Michael Behe is one of the most influential advocates for intelligent design. In this podcast, Sean and Scott interview him about his most recent book Darwin Devolves. Behe offers insights about the state of the Darwin/Design debate and lays out his most recent case against Darwinism.
More About Our Guest
Michael Behe a biochemist, an intelligent design advocate, and the author of Darwin’s Black Box, The Edge of Evolution, and most recently Darwin Devolves. He is professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and a founding senior fellow of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: And I'm your co-host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics, also at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Sean McDowell: We're here with a guest today that I have been looking forward to having on for a long time. Doctor Michael Behe, he is a biochemist and intelligent design advocate. And the author of Darwin's Black Box and the Edge of Evolution. He teaches biochemistry at Lehigh University, and also has a new book that just came out called Darwin Devolves, the New Science about DNA that Challenges Evolution. Mike, thanks for joining us.
Michael Behe: Oh, it's terrific to be with you.
Sean McDowell: Let me start by just asking you to share your story of becoming a skeptic of Darwinism.
Michael Behe: Yeah, sure. Back in the day, I used to believe Darwin's theory was correct. I'm a Roman Catholic, and I went to parochial schools, and we were taught kind of a theistic evolutionary idea that God created the universe and it's laws. And if he wanted to make life by natural process as well, who were we to tell him he couldn't? And that sounded all fine to me. But, after a while, when I was an associate professor at Lehigh in the mid '80s, I read a book called Evolution, A Theory in Crisis. By a guy named Michael Denton who's a medical doctor and geneticist in Australia at the time.
And in it, he pointed out a whole number of problems for Darwin's theory that I had never heard about, even though I was, at that time, a faculty member, biochemist, and I should have heard about this. And, thinking back, I found that nobody in my science classes looked critically at Darwin's theory. It was all pretty much assumed.
And so at that point, I got ticked off. I was mad because I thought I was being led to believe something not because of the evidence for it, but just because that's the way we're supposed to think these days. And so, in biochemistry, which is the study of the molecular basis of life, you come across a lot of really fantastically complex systems. Elegant systems. And it used to be the case, I'd look at them, turn the page of the textbook and say, "Wholy moly, I wonder how that evolved?" And I'd say to myself, "Well, I guess somebody knows." And turn the page again.
But now that I read Denton's book, I decided to go to the science library and ask that question in earnest, who has explained how any of these things could have arisen? And it turned out that, surprising to me at the time, that nobody had. There was lots of hand waving and saluting of Darwin, but nobody had explained in detail how these very elegant systems might have arisen. And so from then on, I have been very strongly interested in evolution and intelligent design.
Scott Rae: So Mike, just to fill out a little bit about your background and your journey on this. Tell our listeners a little bit about what has happened to you professionally. Now you said you were a faculty member already, I take it at Lehigh at the time.
Michael Behe: That's right.
Scott Rae: When you started having these questions and reading some of these things, as you started interacting with colleagues and started raising some of these questions, publishing the things you have, tell our listeners a little bit about what happened in your professional life as a result of becoming this skeptic of Darwinism.
Michael Behe: Well, in the beginning it wasn't too bad. I published my first book, Darwin's Black Box in 1996. And intelligent design wasn't really on the radar screen at that point. And some of my colleagues found this interesting. They hadn't thought about it before, they said, "Yeah, that's kind of interesting." And I'd get emails from scientists saying, "You know, I've thought much along the same lines for a while now."
But then, as the ideas started to spread in society, the book was pretty widely discussed and reviewed and such. Then the scientific community started to get kind of nervous. And then, later on, there were efforts to introduce some of these ideas into schools. And they started to go on a crusade then to stamp out intelligent design. And intelligent design, at that point, started to become anathema. So that if you said that you think there might be something to this idea of design, you put your career at risk if you were a scientist. Over the time, past 15 years or so, I've known folks who have been denied tenure, graduate students who have been kicked out of laboratories. People who have been harassed, and so on.
Nothing like that happened to me because I had tenure at the time, and I'm no fool. So, I made sure I had my self secure. But a lot of people paid an impressive career price for defending intelligent design. And, it kind of simmered down a bit, but that's still the same attitude that this idea is anathema. And, you've got to be crazy if you're a scientist to think something like that. So I'm hoping the new book will kind of shake that up a bit.
Sean McDowell: So questions of design versus natural process date back long before the time of Christ. What's new about the date today? And maybe even what's new about the arguments you're making in your book?
Michael Behe: Yeah. Yeah, sure. Ever since we've written historical records, it turns out that people have been discussing design versus randomness and so on. What's different about the debate today is that science has pretty much reached the foundation of physical life that is cells and molecules and molecular systems. And so we have knowledge, just empirical knowledge, that the folks back in the time of the Greeks and so on didn't have. As a matter of fact, even in Charles Darwin's day, in 1850s, '60s, and so on. They had a pretty primitive view of life compared to us now.
The cell, which we now know to be the basis of life, there's no life without a cell. It was thought to be a pretty simple little thing. Maybe a microscopic piece of jelly. Protoplasm. And some people thought that, "Well maybe this simple jelly could probably just bubble up from the sea bottom." And so life wouldn't be hard to originate life. And who knows, it might just kind of shape itself this way and that from there.
Not only that, but even molecules. Molecules that we now know are the foundation of physical matter. They were theoretical entities. Nobody was quite sure if they existed. So the point is that they didn't have much ... Didn't have a lot of the knowledge that we do now. And what's particularly relevant now is that in the past ... Just in the past 20 years, science has developed the ability to easily sequence DNA. Probably most people have heard of The Human Genome Project. And that was in the year 2000. But, since then, people have developed these techniques really great [inaudible]. It's like computers that started out big and clunky, that fill up a room, and they could barely add two plus two. But now they're really sleek and fast and powerful.
It's the same thing with sequencing DNA. That one can sequence the entire genome of a creature pretty easily these days. And that's critical. It turns out that's critical because mutations, which are the basis of evolution, you've got mutations that change things, and then natural selection can select whatever seemingly works. Mutations are changes in molecules, in DNA. And you've got to be able to see what those changes are in order to see what Darwin's theory is capable of, at the very foundation of life.
Scott Rae: So it sounds like what you're suggesting here is that with our ability to look at life at the molecular level like we've never had before, that that's raising new sets of questions about some of the traditional Darwinian mechanisms for producing the complexity of life that we know of today. Would that be a fair summary?
Michael Behe: Sure, that's exactly right. As a matter of fact, a comparison I like to make is that speculating about how life arose before the past 20 years is kind of like people wondering about what the universe was like before the telescope was invented. This machinery that kind of augments our senses gives us the ability to really see what's going on at the molecular foundation of life, just like the telescope let people follow what was going on with the stars and so on. And so, our understanding of life really starts pretty much now. The past 20 years or so. And it does not look good for Darwin's theory.
Scott Rae: So let me ask a follow-up question on that. I've heard some of your colleagues at Discovery Institute, Steve Meyer, for example, and others. Make the argument that among the Darwinian community, that the traditional Darwinian emphasis on mutations and natural selection is the mechanism for producing the complexity of life as we know it today is in crisis. Would you agree with that assessment?
Michael Behe: I certainly would. And as a matter of fact, perhaps more important, not only me, but I would be that at least a third or maybe more of practicing biologists would agree with that. That's one thing that gets very much under reported in all this. Whenever evolution is discussed for the unwashed masses, and in public, Darwin's theory is rolled out and touted as the answer to all your questions. It explains pretty much everything. But if you look in the professional literature, and the journals that biologists write in and read, there's lots of people who say that Darwin's theory can't really cut the mustard. And we've got to look around for something else. And people who are proposing different ideas to supplement or augment Darwin's theory.
So, yeah. Lots of people besides just the folks at Discovery think that Darwin's theory is in big trouble.
Sean McDowell: Are you saying Darwin delves that ... Darwin's mechanism and/or other natural mechanisms can account for species and genus level changes, but not higher levels of classification. Could you clarify that for our audience? And then explain what you mean using the reference that I loved in your book, where you had eight digits of money to explain how much these natural mechanisms can account for the diversity and complexity of life.
Michael Behe: Yeah, sure. Let's use the example of say the Darwin's finches. Galapagos finches that are in a lot of biology textbooks and so on. They're touted as showing the power of Darwin's mechanisms, that originally there were only one finch species, now there's 12, 14 or so on the Galapagos Islands. And, some have small pointy beaks, some have big blunt beaks. And they vary from each other, and they have become reproductively isolated. That is, they just mate with their own kind.
But, they've been there for two million years. And they started, apparently, with a finch, and they've ended with a finch. And, more than that, if you think about the main biological classifications, there are eight of them. The highest one is the domain, that's like bacteria versus eukaryotes. Then it goes to kingdom and phylum and class and order, family, genus, and species. So species is the very lowest level of classification. And, what's more, those categories differ from each other by a fairly large amount.
So, an analogy I used in the book is that suppose you think of those eight categories as eight digits in a sum of money, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, and including the dimes and cents column. That means that, with species being the pennies column, and genus being the dimes column. That means that in two million years, Darwin's mechanism, even granting it did what people claim for it, has changed only the last two columns, the cents column, in the finches. They're still the same family, they're still the same order, class and so on. They just changed the last two digits.
So they've gone from something like, oh, $238,654.19 to $234,650 whatever dollars and maybe 84 cents. Heck, if you put that in the bank, you would certainly want more interest than that in two million years. And I write in the book, even the IRS, they tell taxpayers to round off the cents in their tax returns. And if that were applied to biology, all of this hoopla about Darwin's finches would be disregarded.
Scott Rae: So it essentially would amount to nothing more than a rounding error.
Michael Behe: Exactly. Yeah, that's correct.
Scott Rae: [crosstalk] Mike, let me go back to this one third of the scientists who you're suggesting would acknowledge that the traditional, sort of Darwinian narrative, is in crisis. Other than embracing a theistic design alternative, what other options are available to them within a naturalistic framework?
Michael Behe: Well, let me mention two. One is called natural genetic engineering. And it's kind of championed mostly by a man named James Chapiro, who's a biologist at the University of Chicago. And the idea is that, just like Darwin's natural selection, maybe nature can engineer cells and organisms. Just like scientists in the lab take materials from the cell in order to do a number of manipulations on DNA. There are little catalysts called enzymes, which can cut DNA at specific places. They're called restriction enzymes. And other ones that can stitch them back together where you want them to be, and they're called ligases. And, there are little DNA vehicles that you can put genes into in a lab, and put the vehicle into a cell, and it will reproduce inside the cell. They're called plasmids.
And the idea is, well, the cell has all these tools that we humans use to genetically engineer DNA outside of the cell. All kind of artificial genetic engineering. Well maybe nature, just like artificial versus natural selection, maybe nature can use these itself to rearrange DNA. And it's an interesting idea. And it recognizes some of the problems with Darwin's theory. But, there's no reason to suppose, and no evidence to show, that these tools do anything novel or interesting when the cell loses control of them. When they go outside their normally regulated boundaries in the cell.
So it's an interesting idea. In some ways it's pointing towards intelligent design too. But there's no reason, and no evidence to support it right now. In my humble view.
And another idea is called neutral evolution. In neutral evolution, the idea is that a lot of mutations in DNA, changes in DNA, don't help the organism, but they don't hurt it either. They're kind of neutral. They just change and no big deal, no harm no foul. And sometimes they spread through the population of organisms. Say some bunny rabbit has a mutation that doesn't do anything, but nonetheless it has, just by chance, more offspring than its fellow members of its species. And they just, by chance, have more too. And so over time, this neutral mutation would get fixed in the population.
And that's interesting too. And people who support this point to features of the genome, DNA in the cell. And say that they can be thought of as arising from neutral evolution. And maybe they did, that's fine. But, by definition, neutral evolution can't explain the complex molecular machinery, the stuff that actually gets work done in the cell. Because all of the mutations it talks about are neutral. They don't do anything. They don't help, they don't hurt. And that's fine, but it's not much of an explanation. And there's a handful of other ones too.
Scott Rae: Yeah. So basically, so if they're neutral, how do you make any progress?
Michael Behe: Exactly.
Scott Rae: [crosstalk].
Michael Behe: They're okay for following how long two species might have been separated because if they each accumulate neutral mutations over time, then the number of differences between them might give you an idea of how long it's been since they were a single species. And that's interesting, again, to know. But it does not explain any of the tough questions like where the real structures, where the information in the DNA comes from.
Sean McDowell: I've got kind of a two part question for you. Number one is, you're convinced that natural causes, Darwin's mechanism in others, can't account for the complexity and diversity of life down at DNA. But your criticism, on page 51 you say, "Darwin's icy grip on modern intellectual life is based on shoddy philosophy, not science." So, what is this philosophy that's holding people back from recognizing what you view as the failure of Darwin's theories? But then on the flip side, there seems to be a growing number of theists, evolutionary creationists, or theistic evolutionists, who embrace some form of Darwinism. How do you make sense of the two of those?
Michael Behe: Well, let's see. The first part, the philosophy is behind it is pretty much materialism. And that is that only material processes, matter and energy, chance and so on, and natural laws, explain life. And that's taken as an assumption, not as some sort of demonstrated fact. And, that of course, ties into a lot of other questions too. Philosophical, theological questions about how God interacts with the world, or whether there is a God. And it's just cool too, it seems to be more modern than somebody who claims that life was designed, that a creator had to have made life.
So that's pretty much it. That's the philosophy. And then, stemming from that are a lot of other things like prestige and how you're considered by your fellow folks, and just what looks plausible in your social network. So, probably most scientist don't believe in Darwinism because they have been somehow persuaded, but because that's what they were taught. And that's what everybody assumes in their departments and so on.
As far as theistic evolutionists, well you can't explain a whole broad category. But still, I think that a major factor is that they have kind of been influenced by these sociological factors too. That some of them explicitly assume that it's illegitimate to talk about design. And you have to explain life by using only material factors, even though they believe that there's God and that ... So there's something other than material factors that could have influenced life. Nonetheless, they bought into the assumption that you can't consider that when trying to explain life.
Other things are that if you work, even if you're a theist and you work in a department where it's just assumed that Darwin's theory explains life. And that anybody who doesn't see that, well they're, "Hey, what's wrong with them?" And, so social pressure helps to explain a lot too. Yeah.
Scott Rae: That's a really good observation. I had a person suggest to me not long ago that something like, "If you're a religious person and don't believe in evolution, you must be a member of some sort of cult."
Michael Behe: Yeah, exactly.
Scott Rae: Let me ask you-
Michael Behe: And you-
Scott Rae: Go ahead.
Michael Behe: Let me just make here one comment, that you have to realize that there has to be a lot of social pressure because the points I make in these books are not hard to see. I mean, they're simple. It's like looking up at Mount Rushmore and scratching your heads and saying, "Guys. I don't think this was due to plate tectonics." And everybody's saying, "Oh no, no, no. That's not." You might want to try to explain why they can't see that, but seeing the design is pretty easy. So there has to be lots of other reasons for them to see that.
Scott Rae: I think this one thing will be really helpful for our listeners. If we could get from you, kine of what's the one main thing you want to help people recognize in order to notice the design that's inherent in the natural world. What's kind of the one main thing that people ought to look for as evidence of design?
Michael Behe: Well, if you think of it, you can ask yourself the question, "How do we know that another intelligence exists and has acted?" Even say another human intelligence, if you're not just talking straight to them. And it turns out that the only way is if you come across what I call a purposeful arrangement of parts. That is where different elements, or different things, are brought together in order to each other for some purpose. That can because something like machinery, a mousetrap is fine, you get a number of pieces. If you saw a mousetrap, nobody would think that it was a natural object. Or, writing of course. Just the chemicals of the ink and the paper. But they're arranged in a special way when you're reading a story, or having an intelligible message there.
So, the key is to ask yourselves, "Do I see a purposeful arrangement of things in nature too?" And if you do, then there's no reason to withhold the conclusion that we find everywhere else, that in fact, that arrangement is the product of a mind. And that has been the main point that folks who argue for intelligent design, reaching all the way back to the ancients, the Greeks and so on, they said, "Look how nature is arranged. It's arranged to allow us to thrive," and so on. Galen the physician, a Roman in the early 200s, I think it was, said, "Look at the eyeball." He was a major scientist. And, an atomist. And he pointed out lots of features of the eye and said, "This can only be the work of a divine designer."
So that's the key. Is to look for purposeful arrangement of parts. And if you do that with open eyes instead of ones that have been kind of intimidated by folks with white coats on, you'll see just tons and tons of such stuff in nature. Not only in life, but in all of psychical nature.
Sean McDowell: Mike, thanks for taking the time to come on. But even more importantly, thanks for your voice in this conversation. You always struck me as somebody who's very, very thoughtful. And not afraid to say what you believe. But also, you can communicate, your books are readable for non-specialists. And my formal training is not in the sciences, it's philosophy and theology. And I've always been able to track along with the arguments that you're making. But you've always had a gracious tone about you, even amidst some of the criticism you've received. So thanks for that, thanks for your contribution, and I certainly want to encourage that our listeners to check out Darwin Devolves. Read some of the responses online, then your response to them, and I think they'll walk away realizing there is a powerful case that can be made for intelligent design. So thank so much for all you do, and for coming on.
Michael Behe: Oh you bet. Thank you.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Michael Behe, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app, and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.