(Posted by Shannon Lise on April 05, 2012)
In Darwin’s Black Box, biochemist Michael Behe takes the theory of evolution to a molecular level, setting out to establish whether or not the origin of certain complex biochemical systems can be explained in terms of Darwinian evolution, natural selection, random variation, and gradualism. His findings are remarkable.
Starting out with detailed examination of the functions of several different all-important biochemical systems, (including cilium, antibodies, the immune system, protein transport systems, and blood-clotting), Behe explains how every cellular process is initiated and controlled by highly sophisticated, finely calibrated molecular machines. He then goes on to demonstrate why the inherent complexity of many of these systems is indeed irreducible. Illustrated with brilliant analogies, his expositions are not only meticulously accurate, but also entertaining and readable.
An irreducibly complex system is one with no functional physical precursors. Irreducible complexity on a macroscopic scale has been featured in many scientific discussions and many people are familiar with Darwin’s classic explanations of how complex structures such as the eye might have gradually evolved. But Darwin’s explanations are only addressed to a macro-level of anatomical steps and structures that Darwin believed were simple, but which we now know are not, thanks to improved technology. Our knowledge of the workings of microscopic biochemical systems is greatly increased, but the theory no longer matches the data, and no new explanations reconciling gradualism with molecular complexity are forthcoming. Instead, questions about molecular evolution are faced with a complete lack of relevant scientific literature on the topic and condescending silence on the part of the scientific community.
Maintaining scrupulous objectivity, Behe goes on to discuss the theory of intelligent design, which is based on the assumption that if a biological system was not produced gradually, it must have arisen as an integrated unit - it must have been designed. Analyzing the scientific community’s overwhelmingly negative reaction to a discovery that is as groundbreaking as the quantum revolution, it cannot be denied that the tension surrounding the theory of intelligent design has its roots in the supernatural ramifications of the theory. However, while historical antagonism between science and religion is regrettable, it must not be allowed to color our thinking and influence our willingness to follow the observational data wherever it leads. Science is a vigorous attempt to make true statements about the physical world, and a priori philosophical commitment puts artificial restrictions on legitimate scientific inquiry. Insisting that the behavior of the universe can be explained through purely material causes is scientific chauvinism. As Behe aptly states:
‘The philosophical commitment of some people to the principle that nothing beyond nature exists should not be allowed to interfere with a theory that flows naturally from observable scientific data. The rights of those people to avoid a supernatural conclusion should be scrupulously respected, but their aversion should not be determinative.’
Ultimately, no scientific theory can compel belief in a specific worldview, whether it is atheism, Christianity, or Buddhism, and there is no reason to be afraid that it will. We must give everyone broad latitude for their beliefs. People must be free to choose their own defining philosophical principles. But when Richard Dawkins insists that anyone who denies evolution is ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked, when John Maddox predicts that religion will soon have to be regarded as anti-science, when Daniel Dennett compares religious people to wild animals who may have to be caged, then we have reason to fear that aggressive intolerance will lead to coercion as people try to force their convictions on other people in the name of science.
When it comes to intelligent design, it is worth pointing out that the scientific community faced a very similar situation not too long ago. Until about eighty years ago, scientists believed in a stationary universe that was eternal and infinite. The idea of a finite universe that expands and had a beginning was extremely repulsive to many people, partly because it appeared to be friendly towards the Judeo-Christian creation account. Einstein hated the idea so much that he manipulated his equations in order to make them predict a stable universe. In the end, the observational data won out, and the Big Bang model succeeded. Today, intelligent design is in the same predicament. But as the weight of the scientific evidence shifts dramatically, we would do well to keep up with it. According to Behe:
‘A rigorous theory of intelligent design will be a useful tool for the advancement of science in an area that has been moribund for decades.’