record. It no longer matters whether there are huge gaps in the fossil record or whether the record is as continuous as that of U.S. Presidents (p. 22).

It takes some kind of nerve to assert that anatomy and the fossil record are irrelevant to evolution, even at the molecular level. Behe means anatomy and the fossil record in their present states, of course. If there were a complete absence of intermediate forms - something Behe is smart enough to realize exist, even if most creationists are still in denial - you can bet he'd be all over the gaps as evidence against Darwinism. Ditto anatomy. If mammals had four limbs and reptiles had eight, Behe would surely point to this difference as evidence against evolution. It's only because Behe is scientifically informed enough to admit that anatomy and the fossil record utterly crush crude creationism that he's forced to fall back to microbiology to find unexplained gaps.

There's a very Watsonian-Crickian sort of arrogance in all this. Some scientists who work at the micro level - and the worst offenders are molecular biologists and quantum physicists - have an annoying tendency to assume that their perspective qualifies them to comment on reality in general. Thus we have had a non-stop spew of philosophical rubbish from the likes of James Watson, Francis Crick or Jacques Monod who assume that knowing about DNA somehow makes them sociologists or theologians (Behe is merely the opposite pole), and the "quantum pop philosophy" crowd who somehow conclude the wave-particle duality casts doubt on the existence of reality. 

Speaking as someone who works at the macro- level, I find this sort of thing preposterous. When you can derive the crystal structure of feldspar, the composition of granite, or the folding of rocks in a mountain range from quantum mechanics, then, and only then, are you qualified to say your quantum mechanics background enables you to understand reality. But if your quantum reasoning says something at the macro level must be true, and reality at the macro level says otherwise, guess what? Your quantum reasoning is wrong. Likewise, when you can describe, using molecular biology, how a zygote develops into a full grown organism, or how molecular biology describes micro-evolution - and remember, Behe admits it happens - then, and only then, can you say that molecular biology can play a critical role in describing macro-reality.

A Series of Eyes

Behe next discusses the evolution of eyes. He's smart enough to know that the standard creationist argument "What Good is Half an Eye?" is complete garbage. In fact he describes a number of progressively more complex eyes, from simple patches of photo-receptors to the concave eyes of starfish to the enclosed eyes of molluscs and higher animals, in a way that leaves little doubt how eyes evolved (though he never admits that).

Instead Behe focuses his attack on the existence of photoreceptors themselves. He describes the complex biochemistry involved in sensing light, then notes:

Ultimately, though, this is the level of explanation for which biological science must aim. In order to truly understand a function, one must understand in detail every relevant step in the process. The relevant steps in biological processes occur ultimately at the molecular level, so a satisfactory explanation of a biological phenomenon - such as sight, digestion, or immunity - must include its molecular explanation (p. 22).

The biochemistry of retinal, the molecule that triggers the chemical changes that occur during sight, might be a legitimate obstacle for evolution if it were the only molecule that changed in response to light. But there are myriad such molecules. Since Behe thinks there's something here that couldn't have developed naturally, what is it? Is it the retinal molecule? It's not all that complex a molecule. Is it the rhodopsin to which it's attached? Is it the transducin that rhodopsin sticks to? Is it the GTP and GDP molecules? Phosphodiesterase? The ion channel proteins? Guanylate cylase? Rhodopsin kinase? Arrestin? All of these are in the chain of reactions that occur once a photon strikes the retina. So, since Behe wants a complete molecular description of evolution, it's fair to ask for one for Intelligent Design. Which specific parts of the chain required supernatural intervention? We know all these molecules can originate via natural processes from simple materials since none, so far as we know, are in the zygote and in any case a zygote couldn't contain enough to make a complete eye. So which of these molecules had to form through some sort of non-natural intervention? Or did they form naturally but become juxtaposed supernaturally? Which ones? Where's the evidence? This is fun. I can play this game, too.

It's just not true that "a satisfactory explanation of a biological phenomenon ... must include its molecular explanation." Satisfactory for what purpose? We knew where babies came from long before we had any inkling of the existence of molecules. We knew that broken bones knit, that antiseptics prevented infection and that sterilizing food prevented decay long before we had a clue about the chemistry. Ordinary cause and effect reasoning worked just fine. Sure, we would like to have a molecular explanation, but we don't need one for many biological observations. Indeed, a molecular explanation might even be pointless - what point would molecular biology serve in explaining why the passenger pigeon became extinct?

In fact, if Behe wants to play by his own rules, let's see him come up with step by step biochemical explanations for things we know to be true. At the molecular level, how do maple trees make seeds that can fly? Why are logarithmic spirals so common in biology? What's the biochemical explanation? What's the biochemical explanation for the shape of oak leaves? Since Behe insists so much on the primacy of biochemistry, let's see him go from biochemistry to any macroscopic phenomenon. Let's see him explain, using molecular biology, how the edible viceroy butterfly comes to have markings so similar to the bitter-tasting monarch. I'm not talking evolution here, but present-day biochemistry. Give me the specific biochemical steps that happen.

Since we're a long way from knowing the complete biochemistry of life, insisting on a complete molecular explanation for evolution creates a vast arena for Behe's God of the Gaps. However, it's equally fair to point out that Behe should play by the same rules. He should be able to demonstrate which particular step in the molecular evolution of any function could not have occurred either because it is statistically too unlikely, or because it's physically impossible. Instead we get a discussion of:

Calvinism

Not the dreary theological doctrine, but the fantasy world of the comic strip character. Behe likens scientific theories to Calvin's cardboard box, which at various times functioned as a time machine, transmogrifier, or space ship. Of course, if Behe had wanted to discuss someone living in a fantasy world, he could have discussed the other Calvin. But that would have gotten messy.

Chapter 2. Nuts and Bolts

The Natives Are Restless

Your basic litany of out of context quotes by biologists describing the problems with evolution.

Beetle Bombs

Let's have a big Intelligent Design welcome for - I love this guy - the Bombardier Beetle! Y-a-a-a-a-y!

Notes Behe, "the bombardier beetle is a favorite of creationists." The bombardier beetle mixes hydroquinone, hydrogen peroxide, and a catalyst together to create a scalding fluid which it then squirts on predators. Behe is ethical enough to quote Richard Dawkins at length demolishing a typical creationist claim, then concludes "Although Dawkins gets the better of the exchange, neither he nor the creationists make their case." He bases that statement on the fact that Dawkins doesn't explain how the beetle came to have the biochemistry necessary to have such a remarkable defense.

It's the "half an eye" argument applied to chemistry. Throwing something at an attacker is an obvious natural defense mechanism. That something can be handy debris, or it can be a bodily secretion. Most anything that comes out of an animal body can be, and is, expelled in self defense. Pick up a lot of animals and they'll urinate on you. I once got a nasty orange jet of barf fired at me by a petrel when I got too close to its nest. And then there are the specially made secretions, like the ink of a squid or the perfume of a skunk.

So being able to excrete on demand is a survival plus. Being able to excrete forcefully and in a controlled manner is an even bigger plus because you can hit an attacker before it gets too close. Excreting nasty stuff is the biggest plus yet because not only does the attacker flee, but it may avoid you next time. And it may even avoid others of your species, enhancing their survival, too.

Behe is both honest enough and competent enough to admit that hydroquinones are widely used in insect defense (they taste bad) and that there are natural biochemical processes that break down hydrogen peroxide and release heat. Behe even goes so far as to admit

Hydroquinone alone, then, has the defensive function that we ascribed to the whole system. Can the other components be added to the bombardier's system in such a way that the function continuously improves? It would seem they can (p. 35).

If that's not evolution, what is? But, laments Behe, we don't know the micro-details. "If we could analyze the structural details of the beetle down to the last protein and enzyme, and if we could account for all those details with a Darwinian explanation, then we could agree with Dawkins." 

"Down to the last protein and enzyme" would be a pretty massive biochemical program, and "account for all those details with a Darwinian explanation" would presumably mean show how slight variations in biochemistry and structure led to increased survival by the better adapted. So all we need is a time machine (I have the cardboard box), go back in time, locate the ancestors of the bombardier beetle, collect enough of them and do a complete chemical and anatomical study and show that the ones along the line of present bombardier beetles survive better. Well, how do we do that? Do we somehow analyze the beetles without hurting them, then tag and release them and see which ones survive better? Do we grab the beetles away from each predator and see which ones are preferentially eaten? Where's Behe's positive proof that the mechanism could not have evolved naturally at the molecular level?

Notice here that Behe changes the rules. He starts out attempting to show that some particular structure could not have evolved in small steps. Then, when he admits it could, he switches over to "we don't know all the specific chemical reactions." This is a recurring strategy throughout the book.

Irreducible Complexity and the Nature of Mutation

What type of biological system could not be formed by "numerous, successive, slight modifications?"
    Well, for starters, a system that is irreducibly complex. By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly .... because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional (p. 39).

The simple example that Behe cites is a mousetrap, which of course will not work if any part is missing. You might reason from that analogy that humans cannot develop from single cells, because if you start removing cells from a human being, the human will die long before you get to a single cell or even a toddler. Except, of course, we know that humans do develop from a single cell. Clearly there's a fatal flaw in Behe's definition.

All analogies form human artifacts suffer from the basic weakness of being artificial, and therefore one can always cite their development as an example of intelligent design. But a mousetrap is not a bad illustration of the shortcomings of Behe's definition. We can be absolutely certain that mousetraps did not originate all at once in their modern form. The most basic way of killing mice (apart from getting a cat) is to wait until one appears and then bash it with a club. We soon observe that more mice appear where there's food, so we lay out bait. It's hard to avoid spooking the mice, so we replace the club with a log, prop it up with a stick, and tie a string to it. From there it's a short step to attaching bait to the stick so the mouse causes the log to fall by itself. That allows us to do other stuff instead of spending all day waiting for mice to show up. Finally, when metal springs appear, we replace the log and trip mechanism with a stout spring attached to a wire loop. It is true that a present-day mousetrap is irreducibly complex in that if you remove any part, it won't work, but it is absolutely false that mousetraps could not have evolved from simpler devices in small steps. It is completely false that "any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional." You can build a mousetrap one component at a time and each step in the evolution will catch mice. The whole history of technology is one of building "irreducibly complex" devices from simpler precursors - all of which worked in their own right. And in fact most technologies spawn a lot of mutations that fail, just like in biology. We like nature, select the fittest ones.

Bicycles are a good example. They started off as simple coasters that idle rich folks rode down hills. Soon pedals were added so they could be propelled further, and as it became obvious that bicycles had something serious to offer, the drive mechanisms became more efficient. Eventually a motor was added to make the first simple motorcycles. Behe rejects the example of bicycles because they didn't develop by infinitesimal steps, but nevertheless, an irreducibly complex device developed in simple steps from simpler precursors, and every one of the precursors was functional in its own way. No, you can't remove many parts from a present day bicycle before it ceases to be functional, but bicycles at one time lacked derailleurs, chains and sprockets, even pedals, and every single one of them worked.

Similarly, neither eyes nor bombardier beetles are irreducibly complex. No, you can't remove components from the present systems and have them continue to function in the same way. But in both cases it is easily possible to see how the systems could have developed in small steps, with the systems being fully functional at all times. Even Behe admits this - he just denies it means anything.

What Behe's definition omits is the possibility that the parts might have all developed from simpler components, or parts might have been adapted from other functions. Springs and triggers were not developed for mousetraps. Motors, it's true, didn't evolve out of anything initially related to bicycles, but were adapted once they came into existence. On the other hand, evolution is filled with cases of structures that initially served one function being adapted for a different function.

It is not hard to identify wholly inorganic processes that satisfy Behe's definitions. Consider a fire. Any fireman will tell you that fire requires heat, fuel, and oxygen. Take away any one and the fire goes out - that's what firefighters are trained to do. What part of "single system composed of several well matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning" doesn't apply here? True, compared to cells, fires aren't very complex (but they are commonly cited as counterexamples to simplistic definitions of life - they grow, reproduce, and feed). So tell me specifically how complex a system has to be to be irreducibly complex. Give me a number of bytes, and justify it.

Geysers are even better. A geyser is a delicately poised system that requires subterranean heat, abundant water, and a fissure system that extends deep enough to tap the heat. More important, the fissures have to be deep enough that the pressure at the bottom significantly elevates the boiling point of water. The fissures have to be open enough to allow water to flow in and be expelled, but not so open that the water flows continually as a mere hot spring. When the water deep in the conduit boils, it expands, pushes water out at the surface, the pressure drops, more water boils, until all the water is expelled. The conduit has to be sufficiently open that water can pour back in faster than it boils away. Geysers have come into existence when steam explosions blasted fracture systems open, and they have ceased to function when they either become plugged by mineral deposits or blow themselves out of existence through violent eruptions. Doesn't this qualify as a "single system composed of several well matched, interacting parts?"

In fact, you can get irreducible complexity from random processes. After every earthquake, rescuers face the tragic task of digging out survivors. In theory, when a building collapses, all the pieces come down in sequence and we could remove them in reverse sequence. But is sometimes happens that the pieces cannot be removed in any order without causing further collapse. It's not that we could do it if we don't disturb the pile, or we could do it if we had enough information - it can't be done because of the way the pieces are interlocked.

For something with a bit more of a bang, scatterable mines often have very fine tripwires attached to them. It's entirely possible that the wires can get entangled badly enough that you simply cannot remove a mine without detonating others. From the standpoint of the guy laying the mines, that means the mines serve their function. From the standpoint of the guy removing the mines, it's irreducible complexity. The mines are emplaced deliberately, but they are dropped from aircraft or spread via artillery shells, so their layout and the relationships of the wires are random.

Chapter 3. Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Microscopic organisms have astonishing complexities. Many of them move by means of cilia, tiny hairlike structures that function like oars. Cilia also serve a sensory role, and are sometimes also used to funnel food into the organism. In humans, cilia serve to sweep foreign objects from the lungs and move the ovum down the Fallopian tube to the uterus.

Since there is such a large literature on the cilium, since it is of interest to such diverse fields, and since it is widely stated that the theory of evolution is the basis of all modern biology, then one would expect that the evolution of the cilium would be the subject of a significant number of papers in the professional literature (p. 67)

Let's rephrase that for a different field.

Since there is such a large literature on the formation of the earth, since it is of interest to such diverse fields, and since it is widely stated that the theory of plate tectonics is the basis of all modern geology, then one would expect that the arrangement of the continents at the earth's formation would be the subject of a significant number of papers in the professional literature.

Well, it's not. Why not? Because it's hopelessly premature. There are many things we don't yet know about the earliest earth, and we're nowhere near identifying any of the pieces of crust that existed when the earth formed. Anybody who tried to write a paper on the arrangement of the continents when the earth formed would have it flung back by the reviewers as hopelessly speculative. Things are a bit better in cell biology since the structure of the cilium is known in great detail, but there are innumerable possible ways that the molecular structures of cilia could have evolved. It's just premature to attempt a detailed scenario.

Common sense suggests there are only two possible ways cilia could have originated: they either developed out of something in the cell itself or they came from outside the cell. Behe discusses two papers that explore each of these scenarios. One was by T. Cavalier-Smith in 1972 that envisioned cilia evolving from protuberances from the cell that were initially not necessarily motile. Notes Behe:

The paper does not try to present a realistic, quantitative model for even one step in the development of a cilium in a cell line originally lacking that structure (p. 68).

Quantitative? What does that mean? I'm not sure Behe does. To me, quantitative means attaching numbers to a theory so you can use it in applications or make additional predictions. Nowhere in Behe's detailed description of the chemistry of vision, for example, is there a single equation. Does he mean "specific," or "rigorous?"

The other paper, by Eors Szathmary in 1981, took the tack of suggesting that cilia evolved when a free-living bacterium attached itself to a living cell. Behe dismisses both papers as "simple word pictures." On how exactly cilia evolved: "Nobody knows."

Again, the rules change: attempts to show how a supposedly "irreducibly complex" structure could have evolved are dismissed as "mere word pictures."

And the evidence that cilia did not evolve naturally? The quantitative demonstration that it could not have happened by small steps? Absolutely zero.

Even more fascinating is another cellular propulsion mechanism, the flagellum. A flagellum is a single long hairlike tail found in many microorganisms. It's remarkable because it is a rotary mechanism. It operates by molecules alternately attaching and detaching from a basal structure, moving it incrementally as they do. The near total absence of rotary mechanisms in biology is remarkable, so this structure is simply amazing.

What Behe doesn't mention, since it wasn't fully understood when he wrote in 1996, was there's another rotary molecular mechanism in biology, a molecule called ATP-synthase. This molecule synthesizes ATP, the principal energy storage molecule in cells. Unfortunately for Behe, there has been research on the evolution of this molecule, since likely precursor molecules are well known and the ATP-synthase is a combination of molecules that served related functions, but not as well as the combined molecules do. ATP-synthase is considered a likely example of modular evolution, the combination of already complex structures into even more complex structures. Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates don't much like modular evolution since it provides a way of generating a lot of complexity very fast. Behe also doesn't mention that some Archaea, a group of microorganisms superficially like bacteria but biochemically quite different, also have rotating flagella but theirs don't use the same chemistry as bacteria. That makes perfect sense in evolution but no sense at all if the mechanism had to be specifically designed somehow.

Chapter 4. Rube Goldberg in the Blood

Blood clotting is very complex. Because no biologist knew this before.

Chapter 5. From Here to There

Wow, cells are complex. Gee, cell structure couldn't possibly have evolved. There is no other apparent point to this chapter. But then again, I've never met a biologist who denies that cells are complex.

Chapter 6. A Dangerous World

Wow, the immune system is complex. There is no other apparent point to this chapter, either.

Chapter 7. Road Kill

In this chapter Behe takes on systems that are not irreducibly complex by his definition, but which he argues require such a long chain of events to evolve that they still pose a problem. The title comes from the idea that, if animals attempted to cross a very wide highway, attrition would prevent them from ever making it all the way across. By analogy, attempts to evolve an extremely complex system by gradual means would suffer so much attrition that the complete chain would never happen. Unfortunately for this analogy, evolving systems have an advantage that animals on a busy highway don't: they can reproduce along the way. So a woodchuck (his ideal hapless road crosser) might never make it across a wide, busy highway, but the same woodchuck doesn't have to. If he can make it to a traffic island, meet a nice lady woodchuck, and raise a few litters, some of the offspring will make it across the next lane, and so on.

There is simply not much to say about these four chapters. Once you've read Behe's arguments about vision or cilia, you've read everything he has to say about biological complexity. There's just nothing original here. They're gee-whiz expositions asserting that these systems are complex, therefore they could not have evolved in short steps. Of course, he never identifies which particular steps in molecular evolution required non-natural assistance, nor does he offer any rigorous proof that any particular system really is irreducibly complex.

Chapter 8. Publish or Perish

What's that? There are scientists attempting to study evolution at the molecular level? Uh-oh. Gotta deal with that. In this chapter he dismisses the Journal of Molecular Evolution, the Miller-Urey experiment, and various proposed early prebiotic systems.

It's in this chapter that Behe crosses the line from bad science to full blown intellectual dishonesty. Recall the rules of the game as he defined them:

What type of biological system could not be formed by "numerous, successive, slight modifications?"
    Well, for starters, a system that is irreducibly complex. ... An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly .... because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional (p. 39).

Now it's one thing to rebut criticisms of your theory. But Behe asserted that an irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly. So if someone shows that an allegedly irreducibly complex system can be produced directly, then there are only two options. First, the system is not irreducibly complex. Second, the irreducible complexity argument itself is wrong. We do not have to show that the proposed way to develop the system is the way it actually happened, only that it could have happened. Behe is claiming impossibility, and by showing that the proposed system could develop in small steps, we demolish his impossibility argument.

But faced with refutation, Behe changes the rules. We saw precursors of this behavior way back with the bombardier beetle. "Can the other components be added to the bombardier's system in such a way that the function continuously improves? It would seem they can." Behe admits that we could develop the structures of the bombardier beetle in small steps. The argument is over. The bombardier beetle is not irreducibly complex. But then Behe changes the rules: "If we could analyze the structural details of the beetle down to the last protein and enzyme, and if we could account for all those details with a Darwinian explanation, then we could agree with Dawkins." So now it's not merely enough to show you can get there by small steps; you have to identify every single biochemical step. In dismissing the papers in the Journal of Molecular Evolution, Behe says:

These are interesting questions for scientists, but they do not begin to answer the challenge to evolution posed by blood clotting, cellular transport, or disease fighting (p. 173).

So after 173 pages of attacking evolution because nobody can show, step by step, how complex systems evolve, Behe turns around and attacks scientists for attempting to describe the steps! Try to describe the overall evolution of the system and Behe complains that you don't describe the intermediate steps. Try to document the intermediate steps, and Behe attacks you for not accounting for the entire system.

Behe also repeats the shopworn cliche that evolution is not explicitly mentioned very much in biology texts and therefore can't be nearly as central to biology as it is claimed. I just pulled a volume off my shelf titled The Mechanics of Earthquakes and Faulting by Christopher H. Scholz. Nothing is more fundamental to earthquakes than stress, strain, and the strength of rocks. In the index I find one entry each for strain and strength and six for stress, in a 471 page book. Why? Because these concepts are implicit in everything else in the book. Likewise, in a biology text, once evolution is described, there is no need to mention every single biological phenomenon that illustrates it.

But the most remarkable and damning quote in the book is this one:

"Publish or perish" is a proverb that academicians take seriously. If you do not publish your work for the rest of the community to evaluate, then you have no business in academia (p. 186).

The remarkable and damning thing is that Behe has never published his ideas on Intelligent Design in a professional journal, but wrote them up in a popular trade book. If he had tried to publish in a peer-reviewed journal, his paper would have come back with demands for precise definitions of irreducible complexity, and that would have been messy. Now I happen to believe popularizing science is woefully underrated in academia, but it is not the place to try to make an end run around the professional publication process. (I've also seen a few cases of authors trying to sneak their pet theories into textbooks as well.) Get your ideas published in a peer-reviewed journal, then write them up in a popular book or textbook. Behe actually has the chutzpah to say:

Despite comparing sequences and mathematical modeling, molecular evolution has never addressed the question of how complex structures came to be. In effect, the theory of Darwinian molecular evolution has not published, and so it should perish (p. 186).

The first sentence can be described in very simple terms: a bald-faced lie. And Behe knows it's a lie because he just spent a whole chapter trying to discredit attempts to address the question. He's not just rebutting a single critic, but attacking hundreds of authors, many of whom published their results long before Behe wrote his book. And to say molecular evolution has not published! Chutzpah doesn't even begin to describe it. Chutzpah has been described as killing your parents and begging the court for mercy because you're an orphan. What's the word for slandering entire research fields while holding on to the protection of tenure at a research university?

Chapter 9. Intelligent Design

Here's where Behe formulates his definition of Intelligent Design.

What is "design?" Design is simply the purposeful arrangement of parts. With such a broad definition we can see that anything might have been designed (p. 193).

There's a very subtle fallacy here, one committed all the time by novices and not-so-novice scientists: confusing purpose and function. In this case I'm not entirely sure it's an innocent mistake, but rather a deliberate shift in terminology in the hopes that nobody will catch it. Saying that "design is simply the purposeful arrangement of parts" amounts to saying that something has design if it was designed. On the other hand, saying "design is simply the arrangement of parts to perform a function" is just an obvious non-sequitur.

In order to reach a conclusion of design for something that is not an artificial object ... there must be an identifiable function of the system....The function of the system we must look at is the one that requires the greatest amount of the system's internal complexity. (p. 196).

Behe is still subtly conflating function and purpose. Just because we see something as a function doesn't prove there really is a function there. Every element of every system has a function, even if it's merely to sit there. For example, many planetary scientists believe that Jupiter, with 90% of the mass of the planets, orbiting in a nice, distant, moderately elliptical orbit, helps maintain the stability of the solar system. Form the standpoint of orbital dynamics, it serves that function. Is there a function - a purpose - in any deeper sense?

Throughout this book, however, I have shown why many biochemical systems cannot be built up by natural selection working on mutations. No direct, gradual route exists to these irreducibly complex systems... (p. 203).

I'm sure a lot of non-scientist readers are impressed by this. But the fact is that Behe has not shown why any biochemical systems cannot be built up by natural selection working on mutations, because he has not shown that "no direct, gradual route exists," not in a single case. Suppose I made the claim that "no direct, gradual route exists" from your house to Anchorage, Alaska because, gee, it's a long way away and it's rugged and cold along the way and I just don't see how anybody could build a road up there. And I follow one road after another on the map and none of them lead to Anchorage. So I guess I made my case, right? No, I just haven't followed the right roads, or, more likely in Behe's case, I made a half-hearted attempt to find a road and gave up. Because there is a route from your house to Anchorage.

Suppose instead of Anchorage I said Honolulu, and we rule out air and ship travel. Well then it's easy. I circle Oahu, don't find any bridges or tunnels to the mainland, therefore there is no route. But by circling Oahu, I'm checking every single possible place there could be a connection. And that's what Behe has to do to demonstrate that there is no gradual route in molecular evolution. He has to examine every conceivable path by which a structure could evolve gradually and show that every single path is impossible. To get from New York to Anchorage, I couldn't care less if I-95 and I-80 don't get you there. You have to show that every possible route is a dead end. If you walk completely around Alaska (pack a lunch and warm clothes) you will find roads leading out, and if you follow those in turn you will find a route to your house. Ruling out all the chemical pathways that could lead to a complex biochemical system makes walking around Alaska look like a stroll around the block, but then again, I'm not the one claiming it's impossible.

Design and Design

Geologists don't spend a lot of time justifying to each other that we can deduce what happened in the past. I do spend time in my introductory classes explaining it because a lot of people have the misconception that if something isn't directly observed, you can't be sure it happened. (The actual data on eyewitness testimony is so scary it's appalling that it's even allowed in court. Give me the inferences of informed experts any day.)

Similarly, religious believers don't spend a whole lot of time telling each other about design in nature. They may look reverently at some particularly elegant or striking natural phenomenon, but they pretty much take it for granted that it had a designer.

The first arguments from design were proposed by the ancient Greeks. They weren't proofs of the existence of God but attempts to explain the order in nature. Various forms of the argument were advanced during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, and were intended more as parts of a complete metaphysical system rather than as proofs. Even William Paley, he of the watchmaker analogy, was trying to lay out a logical system of theology rather than attempting to prove the existence of God to skeptics. These systems are somewhat analogous to Principia Mathematica, which doesn't get around to proving that 1+1=2 until a couple of hundred pages into the book.

In response to challenges by non-believers, believers began using the Argument from Design as an apology, that is, a reason for holding a particular belief. In Paley's day (1802), there were almost no laws of nature known in a fundamental sense. The sole exception was the way gravity and the laws of motion accounted for the motions of the planets. Maxwell's Equations were unknown, as were relativity and quantum mechanics. So it was perfectly understandable for Paley to point to the way a hummingbird's bill fit into a particular flower as evidence of design.

Now that we know that the laws of nature don't just produce phenomena, but result in other laws, Paley's approach is hopelessly outdated. If there's design in nature, it's in the way quantum mechanics creates hybrid s-p orbitals in oxygen so that hydrogen atoms bond to adjacent orbitals, which in turn gives the water molecule its polar geometry, and thereby its solvent and heat storage abilities, which in turn makes it the principal heat storage mechanism for the planet. Going from quantum mechanics at the atomic level to planetary implications. Now that's impressive. (And I just did more in one sentence toward explaining macro properties in molecular terms than Behe does in his whole book.)

But Behe doesn't talk much about the way quantum mechanics accounts for the unique bonding properties of carbon that make all biological complexity possible. Partly that's because he's a biochemist, not a physicist. But Behe seeks design in things that are just beyond human capability. We can easily picture that we ourselves, with a little more advanced technology, will be able to build a bombardier beetle, or at least a cilium, from scratch. And most people who bandy about the Argument from Design have in mind a very tame Designer; somebody much like us but only a wee bit smarter. Hardly any of them ask what a really intelligent designer, one hopelessly out of their league, might do. Because the answer is just about anything. "He's not a tame lion," say the characters in Narnia of Aslan. A really intelligent designer could set up an economical set of fundamental laws that interact to create a rich and complex universe.

There are a number of reasons why people stop at the toddler version of the Argument from Design, none of them particularly helpful to their credibility.

Chapter 10. Questions About Design

Behe spends the first part of the chapter on classical rebuttals of the Argument from Design, but there are only two really serious scientific objections discussed in this chapter.

The Argument from Imperfection

The classic example of this argument is the design of the eye. In a video camera, nothing obstructs the light sensors. Their connections are behind the photocell and the photocell, in turn, is connected at the side or back. In the human eye the nerve connections are in front of the light receptors and the optic nerve connects in the center of the retina, creating a huge hole in our vision. We get around this problem by flicking our eyes around and constantly filling in the hole.

The key to intelligent design theory is not whether "a basic structural plan is the obvious product of design." The conclusion of intelligent design rests on...the ordering of separate, well-fitted components to achieve a function that is beyond any of the components themselves (p. 223).

If you're expecting Behe to clarify how those two definitions differ, you're in for a disappointment. And if there are serious design shortcomings in the system, how can we say the components are "well-fitted?" Behe goes on to list a number of flaws with the argument from imperfection:

  1. The designer may settle for a design that's "good enough."
  2. The designer may have motives beyond engineering excellence
  3. We are attempting to psychoanalyze an unknown designer

Objection 1 requires us to accept a designer who can build complex systems from the molecular level up but fail to make obvious simple design modifications. For a designer who can make a rotary flagellum, migrating retinal cells in front of the nerves ought to be a piece of cake. The eye on a flounder migrates to the other side of its head, for crying out loud! How hard can it be to engineer the retina so the nerves migrate to the back as the retinal cells develop? It would probably take moving one lousy cell in an embryo to fix the glitch that loops throat nerves around the aorta. Objections 2 and 3 are mutually incompatible. They amount to saying that if Behe can see a reason why optimal design might not have been achieved, suboptimal design is still an argument for intelligent design, but if there's no apparent reason, we're not supposed to judge.

Throughout his book, Behe uses terms like "well-fitted." Well, design is either good, or it's not. A retina with nerves in front of the receptors and a huge hole is not well-fitted, even if the work-arounds employed to get around the defects are remarkable. If good design argues for intelligent design, bad design argues against it. You'd certainly expect a Designer who created Man in His image to give females bigger pelvic openings.

The Argument From Inutility

Vestigial organs and apparent junk DNA sequences are often used as counterarguments to Intelligent Design. Behe offers these criticisms:

  1. Just because a function isn't apparent doesn't mean that one doesn't exist. For example, tonsils play a role in immunity. True enough. I had mine out 50 years ago and I will be dead within a few decades. On the other hand, doesn't this contradict the whole argument that irreducibly complex systems consist of parts that can't be removed without the whole system ceasing to function? If you can take out tonsils, appendixes, gall bladders or spleens without much ill effect, are those organs really essential, even if they do serve a function?
  2. Even if something has no function, evolution also fails to explain how such a situation could arise. Absolutely, utterly false. In virtually every case, a vestigial organ is a relic of something that used to be functional, like the pelvis bones in snakes or the vestigial eyes in cave organisms. It makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective for organs that are not used to atrophy, but not vanish instantly. There's no selection pressure to keep the structure, so incomplete or missing structures don't doom the organism, but there's no harm in keeping vestiges of it either. It's pretty much neutral. Similarly, non-functional DNA may be the relics of sequences that once served a function. Do something illegal or stupid on your computer and the forensics people will pull up a horrifying amount of scraps of files you thought were deleted. Non-functional DNA is the equivalent of old computer files. It can sometimes happen that vestigial organs or DNA can be reactivated to serve a new function, just like once in a while you need to resurrect files you had deleted.
  3. With vestigial organs, there's no explanation for how the real organ evolved in the first place. Also usually false, and also irrelevant. The issue is whether a system evolved or was designed. What would be the point of designing a system with obsolete features?

Behe concludes (p. 227) "It is scientifically unsound to make any assumptions of the way things ought to be." Well, true, but the argument slices both ways. If you want to point to apparent design, then failures of sound design practice count against design. Claiming that something is designed ("well-fitted") is every bit as much an "assumption of the way things ought to be" as pointing to violations of sound design.

And the one thing totally missing in this chapter - and the book - is malicious design. How did cancer evolve? Tapeworms? Trypanosomes? Liver flukes? Guinea worms? River blindness? Birth defects? Childhood leukemia? Why do we even need an immune system?

Chapter 11. Science, Philosophy, Religion

If you're looking for a coherent treatment of any of these three topics, find a different book. Behe modestly states:

The result of these cumulative efforts to investigate the cell - to investigate life at the molecular level, is a loud, piercing cry of "design!" The result is so unambiguous and so significant that it must be ranked as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science. The discovery rivals those of Newton and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schroedinger, Pasteur and Darwin. ... as momentous as the observation that the earth goes around the sun.... (p. 232-233)

Behe doesn't quite go as far as a Velikovsky and actually imply that his theories are on a par with Newton, but comes awfully close. So why don't scientists embrace intelligent design? There are only two options. Either the claim of intelligent design is wrong (no fun at all), or scientists have an ulterior motive.

Why is the observation of design handled with intellectual gloves? The dilemma is that while one side of the elephant is labeled intelligent design, the other side might be labeled God. (p. 233)

Note how design has now been promoted to an "observation." In part, the dilemma is true. Intelligent Design is a front for creationism and every scientist knows it. It's not that the other side of the elephant is labeled God. The other side is labeled "fundamentalist, Biblical inerrancy God." And although Behe claims not to be a creationist, from the perspective of hard-line creationists he's a mere tool.

Behe uses the elephant in the room argument a couple of times in his book to refer to design as something huge that people studiously avoid dealing with. Well, if design is an elephant, there's also a blue whale or brachiosaurus in the room, and that's the shameful legacy of credulity, outright fabrication, and shoddy scholarship by people attempting to use physical phenomena to justify their belief in God or push some specific doctrinal agenda.

Behe takes on the rule that science ought not invoke supernatural phenomena, notes that it fails to exclude a lot of now discredited natural theories, and concludes it is "more like a professional aphorism - like 'the customer is always right.'" In fact, there's one overwhelming reason why science refuses to admit supernatural explanations, and Behe nails it right on:

The anxiety is that if the supernatural were allowed as an explanation, then there would be no stopping it. It would be invoked frequently to explain many things that in reality have natural explanations. (p. 241)

Right on. But he goes on to add

Is this a reasonable fear? No one can predict the behavior of human beings, but it seems to me that the fear of the supernatural popping up everywhere in science is vastly overblown. If my graduate student came into my office and said that the angel of death killed her bacterial culture, I would be disinclined to believe her (p. 241).

Trust us, Behe, says. Yes, it is a reasonable fear, and yes, we can predict the behavior of human beings. And one thing we can absolutely predict is that if something can be abused, it will be. The shameful record of credulity, intellectual dishonesty, and deceit on the part of believers anxious to demonstrate miracles shows plainly that advocates of miraculous explanations in science cannot be trusted. Offended? You should be. Start cleaning up your denomination. Then, when it has such a record for unflinching honesty that it's sought out whenever especially trustworthy people are needed, then come back and criticize science. Better yet, show us you can be trusted by examining your doctrines critically and explicitly abandoning those that fail to stand up to scrutiny, then publicly announcing that you were wrong.

But then, about forty years ago, scientists did something really perplexing. They accepted the instantaneous creation of the Universe! As Behe notes, the Big Bang is "friendly to a religious point of view." Now why would scientists refuse to accept design in biology out of fear that it might lead to belief in God, and then turn around and accept something in astronomy that jibes neatly with Judaeo-Christian cosmology? Unless, of course, neither conclusion has anything at all to do with religious preferences.

The Big Bang was adopted for one simple reason. It was supported by observational evidence that it actually happened. It's not a matter of "Here's a cilium, I can't see how it evolved, therefore it must have been supernaturally created." It helps, too, that the Big Bang was a unique event rather than a routine interruption of the natural order. Also, the Big Bang itself can be scientifically investigated. We can analyze the forces of nature and conclude how they came into being, and perhaps we will eventually recreate mini Big Bangs in particle accelerators.

What's the Point?

Behe rejects most of the worst absurdities of creationism and accepts conventional scientific concepts like an ancient earth that hard core creationists reject.

Behe may deny being a creationist, but he is one all the same. The long term agenda of creationists is to mandate the literal interpretation of Genesis in science. As a short term objective, their goal is to force science to acknowledge the reality of supernatural phenomena. Not just in the abstract, as personal faith decisions, such as where one person considers a healing a miracle whereas someone else considers it remarkable but natural. Their goal is to force science to accept that specific observational data must be interpreted as miracles. They want to force science to say: "this person was incurably ill, people prayed for him, he got well, therefore we accept that it's a miracle." When you publish a newsletter called The Wedge, could your intentions get any clearer? And Behe clearly sympathizes with the goal of forcing science to accept the supernatural.

Well, be careful what you wish for - you might get it. I'm sure creationists look forward to using miracles to support their brand of Christianity. What will they do with the cures at Lourdes? What will they do when a Christian prays over a sick person and nothing happens, but a Wiccan or shaman performs a ritual and the person gets well? What would they say to the survivor of the Khmer Rouge massacres in Cambodia who said "Lord Buddha saved us?" Why was the mosque the only building to survive the 2004 tsunami in Banda Aceh, Indonesia? What if the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster starts claiming miracles? (And you can be absolutely certain there are already people who believe in a literal Flying Spaghetti Monster. Because as the Age of the Internet shows, human stupidity is a hole with no bottom.)

So if the creationists ever move beyond that initial stage, what next? Behe will surely object to the next level of crank science, say a young earth, and will be swept aside. He's served his purpose and will no longer be needed. Behe's future has already been captured on film. In the film The Last Emperor, Henry Pu Yi has been made puppet emperor of Manchuria by the Japanese. Unfortunately, he made the fatal mistake of thinking that because they gave him an office and a title, that he actually has real influence. During a meeting, he gives a speech on the need for the Chinese and Japanese to treat each other with mutual respect. The Japanese simply glare at him, get up, and stalk out of the room. And if Behe thinks his present utility to the creationist movement gives him any more real influence than that, he's equally mistaken.

So we're left with the question, what's the point of this book?

It's a little like finding out an attorney specializes exclusively in defending child molesters. (If that analogy offends you, good - it about captures the level of offensiveness in the caricatures of science that Behe sprinkles throughout his book.) Even if the lawyer himself has an absolutely clean record and is working out of idealism rather than just for the money, we're still left with a nagging case of cognitive dissonance - why? We're pretty much forced to conclude the individual has serious authority issues, has a twisted hero complex, enjoys outraging others' sense of decency, or has a hidden - possibly unknown even to himself - sympathy for the offender.

Behe may also be suffering from a malaise I call "counselors' disease," because you encounter it so often in counselors. We might also call it the Myth of Moral Symmetry. It's the notion that, if two parties are in conflict, the truth lies somewhere between the two. If one person says 2+2 = 4 and the other says 2+2=5, then the truth must be that 2+2 = 4.5. I have never seen or heard of a conflict where the truth was halfway between the two sides or even generally in the middle. Every single conflict I have encountered in my personal experience or read about in history has been more like 80% on one side and 20% on the other and a lot are close to 100-0. Maybe Behe feels that between the excesses of creationism on the one hand and the militant atheism of Richard Dawkins on the other, there's a moderate middle ground. When it comes to the science, however, the truth is not "in the middle." It's all on the side of evolution.

The Truth About Intelligent Design

God of the Gaps

On the origins.org site, Robert DiSilvestro offers Rebuttals to Common Criticisms of the Book "Darwin's Black Box. There are far too many such sites to critique them all, but this one contains such a flagrant historical deception it deserves mention.

There is another reason why Dr. Behe's ideas should not be equated to the God of the gaps idea. In the past, the gaps were generally due to lack of information about certain natural processes. In contrast, Dr. Behe's ideas involve processes where we do have information. That information, though not complete, is sufficient to indicate problems with postulating completely naturalistic explanations.

There are two problems with this assertion. First of all, the only difference between Behe and the classical God of the Gaps idea is that Behe's gaps are tinier. He still points to places where there is no information. He never points to a specific chemical reaction and says "We know this happened, but it happened supernaturally."

Second, the God of the Gaps was never about explaining anything and was never about information or the lack of it. The God of the Gaps is the steady retreat of supernaturalism in the face of science. When little was known about the world, everything was supernatural. As early as 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council forbade trial by ordeal because even then, people had realized it was simply silly to expect God, in effect, to answer a subpoena and intervene miraculously in a human court. As more and more phenomena were explained by science, God was pushed into the remaining gaps. Actually, what was pushed into the remaining gaps was not God but the hope that some natural phenomenon would have an inescapably, irrefutably supernatural component that believers would be able to rub their opponents' faces in. Vitalism, the idea that some unexplainable force explained life, was the last significant bastion of possible supernaturalism. Behe simply crams the supernaturalism into very tiny gaps.

So what do we do with God now? Speaking as a religious believer myself, we need to face these realities:


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