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March 27, 2008
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Michael J. Behe
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Scientific Orthodoxies, by Michael Behe
Catholics have always believed that God could make life in any way He saw fit. But our freedom to follow the evidence wherever it leads faces a growing obstacle—a scientific culture dominated by a materialist ideology.

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After Dover: An Interview with Michael Behe

The Dover court case over the teaching of Intelligent Design theory in public school biology classes ended with defeat for the pro-ID school board earlier this month. We spoke to Dr. Michael Behe, a leading critic of Darwinism, about the trial, his testimony, and the future of Intelligent Design.

Michael Behe


From the start of the Dover, Pa., school district trial in September, the first court case to decide whether public schools can teach Intelligent Design theory along side Darwinism (the judge ruled no earlier this month), the hardcore secularist press, from The New Yorker to Harper's, began serving up lengthy, detailed, first-person accounts of the trial (Harper's sent Charles Darwin's great-great-grandson) portraying the case as a re-run of Scopes, and ID advocates as Christian fundamentalist rubes.

The lead character in each of these narratives was, inevitably, Michael Behe, the star witness for Intelligent Design, and author of the best-selling Darwin's Black Box. But there was one problem: Behe didn't fit so neatly into the story line. A fervent Catholic and a tenured professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, Behe knew his science, and dazzled the courtroom audience (critics would say "dazed") with intricate explanations of biological cell structures. What's more, Behe was no creationist. He fully accepted the fact of evolution—that all life on earth is descended from a common origin.

But none of that mattered. He was challenging Darwinist dogma on the materialist origins of life, and the way evolution worked—random mutation and natural selection (read his essay on the subject here)—and for that he was almost always labled a creationist.

(For a rare, fair-minded analysis of the Darwinism-Intelligent Design controversy that is critical of both ID and "Evolutionism", see Judith Shulevitz's essay, When Cosmologies Collide, in the New York Times Book Review.)

We spoke to Dr. Behe about his experience at the trial, and the controversies surrounding Intelligent Design:


Godspy: How did it feel during the trial to be the lightening rod for the liberal media's hysterical fear of theocracy?

Michael Behe: Kind of cool, actually. I was nervous before going to testify in a federal courtroom, as you might expect, but then I found the whole experience strangely exhilarating. I got to present the case for Intelligent Design, showed the basis for it, laid it out in a logical manner, and then I got to defend it against an attorney who had no love for it, and I think I came off reasonably well. When you get the chance to really explain yourself against what some people consider the strongest objections, it makes you feel good...

What was your reaction to the decision?

I was disappointed, of course. It seems the judge is one of many people who have strong opinions on either side of this, and he came down against us. Another judge might easily have taken the other side. But life goes on.

Did you have any sense beforehand how he would rule?

I'm just trying to do my job, just like George Lemaitre, the priest and scientist who proposed the Big Bang theory.
I had a vague sense, but nothing concrete to go on. On thing I did find disturbing was that he gave interviews in the press about how he thought this was a fun trial because it was important and might be a landmark case. If you're looking for adulation in the press, you're not going to go with Intelligent Design.

What's been the reaction among the members of the school board and the people in the area?

I don't know. I haven't spoken to those folks.

What did you think of the media coverage, in general?

There was some positive press.... especially a couple of Associated Press stories by a writer, Martha Raffaele, and there was a pretty good Washington Post story. But in other papers, especially the local papers around Harrisburg and York, Pennsylvania, it was as if they were reports from an alternative universe. They seemed to be quite antagonistic to Intelligent Design.

There were some reports—in Slate, for instancethat came at you from the opposite directionthat you seemed arrogant, clearly the smartest guy in the room, so I guess you can't win ... you're either the dumb creationist or you're an intellectual show-off.

That's interesting. (Laugh)

So this wasn't a departure for you, it was just a continuation of what you've been doing for years, defending ID in the public square, and in the media...

No it wasn't a departure. It was just part of explaining this to as many people as will listen.

You've gone out of your way to explain your views, writing Op-Eds in the New York Times and elsewhere. Have you seen any evidence that your efforts have changed people's minds?

Well, it certainly has in the general population. I've spoken with people who say 'Now I have a clear understanding. I didn't know from my readings before what ID was." But these things seem to provoke professional critics of ID even to greater hysteria, because they say we're just trying to pull the wool over people's eyes by making this seem reasonable. It's kind of a Catch-22. If you make it reasonable you're just trying to fool people, and if you make it unreasonable, well, of course, we knew it was unreasonable all the time.

So do you have another NY Times Op-Ed article in the works, a sort of post-mortem?

No, not right now. I am working on a second book though, which I hope to have out in a year or so.

There's so much hysteria in the secular media—do you have any empathy at all for their concerns about ID being part of impending theocracy? Do you have any fears that obscurantist forms of Creationism will become part of education?

I guess some people can whip themselves into hysteria, and you have to sympathize with them for that, but I think it says more about them than it does about reality. Nobody is going to be able to start teaching Genesis in public schools, and to modestly point out that, gee whiz, life in the universe shows signs of design is not at all like that.

How big a problem is it that there are creationists who are trying to sneak their theories in under the guise of ID?

Oh, it's not all that much of a problem; most fundamentalist young-earth Creationists readily say that this ID stuff is not good. They'll say that it doesn't go nearly far enough.

Oddly enough, the problem is more from the scientists, the National Academy of Sciences and people like that, who quite flagrantly will not listen to any distinctions and for propaganda purposes try to lump ID together with young earth Creationists.

What's the next step for the ID community?

If you send in a manuscript to a peer-reviewed journal with the words Intelligent Design on it, it comes back in the mail the next day.
Among my fellow ID advocates, the guys who are really working on it, we're continuing our work. The judge's decision is interesting but it doesn't affect biology. Darwinism still has no answers to the questions posed by me and other folks; ID still seems to be a good answer, so we'll continue to plug on. It's an interesting political event but it doesn't affect the science.

Some commentators who support ID didn't support taking a legal stand in this Dover case. Do you have any sympathy for their position?

Oh, sure.

About the mandating of the teaching...

Actually, it wasn't mandated—it was an extremely modest action. What the board did was require the reading of a statement that says there's this book, Of Pandas and People, in the library about ID, and if you want to go check it out it's there. It's hard to get more modest than that...

Okay, but some people still thought it wasn't worth defending...

Yes, sure. I can certainly agree with people who think this was not the most felicitous action that could be taken, and that the board was headstrong, and contained some members who were not very forward looking, etc.

But a point that the lawyers for the Thomas More Society emphasized is that there are thousands of school boards in the country, and one of them is going to do something about ID, and the question is when they do this, how are you going to react? Is their action defensible or not? Will the action be legal, or should it be legal?

The question is what would have happened if the lawyers and I had not gotten involved? They would have gone to trial with the school lawyers, and the judge would have issued his opinion, and the same result would have occurred, and then people would say these ID folks are afraid to show their faces in court.

What's the most common popular misconception about ID?

There's one common misconception that affects different groups different ways, which is that this is religion, or religiously motivated. What I say is no, this is science, and my motivation is that I'm a biochemist, and I'm just trying to explain what's found in the cell.

There are a number of religious people who say, "What's the big problem? Why don't I come out and proclaim the Gospel?" And I point out that while that's an important thing to do, that's not my job. I'm just trying to do my job, just like George Lemaitre, the priest who proposed the Big Bang theory. He was doing it because he was also a scientist.

Then there are scientists who say well this looks suspiciously like you're talking about God here, and therefore it's religion, and again just like the Big Bang theory struck many people as having theological implications, but nonetheless it was a scientific theory, I argue the same thing. This is science. If it has implications beyond science, well that's too bad.

The Lemaitre story is fascinating, in that Albert Einstein had opposed the Big bang theory, and then had to admit he was wrong afterwards. To his credit, he recanted without hesitation...

Yes, that's right. There were a number of scientists from that era who didn't like the Big Bang theory one bit.

There's so much hysteria in the secular media—do you have any empathy at all for their fear that obscurantist forms of Creationism will become part of education?

I guess some people can whip themselves into hysteria, and you have to sympathize with them for that, but I think it says more about them than it does about reality. Nobody is going to be able to start teaching Genesis in public schools, and to modestly point out that, gee whiz, life in the universe shows signs of design is not at all like that.

The judge in the Dover case wrote a lengthy, widely-cited opinion about the scientific controversy. Where, from your perspective, did he go wrong?

He took a very narrow definition of science, one that was essentially crafted by science organizations to exclude things like ID. He basically said that science is defined by the people who do it, and since the major organizations define science a certain way, ID doesn't fit the bill. The judge is no philosopher of science.

Now, in regard to legal issues, I'm not a legal expert. The law may treat these matters differently than real people have to treat them. But he made statements that clearly don't stand up to scrutiny, on a philosophical basis.

Because of his narrow definition of science?

If you show Darwinism is wrong it does not show that young earth creationism is right.
Yes. Twenty or so years ago there was a trial in Arkansas about the teaching of creation science, and the judge, William Overton, issued an opinion where he adopted a definition of science put forth by a philosopher named Michael Ruse—that a scientific theory must be guided by natural laws, be falsifiable, testable, all these criteria—and the judge and Ruse were simply roasted after the trial by philosophers of science who've explored these issues extensively and shown that you can't take simple criteria like that and define science that way. Well, for the Dover trial the judge got a philosopher of science, Robert T. Pennock, who decided to play the role of Michael Ruse, and the judge was happy to agree with him.

But isn't your main scientific argument, in fact, falsifiable? You claim that random mutation and natural selectionthe Neo-Darwinist mechanisms of evolution—could not have produced certain structures in the human cell, such as the flagellum, because these structures are "irreducibly complex"in other words, if you remove one part the whole system doesn't work. You claim such a system could not have evolved incrementally, and would need to have been designed somehow. Isn't this falsifiable? If Neo-Darwinists can show how these structures could have evolved, then it would prove your point false, right?

That's correct.

So they're mistaken when they say your theory is not falsifiable?

Yes, they are. Once more, they do not apply the same criteria to Darwinism, or non-intelligent explanations. The judge in his opinion says that just because Darwinism doesn't have an explanation now doesn't mean it won't have one in the future. Well, then essentially that means it's not falsifiable. How do you know if you're wrong if you can put off your accountability into the future?

You're also not looking to replace Darwinism, just to allow criticism of it, and make room to discuss ID, right? So the bar should be lower for that?

That's right.

One of the other criticisms of ID is that if it were credible, there would be a whole lot of articles in professional journals about it...

That's another Catch-22. The problem is that if you send in a manuscript to a peer-reviewed journal with the words Intelligent Design on it, it comes back in the mail the next day. It won't even be considered. If you try to get things published there, you run up against a brick wall.

However, all of the science I talk about in my book, Darwin's Black Box, is in the peer reviewed literature. All I'm doing is reporting the evidence that's already there, and connecting the dots, which ends up supporting ID.

In regard to the debate that's been going on in First Things between Stephen Barr and Cardinal Schoenborn, there was a comment from Jody Bottum that said:

"...when Darwinism is cast not as a science, but as a philosophy of science, truth—both scientific and philosophicalis deeply injured."

Some people have called this attempt to cram all of reality into materialist theories "scientism." Is this what's happening in biology?

Yes. Scientism is a big problem. It's not science; it's philosophy masquerading as science.

But you would say that ID is not just a critique of scientismit's a critique of science, right?

It's really ironic that the people who oppose ID are using a theological argument: God wouldn't have done it that way.
Yes, I am dealing with a science issue...
but it gets all mixed up in exactly how you define science and philosophy, and how you parcel out things. Cardinal Schoenborn, if I'm not mistaken, says that the apprehension of design is a philosophical act, even though it's an empirical deduction. You deduce it from the physical evidence, nonetheless, he says, inferring design is philosophy. Well, I disagree with that. Just like, looking at Mount Rushmore and deciding that the faces were designed, I would call that a scientific deduction. So a lot of ink and words are spilled because of how people make those distinctions and how they put things in different categories...

Let's move to another critique, which is that pointing out the gaps in Darwinism doesn't make ID a full-blown explanatory theory—what would you say to that?

Well, there's always more to be done in any theory, but I think that was another spectacular error by the judge. He confused ID with young earth creationism, and then, based on his mistaken assumption there, made another wrong assertion. It's true that if you show Darwinism is wrong it does not show that young earth creationism is right. But if you show that something can't be made by an unintelligent process, it shows that intelligence is required. Intelligent and un-intelligent processes are mutually exclusive and exhaustive.

Might intelligence include the notion of self-ordering?

No, unless the ability to self-organize was put into it by an intelligent agent.

Right, but obviously, without some other explanation the only self-ordering explanation for evolution we have is Darwinism?

Water molecules self-organize when they freeze into ice, but it's a stretch to call that an intelligent process.

Well, can we really explain any natural force, like gravity?

We don't really understand the nature of anything. (Laugh). Let's face it.

When Stephen Hawking theorizes about the existence of all sorts of multiple universes before the Big Bang because science can't explain how the universe arose from nothing, he's doing the same sort of theorizing that critics say you're doing, right?

Yes, that's right. Although, ID is actually much more grounded in science because we're sticking to known reality, and our claims are much more modest.

Hawking is actually doing philosophy. It's scientism. A lot of people have problems in this area separating their assumptions from their conclusions. If you start out assuming that material reality is all there is, your conclusions will reflect your assumptions. Just because Stephen Hawking writes some equations on a piece of paper doesn't mean reality bends to his theories.

There was an article I read in Nature recently on String Theory, which speculates about 10 to the 500th universes, despite the fact there isn't any evidence for that at all, and scientists are saying this is completely unfalsifiable ... Is String Theory science or not? By the judge's criteria, it would not be.

Is this a "Materialism of the gaps."

Yes, they talk about a "God of the gaps"—using God to explain holes in a theory. But they certainly have their own "Materialism of the Gap" explanations.

Why is Physics much more open to God? Unlike biology, there are so many physics books that refer to God.

It seems that way to me, but I'm an outsider to physics. I don't think any scientific discipline is so bitterly anti-religion as is biology. I think that's due to historical circumstances, especially in the 19th century. But it's true that many biologists are very hostile to religion.

There are many Catholics, such as the Jesuit George Coyne, head of the Vatican Observatory, who prefer a narrow definition of science, one that avoids any hypothesizing that strays into philosophy, or what they would regard as God's realm, the realm of love. For instance, in Wired magazine a while back, Fr. Coyne rebuked Hawking by saying "God is not information, God is love..."

That's fine, I can understand that. But I'm approaching it from a different point of view. I'm a biochemist, and I'm looking at things like the flagellum, and I'm saying, well, how did that get there? I'm not thinking about the realm of love. I'm just a simple biochemist trying to explain these things that are found in the cell.

Still, you're theorizing about an intelligent designer, which is uncomfortably close to God for some theologians, especially some Catholic theologians, who believe that ID proponents are trying to reduce God to material processes. In your review of a book by John Haught, a theologian who is a critic of ID, you say that such believers have nothing to fear from ID, that ID is compatible with their view of God's action in the world...

I don't think it's the role of the Church to support ID, and it's not even competent to do so.
I run into this a lot, people say that you're making God into an engineer, into someone who makes bacterial flagellum, and I say no, that's not it at all, anymore than George Lemaitre was saying that God was just the source of the Big Bang. Certainly, God is much more than a designer of structures of life, but what a Christian scientist with my point of view says is that he is also, somehow, a designer of these structures. It doesn't take away one iota from God at all, but just gives us an understanding of the world that he made.

Some critics of IDespecially secular ones—point to flawed structures in nature and claim that if God is the designer of life, he's incompetent. But you're not presenting a simplistic image of God as master-builder, literally constructing the universe as if playing with Legos, or Sim City on his computer, right?

No, not at all.

Would it be compatible with ID to say that the design in the universe, or in human life, is, in some way, a reflection of the Logos?

Yes, that's perfectly compatible with ID.

You're just saying that there is evidence of design, or order, there, that can't be accounted for by materialism?

Right. You're just saying that somehow, somewhere, intelligence was involved in the design of these things.

The Church is careful not to baptize specific theories about the evolution of life, insisting only on the essential minimum of truths we need to believe about the origins of life. Do you agree with this approach to protecting the freedom and mystery of God from encroachment by science?

Absolutely. I don't think it's the role of the Church to support ID, and it's not even competent to do so. It's a scientific argument, just like the Big Bang is a scientific argument. You can make theological deductions from the way the world is, but the way the world works is a scientific matter to investigate.

What the Church should do though—and does—is point out that Scientism is a big boost to scientific theories that propose that we cannot see any visible marks of design in the world. Somebody's claim that there is a lot of evidence for Darwinism might be based more on Scientism than on scientific evidence.

There's another angle to the "God as bad craftsman" critique of ID. According to the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker:

"The moral design of nature is as bungled as its engineering design. What twisted sadist would have invented a parasite that blinds millions of people or a gene that covers babies with excruciating blisters? To adapt a Yiddish expression about God: If an intelligent designer lived on Earth, people would break his windows."

This obviously introduces theodicyexplaining how a good God can allow evil-into the science. How do you counter this?

It's really ironic that the people who oppose ID are using a theological argument: God wouldn't have done it that way. Well, you can design something, but it can be used for good purposes or bad purposes, but even in the latter it's still designed. You can look at all sorts of intricate things in nature, and see design, and work out in your own mind how to deal with theodicy, but you still can't avoid the design.

What about notions of the Fall?

I stay away from that. I'm not a theologian. (Laugh)

Christianity does imply that our human life is "fallen"death, for instance. Might this be an obvious way to account for so-called defects in God's design?

That might be true, but again, I'm not a theologian, so I'd rather stay away from that question.

If science came up with a natural explanation for irreducible complexity, or one that fit with random mutation and natural selection, what would that do to ID?

In my mind, that would prove it wrong. At that point I could happily join some other Catholic scientists and believe that God set up the universe to unfold the way it does through apparently material means. If you propose a scientific argument, which is what ID is, it's always possible for it to be wrong. C'est la vie.

A number of observant secular commentators have said that whatever the scientific merits of ID, it won't go away because the average person feels threatened by the philosophical arrogancethe scientismof Darwinists,who try to extend their theories beyond science to the meaning of life itself. Do you agree?

I think ID won't go away, and people's conflicts with Darwinism won't go away, because a lot of people smell a rat. They think that Darwinism gets its way in schools not because the evidence strongly favors it but because of issues the judge was talking aboutchurch/state things. We can't discuss things that point beyond nature, so we have to settle for something that's compatible with atheism. If the evidence was there, people would be quieter, but the evidence isn't there, and people know it. They're unconvinced that strictly random processes can account for everything.

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January 26, 2006

ANGELO MATERA is editor-in-chief and publisher of Godspy.

©2005, Godspy. All rights reserved.

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READER COMMENTS
01.28.06   Luciano Miceli says:
The judge, the media, darwinists and devoties of scientism are frantic in their efforts to lump ID with creationism. So let them, ID is on solid ground and I believe their hysteria will bite them in the nose by drawing reasonable people to ID due to the rat showing its rattiness in the way it attacks reasonable scintific inquiry. After all a liar when cornered resorts to shouting, accusation and name calling thus showing that it is a liar. That type of propaganda has its limits eventually people will tune them out. All that is necessary is perseverance, let the struggle for scientific truth and accountability boldly march on!

01.26.06   Godspy says:
The Dover court case over the teaching of Intelligent Design theory in public school biology classes ended with defeat for the pro-ID school board earlier this month. We spoke to Dr. Michael Behe, a leading critic of Darwinism, about the trial, his testimony, and the future of Intelligent Design.

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