Overwhelmingly Complex!

The next two scientists profiled in Tim Stafford’s book the adam quest favor intelligent design. Unlike those who support young earth creation, neither Michael Behe nor Fazale Rana base their approach to evolution and the age of the earth on a specific interpretation of Scripture. Theology may play a role, but it also is not the dominating factor in the positions these two men take. Neither of them doubt the evidence for the age of the earth or the gradual progression of the diversity of life from simpler to more complex. Both of them question the sufficiency of natural selection or “blind chance” to achieve the phenomenal complexity of the living cell.

Michael Behe, Professor of Biochemistry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, is best known for his two books Darwin’s Black Box first published in 1996 and The Edge of Evolution published in 2007. Behe isn’t really interested in refuting evolution, but he is interested in mechanism:

The exploding knowledge that he and other scientists were gaining revealed an astonishingly complex machine – complex enough to make a watch seem downright simple. How could such a thing come into being through just the chance collision of molecules? “I looked for explanations or partial explanations in the journals and found nothing. I found [genome] sequence comparisons only. I wanted to know mechanisms.” (p. 69)

Eventually (and after meeting Phillip Johnson through Darwin on Trial) Behe developed his ideas and wrote Darwin’s Black Box. This wasn’t a stealth operation – he was open with his colleagues about his ideas and his book, making copies of the proofs available before publication. Although his ideas did not win broad acceptance, they also did not excite much controversy … until five or six years later, when the ID movement became a culture war. According to Stafford “Johnson thought believers should submerge their differences in order to battle a common enemy, atheistic science” (p. 77) Evolution became the battle line. Young earth, old earth progressive creation, or even Behe’s brand of ID challenging only the random blindness of the mechanism, stood on one side and the atheistic world on the other.

It is unfortunate that Behe’s brand of intelligent design got caught up in this culture war. The strengths and weaknesses of his ideas have the potential to push scientists to think harder about the mechanisms of evolution. His second book The Edge of Evolution tries to explore the potential limits of proposed evolutionary mechanisms.

It attempts to estimate the kinds of change that Darwinian evolution – which Behe accepts as real – can effect and find the “edge” beyond which unguided evolution cannot go. (p. 81)

Behe’s concern is not evolution, for he accepts that all life is related and that organisms developed gradually from one another. His concern is what he calls Darwinism, which he identifies with unplanned, unguided development. “Darwin’s claim to fame was that [evolution] needed no teleology, no guidance, just like the wind blowing here and there filtered by natural selection. … That’s the heart of Darwinism, and the only interesting part, as far as I am concerned. (p. 83)

To date Behe’s arguments have not stood up well to legitimate scientific criticism (much of the criticism seems to have snagged on the culture war aspect and failed to engage with his arguments – this is not legitimate scientific criticism) – but he has pushed scientists to structure arguments in a more rigorous fashion and to think harder about mechanism.

Fazale Rana received a Ph. D. in biochemistry and focuses, like Dr. Behe, on the complexity of life. After a postdoc and some time in industrial research, Rana joined Reasons to Believe – his expertise in biochemistry complementing founder Hugh Ross’s expertise in astronomy and physics.

Rana agrees with Behe that the cell is irreducibly complex, but he would use that positively. Irreducible complexity is a typical characteristic of designed systems. Whenever you see it, you can rightly suspect that the system may have been designed. It’s not a slam-dunk proof of the kind Behe attempts; rather it’s “pattern recognition.” (p. 97)

Stafford outlines a few of Rana’s key ideas. “Much as lab scientists might manipulate a chemical environment to form something new, so God designs new life through creating conditions such that it can emerge.” (p. 98) Even the ability to create life in the lab – if such a process is ever developed (Rana thinks it possible) – points to a creator. “It’s a design argument. New life requires a designer. There’s no way the lab conditions could be done on planet Earth. Scientists set up conditions so that chemistry happens. They manipulate nature in a very precise way.” (p. 100) Reasons to Believe (i.e. Ross, Rana and their colleagues), “emphasizes the design-made aspects of creation and doubts the adequacy of unguided evolution to leap the stairs of increased complexity required to produce life.” (p. 100)

Contrary to the confrontational culture war approach taken by the Discovery Institute, Rana and Ross “see themselves as missionaries to the science community, they want to speak in the language of science.” Intelligent design is not pushed as an alternative to science – but as an idea worth careful consideration as we study and understand the patterns found in the world around us.

What do you think of the approach taken by Michael Behe and Fazale Rana?

Is intelligent design a useful idea? What role, if any, could it play in science?

My take on this – the culture war approach such as that taken by Phillip Johnson and the Discovery Institute has driven a wedge, but not where and how they hoped.The antagonistic and combative tone has eliminated, or at least greatly hindered the open discussion of ideas. Evolution is a lousy place to put the battle line between faith and atheism. Our faith does not depend on the accuracy or inaccuracy of evolutionary theories and cannot be undermined by new evidence.

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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