Darwin's Black Box—The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution
Michael J. Behe. 1996. The Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc., New York. 307 pages.
Nature's Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe
Michael J. Denton. 1998. The Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc., New York. 454 pages.
The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities
William Dembski. 1998. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 243 pages.
As you read this article, you are unconsciously engaged in a marvelous process. Photons of light reflecting off the page pass through the cornea of your eye. These small packets of energy focused by the lens onto the retina at the back of the eye trigger a complex series of chemical reactions in the light-sensitive receptors—the rods and cones that make up the retina—which in turn send electrical impulses to the brain. The brain, in a process not understood by science, translates these electrical impulses into a mental picture. Thus you are able to see the shapes of letters and words—words that convey ideas and concepts. Thoughts that once resided in the author's mind can by this means be transmitted to the readers' minds.
The biochemical process involved in our being able to see is one of many processes discussed by Michael J. Behe in his 1996 book, Darwin's Black Box—The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.
For nearly 150 years, scientific thought has been dominated by the philosophy of evolution. The belief that all the wondrous diversity of life can be accounted for by purely naturalistic mechanisms has progressed from eager acceptance on the part of many in the late 1800s to a rigid dogma in the 20th century. It is not that the theory of evolution hasn't been challenged repeatedly; however, those efforts have been rejected most often because they came from religionists, whose fundamental belief in a God with supernatural power is rejected by many scientists as being unscientific. Behe's arguments, based as they are on scientific observation and analysis, cannot be so easily dismissed.
The title of the book comes from the concept of a “black box” “—a device that does something, but whose inner workings are mysterious—sometimes because the workings can't be seen and sometimes because they just aren't comprehensible” (p. 6).
Prior to the development of the microscope, it was possible to see only the large-scale anatomy of living creatures, but because how it all worked wasn't known, the whole organism was in effect a black box. With the invention of the microscope it became possible to see that all organisms were composed of cells, but the cell itself was still a black box. Later, electron microscopes enabled scientists to see subcellular structures within the cell, but how those organelles functioned was another black box. With the advent of X-ray crystallography and other techniques, such as nuclear magnetic resonance, it is now possible to determine the position of each atom within a molecule. The ultimate black box is now open to view.
Behe contends that the arguments for evolution, from the time of Darwin's publication of Origin of the Species in 1859 to the present, are faulty because they are based on generalizations rather than on a precise understanding of the true nature of life at the biochemical level. As stated on page 15 of Behe's book:
"Many people have followed Darwin in proposing that huge changes can be broken down into plausible, small steps over great periods of time. Persuasive evidence to support that position, however, has not been forthcoming. . . . With the advent of modern biochemistry we are now able to look at the rock-bottom level of life. We can now make an informed evaluation of whether the putative small steps required to produce large evolutionary changes can ever get small enough. . . . Biochemistry has pushed Darwin's theory to the limit. It has done so by opening the ultimate black box, the cell, thereby making possible our understanding of how life works. It is the astonishing complexity of subcellular organic structures that has forced the question, 'How could all this have evolved?'”
Michael Behe uses the term “irreducible complexity” to describe his fundamental argument against Darwin's theory of evolution. As Behe explains on page 39 of his book, Darwin himself, in Origin of the Species, pointed out one way in which his theory could be negated: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” Behe defines irreducible complexity as “a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning” (p. 39).
“If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”
He uses a mousetrap as an example of a simple but nevertheless irreducibly complex system. It is composed of only five parts and a few staples; however, each part must be there for the mousetrap to work. Not only do the parts all have to be there, but they have to be of the proper size and placement and they have to have individual properties that make them suitable to fulfill their function within the system. The spring has to be capable of closing the hammer with sufficient force so as to kill a mouse. The base has to be rigid enough to hold the hammer in place once the trap has been set, and so forth.
The problem for evolutionary theory is its inability to explain how all the parts of an irreducibly complex system could have come together simultaneously in the exact configuration needed to fulfill a specific function. If an irreducibly complex system doesn't have all its parts, it will not function. If the system doesn't function, it provides no advantage to the organism; in many cases, without a properly functioning system, the organism would not survive. Therefore all the parts of an irreducibly complex system would have to come into existence at the same time. This means such a system could not be formed by “numerous, successive, slight modifications.” This is exactly the circumstance that Darwin admitted would cause his theory to “absolutely break down.”
In successive chapters, Behe describes in significant technical detail a number of “irreducibly complex” biochemical systems: 1) the cilium by which cells swim and the flagella by which bacteria propel themselves; 2) the process by which blood clots; 3) the system by which cells transport materials from one part of the cell to another; 4) the system by which cells identify foreign material so that it can be attacked and eliminated; and 5) the system by which just one of the building blocks of cells is synthesized. In each case he points out why these systems could not have developed in a gradual, step-by-step process as Darwin's theory would require.
He also assures readers that many more such systems exist, and that Darwin's theory cannot plausibly explain them either: “In chapters 3 to 6 I discussed several irreducibly complex biochemical systems, going into a lot of detail to show why they could not be formed in a gradualistic manner. The detail was necessary so that the reader could understand exactly what the problems are. Because I spent a lot of time on those systems I didn't have time to get on to other biochemical systems, but this does not imply that they are not also problems for Darwinism. Other examples of irreducible complexity abound . . .“ [p. 160].
Life by Design
Before any evolution of life could take place, life itself had to exist. But the origin of life is another huge roadblock to evolution. Behe comments on this and then goes on to point out the absence of experimental proof on the part of those advocating evolution. He states: “In private many scientists admit that science has no explanation for the beginning of life. On the other hand many scientists think that given the origin of life, its subsequent evolution is easy to envision, despite the major difficulties outlined in this book. The reason for this peculiar circumstance is that while chemists try to test origin-of-life scenarios by experiment or calculation, evolutionary biologists make no attempt to test evolutionary scenarios at the molecular level by experiment or calculation” [pp. 172-173].
Behe goes on to criticize Darwinian orthodoxy in the educational setting by noting: “Many students learn from textbooks how to view the world through an evolutionary lens. However, they do not learn how Darwinian evolution might have produced any of the remarkably intricate biochemical systems that those texts describe” (p. 183).
All of this and much more leads to an inescapable inference: “To a person who does not feel obliged to restrict his search to unintelligent causes, the straightforward conclusion is that many biological systems were designed. They were designed not by the laws of nature, not by chance and necessity; rather they were planned. . . . Life on earth at its most fundamental level, in its most critical components, is the product of intelligent activity. The conclusion of intelligent design flows naturally from the data itself—not from sacred books or sectarian beliefs” [p. 193].
Recognizing intelligent design is critical to rejecting evolution's proposition that life was formed by undirected, natural causes. What constitutes design? According to Behe, “design is evident when a number of separate, interacting components are ordered in such a way as to accomplish a function beyond the individual components” (p. 194).
As William Paley explained in Natural Theology, if we stumble across a watch in a field, we know the watch had a designer and a maker because all of its parts are precisely formed to work together for a purpose: to keep time. The same is true of the inner workings of a cell; however, a cell is vastly more complicated and composed of vastly more parts, all working together to sustain and replicate life.
“The result is so unambiguous and so significant that it must be ranked as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science.”
In the concluding pages of his book, Behe bemoans the scientific community's response to the evidence of design in the complexity of the cell and its biochemical systems: “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. . . . The magnitude of the victory, gained at such great cost through sustained effort over the course of decades, would be expected to send champagne corks flying in labs around the world. . . . But no bottles have been uncorked. . . . Why does the scientific community not greedily embrace its startling discovery? . . . The dilemma is that while one side of the elephant is labeled intelligent design, the other side might be labeled God” [pp. 232-233].
Though Behe is definitely in the minority, he does not stand alone in the scientific community with his conviction that intelligent design is evident by the nature of living things. In a 1998 book, Nature's Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe, author Michael J. Denton argues that the universe itself has been designed to make life possible.
Denton differs from Behe in his underlying philosophy; however, he arrives at the same conclusion—that the development of life wasn't an undirected process and that the nature of living organisms clearly points to intelligent design. He views life as the inevitable result of the manner in which the universe was originally established. He contends that the laws of chemistry and physics have been set so as to unfold—not in a random manner, but in a clearly directed fashion—into the creation of life, with its purposed end product being Homo sapiens. Denton wrote this book to show “that the cosmos is uniquely fit for human existence.”
He develops the argument by showing the “fitness” of various aspects of the physical universe around us—that is, that it is fit for the development and existence of life as we know it. He points out that we take for granted many aspects of the world as being “just the way things are”; however, it is precisely because they have the characteristics they do that life is even possible.
To make his point, Denton goes through the whole gamut of natural phenomena, from the nature of the cosmos to the structure of DNA, pointing out time after time that the way things are is precisely the way things have to be in order for life to exist. The inference is that the laws of nature have been fine-tuned to make life possible.
One of the aspects of the universe covered in Nature's Destiny is water, which exhibits numerous characteristics that are finely tuned to serve its role as the “matrix of life.”
Water possesses unique thermal properties. It contracts as it cools, but only until it reaches 4 degrees Celsius (39 degrees Fahrenheit). Below this temperature, water, unlike almost all other substances, expands. The coldest water therefore stays on the surface, where it freezes. The fact that it expands significantly as it freezes might be viewed as an interesting curiosity; however, Denton (like others before him) points out that if water didn't behave in this manner, almost all the water on the earth would be locked up as ice at the bottom of the oceans, with only a thin layer of liquid water on top. If this were the case, most of the water on earth would be unavailable for use in the environment.
When water evaporates it removes heat from the environment. This process is referred to as the latent heat of evaporation. Water has the highest known latent heat of evaporation of any liquid in normal temperature ranges. Denton, on page 29 of his book, quotes from The Fitness of the Environment, a 1913 book by Lawrence Henderson, Harvard University professor of biological chemistry: “To sum up, this property (the latent heat of evaporation) appears to possess a threefold importance. First, it operates powerfully to equalise and to moderate the temperature of the earth; secondly, it makes possible very effective regulation of the temperature of living organisms; and thirdly, it favors the meteorological cycle. All of these effects are true maxima, for no other substance can in this respect compare with water.“
In addition to these very fortuitous properties, water has a very low viscosity, which means simply that it flows freely. If this were not so, fish couldn't easily swim through it, and if the viscosity were high enough they couldn't breathe or live in it at all. Similarly, if water's viscosity were much higher than it is, our hearts, given size and tissue constraints of living organisms, could not be made powerful enough to pump blood through our capillaries. As Denton points out, “a capillary system will work only if the fluid being pumped through its constituent tubes has a very low viscosity. A low viscosity is essential because the flow is inversely proportional to the viscosity. A two-fold increase in viscosity causes the flow to halve” (page 35).
This beneficial characteristic of water is greatly enhanced by a related principle, as quoted by Denton (page 37) from a 1959 Scientific American article, “The Flow of Matter.” Author Marcus Reiner states that “when a nonhomogeneous fluid, containing a suspension of particles like blood, is forced to flow through a tube, it exhibits a curious behavior: when the pressure is doubled, the rate of flow may triple. Remarkably, its viscosity becomes less as the pressure is increased.”
Denton goes on to point out some other vital characteristics of water. Its high surface tension, for example, is critically important to plants. It enables them to draw water to the uppermost branches of even the tallest trees. Another critically important characteristic is its ability to dissolve a great many substances. There is no other fluid like water. If water did not exist and if it did not have the precise characteristics it does, life simply would not be possible.
Having considered the fitness of water for life, Denton goes through a similar analysis to demonstrate the fitness of various other essential factors that make life possible. He devotes one chapter each to light, the elements and the earth, carbon, vital gases (oxygen and carbon dioxide), the double helix structure of DNA and RNA, proteins as nanomanipulators, metals, and the cell itself in making life possible.
In introducing a chapter critical to the subject of Darwinian evolution, Denton states: “The challenge posed to undirected evolution by the constraints inherent in complex systems is . . . all the subsystems are intensely integrated. . . . Any change beyond a trivial degree is bound to necessitate intelligently directed compensatory changes in many of the interacting subsystems. In this context it is hard to understand how undirected evolution via a series of independent changes could ever produce a radical redesign in any sort of system as complex as a living organism” [p. 321].
To explain what is meant by an intensely integrated complex system, Denton uses the illustration of a watch: “From a mere cursory examination of the structure of a watch . . . it is self-evident that if one cog is to be changed in some way, then if the function (telling time) of the watch is to be maintained, simultaneous compensatory changes must be made to the entire chain of cogwheels—in effect, the entire watch must be redesigned” (p. 328).
Denton goes on to state: “The question of how such intensely integrated systems as organisms can undergo continuous change in some part or subsystem without the need for “intelligent compensatory changes” is sidestepped in all discussion of undirected models of evolutionary change. Invariably Darwinian arguments artificially isolate a particular component or organ, such as the eye, from the immensely complex system in which it is embedded. Conveniently isolated from the constraining functional interconnections between organ and organism, it is relatively easy to envisage some organ or structure undergoing gradual change via a long series of hypothetical transitional forms. Thus, Darwinian explanations often appear to be superficially plausible” [p. 331].
The fitness of the very components of all life and the universe testifies to the existence of an intelligent designer whose handiwork we are.
At this point both Behe's observations in Darwin's Black Box and Denton's in Nature's Destiny come together. Living organisms testify to the existence of an intelligence capable of designing and bringing into existence not only the irreducibly complex systems found at the biochemical level, but also the complex, intensely interconnected systems found in all organisms. Beyond this, the fitness of the very components of all life and the universe testifies to the existence of an intelligent designer whose handiwork we are.
The conclusions arrived at in both books can be supported by the work of another recently published work, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities, by William Dembski.
The inference that an event occurred by design rather than by chance is based on “The Law of Small Probabilities,” which states that specified events that have a small probability of occurring (how small can vary, depending on other factors) do not occur by chance.
Dembski presents the example of an election official who, supposedly by mere chance, picked his political party's name to appear on the top ballot line (a preferable place) 40 out of 41 times. With the probability of this occurring by chance being less than 1 in 50 billion, the court stated: “Confronted with these odds, few persons of reason will accept the explanation of blind chance” (p. 10).
Having a sound basis for the elimination of chance as an explanation for the occurrence of a specific event is important in a number of fields, such as intellectual property protection, criminal investigation, detection of falsification of data in scientific studies, and cryptography. It is also a key argument in the creation-evolution debate.
As an example of the principle of design inference at work, Dembski sets forth a series of six premises which, if one believes all of them to be true, leads to the conclusion that life is due to design rather than chance. Dembski's analysis of the creation-evolution controversy is that both sides are confronted with the force of the argument presented by design inference. Evolutionists try to block the inference of design by stating that life isn't too small a probability given enough time and the vastness of the universe. Creationists contend that there isn't enough time or space to account for life, with all its complexity and interconnectedness, by any means other than intelligent design.
Evolutionists' arguments to block the inference of design are not based on any hard evidence or even any theories as to how the irreducible complexity of biochemical systems as described by Behe, or the vast complexity of integrated systems as explained by Denton, could possibly be accounted for. As both Behe and Denton point out, evolutionists use generalized arguments that fail to really account for the detailed problems.
The existence of the finely tuned laws and properties of all the elements that make life possible, the stunning complexity of living organisms, and the marvelously complex systems making up every cell of every living thing, lead to the inescapable conclusion that the universe and all living things in it are the result of intelligent design.
Nearly 2,000 years ago, the apostle Paul presented the same conclusion: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest [evident] in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and divine nature, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:18-20).
Behe, Denton and Dembski all point out that the inference of intelligent design drawn from the factual evidence of the physical universe doesn't identify the designer. However, the Designer has not left mankind without a revelation of His existence and identity.
The Designer has not left mankind without a revelation of His existence and identity.
The very first statement God makes about Himself in His divinely inspired and providentially preserved Word is: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). In addressing the Athenian intellectual community of the first century, the apostle Paul explained: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: God, who made the world and everything in it. . .” (Acts 17:22-24).
The beauty and complexity of life should bring us to worship God as it did King David three millennia ago. David wrote, “I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works. . .” (Psalm 139:14). Earlier David wrote, “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained, what is man that You are mindful of him . . . ?” (Psalm 8:3-4).
Modern technology has revealed a vastness to the universe that David and others in earlier times could not have comprehended—a vastness so great that we could in a lifetime cross but the most infinitesimally small segment of its breadth, even if we could travel at the speed of light. Seventy light years does not get one very far in cosmic terms.
The photons of light hitting our eyes as we look up into the night sky have traveled vast distances prior to reaching us. Those photons initiate an irreducibly complex biochemical reaction resulting in physical sight. However, the sight of the eyes is nothing compared with the inner vision of the mind.
This journal's purpose is to help foster that vision—to see truth in a world confused by misinformation, to see hope in a world oppressed by evil, and to see God's purpose in a world walking in spiritual darkness.