Intelligent Design

Transcript of McWhorter-Behe Blogginheads Discussion

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For the original online McWhorter-Behe discussion, go here. Thanks to one of my research assistants for making the transcript. Here’s the video in lower res as it appeared online after Bloggingheads removed it:

MCWHORTER: Well, Michael Behe I am so glad to meet you, and umm thank you for agreeing to do this. This is one of the rare times when I have actually initiated a bloggingheads pairing, and it’s because I just read your book The Edge of Evolution from 2007, and I found it absolutely shattering. I mean this is a very important book. And yet I sense from, umm, the reputation or the reception of your book from 10+ years ago Darwin’s Black Box that it may be hard to get a lot of people to understand why the book is so important. So I just wanted to go back and forth with you for a little while to get a sense of what your intent with this book was and ask you a few questions and just allow this book to have the wide airing that it deserves. So umm thank you.

BEHE: Yeah sure, sounds great to me. It’s nice to be with you, I’ve never been on a bloggingheads before, so uh, it should be fun.

MCWHORTER: Yeah it’s umm, I umm, I want to start with this, umm, and this is what motivates me. Darwin is great; I’ve always been really interested in evolution. Usually on bloggingheads I talk about race issues. But, however, actually, in my actual daily life I’m interested much more in certain other things, such as I’m a massive dinosaur fan and things like that, and evolution has always fascinated me but I’ve always seen a certain kink in the whole natural selection argument. And I’ve always asked people this basic question, it’s about skunks. So if the idea is that there is this random mutation, and that certain random mutations end up spreading throughout a population because they convey some sort of fitness, then you have to go step by step by step. And this is something that I learned in particular from your book Darwin’s Black Box, that all these things have to happen incrementally. And I always thought to myself with the skunk, the skunk has this gland and this procedure where it shoots out this mist or this fluid that, you know, makes things run away. Okay. But what were the intermediate steps? Presumably there was some weasel-like creature that did not have that ability. And it’s easy to see evolutionarily how it would be advantageous to have that gland and to be able to squirt it at people. But, what were the intermediate steps? How was it that there was some sort of proto-skunk, where presumably it produced some tiny amount of malodorous chemical in its sweat in that part? And maybe just a hint of muscular tissue, and somehow this non functioning proto-version of the scent-squirter somehow helped that thing to propagate. What are the intermediate steps? And I always ask people this, and people start screaming at me that I’m implying that evolution is not responsible, and instead we’re talking about God. And that the whole discussion gets derailed. Nevertheless, I think that it’s a genuine question, and it’s one that your book has me interested in examining further. So what is the basic premise of The Edge of Evolution, what do you mean by “The Edge of Evolution”?

BEHE: Well, The Edge of Evolution is meant to imply what Darwinian processes can do, and what they might not be able to do. I mean I think it’s clear, I certainly think that Darwinian processes can explain a lot of things like anti-biotic resistance and maybe even, say, the white fur of our polar bear, and things like that. I think most people would agree with that. But, there are many things like the scent gland of a skunk where you don’t know if this random change plus natural selection process is going to be able to cut the mustard, so to speak.


BEHE: And, so, the point of The Edge of Evolution is, well, do we have any data, do we have any studies, that will actually help us to decide what Darwinism can do and what it can’t do. And I kind of dub that “the edge of evolution.”

MCWHORTER: Exactly. And one of the basic premises of the book (and I want to get these premises out of the way first before we get to the question part) is that the Darwinian idea that there’s common descent, that all the world’s creatures have evolutionary relationships and developed from one another in some way is clear. But the problem is that the notion that we have the difference between a skunk and an (ocopy?) and a tyrannosaurus all based on random mutation. That random mutation could have created things like this, and…go ahead.

BEHE: Yeah that, I was going to say, that’s exactly right. Most people don’t realize it, but, Darwin’s claim to fame wasn’t just to suggest, uh, evolution in the sense of plain old common descent, his addition was the idea that this could happen completely without any mind or any guidance behind it. No plan, no design, nothing. Random mutation plus natural selection, so that things kind of uh, so that life forms would kind of blow with the wind, in a sense.


BEHE: Nothing directional. Before Darwin there were other scientists like, say, Lamarck, who postulated common descent, but they thought there was some teleology behind it, or some guidance, or some such thing. So, the problem with Darwin’s theory for many people, certainly myself, is that its mechanism, random mutation plus natural selection, just doesn’t seem like it can get the job done.

MCWHORTER: Right, and one of the most interesting arguments in your book, and it really, it bore…it bore careful reading…was that you can look at, say, malaria (how the malaria parasite has evolved) and malaria basically can beat our antidotes like chloroquine, if there are many many many many generations, many many more generations than there could possibly have been for the evolution, say of mammals (because the organisms are so numerous) and that the way it does this is with two mutations that happen at the same time, (correct me if I’m wrong) and the chances of that happening are so infinitesimal and take so many generations, and that’s about all you can see when we actually watch organisms undergoing random mutation, rather than these magnificent things, such as giraffes, or even new protein combinations emerging. So your idea is that when we actually try to see random mutation happening, we don’t really see very much. Is that a correct interpretation?

BEHE: Yeah, that’s right. The big problem with Darwin’s theory, and evolution in general, was that, you know, it was supposed to take so long, and there was supposed to require so many generations of organisms, and so many numbers of organisms, that we wouldn’t be able to see it within our lifetime.


BEHE: Or even within recorded history. But, in the past twenty, thirty years, a lot of scientists have become interested in trying to do evolutionary studies on micro-organisms, which you can grow in your laboratory in enormous numbers, or interested in micro-organisms in nature, of which there are vastly more than, say, the large animals that we’re used to thinking about, that ever existed in history.


BEHE: So a fair test of evolution, instead of requiring large amounts of time, is to use large numbers of organisms like malaria, which is a little single-celled creature, which causes sickness in humans.

MCWHORTER: Disgusting little things.

BEHE: See what variable to do in a, you know, tens of thousands of generations. And if they can’t do very much, then we can easily say that, well, we won’t be able to do more than that with fewer organisms such as large animals, such as humans, or skunks, or dinosaurs, or whatever. Something else must be causing those changes.

MCWHORTER: Exactly. And what’s interesting is that, every ten minutes there seems to be a book that comes out that you find in the science section of the store that purports to show that the sorts of questions that you’re raising have been answered. That we’ve got it all figured out; how you get from an amoeba to Tom Delay, you know that we understand this. And so there’s like Sean Carroll’s book, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, and then there’s the one by the two guys whose name I forget. One of them is named Mark, The Plausibility of Life. These books always seem to purport to show how these sorts of things actually work. And what they’ll show is that there is a gene or a set of genes that program for body segments or program for body parts and that if you alter one of these genes then you can make a leg grow out of something’s head or something like that. And I have always waited for those books to prove to me that everything’s been figured out. And I don’t go into them skeptically, but they never really quite explain how you get from the amoeba to the triceratops. Why would you say that they don’t? How come those books don’t cinch the case?

BEHE: Well, umm, frankly because it’s, it’s…we don’t know. They think we…you have to separate our knowledge of how life works, of which we’ve learned an enormous amount in the past fifty years, (learned about DNA and genes and other things) from our…the question of how life originated or how life changed over time. We know very very little of that, and a lot of people, including many good scientists like Carroll and Kirshner and others, get confused. They think because they see a couple of different organisms that have similarities then they can imagine it in their heads, moving some things around and it wouldn’t be any problem whatsoever.


BEHE: They confuse what’s going on in their own heads with what’s going on in nature. And I think that’s what’s important about The Edge of Evolution, is because it really brings to the table data that’s accumulated in the past decade or so about what random mutation and natural selection can actually do out in the wild, in nature. And as I write in the book it’s pretty, pretty small. As you alluded to, malaria, which is the major case that I look at in the book, grows in enormous numbers in the world. There are, in one infected person with malaria, there are about a trillion little organisms swimming around. A trillion is something like 100 times the number of humans on the whole earth.

MCWHORTER: Inconceivable, yeah.

BEHE: And there’s something like a billion people in the world get malaria every year. So there is 10^20th, 10^21st, astronomical numbers of these things. And we’ve challenged them in the past couple decades with drugs and antibiotics and they have been able to develop resistance to antibiotics, but when you go and ask yourself, well, what did they do? Did they develop some sophisticated molecular machineries like the other molecular machineries that are in the cell? And it turns out that they make a few scratches, so to speak, on pre-existing machines. And that’s barely enough to survive the drugs.


BEHE: So, they come up with these minuscule results. I think I say in the book, “The Darwinian labored mightily and gave birth to a gnat. “ And the important thing is that this is observational data, it does not depend on somebody’s imagination. Like Professor Carroll’s imagination or other Darwinian’s scientists who write their books, they might think that some of these transitions would be easy, but we have no experimental or observational evidence to conclude that.

MCWHORTER: Yeah, and one more thing. My epiphany on this, I remember I was sitting on a bed at a b ed and breakfast, looking out to sea and reading the chapter on proteins, that’s when I realized, goodness gracious, something is really different from the way, from a certain skeptical quote unquote “bright”, ala Richard Dawkins way of looking at the world, I thought really there’s something going on. Talk about proteins and the way that they match or don’t. This is something really important for people to realize in terms of figuring out how random mutation could even create a cell. Proteins are pretty weird aren’t they?

BEHE: Well, they are weird in a sense. Of course, they are elegant too. What they problem is, most people, most lay people, think of the cell as some sort of squishy blob of jello or something, but what modern scientist show its actually filled with these biological machines which are composed mostly of things called proteins. Most people think of proteins as something to eat but they’re not, they’re actually stings of chemicals called amino acids which are put together and as an analogy you can think of the amino acids as letters. When you put letters together in the right way they can spell out words and sentences and so on, but if you put them together in the wrong way, they don’t spell out anything, they don’t confer any meaning.

MCWHORTER: Proteins make things happen by sticking to each other, but matching.

BEHE: That’s right, they’re a lot more exotic than letters. They’ve got chemical properties where they have regions that are positively charged or negatively charged and those regions can attract each other. And another region which might be kind of an oily region and another one which is kind of like salt and likes to be dissolved in water and all of these things make up a string of amino acids fold up on itself in a particular way so that it assumes a shape like a machine. Suppose you had a piece of metal on the floor and it had little magnets on it on the north side pointing up on some and the south side pointing up on others and all of a sudden it started to fold itself up and it forms scissors. Now you can use this folded up metal as a piece of scissors, but when it was unfolded on the floor, you could not do that.


BEHE: Well, proteins are like that. They form much more sophisticated machinery than scissors, they can do very exotic chemical reactions. They can build things in your body. The retina in your eye is composed of a protein called rhodopsin which interacts with light and helps send a signal on to your brain to start vision and the blood contains a protein called hemoglobin which finds oxygen and delivers it to tissue. So proteins are…it’s like going into Home Depot and finding all these machines, all these tools around. Well, there are thousands and thousands of different proteins in your body and because of their particular shapes, they can do all these different jobs.

MCWHORTER: And in any given cell, there are so very many proteins all jangling around in this blob they’re somehow directed by DNA and RNA to create chemicals. They’re just jangling around in this fluid and they find one another and the result is you and me doing this. And that’s how evolution has happened. And yet, we’re supposed to think there is nothing miraculous about this process.

BEHE: Yeah, it seems pretty easy to me.

MCWHORTER: Right, it’s fun to imagine it happening kind of step by step, but how this would go on. So clearly, it’s difficult to avoid a sense, and I think anybody, no matter how skeptical about higher beings is, it’s difficult to avoid there being at least an illusion of teleology here. That there appears to be something directing this, that it can’t be completely random. Because for example, a Sean Carroll cannot tell you how this, these jangling bags of proteins and endoplasmic particulum etc., came together to create a leg in the first place. It’s one thing to figure out how a leg is placed in one place as opposed to another but how did something even start to have the particular detailed leg in question and how does that leg go from the flies leg to our leg and things like that. And so, it seems that, and this is something you seem to understandably pull back from getting too specific about in the book. But, correct me if I’m wrong, it would seem to me that your idea is that random mutation alone cannot explain these things and that there must have been some sort of intelligent designer and that intelligent designer I presume would be God, right?

BEHE: Well, I certainly think so. I’m a run of the mill Christian, you know, but in the book I try to act as I’m a scientist and scientific evidence points to design, it doesn’t and there’s no signature on the molecular machinery saying who did it and if somebody else wants to think it was a space alien or something exotic , well, they’re free to do it. The structure like a machines doesn’t force you to believe one verses the other. But, certainly I think and most theists will think that God is a major candidate for the role of designer.

MCWHORTER: Well, I will definitely say that in reading your book I can closer than I ever have at the age of 43 to believing in God. I, quite frankly do not, and never have and think the world is a marvelous place anyway. I never imagined anybody to even begin to convince me that there was such a thing. Reading your book, I thought to myself I can’t think of what there would be that would create this kind of order out of chaos and I suspect that many people if they actually read the book all the way through would have the same response. But, the fact is, and I say this with full respect for your religious beliefs, I don’t want to believe in God. I don’t like change. And so, after I finished your book, I couldn‘t not help thinking, Wow, suppose he’s wrong, because after all, I’m not a biochemist, I’m not a biologist; is this really a solid case and so one question I wanted to ask is, What makes you so sure that we’re just not in an intermediate point, which I’m sure is the objection of various biologists and thesis such as yours and that we’ll figure these sorts of things out. Why do you think that we’ve hit a wall? How can you be so brave as to be so sure that you’re not being premature? What is it that seems so completely irresolvable?

BEHE: Well you can never be completely sure in science. It’s the nature of the discipline and I never claimed and certainly don’t now that I have some sort of logical proof for design and so on. But, with science you gotta go with the evidence, where the evidence is pointing and in my mind it’s clearly pointing strongly to design or something very similar to it. Let me give you an analogy that kind of shows you my mindset. In the early part of the nineteen hundreds, 1930 or so, most physicists thought that the universe was eternal and unchanging and that satisfied them just fine but then the motion of galaxies away from each other and away from the earth was noticed and that was the start of the Big Bang hypothesis and the Big Bang hypothesis at the time struck a lot of people and still strikes a lot of people including a lot of scientists as having theological implications. You know, who knows? Maybe this was the Creation or some such thing. And a lot of scientists at the time didn’t like this idea one bit. So why didn’t they just say, well we don’t like this idea, there might be some other explanation for it, so we’ll just pass over this Big Bang hypothesis. We’ll continue to think that the universe is eternal and maybe some new idea will come along in fifty years and we’ll latch on to that. If they had done that they would be out of a lot of progress that science has made in the intervening time. And I view ID as the same thing. Who knows? You can never tell in science what is coming down the pike. But right now it sure looks this way to me that things look strongly as if they were designed. And Darwinian claims notwithstanding we have no idea how such elegant complexity could have come about without design. So why don’t we make that conclusion, or at least as a hypothesis, and go from there?

MCWHORTER: I cannot believe that the typical view among scientists is such that they’re not as fascinated by that question, and this possible boundary to our knowledge, that you are. It’s so utterly fascinating. And yet I remember when Darwin’s Black Box came out, I grabbed it, I was fascinated by this, it opened my eyes. And I had a scientist friend, an eminent one; I will not name them or even give their gender. But I had that scientist over to dinner, and when I gave that scientist your book and said “Have you read this one?” that scientist, literally, and they (yes, singular “they”) were being kind of theatrical, but, they literally threw it across the room. They just could not entertain that this book (and it was gaining a reputation) could possibly be making any sense. But, of course, that wasn’t a discussion. I could not get this person to discuss what was so wrong with the idea. Nevertheless I’m sure that people like, you know, Sean Carroll, are scoffing at The Edge of Evolution, to the extent that he has actually read it. Certainly he feels that it’s not even worth any kind of notice and that there are things you’re leaving out, etc. Also the book came out two years ago, and I imagine you probably wrote it in 2005, science proceeds quickly. What do you think a Sean Carroll (and I’m using him as a stand-in for all these evo/devo people who seem to think that they’ve got it all figured out) what would he say your mistake is? Because I’m sure you’ve thought about that. Where are you going wrong according to the conventional wisdom?

BEHE: Well, let me just say that I know Sean Carroll. Sean Carroll is a friend of mine. Actually I just met him at a recent evolutionary biology meeting a couple of months ago, he’s a real nice guy.

MCWHORTER: So you two can have beer and interact?

BEHE: Yeah, yeah, we can talk, he’s a friendly fellow. But from his review (he reviewed the book for Science magazine), his objections to it were simply wrong. He talked about, I pointed out in the book how protein/protein binding sites would be very difficult to get by random mutation and natural selection.


BEHE: And he thought, well, this would be easy. All you would have to do is make two amino acid changes, or, one amino acid change and you’d have a brand new binding site.


BEHE: But you can’t do that. And what one sees when one looks at results such as the evolution of malaria in the wild is that his imagined new protein binding sites never show up.


BEHE: And neither do they show up in experimental evolutionary laboratories when people are growing bacteria and trying to make them change. So all of his objections were easily answered. The big problem I had with the review was the tone of scorn as you said. The tone of scorn that was in it, clearly these are questions that we don’t know about yet, and…


BEHE: You might take a position (as a lot of people do) well yeah we don’t know about it yet but I’m not going down the design route, I don’t think that’s going to pan out. Well, okay. But, to deny that Darwinism has these problems, is kind of sticking your head in the sand.

MCWHORTER: Yes! Why don’t people understand the role of randomness and chance? We must have evolved in some way not to understand that readily. Or, here’s another question. I remember way back in the late 90’s I discussed your book with another biologist, and they said something (which I have since read, and I think which you mention in The Edge of Evolution) which is that a few of the irreducibly complex things that you discussed in the first book, have been found since to not be as irreducibly complex. And so your idea that you stressed, particularly in Darwin’s Black Box, was that there’s certain very complex structures or processes in how organisms work where it’s impossible to imagine what the intermediate step would have been; kind of like the skunk’s scent gland and squirting process. And for example, one of them (and actually the one that gave me my epiphany in the first one) was blood coagulation. And you showed how there’s this ridiculously baroque process of…this cascade of chemicals that all end up interacting in order to create a clot, and there couldn’t be an intermediate stage of this that would have served any purpose. It wouldn’t create a blood clot and so why would this have evolved in any way. Now apparently it’s been shown since then that there are ways of going step-by-step and creating blood clotting. And so…I thought at that time “Well I guess they basically shot poor Michael Behe, you know, down. I guess that takes care of his book.” Apparently not, but how do you know there isn’t going to be more of that? In terms of, for example, this beautiful example that you give of the cilia, the hair-like structures, and how utterly complex they are, such that it’s hard to imagine anybody building one of these even on purpose, much less it happening randomly, step-by-step. How do you know there isn’t going to be more of that? That people aren’t going to take each one of these processes that you identify and find that there were intermediate steps, like they did with the blood?

BEHE: Well, I think what they’re doing is that they’re mistaking the idea of irreducible complexity. They’re infusing what I think of as irreducible complexity with what they, you know, their own ideas. They think the idea of irreducible complexity is that you can’t make a machine that does something similar to the machine you’re thinking about with fewer parts. But that’s not true, and I wrote about that in Darwin’s Black Box. I said, as an example of irreducible complexity in our everyday world, I talk about a mousetrap, which has a number of parts. It’s got a metal spring and a bar that smacks the mouse and a couple of others. But you can make mousetraps a number of different ways. You can take blocks and prop it open with a stick, and that’s a simpler mouse trap. But the question is can you get to the mousetrap that we’re talking about by numerous, successive, slight modifications (which Darwin insisted on) very small tiny steps, random steps that are favored by natural selection? And a number of machines, if they’re complicated enough they contain a number of different components. Oh let’s talk about a car. It contains an air-conditioner, a fuel pump and so on; you might be able to use those things for other purposes. But if you take out a fuel pump from a car, the car is not going to work. And so unfortunately some people (kind of egged-on by the Darwinists) have said “Well if we can find any use at all for some part (of what I tagged an irreducible complex system) then we can relieve our minds. We can declare it to be not irreducibly complex.”


BEHE: But I would disagree that the blood-clotting system was shown to not be irreducibly complex, was shown to not be irreducibly complex.

MCWHORTER: So you’re saying that these intermediate steps that they’ve come up with functions for, those functions are somehow not valid; that those aren’t realistic reconstructions as to what these intermediate…

BEHE: No. In many cases the functions are valid. But the question is “How do you get from one to the other by random mutation and natural selection?” There’s one, there’s something called the bacterial flagellum, and I’m sure you’re familiar with it. It’s kind of like a little rotary motor, like an outboard motor…

MCWHORTER: Fascinating.

BEHE: And I wrote about that in Darwin’s Black Box and said it was irreducibly complex. After the book came out it was discovered that there was a sub-part of it that could act kind of like a pump, like the gas pump in your car. And some people said “Well, if we take this away it still works, therefore the flagellum is not irreducibly complex.”


BEHE: But I counter that “Well, no, it is, because when you take away that part the flagellum no longer works as a rotary motor.” It’s like taking away an axle, or something, from an outboard motor and saying “I can use this axle over here.” And somebody said “Yes, but the outboard motor is broken, it doesn’t work anymore.” So it turns out that it’s a lot harder than, you know, than these folks are giving it credit, to actually construct an irreducibly complex system. They’re kind of trying to backward engineer things, and you can easily get mislead by your imagination, as many Darwinists have throughout the past century or so.

MCWHORTER: And I should specify that you agree that random mutation can create things on the level of, say, a species. So you’re not denying that you can certainly see finch’s beaks evolving on the basis of a Darwinian process. But your point is that we have no evidence that that process can create the difference between a finch and an ant-eater, and that something else must have been going on. Especially because if that were going to happen (given how rare it is that we see mutations that actually convey some sort of advantage when we try to see it in the laboratory), there would have to have been a lot more time that the world had existed for there to be that kind of variety, if it was conceivable at all. Is that a fair representation of your point?

BEHE: Yeah, and the more you study it, I mean, if you look at the nuts, the molecular nuts and bolts of it all, the more I doubt that it could happen at all. Because it turns out that a lot of the helpful mutations, the kind that give you antibiotic resistance or that change color in a…change an organisms color and maybe help it fit into an environment better, a lot of those mutations are actually the breaking of pre-existing cellular machinery.


BEHE: And it’s a lot easier to break something than it is to make something.


BEHE: And so I think that if Darwinian evolution proceeded over a long period unaided, well the genomes, the information in the DNA of a lot of organisms would simply go south over time. So I don’t think you…even given more time, with just a Darwinian process, you’d be able to get from something simpler to something…you know, from a finch to an ant-eater or whatever the progression was.

MCWHORTER: Right. And you know what’s interesting about this (and I’ve wanted to ask you this, in a way, for over a decade) is, okay let’s say that random mutation as we’re taught can only explain something (which frankly I’ve always found a little boring and un-dramatic, like the finches beaks; like I read the book about that, that was nice), but it’s just these dull little birds and these minor beak variations, what I wanted to see was how some ugly shrew-like thing became all of today’s mammals. How did that happen? And none of the science that we have now can explain it. And you’re saying, basically, that except for boring little variations (this kind of shrew versus that kind of shrew, and who cares about shrews) that really it’s Intelligent Design, let’s say that it’s God, and not what Darwin said. The problem with this is (and I don’t want to believe in God it’s probably because of this) the problem with that is, isn’t that a little dull? Like, a lot of people would say “Well, you’re just giving up.” But of course you would say “Science is showing us that this is the way it is, and so too bad we do have to give up here.” But nevertheless, aren’t you implying that the process that takes us from some little mutli-tuburculit to an armadillo to you and me, aren’t you implying that that process is something that we just can’t really know anything about? It’s irreducibly complex, it’s extremely complex, maybe we can describe it, but we can’t go any further than that; we can’t know how it developed. We can’t know how God developed it, is that the way to put it? I’m not accusing you of giving up, but, isn’t…doesn’t that bore you a bit? Don’t you find that a little frustrating? Doesn’t it make your research a little bit inert? If you understand…

BEHE: Yeah I do understand your objection and I’ve actually heard that before. There’s a historian of science named Will Provine at Cornell and that’s his big objection. He says he thinks this is boring, you know. Who cares, you know, if somebody comes in and designs it, you know, what’s the fun of that?


BEHE: Well, okay. And I say…you say…well, you know, science has to describe things the way they are. It would be nice if the universe were the way we want it to be, but the job of science is to go out and figure it out. And actually limits, finding limits, is really the part of all theories in science. Give you an example, how about Einstein’s theory of relativity? He said that nothing can go faster than the speed of light. Well now isn’t that boring?


BEHE: How come… That stops research into how things can go faster than the speed of light and how we can get across galaxies in a split second. But nonetheless, that’s apparently the way things are. And if he said “Oh, well, you go ahead, but I’ll bet against your experiments succeeding and getting things to go faster than the speed of light.” You know, we would understand that he…the idea of the theory is to show you what’s a good question and what’s not a good question. Trying to find out what can go faster than the speed of light, according to Einstein, is not a good question to ask. And if you spend a lot of time there, you’re probably going to be wasting your time. In the same way Intelligent Design says a question like “How did an eyeball evolve by random mutation and natural selection?” is just a bad question because it didn’t happen that way. So let’s spend our time trying to figure out how it did happen.

MCWHORTER: Well, I don’t know. I, umm… The ant-eater has this long tongue and it’s sticky, and most animals don’t. And that evolved, somehow, and it’s impossible to explain how that happened via random mutation I assume (the muscles and the chemicals etc.) Your version would be (and I don’t mean this in mockery) God made the proteins interact that way because God had some plan that there would be this peculiar toothless creature with that tongue. And, there it goes. Now that, I respect that. If that’s really the way it is then it’s important for a scientist being empirical to understand that that’s the way it was. And there’s a part of me that wants to accept that and think “Well, the reason that, you know, people believe in God, and that people still do, that all of this is justified. There really is something larger than chemical interactions. And isn’t that absolutely fascinating?” That’s fun, in a way. Novelty can be striking. But, doesn’t that make you also want to figure out what that something more is, and hope that it would be something scientific? I mean clearly it taxes our imagination; it taxes our ability to conceive of things, almost like imagining a fourth dimension. But do you find it really impossible that we might, in fifty years or one hundred years, crack some kind of code that would explain the evolution of this kind of complexity? And it should be said that complexity theory (which you flag in your book), the Kauffman type, does not explain these sorts of things. That does not cover it. But are you quite sure that there isn’t something miraculous, and don’t you tremble at the notion of finding that science can go further? Are you not giving up because of maybe an initial belief that you already had that there was a puppeteer up there?

BEHE: No, I’m not giving up at all, or at least, that’s not the way I see it. I see it as a positive thing. I’m not…It’s not my…I’m a religious guy, but I used to think Darwinian evolution was true. It wasn’t until about twenty years ago (when I was, you know, I was thirty six at the time), when I decided Darwinian evolution didn’t do everything. I was taught Darwinian evolution in parochial schools. I’m a Catholic. So I am… I could live with theistic evolution (as a number of scientists do), and as a matter of fact I used to think that was true. But now I just don’t think it explains the data. I’m not trying to justify a belief in God or any such thing. I’m just, I’m a biochemist. I want to know where these complex molecular machines came from. And it sure doesn’t look like they came from a Darwinian process. And from everything I can tell, they have properties that are very similar to designed systems in our own world and so I just think it’s a good hypothesis that they were designed. If in fifty years somebody comes along with a better idea and shows that, well no there’s this complex thing that we never thought of and it doesn’t involve design, well then bless their heart. Then they win, okay, but that’s the way science is. But you can’t ignore something because it seems philosophically unpalatable…

MCWHORTER: Definitely not.

BEHE: Science will get in trouble a whole lot quicker, I think that way, than if it discovers something that seems to put some limit on nature, as most theories do.

MCWHORTER: Yeah. Just out of random curiosity, are you going to spend the rest of your active career engaged in showing us things that cannot be explained according to the theory? Or is there another aspect of your research? My question is “What is your research if you don’t believe in what so many of the other people believe in?” And that’s a genuine question.

BEHE: Well, it’s essentially along the lines of The Edge of Evolution. If you think that some things are designed, like I do, and if you think not everything is designed, like I do, then where’s a good place to draw this edge? Kind of characterizing nature is a classical scientific activity.


BEHE: In the seventeen, eighteen, nineteen hundreds, chemists would go out and try to find what elements there were. They just wanted to see what was there. Astronomers would survey the skies, see what planets were there. Well one can ask oneself what designed things are here, in life, and what did not require design, just to kind of get the lay of the land. And once we have the lay of the land, then maybe we would be in a better position to go and ask further questions. But right now I think we have to do that first before going on and trying to figure out some way in which a designer might work, or whether something besides design is called for.

MCWHORTER: This is an achingly urgent question; I cannot get enough of it. You know what, I’m gonna become a biochemist. I almost mean that. I’m going to start at the very beginning, and get a degree, because I wanna work on this. It would be so interesting if it really turned out that we had hit the wall that you’re talking about and I’m open to the possibility. But boy what a miracle it would be if we could figure out what the other part is. But you have convinced me completely that the basic Darwin with the beard story, the random mutation, that won’t do. And the people who are going to scoff at your work I highly suspect (and this is a completely irresponsible and arrogant thing for me to say as someone who is not a scientist), I don’t think that they’re reading you carefully enough. It sounds like there are people who are not thinking about what you’re saying. And I regret it because I really do believe that The Edge of Evolution is one of the most important books I have read in my entire life. And I hope that other people will actually take the book and read it all the way through. And forty-five minutes is about the best length for bloggingheads, and we have about hit that. And so umm, is there anything else that you wanted to get in before we closed, by the way?

BEHE: Yeah, here’s one thing, is that a lot of people object to evolution because of their religious values, but you don’t have to. You can object to evolution, or Darwinian evolution, simply on scientific grounds. And that’s what I’m trying to do. And as you’ve read there’s plenty of reason to do so.

MCWHORTER: Wow I chose the wrong career. Thank you very much Michael. This was absolutely illuminating.

BEHE: My pleasure, thank you John.

MCWHORTER: And I hope we talk again someday. Thanks.

4 Replies to “Transcript of McWhorter-Behe Blogginheads Discussion

  1. 1
    JeromeLam says:

    Thanks for the transcription.

  2. 2
    VMartin says:

    Good job. I suppose the discussion is also available on Michael Behe blog, but I am not sure of that.

    There is one thing I would like to add. Skunk’s scent gland has been mentioned as an example of “protective” device. Franz Heikertinger who dismissed effectivenes of “protective” devices compleletely had mentioned this in a small remark. Some traveller at the end of 19.century described a native tribe who ate skunks and have no problems with their scent.

    There is always someone (be it human or animals) who are not deterred by “protective” devices. This fact led Heikertinger to the statement that natural selection could not have played any role either in mimicry or evolution itself.

  3. 3
    absolutist says:

    McWhorther boldly expresses a fear of God when he admits “I don’t want to believe in God. I don’t like change.” Philosopher JP Moreland exposes this common fear of God in his book Consciousness, a Theistic Argument. JP refers to it as neurotic physicalism and a fear of spirits when he writes,

    “In my view, there are reasons to think that the current hylomania characteristic of naturalists is due in large measure to pneumatophobia or, more specifically, to a fear of God… For these naturalists, if one abandons strong physicalism one has rejected a scientific naturalist approach to the mind/body problem and opened himself up to the intrusion of religious concepts and arguments about the mental.”

    Moreland quotes Thomas Nagel who echoes what McWhorther concedes,

    “I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
    My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning, and design as fundamental features of the world.”

    McWhorther continues “The problem with this is (and I don’t want to believe in God it’s probably because of this) the problem with that is, isn’t that a little dull?”

    But would SETI scientists really think it is dull to find out it is aliens who sent us a message and not a freak, purely physical event. I think the prospect that an intelligence is the cause for the universe, DNA and skunks is way more interesting.

    If I were a naturalist I would ask myself: How does this fear of God motivate me and how does it affect the quality of my work?

  4. 4
    turell says:

    The animal with a question mark is an okapi, a grazing animal with a long neck, often called a jungle giraffe. Behe did an excellent job of explaining his position. thanks for providing the transcript.

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