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A step forward for Intelligent Design
on 9 July 2007
Behe's first book, "Darwin's Black Box", was one of the books that made the Intelligent Design debate more visible. Proponents of ID argue that it is possible to argue on the basis of scientific evidence that life (or the universe) requires intelligent input of some sort. This differs from creationism, that argues fundamentally for the presence of God on the basis of the authority of a religious text. However, since like creationism, ID excludes the possibility of a naturalistic explanation of various phenomena, it has aroused the indignation of many of the same opponents, who are keen to characterise ID as being no more than "creationism in a cheap tuxedo".
So it is inevitable that this book will polarise the opinions of readers - or potential readers: enough people who know Behe by reputation may well weigh in on either side of the debate without actually bothering to read "The Edge of Evolution".
However, what is of more importance than the debate between nay-sayers and yay-sayers are the issues that Behe raises. He goes substantially beyond "Darwin's Black Box" here. In his first book, he argues that complex biochemical machinery could not arise by chance. In this book, he suggests that "the edge of evolution" - the most complicated achievement that a purely darwinist process could hope to achieve - is much less complex than (say) a machine like the bacterial flagellum. He makes the case for this in mathematical terms - calculations that are more biologically specific than those presented by Dembski in "The Design Inference" - and backs up his case by looking at two specific biological systems in some detail - the malaria parasite and the AIDS virus.
In effect, he is arguing that whilst darwinism is an adequate means of explaining microevolution (such as antibiotic resistance, the preservation of the sickle-cell mutation, and resistance to antimalarial drugs), it is not powerful enough to produce macroevolution. He is quite careful about his terminology here; he accepts both natural selection and common descent, but argues that random mutation - a required plank of darwinism - is not up to the task required of it.
One of the major charges made against ID is its refusal to identify either a designer or a process. Behe points out again that identification of a designer is not inherent in the identification of design, but does propose a process. He argues that life as we see it has to be a highly non-random outcome of processes - and therefore, the designer might work by manipulating these processes. This might mean engineering mutations throughout the history of life to bring about the desired end. Is this distinguishable from random mutations? He would argue, yes - if an outcome is very low probability, then it is not an adequate or reasonable explanation to suggest that it is random. Even Dawkins - the loudest proponent of darwinism - accepted this in "The Blind Watchmaker", where he suggested that if life could be shown to be unlikely to arise once in the galaxy, then the assertion that life was the product of chance would be unreasonable. Of course, this was written in those innocent, pre-"Rare Earth" days when Carl Sagan was confidently asserting that there were probably thousands of intelligent life forms all around us in the universe.
Behe's book is a serious attempt to move the debate on - and has been accompanied by serious attempts by darwinist heavyweights to get people to ignore him - see Behe's blog on amazon.com for details of his interactions with such. Of course, you need an open mind if you are going to accept that there might be an intelligent designer - whoever or whatever that happened to be. But isn't that what we post-enlightenment thinkers are supposed to have?