The following transcript is from an Apologetics 315 interview with Michael Behe. Original audio here. Transcript index here. If you enjoy transcripts, please consider supporting, which makes this possible.
BA: Hello, this is Brian Auten of Apologetics315. Today, I interview Michael Behe, the Professor of Biochemistry at Lehigh University. He’s also a leading voice in the intelligent design community and Fellow of The Discovery Institute. In his upcoming visit to the UK this month, November, 2010, Professor Behe will be giving evening lectures in London, Glasgow, Belfast, Bournemouth, Leamington, Warwick, and Cambridge, and the major contributor to a day conference in Oxford. The theme of this tour is Darwin or design, what does the science really say? And Professor Behe will explore how physical criteria enable us to perceive design. And he’ll also show how irreducible complexity in biological systems and molecular machinery in the cell is best explained by intelligent design. He’s raised a lot of controversy in his books, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution in 1996, and The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism in 2007. And while online debates are thousands of pages deep, we’ll have a chance today just to touch on some of the themes of his work and talk a bit more about his upcoming UK tour. Thanks for joining me for this interview today Professor Behe.
MB: It’s my pleasure, I’m glad to be with you.
BA: Well, I’ll just jump right in with questions today so we can cover as much ground as possible in our brief time. You’ve probably gotten tired of answering this, but it’s of course foundational in properly defining the issue, and that’s this question, what is intelligent design?
MB: Well, intelligent design is simply the act of some intelligent agent to do something. And that’s very very broad, do something intentionally, so the question for science becomes, and for everybody becomes, how do we detect intelligent design? And if you look in some dictionaries, you’ll find some useful definitions. One dictionary defines design as the purposeful arrangement of parts. So, you can think of a designer putting together pieces to make something. The point becomes then that we recognize design whenever we first see that somebody has put together parts for some purpose. And it’s often times easier to see these things with an example, and in the United States, you know, you can see a lot of mountains, you see the Rocky Mountains, and other ones, but a special mountain is called Mount Rushmore. And Mount Rushmore has on it the faces of four former presidents of the United States, carved, in nice detail. And, while normal mountains everybody knows will be made by tectonic processes, or erosion, or something like that, anybody who’s seen Mount Rushmore, even if they haven’t seen it before or heard of it, would immediately recognize that the faces on the mountain are there on purpose, they were purposely designed. And that’s because the pieces of rock, the carving, matches, is arranged just so, to portray the faces of the presidents. You can tell the same thing with machines. If you look at your lawn mower, all the pieces are arranged in order to give you a machine that cuts grass. Or you can notice it in a flower bed, sometimes nice pretty flowers arranged to give a nice ascetic effect. So, intelligent design in science is the claim that we have seen and discovered things, especially in life and also in the universe that are parts of nature; but nonetheless, have a purposeful arrangement of parts, and that is the signature of intelligent design; and so, the claim that we can tell those were designed because of their arrangement of parts.
BA: Well, commonly you’re going to hear a certain objection about that sort of thing, and that is, well, it looks designed, but it’s not. Sure, we can detect design with things like cars and machinery, things we have prior experience of, but wouldn’t most biologists say that evolution is a fact, and isn’t design simply an appearance that the processes of genetic mutation and natural selection just explained away?
MB: Well, I think that most biologists certainly would say that evolution can produce design and that was one of the reasons Darwin introduced his theory. But the question is, can it? And, as far as the appearance of design, everybody recognizes design by appearance, that’s how we decide that something was designed. We might see a car and decide that was arranged, but suppose we later found out, somewhat fancifully, the car was instantly created by God or something an hour earlier, but we didn’t know that, but still we would realize that the car was designed because it had all its parts — tires, motor, and so on, arranged for its purpose, for driving around. So, we recognize design by a purposeful arrangement of parts and the more and more specific the parts mesh and match the purpose of the system, the more and more confident we can become of design. So, you might see a little say squiggle in the sand or something as you walk along the beach, and that might be from the wind or it might be just an accident, and you might see something that looks like a letter A, kind of arranged by stones on the beach, and again, that might be an accident. But, if you see stones that spell out, meet me at five o’clock in the blue room of the hotel, then you would be certain that that was designed and what we see in biology is much more akin to that detailed message than say the squiggle on the sand or faces in clouds or anything questionable.
BA: So, you would say there are tell tale signs that something is, would you say, almost incontrovertibly evidence of design?
MB: Yes, I certainly would say that the evidence for design is overwhelming, overpowering. And, that it’s only that science has said, no, no, no, we’ve got this other explanation for design, Darwinism, that anybody doubts design at all. If the design we saw in cells occurred in any other circumstance, say like in the wiring we see in nerves, if that occurred in some computer or something, we would certainly recognize it as design. But, it’s because it occurs in life that we feel that our explanation of design has been defeated by the Darwinist claim that random mutation and natural selection can account for it.
BA: Well, I do want to talk about your books, but first I want to look at something Professor Richard Dawkins would say in one of his books. And he wrote his newest book called The Greatest Show on Earth, and his goal there, as I see it, is to give all of these different reasons to show that Darwinian evolution is an incontrovertible fact. So, if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to read just a section there where he talks about some genetic evidence that he would point to. He says Lenski, and a different set of colleagues, these were the guys doing their research with fruit fly populations. “They investigated this phenomenon which seemed over twenty-thousand generations to have followed the same evolutionary trajectory, and looking at their DNA. The astonishing result they found was that fifty nine genes had changed their levels of expression in both tribes, and all fifty nine had changed in the same direction. Were it not for natural selection such independent parallelism in fifty nine genes independently would completely the beggar belief. The odds against it happening by chance are stupefyingly large. This is exactly the kind of thing creationists say cannot happen because they think it is too improbable to have happened by chance; yet, it actually happened. And the explanation of course is that it did not happen by chance, but because gradual, step by step cumulative natural selection favored literally the same beneficial changes in both lines independently.” Now, you’ve looked at this data that Lenski has accumulated from his research, and you looked at it in your book, The Edge of Evolution, and you acknowledge genetic changes within species, so when you look at these fruit fly experiments, what sort of conclusions do you see, or what sort of conclusions are we warranted to draw from that?
MB: Well, I think that Professor Dawkins is looking at data with Darwin-colored glasses on. The fact that one gets natural selection is not controversial. We know that natural selection exists, it explains a lot of good things, like drug resistance in bacteria, and antibiotic resistance. And there are pesticide resistance in plants and so on. So, the point is not that natural selection exists, we know that it exists. The claim that Darwinists make, the controversial claim, is that it can build up complex systems like say eyeballs, and brains, and molecular machinery. Now, it turns out that those fifty nine genes that he’s talking about all respond to the same chemical. And if it turns out that you break a gene that produces that chemical, then all genes that respond to the chemical will change their output. It turns out that that’s what was happening in Richard Lenski’s experiments. Richard Lenski is a Professor of Microbiology at Michigan State University. He’s been doing the longest running laboratory evolution experiment in history. He’s been growing not fruit flies, but bacterium called ecoli, in his laboratory for over twenty years. That doesn’t sound like a long time, but in ecoli generations, that’s about fifty-thousand generations, which is equivalent to about a million years worth of human generations. And he has seen a number of favorable mutations, mutations which help the bacteria grow, and out compete their competitors, and so on. So, it’s clear that Darwin’s mechanism works, it can help under some circumstances. But, when he looked closely at what genes were affected, and what happened to the genes to allow the bacteria to grow more quickly, he found out that genes were being broken. The change that gave the most significant growth increase was when the gene that makes a sugar called ribose, which is a part of RNA, was thrown out by the bacteria. You ask yourself, how could that help but grow. It turns out that if you’re in a sinking ship, one way you can kind of help yourself, delay the sinking of the ship, is to throw out unused heavy equipment. So, if you throw out a sophisticated computer, that might be a beneficial change. Another way you can help yourself, suppose that somebody is trying to attack you, some army is trying to attack you, and their trying to come over a bridge, a bridge over a river into your city, and one way you can defend yourself is to blow up the bridge, and that would be a beneficial change from your point of view. And when we look at experimental evolution in a laboratory, these are the kinds of changes we see, we see genes be broken, thrown away, turned down, and so on. It’s all by natural selection, but it’s all degradative, and Richard Dawkins kind of neglects to mention that.
BA: So from your looking at the Lenski experiments, and the data that he’s gathered there over this long on-going study, if we just go by that for now, what are we warranted to say that evolution will do, what will we see based upon these generations?
MB: Well, we see that it does, it can improve some things some times in desperate circumstances, that there is natural selection, but it does not build complex systems, which is what we’re trying to explain. Everybody’s trying to say you know, how do we explain the appearance of design? But a blown up bridge isn’t the appearance of design. Breaking things can sometimes help you. Let me give you another example. Suppose you wanted your car to have less wind resistance so that it might go faster or something. One thing you could do to give it less wind resistance is to break off the side view mirrors, and that would instantly cut down on the wind resistance. But that would not be an improvement, it would not tell you how the side view mirror got there in the first place, let alone how the rest of the car got there. So, Lenski’s actually done us a great service. Instead of speculating endlessly about what evolution would or would not do, now we’ve got essentially fifty thousand generations worth of data, very closely analyzed, and we see that evolution, or rather random mutation, breaks genes, and sometimes breaking genes can actually help an organism survive.
BA: Well, in your book, The Edge of Evolution, you try to discern exactly from the evidence where we can call evolution a fact or we see its limits, small scale changes, but not large scale changes or increasing complexity and new structures for instance. So, would you mind talking about you mean be evolution, and then talk about this edge that you see.
MB: Sure. Evolution is kind of a slippery word. People use it mean all sorts of different things, and kind of an innocuous definition is that things are just related to each other. Well, okay, so they’re related. But the big question is, and the one that Darwin thought he had answered is the how of evolution, the mechanism of evolution. How did these fantastic transformations, these amazing adaptations come about? He thought that is was by pure chance changes in an organism filtered through natural selection. If a chance change helped the organism survive, then it would go on and prosper and leave more offspring, and increase in the next generation, and then the process could repeat itself again. But that was always the sticking point, not only for the public, but also for other scientists. A lot of scientists thought that he might be right about common descent, but that his mechanism, random mutation and natural selection, would not be able to get the job done. But, it’s only been in the past ten years or so that we’ve got enough data to actually draw real good conclusions about whether or not it can do anything. And I argue in my book The Edge of Evolution, that the data decisively shows that it cannot. The data that I talk about comes from human’s battle with malaria. Many people know that malaria is still a deadly disease that is endemic to a large portion of the world and it kills a million people a year. So, it’s really a nasty disease that affects a lot of people, and over the years in which malaria and humans have been in contact, there have been a number of mutations in the human genome which have helped people survive better in the presence of malaria. But, like those mutations that Lenski discovered in his bacteria, almost all the mutations in humans help resist malaria, are the breaking of genes. There’s a gene called Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenate, and the broken copy of which is widely spread in malarious regions. And there are other genes that get broken and for some reason these things help human resist malaria, because malaria has to live in blood and red blood cells, and this kind of messes up their home. So, the limits of Darwinism show that it breaks many genes. We can also learn a lot about the limits of Darwinism from the malarial side of this interaction. For about fifty years or so, people have been using drugs to fight malaria, and very successfully too. First it was something called quinine, and then a substance called Chloroquine, a medicine called Chloroquine, which would cure someone who was very sick with malaria. But, over a couple decades, malaria just developed resistance to this drug. That’s significant, because over a couple of decades, there have been an astronomical number of malarial cells on the earth. We talked about Richard Lenski’s experiments, and in the course of his experiments, he had about a trillion cells grown, lived, and died. But in one year, there is about a billion times a trillion malarial cells on earth. And the more chances you have, the better shot you have at getting some real innovative and fancy mechanism to help you improve, to help you reproduce better, to help fight off whatever environmental problems you have. So, everybody was anxiously looking forward to finding out what exactly was causing malaria to develop resistance to antibiotics. When the answer was discovered in the early two-thousands, it turned out to be two tiny changes in a single protein in the malarial cell. So, it was not the construction of a new molecular machine, and molecular machines are all over cells, they run cells. But, this innovation was not a new molecular machine, it was two little changes in a pre-existing machine which made it apparently lose some of its ability to pump some substances out of the malarial cell. So, again what we have is a change which does not improve the organism, but it kind of degrades it, but it degrades it in a way that at least helps it survive the poison, the antibiotic poison in its environment. But, I argue in the book that now we have evidence, we had a big experiment with an astronomical number of malarial cells, and the question that the malarial cells were answering was, what can evolution do given an enormous number of opportunities? The answer we saw, and there was no restrictions on what the malaria could do, it could have done whatever it wanted, and in a while it could have evolved into anything it was able to. What it was able to evolve were tiny changes in pre-existing machinery. So, again, Darwin’s mechanism works, but it only works around the edges of life. It will cause things to break, and sometimes broken things will actually be improvement, but it breaks pre-existing machinery, it does not make new sophisticated systems. So, this mechanism of Darwin which was always under a little bit of suspicion by many scientists I think has definitely now been shown to be inadequate, very inadequate to explain life.
BA: To what extent then do you believe we can call evolution a fact as Richard Dawkins claims that it’s as incontrovertible as any fact in science. What’s he trying to say there, and how do you respond when you hear phrases like that?
MB: Well, first of all, he’s not being very careful, he’s just trying to, like a politician, just kind of win people over. But, I think at least the aspect of evolution he’s referring to there is not the mechanism of evolution, but rather the relatedness of creatures that live on earth, better known as a common descent, the idea that the organisms that are alive today are descended from organisms that were alive in the past, and somehow we are all related – us and tigers, and birds, and so on. And that is based on the fact that on the molecular level there are a lot of similarities between these organisms. Now, scientists didn’t predict that those similarities would be there, and they were kind of surprised when they found them, but in retrospect, they say, well these would be explained if common descent were true. That may be the case, and I think it’s kind of persuasive, but kind of the big ring, the big question is, yeah, well, what could drive such a process? And this is where Dawkins, even Dawkins I think, will agree that Darwin’s mechanism has not been shown to be able to produce such sophisticated machinery as we have found in life.
BA: Well, I mentioned your most recent book, The Edge of Evolution, but before that, you published Darwin’s Black Box which landed like a bombshell and gained you both fame and notoriety for your proposals there. And more specifically, you argue for something you call irreducible complexity. So we’re kind of going back to your previous work here. You were talking about the basic function where within a cell, say, where the removal of any one of the parts causes the whole system to stop functioning. Can you describe irreducible complexity and of what that entails?
MB: Yeah, sure. It’s kind of a fancy phrase, but it really stands for a simple idea. You have some sort of machine or system or something that has a number of components, and the components interact with each other to do something that the individual components can’t do. The function of the system results from all the interaction of parts, not any individual one. My favorite example of this from our everyday world is a mechanical mousetrap. If you think about the wooden mousetraps that you buy at a hardware store or something, they’ve got a number of parts, they’ve got a spring, and a wooden platform, and a bar that smacks the mouse on the head, and a number of other things. And if you take one of those away, then you don’t have a mousetrap that works half as well as it used to, or a quarter well as it used to, you’ve got a broken mousetrap. So that’s what I mean by irreducible complexity. It turns out the significance of that is that things like that are a big problem for Darwin’s theory of evolution because Darwin always insisted that evolution had to work slowly, in tiny steps, over long periods of time, with each step improving the lot of the organism that was evolving. But if you think about it, how are you going to build a irreducibly complex machine, even like a simple mousetrap, step by tiny step, with each part improving the function? And ever since I proposed that, there’s been kind of a cottage industry on the internet of people trying to do exactly that, trying to see if they can persuasively show a pathway whereby something like a mousetrap may evolve. And in my completely unbiased opinion, they have failed miserably to do so. The ultimate significance is not for mousetraps of course, but it turns out that modern science in the past couple decades has found out that machinery, complicated machinery, many of which are irreducibly complex, inhabit the cell, and help the cell to do its job. There are literally, and people don’t realize it, but there are literally machines made out of molecules that run your cell. There are machines that work like outboard motors and propel a cell around and help it to swim. There are machines that transport supplies from one side of the cell to the other like little molecular trucks and buses. There are little molecular highways and sign posts that these machines recognize, and they turn left and turn right depending upon the sign posts that they see. So, this problem of irreducible complexity in the mousetrap is magnified billions of times in life so that Darwin’s theory would have to encounter that and find some sort of way around it and nobody has been able to suggest any plausible means by which it could do so.
BA: Now, you kind of alluded to the cottage industry of people resisting your mousetrap argument. Some people would say, this argument has been defeated, but of course I think you probably disagree. But you’ve heard a lot more criticisms of it than I have, so what do you think has been the most valid criticism? Are there any that you think are fair or the strongest, and how have you answered those?
MB: Well, the most common one is to show similar looking objects which do similar sorts of jobs. I think the best example on the internet for the mousetrap was put up by a man named Professor John McDonald who was a biologist at the University of Delaware. He showed a series of increasingly complicated mousetraps that he claimed could catch a mouse. One of them had one piece, and another one had two pieces, and another one had three pieces, and so on, until he showed one which looks pretty much like the mousetrap I had drawn for my book. So, he thought that this was significant because you have simple mousetraps, and maybe you could have transitions along the way between them to get up to the complicated machine that we see now. Again, of course mousetraps are not the point, the point is that maybe we could have had simpler cellular machines and they improved in complexity to things which look irreducibly complex, but which aren’t actually irreducibly complex. I think that’s the best argument, but I don’t think it works because, if you look at the series of mousetraps that he made, they don’t really work by the same mechanisms, and they get transformed one into another, not by some random process, but very deliberately, he changes one component, and bends another component, and makes another component bigger, and another one smaller, all in kind of a matched way. So, instead of an example of random mutation and selection in a Darwinian process, what we have is an intelligent agent building a series of mousetraps, using the parts of one of them to build a separate mousetrap. I’ve seen a number of examples like that, and the biggest thing that people overlook is the use of their own intelligence to try and guide the scenario where they want it to go. But, the big thing about Darwinian evolution is that it’s supposed to work without any intelligence whatsoever. So, that defeats the explanation right away once you introduce any intelligence, including your own, then you’re no longer talking about Darwinian evolution.
BA: Do you think there’s a fallacy there, or are they on to something?
MB: I don’t think it’s a fallacy. Here’s the claim – I claim you can reliably predict intelligent design by the purposeful arrangement of parts. I do say that is a quantitative type of thing, so it’s got to be a fairly sophisticated arrangement of parts. But, if somebody can come along and show that you could get a fairly sophisticated arrangement of parts, which most people would say really looked designed, and show that it was not designed, that it came about by some mindless process, then that destroys your confidence that you could detect design by this criteria, the purposeful arrangement of parts. So, I think even one example would do it, but I’ve been around this topic for a long time, and a lot of people have tried, including very very intelligent scientists, and in my humble opinion have far from succeeded.
BA: Well, we mentioned there how hotly some of these issues are debated, and when I’m thinking about this I wonder, you know, why does this issue get so passionate? So, what do you think is at stake here? Are you just this foolish dissenter? Are you attacking the foundations of science? My question here is, why do you think the arguments against your view are so heated?
MB: I think the answer is pretty straightforward, and that is that the idea of intelligent design has implications for outside of science as well. But many scientific ideas have implications outside of science too. For example, one obvious one is the Big Bang theory. It used to be thought a hundred years ago that the universe was eternal, unchanging. Then the Big Bang theory was proposed, and a lot of scientists didn’t like it, it turns out, because it suggested some sort of creation event. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. So, that has some philosophical implications. But nonetheless, I think intelligent design has even more perhaps compelling implications, and some people just don’t want the world to be like that. Some people don’t want the world to have be designed. Many people, especially many prominent scientists, simply don’t want there to be a god. They want science to figure out how everything was put together, and if God had a large roll in the putting together of life, then science is kind of assigned to a secondary role. So, it’s kind of like that. Also, for political reasons to tell you the truth. Some people think that for some reason that the idea of intelligent design is a politically conservative idea, and is associated with conservative political elements, and they don’t like that. But, there’s no reason why one should think that that’s the case. Design is design, it could easily fit with any types of political philosophies, and as a matter of fact, the lawyer William Jennings Bryan, who was the defendant in the Scopes trial, or was the opponent of evolution, he was a political liberal. He didn’t like Darwinism because he thought it lead to war, and he thought it lead to a neglect of the poor and other kind of baleful social effects. So, it touches a lot of basic issues that people feel very strongly about, and people do get red in the face and hop up and down when you talk about it.
BA: Well, I can imagine a lot of people are going to claim your belief in God or your personal agenda is driving your argument here. Of course that cuts both ways and could be said of any view, but putting that motivation element aside, I want to focus in and ask what role do you think someone’s philosophical presuppositions play in their analysis of the data?
MB: Well, it depends. It depends on how tightly they will hold onto them. If you absolutely, positively refuse to believe that there’s anything beyond the universe, or any being intelligent and powerful enough to have made life, or directed the making of life, or directed the making of the universe, then no amount of evidence by definition will convince you otherwise. You could think that all the things we discovered in science are illusions, or that there’ll be some explanation coming down the pike in the future, and of course the future never comes so you’re pretty safe. So, philosophical presuppositions can short circuit a decent idea in science. In my mind at least, a Christian or theist, is in best position in discussions of evolution because, at least as far as I can see, God could have used Darwinian processes to make life if he wanted to. Who am I to say that he couldn’t? But he didn’t have to. I don’t know what he did, and so I go out and look, and a theist can go out and look, and kind of evaluate the evidence, whereas somebody who rules out God from the start is in a bind. Then they have to simply shoe horn all of the data into this worldview where the only thing around at the beginning was mindless energy and matter. So, I think theists have an edge in this discussion.
BA: Let’s shift gears then. I want you to talk about your upcoming UK tour. Tell me about some of the talks you’ll be giving and some of the locations you’ll be visiting.
MB: In the first talk, I’ll be giving will be a basic talk explaining what is intelligent design and how do we recognize it. The reason I do that is because people have the strangest ideas about what intelligent design is and confuse it with young earth creation beliefs and religious beliefs when in fact it’s a scientific theory. So that’s the basic talk, to explain to people what it is and what the evidence for it is and why I think the evidence for it is compelling. I’ll be giving another talk too, alternating on different occasions, eventually a “response to critics” type of talk. There have been as you know many many objections to intelligent design since my book first came out in the mid 90’s, and I go through the most prominent and the most interesting objections one by one and show why I think they are either misbegotten or miss the mark, or they’re just plain wrong. To tell you the truth, my hosts have me going so many places that I forget where I’m going. I think I’m in several places in London, and going to Belfast as well, and Glasgow, but exactly where I’ll be speaking you’ll have to consult the web site for that.
BA: Sure. I’ll provide some links on today’s blog post. Do you think that your ideas have been received in the UK the same way as in the US, or do you have a way to tell how open people are to intelligent design over in the UK here?
MB: I don’t know. People tell me that Europe is not as receptive to ID as the United States, and who knows for what reason that might be, if it is indeed true. But, I hope to make a difference and show people that in fact what they are being lead to believe, that Darwinian evolution can explain life, is simply an exaggeration. At best, we don’t know if it can or not, or another mindless process can or not. At worst, there’s really strong evidence to show that it cannot, and to the extent that people believe otherwise who don’t even know the issues, then they’re kind of being misled or misinformed about a subject that has a lot of importance for life and culture and all sorts of things.
BA: Well, we appreciate your work, Professor Behe, and thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today.
MB: Sure, it’s been my pleasure