Behe's Fresh Controversy in the World of Science

Tom Woodward | Trinity College of Florida | Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Behe's Fresh Controversy in the World of Science

June 20, 2007

The “big one” just rattled teacups across the scientific world in early June. Phones are still ringing, the Internet is buzzing. Many are predicting that the landscape of biological theory will be reshaped by this tremor that is coming from a provocative new book, “The Edge of Evolution,” from a Lehigh University professor of biology.

The bearded professor at the epicenter, Michael Behe, is no stranger to controversy, having aroused great interest (and unending wrath from the Darwinists) through his 1996 seismic event, “Darwin’s Black Box.” His newest science-quake, “The Edge of Evolution” (hereafter Edge) was released June 5th by Free Press. It promises to generate as much (if not more) discussion among scientists as “Darwin’s Black Box.” Why? Because of new territory he covers and the profoundly important questions he tackles.

For example, Behe asks, where can we draw the line between what random mutations can do in biology and what they cannot do? To his own surprise, new genetic data recently unearthed from the cellular hard drives of humans and microbes led him to “draw the line” much lower on the scale of complexity than where he would have just ten years ago. Random mutations just break things; they don’t make things.

A Cultural Earthquake?

In short, Behe’s Edge is shaping up as a major turning point in the growing controversy between Darwinian evolution and the movement known as Intelligent Design (“ID” for short). For me, as a historian of this scientific debate, perhaps the most exciting task is to track and even try to predict such “cultural earthquakes.”

By the standards of the past 20 years or so, and as the ID-Darwinism controversy enters its third decade, the early June Behe-quake is potentially the largest to date. Note carefully the wording from biologist Phillip Skell, a member of the National Academy of Science: “Until the past decade and the genomics revolution, Darwin’s theory rested on indirect evidence and reasonable speculation. Now, however, we have begun to scratch the surface of direct evidence, of which this book offers the best possible treatment. Though many critics won’t want to admit it, “The Edge of Evolution” is very balanced, careful, and devastating.”

Behe explores recent data gleaned from genetic hard drives of humans and two key microbes, malaria and HIV. This experimental evidence makes it inescapable that Darwinists’ favored “engine of creation” has severe problems. The evolutionary “motor” of random mutations filtered by natural selection leaves a crater-strewn genetic landscape. As a generator of evolutionary novelty, it is practically non-existent.

Richard Dawkins, the British Darwinist and anti-Christian author, has consistently touted this same mechanism, which he calls the “blind watchmaker” with vast creative powers. Yet Behe writes that “with a billion times the firepower of the puny labs that humans run, the M-H [malaria-HIV] experiment has scoured the planet looking for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to build coherent biological machinery and has found absolutely nothing. Why no trace of the fabled blind watchmaker? The simplest explanation is that … the blind watchmaker does not exist.”

Such bold words have already earned Behe immense criticism on Internet blogs. Paul Nelson, a leading ID theorist cautions, “Don’t focus on this incredible rhetorical onslaught against Behe. His case will be thoroughly vindicated through the data. The evidence that supports his thesis will win the day … it is simply overwhelming.”

Nano-machine Complexity: Deeper Than Ever!

Does Behe extend any of his arguments developed earlier in “Darwin’s Black Box”? Yes, somewhat, and for those new to Behe, a brief refresher may be in order. Behe’s earlier book showed that the cell was found to be jammed with horrendous complexity. In other words, even the cells of microbes are chock-full of tiny sophisticated molecular machines—machines with so many working parts (all made of intricately shaped protein molecules) that they defy any step-by-tiny-step Darwinian story of evolution.

One such machine, a rotary-engine-with-propeller called the flagellum, has about 40 such protein parts; remove any one, and the system instantly shuts down. Behe became world-famous not only for popularizing the existence of such astonishing systems, but also for labeling these complex systems “irreducibly complex.” This seemed to point squarely to a heretical hypothesis: they were designed, not assembled by mutations and natural selection as we are told in biology class.

In Edge, Behe zooms in again on tiny hair-like structures called cilia, which can wave back and forth like oars protruding from a Roman galley. Our windpipes are lined with millions of such hairs. In his earlier work, Behe explained how amazingly complex—irreducibly complex—such structures are. Their existence is prima facie evidence of design. What he adds now, which was not even known eleven years ago, is that the construction process that builds the cilia is equally complex, if not more so, and thus the argument is exponentially stronger now than it was in “Darwin’s Black Box.”

Thanks to professor Behe, the summer of 2007 may well be remembered as the summer of the largest Darwin-related cultural earthquake to date. 


Thomas E. Woodward is Research Professor at Trinity College of Florida, Host of “Darwin or Design?” a weekly program on WTBN, Tampa and author of “Darwin Strikes Back: Defending the Science of Intelligent Design.” Contact Tom at [email protected]

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