A Design for Life: An Interview with Michael Behe
September 12, 2005
John Sutherland meets Michael Behe, a leading proponent of intelligent design, the controversial theory that evolution alone cannot explain life's complexity
John Sutherland: For Intelligent Design proponents such as yourself, isn't Darwinism just another theory?
Michael Behe: Well, yeah, sure. But the question is: exactly how did life get here? Was it by natural selection and random mutation or was it by something else? Everybody - even Richard Dawkins - sees design in biology. You see this design when you see co-ordinated parts coming together to perform a function - like in a hand. And so it's the appearance of design that everybody's trying to explain. So that if Darwin's theory doesn't explain it we're left with no other explanation than maybe it really was designed. That's essentially the design argument.
JS: Why do you think we should replay the Darwinian controversies of 1860 and the 1925 Scopes monkey trial?
MB: Because we have new data. It's because science has advanced since then. We now know what the very foundation of life looks like. It's made up of molecules. Not just molecules but sophisticated molecular machinery.
JS: This is your "irreducible complexity" thesis?
MB: Yeah. That's right. Irreducible complexity is a problem for Darwinian evolution. Whenever we see these complex functional systems we realise that they have to be designed.
JS: How is irreducible complexity different from plain old complexity?
MB: Well, think of it this way. If you take away a rock from a pile of rocks you haven't changed much. It's still a heap of rocks - just a rock or two smaller. Take away a component from the mousetrap and it isn't a mousetrap any more.
JS: You're fond of the mousetrap analogy, aren't you?
MB: Yes. It captures the point of irreducible complexity in a way that everybody can see. A mechanical mousetrap is made up of parts, all of which have to work together. You can't just have one part work a little bit then add another part and have it work a little bit better. And that's the sort of thing Darwinian evolution would have to do, if it was true.
JS: Is simultaneity the key here?
MB: Well, sort of, yeah. The trap does not work until all the parts were there. The system itself doesn't work until you fit all of them together.
JS: Is there a discourse problem here? Metaphysics can't engage meaningfully with physics? Does intelligent design belong in science?
MB: I believe it does. I see it as straightforward empirical observation. One analogy I like to use is to Mount Rushmore. If you had never heard of Mount Rushmore, you would see immediately the images of four people and immediately recognise that to be design. There wouldn't be any question of metaphysics there. You can tell that something was designed from its physical structure. In fact, Richard Dawkins himself says exactly the same thing in The Blind Watchmaker.
JS: How does molecular biology have an advantage over zoology, which is often where Darwin is coming from?
MB: It works at a more fundamental level. It's kind of like the outside of a computer and the inside. The outside - the keyboard and the screen and so on - they look complex. But what makes them run?
JS: When you look through your electron microscope, what precisely do you see that suggests to you Darwin with his eyeglass may have got it wrong?
MB: It's that you can see that there are quite literally machines in the cell. Machines made out of molecules. It's not just the intelligent design people who use this term. It's widely used in molecular biology. If you look in any of the science literature you will see that they talk about "machines".
JS: The bacterial flagellum comes up quite often in your discussions. What kind of "machine" is it?
MB: It's a little outboard motor. True! It's a rotary motor. A little group of proteins spins around this whip called the flagellum, which acts as the propeller. There's a flow of acid, which acts rather like water going over a turbine to turn it. There are drive shafts, there are bearings, there are all sorts of mechanical components.
JS: Is this molecular machinery a version of what used to be called the primum mobile? The driving force underlying everything in the universe?
MB: No. I'm just trying to explain the bacterial flagellum. You see, this is one problem I always run into. I see this flagellum and say, "Gee whiz! It looks designed," and then people come along and say, "Well, you're trying to say that the whole world was created by some superagency." No. I'm just focusing on this area in biochemistry.
JS: You're obviously a biochemist who accepts quite large chunks of Darwin.
MB: Yes, that's right. Common sense on the subject? Fine. Micro evolution, as they call it? Sure. It's just when you get to the level of "how do complex systems get there?" - that's the sticking point.
JS: Is there a bottom line in microscopic terms - a ground level below which you can't get any further into the structure of matter?
MB: Yes. We're at the molecular level of biology and from physics we know that's where it ends.
JS: And the baseline is irreducible complexity?
JS: It's no secret that you are a Catholic. But, as I understand it, your scientific theory does not predicate God in any form whatsoever. You've suggested that the designer could even be some kind of evil alien. Is that right?
MB: That's exactly correct. All that the evidence from biochemistry points to is some very intelligent agent. Although I find it congenial to think that it's God, others might prefer to think it's an alien - or who knows? An angel, or some satanic force, some new age power. Something we don't know anything about yet.
JS: But you're not reinserting God into the mix?
MB: No, we focus simply on the observation of design. We don't say the designer is God.
JS: Do you detect among scientists that this is a topic of respectable professional interest?
MB: Right now it's a topic that scientists are interested in but can only talk about in hushed tones behind closed doors. When I go to meetings people come up to me furtively to talk about it.
JS: Has the National Academy of Science taken an interest?
JS: It takes a position strongly condemning it. The recently retired president, Bruce Albert, sent a letter to all 2,000 members of the NAS essentially naming me.
JS: Did Galileo come to mind?
MB: Yeah. In a way it's flattery
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