A cursory exploration of DARWIN'S BLACK BOX

Bob Potter

(Investigator 95, 2004 March)


Just prior to the Christmas break I received a gift – Michael J Behe's book Darwin's Black Box. I settled down to read it carefully. Very quickly, I realized I was in for a disappointment.

Behe is "Professor of Biochemistry at Lehigh University". He's also one of the big names in creationism. In the USA, the word 'professor' may or may not refer to high academic status and does not necessarily carry the same status as it does in England (or Australia). Behe's post is at Lehigh University, a private university in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where undergraduate students pay annual fees of about US$36,000.

In the preface (pp ix-x) we are told Darwin believed "life can be explained by natural selection". That's quite a sweeping assertion; a citation or reference would have been useful. He continues by telling us Darwin was ignorant of the reasons for variation within a species. The early chapters of Origin of Species do indeed show Darwin's concern on this topic – it is impossible for an informed reader to read Darwin's text without sensing his subconscious search for a concept that today we call the "gene".

Darwin's regular admissions of lack of knowledge are commendable – he was not the arrogant ignoramus Behe implies.

By the time we reach p 7 we are told:
"The earliest biological investigations began in the only way they could – with the naked eye... Although the writings were a beginning, the ancients were still lost when it came to the composition of living things. They believed that all matter was made up of four elements: earth, air, fire and water. Living bodies were thought to be made of four "humors" – blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm – and all disease supposedly arose from an excess of one of the humors."
This is a confounding and misleading representation of Greek science. Although Behe mentions the work of Hippocrates (who diagnosed epilepsy as the outcome of brain disfunction), whose works are still available in bookshops – ideas so 'modern', especially when we compare them with the 'medical' views expressed in the New Testament and still practiced a thousand years later where epileptics were burned at the stake as "demon possessed" – such misrepresentation is unforgivable.

Yes, the humoral view appears 'primitive', but was it so distant from modern medical practice? An excess of 'black bile' was diagnosed by symptoms that today we associate with 'depression' – a century ago it was called melancholia, which translates 'black bile' (Greek). Treatment – exposure to sunlight – is still often recommended today! i.e. depression is hypothesized as something physically wrong with the body, which can be treated by physical means. Compare that with explaining psychiatric malfunction in terms of demons and devils!

Let's stay with p7 a little longer. "The earliest biological investigations began in the only way they could – with the naked eye." And he continues, "the greatest biologist of the Greeks was also their greatest philosopher, Aristotle". This is the philosopher/biologist who, although married, could write that human males have more teeth in their mouths than do human females! Did he never think of looking in his wife's mouth before putting pen to paper? This, in itself, is a trivial point; my complaint centres on the confounding of various Grecian schools over many centuries. But it also gives the reader a taste of Behe's "scholarship".

To continue: On p10, we are told Darwin's "theory of how evolution works – by natural selection working on variation – was his own". Just not true! Any good textbook will tell you the theory was developed concurrently by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. The theory was announced in 1858 (the year before publication of Origin of Species) as the Darwin-Wallace Theory. Indeed Darwin rushed to publication when given advance warning by Wallace that his work was ready for print! Again, this is important essentially because it shows Behe's superficial reporting of evolutionary history.

Most creationists are eager to launch an attack on Darwin's dedicated publicist, Ernest Haeckel, in their search to find evidence to make advocates of evolutionary theory look ridiculous. Attacking Haeckel can be likened to "shooting fish in a barrel". Much of Haeckel's work was tremendously 'advanced' for his day but he spoiled his case by embellishing evidence. Darwin was embarrassed by his disciple. However, Behe is not happy with the routine and valid attacks on Haeckel's presentations – rather he exaggerates and misrepresents what Haeckel had to say to an extent I have not previously encountered.

For example, Behe (rightly) criticizes earlier theories of spontaneous generation but goes on to claim Ernest Haeckel supported this theory (p24). This is totally untrue – as Haeckel says:
"The first scientific refutation of these old stories (of spontaneous generation) was made by the Italian physician, Francisco Redi, in 1674, on the basis of very careful experiment: he was persecuted for "unbelief" on that account. He showed that these animals arose from eggs that had been deposited by female animals in dung, skin, fur, slime, etc…"
I have no intention of copying out several pages of text – you'll find it for yourself in The Wonders of Life by Ernst Haeckel (Watts & Co 1904) p364 ff.

Nor can we waste time looking at Behe's false 'Haeckel definition' of the cell "a simple little lump of albuminous combination of carbon" (p24). As I read on I was amazed to note he continued to re-iterate this 'fake quotation'. On p101 he re-iterates that Haeckel thought a cell was a "homogeneous globule of protoplasm". This time he does not attempt to provide a citation and continues with "homogeneous globule of protoplasm" (p106). Had I not had the works of Haeckel, in English, sitting in my bookshelf, I would probably have taken Behe at his word.

In The Evolution of Man by Ernest Haeckel (Watts & Co 1906, pp36-44) the author offers a longish section describing various body cells, "… living viscous particles of protoplasm enclosing a firmer nucleus in albuminoid bodies." He provides more than twenty illustrations of differing cell types – tongue cells, skin cells, bone cells, liver cells (some with two nuclei) – commenting on nerve cells:
"the nerve cell has become fitted to discharge the highest functions of life; it has the powers of sensation, will and thought...numbers of extremely fine threads, like the electric wires at a large telegraphic centre, cross and recross in the delicate protoplasm of the nerve cell and pass out in the branching processes which proceed from it and put it in communication with other nerve cells or nerve fibres. We can only partly follow their intricate paths in the fine matter of the body of the cell."
How can we reconcile what Haeckel actually wrote and the 'quotations' Behe gives us? This is easily answered! Behe is misleading his readers! His original quotation is NOT a genuine one – indeed if you look up his source reference, it hasn't come from Haeckel at all!!

Any objective person reading the text of Darwin's Black Box must be disturbed by Behe's sloppy scholarship. I have already made it quite clear that even if he were correctly quoting Haeckel, this would not be 'evidence' against Darwin who was himself embarrassed by some of the stuff Haeckel wrote. And further, Behe himself correctly tells us (p232): "Over the past four decades modern biochemistry has uncovered the secrets of the cell. The progress has been hard won." Even if he were quoting Haeckel accurately, would it be fair to attack him for his 'misunderstandings' in a text written a hundred years ago?

Most readers of Investigator will be familiar with Paul's exhortation to the Thessalonians (5:21): "but test everything; hold fast what is good." Incidentally, I am aware the majority of modern Bible scholars do not believe Paul wrote this letter but if you want to explore this question Peake's Commentary on the Bible is a good starting point. Whoever wrote it, however, it's the way we should approach all queries and disputes. I am asking readers to test Behe's reliability as a scholar NOW, for yourselves.

I have spent time exposing the (mis)handling of Haeckel, but that German publicist is hardly relevant to topical debates. Let's examine a more up-to-date example for testing Behe's scholarship. I don't want you to believe what I say about Behe's scholarship – I want you to check it out for yourselves!

Here is a small quotation from p 250 in Darwin's Black Box:
"In his recent book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, philosopher Daniel Dennett compares religious believers – 90% of the population – to wild animals who may have to be caged, and he says that parents should be prevented (presumably by coercion) from misinforming their children about the truths of evolution, which is so evident to him."
Behe is referring to chapter eighteen of Dennett's book, sub-headed, 'In Praise of Biodiversity'. It is readily available in Penguin. I ask of you to get hold of a copy of Dennett's book, and read that chapter; and decide for yourselves, "is Behe accurately reporting what Dennett says?"

Yes, I want you to read the chapter for yourselves, but for the lazy ones among you here are the pertinent extracts:
"We preach freedom of religion, but only so far. If your religion advocates slavery, or mutilation of women, or infanticide, or puts a price on Salman Rushdie's head because he has insulted it, then your religion has a feature that cannot be respected. It endangers us all.

"It is nice to have grizzly bears and wolves living in the wild. They are no longer a menace; we can peacefully co-exist, with a little wisdom. The same policy can be discerned in our political tolerance, in religious freedom. You are free to preserve or create any religious creed you wish, so long as it does not become a public menace. We're all on the Earth together, and we have to learn accommodation…

"If you want to teach your children that they are the tools of God, you had better not teach them that they are God's rifles, or we will have to stand firmly opposed to you; your doctrine has no glory, no special rights, no intrinsic and inalienable merit. If you insist on teaching your children falsehoods – that the Earth is flat, that "Man" is not a product of evolution by natural selection – then you must expect, at the very least, that those of us who have freedom of speech will feel free to describe your teachings as the spreading of falsehoods, and will attempt to demonstrate this to your children at our earliest opportunity..."

If, at the end of this exercise, you feel Darwin's Black Box does accurately portray what Dennett says, then we have probably exhausted the debate and will simply have to agree to differ.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

There is frequent reference in Behe's book to Darwin's theory of "gradual evolution", implying a number of falsehoods – the major ones being:

1.    Darwin was unaware there were many problems with his outline. In fact, he repeatedly said he hoped/expected future work would be better equipped to handle these difficulties.

2.    The frequent attack on Darwin's 'gradualism', all of which is well answered in chapter nine of Dawkin's The Blind Watchmaker. Behe had had plenty of time to look at this in advance of writing his book.

3.    The constant repetition of 'macro' versus 'micro' – it is hardly surprising researchers don't write about 'molecular evolution' (p 185) since this is not seen as relevant to the central argument of 'natural selection'!

4.    Behe's search for an implied teleology, indicating his failure to understand (or address) the nature of the "blindness" central to Dawkin's interpretation (p 93).
If I had to identify the one factor missing from Behe's representation of modern evolutionary biology, it would be his failure to give the reader the overall 'feeling' or 'knowing' of the vast resources available to living organisms for 'modification':

Look briefly at human reproduction in everyday life! A young couple get married (let's keep it 'respectable'!). They share a bed and every night have sex – maybe two or three times. Every time the boy ejaculates he releases at least 400 million sperms. That's 1,000 million sperms a night. Maybe, just maybe, at the end of that year, the girl is pregnant. Stop and think what a sheer chance it is that any of us actually made it into this world. And think of the billions of sperms lost. Studies are done to investigate why some sperms win and others don't. There is plenty of material now available on the topic of "sperm wars", of the battles between competing sperms. And that's just from the same male!! Think of the wastage of raw material. It certainly rests easily with evolutionary biology – variation and natural selection. I'm not so sure how well it fits with creationism?!

For females it's different – in humans, anyway. There are less eggs and they are present at the birth of the mother. Consider a fish. Ever seen a gutted pregnant female fish? If all eggs survived, the river in which the fish was caught would no longer be a river. It would be clogged up with the dead fish – ALL FROM JUST THAT ONE PREGNANT FISH! Just consider this biological wastefulness – add to it the millions of years at our disposal!

I'll leave you to carry out some research of your own following the exhortation of Paul of Tarsus.