Question & Answer with Michael J. Behe, Author of The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism
What do you believe Darwinian evolutionary processes can actually do?
The Edge of Evolution asks the sober question, what is it reasonable to think Darwinian evolutionary processes can actually do? Unprecedented genetic data on humans and our microbial parasites (malaria, HIV, E. coli) now allow us to answer that question with some precision. The astonishing result is that, even under intense selective pressure, and given an astronomical number of opportunities, random mutation and natural selection yield only trivial, mostly degenerating changes. The bottom line: the major events that produced life on earth were not driven by random mutations.
The book’s subtitle speaks of the “limits of Darwinism.” Are you saying that Darwin’s theory is completely wrong?
Not at all. It is an excellent explanation for some features of life, but it has sharp limits. Darwin’s theory is an amalgam of several concepts: 1) random mutation, 2) natural selection, and 3) common descent. Common descent and natural selection are very well-supported. Random mutation isn’t. Random mutation is severely constrained. So the process which produced the elegant structures of life could not have been random.
How does the book evolve from the failure of randomness to the conclusion of intelligent design? Aren’t there possible unintelligent evolutionary explanations other than Darwinism?
The new genetic results on humans and our parasites tell against not only Darwin’s theory, but against any unintelligent process. In their reciprocal evolutionary struggle, human and parasitic genomes could have been altered in nature by whatever unintelligent mechanism had the ability to help. Yet virtually nothing did. Because the categories of “intelligent” and “unintelligent” processes are mutually exclusive and exhaustive, ruling out unintelligent processes necessarily implicates intelligence.
What evidence speaks most clearly to the role of intelligent design in biology?
The elegance of the foundation of life — the cell. Charles Darwin and his contemporaries supposed the cell was a “simple globule of protoplasm,” a microscopic piece of Jell-O. They were wrong. Modern science reveals the cell is a sophisticated, automated, nano-scale factory. For example, the journal Nature marvels, “The cell’s macromolecular machines contain dozens or even hundreds of components. But unlike man made machines, which are built on assembly lines, these cellular machines assemble spontaneously from their … components. It is as though cars could be manufactured by merely tumbling their parts onto the factory floor.”
How does intelligent design differ from the prevailing Darwinist view of evolution?
To a surprising extent prevailing evolutionary theory and intelligent design are harmonious. Both agree that the universe and life unfolded over vast ages; both agree that species could follow species in the common descent of life. They differ solely in the overriding role Darwinism ascribes to randomness. Intelligent design says that, while randomness does exist, its role in explaining the unfolding of life is quite limited.
How does intelligent design differ from creationism? What do you say to critics who charge that it is merely “creationism in disguise”?
Intelligent design theory is to creationism as the Big Bang theory is to the book of Genesis. Although both intelligent design and the Big Bang may be reminiscent of some religious ideas about the universe and life, they are both grounded on the empirical study of nature, not on holy books. The phrase “Let there be light” may be evocative of the Big Bang, but the Big Bang is science, not scripture. Intelligent design may be compatible with some religious concepts, but the astounding intricacy of cellular molecular machinery is hard scientific data.
Do you see intelligent design as a concept that provides a resolution to the creation vs. evolution debate? Is there ever a point where science and religion might meet in some form of compromise — and does intelligent design help to provide that answer?
In some ways intelligent design is the perfect middle ground between the scientistic atheism exemplified by Richard Dawkins and the dogmatic religious creation stories he rails against. Like the Big Bang theory and the discovery of the “fine-tuning” of the universe for life, intelligent design recognizes that empirical results from science point insistently to a reality greater than is dreamt of in Dawkins’ philosophy. Yet, rather than relying on some holy text, ID comes to that conclusion through science — from our own human intellect and the struggle to understand nature.
In Edge of Evolution you indicate that some of the evidence supporting common ancestry is pretty persuasive. Yet a number of scientists have questioned some of the evidence for common ancestry. Do you think it is beyond the pale for them to do so? In your mind is it scientific to question common ancestry?
In my view it is certainly not “beyond the pale” for a scientist to question anything. Questioning and skepticism are healthy for science. I have no solutions to the difficult problems pointed to by scientists who are skeptical of universal common descent: ORFan genes, nonstandard genetic codes, different routes of embryogenesis by similar organisms, and so on. Nonetheless, as I see it, if, rather than Darwinian evolution, one is talking about “intelligently designed” descent, then those problems, while still there, seem much less insuperable. I certainly agree that random, unintelligent processes could not account for them, but an intelligent agent may have ways around apparent difficulties. So in judging the likelihood of common descent, I discount problems that could be classified as “how did that get here?” Instead, I give much more weight to the “mistakes” or “useless features” arguments. If some peculiar feature is shared between two species which, as far as we can tell, has no particular function, and which in other contexts we would likely call a genetic accident, then I count that as rather strong evidence for common descent. So, if one looks at the data in the way that I do, then one can say simultaneously that: 1) CD is very well supported; 2) grand Darwinian claims are falsified; 3) ID is confirmed; 4) design extends very deeply into biology.
How does your view of intelligent design in biology fit with the findings and theories of cosmology and physics?
The conclusion of intelligent design in biology fits very well with unexpected results in the past few decades from physics and astronomy, which show that the universe, its laws, physical constants, and many details, are “fine-tuned” for life on earth. For example, if the charge on the electron or the properties of water were much different, life as we know it would be precluded. Biology has now discovered that the fine tuning of the universe for life actually extends into life. The term “consilience” denotes the situation where results from several scientific areas point in the same direction, reinforcing our confidence that the conclusion is correct. Biology has attained consilience with results from cosmology and physics.
Is it necessary to conclude that the designer is God?
“Necessary” is a strong word. It is not “necessary” in a compulsory sense. The scientific study of nature in the past century and especially the last few decades, however, points strongly to the conclusion that there exists an intelligent being who set up our universe for life: its physical laws, many of its properties and details, as well as many necessary details reaching deeply into life. In the teeth of that evidence a person such as Richard Dawkins is still free to think it was all one huge cosmic accident. Most people will decide God — or some remarkable being — is the most likely explanation.
Why do you think there is such resistance within the scientific community to the idea of intelligent design?
Scientists are trained to think of the universe as a self-contained, self-explanatory system. Unexpected findings that go against that supposition can be disconcerting. When it was first proposed, the idea that the universe had a beginning in a big bang was strongly resisted by some scientists, because it pointed to a reality outside of the universe. Intelligent design of biology evokes even stronger reactions, perhaps because it challenges the supposition of a self-contained universe even more strongly.
One criticism of ID has been that it makes no predictions, and thus is unscientific. Does The Edge of Evolution address this?
The Edge of Evolution is almost entirely concerned with the major, opposing predictions of Darwinism and ID. The most essential prediction of Darwinism is that, given an astronomical number of chances, unintelligent processes can make seemingly-designed systems, ones of the complexity of those found in the cell. ID specifically denies this, predicting that in the absence of intelligent input no such systems would develop. So Darwinism and ID make clear, opposite predictions of what we should find when we examine genetic results from a stupendous number of organisms that are under relentless pressure from natural selection. The recent genetic results are a stringent test. The results: 1) Darwinism’s prediction is falsified; 2) Design’s prediction is confirmed.
Are there lessons we can learn from the study of malaria and HIV to help us, as a species, protect ourselves from viral and parasitical threats? How might other fields, such as medicine, be affected by intelligent design?
One heartening conclusion of intelligent design is that Darwinian evolution is not the relentless, Borg-like process we had thought. Random evolution is clumsy and limited. That means that, even when fighting pathogens such as malaria that occur in enormous numbers, if science can find the right monkey wrench to throw in its molecular machinery, random mutation and natural selection will be helpless to circumvent it.