Michael Behe has recently published ‘The Edge Of Evolution: The Search For The Limits Of Darwinism‘, a descendant to his ‘Darwin’s Black Box‘, and as can be expected, there has been a fairly robust response to it from his many detractors within the scientific community, notably from Jerry Coyne, Sean Carroll, Michael Ruse and particularly Richard Dawkins, from whose review I’ve quoted various comments below. For his part, Michael Behe, of the Discovery Institute has addressed some of these reviews, excluding so far, Dawkins’, on his Amazon blog, and appears to be as convinced as ever that his ideas are correct, based as they are on his perceived inadequacies of scientific explanations as to how evolution works at the macro level. One of his earlier theories concerned irreducible complexity, which he describes thus in the afforementioned ‘Darwin’s Black Box…

By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional. An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution. (p. 39)

In his review, Dawkins takes Behe to task on exactly this subject, as we see here…

We now hear less about irreducible complexity, with good reason. In Darwin s Black Box, Behe simply asserted without justification that particular biological structures (like the bacterial flagellum, the tiny propeller by which bacteria swim) needed all their parts to be in place before they would work, and therefore could not have evolved incrementally. This style of argument remains as unconvincing as when Darwin himself anticipated it. It commits the logical error of arguing by default. Two rival theories, A and B, are set up. Theory A explains loads of facts and is supported by mountains of evidence. Theory B has no supporting evidence, nor is any attempt made to find any. Now a single little fact is discovered, which A allegedly can t explain. Without even asking whether B can explain it, the default conclusion is fallaciously drawn: B must be correct. Incidentally, further research usually reveals that A can explain the phenomenon after all: thus the biologist Kenneth R. Miller (a believing Christian who testified for the other side in the Dover trial) beautifully showed how the bacterial flagellar motor could evolve via known functional intermediates.

The crucial passage in The Edge of Evolution is this: By far the most critical aspect of Darwin s multifaceted theory is the role of random mutation. Almost all of what is novel and important in Darwinian thought is concentrated in this third concept.

Behe’s basic contention here seems to be that although change and evolution can occur at the micro level, the case for the same occurring in large complex organisms cannot be made, because the incremental steps would be too large and too complex for them to have manifested themselves spontaneously in nature, and must therefore be the result of the direct intervention by an intelligent designer. Unlike the Young Earth Creationists, Behe and his colleagues rarely if ever refer directly to God as being the supernatural instigator of all this, though it was shown in an analysis of the infamous ‘Wedge Document’, that God is believed by IDers to be the anonymous Intelligent Designer. Here’s a comment from Wikipedia…

Having written extensively about ID, philosopher of science Robert Pennock says “When lobbying for ID in the public schools, wedge members sometimes deny that ID makes any claims about the identity of the designer. It is ironic that their political strategy leads them to deny God in the public square more often than Peter did.”[32]

It would be interesting to see something from the Discovery Institute, or indeed elsewhere, discussing the nature and motivation of an Intelligent Designer in a guise other than God. For example, how much technical knowledge would be required to kick-start organic life from a lifeless environment, and then develop it so that billions of years later, intelligent, or at least sentient beings would have the opportunity to achieve a state of consciousness that would allow them to contemplate their own origins, present state and future outlook.

For many, the idea of alien intervention is attractive, whereby visitors from inner, outer, or inter-dimensional space may have visited Earth once or often in the deep or recent past, and set in motion an experiment called Life, of which we are but a sentient, and somewhat destructive component. However, nobody has come up with a convincing motive that would prompt one or more super-beings to design ourselves and the domain we inhabit, apart from a sort of self-aggrandisement in which we humans show eternal gratitude for this gift of life, and its add-on features of illness, injury and death – and we might well ask, what type of omniscient and omnipotent creator would feel the need to manufacture something as fatally flawed as organic life as a testament to its own abilities.

As yet, science is unable to definitively explain how life began here, or exactly how it evolved to its present state, but it can show that if life was created by an intelligent designer, benevolence wasn’t part of the package, at least as far as the vast majority of the animal kingdom is concerned – including ourselves.

The image at top comes via Andrew Petto, editor of ‘Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism‘, and although not strictly relevant to the topics covered above, gives me the opportunity to draw readers’ attention to his book which draws on many scientific disciplines to put the case for not only keeping religion out of the science classroom, but to explain why scientists from a wide set of disciplines believe they can ultimately answer all the salient questions surrounding the mystery of life and evolution on planet Earth, and who knows, in the future, at other locations across the Universe.

n.b. 16/07/07 – Andrew Petto has since contacted me, and asked me to point out that he didn’t send me the image of the Creation Museum cartoon, or suggest that I use it, and it appears I may have been in breach of copyright. For that reason, I have taken it down, and replaced it with an acrylic painting by Hannah Michael Gale Shapero, aka “Pyracantha”, who is an artist living in Washington DC – the image is titled ‘Orange Limits‘. (TJ)

The Dawkins review is slated to appear at NYT on July 1st.