A New Beginning

Darwin revisionism goes mainstream

By Tom Bethell

The American Spectator September, 1996

The good news this month is the appearance of Michael Behe's book, Darwin's Black Box, published by the Free Press. As far as I know, it is the first outright anti-Darwin book to have been published by a major New York house for decades; perhaps since the 1920's. Behe (pronounced "Bee He") is an associate professor of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University, near Philadelphia, and his field is biochemistry. Coming at about the same time, a recent issue of Commentary (June) has a cover story by David Berlinski, also pointing to grave defects of evolutionary theory. Berlinski a polymath writer and former academic (he taught at Stanford in the late 1960's) is most recently the author of a Tour of the Calculus, published by Pantheon. Evolution is a process that "has not been observed", he writes. Facts in favor of it "have been rather less forthcoming than evolutionary biologists might have hoped."

So the rag-tag army of anti-Darwinism has significant reinforcements. The cause has emerged from its "Protestant ghetto", as Behe observed. Berlinski believes that we are living at an exciting intellectual moment: the 'beginning of the end' for the reign of scientific materialism, or naturalism--the ideology that has for so long dominated intellectual life. By this I mean the belief that the universe consists exclusively of matter in motion and that "mind" and consciousness are nothing but special vibrations of matter. I will return to the subject of materialism, and to the role that it has played in this whole drama.

Behe tells me that his suspicions about evolution were stirred up a decade ago when he read Michael Denton's book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. The question that has preoccupied Behe is this: How did complex biochemical systems come into existence in the first place? They are essential for the functioning of life, and as we shall see their appearance is not something that can happen by chance"

The dogmatic pronouncements of evolutionary biologists--whatever we find in nature is caused by natural selection; evolution is a fact-- might lead us to suppose that Behe's doubts were groundless. But they are expressed in that form precisely to repel skepticism. When he researched the technical literature Behe found that his questions had scarcely been addressed, let alone answered. Where there should have been controversy and debate, a tactful silence prevailed. His worldview, he began to see, had been based on the illusion that molecular biologists knew more about the origin and development of life than they really do.

The fact is, they don't have the foggiest idea how the mechanisms they study came into existence. A measure of the difficulty of arriving at them by chance was provided by Francis Crick, co-discover of the double helical structure of DNA. In 1973, and again more recently, he proposed that the earth was "seeded" by spores engineered on a distant planet. He made so outlandish a proposal only because he knew that the undirected origin of life presented tremendous obstacles. If he was to avoid invoking "mind", or the supernatural, he needed to introduce an intelligent designed somehow. Spacemen would do. Crick's Nobel gave him a measure of independence; less eminent biochemists usually keep quiet about the difficulties their field presents to the regnant philosophy of materialism.

Behe examines a number of complex biochemical systems in detail: the biochemistry of vision, the blood-clotting system (it "makes a fellow yearn for the simplicity of a cartoon Rube Goldberg machine"), and the cilium, a whip -like device that propels some cells through bodily fluids. These structures turn out to have "dozens or even hundreds of precisely tailored parts", Behe writes. There are thousands of them, and in not a single case has a plausible mechanism for their origin been offered. So how did they get here?

Since the 1850's the answer has been unchanging: bit by bit. By "numerous, successive, slight modifications", as Charles Darwin put it. One part fortuitously appeared by random mutation, and this conferred a "selective advantage" upon the organism. Then there was another accident, and so on. But this won't work if all the parts have to be present and correct from the beginning. And they do. Believing the Darwin explanation is like believing that a piston rod will make a car run a little bit, and then, if you connect it to a crank shaft, it will run a little bit better. Finally, when all the parts are in place, it will get 40 miles to the gallon.

Behe illustrated the argument with a mousetrap. It's simple enough apparatus, but all parts must be properly aligned before the trap can catch one mouse. It is 'irreducibly complex'. In The Origin of Species, Darwin took a forlorn stab at explaining vision by imagining at the outset a light-sensitive spot. This conferred a survival advantage and so more offspring inherited the structure. Richard Dawkins of Oxford, one of Darwin's most ardent modern disciples, has repeated the claim. The problem is that a minimally functioning system of vision must begin with an array of cells that 'make the complexity of a motorcycle or a television set look paltry by comparison,' Behe points out. Darwin did not know this. Dawkins should know better, but his commitment to undermining non- materialist explanations takes precedence over the scientific details.

Until recently, Behe observes, evolutionists could take refuge in ignorance. Structures at the molecular level were not known. Scientists could make the convenient assumption that the organization of matter at the submicroscopic scale was straight forward. All the real problems of evolution could be relegated to a "black box" which no one could inspect. Like children's plastic toys, simple parts were visualized as easily interlocking. Insects, it was believed, arose of spoiled food. Earnst Haeckel, an early admirer of Darwin, assured his readers that the cell itself was "a simple little lump of albuminous carbon".

Now we know better. To many improbable events would have to occur at the same time for Living Matter to arise by a chain of Accidents. Darwin's claim to fame is the discovery of the "mechanism" of natural selection (the "survival of the fittest"), but this is beset by an entirely different set of problems. The "guidance" of natural selection is incapable of solving the problem in anything other than handwaving fashion.

As to the explanations that have been attempted, Behe points out that in the Journal of Molecular Evolution 80 percent of the articles compare amino-acid sequences of proteins from different species, and identify similarities and dissimilarities in these sequences. But sequence comparisons can no more tell us how a complex system arose, Behe says, than comparable passage from two computer manuals can tell us how the computers themselves were assembled; or whether a computer can be assembled step by step starting from a typewriter. (It can't, of course. You have to start from scratch.)

Most laymen and even biologists have not begun to come to grips with the incredible complexity of living organisms. A dose of humility might help. We do not know how cells function in any detail; the evidence for their evolution is non- existent. We don not even understand cell division (if we did we could cure cancer). Nor do we understand aging. So much for Haeckel's simple lump of albuminous carbon. If a lab could manufacture one functioning cell, let alone something as complex as a cell, let alone something as complex as a housefly, it would be the greatest marvel of engineering ever achieved in human history. Most species have never even been studied or described, and we hardly know to a factor of ten how many there are on earth. Yet we pretend to know how they all arose--by "evolution." I once asked one of the world's experts on bats what species they evolved from. We don't know, he said. "Non-bats" is all they can tell us. The same is true of all other mammals. The ancestral species are not known in any instance. (But we do know that the oldest bat fossils have echo-location, or "radar" systems, in their inner ears. So how did that happen?)

Imagine that an automobile manufacturer from an unknown lad produced a car that could, by connecting with a "female" model, generate offspring that in time grew up to be full-scale sedans. And could then reproduce in turn. Would we believe that such a marvel had arisen by a blind process that did not have self- reproducing automobiles in mind? No, we would not be so gullible.

So what are we to make of the expression of certitude about evolution that we so often encounter in the press? In The End of Science -- not a bad book although silly in its central contention that 'the great era of scientific discovery is over'--Scientific American correspondent John Horgan claims that the theory of evolution is 'well supported by the fossil record.' (Not true, of course.) Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett claims that Darwin's central idea 'is about as secure as any in science,' and is 'no longer in dispute among scientists.' Similar assertions abound in the writings of Richard Dawkins and others. Their (intended) effect is to marginalize dissent and to assign it to the realm of psychiatry.

But two can play at that game. David Berlinski has it exactly right when he assigns the self-confident statements of evolutionists to the realm of ideology. They are "the party line," he writes. Party lines are quite likely to be false, of course, but they are fervently believed in by those who utter them. The 'party' we are dealing with is that of naturalism, or materialism. Its members believe that nothing but matter exists, and given that starting point, evolution must be true. Life is a reality, and obviously it came into existence somehow. How else if not by blind processes? Evolution is not something that is seen in the rocks but deduced from a philosophy.

But if we accept a realm of mind that interpenetrates matter, and that takes precedence over matter and has the capacity to organize matter, then we find ourselves in a very different and very much more satisfactory philosophical universe. The materialists "superstition" (as U.C. Berkeley professor Phillip Johnson calls it), which subordinates mind to matter, has stood truth on its head in a number of fields: in the belief that artificial intelligence can be located in computers; in the notion that "process" takes precedence over pattern; that "form follows function," that law is a derivative of economy, and so on. (A useful study of the influence of naturalism on intellectual life is the U.S. today is to be found in Johnson's Reason in the Balance.)

In Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Dennett calls Darwinism a 'universal acid', eating through 'just about every traditional concept' and leaving in its wake a 'revolutionized world-view'. That is quite true, and it explains why it is so congenial to the revolutionary academy of our day--an academy that is bent on overthrowing all traditional concepts of religion, morality, and human nature. So it is not hard to see what is at stake in this debate. The scientific facts point to grave shortcomings in the ideology of materialism. The study of biochemistry suggest to Behe that 'a conclusion of intelligent design is pretty obvious at this point.' If pursued, such a theory will also turn out to be fruitful, he believes, just as the theory of the Big Bang was in cosmology. Design could also let God back into the picture, of course. That would be distressing many, I need hardly say. That is why a big fight is going to erupt around this issue.