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Bronze-level article

Michael Behe

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"Look Ma, I'm not even facing the experiment I'm currently performing!"
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Dr. Michael J. Behe is a Professor of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He is a prominent advocate of the pseudoscience Intelligent Design, having coined the term irreducible complexity and testified as an expert witness and co-author of the intelligent design textbook that was the subject of the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District litigation. He is a fellow of the Discovery Institute[1] and his work is mentioned various times in the Discovery Institute's Wedge Document.

The vast majority of scientists regard Behe's positions on intelligent design as pseudoscientific and unfalsifiable. The Lehigh University Department of Biological Sciences, where Behe is a tenured professor, has seen fit to prominently dissociate itself from Behe's views on intelligent design.[2] Behe acknowledges that most of his colleagues disagree with him.[3]

Prominent works[edit]

In 1996, Behe authored Darwin's Black Box, which argued that biological systems were irreducibly complex and therefore could not have evolved. Controversial when published, many of the claims in the book have since been refuted, as Behe himself admitted during the Dover trial (see below).

Behe's second book The Edge of Evolution, published in 2007, abandons many of his earlier positions, to formulate a new idea of the intelligent designer as the "great mutator," driving the mutations which drive evolution. The abdication of his former ideas, and the substitution of such a weak and strange theory, led Richard Dawkins to refer to him as "a man who has given up."[4]

More recently, Behe lent his services to ISKCON, authoring a chapter in a book entitled "Rethinking Darwin: A Vedic Study of Darwinism and Intelligent Design" for the "Bhaktivedanta Book Trust." [1].

The Dover trial[edit]

Behe served as an expert witness for the defense in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial. Under cross examination, he was obliged to admit: [5]

  • That no peer-reviewed scientific journal has published research supportive of intelligent design's claims.
  • That Behe's own book was not, as he had claimed, peer reviewed.
  • That Behe himself criticizes the science presented as supporting intelligent design in instructional material created for that purpose.
  • That intelligent design seems plausible and reasonable to inquirers in direct proportion to their belief or nonbelief in God.
  • That the basic arguments for evidence of purposeful design in nature are essentially the same as those adduced by the Christian apologist Rev. William Paley (1743–1805) in his 1802 Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected From the Appearances of Nature, where he sums up his observations of the complexity of life in the ringing words, "The marks of design are too strong to be got over. Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is GOD."[6]
  • That the definition of "theory" supplied by the US National Academy of Sciences[7] did not encompass ID, and that his broader definition would allow astrology to be included as a scientific theory.[8][9]
  • That he had claimed in his book that evolution could not explain immunology without even investigating the subject. He was presented with 58 peer reviewed articles, nine books, and several textbook chapters on the subject; he insisted they were "not good enough."[10].

What kind of scientist is Michael Behe?[edit]

A bad one, apparently.

Associate Professor Dr. David Lampe, of Duquesne University (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), did a review of Michael Behe's work from 1996 to 2005 to determine how productive he is as a scientist.[11] The study was based on how much work he had published in peer review journals, how many of his articles were referenced in further scientific research, and total number of publications. To establish a baseline, Lampe used Sean B. Carroll of the University of Wisconsin, who studies the developmental basis of evolutionary biology. He summarizes his findings as follows:

To summarize, Michael Behe has published 17 “items” since 1996,1 but only one of those items is a primary research paper related in any way to his ID research program, and that paper never mentions ID. His most important work, Darwin’s Black Box, has been cited 80 times, mostly negatively or else in non-science journals. Sean Carroll, by contrast has published 36 peer-reviewed papers and been cited a total of 1,508 times. I conclude, based on the evidence, that Michael Behe is obviously not a scientist of the first rank and appears not to be doing any serious work at the present time. More to the point, ID creationism is not an important idea in science. Science is a meritocracy where ideas earn their place. Until ID shows it can be used as a productive idea to perform scientific work it should not be presented as a viable alternative to well-established evolutionary theory. Academic freedom issues are simply not germane in this context. Short-circuiting the normal process used to establish the scientific ideas we teach to students is simply dishonest.

Lampe's footnote in the original reads:

1 On October 10, 2005 I took a look at Behe's expert testimony for the Kitzmiller et al. vs. Dover Area School District trial on teaching ID in the public school classroom currently underway in Harrisburg, PA. In his expert testimony Behe lists a much longer curriculum vitae than the one I used above. It contains 56 items, instead of the 17 I found initially. None of this latter material was cited in the science citation search I used or appeared in my PubMed search. I must say, the longer list is highly unusual. Among the "extra" 39 publications there are:
  • translations of Darwin's Black Box into 7 different languages (each cited as a new item);
  • two web-based articles;
  • 9 letters, critiques, or essays in conservative political or religious magazines (Crisis, First Things, American Spectator, National Review, and The Weekly Standard);
  • one poster abstract;
  • at least 6 more book chapters in overtly religious books;
  • lots of other book reviews, letters, etc. One quickly loses track in here.

This is fine as far as it goes, but the nature of this material is very unusual for a scientist who claims to have an active research program in the science of intelligent design. It is not surprising to me that Behe would not list this latter work on his Lehigh website or that it is not cited by scientists. A great deal of it is material that is simply irrelevant on an academic scientific curriculum vitae. ID is supposed to be scientific and I think this other material really betrays the underlying motivation of ID creationism. A dispassionate person would reasonably conclude that Michael Behe is peddling ID creationism to a narrow constituency and relying on them to demand a change in school curricula. Unfortunately, salesmanship is no substitute for research. Indeed, I don't see how he has time to produce any data!!

My suggestion is "get back in the lab."

"Academic freedom" vs. freedom of conscience — which is a more basic right?[edit]

Despite Behe's involvement with a movement that pretends to be about "academic freedom" and the freedom to question "orthodoxies," Behe apparently does not extend such freedoms to members of his own family. Behe's then 19 year old son, Leo Behe, rejected Catholicism in favor of atheism;[12] for his pains he claims he was made a pariah in his family and compelled to reside in the basement.[13] Apparently, for him, you are only free to think what you think if you think the same as he does.

On November 6, 2010, Leo Behe called in to the Atheist Community of Austin's Non-Prophets radio show and spoke with Matt Dillahunty, Russell Glasser, and Dennis Loubet.[14] Leo described the quest that led to him rejecting his Catholic faith actually starting as an effort to engage in apologetics. At the beginning of his investigation he was
very happy with God and actually going out and getting a few books from the library to try to better defend my Catholic faith; so I thought I should go and get some books against Christianity and see how best I could refute their claims. The first one I picked up was a classic, the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. ... It wouldn't have been my dad's first choice. ... at first I didn't think that much of it. I thought I was just going to read them and say "ok well this is why he's wrong" and then return the book, but that was the book that kind of planted the first seeds of doubt. And then as I looked into it more over I'd say a period of 6 months, I just gradually lost my faith as I looked at it more and more and kind of saw the evidence against my faith; and I kind of realized for the first time that there wasn't much in the way of credibility in terms of something like the Bible.[15]

See also[edit]