Michael Behe writes a puzzling op-ed piece for the New York Times (registration required) attempting to explain the basics of intelligent design. He raises more questions than he answers.
First, I recognize the limitations of an op-ed piece in the NYT. Mr. Behe cannot detail all of his points—he’ll have to do that in detailed peer reviewed articles in scientific journals or perhaps in a book on popular science. A full list of his peer reviewed articles discussing intelligent design paradigm of detection of irreducibly complex biological systems is set out at the end of this article. His book, of course, is famous. In any event, the op-ed can only be a summary of general points.
Behe makes an argument for intelligent design based on a 4 point argument:
The first, which he declares “uncontroversial,” is that we can often recognize the effects of design in nature. He notes random tectonic forces create mountains, but they do not explain Mount Rushmore. There were about three rhetorical tricks in his first point. Fist is it really “uncontroversial” that we can often recognize design in nature? Second, what do we mean by “often?” More often than not? Now and then? Once? Third, what do we mean by “nature?” Behe glosses over these to get to Mount Rushmore. Mount Rushmore is a beautiful work of art, in the outdoors, so I guess it’s technically correct to call it “nature.” But is it natural? No. And, it’s intellectually dishonest to imply that it is, as Behe does here. Mount Rushmore is an artificial construct of human hands. We can often recognize such objects. That alone is the uncontroversial point. A ridiculously easy counterpoint shows why Behe is wrong. Here’s Mount Rushmore:
Here’s New Hampshire’s old man of the Mountain:
Daniel Webster had this to say about the Old Man:
"Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades; shoemakers hang out a gigantic shoe; jewelers a monster watch, and the dentist hangs out a gold tooth; but in the mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men."
Sound familiar? Behe in all his writings offers no explanation for this claim that design can be detected in natural objected. How does he demonstrate that the Mountain Man is not designed when it could very well have been artificially created and now weathered, as someday Mt Rushmore will be. How do we tell one form the other? The Design Inference and Explanatory Filter don’t help. Behe’s first point is wrong.
Behe next argues that physical marks of design are apparent in biology. We can’t even tell if faces in mountains are designed so it’s a big leap to explain how we can detect design in biological systems. Behe also declares this point “uncontroversial” by fiat. He does this by calling the impact of natural selection “design” as if there was an intelligent force behind natural selection when even he agrees there is not. He plainly invokes Paley’s watch, an analogy not an argument.
He continues offering analogies as arguments by describing molecular assemblies as “machines.” Well, yes, that’s a good analogy for several purposes because they do have machine like properties—transport and motility, for example. It is easier for nonscientists to visualize molecular systems by an analogy to machines, but the analogy breaks down when we observe that all human machines were created by humans. Biological systems have machine like properties, but human construction is not one of them. At this point the analogy breaks down and is no longer useful. In fact, Behe is again intellectually dishonest by arguing the fact he is trying to prove. He is impliedly arguing that since molecular assemblies have some machine like properties they have them all—including the property of being created by sentient beings such as humans. But stop. Isn’t this the point Behe is trying to prove? This is a classic example of begging the question. Behe, by drawing the machine analogy is assuming the very characteristic he is trying to prove.
Behe’s third argument is that there is no explanation for the origin of life itself that does not involve intelligence. Behe is again deceptive. He suggests there are two points of view on this question. “Darwinists” according to Behe believe that natural selection can explain molecular biology. On the other hand, he says, “there are no research studies indicating that Darwinian processes can make molecular machines of the complexity we find in the cell.” This logic is simple:” We don’t know what brought life to be therefore it must have been designed? If we don’t know about a process we can’t assume anything about it. Specifically we can’t assume it was designed. This is repackaged argument from ignorance.
His fourth point is the overall appearance of design argument. He’s limited by op-ed restrictions so I can’t tell if he’s making a strong anthropic argument, but it appears he is. His argument is simply this: Design is self-evident, therefore it is. The appearance of design is the classic “walks like a duck, quacks like a duck argument, according to Behe.
He fails to understand what a can of worms this opens up. Recent natural disasters, the seeming randomness of cruelty and “nature sharp in tooth and red in claw does not look “designed.” It looks just as likely to be utterly random. The walks like a duck argument is simply another way of arguing that, if you already believe in a Designer, you’ll see what you want to see. If you don’t, you won’t. Daniel Webster sees the face in the mountain, and sees design. Behe is no different when he looks through his microscope and also sees design. He’s predisposed to see it.