Behe’s first book, published in 1996, was Darwin’s Black Box. I haven’t read it, but it is credited by some with having launched the Intelligent Design movement.
The issue to be resolved in The Edge of Evolution is whether Darwinian evolution, i.e., organismal change by natural selection acting on randomly-generated mutations in the genetic code, is really possible. It is the question asked and answered “Yes” by Richard Dawkins in his defense of Darwinism, The Blind Watchmaker. Behe figures otherwise.
Behe doesn’t explore it, but the first question that needs to be asked and satisfactorily answered before any consideration of how evolution happens is “What is life?” It’s not as simple as it seems. Many things that we don’t consider to be living, i.e., forest fires, hurricanes, whirlpools, crystalline growth, exhibit characteristics of life. They convert energy into motion and are organized entities that seem to have as their main priority the continuation of their existence. But they aren’t really alive, because they aren’t purposefully engaged in the continuation and propagation of their existence. Here’s my definition of life: Life is a discretely-organized and defined collection of matter and energy existing in a definite space and time that engages its environment in order to secure other bits matter and energy that it needs to survive and reproduce physiologically-similar collections of matter and energy. Purposefulness in surviving and reproducing forms the demarcation line between life and non-life. My definition is perhaps not perfect, but it fits with all the things that we ordinarily think of as alive, from viruses to humans, and excludes those we don’t, like hurricanes.
We must as well cast aside questions about the mechanism by which life first arose. Behe indirectly touches on the issue when describing the complexity of processes in which a living cell is engaged, but again, understanding how life evolved would be tremendously easier if we had any idea at how it began, and frankly, we don’t. Dawkins’ nonsense about life arising from silica mud crystals is just that, and anyway does nothing for explaining how silica crystals somehow began growing amino acids and then proteins and then RNA and DNA and then built flagellums and other such complexities of single-celled life. We have lots of theories about life’s origins, but nothing of consequence that rises much above speculation.
Behe’s basic thesis is that evolution by Darwinian means is too improbable to account for much of anything except changes requiring only one, or at most, two intermediate mutational steps. He uses the example of the malaria parasite and the mutational struggle between it and man as evidence that mutations of more than two steps are so improbable as to be impossible. The probability that a room full of monkeys could beneficially and randomly type away instructions for mutating the genetic code through non-beneficial and generally harmful intermediate steps that amounted to three or more mutations is impossibly remote. He makes a good case, if for no other reason than none of the many trillions of billions of trillions (he estimates the number to be 10 to the 20th power) of malaria cells that have been alive through history have managed to effectively mutate around the human mutation that causes sickle-cell disease in those with two copies of the gene, and provides a mostly cost-free protection against malaria in those that are just carriers.
He also makes the point that these mutations are not what we would consider progressions leading to a fitter organism. That these “arms races” (as Richard Dawkins described them) do not yield a fitter organism as Dawkins claimed was the best explanation for the cheetah’s and gazelle’s speed. Sickle cell disease is deadly, and when two carriers of the disease mate, their offspring have a one in four chance of drawing two sickle genes. Mutations that malaria has made in response to drugs like chloroquine generally disappear in the absence of treatment, evidence that the mutation yields a lesser-fit organism. But pointing out Dawkins and Darwin might have made some arguments that have no logical or experiential basis immediately calls into question the evolutionary station of the one making them.
Christine O’Donnell was ridiculed recently by New York Time’s columnist, Maureen Dowd , for some comments she made about evolution a few years ago on Bill Maher’s HBO show:
Christine O’Donnell doesn’t understand why monkeys can’t turn into people right before her eyes.
Bill Maher continued his video torment of O’Donnell by releasing another old clip of her on his HBO show on Friday night, this time showing one in which she argued that “Evolution is a myth.”
Maher shot back, “Have you ever looked at a monkey?” To which O’Donnell rebutted, “Why aren’t monkeys still evolving into humans?”
Maher went on to say O’Donnell was powerful stupid for thinking that monkey evolution would be visible, saying that’s only possible with bacteria.
Well, it’s true O’Donnell is powerful stupid, but not for pointing out a conundrum of evolution theory. She’s powerful stupid for saying something that could be so easily ridiculed.
But Maher is equally stupid. Indeed, we can watch bacteria mutate before our very eyes, as Behe pointed out, using the single-celled protozoan P.falciparum as his example. But here’s the thing: With all the trillions upon trillions of malaria cells that we have witnessed even in just the last hundred years (each infected human has about a trillion malaria cells in his body at any one time, and there are roughly a billion infected humans about now), none have evolved to form a new organism or to develop new and unique capabilities old forms of malaria did not have. Malaria, though evolving some resistance to agents used to kill it (chloroquine), has not fundamentally changed in any respect whatsoever. It hasn’t grow a tail or gotten eyes or wings or started sexually reproducing. It has stayed malaria. Even after 10 to the 20th power opportunities to do otherwise.
But if Darwin’s mechanism for evolution, i.e., natural selection of favorable but random mutations in the genetic code, is mathematically foreclosed from explaining the great variety of living species we see around us, what does? Behe offers that it appears scientifically plausible that there was an intelligence of some sort or another that might have been responsible. He wisely points out that such an intelligence need not be a personal God such as in the Judea-Christian/ Islam tradition. The intelligence might be anything, but it appears that there was some deliberate will involved in the design of life.
Which brings him to evaluating some of the various claims of theoretical physicists regarding the nature of the universe, starting with the anthropic theory. The anthropic theory though, is a tautology. Although it comes in various flavors depending on the biases of the physicist propounding it, the essence of the theory is that the reason we are here to explore and ponder the nature of the physical laws of the universe leading to life is because the laws are finely tuned such that sentient life can arise and ponder the nature of the physical laws leading to sentient life. Which is true, but meaningless. It would be utterly impossible for life to ponder the physical laws of the universe if those laws were hostile to life’s existence. He implies that it can’t have been an accident that the force of gravity and the charge of the electron and distance of the earth from the sun, etc., are all precisely what the should be so that life could arise on earth. Perhaps. But still that doesn’t really tell us much, other than what we would already expect to find–that the universe which we inhabit is amenable to life.
He also explores the idea of finite (in the range of 10 to the 500th power) or infinite multi-verses, most prominently propounded by string or M-theorists as the ultimate explanation of reality. These theories were favorably cited by Stephen Hawking in his latest book, The Grand Design, as possibly the best means of tying together all the disparate views of reality arising from quantum and relativity theory. In either case (finite or infinite multi-verses), the essence of the universe is randomness. As Hawking points out, apparently writing for that elusive Nobel Prize he’s yet to win, string and M-theories do not need a creator or intelligent designer. Universes can arise from nothing. And this universe that is capable of supporting life just happened to be one of the many, perhaps infinitely many, universes that arose. The randomness we see at the core of quantum theory, also forms the basis of existence on a cosmic scale.
Einstein didn’t like the idea of randomness, famously asserting that “God does not play dice with the universe.” Yet at the quantum level of reality, so far as we can tell, God does play dice. All we can know are probabilities. We can never truly know the position of an electron in its orbit around a nucleus; we can only roughly estimate the probability of where it will be found. But if this uncertainty extrapolates out of the quantum scale to the larger universe, cause and effect relationships would be impossible to ascertain. Newton’s regular and predictable universe that allowed him to formulate the relationship between mass, distance and gravitational pull would be nothing more than an illusion, and Newton himself no more brilliant than a bad day-trader in stocks, fooled by randomness.
Without the ability to ascertain cause and effect relationships, the inquiry into the nature of the universe ends. It’s not clear that Hawking understands that his proposal is not an answer to the mysticism of the supernatural, but is instead its justification; what he and the string theorists propose as an explanation for the universe renders all further understanding irrelevant. If effects have only probabilities as their cause, then trying to ascertain how life arose and evolved is as silly and fruitless as trying to ascertain the cause of two-year old’s temper tantrum. The multi-verse is a mystical world, ruled by supernatural probabilities that have no discrete and ascertainable cause. The age of objective rationalism dies. No longer are the fruits of scientific inquiry considered the result of discovering truths about the nature of reality, because reality exists only as a scale of probabilities. The inexplicability of life resolves to renewed belief in God. Priests get back in the business of selling indulgences. Darwinism dies.
Effects must have causes, else the whole scientific enterprise collapses in a heap of mysticism. If we accept the premise that effects have causes, then it is a clear logical journey to ascertain there must have been an original cause. The identity of this original cause is the true issue over which Behe and Dawkins and many others argue. Behe admits that his theory of an intelligent designer having played a role in the development of the universe and the life found in it is only a theory. Dawkins won’t admit that his atheism is not a theory, but a belief system. Behe’s design theory is scientifically robust, even if ultimately unfalsifiable. Dawkins’ atheism is scientifically indefensible and clouds his judgment. Nothing about Darwinism and evolution theory precludes God, or some intelligence having God-like attributes, from involvement in the mechanism through which life arose and evolved. It is only Dawkins’ belief that God does not exist that prevents him from considering that God or something like it is involved.
The Edge of Evolution should be required reading in public and parochial schools, if for no other reason than it points out a host of problems with Darwinism as interpreted by today’s scientific naturalists. Those that are actually interested in getting an education, i.e., in learning how to understand the difference between dogma and fact, will come away with a greater appreciation for the foundational premises of Darwinism and the dogma surrounding it.