Darwinism: Science or Philosophy

Chapter 6b
Reply to Leslie K. Johnson

Michael J. Behe

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This is the author's comment to a response to his original paper.

FAJITAS? GINGER BEER? Bubble and Squeak? Is this the reply that Darwin's vaunted theory gives to a serious, quantitative, detailed, experimental challenge? Dr. Leslie Johnson asserts that "the theory is healthy," but the replies it gives to probing questions are those of a ninety-eight pound weakling.

I am very pleased that Dr. Johnson agrees with me that the example of the monkey producing a functional sentence by replacing a letter at a time in a nonsense character string is illegitimate. She appears not to realize, however, that it is Darwinians who have advanced this example. Perhaps she can inform her co-panelist Michael Ruse, who uses a similar analogy in his book Darwinism Defended, of his error. And perhaps he can then contact Richard Dawkins, who uses the analogy in The Blind Watchmaker, to tell him of their mutual mistake.

The book that launched Darwin's theory was entitled The Origin of Species. Darwinism's appeal rests largely on its claim to be able to explain the origin of the great complexity of the biological world, a complexity that all admit gives the appearance of design, without recourse to non-natural agents. But when detailed questions are asked about the origin of biological structures, proponents of the theory all too frequently resort to hand-waving and metaphor of the kind Dr. Johnson offers. For example, we are told by her that "we seek to understand evolutionary attainment. . . ," "evolution in bacteria tends to involve minor changes . . . ," and "[mammals'] evolution frequently involves regulatory genes." Regrettably, however, Dr. Johnson never gets around to telling us, even for a single example, exactly which evolutionary changes gave rise to which biological structures in the real world. We are thus left wondering how she knows that organisms have evolved at all.

Dr. Johnson is not atone in her style of argumentation: no one at this conference has argued the merits of Darwinism by pointing to a complex biological structure and explaining in detail how it arose from a simpler structure through the agency of natural selection. Instead we are implicitly invited to imagine such developments by means of fuzzy mental images, playing horror movie-like transmogrifications in our minds. This is the appeal of much of the "computer evolution" work that Dr. Johnson cites favorably: images can "evolve" like Dr. Jekyll on the computer screen without having to be tested for their ability to function in the real world.

But, then, if no one actually uses Darwin's theory to give plausible, detailed explanations for the origin of complex biological structures, what exactly is it good for? To use as a "framework," Dr. Johnson tells us. "Without evolution" descriptions of nature "would be as exciting as . . . telephone books." That may be true for Dr. Johnson, but it is not true for children visiting a zoo, it is not true for most laypersons, and it wasn't true for pre-Darwinian biologists like Linnaeus and Cuvier. It is a dangerous intellectual game to confuse one's own mental filing cabinets for the real world.

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