Monday, March 21, 2005


Michael Behe: Chain of Fools

Last month, The New York Times published an Op-Ed by Michael Behe, a leading proponent of intelligent design titled, "Design for Living." Dr. Behe is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Penn. and the author of "Darwin's Black Box."

Red State Rabble is well aware that we are late coming to the pump on Behe's Op-Ed. Others -- perhaps more qualified -- pointed to the many weaknesses in his argument some weeks ago. Still, RSR, believes we have something of value to add, and subscribing, some might say clinging, to the notion that late is better than never, here it is:

Behe steps on thin ice early on by claiming unconvincingly that "intelligent design is not a religiously based idea." I will not question Behe's motives here, for all I know he may be utterly sincere. Whatever Behe's personal beliefs about intelligent design, however, he can't claim to speak for all supporters of the "theory," nearly all of whom are Christian fundamentals who interpret the Bible literally.

Here in Kansas, we have just completed a series of four public hearings on science standards where a large number of intelligent design proponents have spoken publicly about their beliefs.

"What you call intelligent design," said Renee Beauford, for example, at the Kansas City, Kan. hearing on Feb. 1, "I call religion, or Christianity. And I'm a firm believer in Christianity. And if you're going to not allow religion into the school, then I would prefer that you not allow evolution into the school, also, because I'm trying to teach my children religion."

There are more sophisticated intelligent design proponents, of course. Philip Johnson, for example, sees intelligent design as nothing more than a convenient legal and political stratagem.

"Our strategy has been to change the subject a bit," says Johnson, "so that we can get the issue of intelligent design, which really means the reality of God, before the academic world and into the schools."

Let's take Behe at his word, even though he may well be a minority of one in intelligent design circles.

Behe asserts in his Op-Ed, "... the contemporary argument for intelligent design is based on physical evidence and a straightforward application of logic."

We can dispose of the physical evidence out of hand, because Behe offers none in the Times. (RSR can't help pointing out that intelligent design proponents love to wave the bloody flag of evidence, but rarely get around to producing any.)

Let's take a look then, at the logic.

"The argument for (intelligent design) consists of four linked claims," Behe writes. The first of those claims is that we can recognize the effects of design in nature. Strangely, he uses the Rocky Mountains and Mount Rushmore to illustrate this first crucial link in the chain.

There are several problems with this approach. First, most intelligent design proponents would say that the Rocky Mountains -- like everything else in God's great universe -- are a product of design. Second, for a man making an argument about biological evolution, the Mount Rushmore illustration just isn't relevant. It utterly fails to support to the case he wants to make. Why, we must ask ourselves, didn't he choose a biological example?

Behe does understand that nature -- what he calls unintelligent physical forces -- can account for the origin of the Rocky Mountains -- that nature is capable of producing results that resemble design.

What Behe utterly fails to explain is how we can distinguish between natural design and intelligent design. Instead he runs lippity lop to the second link in the chain writing, "the physical marks of design are visible in aspects of biology."

Interestingly, he quotes the 18th century clergyman William Paley who likened living things to a watch. According to intelligent design proponents, the theory of evolution is in crisis, and science and scientists are absolutely riven by the battle between advancing design theorists on the one hand, and a rear-guard of retreating evolution defenders on the other. Why then, reach back to an 18th century clergyman when bright, young, design-supporting, paper publishing, prize-winning research scientists at any one of a dozen major universities could make the argument so much stronger?

RSR also finds it striking that in a day and age when computer scientists engineer neural networks that imitate brain function, biologists are on the verge of developing cures for disease that employ genetic engineering, and doctors and technicians routinely build complex bio-medical interfaces, that Behe uses as his key example that marvel of 18th century engineer, the watch.

Next, Behe offers us several riveting paragraphs in which biological structures, such as the cell, are compared to factories, outboard motors, or other mechanical devices.

This exercise is of no use, though, because Behe has failed to tell us how to distinguish between biological structures that are the product of intelligent design and biological structures that are the product of natural design -- what we flatlanders like to call evolution. That forces him to move on to the third link in his chain of fools.

"We have no good explanation," he writes, "for the foundation of life that doesn't involve intelligence."

Well, we have evolution as an explanation. This explanation has several virtues: it is supported by the fossil record; observed speciation in viruses, plants, and insects; and a new and growing mountain of evidence from the field of genetics. Evolution explains a wide variety of observed phenomenon. It has been confirmed time and again by research in a variety of fields. It has been enormously productive in suggesting new areas of research.

The overwhelming majority of working scientists reject intelligent design. In fact, by some estimates, the number of scientists who, like Behe, find evolution unconvincing may be much less than one percent.

Behe writes that intelligent design proponents question whether random mutation and natural selection completely explain the -- deep structure of life -- but they do not doubt that evolution occurred.

Okay, Behe says he accepts evolution, so when he talks about the "foundation" of life, or deep structures, we have to be open to the possibility that he really means the origin of life on the planet. It may be he is saying, that ancient single cell organisms were created by a designer and evolution went on from there without divine intervention. If that is so, why all the filler on outboard motors and watches? If Behe is only talking about origins, and truly believes in evolution, as he says he does, then natural design must explain all those complex mechanical looking structures that developed in the intervening years.

So much for Behe's third -- dare we call it missing -- link.

The fourth and final link in the Behe chain -- in the absence of any convincing non-design explanation, we are justified in thinking that real intelligent design was involved" -- fails on two accounts. First it relies on the third link for which he provided no evidence. Second, his straight forward application of logic contains this fallacy: the failure to confirm one hypothesis does not mean that a contending hypothesis is necessarily true.

A chain, they say, is only as strong as its weakest link. In this case each of the links is so weak that we come, inevitably, to doubt the reality of the chain.

Behe's fails to give guidance on how to distinguish between the products of evolution -- what he would call unintelligent physical forces -- and intelligent design. Telling us that intelligent design looks like a watch, or an outboard motor, or a machine, tells us nothing about what natural design should look like?

On the other hand, if what he's really looking at here are ultimate causes. His line of reasoning is as intellectually unsatisfying as it is lazy. If the origin of life can only be explained by the active intervention of a designer, what is his explanation for the origin of the designer?


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