The Devil Is in the Details

A Bethlehem professor argues for the presence of God in biology.

By Angela Valdez
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 22, 2004

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Michael Behe is a nice man. He's short with a wreath of gray-white hair surrounding his pale head, and sparkling eyes that blink behind tortoise shell glasses.

Shuffling around his office in brown suede oxfords and jeans, he gives no hint of the power he wields or the fear he inspires in liberals. He explains his beef with evolutionary biology using the rhetoric of biochemistry, a field in which he's an acknowledged authority.

From his laboratory computer at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., Behe fires off academic salvos on behalf of a group of philosophers and mavericks who call their movement intelligent design (ID). They believe life on earth, like any piece of brilliant machinery, is so complex that it must have been planned. A tenured professor, Behe also teaches biochemistry courses and a seminar called Popular Arguments of Evolution.

"I do believe in God, and I believed in God when I thought Darwinian evolution was true," he says. He thinks scientists are the ones making unscientific assumptions by insisting God doesn't exist.

Behe's ascendance mirrors a recent swell of activity among a handful of small communities across the United States that have taken steps to welcome intelligent design into public schools. Last Tuesday the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Dover, Pa., school district, which added intelligent design to the ninth-grade biology curriculum in October. Other flirtations with ID have flared in Cobb County, Ga., and Grantsburg, Wis.

Behe says the indignation that drives his crusade stems from his faith in science and his frustration with scientists' refusal to address problems with the theory of evolution. There are signs that faith also plays a major role.

In his first book, 1996's Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, Behe aimed to poke holes in our supposedly blind trust of a century-old idea. Never mind for now that his critiques of evolution crumbled at the touch of real science. At the time researchers were impressed with the concessions Behe made to evolution and his impressive scientific vocabulary.

"He's the only kind of respectable figure in the ID movement," says Nick Matzke of the National Center for Science Education. "Most of the other major intelligent design people, their degrees are in philosophy and law. That's kind of why he got in the door."

Behe's newest research, Matzke says, edges closer to mainstream creationism. He still acknowledges the big bang and common descent, and agrees that natural selection explains certain changes, like the development of antibiotic resistance. But now, in addition to denying the evolution of biochemical machines like the system that causes blood clotting, Behe rejects the evolution of the genes and of the proteins that make up those very systems.

Raised in a Roman Catholic family and schooled by nuns in Harrisburg, Behe, 52, grew up believing in evolution. He remained a devout Catholic throughout graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1985, with a new tenure-track professorship at Lehigh, Behe researched nucleic acid structure and DNA protein interaction. Then he came across biologist Michael Denton's 1985 book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis.

"I kinda got a little bit angry," he says, "because I'd been led to believe in Darwinian evolution ... not because the facts insisted on it but because it was something I was expected to believe."

Behe tells this story from his office, where it's hard not to notice the pictures of Laura and George W. Bush and the Reagans, along with a conspicuous wooden cross. There are also framed photos of his wife and nine children alongside poems by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Behe eventually aligned with ID's powerful backers at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit that supports conservative research.

Behe made his contribution with the concept of irreducible complexity, which contends that certain systems are so intricate they can't function without one of their many interdependent parts. The step-by-step process of mutation and selection, he says, can't account for the construction of a structure that has no purpose until all the parts are in place.

To make his point Behe stands on his toes and gropes around on the top of a cabinet for a rat trap and a bag of mousetraps. Holding the largest machine, he identifies the component parts. "If you take away any one of the parts, it's broken," he says. "It's not going to work at all. A lot of things in the cell are a lot like the mousetrap."

Behe's molecular example is the bacterial flagellum--basically an outboard motor that propels certain bacteria through water. The flagellum is composed of proteins that play different roles in making the tiny cellular motor work. Like the trap, E. coli wouldn't get very far with part of its motor missing.

Biologist Kenneth R. Miller of Brown University says Behe, whom he often faces in debates, is dead wrong. The elements of life (from parts of the flagella to ear bones) often serve intermediate purposes before new systems evolve. "Even if you take the very biochemical machines that [Behe describes] ... " Miller says, "you discover that they're composed of parts that do have functions." To use Behe's example of the mousetrap, the spring and bar might have functioned as a paperclip before the board came along to help catch mice.

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, points out a more fundamental flaw in intelligent design, which assumes that complexity can be explained only by the presence of a designer.

"That's a negative argument," she says. "We don't have an explanation for X, therefore X is explained by Y." She says there's no scientific research about the existence of a designer.

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