Lehigh prof draws fire over intelligent design
By Christina Gostomski
The Allentown Morning Call, Pennsylvania
August 22, 2005 Monday
As a newly minted Ph.D., Michael Behe, like many young biochemists, dreamed of one day joining the distinguished and highly coveted ranks of the National Academy of Scientists.
But now, at age 53, the man dubbed the dean of the intelligent design movement acknowledges he will probably never receive the accolade bestowed on the country’s top-ranked scientists.
A president of the academy has publicly denounced his work, thousands of his peers have ostracized him, scholarly journals shrug off his articles and most of the scientific community consider him a mockery.
But outside the walls of the scientific community, Behe’s name and work are receiving increasing kudos as the intelligent design movement gains notice.
The Lehigh University professor regularly appears in national newspapers and magazines and his speaking schedule, which includes a patchwork of universities and legislative hearings across the country, fills months in advance.
His book, “Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution,” celebrates its 10th anniversary next year, has been printed in multiple languages and sold more than 200,000 copies. And the once-never-heard-of professor has become a national figurehead in the political and cultural debate over how evolution should be taught in public schools.
But while Behe confesses contentment basking in his new-found spotlight, he finds it more than a bit surprising.
“It strikes me as strange, quite frankly,” Behe said as he looked out the window of his Lehigh office on a recent August morning. “I see these ideas as so straightforward and obvious.”
Those ideas include the belief that Darwin’s theory of evolution does not completely explain how mankind came to be. Behe buys part of the Darwinian theory — he agrees that natural selection from a common ancestor can explain some differences in species.
But he thinks that the development is too complicated, or as he puts it, irreducibly complex, to have evolved entirely on its own through a step-by-step process. As a result, Behe says it can only be the product of an intelligent designer, which, as a Catholic, he believes is God.
“It’s utterly improbable that the parts of this just fell together any more than the parts fell together to make this mouse trap,” Behe said, motioning to a large rat trap he keeps in his office to help explain his beliefs.
“I was a normal scientist’
Behe’s interest in intelligent design began in the late 1980s after he began reading criticisms of Darwinian theory.
“Before then I was a normal scientist,” said Behe, who earned his baccalaureate at Temple University and his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. “I thought Darwinian theory was true.”
But Behe said the more he read, the more he questioned Darwinian theory. He wrote newspaper op-eds and letters to the editors of science magazines and was soon drawn into a loose group of academicians from various disciplines, including law and philosophy. The group, which supported what was then called the “design hypothesis,” eventually formed the core of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle public policy think tank.
Behe’s first book on the subject, “Darwin’s Black Box,” was published in 1996. He is working on a follow-up book.
“When you write a book, your greatest fear is that it will get no attention,” Behe said.
He need not have worried.
After reviews by The New York Times and many other papers and magazines, Behe became a magnet for both those defending and opposing Darwinian theory. Even now, nearly a decade later, he receives daily e-mails about his book. As of Friday, Amazon.com featured 481 reviews of his book ranging from lavish criticism to outright contempt.
“The popularity of “Darwin’s Black Box’ demonstrates that there really is “a sucker born every minute’,” one reviewer wrote. “Gullible evangelicals continue to sing his praises. Amazing Grace? More like amazing gullibility.”
Another countered, “Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this book besides its firm grounding in science, is how it has stood the test of time, being assaulted from all sides by the Darwinian establishment The interesting thing is that the consequences of this remarkable book are probably just starting to be felt.”
Book set the standard
Love it or hate it, Behe’s book changed the way Americans discuss evolution.
“That was the turning point,” says William Dembski, an intelligent design advocate and one of Behe’s Discovery Institute colleagues who is heading a new theological center devoted to the subject at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Nothing was the same after that.”
Even Behe’s critics concede that point.
“As a tenured professor at a secular university,” Behe “gave a huge boost” to the intelligent design movement, said Eugenie Scott, executive director of California’s National Center for Science Education.
Since the publication of Behe’s book, the intelligent design movement — and the initiative to change the way public schools teach evolution — has gained strength. More than half the adults surveyed in a recent Harris poll believe children should be taught creationism and intelligent design in addition to evolution.
And this month, President Bush joined what has become a national conversation on intelligent design by saying he believes schools should discuss intelligent design along with teaching evolution.
States changing rules
A growing number of state and school board officials across the country are rethinking the way biological evolution is taught.
In Ohio, the state has changed science standards to include criticism of evolution.
In Kansas, the state Board of Education has approved a new draft of science standards that requires students to learn about evolution theory debates.
And here in Pennsylvania, a bill was introduced in the House in the spring to allow schools teaching evolution to include instruction on intelligent design.
Behe has been caught in the middle of many of those debates; school boards and lawmakers regularly call him requesting public presentations on his views.
He is expected to be called as an expert in the highly publicized Dover Area School District lawsuit over how evolution is taught in a Pennsylvania public high school. Before beginning evolution studies this school year, Dover ninth-graders are expected to hear a statement read by the district superintendent advising that Darwin’s theory “is a theory” and “is not a fact” and that other explanations for the origin of life, including intelligent design, exist.
But while Behe believes students should learn that there is debate over evolution, he describes the Dover statement as “a joke.”
Let students question
The better way to teach students, said Behe, who teaches a freshman seminar at Lehigh that includes evolution and intelligent design discussion, is to publish textbooks that include multiple viewpoints and help students learn how to ask questions and reach their own conclusions.
Behe, who attended parochial schools and whose wife homeschools the couple’s nine children, says he never intended to participate in the fray over evolution in public schools.
“I, myself, never initiate any action to get things done in schools,” Behe said. “I did not write my book in order to affect high school curricula. I wrote my book to get these ideas out to the public.”
Still, Behe doesn’t turn down the speaking requests.
“I view this as doing my job because as a biochemist it’s my job to try to explain how these systems came to be,” he said.
He admitted, however, that his public appearances come at a price.
Professor’s “kiss of death’
Some peer-reviewed scientific journals are unwilling to give him a fair shake, he said, and getting grants — the lifeblood for professors at research universities like Lehigh — is extraordinarily difficult.
“If you talk about these things, it is the kiss of death,” Behe said. “Whenever a scientist makes noises sympathetic to intelligent design, he or she puts his or her career at risk.”
While Behe has found support from some scientists, particularly those affiliated with the Discovery Institute, most continue to dismiss him.
“Scientifically speaking, Mike hasn’t made the sale,” Scott said. “He doesn’t tell you who the intelligent designer is, how it works or what methods it employs The proper answer of a scientist is, “We don’t understand it yet,’ not to throw up your hands and say, “God did it.”‘
But Behe said his critics haven’t proven him wrong and haven’t offered alternatives to explain irreducible complexity.
“To a skeptic like myself, no convincing explanation has been forthcoming,” he said.
Still, even at his own university, Behe is a lone voice.
“I don’t know of any colleagues who are in agreement with his ideas,” said Behe’s boss, Neal Simon, professor and chairman of Lehigh’s 22-member biological science department.
“They are his own views. They do not reflect the views of the department nor the views of the university,” Simon said carefully.
Lehigh wants free exchange
But Simon is also quick to add that he has no plans to quash intelligent design discussion or the class Behe teaches, which includes “Darwin’s Black Box” as required reading.
Professors “have to believe in the free exchange of ideas,” Simon said. Academicians who don’t, he said, have “lost sight of what a university is supposed to be.”
For his part, Behe said he has no regrets about pursuing work that is valued more outside the scientific community than it is by his peers. He probably never would have made it into the elite National Academy of Scientists anyway, he said, adding he finds some honor in having his work draw the attention of those scientists, even if it is to disagree with him.
“A lot of high-powered scientists have taken this on and, in my mind at least, have not answered my questions All in all, it makes me feel pretty good about the status of intelligent design,” Behe said.
“Although it came with troubles,” he added, “it also has had a lot of rewards.”
The intelligent design movement says Darwin’s theory of evolution does not completely explain how life originated.
Proponents say some features of the natural world are so ordered and complex that their cause is best explained by an overarching intelligence.
Critics call the idea a rehashed version of creationism stripped of overt religious references — a belief, not science backed by evidence.