Christian Century on Latest Behe Book

Christian Century has a review of Michael Behe, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, by Joan Roughgarden, professor of biological sciences at Stanford.

ID is commingled with creationism, even though it is different. Unlike creationists, ID proponents accept the old age of the earth, acknowledge that all life—including humans and apes—share descent from common ancestry, reject the idea that species are specially created, and do not regard the Bible as scientifically meaningful. Nonetheless, ID and creationism are joined at the hip because ID proponents ally themselves with creationists for fund-raising, publicity, politics and legal strategizing.

Behe’s new book recasts the ID position. Gone is the focus on irreducibly complex structures; in its place is a concern for the rate and randomness of genetic mutation. Most of the book is about the implications of genetic mutation. Behe argues that the occurrence of structures with three or more different kinds of proteins is beyond “what is biologically reasonable to expect Darwinian evolution to have accomplished in all of life in all of the billion-year history of the world.” …

Discussion of these issues is certain to be eclipsed by the gladiatorial spectacle of scientists behaving badly. Behe attacks by name biologists Kenneth Miller, Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins, among others. Perhaps not surprisingly, these scientists have responded vehemently in their reviews of Behe’s book. This conduct cannot increase respect and appreciation for science in the general public. Dawkins has yet to acknowledge his own direct responsibility for the existence of the ID theory. Phillip Johnson founded the present-day ID movement by writing Darwin on Trial (1993) in response to the ideology of selfishness and militant atheism that Dawkins preaches in The Selfish Gene (1976) and more recently in The God Delusion (2006). With both sides poisoning each other’s wells, it’s tempting to run away lest one be slaughtered as collateral damage.

Flawed as it is, Behe’s book makes four constructive points. First, Behe makes it clear that all of life is united through descent from common ancestors—evolution is real and true. I imagine that one could even introduce this book as testimony at a curriculum hearing in Kansas to show that creationism is not a viable alternative to evolution. Second, he has replaced his early naive claims about irreducible complexity with a more sophisticated argument about whether sufficient genetic variation exists upon which natural selection can act. (I would argue, however, that sufficient variation almost surely does exist, especially when mutations accumulate consecutively and genetic modules are rearranged and repackaged.)

Third, Behe has introduced a glimmer of an idea of how to test the ID theory by arguing that the moments in history when the higher organisms (according to the Linnaean classification system) originated were marked by bursts of nonrandom mutation. This is an empirical claim that can be tested, although not easily. (Discovering that the emergence of higher organisms coincides with anomalous bursts of directed mutation would support the ID position without falsifying Darwinism, because Darwinism takes no position on what causes the variations on which natural selection acts.) Fourth, Behe endorses a strong version of theistic evolution, one that many scientists will find innocuous: “The purposeful design of life to any degree is easily compatible with the idea that, after its initiation, the universe unfolded exclusively by the intended playing out of natural laws.” Thus Behe rejects the need for miracles or any other divine intervention during the course of evolution according to ID. Indeed, some Christians will find this position too hands-off—one that views God as too remote to matter in our everyday lives.

At this point, one might wonder what all the fuss is about. If Behe is not claiming either divine intervention or miracles, then the dispute between ID and Darwinism comes down to arguing about genetic details of interest mainly to professional biologists. I’d like to think that The Edge of Evolution marks the beginning of a midcourse correction for ID proponents. If so, I welcome it.

I’m glad she recognizes his evolutionary convictions. Atheistic evolutionists brand Behe a “creationist” simply because he wants to see God as involved somewhere (even if increasingly remotely) in the process. I would ask, on the other hand, whether Creationists should not reconsider if they really want to be allied with Behe for “fund-raising, publicity, politics and legal strategizing,” when he is, at heart, an evolutionist, accepting that man and other animals share common ancestry.

Where do we cut the loaf? Is it at involvement of a remote God, or at common ancestry? I’d argue the latter. Behe makes some points that are interesting, and which Creationist scientists might want to pursue–but they should not see him (as Dover did) as the savior of Creationism. He sounds more and more like a Deist (like the retired Vatican astronomer, George Coyne, SJ).