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An Interview with Dr. Michael J. Behe

Mario A. López

miscMichael J. Behe is Professor of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania in 1978. Behe's current research involves delineation of design and natural selection in protein structures.

In addition to publishing over 35 articles in refereed biochemical journals, he has also written editorial features in Boston Review, American Spectator, and The New York Times. His first book, Darwin's Black Box discusses the implications for neo-Darwinism of what he calls "irreducibly complex" biochemical systems. The book was internationally reviewed in over one hundred publications and recently named by National Review and World magazine as one of the 100 most important books of the 20th century.

His latest book, The Edge of Evolution presents landmark evidence that devastatingly disproves random mutation as a major part of evolution and shows that life developed non-randomly from cells to animals.

Through a combination of experimental evidence, genome research, and mathematical law, Behe analyzes three key case studies of the tens of thousands of generations of malaria, E. coli, and the HIV virus, and the human genomic response to those invaders. We now know exactly what mutations have occurred in the struggle between these parasites and their human hosts. We know their rate of occurrence. We know all possible types of mutations, and their natural rate of occurrence. Armed with all this, it is a simple matter of extrapolation to determine the limits of Darwinian randomness in the entire tree of life on earth.

Behe has presented and debated his work at major universities throughout North America and England.

This interview was originally conducted by Mario A. López for the pro-ID Spanish website, Organizacion Internacional para el Avance Cientifico del Diseno Inteligente (OIACDI) (formerly Ciencia Alternativa):

Mario López (ML): Dr. Behe, for people who aren’t familiar with your work, what exactly is the argument you are making in The Edge of Evolution?

Michael J. Behe (MJB): In Darwin’s Black Box I argued that at least some very complex biochemical systems found in cells required purposeful design. However, some aspects of biology are simple, and could have appeared by chance in a Darwinian fashion. In The Edge of Evolution I try to draw a general line between the types of biological systems that would require design and those that wouldn’t.

ML: How does this book differ from you previous book, Darwin’s Black Box?

MJB: The Edge of Evolution makes the case that design is not just needed for the fanciest biological systems, but for almost all of them. In other words, unlike Darwin’s Black Box, The Edge of Evolution argues that design extends very deeply into biology.

ML: Your critics have called your design hypothesis the “Great” or “Divine Mutator.” Is this a fair representation? Why or why not?

MJB: Well, critics tend to use silly-sounding phrases to make ideas they disagree with look bad. In The Edge of Evolution I argue that life had to be designed to a very great degree of detail in order to exist. So, if one believes (as I do) that the designer is God, then God planned life on earth down to the molecular level. If that means the designer is a “Great Mutator”, so be it. Don’t forget, the astronomer Fred Hoyle coined the term “Big Bang” to ridicule a scientific hypothesis he disagreed with, but the idea survived and prospered because of its merits.

ML: In The Edge, you make a defense for common descent (p.182) and later attribute it to a non-random process (p. 72). Considering the convergent evolution of the digestive enzyme of lemurs and cows, hemoglobin of human and mice, and in your own work resistance mutations that also arise independently (p77), why such a commitment to common descent? Isn’t genetic convergent evolution or even common design (considering your view of mutations) good alternative explanations to common descent?

MJB: I don’t think so. Although those other explanations may be true, I think that common descent, guided by an intelligent agent, is sufficient to explain the data. It has the great advantage of being easily compatible with apparent genetic “mistakes” shared by organisms, such as the pseudo-hemoglobin genes I wrote of in The Edge of Evolution.

ML: I know that you are well liked and respected by other ID proponents, but how do your ID colleagues feel about your commitment to common descent? Have they ever addressed that issue with you?

MJB: We have discussed it briefly and cordially, and have agreed to disagree.

ML: If you found a compelling argument against common descent, would you ever reassess your current position? How about your position on ID?

MJB: Sure. Science is always supposed to reassess its conclusions in light of the best available evidence. If new evidence came to light, or old evidence reinterpreted in a compelling way, then I would change my position on common descent, intelligent design, or any scientific conclusion.

ML: Is the repeated independent evolution of nylonase in two different strains of flavobacterium and of pseudomonas aeruginosa a good example of an increase of information in the genome? Does this refute the main contention of your book?

MJB: No. Those enzymes are very simple ones which simply hydrolyze precursors to nylon. That’s a very simple task, which can be done even by small organic catalysts.

ML: How will your work affect the way science is done?

MJB: I think the most practical effect will be to show the scientific and medical communities that the range of changes that random mutation can effect in disease-causing organisms like malaria is quite limited. Thus if we concentrate on finding impediments to the few effective mutational pathways in the most deadly organisms on earth, we may be able to conquer completely some of mankind’s oldest scourges.

Dr. Behe's books:
Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (Free Press, 1996).
The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (The Free Press, 2007).