Cover story article

Behe: The Edge of Evolution, Interview

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Michael Behe.
The divine comedy
Icon creationism.svg
Running gags
Jokes aside
Blooper reel
Evolutionism debunkers
For our article on Dr. Behe himself, see Michael Behe.

Dr. Michael Behe is a Professor of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University and a prominent fellow of the Discovery Institute.[1] He is a high-profile advocate of Intelligent Design, and his work is mentioned in the Discovery Institute's wedge document.

His second book, The Edge of Evolution (2007), formulates an idea of the intelligent designer as the "great mutator," driving the mutations which drive evolution.

Questions about my new book?Yes!
"If you have any questions about my new book, Edge of Evolution, you might enjoy taking a look at this brief interview I just gave." Question & Answer With Michael J. Behe, author of The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of DarwinismYes, we have a few questions! Many of Behe's arguments are points refuted a thousand times, whereas others appear to stem from him jumping to a conclusion when the evidence is neither conclusive nor convincing.

Questions & RationalWiki response[edit]

What do you believe Darwinian evolutionary processes can actually do?[edit]

THE EDGE OF EVOLUTION asks the sober question, what is it reasonable to think Darwinian evolutionary processes can actually do? Unprecedented genetic data on humans and our microbial parasites (malaria, HIV, E. coli) now allow us to answer that question with some precision. The astonishing result is that, even under intense selective pressure, and given an astronomical number of opportunities, random mutation and natural selection yield only trivial, mostly degenerating changes. The bottom line: the major events that produced life on earth were not driven by random mutations.Behe gets this "astonishing result" by ignoring the majority of ways mutations can happen,[2] leaving out key information about the one species he discusses,[3] and inventing bad numbers[4] to support a faulty model[5] of natural selection. It is, most emphatically, not a valid conclusion and certainly no threat to established science.

This is, in fact, rather fortunate since, by Behe's own admission,[6] his "astonishing result" would imply that the Intelligent Designer — tacitly acknowledged to be the Christian God — is directly responsible for the creation of all diseases.

Throughout this interview, his books, and public appearances, Dr. Behe wields his "scientific credentials" to impress the reader with his allegedly deep knowledge of cellular and genetic mechanisms. However, there are neither intensive discussions of these claims nor references to his publications in the scientific literature.

His argument amounts to "I have studied this, and this is what I say" — and what he says is what he set out to argue for anyway. "Intelligent Design" is simply a way to make an end run around the prohibition in the United States of teaching religion via "Creation Science" in schools — by giving it a new name and reducing the emphasis on "God" by name.

Additionally, Escherichia coli in humans is certainly not a parasite. When it's not causing food poisoning (which only certain serotypes can do; most are quite harmless), its relationship with human hosts ranges from commensal (harmlessly occupying space in the intestines) to mutualistic (synthesizing vitamin K and preventing many bacterial pathogens from colonizing its environment). Behe, a Ph.D. biologist, has no excuse for not knowing better than to describe it as a parasite.

The book’s subtitle speaks of the “limits of Darwinism.” Are you saying that Darwin’s theory is completely wrong?[edit]

Not at all. It is an excellent explanation for some features of life, but it has sharp limits. Darwin’s theory is an amalgam of several concepts: 1) random mutation, 2) natural selection, and 3) common descent. Common descent and natural selection are very well-supported. Random mutation isn’t. Random mutation is severely constrained. So the process which produced the elegant structures of life could not have been random.He does not say on what basis he believes mutation to be constrained.

"Random" is the straw man Behe repeatedly attacks in his defense of ID. If he is intelligent enough to understand evolutionary theory, one can only conclude that he has made the intellectually dishonest decision to represent evolution as an entirely random process, which could not be further from the truth. While the billions of mutations that evolution has to work with are random, spreading a beneficial mutation through a population because it confers an adaptive advantage is not in any sense "random".

While Behe can't be blamed for not knowing it, years later, we have strong evidence that random mutation is the sole source of genetic variation between species.[7]

How does the book evolve from the failure of randomness to the conclusion of intelligent design? Aren’t there possible unintelligent evolutionary explanations other than Darwinism?[edit]

The new genetic results on humans and our parasites tell against not only Darwin’s theory, but against any unintelligent process. In their reciprocal evolutionary struggle, human and parasitic genomes could have been altered in nature by whatever unintelligent mechanism had the ability to help. Yet virtually nothing did. Because the categories of “intelligent” and “unintelligent” processes are mutually exclusive and exhaustive, ruling out unintelligent processes necessarily implicates intelligence.Here Behe claims that humans do not have apparent mechanisms for preventing parasitism and that those methods we do have are the extent of "unintelligent" processes. Ergo ID is proved.

What Behe fails to notice is that parasitism is not the biggest problem that a species faces. Gradual change makes changing the nature of the organism's internal environment difficult, as any such change could easily cause tissue damage and thus be selected against. Despite this, highly varied anti-parasitic adaptations exist. Many plants produce toxic chemicals; vertebrates have retained a complex immune system despite its cost and problems. Fungi, lacking immune systems, are known to produce a variety of antibiotics and anti-(other)-fungal drugs, many of which, like penicillin, have found applications in medicine.

More fundamentally, Behe fails to distinguish between parasites now and parasites in the past. The latter are now extinct precisely because their host species became sufficiently resistant to them. We don't know what systems were altered to achieve this or whether these systems were further altered after the removal of parasites and are now differently functional or even non-functional.

What evidence speaks most clearly to the role of intelligent design in biology?[edit]

The elegance of the foundation of life — the cell. Charles Darwin and his contemporaries supposed the cell was a “simple globule of protoplasm,” a microscopic piece of Jell-O. They were wrong. Modern science reveals the cell is a sophisticated, automated, nano-scale factory. For example, the journal Nature marvels, “The cell’s macromolecular machines contain dozens or even hundreds of components. But unlike man made machines, which are built on assembly lines, these cellular machines assemble spontaneously from their ... components. It is as though cars could be manufactured by merely tumbling their parts onto the factory floor.”Darwin wrote a paper on cellular structures, as did some of his contemporaries. That said, Scientists in Darwin’s Day Did Not Grasp the Complexity of the Cell; Not Even Close

Today we know that the amount of information contained within a cell is phenomenal. Behe states that the cell is too complex for evolution to have been achieved randomly according to the traditional Darwinian view. Behe posits that the process must have been directed. So too did Darwin's father, Erasmus Darwin,[8] Herschel, whose Introduction to Natural Philosophy deeply impressed Darwin, and Ava Grey, Darwin's chief supporter, believed the process was being directed.[9]

Note that the very next sentence[10] in the Nature column he cites (actually a "News and Views" piece summarizing several papers presented in that issue) reads, "Knowing how cellular complexes organize themselves is crucial for understanding molecular evolution and for engineering materials that can mimic their properties."

How does intelligent design differ from the prevailing Darwinist view of evolution?[edit]

To a surprising extent prevailing evolutionary theory and intelligent design are harmonious. Both agree that the universe and life unfolded over vast ages; both agree that species could follow species in the common descent of life. They differ solely in the overriding role Darwinism ascribes to randomness. Intelligent design says that, while randomness does exist, its role in explaining the unfolding of life is quite limited."Darwinism" is not the name of the current state of the theory of evolution. The year is no longer 1859, and scientists have advanced beyond Charles Darwin's discoveries, finding a few places where he was wrong yet demonstrating how often he was right and how his piercing insights apply to places he had not imagined. The anachronism of the word "Darwinism" is astonishing, so it might be humorous if the creationists who employ it were not determined to destroy science education.

One might as well call all modern music "Beethovenism."

Behe makes two errors here. The first is that he assumes all change over time is random. It is not. Natural selection tests every mutation over time in the real world, and those that confer an advantage to a population have a greater chance of spreading through the population. The second mistake is that something random cannot be significant. This ignores, for example, the fact that there is a random factor in the recombination of genes passed on to every offspring from the two parents who participate in sexual reproduction.

ID says that "while randomness does exist, its role in explaining the unfolding of life is quite limited." What it does not do is prove it.

How does intelligent design differ from creationism? What do you say to critics who charge that it is merely “creationism in disguise”?[edit]

Intelligent design theory is to creationism as the Big Bang theory is to the book of Genesis. Although both intelligent design and the Big Bang may be reminiscent of some religious ideas about the universe and life, they are both grounded on the empirical study of nature, not on holy books. The phrase “Let there be light” may be evocative of the Big Bang, but the Big Bang is science, not scripture. Intelligent design may be compatible with some religious concepts, but the astounding intricacy of cellular molecular machinery is hard scientific data.Evolution and modern geology are to creationism as the Big Bang theory is to Genesis. They completely overturn the concepts laid down thousands of years ago by wandering tribal storytellers.

Intelligent Design may claim to be based on "empirical study", but it falls back on an unobserved, invented character to explain life. Furthermore, "astounding intricacy" is not hard scientific data; it's just an appeal from incredulity.

Intelligent design is, of course, as we all know, based on scripture (it is creationism without the word) and an attempt to sneak the Bible story of creation into science classes. The Discovery Institute's Wedge Document makes this explicit.

And where does Behe get off claiming that the Big Bang theory is reminiscent of religious ideas? No description in the Bible is in any way similar to the Big Bang as described by science. This conflation of Intelligent Design and the Big Bang theory appears to be a ploy to persuade the gullible reader that ID is somehow scientific in the same way the Big Bang theory is.

Do you see intelligent design as a concept that provides a resolution to the creation vs. evolution debate? Is there ever a point where science and religion might meet in some form of compromise – and does intelligent design help to provide that answer?[edit]

In some ways intelligent design is the perfect middle ground between the scientistic atheism exemplified by Richard Dawkins and the dogmatic religious creation stories he rails against. Like the Big Bang theory and the discovery of the “fine-tuning” of the universe for life, intelligent design recognizes that empirical results from science point insistently to a reality greater than is dreamt of in Dawkins’ philosophy. Yet, rather than relying on some holy text, ID comes to that conclusion through science — from our own human intellect and the struggle to understand nature.Science does not need to use a "middle ground". Science pursues the truth, wherever that may lead. Evolution is not atheism — Behe introduces a straw man to shoot at here. The universe is not "fine-tuned" for life — if it were different, any life that could arise might, and the universe would seem fine-tuned for that life. Furthermore, features of the universe exist — such as the number of "generations" of elementary particles — apparently irrelevant to life on Earth. On top of that, as Carl Sagan once noted, the same physical laws and constants of nature "required" for life are also "required" to make rocks, so why couldn't the universe have been "fine-tuned" so that rocks could arise?

Behe bastardizes Shakespeare to denigrate Richard Dawkins, but in doing so, he wallows in irony. "Our own human intellect," which Behe praises so fulsomely, has indeed struggled to understand nature and has met with considerable success. The world our discoveries reveal to us is staggeringly ancient, astonishingly vast, and exquisitely interrelated, and it is this reality, our reality which Intelligent Design so persistently denies. Behe insists upon a small God, a trivial God who can somehow "fine-tune" the natural laws of the Cosmos but must then intervene on one small planet and micromanage every feature of the development of life. This is nothing more than an insult to the human spirit.

None of the tribes of creationism, including Intelligent Design, have any scientific basis.

In Edge of Evolution you indicate that some of the evidence supporting common ancestry is pretty persuasive. Yet a number of scientists have questioned some of the evidence for common ancestry. Do you think it is beyond the pale for them to do so? In your mind is it scientific to question common ancestry?[edit]

In my view it is certainly not “beyond the pale” for a scientist to question anything. Questioning and skepticism are healthy for science. I have no solutions to the difficult problems pointed to by scientists who are skeptical of universal common descent: ORFan genes, nonstandard genetic codes, different routes of embryogenesis by similar organisms, and so on. Nonetheless, as I see it, if, rather than Darwinian evolution, one is talking about "intelligently designed" descent, then those problems, while still there, seem much less insuperable. I certainly agree that random, unintelligent processes could not account for them, but an intelligent agent may have ways around apparent difficulties. So in judging the likelihood of common descent, I discount problems that could be classified as "how did that get here?" Instead, I give much more weight to the "mistakes" or "useless features" arguments. If some peculiar feature is shared between two species which, as far as we can tell, has no particular function, and which in other contexts we would likely call a genetic accident, then I count that as rather strong evidence for common descent. So, if one looks at the data in the way that I do, then one can say simultaneously that: 1) CD is very well supported; 2) grand Darwinian claims are falsified; 3) ID is confirmed; 4) design extends very deeply into biology.Behe apparently accepts common descent but understands that Intelligent Design is a "big tent" and needs to encompass everything from Young Earth Creationism to fans of alien tinkering with earth life. So he qualifies his acceptance of common descent by saying he "understands" how someone can be skeptical of it. Note how "skeptical" ID advocates can be about things like the incontrovertible evidence of common descent, yet if real scientists express skepticism about their logically incoherent, religiously motivated, pseudoscientific ideas, they are suddenly closed-minded and evil.

However, this part is sensible:

If some peculiar feature is shared between two species which, as far as we can tell, has no particular function, and which in other contexts we would likely call a genetic accident, then I count that as rather strong evidence for common descent.

But how does he get from that to:

So, if one looks at the data in the way that I do, then one can say simultaneously that: 1) CD is very well supported; 2) grand Darwinian claims are falsified; 3) ID is confirmed; 4) design extends very deeply into biology.

What "grand Darwinian claims"? How on earth does this confirm ID? And why should this mean "design extends very deeply into biology?"

The bottom line is that Behe admits "an intelligent agent" is required by the ID view, but he makes no attempt to scientifically pursue this "theory" by finding or proposing a way to uncover the identity and actions of this "agent". What scientist would be so uninterested in following up their "theory" that an intelligent agent exists that tampers with genes, speciation, and who knows what else?

How does your view of intelligent design in biology fit with the findings and theories of cosmology and physics?[edit]

The conclusion of intelligent design in biology fits very well with unexpected results in the past few decades from physics and astronomy, which show that the universe, its laws, physical constants, and many details, are “fine-tuned” for life on earth. For example, if the charge on the electron or the properties of water were much different, life as we know it would be precluded. Biology has now discovered that the fine tuning of the universe for life actually extends into life. The term “consilience” denotes the situation where results from several scientific areas point in the same direction, reinforcing our confidence that the conclusion is correct. Biology has attained consilience with results from cosmology and physics.As said above, the universe is not "fine-tuned" for life — if it were different, any life that could arise might, and the universe would seem fine-tuned for that life. The empirical demonstration of natural selection falsifies this teleological notion - the life that survives in this universe is plastic to the conditions of this universe, not the other way around.

This "theory" is called the "anthropic principle".

Of course, if the universe were different, we could not live. Even the elements as we know them might not exist. But whatever that different universe was like, there is probably a Behe in it exclaiming, "the universe, its laws, physical constants, and many details, are “fine-tuned” for life on zlogzct"!

He also ignores that life elsewhere may be incredibly alien to anything we have ever known.

'Is it necessary to conclude that the designer is God?[edit]

“Necessary” is a strong word. It is not “necessary” in a compulsory sense. The scientific study of nature in the past century and especially the last few decades, however, points strongly to the conclusion that there exists an intelligent being who set up our universe for life: its physical laws, many of its properties and details, as well as many necessary details reaching deeply into life. In the teeth of that evidence a person such as Richard Dawkins is still free to think it was all one huge cosmic accident. Most people will decide God — or some remarkable being — is the most likely explanation.This, of course, prompts the question of whether Behe's "god" was also intelligently designed or came into being by a huge cosmic accident.

In addition, he dismisses the billions of years and the countless mutations and offspring with which evolution has worked with the blithe (and purposefully misleading) "one huge...accident." It was neither one event nor entirely random.

Behe, of course, has to watch his words here since supporters are still deluded enough to believe that Intelligent Design may someday be taught in public schools (even though much of that was shot down by Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District). It has been made clear that this is merely an approach to force the Christian religion across the wall of separation. As fellow Discovery Institute fellow William Dembski has said, "Intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John's Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory."[11]

Why do you think there is such resistance within the scientific community to the idea of intelligent design?[edit]

Scientists are trained to think of the universe as a self-contained, self-explanatory system. Unexpected findings that go against that supposition can be disconcerting. When it was first proposed, the idea that the universe had a beginning in a big bang was strongly resisted by some scientists, because it pointed to a reality outside of the universe. Intelligent design of biology evokes even stronger reactions, perhaps because it challenges the supposition of a self-contained universe even more strongly.To a certain extent, he is right in this. There is certainly strong scientific skepticism toward the idea of God micromanaging the whole process of evolution on a daily or, possibly, hourly basis. However, if God (or Behe's Intelligent Designer) could change things on a whim whenever he liked, then science would have zero purpose. Nothing would be predictable, so trying to model the universe through empirical study would be meaningless. Conversely, if God operated in an entirely predictable way, why assume intelligent agency instead of natural causes? Science ignores the supernatural because otherwise, it would descend into Last Thursdayism.

Skepticism of new ideas, however, is a vital element in the scientific process, ensuring that no new idea will be accepted until sufficient evidence is provided that it is valid. This is exactly how an idea such as "cold fusion" is examined, tested, and rejected when the experiment that allegedly produced the reported result proves to be irreproducible.

The big bang theory did not become widely accepted until enough evidence accumulated. If actual evidence is gathered for ID, it will get a fair hearing. However, no one has offered empirical evidence for ID — only criticisms of evolution and philosophical thought experiments about irreducible complexity.

One criticism of ID has been that it makes no predictions, and thus is unscientific. Does The Edge of Evolution address this?[edit]

The Edge of Evolution is almost entirely concerned with the major, opposing predictions of Darwinism and ID. The most essential prediction of Darwinism is that, given an astronomical number of chances, unintelligent processes can make seemingly-designed systems, ones of the complexity of those found in the cell. ID specifically denies this, predicting that in the absence of intelligent input no such systems would develop. So Darwinism and ID make clear, opposite predictions of what we should find when we examine genetic results from a stupendous number of organisms that are under relentless pressure from natural selection. The recent genetic results are a stringent test. The results: 1) Darwinism’s prediction is falsified; 2) Design’s prediction is confirmed.Since this is an enticement that basically says "buy my book", we can't be sure what these new "genetic results" are. But it is most likely his discussion that drug resistance in malaria had failed to evolve and would need God to intervene (man, She must have been having a bad day when She decided to do that); therefore, everything else needs God. Behe has this to say:
If all of these huge numbers make your head spin, think of it this way. The likelihood that Homo sapiens achieved any single mutation of the kind required for malaria to become resistant to chloroquine--not the easiest mutation, to be sure, but still only a shift of two amino acids--the likelihood that such a mutation could arise just once in the entire course of the human lineage in the past ten million years, is minuscule--of the same order as, say, the likelihood of you personally winning the Powerball lottery by buying a single ticket.

And we all know that the Powerball can't be won by buying a single ticket — except it can because improbable things happen. Of course, even the statistics Behe creates for how "unlikely" something is to occur are poorly based on reality, and the justification for applying mutation rates in malaria to humans is not given.

Lastly, Behe shoots himself in the foot when he describes the predictions of ID. If the prediction of ID is that "in the absence of intelligent input, no such systems would develop", then an appropriate test would be to attempt to find a complex biological system that developed without intelligent input. But Behe claims all life had intelligent input and sees in it everything from flagellums to cats. So, where on Earth (or elsewhere) would one start to look? Has he even bothered trying to look for one? Given the size of our universe, Behe would have to do a lot of searching before he could confidently say his prediction had been confirmed. He would have to scour every atmosphere-bearing rock in the entire universe and probably double-check before he could say that no system has developed without intelligent input.

Are there lessons we can learn from the study of malaria and HIV to help us, as a species, protect ourselves from viral and parasitical threats? How might other fields, such as medicine, be affected by intelligent design?[edit]

One heartening conclusion of intelligent design is that Darwinian evolution is not the relentless, Borg-like process we had thought. Random evolution is clumsy and limited. That means that, even when fighting pathogens such as malaria that occur in enormous numbers, if science can find the right monkey wrench to throw in its molecular machinery, random mutation and natural selection will be helpless to circumvent it.Who cares if it is "relentless and Borg-like?" It is not relevant what one's opinion of a natural process is like, as far as its truth or falsity is concerned. And while malaria has in the past succumbed to our "monkeywrenching", it is starting to develop immunity to many of our drugs, as have other pathogens which have proven quite adept at circumventing our efforts to keep them at bay — through random mutation and selection pressures (See antibiotic-resistant bacteria). In fact, Intelligent design has contributed nothing to medicine nor our ability to fight disease. No single study, drug, or procedure owes its creation to Behe's ideas. Evolution, of course, is the cornerstone of much of modern medicine.[12]

Behe has a long way to go before his ideas should even merit mentioning in the same breath as evolution. What is frightening about this statement is his application of ID to medicine — if applied widely, this fundamental misunderstanding would prevent proper research into the ever-evolving genomes of pathogens. Natural selection is never "helpless to circumvent" medical interventions, which is partly why we haven't yet wiped out infectious diseases.


NOTE: I heard him speak today, and he cites evidence, for example, intense artificial selective pressures on Malaria, and yet no significant or useful mutations. He may be misrepresenting the number of generations and opportunities for evolution with Malaria, and the intensity of the selective pressures, but he does in fact state a basis for asserting constrained mutations.

NOTE2: Wouldn't it be lovely if malaria went extinct?

one RW editor
NOTE: I have never heard him speak. It's amazing just how excited malaria gets him. One bug out of millions didn't manage to adapt to an artificial change in its environment created by an intelligent species? Intense selective pressures alone don't drive evolution of needed traits — a useful mutation has to occur. Otherwise, intense selective pressure causes ... extinction.

NOTE2: Yes, quite lovely. Smallpox is more likely, though.

another RW editor
Behe fails to address why many modern strains of malaria are, in fact, becoming resistant to older anti-malarial drugs. His statement transcends an error of omission--it is a flat out lie.

See also[edit]


  1. Discovery Institute biography
  2. Mark C. Chu-Carroll, May 31, 2007. Behe's Dreadful New Book: A Review of "The Edge of Evolution". Good math, bad math.
  3. Nick Matzke, June 5, 2007. "Of cilia and silliness (more on Behe)." Panda's thumb.
  4. Behe’s Bad Arithmetic and Worse Science (Blake Stacey, Science After Sunclipse blog, 2007-06-06
  5. Sean B. Carroll. "God as Genetic Engineer." Science 8 June 2007: 316 5830, pp. 1427-1428. DOI: 10.1126/science.1145104
  6. Behe's Edge of Evolution, part Ia (PZ Myers, Pharyngula blog, 2007-06-05)
  7. Stephen Schaffner, Testing Common Ancestry: It’s All About the Mutations., 7 September 2017.
  8. Harrison, J. (1971) Journal of the History of Ideas 32(2), p. 254. DOI: 10.2307/2708279
  9. Thorvaldse, S. & Ohrstrom, P. (2013). Darwin's perplexing paradox: intelligent design in nature. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 56(1), p. 85.
  10. Sarah A. Woodson. "Biophysics: Assembly line inspection." Nature 438, 566-567 (1 December 2005). doi:10.1038/438566a
  11. Touchstone Magazine. Volume 12, Issue4: July/August, 1999
  12. Egnorance: The Egotistical Combination of Ignorance and Arrogance (Burt Humburg, Panda's Thumb blog, 2007-03-09)