Revisiting Behe

Behe, Michael J. Darwin’s Black Box: The biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996. Revised 2006.

Behe’s book, Darwin’s Black Box is one of the most well-known works in the Creation-evolution debate, and is largely responsible for the resurgence of the Intelligent Design movement. Behe’s book centers on scientific questions that I am not credentialed to discuss directly, but I will assume his understanding of molecular biology, in part because I have never seen a criticism on this part of his work.

Analysis: Behe in many ways is misunderstood by both the Christian and atheistic communities. Here are the ideas I consider most important for understanding Behe.
• Behe’s work is highly technical, this is in part intentional, he does not water down the debate because he wants you to realize the complexity of the operations he is discussing. On the downside, I read numerous pages (not paragraphs) several times to make sure I grasped the point he was making.
• Behe’s method identifies elements of molecular biology that he states cannot be explained by Darwin’s theory, because they consist of irreducibly complex mechanisms that must meet a standard of minimal function. The term irreducible is a key to the argument – Behe compares these biological structures to complex machines, and the pieces must have developed in an integrated manner that defies neo-darwinian theory. The most common example cited is that of a mouse trap: there are five pieces to a mousetrap, and if any piece is missing, you don’t have a less effective mousetrap, you have a non-functioning one. (this is as simplified as his argument can be made without breaking the argument).
• Behe appears to accept both evolutionary theory, and many of the principles accepted by modern geologists. In a sense, while Behe is usually understood as disproving evolution. However, most likely he is indicating that evolution is insufficient to understand the origins of life without the intervention of an intelligent designer. Thus, his work is useful for our purposes, but also for someone who accepts theistic evolution. In this sense, Behe is re-presenting the argument from design for the modern world.
Conclusions: This work is a must read for Christians. I don’t spend a great deal of time on the classical philosophical arguments for God (though they are on the long term list), but the argument for design is valuable. Behe’s book is useful in bringing this argument up to date for modern times. The key caveat is that his assumptions are different from those of us who oppose evolution; while he works with the definition of science, his work on this front is not complete. Therefore we should consider his work to be useful, but something like Ken Ham’s The Lie is a necessary supplement.

8 thoughts on “Revisiting Behe

  1. Darwin himself wrote that “if it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down”. so what Behe offers is nothing new, and the mousetrap example was refuted by Kenneth Miller in 2008. The various refutations of Behe’s other examples such as the infamous bacterial flagellum are quite technical in nature but none remained unaddressed. They have found a proto-flagellum structure used as a kind of stinger.

    • Actually, I don’t think Behe has been refuted. Behe basically argued not that the similar structure did not exist, but that these components would have to come together in a single step rather than in a series of successive changes, whether the individual structures existed previously or not is a straw man.

      • Behe is refuted by the Mullerian two-step, which can be illustrated by the example of a creek which is crossed by three stones (minimal functionality). The first mutation adds a plank across the three stones, which may or may not improve the functionality but at the very least does not disable the functionality. The second mutation removes the center stone, which disables the functionality of the original structure, but the functionality is maintained by the now apparently “irreducibly complex” structure containing a plank across two stones. In other words, Behe is drilling a dry hole.

      • This might work with his first approach ( though he dismisses this as bluster without evidence in the new edition) but if I understand his work on clotting, such an approach doesn’t work with bloodclotting or the other examples cited, since it would inevitably hsve led to extinction of most organisms long before now.

        In a lot of senses, intelligent design is less God in the gaps as the strawman argument goes, and its more abductive – the sheer weight of special pleading and question begging breaks down the system over the full spectrum of phenomenon.

        In short the philosophical (not scientific) argument you raise doesn’t work with the body of Behe’s work.

      • When I make a claim on this blog, such as above where I indicate that Behe’s irreducible complexity argument is negated by the Mullerian two-step procedure, I will provide a brief but sufficiently detailed explanation of my claim in every case. At no point will I ever leave a thread dangling with a hand wave and say “that was dismissed as bluster” or “such an approach doesn’t work with bloodclotting” without providing the exact reason why. And since it is your blog, I cannot insist that you do the same. But I cannot reply to unsupported assertions except in the initial article, so you will inevitably (and not by my preference) be left with many threads terminated with bare claims on your part, and that situation will speak for itself.

      • Actually I would say you haven’t actually addressed my assertions.

        As to bloodclottijg that is pretty appqrwnt – Behe specified that such an approach would lamost cetainly kill the organism – I always find it fascinating that people only discuss the most easily example of those adduced when Behe’s argument is built on a far broader platform.

  2. Dolphins survive quite well without the Hagemann factor (Robinson, A. J., M. Kropatkin, and P. M. Aggeler. 1969. Hagemann factor [factor XII] deficiency in marine mammals. Science 166: 1420-1422.) , a component of the blood clotting cascade which Behe claims is evidence of irreducible complexity.

  3. Pingback: Truth in the Trenches

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