Darwin in the Dock

By Selle, Robert | The World and I, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Darwin in the Dock


Selle, Robert, The World and I


Michael Behe Works in a university biochemistry laboratory probing the lilliputian protoplasmic world of the cell. He's a scientist who brings to bear his arsenal of pipettes and reagents chromatography columns and mass spectrometers, to unlock the micromysteries of the intracellular minuet between DNA and proteins.

But decades of contemplating the breathtaking, weblike intricacies of biochemical processes such as photosynthesis and human vision has led him to conclude that they could not possibly have evolved piecemeal over hundreds of millennia and thousands of generations, as postulated by the random-variation and survival-of-the-fittest notions of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.(*)

There is no way, says Behe, an associate professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, that each such "irreducibly complex," multistep process could have evolved except all at once. That is, by design. For if Darwinesque random mutations created genes that spawned one of the intermediate biochemicals of a particular cellular process, it would probably have little or no survival value for the organism (only the whole biochemical process confers significant survival value), and the chemicals would simply mix futilely back into the cytoplasm.

Robert Shapiro, who wrote Origins: A Skeptic's Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth, criticizes Behe for selecting "an answer [to how life's biochemical complexity evolved] that falls outside of science: the original creation of life by an intelligent designer. Many scientists, myself included, will prefer to continue the search for an answer within science."

But in his writings, Behe, being a scientist, doesn't take the next step and discuss the motives and nature of the purported Designer, for that would make him a theologian. He only analyzes the data and extrapolates them to make the scientific hypothesis of purposive design over blind evolution.

He says that his early life and upbringing gave him the open-mindedness to allow him to entertain the notion of design, which is dismissed out of hand by a great many scientists who unconsciously view the extant data through the philosophical spectacles of mechanistic materialism and naturalism.

"I was born into a devout family and raised Roman Catholic," Behe says in an interview. "The evidence points to the fact that the claims of Christianity are true. So if the claims of Christianity are true, one should shape one's life according to those claims."

But not one's science. Science is governed by a rigorous set of rules that involve observation, hypothesis, controlled experiment, and induction based on observed data.

That's why Behe was so taken by the work of Michael Denton, a biologist who wrote Evolution: A Theory in Crisis about 10 years ago. Denton's book, which, Behe says, was one of the major influences in his life, "examined evolution from several scientific perspectives and found it to be weakly supported and in some areas even contravened by the evidence."

Many years before that watershed event, however, two key mentors took the role of abbot to the novice Behe to try to perfect him in scientific discipline. These two men were Harold Farrell, his boss at the Department of Agriculture research labs in Philadelphia, where Behe worked summers while he was in college, and Walter Englander, his academic adviser at the University of Pennsylvania graduate school.

"They taught me," Behe says, "that you have to think rigorously, challenge your own ideas, and try to come up with explanations for unexpected phenomena. You have to be ready to toss out your current explanation, no matter how much you cherish it, if the data don't support it."

Behe, now 46, was born and raised in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in a big, bustling family. He was the third of eight children, his two older siblings being a brother and a sister. Overall, he has three brothers and four sisters, many of whom have obtained graduate degrees and who all live in a swath of Pennsylvania from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. …

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