Darwin's Black Box

17 April 2006

Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box is a seminal work that jump-started the current “Intelligent Design” movement in academia. Although widely criticized and even ridiculed, such scorn is undeserved. Behe provides a fascinating contribution to the origins debate.

Behe’s central idea is that many molecular structures are irreducibly complex, so that by taking away one component, the entire system utterly fails to accomplish its task. He contends that irreducibly complex structures, or molecular machines, are particularly difficult to account for by means of Darwinian evolution, since evolution proceeds via natural selection of small changes which must confer an advantage to the organism. Yet, in the same way that a mousetrap is useless without a catch, the molecular machines Behe discusses are useless without certain key components. But, if multiple components are needed in order to provide a selective advantage to an organism, then it seems unlikely that gradual Darwinian evolution could account for such machines.

Contrary to popular opinion, Behe does not claim to prove that it is impossible for Darwinian evolution to account for irreducible complexity. Rather, his argument is an inductive one- and the more complex an irreducible machine is, the more evidence that it was designed. Moreover, his argument does not appeal to ignorance of a known evolutionary pathway. His argument combines a theoretical difficulty for Darwinian evolution (i.e., how to account for irreducibly complex structures) with an appeal to design. Since we readily recognize design in our everyday lives (take Mount Rushmore, or Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, for example), it is valid to infer a designer based on reasonable criteria. Although Darwin’s Black Box does discuss this, work by other scientists, particularly William Dembski, has substantiated the argument by providing rigorous criterion for design detection.

Behe’s discussion is necessarily complex, but his writing is also surprisingly accessible. He conveniently sections off areas of discussion which are particularly complicated. Therefore, Behe’s work appeals to a wide audience.

But is the argument cogent? Does Darwin’s Black Box effectively undermine Darwinian evolution and support Intelligent Design. I am persuaded to say that it has, but with a good deal of caution. The debate is currently quite heated, with organizations such as the Discovery Institute and Access Research Network facing severe criticism from the National Academy of Sciences. A growing movement seems to be arising, with a significant number of young scientists jumping on the Intelligent Design movement. While most of the anti-design arguments are transparent philosophical blunders and misconceived emotional tirades, we will see if Darwinians can mount a successful scientific case against the work of Behe and others. Should the Intelligent Design movement break through and establish a strong foothold in academia, it will represent a remarkable change in the current, and lamentable, tendency towards naturalism and scientism that rules the day.


  1. ”...a signficant number of young scientists jumping on the ID movement.”

    Would you amend this review with a list of some leading names or organizations on which you base this aside?

    Oliver Fugate    Sep 2, 08:45 PM    #
  2. Well thats all good and well but intelligent design theorists have failed to simplify the problem. they look for the gaps in the evolutionary theory and say god designed this cos i dont know how it got here. What. Having a theory like this complicates things because you have added an unnecessary element, God. how did he get there. got any theories on that. since crhistians are trying to mess with science, why not go hog wild. prove gods existence before creating nonsensical theories like this (i am speaking of christians in general, not just the author of this article).

    billy mansell    Nov 23, 03:11 PM    #
  3. The main problem with ID is that it is, by nature, a negative hypothosis. Its proponents devote their energies to dispoving Darwinism rather than attempting to prove the existance of a designer. The entire concept seems driven by a refusal to accept logical conjecture based on overwhelming evidence (a skim read of Darwin’s The Origin of Species is enough to appriciate the sheer weight of evidence that supports evolution by natural seclection). When an ID “scientist” provides such extensive evidence for the existance of a designer and a credible hypothisis to explain it ID will diserve its place in the classroom, until then it must be shelved.

    — Markus    Nov 26, 03:52 PM    #
  4. Markus,

    It is a negative hypothesis for naturalist. Since when has a negative hypothesis been untrue? Perhaps there is another idea instead of ID and naturalism. I’d like to hear them if you know any.

    ID’s proponents attempt to disprove Darwin’s mechanism which tries to rule out design. If they don’t refute this mechanism, how could design be inferred? Michael denton, an agnostic had a in-deph critic of evolution which is very enlightening and i would suggest reading it.

    Gil    Dec 17, 12:33 AM    #
  5. ID is plain and simply NOT science. It has been refuted and rejected by the academic science community for two reasons. First, ID violates the very definition of science…natural explanations for natural observations. And second, the supposed “irreducibly complex” structures can easily be explained by natural selection. Please see Ken Miller’s work, a Christian biologist who accepts evolution, and the trial documents from Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, where ID was shown to be religious ideas dressed in scientific language. I accept evolution because it is a well-tested scientific theory explaining volumes of observed and experimental evidence. But that in no way contradicts my belief that God designed the universe. Yet I don’t think my belief in a supernatural designer can in some way be scientifically proven…it is part of my faith.

    Tim Postma    May 4, 10:23 AM    #
  6. “I accept evolution because it is a well-tested scientific theory explaining volumes of observed and experimental evidence. But that in no way contradicts my belief that God designed the universe.”

    To which God do you refer? It couldn’t possibly be the God of the Bible. If evolution from molecules to man is true, then Christianity is a fraud. God’s order of Creation is completely different than evolution. If evolution is true, then Adam didn’t actually exist, there is no original sin, death and suffering have always been a part of our world and didn’t result from sin, the genealogy from Adam to Jesus is fake, and Jesus is not our “brethren redeemer” because He is not descended from Adam, and therefore can not be the savior of all mankind because He (as a man) is not related to every one of us. To put it bluntly, if Genesis isn’t true, then neither is the rest of the Bible.

    Mark    Apr 30, 12:00 PM    #
  7. Heh, the comments here are more fun than the essays themselves.

    I think we’ve seen archetypes of the two kinds of anti-design argument Kyle outlined above.

    The “ID isn’t science because science is naturalistic” argument has always struck me as a bit of a cop-out really.

    sconzey    Jun 3, 03:32 PM    #
  8. “The “ID isn’t science because science is naturalistic” argument has always struck me as a bit of a cop-out really.”

    It’s a redefinition of science, which simply means “knowledge”.

    IF God exists and created everything full and complete as He claims in his Word AND science limits itself to naturalistic explanations of the unobservable, untestable past, then “science” will ALWAYS fail to reach true conclusions where the two are mutually exclusive in areas of geology, biology, astronomy, etc.

    Mark    Dec 26, 07:54 AM    #
  Textile Help