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Correction: This published transcript incorrectly attributes some remarks to Ed Larson that were actually said by Ken Miller.
FLATOW: Now joining me to talk some more about the theory of evolution and maybe how it should be taught in schools are my next guests. Kenneth Miller is a cell biologist and professor of biology at Brown. He’s author of “Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution,” published by HarperCollins. He joins us by phone from Providence.
Thank you for being with us, Dr. Miller.
Dr. KENNETH MILLER (Biologist; Professor, Brown University; Author, “Finding Darwin’s God): You’re welcome. Happy to be here.
FLATOW: You’re welcome. You’re welcome.
Michael Behe is a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He’s also a fellow at the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute. He’s author of “Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution,” published by Free Press. And he joins us by phone from his office.
Thank you for joining us, Dr. Behe.
Dr. MICHAEL BEHE (Professor, Lehigh University; Discovery Institute; Author, “Darwin’s Black Box”): Yeah, glad to be with you.
FLATOW: You state, Dr. Behe you have written many articles in which you started out believing in the theory of evolution as being able to explain everything, but now you’re not a believer in it anymore.
Dr. BEHE: That’s right. I was always taught evolution in the schools, and I accepted it because, you know, why not? My teachers knew more than I did. But when I started to investigate it, because I was prompted I read a book that was skeptical of evolution by a scientist named Michael Denton. When I looked, I noticed a large number of problems. And let me just kind of give you a gist of it.
In the 20th century, science has discovered that in the cell, which was thought to be kind of a glob of protoplasm by scientists in the 19th century that the cell is run by extremely complicated molecular machines. And many of them are what I call irreducibly complex. And a good example from our everyday world of irreducible complexity is a mouse trap. You’ve gotta mouse trap you buy at the store has a number of parts. It’s got a wooden base and a spring and hammer, and so on. And if you take any of those parts of away, then the thing doesn’t work. And it’s hard to envision how that would be put together in a gradual manner as Darwinian evolution would require.
And a good example of that in biochemistry is something called the bacterial flagellum. And a flagellum is quite literally an outboard motor that bacteria use to swim, and it’s got many different parts, like the propeller and the drive shaft and the hook region. And kind of like the mouse trap, if you take any of the parts away, the flagellum just doesn’t work. And so because of its irreducibility, I’ve argued that the flagellum is better explained not as the result of natural selection, but it and other molecular machines are better explained as the result of purposeful intelligent design.
FLATOW: And who would that purposeful, intelligent design belong to?
Dr. BEHE: Who’s the designer?
Dr. BEHE: Well, certainly, I’m a Roman Catholic, a Christian; I certainly would think that the designer is God, and probably most people would. But that conclusion is not forced by coming to the conclusion of intelligent design. You know, somebody else might think it was some New Age force or a space alien or something like that. Certainly, those things strike us as strange, but the point is that the idea of intelligent design is an idea that comes straight from the evidence, from things like the molecular machines in the cell, and it does not force a supernatural conclusion.
FLATOW: Dr. Miller, you spend a lot of time in your book “Finding Darwin’s God” in refuting a lot of Dr. Behe’s theories, especially this cell theory.
Dr. MILLER: Yeah. No, that’s exactly right. And I have to say, you know, for want of affiliation, Michael and I are both Roman Catholics, and, you know, I would be as delighted as anybody else to look at the inside of a cell and I don’t know how else to describe it to find God’s fingerprints there in something that you could win souls for. But I find Dr. Behe’s ideas interesting and I think they’re provocative, and I think he has really done a great service to the scientific community in terms of jostling people around and saying, ‘Come on, you folks. If you want to argue for evolution, you ought to come up with explanations for some of these things.’ And I think that’s a valuable service.
But I also think, fundamentally, he’s mistaken. And the way in which I’ve tried to show that is really pretty straightforward. The first thing is that Mike is absolutely right that the cell is filled with complex biochemical machines, and boy, is it ever. And we discover more all the time. But it turns out he’s actually not right when he says that you cannot explain the evolution of these things by Darwinian mechanisms, and there are actually quite a few papers that have appeared in the literature in the last couple of years that have done exactly that. The other thing that I think is significant is Dr. Behe says the reason that Darwinian evolutionary biology cannot explain the evolution of complex systems is that every one of these systems, these little machines, are irreducibly complex. And what is meant by that, of course, as you just heard, is if you take a part away, it doesn’t work anymore. And since natural selection can only work on the whole machine, therefore, it can’t explain its evolution.
But the interesting thing about that is, if you actually look at a couple of those machines and he, for example, uses the eukaryotic cilium, which is also sort of like a little propulsion device, as an example of irreducible complexity. When you look around in nature, you actually find cilia and flagella that are missing one part or two parts or three parts and are still fully functional. And the interesting thing about the mousetrap, the mousetrap requires five parts, and if you take a part away, it doesn’t work. There actually are ways to make a mousetrap work with four or three or even fewer parts, but what’s really relevant and what really matters in terms of the analogy is there are parts of the mousetrap, such as the spring and the base plate and so forth, which can be useful for other functions; in other words, useful as a paper clip, as a joke once. The last time Dr. Behe and I shared a platform, I used three of the five parts of a mousetrap as a tie clip.
And actually, that’s pretty much how cells evolve complex biochemical systems, is their parts, and partial assemblies of their parts are useful for other functions, and that’s how evolution produces them.
Dr. LARSON: If I could hop in there…
Dr. BEHE: Ken Miller’s discussion of the mousetrap is interesting, because he takes it from a Web page by Professor John MacDonald(ph) at the University of Delaware. And on his Web page, Professor MacDonald says specifically that these mousetraps are not intended as analogies of how evolution works. What happens is that one can make mousetraps with different numbers of parts, but one has to intelligently manipulate the parts, bend them, put them in the right position and so on. They’re examples of intelligent design rather than examples of how Darwinian evolution would work.
Dr. MILLER: Yes, but…
Dr. BEHE: Now, Ken I’m sorry. I’ll just…
FLATOW: Go ahead.
Dr. BEHE: …take a short time. Ken and I can go around and around on this, but I’d like to issue a friendly challenge. Now in his book, Ken says on page 108 after discussing micro evolution, he says that, quote well, not quote yet. He says that no principle of biochemistry or molecular biology would prevent natural selection from, quote, “redesigning dozens or hundreds of genes over a few weeks or months,” closed quote. Now that bacterial flagellum I talked about has only about 30 or 40 genes, not dozens or not hundreds. So here’s the challenge: Let Ken go into the lab, using molecular biology techniques, knock out the genes for the flagellum, and instead of just two months, let’s give him two years. See if in two years the bacterium can reevolve a flagellum. And if it can do that, I promise publicly to renounce my view. And if it doesn’t, I would ask Ken to say publicly just that he thinks intelligent design is an idea worth investigating. How’s that sound, Ken?
Dr. MILLER: Well, it’s an interesting challenge because for the very simple reason that it flies in the face of what we actually understand about evolution, and that is that the evolution of the bacterial flagellum was a process that took place probably about three billion years ago. And what you’re asking anyone who takes up the challenge to do is to go into a laboratory and allow a series of events, many of which were undetermined, meaning you don’t know how they’re going to come out, to suddenly reoccur again. And we know from evolution if you take cultures of bacteria that start out identical and put them in different flasks under identical conditions, they will evolve in different directions in those different flasks. So you’re asking for the outcome of an experiment that is essentially unrepeatable to be repeated and, unfortunately, that’s not going to work.
Dr. BEHE: Well, I understand why you’re reluctant, but to somebody like me, who’s skeptical of evolution, let me try to explain why, you know, I find such explanations unconvincing. Recently, a couple months ago, a man named Jerry Coyne, who’s a prominent evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, wrote in The New Republic magazine he said, quote, “In science’s pecking order, evolutionary biology lurks somewhere near the bottom, far closer to phrenology than to physics.”
And the reason why he was so hard on his own discipline is that he was reviewing a book called “A Natural History of Rape,” in which it was asserted that human rape is, quote, “a natural biological phenomenon that is a product of the human evolutionary heritage.” And in the book, a couple of evolutionary biologists by the name of Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer(ph) used evolutionary reasoning to try to show why they think that rape is, in fact, selected by evolution. And Coyne was livid, because he thought they were ignoring data, that their ideas were not testable and so on.
Well, to many of us, such as myself, the excuses that evolutionary biologists give for avoiding testing their theory are essentially the same flaws that Coyne sees in Thornhill and Palmer’s book, that ‘just so’ stories are easy to make up. You can make them up for why rape is adaptive, why bacterial flagellum could be put together and so on. But nobody seems to test them.
Dr. MILLER: Yes, but that’s right, and I have to tell you…
FLATOW: Wait, wait. Let me this I have to interrupt wait, hang on and remind everybody that I’m Ira Flatow and this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from National Public Radio; talking with Dr. Kenneth Miller and Dr. Michael Behe, and also with Ed Larson. We’re talking about the 75th anniversary of the Scopes trial and kept the debate continuing here. Who was interrupting whom at that point? I want to…
Dr. MILLER: I think we both were, but I have to say…
Dr. MILLER: …that I completely concur with Coyne’s criticism of the book that you brought up. I think the people who wrote that book took a few areas of behavioral ecology and they simply extrapolated them beyond any reason. And, in fact, very often people in the scientific field will go off on a tangent, and an unjustified tangent, and that’s really exactly what these people did. But the real key thing and Professor Behe, for example, asked for experimental evidenc is that the very premise of what he argues has not been persuasive within the scientific community. And the reason that very premise has not been persuasive is for the very simple reason that there are examples in the scientific literature of the thing he says does not exist. And I’ll give you an example, and I think many of your listeners will resonate with this.
For anybody who took high school biology or Bio 101 in college, I dare say one of the least favorite parts of the course very often is the Krebs cycle. When I teach freshman biology at Brown, my students dread a couple of lectures on the Krebs cycle, even though I try to make them as exciting and invigorating as possible. And the reason for that is the Krebs cycle, which is the heart of metabolism, is a very complex biochemical system. It has nine enzymes, four cofactors; every part has to be put together for it to work properly. It’s exactly the sort of thing that Professor Behe says evolution cannot explain, but interestingly, in the very same year that his book appeared, a very good explanation of the step by step Darwinian evolution of the Krebs cycle appeared, and it’s been followed up with a couple other papers that have appeared, one last year, exploring the same area.
Mike’s book has been noticed within the scientific community. It was reviewed in American Scientist; it was reviewed in Nature. I would encourage Dr. Behe to come to scientific meetings and sort of…
Dr. MILLER: …slug it out with informed audience.
FLATOW: Dr. Miller, I have to interrupt one more time and take a quick break, and we’ll come and slug it out a little bit more among ourselves here. So don’t go away. We’ll be right back after this short break.
I’m Ira Flatow and this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from National Public Radio.
FLATOW: Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I’m Ira Flatow.
A brief program note: Join Juan Williams and his guests on Monday in this hour for a look at why the romance novel still persists. Who reads romance novels? The answer might surprise you.
We’re talking this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY about the Scopes trial and the teaching of evolution in this country with my guests. Michael Behe is professor of biochemistry at Lehigh and author of “Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution,” published by the Free Press. Kenneth Miller, professor of biology at Brown and author of “Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution,” published by HarperCollins. Ed Larson, professor of history and law and author of “Summer for the Gods” published by Harvard University Press.
Ed Larson, have we heard this debate before? This isn’t the first time intelligent design theory has been suggested as an alternative to Darwinism, is it?
Dr. LARSON: No, it’s not. From the very beginning, the issue of what you could call intelligent design, the issue of irreducible complexity, was raised against Darwinism. Louie Agassis raised it in arguments about complex ecological relationships; how could ecologically dependent beings evolve separately? He, of course, was the great zoologist at Harvard. And you had Richard Owen, the great anatomist at England, probably the greatest in the world, doing it about organs like in fact, Darwin was so struck by these arguments that he once called the eye, which is a complex organism, the antidote to atheism, he referred to it in one of his letters.
Despite these arguments that have been raised, the vast majority of scientists came to accept Darwinism, not necessarily on these issues but because how it explained other phenomenons in science, such as the fossil record or the geographical distribution of animals. But the issue’s always been there, and what Professor Behe has done, as has been said even by his opponent on this show he has raised it again, bringing in a new variety of so called designed organisms. So it’s an old argument, but appearing in new ways and raising new issues. And it has sharpened the debate quite a bit.
FLATOW: OK. Let me go to the phones, to Garrett in St. Louis. Hi, Garrett.
GARRETT (Caller): Ira, thank you so much for taking my call. This is a topic that has haunted me for about 15 years, and I can get very verbose on this topic, so if I wear out my welcome, just shut me up.
FLATOW: We’ve only got about 15 minutes left, so…
GARRETT: Real quickly, I’ll boil it down to two points. Most importantly, I want to express my appreciation to Dr. Miller and his book “Finding Darwin’s God.” I am a physiologist, and I’ve been a Christian for about two years, despite the fact that I accept evolution as valid. And it’s nice to know that someone besides myself is a Christian who accepts evolution and is trying to resolve this apparent conflict.
And secondly, I’d like to point out that the creationists, with their ludicrous arguments, are the reason that I stayed away from God for so very long. I’m not sure that the creationists realize how much damage they’re doing to Christianity. For years I felt like I would have to commit intellectual suicide if I became a Christian, and I wonder how many other scientists are being kept away from God because of creationists’ arguments?
Dr. BEHE: Can I just pop in? I know he’s admiring Ken’s book…
GARRETT: And yours, too, Dr. Behe. I’ve read that one, too.
Dr. BEHE: Oh, well, thanks very much. I’d just like to say that I agree with you. I agree with Ken. Ken and I, I think, are as one on this. I don’t thinkI believe that, you know, one can certainly believe in God and believe that evolution is true, even evolution by natural selection. The question is, is it a true scientific theory? And my contention is solely based on the scientific evidence. I just don’t think that when you look at these irreducibly complex molecular machines that natural selection is a sufficient mechanism to explain them. But I certainly agree, and I would urge listeners to clear up in their own minds that this debate, at least between Ken and myself, is not over religion, not over whether one can believe in God or not, but rather, it’s over a scientific point of whether natural selection is true.
FLATOW: Well, if it is a scientific point, then why not publish your theories and your ideas in scientific journals, in Science and Nature, wherever there’s, you know, accepted scientific journals, and how to test it in the world of science?
Dr. BEHE: Well, it has been tested in the world of science. I published a book by the Free Press, but…
FLATOW: Well, but, you know, these are not books are not peer review journals.
Dr. BEHE: That’s right, but they are reviewed by scientists. The Free Press sent my book out to a half dozen scientists, more scientists than generally review a paper, for their comments and criticism. All of the work that I have in my book is taken from the peer review literature. I didn’t introduce any new scientific fact.
FLATOW: So then why not publish it with, you know, the body of other scientific literature, in a pee rreview journal?
Dr. BEHE: Well, because when you’re bringing up a new and controversial idea, you need a lot of space to develop that idea.
Dr. MILLER: Well, as long as I have Mike on the air, let me ask him something, and I think Ira would be interested in this. And I very much appreciate Garrett’s comments. Thank you, Garrett. Mike is, I believe, a member of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Is that right, Mike?
Dr. BEHE: I sure am. Yeah.
Dr. MILLER: Absolutely. And I’m a member of the American Society for Cell Biology. So here’s the deal I’ll make you. I propose that the two of us write a joint letter to the presidents of those two societies, asking either of them to host or both of them to host, at their respective annual meetings, in front of a scientific audience, a one on one debate either between you and me or between you, Mike, and another opponent, another evolutionist favored by the president of either society. Because that’s really, I think, where this debate should be thrashed out. Would you agree to that?
Dr. BEHE: Oh, I accept it. Sure. That, I’d say I would be delighted. Yeah.
Dr. MILLER: It’s a deal. Great.
Dr. BEHE: I debated this topic over at the Royal Society of Medicine in London just a couple months ago, and I gave a lecture to the Biochemistry Department at the Mayo Clinic, oh, six months or so ago. I am delighted to bring my ideas in front of scientists.
FLATOW: Let me…
Dr. MILLER: I think we’ll have an easier time getting together than Gore and Bush will.
FLATOW: Let me take it one step further, Dr. Behe. Where do you believe it belongs in public schools?
Dr. BEHE: In public schools?
FLATOW: Yeah. Where does this debate belong in public schools?
Dr. BEHE: Well, that’s a whole ‘nother question. It has overtones of politics and parental involvement and government and things like that, but I think, first of all, that, certainly, Darwinian evolution should be taught. It explains a number of things quite well.
FLATOW: In biology class with evolution?
Dr. BEHE: I’m sorry?
FLATOW: With biology class?
Dr. BEHE: Sure. Sure.
FLATOW: In the same class.
Dr. BEHE: Yeah, sure. Darwinian evolution should be taught in biology class. And I also think that…
FLATOW: No, no, I your idea of intelligent design…
Dr. BEHE: Oh, my idea.
FLATOW: …should that be taught with Darwinian evolution in biology class?
Dr. BEHE: I think it should. I think it should at least be introduced because there are a number of problems that Darwinian biology has which I think that intelligent design is a good answer for, and if you look at public sentiment now we talk about peer review. When we go into public schools, the jury of our peers is the public. And if you look at the public, the public clearly wants alternatives to Darwinian evolution taught in schools, and I think…
Dr. LARSON: Ira, if I may…
Dr. LARSON: One of the things that’s interesting about this is, first of all, I would agree, as a matter of academic freedom, that teachers should be free to teach anything, bring in any evidence that they want with respect to any scientific or historical or cultural or social theory. I think that’s a good idea. But the interesting thing and I’m not talking about Professor Behe personally. But the interesting thing about other people who are opponents of evolution is that they generally haven’t settled for that route. What they’ve usually done is to try to do an end run around the scientific community and appeal to agencies of government to insert their ideas in the curriculum. And examples of that are the creation science laws that were passed in Louisiana and Arkansas before they were invalidated by the courts, and most recently going around the scientific community to try to get boards of education in various states, notably Kansas, to sort of remove evolution, and also the age of the Earth from Earth science curriculum, and the big bang from cosmology and so forth.
Dr. BEHE: Well, I think it’s also true that Darwinists do the same thing. For example…
Dr. LARSON: I don’t think so, and I’d be happy to say why.
Dr. BEHE: OK. Well, you can say it right after I’m done. That the Darwinists have control of many of the governmental institutions which set science standards, and they are using them, in my opinion, to push science textbooks to say things in favor of Darwinism which the scientific literature does not support. For example, in the recent Science Standards sent out by the National Academy of Sciences, they clearly want the discussion of the origin of life, which everybody admits is a wide open question, to be discussed solely in terms of the undirected chemical reactions of elements that might have been present on the early Earth. And even many scientists, such as Paul Davies, who wrote a book on this recently, think that entirely new ideas have to be introduced here. But nonetheless, Darwinists want discussion to be confined just to their preferred answers. But if a question is open, then it’s not legitimate to try to limit the discussion to any one point of view.
FLATOW: But is the answer ‘God did it’ you know, the simple answer ‘God did it’ as opposition to scientific method does that belong in a biology class? You know?
Dr. BEHE: No. Well, of course not. And I didn’t say that one should insert something that says ‘God did it.’ You point out the fact that life is information rich, that every organism we know of has coded information; that information has to be translated by a genetic code, and that from what we currently know, there is no physical process that could produce that
FLATOW: All right. Let me remind everybody that this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from National Public Radio. Ken Miller…
Dr. MILLER: Ira, I certainly don’t subscribe to the view that the reason that evolution is taught in classrooms is because of a conspiracy of Darwinists at high levels. I think the reason for that is actually pretty simple, and that is when you teach science, when you look to put together a science curriculum, what do you teach? You teach the scientific consensus. You teach what is general and I’m not talking bureaucrats; I’m talking about the mass of people in the wide open, freewheeling scientific community.
And just to give you one very quick example and you’ve talked about this a lot on your program there is an alternative theory for what causes AIDS. It’s advanced by Peter Duesberg and several other scientists. What do we teach in the classroom? Well, all science should be taught skeptically, but in general, we tell students the consensus view, which is that AIDS is an infectious disease that is caused by a virus that we call HIV that is transmitted from person to person. Now Duesberg might say the establishment is in control, but Duesberg, in my opinion, has done the right thing, which is he’s behaved like a scientist. He’s tried to win the scientific battle. With very few exceptions, intelligent design people have done a step around the scientific community, and they’ve gone directly to agencies of government without trying to win the battle of ideas. And I think that’s the way they should be.
Dr. BEHE: Well, that’s clearly not true. If you…
Dr. MILLER: And that’s the reason I’d like to debate Mike.
Dr. BEHE: That’s clearly not true. We have published a number of books outlining our ideas.
Dr. MILLER: That’s not the same thing.
Dr. BEHE: And I agree with you that, in general, a consensus view could be taught, but in this particular instance, the public smells a rat. They think that the arguments are being stacked in favor of a theory that does not have the evidential support that the Darwinists claim it has, and they want to see something different.
FLATOW: Ed Larson, can you teach it in is it legal to teach it in classrooms now?
Dr. LARSON: Well, we have clear decisions, as Dr. Miller has pointed out we have clear decisions saying that creation science, because the court has ruled that that is a form of religious instruction or religious belief, religious dogma, cannot be taught in public schools. We also have rulings that would raise severe questions of whether a board of education could direct that creation science or something other than evolution be taught. Where the interesting question would arise and this is where I think the issue sort of joined is making this a scientific debate. If an individual science teacher chose to teach objections to Darwinism in a pedagogically sound method, not as a way to promote religion but reflecting his own views of science…
FLATOW: All right.
Dr. LARSON: …then we have court rulings that suggest that that would be appropriate.
FLATOW: All right. We’ve run out of time. We’re going to pick this up, you can be sure, later on and talk more about this. And I have to thank my guests this hour: Ed Larson, professor of history and law and author of “Summer for the Gods,” published by Harvard University Press; Dr. Michael Behe, professor of biochemistry at Lehigh and author of “Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution,” published by the Free Press; Dr. Kenneth Miller, professor of biology at Brown and author of “Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution,” published by HarperCollins and due out in paperback in October.
Thank you, gentlemen, for joining us this hour.
Dr. LARSON: Thank you, Ira.
Dr. MILLER: My pleasure.
FLATOW: You’re welcome.
FLATOW: If you have comments or questions, write to us: TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY, WNYC Radio, One Center Street, New York, New York 10007. If you missed any of the links, you can surf over to our Web site at sciencefriday.com.
I’m Ira Flatow. Have a great weekend. I’m in New York.
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