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Excerpt: Darwinism and Design

Michael Behe

Editor’s note: We are delighted to celebrate the publication of the new book A Mousetrap for Darwin: Michael J. Behe Answers His Critics. What follows is an excerpt. “Darwinism and Design” was published originally as a letter to the editor in Trends in Ecology and Evolution 12, No. 6 (June 1997): 229.

Author’s note: One of the earliest reviews of my book Darwin’s Black Box was by Oxford evolutionary biologist Tom Cavalier-Smith. I had discussed some of his musings rather unfavorably in the book, and he returned the favor in the review.

In his review of my book Darwin’s Black Box, which is critical of Darwinian theory, Tom Cavalier-Smith alternates between calling me ignorant and calling me deceitful, but finally seems to conclude that I am intentionally dishonest because of my religious views. I do not wish to descend into acrimony, so let me state plainly that my religious convictions can easily accommodate a Darwinian explanation for life, and I said so in my book. I have no motive, religious or otherwise, to be dishonest. I wrote the book (which I knew would be controversial) out of a straightforward, professional conviction that many complex biochemical systems are beyond Darwinian explanation.

Well, I am not dishonest, but am I ignorant? Perhaps so. No one can be completely in command of the literature, and I would be very happy to be shown citations to published work explaining in detail how complex biochemical systems evolved by natural selection. However, Professor Cavalier-Smith says there is no such work: “For none of the cases mentioned by Behe is there yet a comprehensive and detailed explanation of the probable steps in the evolution of the observed complexity. The problems have indeed been sorely neglected.” Yet he thinks that, even if detailed explanations are unavailable, general explanations are in hand. He cites ten references in his review. Of the ten, half refer to his own work, only four are published in this decade, and only two are reports of original research. From my point of view, in all of the cited papers the evolutionary explanation takes the form “System X developed because it would help the cell to do Y,” without noticing the difficulties of making X by a blind process. It’s like saying, “Air conditioners developed to enable more people to work indoors in the summertime.”

Much of the difficulty arises in the differing standards that different disciplines have for what constitutes an “explanation.” Biochemists require molecular detail. Cavalier-Smith, however, does not. (Indeed, he even castigates Trends in Biochemical Sciences for noticing engineering design in biochemical systems.) Darwinian evolution, though, would necessarily have to take place at the nut-and-bolt molecular level, the domain of biochemistry. A Darwinian evolutionary explanation, therefore, has to be a detailed biochemical explanation. None currently exist. By itself this fact doesn’t justify the conclusion of intelligent design that I reach. (I also advance other arguments for design in my book.) But by itself the absence of detailed Darwinian explanations should provoke more thoughtfulness than was shown in Cavalier-Smith’s review.