The C-Files: Michael Behe
Michael Behe's New Mexico Blitz...
Behe at UNM ... Behe at Calvary ... Behe at LANL ... Behe Links
Our Favorite Michael Behe
Intelligent Design is "Mystical"...
Amanda Onion of ABC News writes on April 1, 2002 "...Unlike past movements to include the biblical theory of creation in school's science plans, proponents of Intelligent Design deny their agenda is a religious one. Behe explains the theory points out weaknesses in Darwin's theory of evolution and tries to present the "best explanation of how the world got here." The fact that the theory's explanation is mystical, says Behe, is beside the point. ..."
BEHE AT UNM (University of New Mexico)
[From NMSR Reports March, 2002, Vol. 8, No.
by Dave Thomas : nmsrdaveATswcp.com (Help fight SPAM! Please replace the AT with an @ )
Michael Behe, Dr. "Irreducible Complexity" himself, the star of the Intelligent Design movement's biochemical wing, spoke in New Mexico from March 4th through the 6th. He talked on March 4th at the Anthropology Lecture Hall at UNM, on March 5th at Sandia Labs and at New Mexico Tech in Socorro, and on March 6th at Calvary Chapel in Albuquerque. Behe is a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, and is the author of Darwin's Black Box.
I attended the UNM lecture, and listened to the Calvary talk on radio station KNKT 107.1 FM. I taped both, and the quotes that follow have been transcribed as accurately as possible from the tapes.
Behe's UNM talk began with a discussion of the eye. He explained how light-sensitive cells could form concave depressions, allowing the organism to sense the direction of light. He even talked about how a crude gel lens might form, improving image sensing greatly. But the problem for evolution, he said, was in how the light sensitive cells themselves came about. Behe discussed the intricate series of reactions common to light-detecting cells. These cells are examples of what Behe calls "Irreducible Complexity." An "Irreducibly Complex" structure has multiple parts that interact, and the system requires the presence of each and every part. Behe says such systems cannot evolve according to Darwin's theories, as their precursors would necessarily have lacked the vital multi-part function.
Behe showed a Gary Larsen cartoon showing a jungle explorer caught up in a vine/tree-limb trap. Behe said of the trap "This was designed. This was not an accident. ... how do you know that it was designed? Is it a religious conclusion? Probably not. You know this was designed because you see a number of different parts interacting with each other to perform a function. If you throw one of the parts away, it will no longer work. Essentially you see something like what I mean by irreducible complexity. ...Let's face it, this is not a really hard concept to understand. If you can explain your main idea with a Far Side cartoon, we're not talking quantum physics here...." [Behe has been using this same cartoon for years...]
Behe spent considerable time discussing critics of his views. But he only gave the briefest of mentions of critics who have discussed serious biochemical problems with his claims, such as Rob Pennock (Tower of Babel) and Ken Miller (Finding Darwin's God). Instead, he focused mainly on Prof. John McDonald, who has posted an Internet web page on Behe and mousetraps [recently UPDATED!], Behe's classical analogue for "Irreducible Complexity." McDonald showed how the mousetrap could be simplified, one part at a time, until the working trap could consist of just a spring; no plate, hammer, connecting rod or other components are needed. McDonald's point was that mousetraps can be "reduced," and thus are not irreducibly complex. But Behe made a big point about the system not being able to run in reverse. Starting with the one-part trap, the spring, Behe said, the next "step" in McDonald's process involves the spring attached to a platform. But where did the staples that hold the spring to the new platform come from? Too many steps at once, Behe said.
Behe concluded his UNM talk by saying if a simple mousetrap is so hard to explain by Darwinian processes...[how can Darwinism remain standing?]
I had the first question in the Q&A session. I asked "Given that several authors have put forth several detailed and fairly reasonable explanations of methods by which irreducibly complex structures, such as the multi-step blood clotting cascades, can indeed arise one step at a time -- including methods like redundant complexity, scaffolding, gene duplication, subsequent mutation -- things that you sort of skipped over today -- it seems that simply asserting that irreducible complexity precludes natural origins is begging the question. Shouldn't the real test -- shouldn't your real test be proving that no imaginable combination of natural processes can ever, ever produce something that has irreducible complexity?"
Behe answered "OK, that's a very good question. If you go to that site, www.crsc.org, you'll see that I have an essay that addresses some of the concerns of the blood clotting system."
Behe again mentioned serious and respected critics, including Ken Miller and Russell Doolittle, but dismissed their efforts as being just like McDonald's mouse trap. Behe said "I see problems in them similar to McDonald's problems. Perhaps the more interesting question that you raised is that why don't I prove that no Darwinian pathway could ever possibly give rise to an irreducibly complex system. Well that's easy, because it's impossible to prove that. That is trying to prove a negative. In science one simply cannot prove anything. No theory starts out to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that all of its rivals are impossible. But nonetheless, I think that is not necessary, either."
Behe then talked about Redshifts and the Big Bang. He said no one could prove that redshifts are impossible in an eternal universe. "In fact, the Big Bang theory has been very fruitful," he said. As I see it, Behe's problem is this: he says you can't prove a negative. But his "Irreducibly Complex" theory IS a negative - it says that evolution can't do it, no how, no way. Does Behe realize that he implied that his theory can't be a theory? Probably not.
Re Intelligent Design, he said "These systems certainly do look like they were designed. Why don't we investigate that, and see where it leads us." Intelligent Design "seems to fit the data," he said.
Behe also discussed Barry Hall's experiments. "Barry Hall at the University of Rochester has been trying to work on the laboratory evolution of bacterial metabolic pathways where he goes in and knocks out an old pathway. His thesis was that you'll be able to see a number of gradual changes that gradually build up the old pathway that was knocked out given appropriate selective pressure. And in 25 years, he has not been able to do so. That's consistent with Intelligent Design theory. If he had been able to show that the pathway could have been built up again, then we could say that any idea of Intelligent Design that says things of that complexity need intelligent inputs would be falsified."
The problem here is that Hall's experiments were successful. Not only did the bacteria develop a brand new replacement for the knocked-out gene for making a galactosidase enzyme; it also developed new proteins that work with the new enzyme to control its expression, and to induce lac permease. A system Behe should describe as "Irreducibly Complex" evolved right in the Lab! Behe dismisses Hall's work by noting the new genes were cobbled from existing genes, and not made from scratch. In other words, he criticizes the experiment for acting too much like, well... evolution! But, as Douglas Futuyma wrote of Hall's work in his book Evolution (1986, Sinauer Associates, MA), "Thus an entire system of lactose utilization had evolved, consisting of changes in enzyme structure enabling hydrolysis of the substrate; alteration of a regulatory gene so that the enzyme can be synthesized in response to the substrate; and the evolution of an enzyme reaction that induces the permease needed for the entry of the substrate. One could not wish for a better demonstration of the neoDarwinian principle that mutation and natural selection in concert are the source of complex adaptations."
In response to a question about the simple-to-complex progression of the fossil record, Behe included this assertion: "I'm not a creationist. I'm a biochemist."
Responding to a question on bacterial resistance to antibiotics, Behe said "Yes, I should emphasize that I do think natural selection works. You can observe it in the laboratory. The question I'm trying to address is not whether Darwinian processes can't explain something, it's can they explain everything?... Antibiotic resistance is a perfect example of what they can explain."
BEHE AT CALVARY CHAPEL
[From NMSR Reports March, 2002, Vol. 8, No.
by Dave Thomas : nmsrdaveATswcp.com (Help fight SPAM! Please replace the AT with an @ )
Behe's talk at Calvary Chapel two days later contained much of the same content, and new material as well. Most (but not all) of the talk was broadcast on KNKT FM. I don't think Behe mentioned the Big Bang at Calvary in the same way he did at UNM (although I can't be sure unless an eyewitness can confirm it). Of course, the Big Bang is Theory non grata to the young earth creationists of Calvary.
Behe again spent much time dissecting McDonald's physical analogy of simpler and simpler mousetraps [recently UPDATED!], saying "So this is better viewed not as some sort of descendant of the first trap, but as a completely new trap, which was made by an intelligent agent. But we can ask further, where does John McDonald think that these staples came from? [laughter] Well. maybe they dropped from heaven. But a Darwinist cannot invoke angels adding staples to traps, because the angels are on OUR side." [applause]
Quoting Cardinal Ratzinger, Behe said "We must have the audacity to say that the great projects of the living Creation are not the products of chance and error. They point to a creating Reason, and show us a creating Intelligence, and they do so more luminously and radiantly today than ever before."
Behe laid out his political position on the creation/evolution issue in a revealing response to a question on how to handle teaching evolution as fact at schools. Behe said "Unfortunately, it involves politics. Whenever anything involves politics, you never know where it's going to go, because politicians are not necessarily responsive to logic. But in the long term, there's a lot of reason for optimism. Because more and more people are becoming aware that essentially, evolution rests on some philosophical assumptions, what's called the assumption of naturalism. Naturalism is a philosophy which says that material things are all that there is. But philosophy is not science, and therefore excluding ideas which point to a creator, which point to God, is not allowed simply because in public schools in the United States one is not allowed to discriminate either for or against ideas which have religious implications. And a number of people as I said are realizing this, and people are taking action. And a couple of years ago in Kansas, they managed to get the situation changed briefly, and then the Empire struck back, and it was changed back. There's another fight going on right now in Ohio, and this seems to have a pretty good chance of succeeding too. But as more and more people realize this and stand up, I think the tide will turn. In the meantime, what one can do depends on your situation. You can show your children the literature showing that evolution is not what it's cracked up to be. But it's certainly true that in schools, if they stand up and fight for Intelligent Design, fight for purpose in life and against Darwinism, they will come in for a difficult time, depending on their teacher. So it's a difficult question, and we just have a tough fight ahead of us. We just have to kinda steel ourselves and not worry about the criticism that inevitably comes when trying to point out that there might be more to Life than just matter and energy. And of course, another option is to have your kids in not public schools but in Christian schools, or in home schools too, where you can control or you can teach them things that they would be forbidden to learn in public schools. I know it's not a good answer, but it's the only one I can think of at this juncture in our political life."
When the topic of the Hopeful Monster Theory came up, Behe said "I'm delighted when people like that resort to things called the Hopeful Monster theory to try to rescue evolution. For those of you who don't follow this, the Hopeful Monster theory was actually proposed in the 1940's by a geneticist who, while a materialist, didn't think Darwinian mechanisms were up to the task of producing biological complexity. And Stephen Jay Gould, although he's another materialist, he also thinks that Darwinian processes are unable to explain life. And he has put forward an idea called Punctuated Equilibrium, and kind of the - the Hopeful Monster theory is an outgrowth of that, which essentially says perhaps a great big change happened all at once by some freak genetic accident, and luckily this organism found a mate, and continued this genetic accident, and maybe that explains the fossil record and so on. Well, if the Darwinists, if the naturalists, are reduced to arguments like that, then it won't be long before they lose a lot more support than they have. So that makes me happy."
The problem here is that Gould and Eldredge's "Punctuated Equilibrium" is nothing like Goldschmidt's "Hopeful Monster" theory. In fact, it has much more in common with Mayr's "allopatric speciation" scenario. As someone deeply involved in the evolution battles, Behe should really know this.
Re our February speaker, Stuart Kauffman, Behe said "I'm as happy with Stuart Kauffman as I am with Stephen Jay Gould. The more people who come out and say this Darwinism stuff just doesn't cut it, the more people will realize, even people who are not necessarily sympathetic to Design and Creation and so on, the more they will realize that this Darwinian theory is something that can be debated, there are scientists who doubt it. Now Stuart Kauffman is a scientist at the Santa Fe Institute, and as was said, he's proposed something called complexity theory. Essentially the idea is that when you get a lot of components together like say, what is imagined to be an origin of life ocean or something, that they kind of put up a complex series of reactions, and once they do that, they can start to kind of organize themselves. He's got some computer programs that do fun things, that seem to put up patterns of dots, that seem to cohere, and so on. But the problem is that his ideas are amenable to experiment. You can go into the laboratory, mix a bunch of things together, and see what you get. And so far, nobody's been able to get anything much, other than say gunk on the bottom of the test tube. So complexity theory, you know, that's fine, let them investigate it, but it does not look promising at all to myself. And the simple proposal of that points to the inability of Darwinian evolution to account for life."
Behe's talk did not convince me that evolution is a tottering paradigm.
BEHE AT LANL (LOS ALAMOS NATIONAL LAB)
Guest Column by Michael Rogers of LANL
A few weeks ago I saw a flyer for Michael Behe's talk in Los Alamos and decided to drop in, since I'd never seen a real, live creationist speak. I have a few observations that you might find interesting, plus some critical comments regarding his "irreducible complexity" argument.
I found it a little surprising that the audience seemed rather one-sidedly friendly. Also, there were no critical questions raised at all during the Q&A. This seemed a bit odd, for a lecture at LANL's Physics Auditorium, but it was not terribly well attended and it was evidently front-loaded by local creationist supporters. A large component of the audience consisted of a group of about 10-15 high school kids brought in with their teachers, apparently from a conservative Christian school. There were maybe a dozen (probably a bit less) largely sympathetic LANL employees (probably not biologists) and a handful of people who were apparently technical or scientific staff, but who were either silent during Q&A or at least failed to raise any serious challenges. Having said that, I must admit that by the time I decided on a question to ask it was too late. The Q&A was cut off at the last question before me in the queue.
Here's a summary of the argument he presented. Behe began his argument by explaining Darwin's account of the evolution of the vertebrate eye. Note that he does not take issue with this account, presumably because he accepts that Darwin has provided a plausible explanation of how the large-scale structure of the vertebrate eye could emerge over time from natural selection. In addition, during the Q&A he was asked if he thought evolution ever occurs at all and he conceded that he believes it does and that it is a useful and correct explanation for a number of things in biology, just not everything. Getting back to his main argument, Behe turns next to Darwin's "black box" in the explanation, the photosensitive cells. Here Dr. Behe says that there is a real problem explaining their existence without assuming they were designed by some intelligent being. Why? First, he outlines the chemical and dynamical processes involved and points out the complexity and the high degree of order and coordination involved in these processes. Then he introduces the term "irreducible complexity," which he defines as applying to any system consisting of many parts that performs some overall function but that would cease to perform its function if any one of its components were missing. He illustrates the idea with an abstract description of a five-part mousetrap that would cease to function as a mousetrap if any of its parts were missing. He then claims that their "irreducible complexity" is (somehow) the reason that he finds it difficult to believe that the light sensitive cells could have arisen by Darwinian evolution. I have used the phrase "difficult to believe" because his precise claim is that complex biochemical systems and processes and apparently interior cellular mechanisms are too difficult to plausibly explain by natural processes, so that the hypothesis of an intelligent designer is more plausible as a way of explaining the existence of such things.
Now it seems to me that "irreducible complexity" is just a question-begging term resting on a semantic ambiguity in the word "irreducible." This semantic ambiguity derives from the fact that the word "irreducible" is often used in scientific and philosophical contexts to describe something that is unexplainable by natural or material processes. So its use in the term "irreducible complexity" might seem to imply the same. However, Behe introduces a precise stipulative definition of "irreducible complexity" in terms of some complex thing that would lose it function if any one part were removed. But this definition is logically independent of the philosophical and scientific notion of "irreducibility," i.e., of something that cannot be explained by natural processes. I suspect any perceived strength of Behe's argument depends on the strength of this association. If the association is unconsciously accepted, then his argument is just a classic question-begging argument based on unconscious acceptance of the broader connotation of the word "irreducible" in the term "irreducible complexity." If this association is avoided and Behe's definition taken at face value, then "irreducible complexity" is simply a red herring, because Behe himself concedes that the certain anatomical features at a macroscopic level of description can indeed be both evolved and "irreducibly complex" in the strict sense of the Behe's definition. And if "irreducibly complex" things can evolve on a macroscopic level of description, why can't they evolve at a sub-cellular level of description? If, on the other hand, if it just comes down to a matter of probability or plausibility, then what does a narrow qualitative property like "irreducible complexity" (in Behe's sense) have to do with that? (Apart from the fact that it embodies the creationist bias against complex functional objects, like the eye, being the product of natural processes.)
Although he seemed to have impressed a few people in the audience, I came away with the distinct impression that the "irreducible complexity" argument is just the creationist's old whine in new bottles.
Michael Behe's Home Page:
Links to discussions of Behe's work
Ken Miller's "Acid Test" describes lab evolution of lactose
permease systems. It's at
It has links to Behe's response...
Ken Miller's page on blood clot cascades and how they can evolve a
step at a time is at:
A creationist disagrees with Behe, at
Shanks & Niall take on Behe
An article on how flagella might have evolved is at
Wesley R. Elsberry's Behe Discussion Page
Prof. John McDonald's "Reduced Mousetrap" page,
Reference: Gould on Hopeful Monsters and Punctated Equilibrium
"Continuing the distortion, several creationists have equated the theory of punctuated equilibrium with a caricature of Goldschmidt's belief that major transitions are also accomplished suddenly by means of 'hopeful monsters.' (I am attracted to some aspects of the non-caricatured version, but Goldschmidt's theory still has nothing to do with punctuated equilibrium...)" - Stephen Jay Gould, _Hen's Teeth And Horses Toes_ (1983), p. 260.
"Punctuated equilibria is not a theory of macromutation; indeed, it is not a theory of any genetic process... As with ecologically rapid modes of speciation, punctuated equilibrium welcomes macromutation as a possible source for the initiation of species -the faster the better. But punctuated equilibrium clearly does not require or imply macromutation, for we formulated it as the expected geological consequence of straightforward Mayrian allopatry."
"I do feel that certain forms of macromutational theory are legitimate, and I have supported them, though not in the context of punctuated equilibrium (I do have other interests after all)." - Stephen Jay Gould "Punctuated Equilibrium - A Different Way of Seeing", _New Scientist_ (April 15, 1982) p. 138. [Return to Text]
Footnote: Deja Vu All Over Again
From http://home.austarnet.com.au/stear/bartelt_a_scientist_responds.htm :
"Dr. Michael Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box, appeared recently (October 5-6, 1999) at Lincoln Christian Seminary in Lincoln, IL. ... At Lincoln, Behe relied upon a particularly egregious 'folk-science' type definition of design: Using a Far Side cartoon showing a person swept into the air and impaled by a jungle trap, Behe said, 'You look and realize that the trap was designed. Just look at how the parts interact. You just know design when you see it!' In fact, humans are not always able to discern real design from apparent design, and tend to impose design when it is not there; hence the 'face on Mars,' and the sightings of the Virgin Mary on the side of a building or the face of Jesus in a tortilla...." [Return to Text]
Michael Behe: "Intellectual Father #2" of
intelligent design theory.
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