065 Darwin’s Black Box

“As we reach the end of this book,” says Michael Behe in Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: The Free Press, c. 1996), “we are left with no substantive defense against what feels to be a strange conclusion: that life was designed by an intelligent agent” (p. 252). He says this on the basis of his study of biochemistry, a knowledge of the intricacies of molecular life, the actual basis of life on planet earth. There’s more to living organisms than meets the eye! Tiny cells are in fact complex factories, dependent upon intricately-designed parts which work together in bewilderingly coordinated ways.

This complexity shines in the inner mechanism of the molecules which build cells. The “the most important parts of living things are too small to be seen” (p. 4) without powerful microscopes, X-ray crystallography, and the sophisticated technology now used in modern biochemistry. Interestingly enough, the reams of materials defending Darwinism avoid the deepest of all questions: how did complex molecules, the very basis of life, evolve? In Behe’s judgment, “Although Darwin’s mechanism–natural selection working on variation–might explain many things, however, I do not believe it explains molecular life” (p. 5).

Heretofore biologists have discussed evolution in terms of the whole animal or plant. Simple comparisons of hoofs and heads, slick generalizations concerning the gradual transition from one life form to another, seemed plausible. Thus they glibly slid over substantive questions concerning such organisms as the eye. Darwin simply pointed out non-human creatures which had simpler eyes and jumped to the conclusion that in long periods of time different kinds of eyes evolved. How a nerve cell became sensitive to light in the first place didn’t concern him. “To Darwin, vision was a black box” (p. 18) beyond comprehension.

That black box is now open, however. Biochemists know it is inadequate to simplistically compare the “anatomical structures of whole eyes,” as Darwin’s popularizers still do. Behe then demonstrates the incredible irreducible complexity of the “biochemistry of vision,” proving it unlikely that eyes could have evolved through natural selection. The positions of Darwinians such as Richard Dawkins “fail because they never discuss what is contained in the systems over which they are arguing. Not only is the eye exceedingly complex, but the ‘light-sensitive spot’ with which Dawkins begins his case is itself a multicelled organ, each of whose cells makes the complexity of a motorcycle or television set look paltry in comparison” (pp. 46-47).

To make his case, Behe provides us, in three central chapters, a careful discussion of such things as proteins, cilium, blood, antibodies, etc. The discussion is technical enough to satisfy scientists, clearly illustrated enough to enable non-scientists such as myself to follow the argument. Behe has a real talent for constructing analogies, enabling the reader to envision the items discussed. Again and again he shows how an “irreducible complexity” at the very simplest level of life makes the Darwinian hypothesis doubtful.

Dissuaded from Darwinism, Behe considers other options as explanations for the presence of life on the planet. Positions suggested by eminent thinkers such as Lynn Margulis and Stuart Kauffman seem incapable of answering the real questions. In Behe’s judgment: “There is an elephant in the roomful of scientists who are trying to explain the development of life. The elephant is labeled ‘intelligent design.’ To a person who does not feel obliged to restrict his search to unintelligent causes, the straight forward conclusion is that many biochemical systems were designed. They were designed not by the laws of nature, not by chance and necessity rather they were planned. The designer knew what the systems would look like when they were completed, then took steps to bring the systems about. Life on earth at its most fundamental level, in its most critical components, is the product of intelligent activity” (p. 193).

Old Paley’s Natural Theology, with its famous suggestion that a complicated watch, if examined, leads one to assume a skilled watchmaker designed it, was not all that wrong-headed! Indeed, it’s Richard Dawkin’s The Blind Watchmaker, designed to scoff at Paley, that is obviously flawed! In fact, Behe says, Paley’s point was never actually refuted. “Neither Darwin nor Dawkins, neither science nor philosophy, has explained how an irreducibly complex system such as a watch might be produced without a designer” (p. 213). The core of Paley’s position, shared by Behe, is this: “intelligent design for physically interacting systems rests on the observation of highly specified, irreducible complexity–the ordering of separate, well-fitted components to achieve a function that is beyond any of the components themselves” (p. 223).

Thus: “The result of these cumulative efforts to investigate the cell–to investigate life at the molecular level–is a loud, clear, piercing cry of ‘design!’ The result is so unambiguous and so significant that it must be ranked as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science” (p. 232-233). That the scientific community has not enthusiastically embraced the evidence of design can be attributed to a single reservation: God. To admit to intelligence in the cosmos leads to an acknowledgement, however slight and indirect, of a Creator who designed the cosmos.

This is one of the finest recent books questioning Darwinian dogma. Though Behe is a Roman Catholic, a professor at Lehigh University, he makes no effort to push his science into a specifically theological shelf. He acknowledges the truth of “evolution” wherever it is scientifically demonstrated, and clearly dissociates himself from the “young earth” creationists. He does, however, persuasively show how molecular design cannot but suggest a Designer, and Christians who believe God created the world will find in his work must evidence supporting their faith.

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A decade ago an Australian researcher, Michael Denton, anticipated many of Behe’s critiques in Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (New York: Adler and Adler). He begins with an assessment of Darwinism’s revolutionary impact: “The triumph of evolution meant the end of the traditional belief in the world as a purposeful created order–the so-called teleological outlook which had been predominant in the western world for two millennia” (p. 15). Darwinism drove God from creation and effectively established a fundamentally secular society.

In Denton’s judgment: “Despite the attempt by liberal theology to disguise the point, the fact is that no biblically derived religion can really be compromised with the fundamental assertion of Darwinian theory. Chance and design are antithetical concepts, and the decline in religious belief can probably be attributed more to the propagation and advocacy by the intellectual and scientific community of the Darwinian version of evolution than to any other single factor” (p. 66).

Denton effectively traces the emergence of evolutionary thought, rooted in the pre-Socratic philosophers, helped along by the doctrines of Hume and Malthus. In Darwin’s hands, the development of life was reduced to “the fortuitous outcome of an entirely blind random process–a giant lottery” (p. 43). This, the “general theory” of Darwin, not the notion of “evolution of some sort, was truly radical. The main problem with his theory, as Darwin confessed, was the lack of empirical evidence! In his words, “‘The distinctness of specific forms and their not being blended together by innumerable transitional links is a very obvious difficulty'” (p. 56). Thus he resorted to phrases such as “we must believe” until hard data is found.

That absence of data explains the opposition to Darwin expressed by eminent 19th century scientists such as Louis Agassiz, the reigning expert on fossils. The same reason explains the numbers of scientists who today still find the hypothesis flawed. It is, most probably, a “partial truth,” not the whole truth. Despite the hyperbole of Darwinians such as Richard Dawkins, who says “The theory is about as much in doubt as the earth goes round the sun,” there is in fact much doubt!

Denton proceeds to explore some of the non-Darwinian, alternative understandings of biological history and development. Especially impressive are the disciplines of topology, classification, taxonomy, cladistics. Looking for patterns in nature, as it actually is, leads scientists to distinct, orderly, hierarchical models. Such disciplines envision species as “sisters or cousins but never as ancestors and descendents” (p. 132) so that thinkers such as Agassiz thought of evolution as “the creative derivation of all members of a class from the hypothetical archetype which existed in the mind of God” (p. 132).

Contemporary cladists simply make “explicit a fact enshrined in classification schemes ever since Aristotle but which has lain dormant for most of the past century–that in the final analysis is nature’s order is not sequential” (p. 140). Indeed: “Despite more than a century of intensive effort on the part of evolutionary biologists, the major objections raised by Darwin’s critics such as Agassiz, Pictet, Bronn and Richard Owen have not been met” (p. 345).

Typical flaws in Darwinism are surveyed. It doesn’t adequately account for such complex phenomena as bird feathers and lungs, carnivorous plants or fleas, much less bacteria and molecules. “Instead of revealing a multitude of transitional forms through which the evolution of the cell might have occurred, molecular biology has served only to emphasize the enormity of the gap” (p. 249). So “We now know not only of the existence of a break between the living and non-living world, but also that it represents the most dramatic and fundamental of all discontinuities of nature” (p. 249). Continuities reside man’s mind rather in nature.

Denton shares Behe’s wonder at the tiny bacterial cells, each of which is “a veritable micro-miniaturized factory containing thousands of exquisitely designed pieces of intricate molecular machinery, made up altogether of one hundred thousand million atoms, far more complicated than any machine built by man and absolutely without parallel in the non-living world” (p. 250). The very simplest living organism are anything but simple!

The fossils pose problems for orthodox Darwinists and their commitment to the uniformitarian faith. Darwin himself worried about the lack of fossil evidence, but he trusted more investigation would validate his theory. In fact, the missing links, connecting orders, classes, and phyla are as missing now as they were in Darwin’s day.

A distinguished paleontologist, Niles Eldredge (quoted by Behe) indicates why “‘paleontologists shied away from evolution for so long. It never seems to happen. Assiduous collecting up cliff faces yields zigzags, minor oscillations, and the very occasional slight accumulation of change–over millions of years, at a rate too slow to account for all the prodigious change that has occurred in evolutionary history. When we do see the introduction of evolutionary novelty, it usually shows up with a bang, and often with no firm evidence that the fossils did not evolve elsewhere! Evolution cannot be forever be going on somewhere else. Yet that’s how the fossil record has struck many a forlorn paleontologist looking to learn something about evolution'” (p. 27).

What does seem evident to Denton is design, most persuasively demonstrated by biochemistry’s unveiling of cells and ribosomes and molecules, which are shaped by DNA and RNA, with their information-bearing majesty, suggest intelligence at the most basic level of life. These tiny factories, so intricately designed, so efficient in operation, cannot be impress observers.

To Denton, “The eerie artefact-like character of life and the analogy with our own advanced machines has an important philosophical consequence, for it provides the means for a powerful reformulation of the old analogical argument to design which ha been one of the basic creationist arguments used throughout western history–going back to Aristotle and presented in its classic form by William Paley in his famous watch-to-watchmaker discourse” (p. 339). So Denton and Behe agree: Paley was right! “Paley was not only right in asserting the existence of an analogy between life and machines, but was also remarkably prophetic in guessing that the technological ingenuity realized in living systems is vastly in excess of anything yet accomplished by man” (p. 341).

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The books by Denton and Behe make no theological claims. They mainly point to problems with Darwinism. For a specifically Christian discussion, Alan Hayward’s Creation and Evolution (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, c. 1985) has recently been reprinted, and provides a balanced appraisal of both science and religion, evolution and scripture.

First off, Hayward samples the growing chorus of scientific objections to orthodox Darwinism. He begins with the story of what happened when the British Natural History Museum, presenting an exhibition devoted to Darwinism, referred to it as “one possible explanation.” The other view, they said, attributed creation to God. Though the museum scientists were severely criticized for daring question Darwinism, they defended their position, insisting “‘We have no absolute proof of the theory of evolution'” (p. 14). Such open-mindedness, Hayward says, would have been unthinkable a generation earlier. There’s a “wind of change” blowing through the biological guild.

Cladists, determined to deal solely with the facts of the living world, not evolutionary theory, openly challenge some Darwinist notions, setting forth a classification system much like that of non-Darwinian 19th century biologists.

World-class biologists in France have more frequently dissented from Darwin than their counterparts in England and America. Thus Pierre Gavaudan dismissed neo-Darwinism as an “ingenious romance,” a pleasing fiction. Pierre-Paul Grasse, a French zoologist, generally considered one the greatest of his generation in Europe, sought to “destroy the myth of evolution,” which utterly failed to explain, for example, why bacteria have failed to evolve for millions of years.

To Grasse, the Darwinian explanation for the eye’s evolution defies reason. He said “there is a better chance that dust blown by the wind might have produced Durer’s ‘Melancholia’ (a great sixteenth-century engraving) than that the eye was the result of copying errors in the gene” (p. 27). He labeled Darwinism a “pseudoscience” which surreptitiously relies on miracles and routinely cites only those facts which substantiate the theory.

Add to French biologists some of the world’s finest mathematicians. If Darwin is right, evolution takes place gradually, over a long period of time. Such progressive change would have mathematical precision. When Sir Fred Hoyle, a Nobel Prize winning astronomer (an agnostic and evolutionist) calculated the possibility of simple enzymes emerging to form the basis of life, he came up with the improbable number one in 10 raised to the 20th power. For the 2,000 enzymes needed for a cell to evolve, the possibility jumps from one in 10 raised to the 40,000th power! In other words, there is no mathematical chance for evolution-by-chance! Hoyle’s colleague, the mathematician Chjandra Wickramasinghe, sums it up: “‘The chances that life just occurred on earth are about as unlikely as a typhoon blowing through a junkyard and constructing a Boeing 747′” (p. 36).

Critics such as Francis Hitching focus on the fossil record. “‘The curious thing,'” he says, “is that there is a consistency about the fossil gaps: the fossils go missing in all the important places‘” (p. 42). Especially missing are “major transitional’ fossils. No fish slipping into amphibians, no reptiles turning mammalian! This is acknowledged by eminent neo-Darwinists such as Stephen Jay Gould, who says that “‘For millions of years species remain unchanged in the fossil record, and they then abruptly disappear, to be replaced by something that is substantially different but clearly related'” (p. 18).

Thus Hoyle and Wickramasinghe invoke Paley. As Wickramasinghe says: “‘It is ironic that the scientific facts throw Darwin out, but leave William Paley, a figure of fun to the scientific world for more than a century, still in the tournament with a chance of being the ultimate winner'” (p 54). Design, not chance, best explains the evidence. Paul Davies, a prominent physicist, religiously agnostic, says: “The temptation to believe that the Universe is the product of some sort of design, a manifestation of subtle aesthetic and mathematical judgement, is overwhelming. The belief that there is ‘something behind it all’ is one that I share with, I suspect, a majority of physicists. This rather diffuse feeling could, I suppose be termed theism in its wisest sense'” (p. 201).

After citing various critics of Darwin–and trying to deal with them as fairly and judiciously as possible–Hayward turns to creationism. Here he finds much to be desired! By and large “creationism” means the young earth “Creation Science” espoused by a few recent-creationists. Looking at sedimentary rocks, astronomical data, “flood geology,” etc., Hayward dismisses much that marches to the “creationist” band. It’s both bad science and flawed biblical exegesis. The very label, “Creation Science,” should never have been adopted,

After considering various interpretative strategies, Hayward argues for an “ancient earth” created in successive “Days of Fiat.” The “days” referred to in Genesis are the brief time periods when God spoke–then long periods of time follow, when His words shape the world. Interestingly enough, the original King James Version indicated that the Genesis account mixes declarations and parenthetical expressions: following each “God said” there is an explanatory passage indicating it was done.

Repunctuating Genesis 1 enables Hayward to build his case. God created. But He created by speaking, at appropriate moments, over long epochs of time. Thus the antiquity of the earth need not discount the veracity of the biblical account. As Christians, we can believe the Genesis account as fully inspired. As scientifically-informed persons, if not scientists, we need not believe Darwinian dogma. Ancient Creationism, Hayward believes, “is a position of strength, because it accepts both the teaching of the Scripture and the facts of science. And it is a position of love, because it avoids giving needless offence to scientists and Bible-believers alike” (p. 205).

He concludes his book with the statement of physicist Sir William Bragg: “‘Religion and science are opposed . . . but only in the same sense as that in which my thumb and forefinger are opposed–and between the two, one can grasp everything'” (p. 207).