Monday, June 25, 2007

Intelligent Design - Darwin's Black Box

Our church has started an Intelligent Design book club, and we chose Darwin’s Black Box as our first book. As someone who has been a fan of ID for a while, I feel a little ashamed to say I haven’t read this seminal book until now.

But now that I have started it, I have a couple of simple observations right off the bat. First, I am enjoying how non-religious the argument is so far. There is a chapter at the end of the book about “Science, Philosophy, and Religion” but so far the argument is nothing but biochemistry. It has always irked me that the ID argument is rejected out-of-hand, labeled a “religious argument.” That kind of a priori and ad hominum maneuver is indicative of a position that does not want to be debated in public. In addition, that kind of labeling keeps the real issues – the scientific and philosophical issues – from being dealt with seriously.

The second issue is related to his famous notion of irreducible complexity: the idea of minimal function. In part this states that not only do all the parts of an organism need to be in place all at once for it to function, but all the parts need to be the right parts. The fact that not just any set of amino acids will do for the construction of proteins is a rather powerful addition to irreducible complexity. Using his analogy of the mousetrap, it cannot be constructed from a tongue depressor, a crowbar and a ballpoint pen spring. To function, the mousetrap needs to have all its constituent parts be the right parts. This reality makes the chance origin of life without intelligent direction all that more improbable.


Olorin said...

If you're going to use Behe's book for its "irreducuible complexity" argument, you should use the latest version, "The Edge of Evolution" (2007)

Be aware, however, that Behe did not originate this concept. It was introduced by Nobel laureate biologist Herman Muller in 1918. He put it forward as an argument _for_ evolution, not against evolution. Behe won't tell you about Muller, but you can read about Muller's ideas at

By the way, the reasons that a tongue depressor, a crowbar and a ballpoint-pen spring will never make a mousetrap are that: (a) none of these items reproduce themselves; (b) none of these items would gain any advantage by being able to catch mice.

These two reasons reflect a lack of the two elements of evolution: (a) inherited variation; and (b) natural selection.

But, if you still must study Behe, you could at least keep up to date on his work.

Phil Steiger said...


As for keeping up with Behe’s work, I probably will read more of his work in the future, but my goal here is not an academic state of the science literature review. Darwin’s Black Box remains a seminal work in the scientific critique of Darwinism, so I feel perfectly comfortable reading what it has to say.

As for why the listed items don’t make a mousetrap, it seems you might be mixing the analogy with the biology. In a literal sense, those items don’t make a mousetrap because they don’t function that way when assembled. Behe’s point, in part, is that a sufficient explanation of the origin of life needs far more than the simple presence of amino acids, enzymes, a catalyst, and so forth. The origin of life needs this set of amino acids, this set of catalysts, and so forth. It significantly decreases the odds of a random, lucky, origin of life.

I don’t think I claimed that irreducible complexity was an idea originated by Behe (and I am not so sure he does either). But if Muller’s use of “irreducible complexity” was an argument for evolution, and Behe’s is one against a Darwinian explanation of the origin of life, I am fully within my logical rights to call it “[Behe’s] famous notion of irreducible complexity.” Though they have the same labels, they are clearly different arguments if they come to opposite conclusions. That is a good reason why Behe may not reference Muller’s use of “irreducible complexity.”

Anonymous said...

When I first read this book, I also was impressed with how it's so un-biased. It spends time presenting facts rather than berating the opposing camp. I am often appalled at how the creationist books are just as nasty towards evolutionists as is the reverse. It should be an argument of intellect and faith, not against people. "We wrestle not againt flesh and blood..." Also, I'm encouraged to see Christians willing to read and talk about evolution... far too many Christians and churches run from any discussion of evolution, as if learning about it would cause them to lose their faith. Just that fear suggests that they doubt their faith, that they believe evolution is persuasive enough that the only way to reject it is to never hear about it. Of course, Darwin's Back Box is just one example of how easy it is to learn about evolution and come away thinking it's a crazy and unfounded concept... and I think we have a duty as Christians to evaluate it and be able to discuss it intelligently, instead of sending the message to the world that we have to turn our brains off and run away from every new idea in order to still believe in the Bible. We really have given the world the impression that you can't "think"- can't be smart, educated and certainly not scientific- and still believe the Bible. That's just not true- and we need to change that image of Christianity.

Phil Steiger said...


I could not agree more. The Church will have impact in this world the more it engages it, not the less it knows and engages. If it is true that "all truth is God's truth," (and it is!), there will never be anything to fear by doing this sort of thing.

Rusty said...

Glad to see you're getting around to reading Behe's book, Phil.

You do well to note that the notion of irreducible complexity casts the light of improbability on chance origin. IC does not maintain that natural process evolution cannot happen, just that it is absurdly unlikely.

Phil Steiger said...


I am glad to be reading it after all these years of following ID. You are right about the crux of the argument, and that is one of the reasons I like this book so much. If it is read seriously I don't know how it can be dismissed as a "religious" point of view.

Realitology said...

"Evolution" is a loaded word and people bring lots of emotional baggage along with it.

Even when I used to believe in god I never doubted that evolution was a fact. All you have to do it open your eyes and the evidence is all around you in every living thing you see. I honestly don't see how an honest, thinking, person could deny that it's a fact.

And having said that, I never understood why religious folks were so threatened by it. Of course I always took the bible as stories and parables and not as fact. I recognized the contradictions and counter-intelligence of it before I was a teenager.

The "arguments" against evolution are like most other things that people say. They don't know what in the world they're talking about. They parrot what they heard on TV or from a friend and have little or no understanding of the facts.

In the past I've "argued" with creationists and intelligent design supporters but have largely stopped because it's clear that they have such a complete and basic lack of knowledge of the subject that there's no point.

It's like arguing with someone who insists that the sky is green. What can you say to that? There's no point in discussing something with someone who doesn't know what they're talking about.

Here it is in a nutshell-- things reproduce.

2-Variation...when things reproduce the offspring is (usually) not an exact copy of the parent

3-Selection...Some of the variations of offspring will make the offspring either more likely or less likely to survive and reproduce.

OK which of those three things do you not believe in? They're all obviously true aren't they? That's evolution for you in a nutshell. How can people still debate the obvious in this day and age? It boggles the mind.

Phil Steiger said...


Laying aside the straw men you raise concerning the truth-value of Christianity, I do think you miss the crux of the book, and of most of the ID critique of Naturalistic Darwinism. As Behe himself says a couple of times in the book, he has no particular beef with common descent or variation over time (what might be called micro evolution).

His argument is about evolution as a statement on the origin of life. And his critique is rather powerful. If all these molecular machines and sub-cellular processes are irreducibly complex and require minimal function standards (among other things), then the most rational conclusion is that there is deliberation and intelligence behind the origin of life.

Matt B. said...

The following quote comes from evolutionist author Richard Dawkins.

""EVOLUTION," involves a drawing action: "EVOLUTION basically consists of endless repetition of REPRODUCTION. In every generation, REPRODUCTION takes the genes that are supplied to it by the previous generation, and hands them on to the next generation but with minor random errors - mutations. A mutation simply consists in +1 or -1 being added to the value of a randomly chosen gene. This means that, as the generations go by, the total amount of genetic difference from the original ancestor can become very large, cumulatively, one small step at a time. But although the mutations are random, the cumulative change over the generations is not random."

This is precisely what Realitology presumes. Even if this were true, evolution has no statement of ultimate origins. Where did we/tiny ball of cells come from in the first place?

You also must consider the notion of genetic mutations. When something today has a mutation, the word mutation alone holds a negative connotation. The mutated organism is defective, impaired or handicapped. How can an evolutionary theory rely on mutations as grounds for natural selection?