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.