Saturday, November 22, 2014
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ID Guru Michael Behe Faces Challengers

I learned a lot about intelligent design after hearing Michael Behe speak at Villanova. I still think it's pseudoscience, but now I have a new reason to discount it.

ID Guru Michael Behe Faces Challengers

I learned something new about intelligent design on Thursday night after listening to one of the movement's most visible proponents. Biochemistry professor Michael Behe was the star witness for the anti-evolution school board in the 2005 Dover trial. He's written several influential books on the idea that life was at least partly cobbled together by a non-human intelligent designer. 

The event was held at Villanova University. It started with a screening of the intelligent design documentary, “A Flock of Dodos” and finished with a panel discussion.

Not surprisingly, the audience directed most of the questions toward Behe. Some wanted to know how he and his cohorts could possibly test the principles of ID. Others tried to pin him down on the details of this so-called theory. He wiggled and slipped around the questions, none of the answers quite satisfying. After some 25 minutes of interchange, the audience was still struggling to get a grasp on the man and his strange view of science.

One of the most interesting questions came from the filmmaker, Randy Olson. He wanted to know how Behe could justify what seemed clearly to be a “god-of-the-gaps” position, in which a supernatural designer makes for an easy answer to hard scientific questions.

Behe’s answer here was interesting. He said ID is more like archeology or forensics, in which scientists find positive evidence for human influence in artifacts or scenes.

Olson addressed this claim nicely in the film, explaining that scientists have a large number of documented human-created artifacts, so we know what to look for. There’s a way to do this scientifically. But we don’t have any definitive god-created objects or artifacts so there’s no basis for comparison. We don’t really know what a god-created artifact is supposed to look like.

The only trait ID proponents seem to attribute to the designer is that he/she/it is intelligent. We know intelligence because we see it in ourselves – or some of ourselves anyway.

Then someone asked about the blind spot in the eye. Why would an intelligent designer make it with a flaw? Behe’s answer: We can’t presume to know how God would want to design something.

But wait! Does that mean their God might not appear intelligent to us? That would seem to undermine any claim that they can detect designed structures in nature. Now there's no criteria for assessing design - it doesn't even have to look intelligent.    

I noticed in the comments following an earlier blog post that someone  questioned my understanding of ID because I’d quoted Olson’s use of the rabbit digestive system as an example of poor design. The commenter thought surely the ID people didn’t use that as an example of good design, so Olson and I were revealing our ignorance. This reader may be making assumptions that ID is more organized and specific than it really is.

ID is vague about the nature of the designer, what’s been designed, how much of life is designed, and why God would design some aspects of nature and leave others like the poor rabbit’s digestive system up to evolution.

About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at fflam@phillynews.com. Reach Planet of the at fflam@phillynews.com.

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