Dr. Mike Behe, an associate professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, was one of those who presented a paper at the 1996 Mere Creation conference
RI: What was most significant about participating in the Mere Creation conference?
Behe: I think this conference was ground- breaking, historical almost. Let me illustrate this with my own example: Eight years or so ago I came to the conclusion that Darwinian evolution was incapable of explaining data from my own field of biochemistry. I reached that conclusion on my own after studying the literature. But I was also isolated; none of my colleagues were talking about this. So, all I did was make rude remarks about evolution whenever I got the chance, which was . . . not very productive.
Over the years I came into contact with other scholars who thought the same way I did. They encouraged me to think my ideas were legitimate; they said my ideas could be defended, and they agreed there was a significant problem that was being ignored.
When you're alone, you just might be deluding yourself. But when you have colleagues, then you gain the confidence to really explore your ideas. Just the knowledge that there's a large community of scholars who see applications of intelligent design to their discipline gives people courage to explore those problems.
So this [conference] was a ground-breaking effort, not so much for any particular idea that comes out of it, but from the knowledge that it gives everybody that they're working in a group.
RI: What personal benefits have you received through the Mere Creation conference?
Behe: Well, I've met a number of people who I knew only through email. Also, I've been able to see how intelligent design might play out in other disciplines.
I listened to a talk by a biologist from Germany named Siegfried Scherer, and he showed slides of hybrid animals, crosses between species that do not usually cross in the wild. One picture that particularly impressed me was a cross between a zebra and another horse-like animal. When I saw the picture and I said to myself, "Well, look, here's a picture of a cross between a donkey and a zebra." But it wasn't, it was a cross between a horse and a zebra, but it looked just like a donkey. His point was that there is a hidden variation already present in animals that may explain much of the features of the biological world that we see. And this was a totally new idea to me, and from what I understand, it is unexplored.
It was good to meet people like Siegfried Scherer and Jon Wells, who is an embryologist working on difficulties in his field. And it was good to see there are good intellectual problems out there just waiting to be had; no one is exploring them right now, and I am eager to help out.
RI: What impact has Michael Denton's book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis [Adler & Adler, 1986] played in your journey?
Behe: As a Roman Catholic I was always taught that God made life, and how He made it was up to Him. I was taught that the best scientific answer, so far, for how God made life was Darwinian evolution. That made sense to me, so I never gave evolution much of a thought. I was taught in my undergraduate years and graduate studies in biochemistry that all of these fantastically intricate systems that I was learning about were the result of Darwinian evolution. I had a thesis to complete, so I didn't think much about it.
However, in 1987 or so, I read Evolution: A Theory in Crisis by Michael Denton. It startled me because he said there were huge and unaddressed problems with evolutionary theory. In fact, there was a very good chance the theory was incorrect; it could not really describe how life came to be. When I read [Denton's] book, I got mad; I was upset because I realized much of my world view was not based on science, but rather on people saying, "Well, yes, this is the way it happened. Don't worry about it. Maybe you don't know how it happened, but somebody else does."
Well, reading Denton's book made me realize that nobody else knew about the problems. And from then on I became increasingly interested in it. I looked in my own field of biochemistry and in the National Academy of Sciences and the Journal of Molecular Biology and places like that for research that might say how these biochemical systems were gradually put together. I rapidly found out that there were no such papers. So, over time I developed the idea that in fact these systems were the result of intelligent design.
I was fairly isolated for a while, but Phil Johnson's book came out and I read it, and liked it very much. Then one week in an issue of Science magazine I saw that there was a review of Johnson's book. I was very excited and thought, "Oh, this is great. They will have to address some of these issues, and we'll see what they have to say about it." I turned to the review, and it wasn't a review, it was simply a warning saying, "Uh oh. There's this anti-evolution book out there. Warn your students; it's confusing the public." And again I got pretty mad because they didn't address the substance of it. It was not even a dismissal, it was a warning. This is not what science is supposed to be about.
So I wrote a letter to the editor of Science pointing out that they should address the intellectual issues involved and not just dismiss something. Science published the letter and Phil Johnson saw it and wrote to me, and we began corresponding. Since then I've been invited to some gatherings he has been involved in, and that's how I got to be involved in this community of people interested in this problem.
RI: Is it significant that Michael Denton's book is essentially nonreligious?
Behe: It was significant to me because I am a scientist and I want to come to conclusions about the physical world from experiment. Again, I am a Roman Catholic and I believe God created the world and is responsible for the life within it, but I didn't have any a priori theological objections for that life being produced by completely natural processes. I'm no theological expert, and when people use theological arguments to come to a scientific conclusion I'm always a little leery. Denton criticized evolution completely from a scientific point of view. And as a matter of fact at the time . . . he was pretty much an agnostic. To me, that gave his arguments more force- he didn't have this ax to grind. I could judge from my own background that what he was saying was pretty much correct. And so the combination of the two had quite an impact on me.
RI: How has your change of heart concerning biochemical evolution affected your teaching?
Behe: Once I read Denton's book I was amazed that people believed in evolution when there was this clear argument against it. But let's face it, most scientists did believe in it, and the argument for evolution is best summarized in a book called The Blind Watchmaker [Norton, 1986] by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins' book is fascinating to read alongside Denton's because both of the books use similar examples, but come to completely different conclusions. Denton's uses an analogy to English language that sentences are difficult to put together. Dawkins' has a section where he uses a computer to generate a sentence to show that evolution is easy. I realized these books were addressing a problem very basic not only to science, but knowledge in general; that is, how do you know something; how do you support a theory with evidence; and what extrapolations are legitimate?
In the late 1980's Lehigh University decided to develop a college seminar program for incoming freshmen; the seminars are courses that are supposed to . . . get the freshmen excited about their college careers. So the administration was looking for faculty volunteers to suggest courses. I developed a course which I called "Popular Arguments on Evolution" in which we read Denton and Dawkins side-by-side. It's been very popular with the students. Most students come in believing the standard evolutionary story, but a lot of them, as they leave the course, say that although they still believe in evolution, they now see the issue as much more complex and problematic. As a teacher it's my goal to get them thinking for themselves and not to relying on people's say so, as I once did.
RI: What is the basic theme of Darwin's Black Box?
Behe: In science, a black box is a machine or device or system that does something, but you don't know how it works; it's completely mysterious. It may be mysterious because you can't see inside or because you just can't comprehend it. To Darwin and to his 19th century contemporaries the cell was a black box. The cell which we know now to be the basis of life was simply too small, and the science of the day had no tools to investigate it; microscopes of the time were still rather crude and people could see only the outlines of a cell. So, many scientists thought the cell was rather simple, like a blob of microscopic jelly.
Since that time, science has shown that the cell is an extremely complex system containing proteins and nucleic acids and all sorts of miniaturized machines. In my book I go through a number of these machines and argue that Darwinian natural selection cannot have produced them because they have a property called irreducible complexity; that is, they consist of a number of parts, all of which must be present for the machine to work. Irreducible complexity is like a mousetrap which has a number of parts, and all the parts must be present before it can work.
I argue that such systems are best explained as the result of deliberate intelligent design. I come to that conclusion through a kind of an inductive logical argument: whenever we see such systems in the real world, in the macroscopic world of our everyday life, we find that they are, in fact, designed. Nobody comes across a mousetrap and wonders whether it was designed or not. So I wonder whether we should in fact embrace the idea of intelligent design and build on it and see where it will lead science.
RI: Has there been a common reaction from the critics of your book?
Behe: The critics of my book have a remarkably similar reaction, varying in intensity depending on the personality of the people involved. The first reaction of most critics is to say, "Well, this is just thinly veiled creationism." And in reviews of my book by scientists they often speak about the first chapters of Genesis and the Arkansas Creation Trial, none of which I mention in my book. So they try to damn the book by association. They also do not see that there is a distinction between arriving at a conclusion simply from observation of the physical world, as a scientist is supposed to do, and arriving at a conclusion based on scripture or religious beliefs.
Additionally, the critics of my book have uniformly agreed that the biochemical systems I describe are enormously complex and currently unexplained, but they differ in their prescriptions. Some of them say, "Well, Darwinism will eventually explain this." Other people say, "Well, we don't know how it will be explained, but we'll come up with something in the near future." My reply is that the something that we can come up with in the near future is intelligent design theory. It is a perfectly legitimate scientific idea and there is no reason to avoid it.
An analogy I like to draw is to physics: many physicists were unhappy with the idea of a big bang because it seemed to have clear theological implications. Nonetheless, physicists embraced it as a legitimate scientific theory and built on it. I see intelligent design the same way; it may have religious implications but it's a clear scientific theory based solely on observations of biochemical systems that we should embrace and build on.
RI: Have you heard from Richard Dawkins?
Behe: No, I haven't heard directly from Dawkins, but I have heard indirectly about what he thinks about my book. A public TV show named "Think Tank" was interested in setting up a debate between Dawkins and myself. They asked if I would be willing to participate, and I happily said yes. And they approached Richard Dawkins, but he refused to appear with me, saying he was insufficiently versed in biochemistry to address the issue. But then the TV show asked Dawkins to appear by himself on the show, which he did. During the interview, which I had an opportunity to see recently, the show host asked him about my book. He seemed to grasp the idea of irreducible complexity pretty well. However, he said it was cowardly and lazy of me to come to a conclusion of intelligent design, and he said that if I thought for myself I would realize that there must be a Darwinian explanation out there somewhere, and I should get off my duff and go out and find it.
Certainly Richard Dawkins is entitled to his strongly held opinions. But, in fact, from the evidence, I think intelligent design is the best explanation. And it's not a matter of whether I like the idea or not, or whether I like to sleep late and am lazy, rather it's that Darwinism is barking up the wrong tree and I think a better scientific explanation is design.
I hope to meet with Richard Dawkins in the future, though.
RI: Is a foundation of naturalism essential for a day-to-day advancement of science and technology?
Behe: Darwinian assumptions are not needed for the day-to-day work of science. As I have shown in my book, if you look in the biochemical literature for scientific papers that try to explain how biochemical systems developed step-by-step in a Darwinian fashion, there aren't any. It's startling.
There's a journal called the Journal of Molecular Evolution which is about 25 years old and has published over 1,000 papers since its inception. The journal publishes a lot about trying to determine which proteins, genes, and nucleic acids are related to which other ones by looking at their protein or nucleotide sequence. That may be interesting, and it may be a legitimate question in its own right, but comparing sequences simply can't tell you how these complex molecular machines came to be step-by-Darwinian-step. So essentially, over its 25- year history, the Journal of Molecular Evolution has completely avoided the real question of how the heck these extremely complex systems could have been put together.
So most scientists completely ignore evolution in their work, and the ones that think about it simply look for relationships and don't bother with Darwinism. Remarkably it has very little to do with the day-to-day work of science and serves pretty much as a philosophical underpinning which, in my opinion, is only inhibiting real research into how life developed.
RI: Can a non-theist accept the concept of intelligent design?
Behe: Yes, I think so. But admittedly it would be psychologically difficult for them. I like to tell the story of Francis Crick, who of course is the Nobel Prize winner and co-discoverer of the double-helical shape of DNA. Crick has written several times that problems with an undirected origin of life on earth are so great that we should consider the idea that space aliens sent a rocket ship to the earth to seed it with spores to begin life.
Well, that's an unusual idea, but you can see that Crick's idea fits with intelligent design theory also; he's invoking an outside cause to get life started. If Francis Crick claimed intelligent aliens not only seeded life but actually designed life that is on the earth, I could not point at a biochemical system and argue against him. I might think it was a little far-fetched, but I would have to go to philosophical or theological or historical arguments to rebut that. So, yes, I think non- theists could come to a conclusion of intelligent design, but realistically I think it will be psychologically difficult for them.
RI: When will you begin your next book and what will be its topic?
Behe: Writing is painful. I think the writer Dorothy Parker in the early part of this century was once asked if she enjoyed writing, and she replied that she enjoyed having written. And I completely agree with that sentiment. Right now I'm just taking in the reaction to my present book, and once I see what that has done, then I will assess what my next project might be. But I don't see myself as a writer primarily, but as a scientist. What I'm really eager to do is write grant proposals to do research on some of the ideas I have as a result of intelligent design theory. So we'll see what the future holds.