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Behe and Swamidass Debate Evolution and Intelligent Design at Texas A&M

Jonathan Witt

Swamidass

[Updated, now with links to the event’s YouTube video, with improved audio over the earlier video link.]

Biochemist and CSC Senior Fellow Michael Behe shared the stage with physician and computational biologist Joshua Swamidass this past Thursday evening at an overflow event at Texas A&M’s Rudder Theatre in College Station, TX. 

The meeting, titled “God and/or Evolution?” was part conversation, part debate. Behe made the case for intelligent design in biology. Swamidass argued for methodological naturalism and modern evolutionary theory while also allowing for the separate de novo creation of Adam and Eve, an idea outlined in his new book.

The format had Behe going first and then Swamidass responding. Then each speaker got a shorter chunk of time for follow-up comments, followed by a Q&A sent via tweets that were selected and read by the moderator. 

Behe began by noting that his three books, including his newest one, Darwin Devolves, make two main arguments. The first is that “Darwin’s mechanism is grossly inadequate to explain the molecular structure of life.” But then he said that due to time constraints he wouldn’t focus on that tonight, and that this thesis was the less controversial of the two, since there are today many prominent scientists who question the creative power of neo-Darwinism’s joint mechanism of random mutations and natural selection.

Behe Swamidass

He said his more controversial thesis is that intelligent design is a better explanation for the origin of many intricate biological structures in the history of life. He then discussed three such biological structures uncovered in recent years. 

Gears, Motors and The War of the Worlds in Miniature

The first one he highlighted are the gears recently discovered in the larval stage of the planthopper (Issus coleleoptratus). When his slide show flashed to a close-up of the gears, a murmur of astonishment rolled through the audience. Behe described the machinery as “real, hard, mechanical, interdigitating gears,” which is what they look like. (See the close-up slide at the 7:54 mark of the video.)

Behe then discussed the bacterial flagellum, which he described as an outboard motor complete with propeller, a U-joint, drive shaft, motor, and stator. He noted that he wrote about it in his first book, Darwin’s Black Box, published in 1996, and said that all these years later none of his fellow scientists have explained the origin of this molecular machine in Darwinian terms. He later extended this point, saying that no one had come close to offering a functional step-by-step evolutionary process, Darwinian or otherwise, for the origin of any of the complex molecular machines he has highlighted.

Behe then explored some new findings regarding the flagellum’s universal joint. Using new microscope technology, researchers have been able to uncover new layers of sophisticated engineering in the U-joint (also called the hook). Behe then showed an animation of the U-joint rotating elegantly rather than wildly, all thanks to an ingeniously orchestrated dance of distinct protein structures within the hook. The stunning animation and Behe’s discussion of it can be found in a two minute stretch of the video beginning here.

The third biological structure Behe highlighted was the T4 bacteriophage, a type of virus that infects bacteria and eats them. He showed drawings of the structure, rendered with a level of detail only recently possible thanks to advances in microscopy. Behe said that here again is a biological structure that looks for all the world like a marvel of engineering foresight and design. This one he showed in two phases. In one it’s extended, the central cylinder long and slender. In the second, that cylinder is mashed down and injects DNA from the phage into the bacterial cell. 

The two phases of the structure are pictured and described beginning here in the video, followed by an animation of it. “It looks like something from The War of the Worlds,” Behe said, emphasizing how ingeniously engineered (and scary) it looks.

The Purposeful Arrangement of Parts

Behe then said that each of the three structures discussed exhibit the purposeful arrangement of numerous well-tailored parts, and that in our uniform experience, any time we can trace such structures back to their origin, they always lead to an intelligent cause. Our uniform experience thus suggests that the purposeful arrangement of parts in the planthopper gears, the bacterial flagellum, and the T4 bacteriophage are reasonably and persuasively explained by reference to an intelligent cause.

He also defined the theory of intelligent design, discussed the history of the idea, and illustrated how we regularly and reliably recognize intelligently designed things in everyday life by noticing the purposeful arrangement of parts. 

Behe also dealt with the idea that everything in nature is designed, the laws of the universe having been designed (fine-tuned) by its maker. Behe agreed that this is a layer of design, but he said this level of design is akin to the designed building materials of a house, whereas the design evident in ingenious biological structures is an additional layer of design. It’s the difference between Mount Everest, made possible by the fine-tuned laws and constants of nature, and Mount Rushmore, its faces intelligently designed by sculptors.

Behe concluded by emphasizing that “a conclusion of intelligent design is rationally compelling” and noted that he has replied to his critics at greater length, which can be found at DarwinDevolves.com.

Of Chimps, Rats, Mice, and Men

In Swamidass’s main presentation, he pointed to his website, Peaceful Science, and said he hoped the evening’s conversation would help him and Behe better understand where they agree and disagree. He noted that he and Behe are both Christian (Behe is a Catholic Christian) and called Behe’s second book, The Edge of Evolution, “interesting and important.” 

After sketching out a few areas where they agree, Swamidass showed a slide of a man (Swamidass) and a chimp, and below these, a mouse and a rat. Swamidass said that humans and chimps are 98 percent similar genetically, while rats and mice are 80 percent similar to each other. He added that this data maps neatly onto some other things we have been able to glean. In unpacking what he was referring to, he offered a simplified description of molecular clocks in evolutionary biology, using the simple formula of rate x time = distance. For evolutionists, rate is a species’s mutational rate, and time is the length of time since two biological forms diverged from a common ancestor. He said mice and rats diverged from one another much longer ago than did chimps and humans, and rats and mice mutate faster than do chimps and humans. Taken together, this greater mutational rate and greater timespan mean a much greater mutational “distance,” nicely explaining why chimp and human genomes are only 2 percent different, whereas rat and mice genomes are fully 20 percent different. 

He further added that he’s spoken to ID proponents, he has spoken to creationists, and he asked for a mathematical explanation for this and has yet to receive a satisfactory answer that doesn’t include common descent.

Behe did not contest the accuracy of the 98 percent figure for chimp/human similarity. (Others have — see, for example, the challenge posed by geneticist Richard Buggs here.) Instead, Behe made a more fundamental point: Humans and chimps clearly differ in many more significant ways than mice and rats. Therefore, using genomic differences to explain the significant ways humans differ from chimps is obviously the wrong way to approach the question of human uniqueness.

Each speaker offered additional arguments and counterarguments. There also were many other interesting elements of their discussion, from methodological naturalism and the role of neutral evolution to the problem of things that appear designed in nature but are destructive, the similarities and differences between human designed systems and complex biological structures, the value of civil dialogue among researchers of widely different perspectives, and the difference between recognizing intelligent design and identifying the designer. 

James Tour Poses a Question for Swamidass

Rice University synthetic organic chemist James Tour, described by the moderator as “one of the most accomplished chemists in the world,” was in the audience. When the Q&A began he was asked to pose the first question, which he directed to Swamidass:

You mentioned mechanism, and being an organic chemist, and from the chemists who are in here, we look at mechanism very specifically. It is so hard to fathom how you can get mechanistic changes in a complex system to change one into another. And the problem is that when this is described by biologists, it sounds as if they’re storytelling. Well, and even when I’ve talked to you, I say how does it change; you say, well, one small change at a time. So, get me started. What would change? Tell me how one changes into another. It’s extremely hard to see that, so you can come with little models that are mathematical that talk about relations, but you ultimately have to change a lot of chemistry that’s really difficult to begin to look at these evolutionary models that are going to allow you to have these kinds of complexities of change. And so how do you think about this happening when you really have to go back to your organic chemistry from when you were a sophomore in 1998, and say, what kind of reaction are you going to do to do that?

In his response, Swamidass said that “biology is pretty complex and it’s not intuitive.… Chemical intuitions won’t explain what I’m talking about. And it requires biological intuitions that are shaped in a different way.”

But Tour asked, “Tell me how one changes into another,” and Swamidass never got around to answering that. Swamidass’s reply seemed to largely boil down to You’re a chemist; biologists know better. 

Also, even if Tour, an internationally distinguished synthetic organic chemist, didn’t know enough molecular biology to have the right intuitions about what was and wasn’t possible in terms of step-by-step evolutionary development of molecular biological machines (a debatable point), Behe the biologist does, and he argued that the more we learn about molecular biological machines, the more this knowledge reinforces the untutored intuition that things like the bacterial flagellum or the gears of a planthopper were intelligently designed. Swamidass’s appeal to tutored biological intuitions struck me as akin to a man claiming a royal flush in poker but without turning over any of his cards.

To be fair, this was in their debate, where they had limited time to respond. Both Swamidass and Behe have much more to say about the issue in their writings, available at their respective sites and in their books.

Another thought I had: Swamidass’s point about biological versus chemical knowledge and intuitions arguably doesn’t apply to the giant step required for the origin of the first life (Tour’s area of focus in the origins conversation) since strictly speaking, we’re dealing with chemistry rather than biology on the pathway from chemical building blocks to the first life. 

In Swamidass’s defense, he and Behe weren’t focused on the origin-of-life problem. But there’s an additional problem in the origin of life, and it’s a doozy: The first self-reproducing molecular entity, unlike later biological forms, has to be constructed without the benefit of self-reproduction and mutation working in tandem. For this reason, Behe’s insistence that blind material mechanisms are insufficient to build new biological machinery could be said to apply with double force to the origin-of-life problem.

To hear the full Q&A exchange between Tour and Swamidass, and all the Q&A discussion, go here. 

Behe and Swamidass are introduced, and the discussion gets under way, beginning at about the one-hour mark of the Facebook video. 

The event was sponsored by the Veritas Forum, Ratio Christi, and the Texas A&M Christian Faculty Staff Network.

DarwinDevolves.com, by the way, includes links not only to Behe’s responses to his critics, but also to his critics’ articles about his work, including a critical review of Darwin Devolves by Swamidass, Nathan Lents, and Richard Lenski in the journal Science.

Photos: Scenes from the Behe-Swamidass debate on intelligent design and evolution, including slides by Dr. Behe (planthopper, bacteriophage) and Dr. Swamidass; by Forrest Mims.