Skip to main content
No. of Recommendations: 3
A well-known scientist once wrote:

If a theory claims to be able to explain some phenomenon but does not generate even an attempt at an explanation, then it should be banished

Seems like something used against ID, but in fact, it was Michael Behe writing in Darwin's Black Box (DBB) about the theory of Darwinian molecular evolution. No wonder he's not very popular with the evolution crowd. But he has good reason to say this, and he backs it up with hard, cold fact.

Since Kazim recently read DBB because the issue "had become a distraction in discussions" with me, then wrote a lenghty review, I thought I'd offer the following as my response to Kazim's review of the book ( I think Kazim has seriously missed his calling, as his review was wildly popular. His style of writing is a combination of wit, humor, and good old-fashioned smack-down that would make him a very successful politician, journalist, or late-night talk show host.

Not being able to really match the brilliance of Kazim's writing, I'll content myself to address some of the facts that he deals with in his review of Behe.

The first thing that jumped out at me that I want to take issue with is this idea of Behe's view on macroevolution, that Kazim repeats several times:

He believes, or at least doesn't contradict, that macro-evolution occurs . . . evolution operates just fine on the macroscopic level, for most things . . . His point as I understand it is this: on a macroscopic scale, sure, evolution can account for the construction of complex machinery from chemical parts. But the existence of the chemical parts themselves are a mystery beyond the reach of blind natural processes.

My first thought was that Kazim is confusing Behe's statements on common ancestry with macroevolution. I admit I've had a hard time understanding what Behe means by common ancestry in light of what I perceive to be his stance *against* macroevolution. Here's why I say that.

Behe lays out an analogy on p. 13-14 that is key to understanding his view of macroevolution. Imagine that there is a 4 foot ditch in your backyard, separating yours from your neighbors. Suppose you come out one day, and your neighbor is standing in your yard. You ask how he got there, and he says "I jumped the ditch". Very plausible. But suppose the ditch is instead a huge canyon. No way he could jump it. "Ah yes", he explains, "it took me years to cross, and there were a series of narrowly-spaced buttes that arose from time to time. . . I just hopped from one to the other until I made it to your yard". You look, but there is no evidence of the buttes. "That's because as I crossed, the buttes disintegrated behind me".

Behe applies the analogy to evolution, with obvious implications. Telling is his comment "in the absence of evidence of such smaller jumps, it is very difficult to prove right or wrong someone who asserts that stepping stones existed in the past but have disappeared."

Next he acknowledges that small changes have been observed in nature, citing such things as finch beaks and the AID virus. But he wraps up the section like this:

On a small scale Darwin's theory has triumphed; it is now about as controversial as an athlete's assertion that he or she could jump over a four-foot ditch. But it is at the level of macroevolution—of large jumps—that the theory evokes skepticism. Many people have followed Darwin in proposing that huge changes can be broken down into plausible, small steps over great periods of time. Persuasive evidence to support that position, however, has not been forthcoming. Nonetheless, like a neighbor's story about vanishing buttes, it has been difficult to evaluate whether the elusive and ill-defined small steps could exist, until now.

With the advent of modern biochemistry we are now able to look at the rock-bottom level of life. We can now make an informed evaluation of whether the putative small steps required to produce large evolutionary changes can ever get small enough. You will see in this book that the canyons separating everyday life forms have their counterparts in the canyons that separate biological systems on a microscopic scale. Like a fractal pattern in mathematics, where a motif is repeated even as you look at smaller and smaller scales, unbridgeable chasms occur even at the tiniest level of life.

Behe is saying, contrary to what Kazim claims, that if the small steps cannot be established because of the huge "leaps" required on the microscopic scale, then the "large" leaps cannot be made either by natural processes alone, since they are supposedly constructed from numerous small steps. (for more on Behe and common ancestry, see

The next, and most serious issue I have with Kazim's review, is his analysis of Behe's use of technical language. Kazim make comments such as the following:

But interspersed with these obnoxiously simplistic passages, there are plenty of passages stuffed full of dense, unreadable technical language . . . This leads me to wonder: who is Behe's intended audience? . . . In fact, it looks to me like he actually wants most readers to skip over the technical stuff.

There's no mystery as to why Behe includes the details, or what he feels it accomplishes. He explained it in the preface. After giving several examples of the hassle of following detailed instructions, like in putting a "some assembly required" toy together, or programming a VCR (this was 1996), he admits:

Unfortunately, much of biochemistry is like an instruction booklet, in the sense that the importance is in the details . . . So, as a writer who wants people to read my work, I face a dilemma:
people hate to read details, yet the story of the impact of biochemistry on evolutionary theory rests solely in the details. Therefore I have to write the kind of book people don't like to read in order to persuade them of the ideas that push me to write. Nonetheless, complexity must be experienced to be appreciated. So, gentle reader, I beg your patience; there are going to be a lot of details in this book.

Behe encourages the reader to deal with the technical stuff the best they can, whether to "plow through", or "skim", even "skip parts, then return when they're ready to absorb more." You don't need to have a degree in biochemistry to get the point of the highly technical descriptions of the mechanics of sight, for example. In fact, it is in grappling with the details (and I am no more qualified than Kazim to decipher them) that the most important "take home" of the book is discovered.

What is the point, you ask? Kazim's quote of Behe here alludes to it:

Cleverly, Darwin didn't try to discover a real pathway that evolution might have used to make the eye. Rather, he pointed to modern animals with different kinds of eyes (ranging from the simple to the complex) and suggested that the evolution of the human eye might have involved similar organs as intermediates.

In other words, Darwin, because he could not possibly understand the inner workings of the cell in his day, appealed to "butte hop" [my term] scientific explanation. And evolutionary biologist to this day appeal to the very same type of "explanation" of things. Behe goes to the trouble of providing the detailed biochemical descriptions he does to show that now, in this day and age, our understanding of the inner workings of the cell render them black boxes no longer. Science has triumphed in its quest to open the box, and we can now describe in great detail the molecular machines we find inside. Now that we have to ability to describe the inner workings of the cell at the molecular level, "butte hop" explanations of evolution are no longer acceptable . . . we must have explanations that deal in details of the changes that have been asserted that evolution made. Behe's technical descriptions provide the model for what an explanation *should* look like in the 21st century.

And the contrast between the detail Behe covers for the various systems he deals with, and the utter lack of detail in "evolutionary explanations" is stark. Typical of such explanations in evolutionary biology are the "A -> B -> C -> D" explanation, where hypothetical variables are used in place of actual proteins or other biomolecules. The problem of course is that talk is cheap . . . it's easy to propose hypotheticals. But when you are forced to provide actual chemical names, then you are also forced to come up with real chemical reactions that get you from A to B and so on. Nobody does this.

The importance of detailed explanations is one of the main points of the book. I can't understand why Kazim glosses over this and actually criticizes Behe for providing too much detail. But he's in good company . . . many of the major opponents of ID do the very same thing.

The next topic Kazim addresses is whether or not the things Behe calls IC are really irreducible.

Since the "irreducibly complex" (IC) nature of these particular systems has already been addressed very capably on other sites,

Yes, they attempt to answer Behe, but what is conspicuous in their rebuttals is the absence of the kind of detail Behe is calling for. Once you've read Darwin's Black Box, and really wrestle with the technical details, you will be able to see immediately whether the author is actually addressing Behe's argument, or simply offering more of the same old same old.

[Here's a site, for a change, that provides great insight into one the so-called IC structures, the flagellum: ]

The last section of Kazim's review deals with various emotional and rhetorical appeals. Note that none of the arguments address Behe's claims directly, or provide any detailed biochemical descriptions.

I want to address Behe's overall concept of IC as the test for design. In its simplest form, the argument runs like this: Consider a system X that has dependent parts A and B. If you remove part A, then X will cease to function. If you remove part B, then X will also cease to function. Since either A or B must have evolved first, it stands to reason that at some point, X must have existed without one or the other. The resulting system would be useless. Therefore, it cannot have evolved in steps. It must be designed.

To really emphasize how silly the argument is, let's suppose that "X" = "The human body", "A" = "head", and "B" = "torso". Logically, the IC argument means "If the human body evolved, then at some point in history it must have been either a blundering torso with no head, or a disembodied head with no torso. How preposterous! Neither of those could survive! Since there cannot be a head with no torso or a torso with no head, God must have planned the head AND the torso to work together from the beginning!"

Kazims analogy is a non-starter, since Behe deals with the molecular level, with complex biochemical systems, where he claims design can be detected. He does not claim that design can be detected at the level of "heads" and "torsos".

Obviously no one would bother denying that there are a great many complex systems that exist in living organisms. That is exactly why the theory of evolution exists: because it explains the very complexity we observe, better and more thoroughly than any other concept proposed. Does evolution also explain complex chemical compounds such as those that make up the cell? Almost certainly, according to the theory of auto-catalytic cycles proposed by Stuart Kauffman and others.
According to this principle, a large enough variety of chemicals may be almost guaranteed to produce complex systems that continue to create more copies of themselves. It also shouldn't be overlooked that prokaryotic (simple) cells had about a 2.8 billion year headstart on evolution before the first eukaryotic (complex) cells arrived on earth. That's more than twice as long as the rest of all evolutionary history.

Kaufman is an interesting example, a brilliant man who nonetheless has been accused of practicing "fact-free science" by none other than John Maynard Smith. Kaufman's theory is fascinating, but I wonder if he offers any chemical details. He didn't in his earlier book. Evolution can't "explain complex chemical compounds such as those that make up the cell", despite what Kazim claims for it.

Designers transfer parts from one invention to another easily, but that just doesn't happen in nature, as far as we've observed. Far from being a problem with evolution, this is one of the ways that evolution has been confirmed. The theory predicts that no such borrowing of spare parts will occur. Different animals can receive the same feature from a common ancestor, or they can separately evolve apparently similar body parts. But they cannot transfer precise information across the family tree if the common ancestor didn't have that information.

This is wrong on several levels. In fact, Behe discusses the work of Lynn Margulis starting on page 188. She suggested that the cell's mitochondrion was once a free-living organism that got incorporated into a larger cell.

It is, however, a complete red herring. From "some genes can be designed" Behe makes the logical leap to "all genes were designed." This is like saying that because some vegetables are grown by farmers, it logically follows that ALL vegetables are grown by farmers, and none of them grown in the wild.

I could not find anywhere Behe says all genes were designed. Maybe this is just a bit of hyperbole on Kazim's part. Behe's point was that we know intelligent agents can design genes . . . because we are intelligent agents. What we don't know is if large evolutionary leaps can be made by natural processes.

Either present evidence that such a universal gene-tinkerer exists, or just acknowledge the fact that natural explanations are all we have to go on at this time.

A design inference does not depend on the designer existing now or being identified. Either a complex biochemical system has the marks of design, or it doesn't. SETI researchers will know if they detect an intelligently-crafted message or not by its features, not by knowing who sent it. Crime-scene investigator know a crime's been committed by the evidence . . . not by knowing immediately (or ever) who done it.

So to get rid of these tiny black boxes, Behe just creates the biggest black box of all out of nothing.

Hardly. Behe instead gets rid of the tiny black boxes by showing how science has opened them, and by letting everyone see what's inside. They aren't black boxes anymore because they've been explained by hard-working scientist in the trenches for decades, and explained in great detail .

The kind of detail modern evolutionary biology needs to put up.

Print the post  


What was Your Dumbest Investment?
Share it with us -- and learn from others' stories of flubs.
When Life Gives You Lemons
We all have had hardships and made poor decisions. The important thing is how we respond and grow. Read the story of a Fool who started from nothing, and looks to gain everything.
Contact Us
Contact Customer Service and other Fool departments here.
Work for Fools?
Winner of the Washingtonian great places to work, and Glassdoor #1 Company to Work For 2015! Have access to all of TMF's online and email products for FREE, and be paid for your contributions to TMF! Click the link and start your Fool career.