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Michael Behe: A Biography

Michael Behe (born 1952 in Altoona, Pennsylvania) is a biochemist and an influential intelligent-design theorist. A Professor of Biochemistry at Lehigh University and a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, he received his PhD in biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania in 1978. His dissertation was on aspects of sickle-cell disease, and his postdoctoral work on DNA was conducted at the National Institute of Health. With research interests involving the delineation of design and natural selection in protein structures, he wrote what has been arguably the single most effective book so far in bringing the question of Darwin versus Design to public attention, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge of Evolution (Free Press, 1996). The magazines National Review and World both selected it as one of the 100 most important books of the 20th century.

Behe is a lifelong Roman Catholic who recalls of his childhood that, “I don’t recall evolution ever being a topic of discussion. It just didn’t register at the Behe house … I think [my parents’] lack of interest faithfully reflects a laissez-faire attitude of Catholics toward the theory. Evolution never was the problem in the Catholic Church that it was in various Protestant denominations.” He “saw no theological problem with Darwin’s theory (properly understood) — and [I] still don’t.” Behe began to doubt Darwinism when he chanced upon a notice in a book-club newsletter about biochemist Michael Denton’s then recently published book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (1985). Reading U.C. Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial (1991) gave further support to his changed views. Johnson himself later encouraged Behe to put his own insights from biochemistry into book form for a general audience — something that professional scientists by custom often avoid doing. Behe’s criticism of Darwinism has to do not with common descent, which he accepts, but with the specific evolutionary mechanism proposed by Darwin.

Behe is best known for pioneering the scientific debate about “irreducible complexity.” As he argued in Darwin’s Black Box, an integrated biological system, or any other, is irreducibly complex if its ability to function depends on the presence of multiple interacting features where, in the absence of even one, the system will fail. Behe asks how there could exist an evolutionary pathway to the development of such a system.

Darwinian theory requires that each minor evolutionary modification be “selected” for some benefit it gives to the organism. These modifications occur gradually over generations, without plan or purpose. But an irreducibly complex system—Behe gives various examples including the bacterial flagellum, resembling an outboard board, and blood clotting—cannot be produced by such a method because the system will not function until all the parts are in place. No benefit is conferred until the entire system is complete, thus requiring forethought and intention — or in a word, “design.”

The more “unselected” steps required in imaging the evolution of a system, the more irreducibly complex it is deemed to be, and the more unlikely a Darwinian explanation becomes.

Behe sought to show that evolutionary science had yet to produce even one successful theoretical model of how an irreducibly complex system could result from the Darwinian natural-selection process alone, unaided and unguided by any intelligent agent.

Prominent scientists praised the book. University of Chicago biochemist and molecular biologist James A. Shapiro hailed it as a “valuable critique of an all-too-often unchallenged orthodoxy,” while New York University chemist Robert Shapiro said, “Michael Behe has done a top-notch job of explaining and illuminating one of the most vexing problems in biology: the origin of the complexity that permeates all of life on this planet.”

Yet from the moment of its appearance, Darwin’s Black Box has been a lightning rod for criticism of intelligent design, as has Behe himself. Lehigh University’s department of biological sciences, Behe’s own colleagues, felt compelled to post a denunciation of his work on the department’s website, saying it has “no basis in science.” Indeed, one often hears claims from the Darwinian community that Behe’s thesis has been dismissed by science, that it is not now and never has been the subject of legitimate scientific debate. Darwinist critics typically make this claim in general audience media venues. At the same time, in professional science journals, Behe’s work has been the subject of contentious discussions. It is not clear how these discussions could be classified other than as scientific “debate.”

Among responses from scientific critics of Behe’s thesis, biochemist and blood-clotting expert Russell Doolittle of UC Berkeley tried to show how clotting in mice was not irreducibly complex and could function with two components of the cascade “knocked out.” But Behe subsequently noted that Doolittle had misread the paper upon which he based his response. The paper in fact showed the devastating health effects of such a “knock out.”

In his book Finding Darwin’s God, Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller devoted a paragraph to trying to sketch a Darwinian solution to the blood-clotting enigma, involving gene duplication. But Behe responded that Miller’s attempt did not even begin to seriously address the challenge posed in Darwin’s Black Box — namely, the difficulty of explaining not a simple clot but the regulation of the whole clotting cascade.

While his best known writing has been in the form of books written for the general public rather than for an academic audience, Behe continues to publish peer-reviewed articles in technical journals. An example, authored with David Snoke of the University of Pittsburgh in the journal Protein Science (2004), described how protein interactions require a “lock and key” matching among multiple amino acid residues, thus giving scientific support to intelligent design and irreducible complexity. However, Behe and Snoke chose not to use either phrase. This was out of concern that the emotional response that would thereby be aroused among some readers would obscure attention to the scientific question at issue. The paper provoked contentious discussion among scientists, which, again, the Darwinian community declines to characterize as “debate.”

In 2005, Behe was lead witness for the defense in a federal court case that continues to be frequently cited as authoritative by Darwinists: Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District. Jones reasoned that as a judge in a small Pennsylvania town, he was particularly well suited to decide on controversial issues in biology, namely Darwin versus Design. Many Darwin advocates appear to agree with him. (One wonders if they would also agree with a traffic court judge who set about deciding questions in physics. After all, he deals all day with cases of objects in motion as impacted by other objects and forces—the very definition of mechanics.)

Jones found that intelligent design falls outside the limits of science. In a published response to the Kitzmiller decision, Behe has argued that Judge Jones misunderstood, twisted, or ignored Behe’s testimony. Behe understands science as “an unrestricted search for the truth about nature based on reasoning from physical evidence,” not limited to naturalistic explanations of phenomena if those explanations are contradicted by evidence from the physical world.

Jones criticized ID for “invoking and permitting supernatural causation.” Behe replies that Jones failed to grasp the difference between a theory’s implications and what it actually says. Thus the Big Bang theory, which itself says nothing about God or religion, nevertheless has implications for religious faith. It validates the theistic belief that the universe had a beginning and it suggests supernatural causation. But because the Big Bang is a theory based on evidence, merely having such implications cannot invalidate it.

Jones claimed that Behe’s idea of irreducible complexity has been “refuted by the scientific community.” Behe points out that an idea’s having been “controverted,” as has his own has been, is different from its having been “refuted.” Controversial ideas are, by definition, precisely those that have been “controverted.” Clearly, intelligent design remains controversial. This doesn’t mean it has been “refuted.”

Jones criticized Behe for purportedly “refus[ing] to identify the designer.” Behe responds that from the publication of Darwin’s Black Box onward he has noted his personal belief that the designer of life is God, while affirming that his belief arises from philosophical and other considerations, not from the scientific evidence.

Jones criticized ID theory for, again purportedly, presenting only negative evidence against Darwinism rather than offering positive evidence of its own. Behe replied that Darwinism itself asks for our belief based on very thin evidence, “the mere logical possibility that random mutation and natural selection may in some unknown manner account for a [biological] system.”

Jones criticized ID for “setting a scientifically unreasonable burden of proof for the theory of evolution.” Behe asked, “How can a demand for Darwinism to convincingly support its express claim be ‘unreasonable’?”

Jones notes derisively, “Professor Behe…claims that the plausibility of the argument for ID depends upon the extent to which one believes in the existence of God.” Behe responds that it would be naïve to think scientists are unaffected by their philosophical or religious beliefs, whether for or against religion. The prestigious scientific journal Nature once rejected the Big Bang as “philosophically unacceptable” because it seemed to give comfort to the “creationists.” Behe reflects, “Because real people — including scientists — do not base all of their judgments on strictly scientific reasoning, various scientific theories can be more or less appealing to people based on their supposed extra-scientific implications. It is unfair to suggest ID is unique in that regard.”

Behe’s most recent book is The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (Free Press, 2007), which seeks to show from field and lab experiments where exactly the mathematical limit lies to what Darwinian evolution can produce. Once again, the book elicited spirited controversy in scientific publications, including the journal Genetics where two Cornell mathematicians challenged Behe’s thesis. Behe replied in the pages of Genetics, and the two authors answered that on at least one point, having to do with a mutation rate, “Behe is right.” In the book, Behe argued that using empirical data to evaluate the power of natural selection makes more sense than relying, as most Darwinists do, on theoretical genetics models.

In non-specialist publications, Darwinist reviewers such as Sean Carroll and Jerry Coyne argued that there was nothing enigmatic about the evolutionary path that produced elementary protein features. But in a specialized publication, the online journal Biology Direct, editor Eugene Koonin referred to “the old enigma of the evolution of complex features in proteins.”

Resources for Further Information:

Articles by Michael Behe
Michael Behe’s Website
Michael Behe’s Home Page at Lehigh University
DEBATE: Is there an “edge” to evolution?

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.