Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Michael Behe's Attack on Biblical Creationism

Michael Behe's new book--The Edge of Evolution--has just been published, and the most remarkable feature of the book is his attack on Biblical creationism.

Much of the influence of the "intelligent design" movement has depended on Behe's earlier book, Darwin's Black Box, first published in 1996. This new book elaborates some of the reasoning that was only implicit in his earlier idea of "irreducible complexity" as a sign of intelligent design.

Behe distinguishes three elements of Darwinism--random mutation, natural selection, and common descent. He accepts common descent, including the descent of humans and chimpanzees from common ancestors (72). He also accepts the Darwinian mechanism by which natural selection works on random mutation. But he insists that that mechanism is severely limited in what it can do. The "edge of evolution" is determined by two criteria. The criterion of "steps" says that "the more intermediate evolutionary steps that must be climbed to achieve some biological goal without reaching a net benefit, the more unlikely a Darwinian explanation" (104). The criterion of "coherence" says that random mutation cannot show "a coherent ordering of steps to a goal," which would be a sign of intelligent planning.

Behe's reasoning turns largely on his elaboration of a few examples of how Darwinian mechanisms work in the evolutionary history of malaria, the HIV virus, the E. coli bacterium, and the notothenioid fish in the Antarctic that have evolved to live at subfreezing temperatures.

In the last chapter of the book, Behe incorporates arguments about the "fine-tuning" of the universe and the "anthropic principle" as extending his biological arguments for intelligent design.

As the reviews of this book come out, the reviewers will be identifying some of Behe's scientific errors. (I have already seen advance copies of the reviews by Neil Blackstone for The Quarterly Review of Biology and Sean Carroll for Science.) For example, there is evidence that the cumulative selection for the sequential addition of favorable mutations is far more common than Behe is willing to admit. There is also evidence against Behe's "two-binding-sites rule"--that Darwinian evolution cannot explain protein complexes with more than two binding sites.

In future posts, I will say more about Behe's scientific errors. But what catches my attention now is how strongly he rejects Biblical creationism--particularly, the sort of creationism manifest in Ken Ham's "Creation Museum."

Behe says that to treat the Bible as a "science textbook" is "silly" (166). And in asserting the purely scientific character of intelligent design reasoning, Behe insists that there must be "no relying on holy books or prophetic dreams" (233).

In embracing Darwinian common descent, Behe accepts the idea that human beings evolved from primate ancestors shared with chimpanzees, because he believes that the genetic similarity between human beings and chimps makes this the only reasonable conclusion. So Behe agrees with Darwin's declaration that the human species was "created from animals." (Keep in mind that some public opinion surveys report that the majority of adults in the United States do not believe that human beings evolved from some earlier species.)

Behe believes that intelligent design is required to explain the emergence of the higher taxonomic levels of life--kingdoms, phyla, classes--but not the lower levels--orders, families, genera, species. So it seems that the evolution of species could be fully Darwinian (218).

Behe also doubts the power and morality of the intelligent designer. He concludes that "an intelligent agent deliberately made malaria," and thus the intelligent designer deliberately decided to kill millions of human beings, including innocent children (237). When we see how "horrific" life on earth really is, Behe suggests, we must wonder: "Maybe the designer isn't all that beneficent or omnipotent" (239). After all, the intelligent designer is responsible for creating "nature red in tooth and claw" (43).

Although Behe seems to reject "theistic evolution" in two passages (210, 229), he generally seems to accept it. Consider, for example, the following passages. "The possibility of intelligent design is quite compatible with common descent, which some religious people disdain. What's more, 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 law, with the design of life perhaps packed into its initial set-up" (166). "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. The purposeful design of life is also fully compatible with the idea of universal common descent, one important facet of Darwin's theory" (232).

Proponents of intelligent design theory--particularly, those sponsored by the Discovery Institute--have always tried to distinguish themselves from the Creationists. But Behe's emphatic rejection of Biblical creationism in this book makes me wonder whether we don't see here his reaction against the 2005 court case coming out of Dover, Pennsylvania. He testified in that case in favor of a public school board policy of encouraging biology students to study intelligent design theory. But at the trial, it became clear that the school board members promoting this policy were actually Biblical creationists who thought that intelligent design was virtually the same thing as Biblical creationism. This led Judge John Jones to rule that this policy violated the First Amendment prohibition on government establishment of religion, which became a big loss for the Discovery Institute and the intelligent design movement. Behe's vigorous rejection of Biblical creationism in this new book might reflect his bad experience in that case.

Although I am not fully persuaded by Behe's position, he does lay out his reasoning clearly and forcefully. And he does challenge Darwinian scientists to confront what Darwin himself called the "difficulties" in evolutionary theory.

I have written many posts on this blog related to the creationism/intelligent design arguments. You can also find a pertinent article of mine from way back in 2001 that I wrote for Salon.com. In 2000, my article in First Things on Darwinian conservatism was accompanied by an exchange with Behe and Bill Dembski, which can be found here.

3 comments:

Neil Blackstone said...

I agree with Larry. There is something almost Animal-Farm-esque about The Edge of Evolution. If the manuscript was read blindly by non-scientists, I suspect many of them would think it was written by an evolutionary biologist.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Arnhart writes:
"Behe also doubts the power and morality of the intelligent designer. He concludes that "an intelligent agent deliberately made malaria," and thus the intelligent designer deliberately decided to kill millions of human beings, including innocent children (237). When we see how "horrific" life on earth really is, Behe suggests, we must wonder: "Maybe the designer isn't all that beneficent or omnipotent" (239). After all, the intelligent designer is responsible for creating "nature red in tooth and claw" (43)".

Read Dr. Behe's words for himself on the pages cited by Mr. Arnhart and you'll see, as I just did, that Dr. Behe is both misquoted and misrepresented in the review above.

e.g. on page 239; "But denying design simply because it can cause terrible pain is a failure of nerve, a failure to look the universe fully in the face". In Dr. Behe's view every position on the state or nature of a Designer has at least some real merit except Darwin's position. In no way does this show that Dr. Behe doubts the power or morality of the Designer he sees behind the universe.

I'm not sure Mr. Arnhart read this book.
JS

Larry Arnhart said...

JS,

Would you please explain how I "misquoted and misrepresented" Behe?

The passage you quote on page 239 confirms my point, because Behe says it would be a "failure of nerve" to refuse to consider the possibility that the intelligent designer "isn't all that beneficent or omnipotent."

Wouldn't the Biblical creationist have to reject Behe's suggestion that the intelligent designer is neither good nor omnipotent?