3.16.2008

the argument from design rev 2.0

A Book Review in Brief

Darwin’s Black Box
Michael J. Behe

There is no conversation that you can have with a group of scientists that elicits more uncomfortable feelings and disdainful expressions than a conversation about the idea of intelligent design. The neo-Darwinist opinion that life arose through totally random natural processes is orthodoxy; so much as questioning or even exploring how evolution may have happened is damnable heresy. And so it follows that this book, which questions the scientific orthodoxy, frightens people. Even broaching the subject is cause for alarm. The subject, I should clarify, is the plausibility of Darwinian evolution by random mutation and natural selection.

The author is Michael Behe, a biochemist from LeHigh University. In Darwin’s Black Box, he presents a philosophical argument with scientific premises. The scientific premises derive from his work as a molecular biochemist – Behe’s life work is studying the details of life at the lowest levels. The science of biochemistry has progressed markedly in the past 50 years, and Behe thinks the new information has yet to come to bear on the neo-Darwinian synthesis, which happened before the advent of modern biochemistry. So just what is this information?

Behe’s argument is incredibly simple but incredibly powerful, and I will briefly summarize it here. Behe first demonstrates that there are structures analogous to machines that exist on the biochemical level. A good example is the cilium, a locomotion device in eukaryotic cells. These machines do achieve their function unless multiple finely tuned components are in place. Behe terms these machines “irreducibly complex”. That is, the complexity of these machines is not simply the synthesis of a few other basic functions. Why is this problematic? Well, because of how Darwinian evolution supposedly happens. Behe writes,
“I emphasize that natural selection, the engine of Darwinian evolution, only works if there is something to select – something that is useful right now, not in the future.” (pp. 95)
There would be no evolutionary benefit to the various individual components of these machines: if they were to evolve they would not be selected because they serve no purpose apart from the machine. But the machine with all its finely tuned parts exists. So what’s the story? Well, Behe argues, because these machines exist, so also must a machine-maker. Queue the hysteria.

There are many other facets to his argument and I’m not really doing it justice here. I must emphasize that argument is very, very powerful, even if my summary of it is not. The book is very well written and remains interesting even though the basic argument does not take long to establish. If I were forced to come up with some criticism, I would say that the author seems to be delusional about how readily accepted intelligent design will be. At one point he speaks of a time when science will be spurred on by accepting and internalizing this idea. This is ludicrous. Science is too philosophically committed to determinism. But I am nitpicking.

Anyone who wants to think seriously about the origins of life on Earth ought to read this book and try to answer its argument.


- Zach

1 comment:

Catherine! said...

I LOVE THAT BOOK.