Behe Comes to Georgia

Michael Behe visited the University of Georgia on February 26, where he gave three public presentations. Having followed the book and its author for some time, it was quite interesting to meet the real Mike Behe. Person and persona are now happily united in my mind. The following are some of my impressions and reflections on this event.

I believe I was the only non scientist who heard Behe's first talk to the genetics faculty. Basically this was Mike making his case to thirty or so skeptical faculty and graduate students. Behe provided a twenty-minute overview of the support that intelligent design is given by the phenomenon of irreducible complexity and then opened the floor for questions and discussion. There was a bit of subdued sneering here and there and some thumping of the Darwinian bible, but for the most part this was a polite exchange of ideas. Mike's composure and good humor through all of this were admirable.

The first scientist to speak up was sitting just to my right around the seminar table. He seemed somewhat overwrought, lamenting how weary he was of these "same old" objections, the rehashing and continued revival of "Paley's" creationist world view. I'm personally a bit suspicious of any argument which seems to presuppose that "older is necessarily less credible." This frequent effort to write Behe's ideas off because they bear some similarity to the scientific apologetics of the 18th century is an appeal to what C. S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery," the assumption that people who lived in earlier ages were more childlike and credulous than ourselves. (I wanted to snap back that he should stop dragging Thales and Anaximander up from the dead?) From listening to these and other comments, I came away with the impression that some of these scientists are more bothered by the fact that they cannot explain the enormous complexity of biochemical machines than by the implication that such complexity may be the product of an intelligent agent -- more embarrassment than disbelief. Mike responded to several subsequent questions by providing additional examples of irreducibly complex systems. After hearing several more examples of these unimaginably complex biochemical machines, the exasperated fellow on my right finally cried out "please no more."

The next comment of note came from a geneticist who acknowledged the possibility that it might forever be impossible to explain the origins of these complex systems in evolutionary terms--even if they did evolve. This is not the standard appeal to ignorance based upon the inability of the fossil record to preserve information about soft tissues. Rather he was arguing that it may simply be impossible to discover the functions that various parts of a biochemical system may have performed en route to taking their present form. In the course of a long period of evolutionary development, he pointed out, it might be the case that these components would have served functions quite different from what they currently perform. Since these earlier functions could not be detected through an analysis of the organism as it currently exists, they would remain forever unknown. I don't remember the specifics of Behe's response to this now, but his general approach was to remind his audience that scientists are obligated to work with the preponderance of evidence that is available rather than to appeal to ignorance. I think that the group of scientists, philosophers, and others who comprise the core of the intelligent design movement would say that this scientist was making a concession that is important to their side. It acknowledges that while yes there is some possibility that incremental evolution of seemingly irreducible systems could occur, there currently is little evidence of how this could have happened, and even if it did happen it is very possible that these "how" questions may never be answered.

This scientist's remarks also seemed to be an admission that evolution is not falsifiable. (The philosopher who established falsification as a key criterion for science, Karl Popper, made the same admission years ago, but retracted it under pressure from the scientific community's evolutionary overlords). Later on Behe made this point more explicitly. This made considerable sense; still I was surprised that no one objected, since the opposite claim has so often been made by Darwin's defenders in the last few decades. It also occurred to me that this is a point of logic on which the orthodox neoDarwinists have been guilty of considerable equivocation. Throughout most of the last century and a half, they were willing to argue that the evidence for Darwin's theory falsified any notion of a Divine creator, but now that a preponderance of evidence can be shown which points the other way, they often try to dismiss this evidence by saying that intelligent design is not falsifiable. They seem to want to have it both ways.

One questioner, a woman standing in the back among those who came too late to claim seats, alleged that Behe had no business arguing for intelligent design unless he could also say who the designer was. I gathered (or at least imagined) from the hushed amens that rose from a small band of students clustered around her, that she was their scientific heroine and that they had come out in hopes of seeing her slay a creationist dragon. I'm still puzzling over her statement. It was framed as a question, but it really seemed more like a declaration of faith. Was this an effort to expose a hidden agenda--"fess up Behe, you just believe this because you're a Roman Catholic"--or was it a bold declaration of scientism--"if the theory of intelligent design points to a reality beyond the pale of science then it must of necessity be false"? Probably it was some of both.

In any event, Behe waived this off as a question that went beyond the purview of science. I suggested to him afterwards that he might have at least gone as far as saying that the designer must be a "biochemist." Then at least his opponents could take some solace in knowing that God is one of their own kind.

One of the last questions came from a scientist who objected that Richard Dawkins has demonstrated gradualistic evolution with computer models in his book The Blind Watchmaker. I had to leave, and so I didn't get to hear all of Behe's response. But I have read Dawkins myself and know where Behe was going. If you read Dawkins attentively enough, you'll notice that his computer generated sentences are products of intelligent design, not random natural selection. Dawkins' program randomly selects letters from the alphabet, but the computer is also programed to then "select" those randomly generated letters which happen to match its -- and here's the key word -- "target." In other words, the computer program does demonstrate evolution, but it is evolution driven by a rational purpose -- hardly what Darwin had in mind. It is also interesting to note, while were on the subject, that Dawkins cites the same quote from Darwin that Behe put up during his evening presentation. Dawkins says the following in The Blind Watchmaker:

One hundred and twenty five years on [since the Origin of Species was published], we know a lot more about animals and plants than Darwin did, and still not a single case is known to me of a complex organ that could not have been formed by numerous successive slight modifications. I do not believe that such a case will ever be found. If it is. . . I shall cease to believe in Darwinism.

In light of such bold promises as this, Behe's review of the articles published in the Journal of Molecular Biology is especially significant. In reality it seems that evolutionary explanations of even relatively modest biochemical systems are a rarity to say the least. I've seen three published responses by Dawkins to Behe's work. In the first instance Dawkins begged off by saying that he couldn't respond to Behe because biochemistry wasn't his field. In the second instance he simply alleged that Behe was "lazy" and should get back in the lab looking for those evolutionary linkages. Just this week in a public appearance in the United States Dawkins declared that Behe is an "embarrassment to his profession." Anyone who has studied rhetoric as long as I have will recognize the symptoms of a problem here. Ad hominem attacks of this sort are the last recourse of those who have nothing to say, desperate name-calling taken up by public figures who possess neither sticks nor stones.

One final comment about the faculty presentation. I was particularly honored that my colleague Russ Carlson invited me to this. To paraphrase W.H. Auden, I felt like a shabby curate who had strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes. But I think I also witnessed something of historical import. When I was at Duquesne University two years ago someone told me that a Christian faculty group had invited Phil Johnson to campus, but the scientific faculty rose up and persuaded the university administrators to block Johnson's visit. That has pretty much been the story for the last century. Anyone who would look at the data and see a Creator was promptly shown the door. But here was Michael Behe presenting his position to a university's science faculty. My scientific colleagues at the University of Georgia deserve a lot of credit for having this session.

Mike's next talk, which I didn't hear, was to a biochemistry class for honors undergraduates. Russ Carlson who did observe this session noted that the majority of these freshmen and sophomores seemed to be on the side of intelligent design. There's a message here I think.

The main course was served up in the evening to about 700 people. I was surprised to see a few of the skeptical graduate students from my own department. One came by the next day to say how impressed he was with Behe's arguments. Not surprising. The lecture was executed with great skill, disarming good humor and professionalism. It was followed up by about forty minutes of questions from the audience. Much like the comments of the genetics faculty, these came mostly from the metaphysical and ideological borders of science.

Many of the questioners this time were younger, graduate students for the most part. I gathered that many of them are not yet so comfortably settled into the Darwinian position as their elders. This gave me pause to remember the observation of Thomas Kuhn, that defeated scientific opinions ultimately do not die out through persuasion, even where reason and evidence should put them to flight. But where persuasion fails one can always count on the withering effects of mortality to weaken and eventually overcome error.

Thomas M. Lessl
Department of Speech Communication
The University of Georgia