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Misquoting Michael Behe in the U.K.

“Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow” John Kelleher has made an egregious misquote of Michael Behe in the Times’ Educational Supplement (TES Teacher, May 5 2006, pages 8-11). The article is “The Inside Story In the beginning: evolution, creationism or intelligent design?” It is the cover story with wording “BLUEPRINT FOR LIFE EVOLUTION OR INTELLIGENT DESIGN?,” and does not appear to be available online, but those who read it report that Kelleher’s article wrongly implies that Michael Behe is an odd sort of creationist that believes the fossil record does not reflect any earth history.

Not only does this article completely misrepresent Behe, who accepts an ancient age of the earth and even accepts common descent, but it twists a passage out of Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box to mean something completely different from what Behe originally wrote.

The article first discusses young earth creationist views about dinosaurs and the fossil record:

“Dinosaurs are a big problem for those who argue that the Bible’s story of Genesis is the literal truth about how our world and human life came into being. Some creationists believe the world was made by God in 4004Bc, along with all living things. However, the earliest dinosaur fossils date back 232 million years and offer seemingly categorical disproof of these cherished beliefs. How do they deal with this? By claiming dinosaurs never existed. American creationist Partee Fleming argued in his book *Is God’s Bible the Greatest Murder Mystery Ever Written?* (The AM Press, Tennessee, 1980) that fossils appearing to confirm the existence of dinosaurs were merely planted to test our belief and demonstrate the “wit of Jesus”.

Not only is this an odd characterization of young earth creationists (who typically do believe dinosaurs existed, but claim they mostly died in a flood just a few thousand years ago), but the article then immediately tries to falsely connect ID proponent Michael Behe to the wildly fringe belief that dinosaurs never existed. Directly after the above excerpt, the article states:

“And Michael Behe, an American scientist who advocates intelligent design (ID) suggests that the fossil record: ‘has been placed there by the designer … for artistic reasons, to show off, for some as yet undetectable practical purpose or for some unguessable reason.'” (ellipses in original)

Is this an accurate quotation? Here is the full quotation in context from Darwin’s Black Box:

“Another problem with the argument from imperfection is that it critically depends on a psychoanalysis of the unidentified designer. Yet the reasons that a designer would or would not do anything are virtually impossible to know unless the designer tells you specifically what those reasons are. One only has to go into a modern art gallery to come across designed objects for which the purposes are completely obscure (to me at least). Features that strike us as odd in a design might have been placed there by the designer for a reason–for artistic reasons, for variety, to show off, for some as-yet-undetected practical purpose, or for some unguessable reason–or they might not. Odd they may be–but they may still be designed by an intelligence. The point of scientific interest is not the internal mental state of the designer, but whether one can detect design.” (Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box, pg 223)

Behe here is dealing with the “imperfect design = no design” objection, as he had discussed Ken Miller’s objection that the vertebrate eye is “poorly wired” in the preceding pages. This quote has nothing to do with “the fossil record.” Nor is Behe saying that the fossil record does not exist. Rather, Behe is just saying that some odd aspects of biochemical design may have surprising purposes. This has nothing to do with earth history or the fossil record, and Behe is in no way claiming that the fossil record simply exists “for artistic purposes” and does not reflect actual history.

Indeed, Behe has made his views clear that he believes in an ancient earth and even accepts common descent. Consider what Behe said in an online letter-to-the-editor with the journal Science just a few years ago:

“[Eugenie] Scott refers to me as an intelligent design “creationist,” even though I clearly write in my book “Darwin’s Black Box” (which Scott cites) that I am not a creationist and have no reason to doubt common descent. In fact, my own views fit quite comfortably with the 40% of scientists that Scott acknowledges think evolution occurred, but was guided by God.” (Intelligent Design Is Not Creationism by Michael Behe)

And consider what Behe said in Darwin’s Black Box:

“As commonly understood, creationism involves belief in an earth formed only about ten thousand years ago, an interpretation of the Bible that is still very popular. For the record, I have no reason to doubt that the universe is the billions of years old that physicists say it is. Further, I find the idea of common descent (that all organisms share a common ancestor) fairly convincing, and have no particular reason to doubt it.” (Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box, pg 5)

This article clearly misquotes Michael Behe very badly. This is probably what happens when people rely upon the Wikipedia as a reliable source of information about intelligent design.

(Note: Added 5/9/06: The misquoted quote from Behe is reproduced on the Wikipedia nearly precisely as it apparently was reproduced in Kelleher’s article. Although the Wikipedia does not make Kelleher’s mistake of claiming Behe is discussing the fossil record, the context is insufficient to give the full meaning of Behe’s quote. The Wikipedia also does not give the page number for Behe’s quote and so checking the context is difficult for a person who has never read Darwin’s Black Box, or is completely unfamiliar with the book. It seems very possible that this was Kelleher’s source and the case for Kelleher.)

Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



__editedMichael Behe