Michael Behe – The Edge of Evolution

November 09, 2007

Michael J. Behe, a central figure in the Intelligent Design movement, is professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. He is the author of Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution and most recently The Edge of Evolution: Searching for the Limits of Darwinism.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Behe discusses his prominent role in the ID movement, and how he first got involved. He explores the differences between creationism and Intelligent Design theory, and details some of his experiences as a key witness for the defense in the Dover, Pennsylvania Intelligent Design trial. He also explains the thesis of his new book, and talks about what he considers the biases of mainstream science.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, November 9th, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe fee point of inquiries, the radio show, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing science reason and secular values in public affairs. This week’s guest is a central figure in the intelligent design creationism movement. And it’s kind of a departure for point of inquiry because most of our guests are thought leaders on the secular pro science side of the fence. Before we get to Michael Behe, here’s a word from this week’s sponsor. 

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I’m happy to have Michael Behe on today’s show. He’s a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. He’s a big advocate of the idea that some structures in biology are too complex at the biochemical level to be adequately explained by Darwin’s theory of evolution. He joins me on the show to talk about his new book, The Edge of Evolution The Search for the Limits of Darwinism. Welcome to a point of inquiry, Professor Michael Behe. 

Thanks for having me, Professor. 

I want to talk with you about your book, The Edge of Evolution. But I also want to talk with you in general about the intelligent design movement in your central role in it. To start off, why don’t you tell me exactly what intelligent design theory is and how it’s different from creationism if it’s different? Many of my good friends in the science education field equate these two things. They contend that ideas just kind of a rebranding of creationism to make it more palatable. 

Yeah, that’s that’s a common misconception from my point of view. 

Well, intelligent design is just the contention that some things in nature are better explained as the result of the action of an intelligent agent rather than from laws and chants and so on. I think the paradigmatic example is Mount Rushmore. I mean, if you take a look at mountains, then you take a look at Mount Rushmore, you immediately realize that, hey, something’s going on here. Those faces didn’t get there by just natural law as they got there by intelligent activity. And the way I see it, the difference between intelligent design and creationism is is kind of a starting point in my mind. Creationists start from scripture, from some revelation or holy book, and then they go out into the world and seek evidence that will shore up their their interpretation of the scripture. Whereas as I see it, intelligent design simply goes out and looks at the natural world and tries to come up with the best explanation for that. So ideas starts with nature and creationism starts with a revelation. 

But isn’t the intelligent designer that ideas getting at you? You say it starts with nature, but ends up an intelligent designer. Isn’t that obviously God, the God of Western theism? You’re a Christian. You’re kind of out as a Christian and you appear to kind of be on God’s side against all these atheistic scientists, some of your colleagues in the AIDS movement. They’ve conceded that the designer they’re talking about is actually the God of the Bible of scripture. 

Well, that’s who they think it is. Sure. But you’ve got to be careful when you’re talking about fundamental questions like this. There’s always a propensity to kind of jump to conclusions. No, I wrote Darwin’s Black Box in which I made a case for intelligent design at biochemical level. But none of those biochemical machines that I wrote about in that book is stamped with the name of the entity that designed it. Before that, I happened to be a Roman Catholic. I was raised a Roman Catholic. Still am. So it’s, of course, natural for me to kind of connect to things. But you have to realize that the connection hasn’t been made by the data. It’s got to be made by an argument. 

And it’s true that most folks in the I.D. movement are Christian of various stripes or in other or theists, at least of various of stripes are another. 

Why? Why do you think that is? You’re not allowing that they started with their Christianity and kind of ended up with intelligent design. 

Well, many actually didn’t. 

I didn’t in a sense. And a couple of other guys I know pretty well didn’t neither. Bill Damski, Jonathan Wells. 

I am a Roman Catholic, but I was taught Darwin’s theory in parochial school and we were taught that God created the universe and he could create laws any way he’d like. 

And if he wanted to use secondary causes to make life, then who were we to tell him differently? And I always thought that was a fine explanation. I, I didn’t give two hoots about evolution. It was only later when I started to doubt that Darwinian processes could actually do what was claimed for them. That I began to become more interested in intelligent design. So. Intelligent design did not grow straight from religious convictions, as matter fact, my religious convictions. If I was shown to be wrong tomorrow with my I.D. ideas, then I could comfortably go back to, say, a position like, say, Kenneth Miller at Brown University, biology professor who is a theistic evolutionist and kind of the way I was thinking, thinks God made the laws of nature. And then everything unfolded from there. 

We started out by drawing distinctions between creationism and intelligent design. And those distinctions are controversial in the science education field I mentioned. You’re a Christian, but you’re not a creationist. You believe in a lot of the claims of evolution. In fact, you say in this book The Edge of Evolution, that it can account for the diversity of life at the species level, even maybe the genus the family levels, too. You buy into the common descent, our notion of all animals on the planet. Also, you you believe that the universe is as amazingly old as the cosmologists and the the astrophysicists say that’s the opposite of a lot of these Christian activists who hold you up as their poster boys. Not the right way to say it, but they you know, they hold you up as an authority to shore up their position. 

Well, I always like to be held up. I mean, unless this by a burglar. Well, you know, what can I say? 

I mean, I always make it clear even to groups. I’d say younger Earth creationists or others where I stand in regard to other issues. 

So just to be clear there, you obviously believe that the young Earth creationists are completely wrong. 

Yes, I do. Well, it depends on what you mean by completely. But I certainly don’t think the Earth is as young as they do. And I certainly agree with him, though, that there is a God behind nature. 

And so, Professor, do you mind talking a little bit about how you got involved in the ideas movement? I’m fascinated by this narrative. We had Francis Collins on. He he kind of talked about his story, how he became convinced of his position. And I think our our listeners would be interested in. 

Well, sure. Yeah. As I as I mentioned, I I was brought up and for a long time believed that Darwinian processes produce life. That’s what my teachers told me. I had no reason to to think differently. Right. 

The Vatican has an official statement supporting the idea of evolution, saying that it’s not incompatible with their their brand of fiat. 

That’s correct. That’s correct. And so, yeah. So Roman Catholics never really had the difficulties with evolution that other brands of Christianity did. But anyway. Yes. But I guess the turning point for me was when I read a book called Evolution A Theory in Crisis by a man named Michael Denton, who was an Australian geneticist. And I read the book in the late 1980s. 

And at the time, Denton was an agnostic, but he was just kind of fed up with what he saw as Darwinism, claiming to explain more than he thought it could. And I read his book and it was kind of an eye opener. I had never read a scientist attacking Darwin’s theory before, and it intrigued me. And so I it caused me to see if I knew as much about evolution as I thought I did. And as a biochemist, you routinely study amazingly complicated systems in the cell. And so. 

But sorry. But as a biochemist, you don’t or as a chemist, you don’t really get into evolution like a somewhat like an evolutionary biologist. 

Yes, that’s right. That’s right. So so I wasn’t relying on just my knowledge. I wanted to go see who in the evolutionary biology literature might have explained some of these complex systems and how they might have come about by Darwinian or other processes. 

And so I went over to the library, kind of I was kind of thinking there are probably, you know, a couple dozen papers and they might be in general terms. And I was going to see if they were really as tight as I thought they might be. But I was I was astonished to see that there were virtually no papers that tried to explain these complex systems. Everybody just simply assumed that Darwinian processes were the way that those systems got here. And it took it for granted and went from there. 

And they, you know, would do sequence comparisons of proteins, which is how you can tell how related a couple of organisms are. And they did a lot of things. Some of them very interesting. But nobody asked the 64000 dollar question of how random mutation and natural selection could build. What was. 

Increasingly being seen as as a whole lot more complex basis of life, cellular life than than we had suspected, and that led to you getting more involved in the I.T. movement, per say, or this kind of activist slash intellectual, I guess, this movement of Christian activists who are trying to overturn some of the ways we do society, and especially in terms of teaching evolution in the schools. You coauthored the textbook of pandas and people, for instance, right? 

Well, that is kind of an exaggeration to say I coauthored that. I wrote about five pages worth of edits, probably a 200 page book. I read a little section on blood clotting. 

But I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. The way you put it, it seems to you I think you’re kind of reading backwards history backwards into a. That the guy who kind of brought everybody together was a man named Phillip Johnson, who was a universal California law professor, had to buy his own route, came to doubt that Darwin’s theory was correct. And most of us were interested in pursuing the argument at the university level. Nobody nobody cared at that point about what was being taught in in public schools. We were all focused on our own colleagues. We were all professors or or academics of some sort. And so when we got together in the early 90s or so, the focus was on how best to present this argument to two colleagues. 

And so the focus was work on writing books directed for, you know, the educated public and hope to change minds by persuasion because it was Philip Johnson’s position that the academy had there to, for Ben, kind of off limits for this kind of argumentation, that it was very taboo to get into exploring these subjects in the universities. 

Yeah, that that’s certainly true. And I think I agree with him. You you don’t really talk much about religion in today’s academy. And I it’s it’s it’s a touchy subject. Even if you can’t talk about it, you’ve got to kind of watch what you say. 

And and so a lot of the force for our convictions is that we thought that Darwin’s theory in academia was being supported a whole lot more by philosophical underpinnings, that this is the way we think in the 20th century. We don’t, you know, invoke intelligent design. We talk about material causes and less by actual experimental results. 

So if there could have been this A.I. I.D. bias or at least this kind of closed door mentality in the academy to exploring these kinds of questions, well, you’ve had a lot of success over the past decade or so, a little longer than that in in brains, some of these issues up. But even with all that success, it hasn’t seemed to change the academy’s mind too much. Even your own biology department at Lehigh University, where your professor has an official statement that it’s their position that idee has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally and should not be regarded as scientific. Do you chalk that position up to just more of this a.d.a academic bias that the scientific community just is unwilling or it’s it’s not ready to humbly consider your argument? 

Crumbley, consider. Yeah, I do. As fatter of fact, the statement that you read at is on the Lehigh University Biology Department website contains absolutely no arguments. It’s just essentially a pledge of allegiance to Darwin’s theory. 

And in these days of increased communication among among people with the Internet and so on. My position, my my notoriety, we’re kind of getting rubbed off on my colleagues. So a lot of my colleagues were getting harassing emails from people across the country saying, do you agree with this crazy guy, B and his Lihi going to turn into some Bible college or what? And so they wanted to let people know that, in fact, their own position did not coincide with mine. And I I agreed with them that they should put up some some statements saying that that they didn’t agree with this. But if you don’t do this. If you don’t. If you don’t hop on the bandwagon or if you’re seen as perhaps sympathetic to I.D., there are people out in the country who will send you e-mails, who will harass you, who will call your department chairman and and so on. And it’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is these days. 

I’ve been on the other end of that, there are ideas, theorists or kind of activists, evangelical Christian type activists to get up in arms when we put on an event debating these kinds of questions on campuses. So I think there’s enough blame in that in that way to go around. You just mentioned your notoriety and how it caused some ups and downs there at Lehigh. That brings up the question of peer review. Here’s how Jim Underdown don’t you think that any scientists out there worth his or her salt would jump at the chance to follow the evidence, even your evidence where it leads and not be afraid of your notoriety, not be afraid of, you know, causing waves of rocking the boat? Because, I mean, that’s really at its best. That’s what we hear. Science is all about that. One of the best things about science is that it’s so antiauthoritarian. Regardless of going against the stream, the best ideas are supposed to come to the top, no matter what. The old scientists are always proven wrong by younger ones. Incorrect theories are always jettison for new ones supported by better evidence. So Professor B he have. Have you allowed for the possibility that you could just be plumb wrong? Isn’t it plausible at least, that you’re not published in any peer reviewed science journals because the science doesn’t measure up? 

No, I mean, it’s certainly possible that I’m wrong. Being human and so on. But I have to make up my own mind about that. And so far, with all the reviews of my book and all the arguments and all the back and forth about intelligent design that has occurred over the past decade and more, I have not seen a scientific argument which answers my scientific doubts about about Darwinism and which shows me how such such intricate structures as have been discovered in the cell could be put together without some directing, some intelligent agent influencing the event. So I think you’re you’re wrong that scientists would leap at the opportunity to do something like delve into intelligent design if they if they thought it was correct. I think there’s there’s a whole lot of sociological factors at work here. And and that, in fact, I’ve read essays by people saying that even if the are all the evidence pointed to intelligent design, we should not follow that evidence. We should look elsewhere because intelligent design equals something supernatural in their minds. 

And science, by definition, can’t investigate the supernatural. So I think I I disagree with your premise there. Mm hmm. 

So to talk about some of the claims in your book and maybe if we have time, we can finish up by talking some more about your experiences in the Idee movement. Maybe we’ll get to the Kitzmiller trial a bit. But to talk about your book, a lot of the reviews that I’ve read of your book kind of challenge your biases more than challenging the thesis of your book. So let’s talk about your argument. Seems to me that you’re expecting from the very beginning Darwinians to kind of give a complete explanation of evolution or at least how evolution explains how we got here step by step and when they don’t. Well, you kinda you kind of cry foul and say they’re for evolution because it has this incomplete knowledge is wrong. But ideas theorists are often tasked with maybe in the scientific literature, as I just suggested, with providing a complete explanation of precisely how an intelligent designer created these complex structures and are unable to do that. What do you say to those who challenge you when they say that your position is just negative? It’s just kind of arguing against a position evolution rather than arguing for a position intelligent design? 

Well, you have to. 

You have to make a lot of distinctions in this area. You can really get confused if you don’t. First of all, as you realize, I don’t argue against evolution. I argue against Darwinism or random evolution. And in this in this matter of me challenging those guys to to draw a Darwinian pathway for some complex system. But then me not saying how it might be designed. You have to realize that the I think the explanatory tasks are not symmetrical because it is the appearance of design that everybody is trying to explain. That’s what. Darwin tried to explain. If you if you read Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, he’s saying that evolution explains what looks like a watch. It explains the appearance of design. It explains what William Paley took to be the design of God’s design. So we’re not trying to explain the appearance of random mutation and natural selection. We’re trying to explain how something appears to be designed. And one way something might appear to be designed is if it was, in fact, designed. So the contenders. Darwin’s theory, self organization. Other stuff they have to. They have the onus of showing that they can mimic the appearance of design. The only actual force that we know that can produce design is an intelligent agent. All the other theories are simply claims. And then when they fail to make good on their claims, I think it’s logit for an I.D. proponent like me to say, well, since we deduce design from the appearance of design and then if there are no other explanations, we’re justified in concluding designs. 

But just because scientists don’t know the answer to how many of these specific things evolve, it doesn’t follow that God or an intelligent designer did it. At least that’s, you know, how the argument goes. This is the old God of the gaps argument. How do you avoid that accusation that you’re just filling gaps in and our knowledge with an intelligent designer? How do you keep that from sticking? 

Well, I try to point out that we don’t deduce design from what we don’t know. We deduce design from what we do know when when the cell was thought to be a whole lot simpler than it’s now known to be. It was lot easier to think that a process like Darwinian evolution could could could build life back in the fifties. And so when enzymes were thought to be relatively simple things and you might have one DNA polymerase or couple enzymes in a cell. Darwin’s theory could maybe still handle those. But now we’ve got, you know, dozens of different enzymes that do all sorts of specific jobs back in Darwin’s day. This cell was thought to be just a little blob of protoplasm, kind of like some electrified jelly. It was easy to think that Darwin’s theory might explain electrified jelly. It’s a whole lot harder to think. It explains nano sized automated factory, which the cell is now known to be. 

It is true that science keeps uncovering new knowledge, and with all new knowledge comes new questions. But it just seems to me that more gaps in our knowledge. You’re just rushing more God in those gaps. If you don’t mind, Professor, I want to just get back to your involvement in the ideas movement before we finish up. You were a key witness in the Kitzmiller I.D. trial in Pennsylvania couple years ago. How do you think your testimony went? I really wanna get into the implications of that trial. 

Well, personally, myself, I thought my testimony went great. I thought I explained myself well, I thought I responded well to cross-examination. I thought I was a good witness during direct examination. 

I went over all of the points I wanted to and I thought I made them clear enough so that even a former liquor control board head could could understand it. After my appearance on the stand, when I was done, a number of reporters and other folks who didn’t have, you know, any particular stake in this, you know, told me the dates had I had done well. So from what went on inside the courtroom, I thought I thought it went well. 

So you think the reports of you’re not doing so well is just kind of bad PR or. Yes, I do know that at one point you mentioned that there were no answers in evolution to how the immune system evolved. And then there was kind of this dramatic gotcha moment where a big stack of papers on that subject were plopped down. 

Well, it was it was a completely manufactured moment. None of those papers were you know, my my point was there are no papers in the immune immunology literature which show how the immune system could evolve by random mutation and natural selection. And I still maintain that all of those papers that they plopped down in some kind of a grade B movie drama, drama. None of them had answers to that question, but the judge didn’t know that. Well, what’s the judge know about immunology? And I when the when the attorneys were put placing these papers in a big immunology Texas stack, six immunology techs on the stand, and even in the best of circumstances, maybe one percent of the text has anything to do with evolution. It has mostly to do with immunology. But nonetheless, they were putting on a show. 

You mentioned the judge not being an expert in immunology, obviously. But he listened to all the evidence and he concluded in kind of a breathtaking decision against ideas. Do you think that there’s going to be long term consequences of his decision? Is it back to the drawing board, so to speak, strategically for the I.D. theory activists out there? 

No, I actually don’t think so. And one reason is that if you go and read his decision, Judge Jonesborough decision, you’ll find out it’s almost identical to a document submitted to Judge Jones by the plaintiff’s attorney. About a month before he issued his own decision. 

That’s a pretty serious charge. 

Well, it’s already on the Internet. I mean, you can go look it up. And Discovery Institute has done analysis and so on. You know, apparently it’s not not even frowned upon for four judges to just copy documents from the lawyers that submit them to him. I guess that gets the legal profession out of some work. But it’s not considered unethical or anything. But in fact, the document that he signed off on was 90 percent written by the plaintiffs attorneys. And it begs the question of whether the judge even understood any of the arguments that went on in his courtroom. 

A lot of pundits, a lot of people who followed this decision, a lot of people in the science education movement do see real implications for the teaching of evolution in the schools based on this decision. Have you changed your mind at all about I.D. in the science classroom, evolution in the science classroom? There are activists. Most of them are these kind of evangelical Christian activists who work really hard to keep evolution from even being taught in the schools. Do you think it should be gutted from the science curriculum? Should it be taught alongside I.D.? What’s your position on that as kind of a leading figure in the AIDS movement? 

Well, actually, I wrote an op ed piece through The New York Times on exactly that subject back in 1999, and I believe it was. I have it up here on my wall. It’s called Teach Evolution and Ask Hard Questions. It was written when there was a kind of dust up going on in Kansas about the teaching of evolution. And in the op ed piece, I write what I think should be done. And I say there’s a lot of you know, you have to teach evolution. It explains a lot of things. It’s true. But there’s a lot of big questions in evolution that currently are kind of glossed over. And children are actually being misled by current biology teaching into thinking that we know a whole lot more about how life got here than we really do. So I certainly think evolution should be taught, but I think it should be taught warts and all. 

And too often these days, biology textbooks see it as their role to be cheerleaders for Darwin’s theory of evolution rather than in making their students into critical evaluators of of facts. 

So you don’t stand with other I.D. theorists, activists, creationists out there also who say evolution should be gutted from the curriculum? 

No, of course not. 

Professor Behe, we’ve had a discussion about your role in the ideas movement, some of the social implications of I.D. in terms of science education. Let’s finally talk a little bit more about your book. Your main thesis in the age of evolution is that Darwinian evolution does actually explain a whole lot about life, but it doesn’t do at all. There are limits to evolution. And you suggest that there must be a supernatural guide at nonrandom development of life. How is this book different from Darwin’s black box or does it build upon that thesis? 

Yeah, I think it does build upon Darwin’s black box. Darwin’s black box. Ask the question or made the argument that there is a there are at least some structures in biology that required. Elegant design and the edge of evolution says, well, some require design. But not all require design. So where is the kind of line between the two, between what requires help and and what doesn’t? What can get by with random mutation and natural selection? 

And do you explore what that mechanism is on the other side of that line that allows for change to happen without evolution? 

No, no. This this book is about evaluating evolution and how much Darwinian processes can do. So it does not, you know, try to nail down the design or anything like that. 

Would you say this book is more an anti evolution book or approach ideas book? 

Oh, hey, I think. 

I think it’s mostly a science book. It’s not A.I.. It’s not an anti science book that, say, tries to look for the limits to Newton’s theory of of gravity. And so I don’t consider it an anti science book to ask the question, how much can random mutation and natural selection do? It’s just investigating the natural world. So I consider it a science book in that respect and with philosophical overtones that I go into. 

Last question, Professor Behe. You’re not a theologian, but we do talk about religion a lot on the show. So I want to talk with you to finish up about some of the, I think, theological implications of what you’re saying in the edge of evolution. You suggest near the end that malaria, which kills millions of people each year, is intelligently designed, that evolution can’t account for malaria. Right. So do you expect the pages of a science journal to discuss who designed malaria or even to get into, you know, what kind of ethics that this designer must have if it’s killing so many innocent people? These are theological implications to your thesis. In other words, that’s that’s the point I’m making. 

Yeah, well, if there are theological implications and they should be discussed in theology journals. But, you know, a lot of scientific theories have extra scientific implications. You know, Einstein’s theory of relativity. Darwin’s theory of evolution. The Big Bang Theory. 

So, sir, do you want to hazard a guess? What kind of ethics does this intelligent design or have if he designed malaria rather than evolving for some impersonal natural selection of random mutations? 

Well, I think that I’d say, well, I’m a Roman Catholic. 

I think it’s completely consistent with a benign God, whether the urine designer I one can if if malaria parasites are doing, you know, beneficial things in the, you know, cycle of of of nature in the biosphere, then one could always argue that the sickness that afflicts humans is a an unintended side product of something. That is when you look at the big picture. Good. 

In other words, it’s all part of God’s plan. Yeah, that’s right. 

Professor, on that note. Thanks so much for joining me on Point of Inquiry. I enjoyed the back and forth, OK. 

Same here. Nice to talk with you. 

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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry and I’d like to especially thank Nick Matzke, formerly of the National Center for Science Education, for help in exploring some of these issues in Michael B. his book to get involved with an online conversation about today’s episode On the Edge of Evolution. Join us on our online discussion. Forums are growing online community at CFI dash forums dot org. Views expressed on board of inquiry don’t necessarily reflect CFI views, nor the views of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiries produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Kurtz Point of Inquiries Music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Frailing. 

Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. And I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.