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Monday, August 22, 2005

Michael Behe vs. Charles Darwin

Senator Frist's recent comments confusing "science" and "faith" have focused attention once again on the evolution vs. intelligent design debate. Since the media gives little treatment to the nuances of the arguments, I decided to skim The Origin of Species and read in more detail bio-chemist Michael Behe's 1996 ground-breaking challenge to Darwinism.

I took zoology my freshman year of college, and tortured my future wife by making her listen to my seemingly endless recitations of the Kreb's cycle! However, I don't consider myself an expert on things scientific, science being more of a hobby, one of Robert Frost's "roads not travelled." So, charging-in where angels fear to tread, here's my summary after a quick perusal of Darwin, and a more careful reading of Behe.

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"It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapses of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long past geological ages, that we only see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were." – Charles Darwin, in The Origin of Species, 1859

"While chemists try to test origin-of-life scenarios by experiment or calculation, evolutionary biologists make no attempt to test evolutionary scenarios at the molecular level by experiment or calculation. As a result, evolutionary biology is stuck in the same frame of mind that dominated origin-of-life studies in the early fifties, before most experiments had been done: imagination running wild. Biochemistry has, in fact, revealed a molecular world that stoutly resists explanation by the same theory so long applied at the level of the whole organism...Darwin never imagined the exquisitely profound complexity that exists even at the most basic levels of life." - Michael Behe, in Darwin's Black Box, 1996

Natural selection, based on the struggle for life, is how Charles Darwin, the English naturalist, explained evolution. Now, it is accepted as fact among biologists, not only that there are minor variations within a species, or microevolution, but changes that lead to the creation of new species, called macroevolution.

Lost in the current sound-bite war over evolution vs. intelligent design are the nuances in what is arguably the most scientifically sound critique of macroevolution yet presented. In Michael's Behe's Darwin's Black Box: The Bio-Chemical Challenge to Evolution (The Free Press, 1996), a careful and meticulously documented questioning of Darwinism unfolds with beauty and clarity.

The key to understanding Behe's argument is first understanding who Charles Darwin was. He was a naturalist; he studied birds and insects, especially the variations among them. His theory was based on 19th century science, before the discovery of DNA or most of the inner workings of the cell. The "black box" is Behe's clever expression for any realm of science unaddressed by a theory. This wasn't Darwin's fault, but the science of bio-chemistry, which only began in earnest in the 1950s, has uncovered new findings at the molecular level for which Darwinism has no explanatory power.

Are there things in nature that are "irreducibly complex"? Yes, says Behe. Among several examples he provides is the clotting of blood. There is a "cascade effect" that happens at the bio-chemical level in the human body when we cut ourselves and start to bleed. Immediately, proteins in the blood form something of a chain reaction, allowing blood to clot. It is part of a complex system, and therefore, it is difficult to see how the system could have gradually evolved and still worked to keep people from bleeding. Something is "irreducibly complex" if it has no "functional precursors" (p.43). Importantly, though scientists know much about the clotting of blood, no one has been able to explain how such a complex system could have evolved over time. Bio-chemists give lip service to molecular evolution, but there is no solid research proving that it happens where sytems are irreducibly complex.

The close of Behe's book draws inferences from the direction in which forty years of bio-chemical research points. Irreducible complexity, while it cannot be explained by evolutionary theory, can be explained by "intelligent design." Behe, though Roman Catholic, is careful not to cross the line into theology, refusing to say who the "designer" is. (He even allows the possibility that life on earth is the result of it being sown by aliens!) Shrewdly, he likens intelligent design to the Big Bang, where there are obvious theological implications, but where he believes that scientists should leave the development of those implications to theologians.

Darwin's Black Box has become standard reading by those promoting intelligent design in public schools. Importantly, Behe distances himself from young-earth Creationists, i.e. those who see the universe has having been created by God in six 24-hour periods. He sees no problem in saying that complex systems were put into place by a designer billions of years ago. He is careful to maintain a traditional definition of science as limited to the examination of the natural world, and would no doubt be confused like the rest of us by Senator Frist seemingly equating faith and science.

Behe's book is well-done. He sets-off more technical discussions from the easier parts of his argument, and one can easily follow the gist even if you skim the diagrams of molecules, or just glance at the drawings of cellular infrastructure. If you want to make sense of the current ID debate, Darwin's Black Box is a good place to start.

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This essay has been double-posted to Tacitus.

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