Darwin’s Black Box:
The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution
Michael J. Behe
The Free Press, New York
xii + 307 pp
Reviewed by Peter Atkins, University of Oxford
For those who have not already encountered this book or one of its numerous reviews, let me simply say that the author sets out to argue that the organic world is so complex, particularly at the level of molecular biology and biochemistry, that Darwinian evolution cannot possibly have led to it. As evolution cannot produce irreducibly complex systems (the blood-clotting process, for instance, the biochemist’s analogue of the eye), they must be the outcome of the activities of an Intelligent Designer. In other words, the book is a tiresome reworking at the molecular level of the timeworn “design” argument.
So much has already been written by reviewers of this book that it seems unnecessary to add anything more (go to http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/behe/publish.html). Specialists far more competent than me have analyzed the numerous and gross deficiencies in Dr. Behe’s flatulent arguments in considerable technical detail (see especially cbs.dtu.dk/dave/Behe.html), so there would be an emptiness in my remarks if I were to try to emulate them. If I am to add anything to the discussion, I am forced to choose to look at the book from a different perspective. The perspective I shall adopt is that of misrepresentation, for that quality pervades this book at every level.
First, the book is a misrepresentation of origin. Dr. Behe (a Roman Catholic) pretends not to have “God” in mind as the Intelligent Designer, carefully picking his way round the identification of this synonym. As others have surmised, this misrepresentation of origin can be seen as part of the creationist strategy to pretend to distance themselves from religion in order that their intellectually base attitudes can be brought into schools. Dr. Behe denies that he is a creationist, finding evolution “fairly convincing” (itself an attitude that suggests to the suspicious ear dissimulation); yet the book is undeniably a covert creationist tract, with the Intelligent Designer nothing other than a God and Intelligent Design merely active creation. That the creationists have resorted to this subversion should surprise none of us, for the ethical poverty of their actions matches the intellectual poverty of their beliefs. Any resort to designs and designers is actually the smuggling in of God and creationism in one of its slippery forms.
Second, the book is a misrepresentation of facts. Dr. Behe claims that science is largely silent on the details of molecular evolution, the emergence of complex biochemical pathways and processes that underlie the more traditional manifestations of evolution at the level of organisms. Tosh! There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of scientific papers that deal with this very subject. For an entry into this important and flourishing field, and an idea of the intense scientific effort that it represents (see the first link above). To claim that here lies a subject suspiciously ignored by the scientific establishment is a travesty of the truth. That progress is slow may be the case (how does one measure the rate of progress in science?), but can be explained by the extraordinary difficulty of disentangling the clues. Evolutionary biochemists do not have the advantage of solid evidence in the form of bones: they have to build up their edifices of understanding from more subtle fossil evidence in the form of sequences in DNA. No wonder progress is slow; but we should not accept that it is not being made, with remarkable insights into our origins being achieved. Dr. Behe is simply not aware of the literature; or perhaps is aware, and prefers to misrepresent it as absent. He claims, with more reason, that evolutionary biochemistry receives but nugatory mention in standard texts of biochemistry. What is that supposed to signify? Dr. Behe would have us infer that it is a subject on which science is necessarily silent. The truth is that the authors of mainstream texts typically mould their contents to mainstream courses, and have to spend their limited pages on mainstream topics. Evolutionary biochemistry is deeply interesting, but there is not sufficient room for it in mainstream courses, in part because of its complexity.
Third, the book is a misrepresentation of the scientific method, happily hoist by its own petard. Authors are not to be congratulated when they identify regions of science that could have more answers (for which evolutionary biochemistry certainly qualifies), and interpret that lack as indicating that the questions are intrinsically unanswerable. Despite Dr. Behe’s training as a scientist, he has been brought up in a religious milieu where answers by instant gratification are the norm. Science requires truly hard work to achieve the reliable understanding it purveys; there it is in sharp contrast to religion’s fatuous attempts at providing understanding or its human-treasonable claims that understanding is beyond human comprehension.
With hard work and even the possibility of progress dismissed, Dr Behe waves his magic wand, discards the scientific method, and launches into his philosopher’s stone of universal explanation: it was all designed. Presenting this silly, lazy, ignorant, and intellectually abominable view — essentially discarding reason and invoking that first resort of the intellectually challenged (that is, God) — he present what he thinks is the most wondrous of theories, that the only way of achieving complexity is by design. There we see Dr. Behe dangling from his petard, proclaiming his “science” of intelligent design, while not troubling to seek the regulation of that awesome monitor of scientific enterprise, peer review.
I would do Dr. Behe and his book a disservice if I left the impression that it was all misrepresentation. Some features it represents with startling clarity. One is the crippling effect of limited imagination. Dr. Behe’s failure to explain complex processes and structures in evolutionary terms is a reflection not on science but on Dr. Behe’s limited powers of imagination. That his paradigm folksy example of a mousetrap as a fine example of an irreducibly complex entity has been shown to be false by an amusing note on the inverse evolution of such a trap (udel.edu/~mcdonald/mousetrap.html) is but a minor but still significant illustration of the mouse hole of limited outlook that Dr. Behe has dug for himself. On a grander scale, he seems totally unaware of the ability of nature to improvise, using whatever happens to be lying around to achieve a local advantage, and thus embark on the awesome vehicle of evolution.
The danger of this book — and why it receives so much attention — is partly that it is so well written (or so some find; I among them, I must confess). I learned a huge amount from it (I think), and it was only my wary eye that held me back from slipping along with the argument. Moreover, here we have a real, and very competent (but deeply misguided) scientist purveying some very good science and pointing up some very important omissions in our current understanding. Dr. Behe and his book must be as gold-dust among the dross of the general run of creationists and their so-called literature. The general reader will not know the limitations of his argument, or be aware of his misrepresentations of the facts, and will easily be seduced by his arguments. After all, it seems so very much easier, and certainly avoids a lot of intellectual effort, to accept that God did it all, even though we have to interpret the carefully coded allusions to this incompetent figment of impoverished imaginations.