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Notes on Michael Behe Intelligent Design talk

March 30, 2009

Tonight I  heard Dr. Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box and leading figure in the Intelligent Design movement, speak on his topic at Penn State. He was an invited guest of the “Science & the Bible Club,” and he spoke to a full house. In fact, I’m sure we violated the fire code. His talk was entitled:

“Answering Objections to the Argument for Intelligent Design in Biology”

Behe’s Disclaimer: he’s representing only himself. 

What follows is my attempt to take as complete notes as possible, with a brief assessment at the end.


I. Argument for Intelligent Design Itself

His argument:

  1. Design is not mystical. It is deduced from physical structure of a system.
  2. Everyone agrees that aspects of biology appear designed.
  3. There are structural obstacles to Darwinian evolution.
  4. Grand Darwinian claims rest on undisciplined imagination [synonym for faith]
  5. Bottom Line: We have strong evidence for design, little evidence for Darwinism


1. Design is not mystical. It is deduced from physical structure of a system.

What is meant by intelligent design?

The purposeful or inventive arrangement of parts or details. We infer design whenever parts appear arranged to accomplish a function.


Is the conclusion of design necessarily a religious one? No, it is a logical one. We can’t necessarily infer when or who or why or how. Only what.


The strength of the inference is quantitative. [huh?]


2. Everyone agrees that aspects of biology appear designed.

Richard Dawkins book, “the Blind Watchmaker”

“Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose” p. 1


So according to Dawkins (in Behe’s words), biology is more like observing Mt. Rushmore than your average mountain, or even the Old Man in the Mountain. It gives evidence of design. It’s not an aesthetic conclusion, but an engineering conclusion.


Paraphrasing Dawkins: we say it’s well designed if an intelligent and knowledgeable engineer might have built into it in order to achieve some sensible purpose…

But Dawkins insists that biology can produce the appearance of design w/o having been designed.


3. But there are structural obstacles to Darwinian evolution.

“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. But I can find out no such case.” Darwin, Origin of Species, p. 58


Here’s a problem for Darwin:

Behe’s signature concept & contribution to ID: Irreducible Complexity. 

A mousetrap needs each of its parts to work. Take away any piece, it doesn’t work only half as well; it doesn’t work at all. Irreducibly complex things are a headache for Darwinian thought. How would a mousetrap “evolve”? It couldn’t work that way.


Are there any irreducibly complex biological systems, cellular systems, biochemical systems? A couple examples:

  • The Bacterial Flagellum (the outboard motor of bacteria). Can’t take away any of the parts and it still works.
  • Everyone talks about the cells as “machines,” “motors, clocks, springs and things,” “engines.”


4. Grand Darwinian claims rest on undisciplined imagination

Imagination is important; but undisciplined imagination is a double-edged sword. If you have a good imagination, you’ll see things that other people have missed. But with an undisciplined imagination, you’ll see things that aren’t there.


Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box was widely reviewed:

“We should reject, as a matter of principle, the substitution of intelligent design for the dialogue of chance and necessity (cites Behe); but we must concede that there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical system, only a variety of wishful speculations.”

            –Franklin Harold, The Way of the Cell, Oxford UP 2001


What principle is it by which we reject ID? Harold didn’t say. Behe believes it’s “Ghostbusters,” ie, the belief that in ID extra-scientific ideas with supernatural beliefs are being wrongly imported into (in place of) Science.


Behe: Science is supposed to follow the evidence, wherever it goes. Let other people worry about the philosophy and its implications.


5. Bottom Line: We have strong evidence for design, little evidence for Darwinism


“Yet the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with the appearance of design as if by a master watchmaker, impress us with the illusion of design and planning.” Dawkins, Blind Watchmaker, p.21


So, if it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, etc., how is it not a duck? Dawkins says it’s not a duck, even though it looks, smells, sounds, tastes like one. They call it an “in-duck-tive” argument. (Ba dum cha). But Encyclopedia Britannica says, “inductive reasoning is the logic normally used in the Sciences.” In other words, ID is rationally justified.


II. A Rebuttal to Several Objections to Intelligent Design


1. Judge John Jones and the Dover Case

Behe testified at length for the losing side in the Dover Case. Behe believes ID rationally justified; Judge John Jones (in the Dover case) disagreed. Strongly worded verdict against ID. Judge’s opinion was 139 pages.

Eric Rothschild—lead attorney for the other side—presented a “findings of fact and conclusions of law” that was 161 pages, very long.

Judge Jones cut-and-pasted Rothschild at points, nearly word for word.

At one point, Judge Jones quoted Behe talking about design as an “analogy,” but it was Rothschild who characterized it that way.

And this kind of plagiarism is legal in legal circles, but Behe’s argument is that Judge Jones didn’t understand the material (that’s why it’s not allowed in school). And it was Judge Jones who apparently made up a bunch of people’s minds (like Scott Adams of Dilbert).


[This part of the lecture felt like Behe’s attempt at prosecuting Judge Jones. He was not rebutting the arguments themselves; it’s an ad hominem argument against the capabilities of Judge Jones. The temptation to get even a bit was just too tempting, I guess. But it weakened his overall argument, because he had ceased talking science. ]


His point was that people like Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) who said that the judge’s decision was “good enough for me”  are not off the hook.


2. Prof. John McDonald, Univ. of Delaware

“A Reducibly Complex Mousetrap”

A prof. who allegedly refuted Behe’s mousetrap argument by “designing” mousetraps by taking one part out at a time, eventually down to one part.

But his mousetraps are not physical precursors, but conceptual ones.

And they are intelligently designed traps. Nor would they evolve from step one to step two and so on.  So this critique ultimately doesn’t work.


Unfortunately I didn’t get to stay for the Q&A, which I’m sure was interesting.


Behe has quite a bit more info at his blog on, connected to his books.


In short, I felt like I saw what makes the ID movement so interesting, and yet what also short-circuits it. The first half of Behe’s lecture was coherent, informed, and compelling. He made a solid case for the inclusion of ID in the scientific discussion. But the second half departed from science and made ad hominem arguments that undermined his case and were ultimately ineffective. While ID deserves a fair hearing, and is most assuredly not getting one in many places (just watch Ben Stein’s movie Expelled), the second half of Behe’s talk gave skeptics too many reasons to reject the issue out of hand.

[UPDATE: This morning I read a NYT editorial on the Texas School Board handling of evolution. It included these revealing paragraphs:

Conservatives tried — but failed — to reinsert a phrase requiring students to study the “strengths and weaknesses” of all scientific theories, including evolution. That language had been in the standards for years, but it was eliminated by experts who prepared the new standards for board approval because it has become a banner for critics of Darwinian evolution who seek to exaggerate supposed weaknesses in the theory.

The conservatives also narrowly lost attempts to have students study the “sufficiency or insufficiency” of natural selection to explain the complexities of the cell, a major issue for proponents of intelligent design. The conservatives also failed to get the word “sufficiency” inserted by itself, presumably because that would imply insufficiency as well. They had to settle for language requiring students to “analyze, evaluate and critique” scientific explanations and examine “all sides” of the scientific evidence.

So now the study of strengths and weaknesses is explicitly disallowed when it comes to Science? Who is the one suppressing genuine scientific inquiry? Who is the one imposing their ideology? Behe’s point about following the evidence is well taken. Frankly, this is an embarrassing decision for the evolutionary fundamentalists, because it reveals how willing they are to compromise genuine science in the name of their evolutionary ideology.]





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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 31, 2009 2:25 pm

    We have some pretty clearly different ideas about this I think.
    You can read my takes at the following links:

  2. onein6billion permalink
    April 4, 2009 10:35 pm

    “So now the study of strengths and weaknesses is explicitly disallowed when it comes to Science?”

    You misunderstand. The Texas SBOE sets science standards for the 9th grade biology course. There are, in fact, no “weaknesses” in the Theory of Evolution that could possibly be presented in a 9th grade biology course. Of course Behe’s “irreducible complexity” has been refuted, so it cannot be presented.

    “Behe’s point about following the evidence is well taken.”

    No, it’s not. His “evidence” is not accepted by scientists.

    “evolutionary fundamentalists”

    Your religious bias is showing.

    “to compromise genuine science”

    Hilarious ignorance.


  1. Intelligent Design 101: Leading Experts Explain the Key Issues | God in my Life

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