Further explorations of DARWIN’S BLACK BOX

Bob Potter

(Investigator 98, 2004 September)

Readers of INVESTIGATOR magazine will recall my ‘cursory’ critique of Michael J Behe’s DARWIN’S BLACK BOX in No 95 (March 2004).

Behe is a “professor of Biochemistry at Lehigh University”, in Pennsylvania, USA. I warned readers not to be over impressed by his ‘title’ – in the United States any College lecturer carries the title ‘professor’.

I have no expertise in biochemistry, but the book was billed as aimed at the general reader. I read the book on the assumption the author is an authority in biochemistry – although I felt that, even if all he had to say regarding his own specialized field was accurate, the book failed to address the relevant issues for understanding or preparing a meaningful critique of Darwinian theory.

Readers will remember I found Behe’s account of ‘the history of science’ grossly inaccurate and his presentation of the views expressed by evolutionary theorists, Ernst Haeckel, a hundred years ago, and Dan Dennett today, totally misleading. I provided quotations from Haeckel and suggested readers get hold of the relevant Dennett text to check it out for themselves.

The implications of my remarks were clear. In the case of Haeckel, the evidence may simply indicate Behe’s ‘sloppy research’, but in the case of Dennett, the implication had to be that our creationist writer deliberately intended to mislead his readers. I concluded my article by asking readers not to take my word for it, rather to check it out for themselves.

Following the publication of my article in INVESTIGATOR, I decided to follow my own advice!! It occurred to me that it was just not good enough to ignore the main thrust of DARWIN’S BLACK BOX, namely recent research in biochemistry allegedly provided damning evidence that Darwinian theory must be wrong and, secondly, a growing body of biologists is coming to realize evolutionary theory is inadequate. These are the questions I wish to address here.

 Michael J Behe is a leading member of the “Wedge” or “Intelligent Design” creationist movement that arose from a conference at the Southern Methodist University in March 1992. Behe is described by  the group as “its most formidable scientist”. I attempted to discover information regarding his scientific/academic attainments when I was writing my earlier article – the Internet provided nothing. Since then I have searched a number of sources and can report that amazingly, Behe has failed to produce any original intelligent design research and has published no article on the subject in any refereed scientific journal.

In spite of the misleading publicity peddled by the Creationists, Behe may indeed serve a vital function for ‘Wedge’, but it is NOT a scientific one.

Behe’s essential claim is that biomolecular systems function like tiny, intricate machines exhibiting what he calls “irreducible complexity”:- The function performed depends on all the components of the system –  were any one of the components removed, the system would cease to function. He argues ‘irreducible complexity’ proves such molecules could not have evolved gradually as Darwinian theory holds, and insists it is more reasonable to believe the systems were intelligently designed. He illustrates his point by referring to a household mouse trap (p43). As a mechanism it would fail were any of the major mechanisms (base, hammer, spring, catch, holding bar) missing – the trap had to be ‘created’ as a ‘single act’!

A careful reading of Behe shows a primitive view of modern biology. Allow me to plagiarize an illustration offered by Brauer and Brumbaugh (2001) – imagine a modern city (a complex organism), with a sewage system and associated motorways/freeways suddenly removed. The city would cease to function as it now does, but we do not assume, therefore, that the sewage system and freeways were integral to the developing proto-cities.

That the system now operates as a cohesive whole does nothing to delete the evolution of the system. Given the present state of an “irreducibly complex” system as defined by Behe, of course one cannot remove one component and be left with an optimally working system, but complex systems often have antecedents operating less efficiently and with fewer parts.

From this position, Behe approaches the regular theme of those who would discredit Darwin by discussing the complex system of the eye – Darwin himself saw this as an important challenge. Behe’s description of the visual cascade emphasizes its marvellous complexity, but he omits additional complex aspects of the system that go a long way to explain how such a system might have developed. By focusing on a cellular subsystem in isolation, he makes its origin seem more mysterious – it’s analogous to considering, in isolation, the functioning of a series of escalators in a skyscraper, with no reference to their surrounding structure.

I come now to perhaps the most serious accusation I must make regarding the integrity of the author of DARWIN’S BLACK BOX. Readers will recall my complaints of his ‘misrepresentations’ of the views of Haeckel and Dennett.

Incredibly, Behe builds his case to support his alleged ‘growing number’ of biologists ‘wondering how Darwinism can account for their observations’, by selectively pulling pieces of quotation out of context so the authors appear to be saying the opposite to what they really say.

Just a couple of illustrations. He offers (p29) a quotation from evolutionary geneticists, Orr and Coyne (1992), but ends his citation in the middle of a sentence! Here is the full quotation – the remainder of the sentence, omitted by Behe, is appended in italics:
We conclude – unexpectedly – that there is little evidence for the neo-Darwinian view; its theoretical foundations and the experimental evidence supporting it are weak, and there is no doubt that mutations of large effect are sometimes important in evolution.
A few explanatory remarks vis-à-vis Behe’s attempt to misrepresent. He conflates the terms ‘neo-Darwinian evolution’ with ‘Darwinism’ as synonyms. Orr and Coyne are quite clearly not criticizing the evolution of new forms by means of molecular and population genetics phenomena or the caricature of descent with modification (i.e ‘Darwinian’ evolution, or, as labeled by Behe, ‘Darwinism’). Rather they are addressing the naïve and once widely held view that all changes in a population’s phenotype necessarily come through only gradual accumulation of many mutations of small and nearly equal effect (‘neo-Darwinism’).

That Orr and Coyne intended this to be the substance of their argument would have been clear to any reader given the entire sentence as originally written. Behe’s selective editing (done without even adding ellipses to indicate that the pruning had taken place) demonstrates an intention to confuse and deceive.

Later, on the same page, Behe offers another quotation from the same Orr and Coyne article:
Although much is known about mutation, it is still largely a “black box” relative to evolution. Novel biochemical functions seem to be rare in evolution, and the basis for their origin is virtually unknown.
The remainder of this paragraph, NOT offered by Behe, reads:
Is there a difference in the kinds of mutations producing minor modifications of function and those producing completely novel functions at a biochemical level? What is the relative importance of point mutations, exon shuffling, and reading through formerly untranscribed sequences in the production of novel biochemical functions?
The sentence is clearly intended to open a discussion on important different processes to evolutionary phenomena as a whole and is certainly not the concession of defeat Behe implies. It is educational to read the opening paragraph of this same paper – cited by Behe as evidence for his “raft” of disgruntled evolutionary biologists:

In the past 20 years a number of acrimonious debates have occurred in evolutionary biology. Unfortunately, these arguments tended to fragment the field and to obscure our understanding of the evolutionary processes in the fashion of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. It is time to try and glimpse evolution as a whole. Evolution consists not of one or two all-important processes (which one depending on the writer) but rather of an aggregate of processes of various sorts affecting different taxa differently. It is our purpose to identify some of the major processes in organismal evolution and to point out some major gaps in our knowledge.

That much remains to be explained in biochemical research cannot be denied – and no evolutionary scientist would argue to the contrary. There is much more work to be done. ‘Not so!’, declares Behe. ‘We have “irreducible complexity” and it’s just impossible to imagine a sequence of organisms adding component molecules to build up structures gradually’. Country bumpkin ‘scientists’ like Behe would like to dictate to evolutionists what fossil intermediates would have to have been like: like the hypothesized ‘transitional forms’ of ‘earlier birds’ with half-feathers, half-scales, half-way wings. Behe has made up his mind about what ‘transitional organisms’ must have been like — and then argues such organisms couldn’t have existed.

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

Only one conclusion seems possible from the ‘completion’ of my review of DARWIN’S BLACK BOX. Not only is the author, a leading member and publicist of the INTELLIGENT DESIGN CREATIONISM movement in the USA, NOT an accredited scientist (no original research on the topic, no publications in scientific journals), his reportage is unreliable and inaccurate.

Whether he reports on philosophical texts from the past or the present, he either invents quotations which DO NOT represent the views of the person he is attacking (Haeckel), and/or misrepresents what his opponent (Dennett) says and presumably relies upon his readers not checking the original texts.

Incredibly, even when dealing with contributors to academic/scientific journals (journals in which he has failed to have a single contribution printed), he selectively cites out of context and omits part-sentences, giving no indication he is doing so.

That his book has gone into at least eight editions (my copy was published in 1998) leads one to suspect its sales and ‘success’ must depend upon the contrived ignorance of those to whom it is directed.

Not to have read the odd book by Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett in today’s world is to cut oneself off from human culture. I am not suggesting it is necessary to agree with what these writers say. What is pertinent to the point I am making is that any intelligent person reading these books and then looking at Michael J Behe’s DARWIN’S BLACK BOX will appreciate the fraudulence of the writer.

The apparent ‘success’ of Behe’s book should be a matter of concern!