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Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution Paperback – March 13, 2006
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"A persuasive book. It will speak to the layman and perhaps even to professional evolutionists as well, if they are able to suspend for a little while their own judgment about origins, the ultimate black box." -- The Washington Times
"An argument of great originality, elegance, and intellectual power. . . . No one can propose to defend Darwin without meeting the challenges set out in this superbly written and compelling book." -- David Berlinski, author of A Tour of the Calculus
"Overthrows Darwin at the end of the twentieth century in the same way that quantum theory overthrew Newton at the beginning." -- George Gilder in National Review
"[Behe] is the most prominent of the small circle of scientists working on intelligent design, and his arguments are by far the best known." -- H. Allen Orr in The New Yorker
"When examined with the powerful tools of modern biology, but not with its modern prejudices, life on a biochemical level can be a product, Behe says, only of intelligent design. Coming from a practicing biologist. . . this proposition is close to heretical." -- The New York Times Book Review
About the Author
Michael J. Behe is a Professor of Biological Science at Lehigh University, where he has worked since 1985. From 1978 to 1982 he did postdoctoral work on DNA structure at the National Institutes of Health. From 1982 to 1985 he was Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Queens College in New York City. He has authored more than forty technical papers, but he is best known as the author of Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. He lives near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with his wife and nine children.
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Behe's goal is to convince the general reader that the logical foundations of evolution cannot reach back into the cell itself because a number of intra-cellular subsystems and processes are "irreducibly complex." By analogy, he describes a mousetrap as irreducibly complex because each of its parts is necessary for the whole to function. Therefore any step-by-step assembly sequence of the mechanism would produce non-functioning precursors until the last part was in place. In the equivalent biological model, there would be no way for the machinery of the cell to evolve by natural selection of small random variations, because the non-functional precursors could never gain a foothold on the ladder of increasing survivability.
After apologizing rather profusely to his readers for asking them to actually follow a technical description, Behe expertly and entertainingly presents several examples for which he claims irreducibility, namely the bacterial flagellum (propeller), the blood clotting cycle, vesicular transport, the immune system, and AMP/ATP molecular synthesis. As one of the biological innocents in his target audience, I confess to being bowled over by Behe's arguments on first reading. When he says, in effect, "O.K. Darwin, evolve THAT," a layperson can't be blamed for feeling overwhelmed.
However, on looking over the many responses to "Darwin's Black Box" from molecular biologists and evolutionists, one can see that Behe's fellow professionals are far from cowed. The most telling counter-argument points out a fundamental flaw in the mousetrap analogy -- the implicit assumption that the parts themselves can't change as the mechanism develops. Evolutionists maintain that the "finished" components of an evolved system may not even resemble the initial components, and that parts or subsystems are likely to serve different functions at different stages. These possibilities provide many additional ways for intermediate assemblies to be partially functional and to improve incrementally. What was merely helpful at one stage can become necessary at a later stage, so irreducibility in advanced systems need not imply irreducibility along the way.
The latter half of the book is devoted to the implications of evolution's imputed failure at the molecular level. In Behe's view, the only viable alternative is design, which implies a sentient designer. What kind of entity the designer might be, where and how it functioned, whether it still exists, why it left no traces of laboratories or equipment, and all such reasonable and obvious questions are not only unanswered but unposed. The author makes it clear that he is a religious person, but does not provide anything further to help a reader unravel the conundrum he has raised.
Behe generously cites some evidence of evolution at the molecular level by saying, on page 15, "...viruses such as the one that causes AIDS mutate their coats in order to evade the human immune system." Note that this description blatantly anthropomorphizes the virus. Viruses don't mutate in order to evade things, because they have no brains with which to strategize. The mutations occur by chance, and if a particular change happens to help the virus survive and reproduce despite the immune system, then that mutation will tend to sustain and spread. I am positive the author knows better, but he shows poor judgment by carelessly misstating the fundamentals of a theory he is attempting to refute.
Nevertheless, Prof. Behe has produced a vivid, instructive and thought-provoking polemic. Its widely publicized challenge to molecular evolutionary biology is bound to stimulate useful results.
For the most part the battle has been fought over general biological functions or parts (ie. breathing or lungs), but Behe points out that all these systems depend in turn on smaller, more complex, sub-systems which are even more difficult to account for - from a Darwinist perspective - because they are irrecducible.
Evolutionists will not like the fact that Behe (an evolutionist himself) not only points out the total inadequacy of Darwinism at the molecular level, but explains it in a way that the laity can understand.
Some Creationists will not like the fact that Behe holds open the possibility that biological design at one level does not necessarily mean that unguided evolution could not have occurred at a different level (though Paleontology is not his field).
I would highly recommend this book, along with Denton's "Evolution: A Theory in Crisis" as two excellent examples of honest inquiry into modern scientific dogma. Let's hope that the dialogue over this issue becomes more open-minded!
Behe is more intent on demonstrating the shortcomings of Darwinism than on pressing his readers to worship a divine designer. Darwin was perforce ignorant of modern molecular biology; Behe is a molecular biologist; molecular biology provides examples of very complex phenomena. He also realizes that the classic ‘arguments’ for the existence of God were never considered apodictic proofs that compel belief. They are, rather, aids to piety, including the argument from design.
It is important for readers to secure the 2006 edition of the book because it includes a summary of the criticisms to which the book had been subjected since the original publication in 1996. Behe then answers these criticisms. This is always problematic. Serious students of the subject will want to look at the wider literature and, in particular, the arguments of Behe’s critics. While it is always interesting to see a thinker tilt with his critics, the critics need to be heard in their own voices and in the context of their own arguments.
The 2006 edition also includes an extensive appendix on the ‘chemistry of life’ for those readers who wish to acquire some foundational knowledge on the subject. One of the interesting aspects of Darwin’s Black Box is its scientific ‘rhetoric’. The bulk of the text is written for the general reader, but interspersed among Behe’s narrative is a set of passages that explore the issues in far greater scientific detail. These passages are set off by printer’s devices. The general reader can skip them; the advanced reader can examine them; or, interestingly, the general reader can read them, knowing that s/he will not be able to absorb them but will, nevertheless, acquire a sense of the complexity and depth of the issues.
Readers interested in philosophy, theology, etc. will find things of interest here. I was not aware, e.g., of Elliot Sober’s critique of Hume’s critique of the design argument, which is quite interesting.
Behe is not an iconoclast attempting to destroy Darwinism. He acknowledges (pp. 175-6) that evolution, random mutation and natural selection exist and he believes in the notion of common descent. He is simply arguing that Darwin does not explain everything. Hence the book should be seen as raising the kinds of questions (microevolution/macroevolution, the Cambrian explosion, etc.) that have already arisen with regard to Darwinian evolution. The book is quite readable and the illustrations are helpful. The subject is huge, however, and aggressively debated. I look at it as an important text in the history of science, one that could be eventually lauded as a landmark or dismissed as a laughingstock. Many have already made up their minds, but all should be aware of its existence and its argument. In a sense, science is never ‘settled’. As George Steiner has pointed out, the very essence of science is that it can be superseded. Watching that process is both fascinating and important.
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This is a honest attempt to demonstrate that there are many flaws in Darwin's...Read more