Another Look at Michael Behe and “Intelligent Design”

In 1996 Michael J. Behe sprung the term “intelligent design” on the scientific world with the publication of Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. I recently reread it for the first time in about ten years; I’d forgotten many of Behe’s arguments. I’ve twice been part of Veritas Forum organizing committees that have hosted him as a speaker, at UCSB and Rice University; the illustrations that have stuck in my mind from his lectures are the mousetrap (pp. 42ff) and the bacterial flagellum (pp. 70ff). As a biochemist, he is in awe of the complexity of cell structures and operations, and of the interdependence of complex systems, but he wants to focus on what he terms “irreducible complexity,” the lowest level to which a system can be reduced and still function. Much of the book consists of numerous illustrations of his basic motto, “Things are more complicated than they seem” (p. 89).

Behe also argues that evolutionary theory rarely bothers to try to show how natural selection could have produced that complexity. He documents this latter claim effectively. He notes that of thousands of articles on cilia in scientific journals, only two discussed their possible evolution (p. 68). He surveys the Journal of Molecular Evolution, published since 1971, and a couple dozen biochemistry textbooks, all of which avoid the topic (pp. 165ff, 182). “The theory of Darwinian molecular evolution has not published,” he concludes, “and so it should perish” (p. 186).

But Behe hasn’t published his theories in peer reviewed journals, either, as his most strident critics note with a degree of satisfaction.[1] And would his philosophical arguments be accepted in a biochemistry journal? He asserts that “irreducibly complex systems … cannot evolve in a Darwinian fashion” (p. 110); their very existence is an argument in favor of design, which he says is “evident when a number of separate, interacting components are ordered in such a way as to accomplish a function beyond the individual components” (p. 194). He postulates existence of a Designer, but reserves the right not to identify any candidates (p. 196). Should this form of argument be considered “science,” or “philosophy of science”? I’m inclined to the latter. Behe himself doesn’t answer the question, though he suggests that if science is going to put the issue on the back burner, scientists shouldn’t complain if philosophers and theologians go ahead and tackle the issue, “reserv[ing] the right to jump back into the conversation when science has something more to add” (p. 251).

I’m disappointed in the tone of the conversation. His gratuitous swipes at Richard Dawkins (p. 48, 250), while responding to nasty invective initiated by Dawkins (p. 250), have only led to further acerbic response from Dawkins.[2] So much for scientific objectivity.[3]

Behe and his opponents seem to shoot past each other. I recall one of his critics (it may have been Dawkins, but I don’t have the quote handy) saying Behe raised Darwin’s connection about the evolution of the eye, but didn’t pay attention to Darwin’s answer. But Behe did—he noted that Darwin just put current examples of eyes in order and suggested that was the path evolution took; Darwin’s problem, says Behe, was in underestimating the complexity of the cells involved (pp. 15ff; pp. 36ff). His critics’ response to the flagellum is that yes, it did evolve—while at a simpler level it wouldn’t have been a flagellum, it still would have had a useful function. Behe had addressed this objection (pp. 66, 68).

Though Behe’s arguments have been adopted by Creationists, he is not one. “I have no reason to doubt that the universe is … billions of years old,” he says, and “I find the idea of common descent … fairly convincing” (p. 5). I’d go so far as to say he’s even more of a Deist than a theistic evolutionist, as seems evident from these statements in his latest book, The Edge of Evolution:

“… Although some religious thinkers envision active, continuing intervention in nature, intelligent design is quite compatible with the view that the universe operates by unbroken natural laws, with the design of life perhaps packed into its initial set-up.”[4]

“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. [It] is also fully compatible with the idea of universal common descent….”[5]

Biologist Joan Roughgarden of Stanford University quotes the second statement in a review and asks, “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”[6].


[1] Richard Dawkins, “Inferior Design,” New York Times (July 1, 2007); http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/01/books/review/Dawkins-t.html. Behe says Dawkins quip is a case of the pot calling the kettle black; http://www.amazon.com/gp/blog/post/PLNK1LX6R18AF0EE6.

[2] Dawkins, “Inferior Design.”

[3] Another reviewer says, “With both sides poisoning each other’s wells, it’s tempting to run away lest one be slaughtered as collateral damage.” Joan Roughgarden, “A Matter of Mutation: The Evolution of Intelligent Design,” Christian Century (October 30, 2007); http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=3777.

[4] Michael Behe, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (New York: Free Press, 2007; paperback edition, 2008), p. 166

[5] Ibid., p. 232.

[6] Roughgarden, “A Matter of Mutation.”

5 thoughts on “Another Look at Michael Behe and “Intelligent Design”

  1. Another example of the acrimony of this discussion. Another example of an evolutionist who can’t see that Behe is one of their own, and not a Creationist.

  2. For the life of me, I cannot figure out Behe’s agenda. He seems kind of schizophrenic to me! I have “Darwin’s Black Box” on my reading list, but have not tackled it yet. I appreciate the idea that he introduced irreducible complexity, but realize he is probably not where I am in my thinking about creation/evolution.

    On another note, having him write in a peer-reviewed journal about ID would be akin to Winston Churchill writing for a Nazi newspaper. In other words: it’s not going to happen.

    Behe’s views are so contradictory to the evolution-driven scientific journals of the day, and his name is so infamous, that these journals would not touch an article by him with a ten-foot pole. Thus, the claim that Behe, et. al, have not been published in these journals is somewhat circular. Their science has not been in peer-reviewed journals because those peer-reviewed journals will not publish them. Just read what happened to Richard Sternberg by the Smithsonian Institute when such an undertaking was pursued.

  3. “Just read what happened to Richard Sternberg by the Smithsonian Institute when such an undertaking was pursued.”

    Nothing happened to Sternberg unless you count being asked to return his overdue library books and properly curate the Institute’s specimens. He knew full well that the Meyer paper was inadequate which explains his end around of the peer review process. Behe doesn’t publish because there is nothing there to publish. When a plausible natural explanation for one of his “irreducble structures” is proposed he just moves on to the next one. Unexplained phenomenon defaults to “don’t know” not to design.

  4. I’m out of town, and so not able to blog much this week. But this is an important point. Shawn, there’s lots of info about this case on-line, and I think Sternberg’s case is very weak.

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