Biologist Michael Behe is the star of the new documentary Revolutionary: Michael Behe and the Mystery of Molecular Machines which goes on sale today. The film tells the hitherto largely untold story of how Behe wandered (and wondered) his way into intelligent design, how his work ignited a furor in the scientific community, was subsequently vindicated, and where the ID revolution is headed today.
See the trailer here:
Dr. Behe spoke to packed auditoriums twice in the Dallas-Forth Worth area last week, following sneak peek screenings. I was able to attend the second of the two screenings. Behe got a standing ovation, and the questions after the screening were mostly friendly — though not all of the questions were softballs. One man asked an interesting question about a molecular biological machine that features prominently in the evolution/design debate: the type-3 secretion needle complex. By way of introducing the film, I’d like to focus on that.
But first a bit of background, then the question, and Behe’s answer.
The type-3 secretory needle complex is a molecular machine that Darwinists argue served as a simpler steppingstone in the evolution of the bacterial flagellum motor.
This flagellum is far more sophisticated than, say, an outboard boat motor designed by human engineers, and in Darwin’s Black Box, Behe argued that Darwinian evolution could not have evolved it since evolution has to proceed one tiny, beneficial mutation at a time, and there’s no viable pathway from a single protein machine all the way to the symphony of proteins needed for a functioning bacterial flagellum.
Behe says the reason there’s no such pathway is that Darwinian evolution can’t use dysfunctional stages as steppingstones. Dysfunctional organisms don’t survive, reproduce and pass along their mutations. In other words, the islands of function between the imagined primitive precursor and the distant bacterial flagellum are too few and far between, and they’re separated by oceans of shark-infested dysfunction.
The Darwinian process can’t make the journey, but intelligent design can, since it can do what Darwinian evolution can’t. It can bring together parts in pursuit of a distant and functional end, and never mind about how well the thing functions at each step along the way from the beginning to the end of the construction process.
Kenneth Miller’s Needling Objection
Revolutionary shows how Darwinist Kenneth Miller countered Behe by arguing that the evolutionary process could have co-opted parts from early and simpler molecular machines that performed very different functions. In other words, the evolutionary process isn’t restricted to working from a primitive and minimally effective bacterial flagellum motor. Instead, it could proceed like a garage tinkerer taking parts from other machines in a garage and slowly cobbling together a new machine.
One biological steppingstone on the way to the bacterial flagellum, Miller further argued, is the type-3 secretion needle complex, a simpler biological machine that shares several protein sub-machines in common with the bacterial flagellum.
But the weight of the evidence from wide-ranging mutational studies now suggests that the needle complex probably came along long after the flagellar motor. If so, it couldn’t possibly have served as an evolutionary precursor to the flagellum.
Both the film and Behe noted this, but then the questioner mentioned above asked a follow-up question: Say the needle from the bacterial flagellum motor did come after the bacterial flagellum. Isn’t that still a pretty impressive example of Darwinian evolution at work? The Darwinian process took an outboard motor and evolved a needle complex with a new and distinct function from the original motor.
The answer came in two parts. First, Darwinian evolution has been shown to create new functions by devolving more complex biological machinery into simpler, devolved designed with niche functions. The needle complex devolving from the motor would be one more example of this. But Darwinists need to show how life evolved from the simplest original precursor into more and more complex forms. All the examples of devolution in the world don’t get us any closer to demonstrating evolution from the simpler to the more complex.
Second, Behe said, no one has demonstrated that that type-3 secretion needle complex actually developed from the bacterial flagellum motor. Right now it’s just an idea, a just-so story. Darwinists haven’t demonstrated it in a lab. They haven’t even described a detailed, credible pathway as to how it could have devolved from the one to the other.
Kenneth Miller’s Magical Evolutionary Garage
This shouldn’t surprise us. It’s no mean feat to take the needle complex and ingeniously cannibalize, reconfigure and repurpose it to build an outboard motor. (More on the problem here.)
In garages when such tinkering breakthroughs occur, there’s always a designing intelligence hard at work. But in Kenneth Miller’s magical evolutionary garage, all this ingenious tinkering happens by magic. Sprinkle a little Darwinian pixie dust and a few million years onto the needle complex and, presto, you get a bacterial flagellum motor.
That sleight of hand is enough for many evolutionists. As Behe explained at the Denton event I attended, many biologists have a prior ideological commitment to purely materialistic explanations, so they simply dismiss his design arguments out of hand. They refuse to study them firsthand or dig into the back-and-forth of the debate.
The good news: Occasionally an accomplished scientist lets his ideological guard down. One of the applause lines during the Denton screening of Revolutionary came when a leading German scientist is describing how he spearheaded a celebration of Darwin’s grand idea in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s book The Origin of the Species.
One display at the science museum where he worked was going to include a big pair of scales. On one side of the scales were several intelligent design books. On the other side would be Darwin’s book. Despite being outweighed by all the ID books, the scales were going to be set so that Darwin’s tome was clearly the weightier. The point: ID’s critique of Darwinism had been weighed in the balances and found wanting.
But at this point in the film the German scientist makes a confession. He says that in planning this striking little display, he made one mistake: He read the books on the ID side of the scales. When he did, he realized that what he had been told about the design arguments were highly misleading caricatures of the real ID arguments, and that the ID books by Behe, William Dembski, and other design proponents actually raised substantive and potentially devastating objections to modern evolutionary theory.
One of Behe’s final words of encouragement to the audience at the Denton event: Those Darwinists bent on suppressing the truth often succeed, but they can only succeed for so long. In the end, the truth will out.