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Dr. Michael Behe: Professor, Biochemistry, Lehigh University (Part Two)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2014/07/22


Second part of an extensive and thorough two-part interview with Professor of Biochemistry at Lehigh University, Dr. Michael Behe, on the following topics: influence of world views on scientific output; philosophical and cosmological considerations for biological systems and origins; Sir Karl Popper, falsificationism,and predictions of intelligent design theory; considerations of changes in the scientific method and relation to intelligent design;  2005 paper entitled Scientific Orthodoxies, intellectual climate among mainstream Catholic discussions on scientific or theological matters; Kitzmiller v. Dover Board of Education in December of 2005 and view of litigation with respect to intelligent design v. evolution; The Wedge Document of the Discovery Institute; advice do you have for young scientists; upcoming projects; and intelligent design in the near and far future.

Key Words: biochemistry, Catholic, Darwinian, Ernst Mayer, Evolution, intelligent design, Irreducible Complexity, Kitzmiller v. Dover Board, Lehigh University, Professor Michael Behe, Sir Karl Popper, The Wedge Document.

12. In the debate between creationism v. evolution v. intelligent design, there do arise some peripheral – regarding biology, but ultimate, issues around the larger cosmological questions of origins.  In that, in any case of biological systems having origin through design, natural forces, some combination of the two, or an alternative, does the universe itself exhibit transcendent/‘top-down’ design in the form of a first cause/creator/designer or natural/’bottom-up’ design in the form of a natural law/self-creating universe?  Now, these have invocation at some point during the debates because cosmological design would supersede biological design.  For instance, if the universe had a designer, in a general sense, all biology would have potential of being in the design plan of the universe from the instance of the cosmos’ creation.  Even so, some have characterized this – at the limit – as a debate between two philosophical worldviews: theism and atheism.  However, this seems misleading and pre-maturely simplifying the matter, and more a reflection of personal views of many major figures in the public debate.  How much do worldviews influence the output of research?  Do personal religious/irreligious views have any bearing on the facts and theories from science? 

Although most of science can happily carry on without impinging on matters of ultimate concern, views about the ultimate nature of reality can certainly strongly influence theories that touch on them. For example, some  physicists opposed the Big Bang theory when it was first proposed in the middle of the 20th century because it seemed to have theistic implication – perhaps that was the creation event of the universe, pointing to a Creator outside of nature. Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity itself was opposed when it was first published because most scientists of the time thought a force such as gravity, which could act at a distance, was reminiscent of spooky teleological concepts of Aristotle. If a scientist takes it as a basic assumption that nothing exists except matter and energy, then he’ll never accept evidence for the existence of the design of the universe or parts of it, and will necessarily cram all facts into a materialistic framework, no matter how bad the fit. On the other hand, a person who believes that some aspects of the universe or life evince design has much more freedom. Just because some things are designed does not necessarily mean that all things are designed, so he can let the evidence speak for itself.

13. With regards to the larger philosophical and cosmological matters, to you, how would new philosophical arguments, experimental evidence, and theoretical frameworks influence the debate regarding biological systems and origins?

Well, to change my mind at this point would require Darwinists to produce actual evidence that their theory can do what they claim for it. They aren’t used to doing that, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

14. In addition, with regards to historical considerations of the practice of science, it began with some rudimentary forms from Aristotle, even the attempts to naturalize reality with the atomists, or even the pre-Socratics – especially the Ionian school of philosophy: naturalism.  In fact, more modern, historically speaking, scientists were originally called natural philosophers. For example, Isaac Newton went by that title only a couple hundred years ago.  However, science seems to me to have treatment like a capitalized abstraction, ‘Science’, without a lot of context into the history of the endeavor, by which I mean the highly human process of trial-and-error of improving on the failures of prior generations – even in the production of processes such as science.  Rather new to the process comes the logician, Sir Karl Popper, creating an entirely new criterion for scientific theories, namely: falsificationism.  If something wants consideration as a part of modern science, it best have the ability to become falsified.  Furthermore, and more to the point, science makes predictions.  In the decades-long debate of creationism v. evolution v. intelligent design, some core arguments against intelligent design and creationism start with the process of modern science, regarding intelligent design the question comes to the fore, ‘Can intelligent design make predictions?’  What predictions have those researching intelligent design made? 

Well, I, along with many philosophers, don’t think Popper’s work on falsificationism is the last word. Many theories are notoriously difficult to falsify, yet keep going like the Energizer Bunny. For example, in physics string theory has been studied for decades, but no experimental evidence of the existence of subatomic “strings” has been produced. Some scientists have proposed that our universe is actually the result of a computer simulation by aliens in another universe. That’s a bit hard to evidentially support, too. A third example of the failure of falsificationism is Darwin’s theory. Despite many wrong predictions and utterly mysterious, long standing problems such as the conundrum of sexual reproduction, as well as the failure to demonstrate the ability of random mutation and natural selection to produce molecular machinery, the theory keeps chugging along, oblivious to severe problems.

One attractive feature of intelligent design theory is that it can easily be falsified. All it would take is for Darwinists to demonstrate that their theory can do what they claim for it – construct molecular machinery – and ID would be blown out of the water. ID properly makes only one strong, necessary prediction: no undirected, unintelligent process will be found to make sophisticated machinery such as that found in the cell. So far, so good for ID. Darwinism makes the opposite, so far unsupported, prediction.

15. Furthermore, what predictions have yielded experimental results?  In addition, what would falsify intelligent design?

See above

16. Regarding the outcomes of predictions and experimental results, from your vantage, how have the intelligent design explanations done better than evolutionary explanations?  How have they done worse?

See above

17. The practice of ‘design detection’ or design inference, as termed by Dr. William Dembski (1998), infused into the biological sciences may imply a tacit proposal to altering the operation of fundamental scientific processes.  If so, how would this change the practice of science?  Do you think the practice of science needs revision?  In your analysis of the issues over the last few decades, and only if you think so, how would you revise the practice of science?  What might others argue in opposition to this argument?

I don’t think the actual practice of science needs any revision at all to accept a theory of intelligent design. Rather, it’s just people’s attitudes that have to change, because only an unprincipled taboo keeps design off the table. As I noted above, in the past science has been confronted with ideas that shook the foundation of what was thought to be the nature of reality. Newton’s theory, with its apparent action at a distance, and the Big Bang theory, with its very suggestive beginning to nature, both changed scientists’ understanding of the very nature of nature. Yet they were no problem for science. Design itself is permitted in science, as long as it’s kept within bounds. And I don’t mean just human design. Francis Crick famously proposed the idea of “directed panspermia”, which speculated that space aliens first seeded the earth with life. The SETI project of course has searched the skies for signals that might be interpreted – from their physical pattern – as having come from an intelligent, probably alien, source. Even design from beyond our universe can be entertained in the most respected scientific venues. For example, Nature, the most prestigious science journal in the world, published a short fiction story a while back whose premise was that our universe was created by a physicist from another universe ( ). (Try publishing a story in Nature about how God created our universe….) And work by scientists purportedly supporting the notion that we and our “universe” are actually one big computer simulation run by beings living in an entirely different plane of existence from us was described recently in Discover magazine ( ).

So science can accept fundamental changes to what it thinks to be the nature of reality (e.g., Newton, Big Bang). It acknowledges that the effects of intelligence can be detected by physical evidence (e.g., archeology, forensic science), even alien intelligence (e.g., SETI). It has no problem thinking beings outside of our universe may effect it (e.g., the fictional Nature story), or even that other beings entirely created our plane of existence (e.g., the computer simulation theory). Thus there is no principled reason that the scientific community could not accept and investigate a theory of intelligent design as I and others have proposed. Rather, in my experience it balks for nonscientific reasons: it associates the idea with disfavored religious groups and fears there would be unpalatable sociological results from allowing the idea of design full play.

18. In a 2005 paper entitledScientific Orthodoxies,you recount a story of your wife, Celeste.  In the seventh grade, she attendedOur Lady of Saint Carmelin the Bronx.  The experience presented something of interest.  In it, you state, “Catholics have always been rather blasé about evolution.”  What do you mean by this?  How does this figure up to the present regarding the intellectual climate among mainstream Catholic discussions on scientific or theological matters?

As a rule Catholic scholars consider science to be a subordinate discipline to philosophy, let alone theology. Thus, in the past the thinking was that no discovery of science could challenge what we know from higher studies. Darwinian evolution may be true, but exactly how God created life was much less interesting or important than our knowledge that he had in fact created it, and intended us to know, love, and serve him. What’s more, we knew from philosophy that we have free will, the ability to choose between good and evil, the ability to discern natural law, and so act as God would want us to. That was the background to my future wife’s grade school instruction.

Darwinism, however, has come a long way since then, at least rhetorically if not scientifically. Now the most prominent Darwinists explicitly define their theory as one which required no direction or help from anyone, pointedly including God. Now it is routinely claimed, with all the scientific rigor of a children’s fairy tale, that this or that mental tendency – from the love of mothers for their children to the likelihood that men will grow beards to the tendency to rape– is as much the result of undirected change as the shape of a bird’s beak. The metastasis of Darwinian rhetoric, and its unthinking acceptance by large portions of the lay public, is a cause of grave concern in today’s Catholic Church.

19. In terms of the teaching of intelligent design in United States classrooms, there exists much controversy, which can probably have fair claim to having a peak of controversy within theKitzmiller v. Dover Board of Educationin December of 2005.  How do you view the idea of litigation with respect to intelligent design v. evolution?  How do you examine the outcome of theKitzmiller v. Dovertrial?

I am no lawyer, so I don’t have a strong opinion on how to interpret the various laws and constitutional texts that legal eagles cite on various matters. However, it’s unfortunately true that sometimes the law has precious little to do with reality. If a court decided that it was illegal to teach the Big Bang theory in American public schools because, as many physicists and others have thought, a beginning to the universe supports theism, I would have no professional opinion on the laws. But I would have a very strong opinion on the science. The same goes for the idea of intelligent design in biology. Courts, lawyers, and politicians – often in thrall to Darwinists — can say what they will, but that changes nothing of the evidence from biology – of molecular machines and the digital information of DNA, of the genetic code and gene regulatory networks – that points insistently to design. I can only say that indoctrinating students in Darwinism to the exclusion of other legitimate views is shameful.

As for the Kitzmiller trial itself, I view it as little more than a farce. In his written opinion the judge offered his own views on testimony about school board meetings, newspaper editorials, and other quotidian matters. But whenever the topic turned to intellectual questions – whether in science, philosophy, or theology, whether by the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses or the defense’s – he simply copied, word for word, from a document given to him by the plaintiff’s lawyers at the end of the trial. ( ) There is no reason at all to think that the fellow – a former head of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board – comprehended any of the scientific or philosophical issues discussed in depth in his court, let alone made an independent judgment about them. Those who think, as some do ( ), that in the Dover trial a philosopher-king weighed competing ideas and independently saw the merits of one side have been seriously misled. For those who see his plagiarized opinion as somehow intellectually definitive, just think about a court ruling on any matter with which you disagreed, and ask yourself if you think the ruling settled the matter intellectually.

20. One document did produce further controversy such as theThe Wedge Documentof the Discovery Institute.  For those unfamiliar, what is theThe Wedge Document?  How do you examine the issues surrounding this document?  How would others differ from you?

I first heard the term “wedge” in the context of the ID-evolution debate from Phillip Johnson, then a professor of law at the University of California Berkeley and a skeptic of Darwinism. Phil described the wedge as the strategy of splitting apart two very different definitions of science: 1) science as a no-holds-barred search for the best explanation for nature, versus 2) science as applied philosophical materialism. He saw that the public thought of science in terms of definition one, but that, especially when push came to shove in the area of evolution, much of the scientific community thought of it as definition two. He wanted to make it as clear as possible to as large a fraction of the public as possible that what they thought was an unbiased search in science for the best answer was actually strongly guided by preconceived philosophical prejudice.

I never heard of the “Wedge Document” until some news story about it appeared. It seems to have been a draft of some internal document at the Discovery Institute, probably for fund raising purposes. As far as I know it was never accepted by higher-ups there as an official policy or document. It essentially made the case that the social and political history of the United States was largely guided by Christians and others (such as, say, Thomas Jefferson) who were convinced that nature exhibited purpose, which as an historical observation is unquestionably correct. It also proposed typical think-tank actions, such as holding meetings and publishing books, to once again promote that view.

The document was stolen from the Discovery Institute, scanned, and posted on the internet. Some opponents of ID seized on phrases from the document that spoke of making science consonant with Christianity, and claimed, ludicrously, that here was a grand conspiracy to have religious fundamentalism take over science, probably by stationing preachers in every lab to monitor activities. Reading the document calmly makes it plain that what was meant was to disestablish materialism as an extraneous assumption of science — to have science be the no-holds-barred search for truth that Phil Johnson spoke of, rather than a propagandist for a materialistic philosophical view.

21. What advice do you have for young scientists?

Study hard! Also, unfortunately, watch your backs and toe the line. If you decide to challenge an accepted explanation – even one that is comparatively noncontroversial – keep your eyes wide open and count the potential cost before you do.

22. What projects do you have in progress over the next few years?

I’m interested in trying to establish as rigorously as possible where the likely dividing line exists in biology between what can be accomplished by unintelligent processes and what requires purposeful design. I’ve made a start of that with my 2007 book The Edge of Evolution and hope to build on it

23. Where do you see intelligent design in the near and far future?

I’m serenely confident that a theory of intelligent design in some form will be adopted in biology at some point, probably not too far in the future. It’s not because of anything I or anyone in the ID movement has done. Rather, it’s because that is where the data are headed. The astounding elegance and sophistication of the machinery of life are being made more and more plain, and the conclusion of design cannot be long avoided.


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