Essay Reviews Contrasting Views on Behe
DARWIN'S BLACK BOX: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution by Michael J. Behe. New York: The Free Press, 1996. 307 pages, index. Hardcover; $25.00.
Braxton M. Alfred*
Professor of Biological Anthropology
University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z1
Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University, has written Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, which all in the ASA should read. It is a testament to his writing skill that Behe has made the impossibly complex accessible to the irredeemably obtuse. The book is in three parts. Part 1 is an introduction to "Lilliputian" biology; Part 2 contains five examples, replete with "eye glazing and mind numbing" biochemical details of the central concept, irreducible complexity; and Part 3 contains some interpretation. Without doubt, we will be indebted to Behe for many years for providing the phrase and definition, if not the concept, of irreducible complexity. What is added to the concept, which others have used more clumsily and without the specificity, is the notion that biochemistry is the final arbiter of the existence of the condition.
The concept of a "black box" has been around for many years and is due to computer engineers. It refers to an entity-a subroutine, a panel, etc.-that receives input and produces output but no one knows how. For Behe, the ultimate black box is the cell; biochemistry has opened the box. It is gifted to Darwin because he was compelled to ignore the internal dynamics of the cell. Presumably, had he been able to see inside, he would never have been so rash as to argue as he did.
"Irreducible complexity" is defined as a single system composed of several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function such that the loss of any one part causes the system to fail. "An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced...by slight, successive modifications of a precursorY." (p. 39). The homely example used throughout the book is the mousetrap. A mousetrap has minimally five components: platform, hammer, spring, release catch, and holding bar. Lose any one of the parts and there is no mousetrap. Behe argues that it is impossible to assemble one from the clutter in a common workshop. It could be embellished with gimcracks and gewgaws, but the core system, exclusive of the add-ons, is, like many (all?) artifacts, irreducibly complex. The examples that are worked up in detail are cilia and bacterial flagella (the only true rotatory action known in nature), the magnificent biochemical cascade resulting in blood clotting (the most beautifully complex system I have ever understood), vesicular transport, immune function, and biosynthesis of AMP. The latter is treated at the atomic level and the atom-by-atom changes required to get from the precursor, ribose-5-phophate (four carbons, one oxygen), with ATP available, to AMP are shown. Amazingly, an intensive search of the literature turned up less than a dozen attempts in the last decade (literally thousands of papers) to provide an explanation of the coming into existence of any of these systems. He provides many more examples in less detail, e.g., the eye, for those of us who are innocent of biochemistry.
Behe's work is fatal to Darwinism, for he compellingly shows the impossibility of producing irreducible complexity by a Darwinian step-by-step process; and it is unthinkable that any one of the steps occurred as a saltation. Further, "the straightforward conclusion is that many biochemical systems were designed Y not by the laws of nature, not by chance and necessity; rather they were planned" (p. 193). Since it cannot be shown that something, anything, has not been designed, the scientific problem becomes the detection of design. If there is not a gradual route to the production of a physical system, irreducible complexity is taken as evidence of design. The problem is that Dawkins, or one of his clones, will pop up and say that it is simply an argument from "personal incredulity." We are quickly back staring at the metaphysical hydra-materialism vs. creationism. Of course, Behe has put the onus on materialists to show the precise pathway by which a system might have developed and then to do it. This book certainly takes the design argument to a new, atomic level. However, as endearing and powerful as it may be, I do not agree with the proposition that biochemistry is the only way to show design complexity. For example, Hugh Ross has shown, to my satisfaction, design for the universe; Thaxton, Bradley, and Olson showed it for the origin of life arguing from thermodynamics as well as "specified complexity" which characterizes proteins and linguistic structures. Both admittedly use an argument from improbability, which is standard for arguments from design, but if the probability of the naturalistic occurrence of an event is "effectively" zero.
An insert from the publisher contains a quotation from David Berlinski with which I agree completely: "Darwin's Black Box is an extraordinary piece of work that will come to be regarded as one of the most important books ever written about Darwinian theory."
Hugh Ross (1991) The Fingerprint of God: Recent Discoveries Reveal the Unmistakable Identity of the Creator. Promise.
Charles B. Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley and Roger L. Olsen (1992) The Mystery of Life's Origin: Reassessing Current Theories. Lewis and Stanley.