An Interview With a Biochemist

IN 1996, Michael J. Behe, now professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, U.S.A., released his book Darwin’s Black Box—The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. The May 8, 1997, issue of Awake! carried a series of articles under the title “How Did We Get Here?—By Accident or by Design?” which referred to Behe’s book. In the decade since Darwin’s Black Box was published, evolutionary scientists have scrambled to counter the arguments Behe raised. Critics have accused him of allowing his religious convictions—he is Roman Catholic—to cloud his scientific judgment. Others claim that his reasoning is unscientific. Awake! interviewed Professor Behe to learn why his ideas have caused such controversy.

AWAKE!: WHY DO YOU FEEL THAT LIFE PROVIDES EVIDENCE OF INTELLIGENT DESIGN?

PROFESSOR BEHE: We infer design whenever we see complex functional arrangements. Take, for instance, the machines we use every day—a lawn mower, a car, or even simpler things. An example I like to use is a mousetrap. You conclude that it is designed because you see different parts arranged to perform the function of catching a mouse.

Science has now advanced enough to have uncovered the foundation level of life. And much to our surprise, scientists have found functional, complex machinery at the molecular level of life. For instance, within living cells there are little molecular “trucks” that carry supplies from one side of the cell to the other. There are tiny molecular “sign posts” that tell these “trucks” to turn left or right. Some cells have molecular “outboard motors” that propel the cells through liquid. In any other context, when such functional complexity is evident, people would conclude that these things were designed. We have no other explanation for this complexity, claims of Darwinian evolution notwithstanding. Since it’s been our uniform experience that this sort of arrangement bespeaks design, we are justified in thinking that these molecular systems were also intelligently designed.

AWAKE!: WHY IN YOUR OPINION DO THE MAJORITY OF YOUR COLLEAGUES DISAGREE WITH YOUR CONCLUSIONS REGARDING INTELLIGENT DESIGN?

PROFESSOR BEHE: Many scientists disagree with my conclusions because they see that the idea of intelligent design has extrascientific implications—that it seems to point strongly beyond nature. This conclusion makes many people nervous. However, I was always taught that science is supposed to follow the evidence wherever it leads. In my view it is a failure of nerve to back away from something that is so strongly indicated by the evidence simply because you think the conclusion has unwelcome philosophical implications.

AWAKE!: HOW DO YOU RESPOND TO CRITICS WHO CLAIM THAT ACCEPTING THE IDEA OF INTELLIGENT DESIGN PROMOTES IGNORANCE?

PROFESSOR BEHE: The conclusion of design is not due to ignorance. It’s not due to what we don’t know; it’s due to what we do know. When Darwin published his book The Origin of Species 150 years ago, life seemed simple. Scientists thought that the cell was so simple that it might just spontaneously bubble up from sea mud. But since then, science has discovered that cells are enormously complex, much more complex than the machinery of our 21st-century world. That functional complexity bespeaks purposeful design.

AWAKE!: HAS SCIENCE PRODUCED ANY EVIDENCE TO PROVE THAT EVOLUTION, BY MEANS OF NATURAL SELECTION, COULD HAVE CREATED THE COMPLEX MOLECULAR MACHINES THAT YOU TALK ABOUT?

PROFESSOR BEHE: If you search the scientific literature, you will discover that nobody has made a serious attempt—an experimental attempt or detailed scientific model—that explains how such molecular machines arose by Darwinian processes. This is despite the fact that in the ten years since my book was published, many scientific organizations, such as the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have issued urgent appeals to their membership to do everything they can to fend off the idea that life provides evidence of intelligent design.

AWAKE!: HOW DO YOU RESPOND TO THOSE WHO POINT TO FEATURES OF PLANTS OR ANIMALS THAT THEY CLAIM ARE POORLY DESIGNED?

PROFESSOR BEHE: Just because we don’t know the reason for some feature in an organism does not mean that it doesn’t have an important role to play. For example, so-called vestigial organs were once thought to show that the human body and other organisms were poorly designed. The appendix and the tonsils, for instance, were once thought to be vestigial organs and were routinely removed. But then it was discovered that these organs play a role in the immune system, and they are no longer considered vestigial.

Another point to remember is that in biology certain things apparently do occur by chance. But just because my car has a dent in it or gets a flat tire does not mean that the car or the tire was not designed. Likewise, the fact that some things occur by chance in biology does not mean that the sophisticated, complex molecular machinery of life arose by chance. That argument is simply not logical.

[Blurb on page 12]

“In my view it is a failure of nerve to back away from something that is so strongly indicated by the evidence simply because you think the conclusion has unwelcome philosophical implications”