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Michael Behe and "Intelligent Design" on National Public Radio

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Michael Behe and "Intelligent Design" on National Public Radio
Steven Schafersman
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

On February 13, 2002, the day after Darwin Day, Dr Michael Behe, a biochemistry professor at Lehigh University, appeared on "Talk of the Nation: (TOTN) on National Public Radio. Since the publication of his book Darwin's Black Box (New York: The Free Press, 1996), Behe has made dozens of public appearances to promote his creationist ideology and respond to criticisms with specious arguments; and he has – so to speak – learned on the job. Even I was impressed at the excellence of his sophistry. TOTN listeners would never surmise that every single one of the reviews of Behe's book in scientific journals by scientists thoroughly slammed his book and the ideas of irreducible complexity and "intelligent design" (ID) as unscientific and essentially worthless – a genuine argument from ignorance (many of these reviews are posted at Behe's Empty Box.)

Behe represented himself as a scientist persuaded by the evidence – not as a creationist with an agenda. To a question from host Melinda Penkava about how his ideas differ from creationism, Behe disingenuously answered, "Well, now to tell you the truth, I'm not real knowledgeable about creationism. I'm a Roman Catholic." Behe used his "I am a Roman Catholic" mantra more than once to divest himself of the creationist label. Needless to say, this argument against an embarrassing label – while apparently convincing in Behe's mind – is not really conclusive (since many Catholics are creationists – see, for example, Patrick O'Connell's Science of Today and the Problems of Genesis [Rockford (IL): Tan Books and Publishers, 1993], reviewed by Colin Groves in RNCSE 2000 Nov-Dec; 20 [6]: 17-8, 23-4). In addition, most of his ID colleagues would not be able to use the same argument!

Behe's analogy for why irreducible complexity proves "intelligent design" was simple: If one were to gaze upon Mt Rushmore, one would conclude that a sculptor – an "intelligent designer" – created the complex set of faces; these could not be due to natural wind and water erosion over time. Likewise, complex biological structures, such as the biochemical "motors" of bacterial flagella, are like little biochemical machines that should be interpreted the same way as are human-designed and -constructed machines, such as the outboard motor of a boat. Such features, according to Behe, are irreducibly complex – composed of many separate parts arranged so that if even one part were removed or altered, the structure would not work. Therefore, the separate and mutually interdependent parts must have been designed with a final purpose in mind; they could not have evolved as different and independent parts that fortuitously and ultimately worked together to form a functioning complex structure. This argument can, of course, be used with every biological feature, structure, and process, since all are complex and make use of interdependent and interacting parts, themselves exceedingly complex.

As readers of RNCSE know, this argument is over 200 years old; it has been thoroughly and consistently discredited by many thousands of scientific observations and experiments and, on this basis, is firmly rejected by scientists. "Irreducible complexity" is a term employed by Behe to argue that evolutionary processes cannot account for at least some of the observed complexity in living things. However, Behe's insistence that complex structures must always retain the same function and must be built step-by-step overlooks many well-known evolutionary processes. While it is true that there are complex biologic features and processes that would not operate at 100% effectiveness or even at all if one part were removed or altered today, legitimate scientists understand that these features and processes were formed by a natural process (that is, evolution by natural selection).

One point that Behe persistently ignores is that evolution utilizes precursor features and processes, perhaps less efficient and sometimes having completely different functions (in such cases termed preadaptations or exaptions), that exist as steps on the evolutionary pathway to the current feature or process. Despite their relative inefficiency, however, these features and processes nevertheless possessed adaptive value (that is, they contributed to increased fitness) of their own – irrespective of the function that they would eventually serve in future generations. They would thus be favored during natural selection and would adaptively evolve. Behe irresponsibly either ignores or dismisses this natural and historical explanation – which happens to be the one that other scientists accept. For Behe, apparently, complex structures have no history at all, which is why he can see only their proximate usefulness and current interdependence of parts. Behe is a creationist precisely because he does not seriously explore the possibility of the evolutionary historical modification and change of interdependent parts.

Where Behe gives the hoary creationist argument a modern twist is by introducing biochemical complexity. The older arguments were refuted by Darwin's demonstration – and subsequent demonstrations in developmental and molecular biology – that complex structures at the organ level could change by modification of existing parts. In this way, the eye could evolve by the gradual change of light-sensitive structures from generalized light sensors to the complex, highly-adapted, and efficient eyes of vertebrates and squid. All biologically complex features and processes at the organ and organ system level, and most at the tissue level, can today be explained this way, with abundant empirical genetic, physiological, anatomical, and fossil evidence to back up the explanations. This is not true, however, of such features at the cellular and biochemical levels: scientists simply do not know enough to explain how many of the complex features and processes at this level evolved – yet. Behe cleverly exploits these gaps in scientific knowledge, filling them with an intelligent designer. This is classic God-of-the-Gaps sophistry.

However, some of the gaps have been filled. A number of reviews of Behe's book have convincingly described some, if not all, aspects of flagellar evolution. The same is true for most of the other biologic features and processes claimed by creationists to be evidence of "intelligent design" and not natural evolutionary processes because they are irreducibly complex. We still have gaps in knowledge about the evolutionary history of all sorts of complex features and processes, but the gaps are not necessarily permanent. Scientists have been filling such gaps in knowledge and expect to keep doing so.

On TOTN, Behe also repeatedly mischaracterized modern evolution – what he called Darwinian evolution – by claiming that only random processes generated the complexity we see in organic life. Of course, natural selection, the primary mechanism of this process, is neither a chance nor a random process, but a wholly deterministic one – albeit one characterized by a probabilistic determinism that can only be studied and understood statistically. The irony of this frequent creationist misrepresentation of modern evolutionary theory as "only chance" is that the most important evolutionary process that makes modern evolutionary theory "Darwinian" is precisely the same process that prevents it from being exclusively random. A completely random process could never generate the diversity, adaptation, and complexity we observe in living organisms (as has been well documented by creationists!).

Behe's suggestion that ID can be tested by taking flagella-less bacteria and growing them for thousands of generations to see if they evolve flagella without "intelligent" modification of their genes was superbly audacious, but deliberately deceptive. A proper test of ID would involve its making some prediction about a biological process, event, or feature that could not, in principle, be explained by evolution but only by "intelligent design". Not only have there been no successful tests of ID reported in the scientific literature, there have been no tests of ID reported there at all, indicating the essentially nonscientific nature of the enterprise.

Behe also repeated the ID motto – the evidence shows design in living organisms, but "ID leaves the identity of the designer open". His colleague William A Dembski also uses this disingenuous disclaimer, saying that ID research points to "generic design", not necessarily supernatural design. It is scientifically (and epistemologically) absurd to accept these claims. Contrary to Behe and Dembski, there is no evidence for any true design in the structure of living organisms – in the sense of a purposeful planning of outcomes – but there is excellent and well-known evidence for natural selection as the cause of their apparent design.

Deborah Owens-Fink, a member of the Ohio State Board of Education (OBE), also appeared on the program. She did a remarkable job of pretending to be unbiased and positive about this issue, saying that "we need to be very careful that we don't get into the issue of religion, but yet, at the same time, that we also do not censor ideas that might go against what some elite scientists believe with respect to evolution … explaining the total diversity of life and origins of life." Owens-Fink, in reality, is one of the main proponents on the OBE in support of including ID in the state science standards. Without knowing Owens-Fink (a marketing professor at the University of Akron), I strongly suspect that her motives are religious. In my experience, no legitimate scientists or informed and unbiased laypeople are clamoring to include ID in science standards; only religiously motivated politicians and other non-scientists want to do this.

Behe's sophistic and misleading claims and his responses to arguments against ID might be convincing to many – perhaps most – listeners. It was the responsibility of the legitimate science supporter on TOTN, David Haury (Professor of Science Education at the Ohio State University), to refute Behe's pseudoscientific arguments, but he failed to respond adequately to them. This often occurs when creationists get valuable public exposure in the mainstream media. Haury truly has impressive credentials and a background in science education, so he should have done better; however, experienced and knowledgeable university professors are frequently unprepared for the specious arguments and rhetorical tricks that creationists use to promote their agenda, and thus are often ineffective against them.

I sent Haury an early version of this essay, and in defense of his efforts he told me that he tried to steer the conversation to the educational issues, remarking, "What is not…obvious to folks in general is that there are school issues that go beyond science, and I was hoping to move on to those issues more quickly by simply noting that [ID proposals] do not come to us from within the scientific community, are not embraced by scientists, and fail all tests of being identified as science. I did not want to waste air time getting immersed in debating his absurd ideas point by point." Haury was of course right to want to avoid debating irreducible complexity with Behe, but unfortunately he was not able to steer Behe away from the minutiae of his anti-evolutionism and to the broader issues surrounding science education.

Haury made one notable rhetorical mistake on the program, saying, "that the idea of 'intelligent design' and the theory of evolution do not talk about the same things. … [ID is about] how it all got started, [while evolution is] about how things change over time. … It makes no statement about the origins [of life]". He appeared to reason that, since evolution is indifferent to the way in which life originated, positing an "intelligent" force at the origin of life would not diminish evolution in any way. However, ID purports to explain both the origin of life and the generation of diversity, and both of these explanations conflict with well-established scientific theories – the abiogenic origin of life by chemical evolution and the generation of diversity by biological evolution. Thus Haury's statement seemed to allow that ID was a legitimate scientific theory about the origin of life; this mistake was unfortunate, since in such discussions it is important not to muddle the distinction between ID and science.

It was a pleasure to hear from the fourth guest, Ernan McMullin, a distinguished historian and philosopher of science at Notre Dame University and a person whom I admire for his historical insight and fairness on the creation/evolution controversy. He understood the issue perfectly, saying that "the motive behind this proposed measure in Ohio … is clearly one which would advance religion." Of course the efforts to politicize science education by requiring legislative oversight of evolutionary topics (a honor never bestowed on gravity, thermodynamics, or planetary revolution!) and to force ID into state science standards are politically and religiously motivated by the desire to include God and religion in the public school science classroom. There is no other credible reason for anyone to make such an effort. Clearly the reason is not to improve science education; otherwise the politicians would let the scientists and science educators write the standards themselves without political interference!

The callers to TOTN were wonderful: they asked questions that really put Behe on the defensive. Steve of Danville, California, asked the guests to address the "God-of-the-gaps" approach to science, correctly observing that ID was an example of this approach. Behe tried to turn the argument back against itself by preposterously claiming that "ID has grown stronger as we have learned more about science". He alleged that the God-of-the-gaps objection does not apply to irreducible complexity arguments for ID because we have learned that cells are more complex than we knew in the 19th century, when evolution was proposed to explain adaptive complexity in nature. He ignored the fact that the "irreducible complexity" is not the same as the degree of complexity; what is at issue is not complexity itself, but whether complexity is used to claim ultimate ignorance and the uselessness of further study. Behe responded with a warning against a "naturalism of the gaps" – a mistaken and specious characterization of the naturalistic methodology of science.

Mark of Columbus, Ohio, was especially perceptive about the issue. He wanted to know how the idea of "intelligent design" gave students a better understanding of how the world works. This, of course, is one of the major ironies of ID studies: unlike science, ID is a question stopper, not a question generator. Behe's response? He conceded that "Darwinian theory" works for some things, but for "other things it doesn't work at all. … I'm not going to say any more than when we drive past Mt Rushmore, we just throw up our hands and say because we can't understand how wind and rain did this, then it must have been designed." I think that this response is as good an example of the vacuity of ID ideology as anything could possibly be.

The next caller was Cynthia of Phoenix, Arizona, who agreed with McMullin about his characterization of the motive of ID advocates in Ohio. Behe replied that, in his opinion, topics like ID are mistakenly excluded from the public schools because people believe they have "religious implications". The real reason ID is excluded is because it is lousy science!

Irreducible complexity – one of the pillars that supports "intelligent design" – is an argument from ignorance. No real scientist would ever say, "this is so complex that it can never be explained by evolution, so I give up." Instead, a scientist would continue to formulate hypotheses to explain it and then test the hypotheses. Behe suffers from a very unscientific failure of curiosity, creativity, and nerve. Not only does he promote willful ignorance and pseudoscience, he encourages people to repress their intellectual curiosity – a moral lapse for a scientist!
About the Author(s): 

Steven D Schafersman
Department of Science and Mathematics
The University of Texas
of the Permian Basin
4901 East University Blvd.
Odessa TX 79762