on 23 March 1999
As a biochemist interested in DNA structures and the origins of complex systems, I was delighted to hear that someone in my area of research had written a book on this subject. Behe does a good job of trying to convey the problem. If anything, molecular systems are even MORE complex than detailed in his well written and wonder-filled descriptions. However, I was surprised and frustrated to find the use of poor logic and factual errors throughout the book. For example, Behe can't find articles that he LIKES about the molecular evolution of flagella, so he then proceeds to claim that these articles simply don't exist. There are entire textbooks with titles like "Molecular Evolution" (search Amazon.com and see for yourself), and yet Behe insists that nothing has been written on the subject, and concludes that the reason for this is because no one has been able to find any detailed evidence for molecular evolution.
One of the examples cited of "irreducible complexity" is the bacterial flagellum. Behe claims that 40 proteins are necessary for a fully functional flagellum. Whilst this is true for E.coli, flagella in many bacteria are made from fewer proteins - for example, in the bacterium that causes syphilis (Treponema pallidum), there are a total of 38 flagellar proteins; in the bacterium that causes lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi), there are only 35 flagellar proteins; finally, in a bacteria associated with ulcers (Helicobacter pylori) there are only 33 proteins necessary to form complete, fully functional flagella. It is likely that as new bacterial genomes continue to be sequenced (at the rate of about one a month!), organisms will be found which require even fewer genes to make a completely functional flagella. So this "irreducible complex" of 40 proteins has shrunk to 33 proteins, in the past 2 years of research! Behe's argument is that EVERY ONE of the 40 proteins are necessary. Obviously 7 of those 40 aren't completely necessary. Maybe it's only 30 or perhaps even 20 proteins that are absolutely necessary? It's hard to say, but it is very dangerous to make such dogmatic statements as "this system is irreducibly complex", especially when the system is made up of proteins that have other normal functions in the cell, apart from flagella - such as the GTPase proteins. For a more fair treatment of the subject of flagella (and bacteria and molecular evolution in general), I can happily recommend reading "The Outer Reaches of Life", by John Postgate (also available through Amazon.com), which is an excellent treatise about bacteria written for the "non-scientific reader".
Of course there is a need to explain the origins of biochemical complexity. But declaring "intelligent design by a miracle" to be this method is neither scientific nor helpful. I guess my advice would be similar to that of Huxley about Darwin's Origin of the Species - please read Behe's book and decide for yourself!
on 8 December 2012
I recommend Behe's book not because he offers a knock-down refutation of Darwinian evolution (he may or may not have done that), nor because he makes a great case for design as an alternative (this is probably the weakest part of the book), but because his book provides a fascinating insight into what happens when someone challenges scientific orthodoxy. That this is the tenth anniversary edition is helpful because, in a new afterword, Behe examines some of the criticisms that have been offered against the book's main idea: irreducible complexity. This is particularly interesting because one can see first-hand (by reference to the original text, and the voluminous online "rebuttals") the way in which Behe's ideas have been systematically misrepresented by the scientific community, and even within the US legal system. Thus for anyone interested in the way ideas can come to be dogma, and how such dogma is defended by fair means and foul, Behe's book provides the staring point for a fascinating case study. It is also a fairly clear and well written introduction to some of the extraordinary discoveries of molecular biology and, when all is said and done, does seem to present a challenge to the current evolutionary paradigm which, I think, has not yet been fully addressed.
on 7 January 2008
The basic argument is that evolution by a gradual series of random mutations cannot account for the development of highly complex ,resolved and irreducible bio-chemical networks.
It does not do justice to this book to portray this debate as religion v science.
The fact is that we struggle to explain the evolution of life on Earth from pre-biotic chemicals;or the evolution of DNA and its sophisticated interaction with proteins.
It is no bad thing to remain sceptical of whether nineteenth and early twentieth century scientific theory is really adequate to fully explain the outstanding complexity or the brilliantly conceived and engineered solutions of nature.
on 4 February 1999
(1) The author shows little knowledge of or interest in the evolutionary literature. How is it possible to refute a theory without knowing the evidence and arguments on which it is based?
(2) The "irriducible complexity" argument is just not new. The arguments in the book had been refuted before the book was published by authors such as Darwin, Muller, Cavalier-Smith, etc, etc. This applies to both the general argument and to many of the specific examples given. See (1) above.
(3) The author professes to accept many of the central findings of evolutionary biology, e.g. that plants and animals share the same common ancestor. But these facts pose obvious and profound difficulties for his arguments. His attempt to deal with these difficulties is perfunctory and obviously flawed.
(4) The author is a professional scientist. But he has made no attempt to convince his colleagues of these ideas. Not one peer reviewed paper on irriducible complexity or intelligent design. If he had sought the opinion of his colleagues he would have had to confront problems (1) (2) and (3) and this awful book would not have been published!
on 3 September 1999
I found this book to be a remarkably thorough, dispassionate, readable, and proficient evaluation of essential criteria that an evolutionary theory must meet regarding the origins of life in order to continue to stand. Evolutionary theory hobbles itself by allowing only memoryless, purposeless, random processes to account for all life. Behe examines whether what we know about biochemistry can support such a postulate. He finds and shows that living molecular biochemical machinery is extremely, reemphasize extremely, complex, and cannot be made any simpler without destroying its function. Moreover, according to his rather comprehensive survey of the Biochemistry literature, no one out there has ever shown any simpler working way to make these machines, as a more "primitive" step in an evolutionary path to what now exists. They either only wave their hands and say it must have been so because evolution is true, or they make up simplistic, unrelated mathematical or mechanical structures that seem to gradually progress from simplicity to complexity, and use them to "prove" that the living biochemical world must have done so, without ever showing that the actual biochemical world ever did so or could ever do so by identifiable biochemical evolutionary steps. For example, he shows that the clotting mechanism is extremely complex, and must be so to work. The evolutionary theorists fail to ever show that there either could be or was a simpler way to handle clotting. If an attempt is mounted to make it simpler, clotting simply does not work and becomes lethal. All steps are essential. He repeats this demonstration for a number of biochemical systems.
Speaking for myself, Behe comes as close as anyone I have ever read to presenting a formal disproof of the evolutionary hypothesis in connection with an aspect of life common to every living thing: biochemical cellular machinery. Evolution requires by its axioms gradual, not unavoidably sudden, increases in complexity. It has no way of explaining sudden, coordinated complexity. But the irreducible coordinated complexity of biochemistry in a cell makes the complexity of the Pentium III pale in comparison. The sudden appearance of such a phenomenal degree of complexity by chance processes is frankly not at all credible, rather has become an embarassment to those who propose it. And if evolutionary thought fails at this important juncture, then it fails altogether as a purely mechanistic hypothesis for the existence of life.
I have never seen a proper rebuttal to this book. Those who criticize Behe, like some reviews here, seem to repeat the kind of blind, unscientific allegation he highlights in the book itself, almost as if they had not even read the book. I would be very interested in specific disproofs of the irreducible complexity of the actual biochemical machines and processes found in life. Until that time, this book, in my book, constitutes more than any other a formal disproof of the evolutionary hypothesis.
on 11 October 2011
Gosh, what a funny old book. Subtitled 'The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution', Behe's work starts as an intelligent dig at some apparent holes in the Darwinist literature and ends as a not-quite-overt Creationist tract.
Behe is a biochemist, and also, as we learn 15 pages from the book's close, a Roman Catholic. His argument is a compelling one: that Darwinists focus almost exclusively on gross anatomy, yet the kinds of changes they invoke on the road to, say, the human eye, are never elucidated at the detailed molecular level. This, says Behe, is a gigantic con trick since the smallest phenotypic effect can require intricate and massive changes at the level of biochemistry and hence would not be attainable by natural selection.
It's a good idea, and somewhat convincing in the context of Behe's examples. His argument centres on 'irreducible complexity', which suggests that there are systems in biology that simply could not have evolved gradually, and he eventually (on page 193) comes clean and states that the systems he's described (cilia, blood clotting, etc.) were 'clearly' designed by an intelligent being.
The examples Behe considers are deliberately complex, yet his assertion that such systems are irreducibly complex is undermined by his own attack on the 'argument from personal incredulity' - just because he considers such system irreducible doesn't necessarily mean that they are so. His mousetrap example is particularly unconvincing, although we shouldn't let this obscure his basic point, which is that if natural selection can't explain an irreducibly complex system, we must, on Darwin's own admission, discard it as a natural philosophy.
Behe certainly has some interesting things to say about questioning our beliefs and why we hold such beliefs in the first place, but ultimately his message will stand or fall on details that we laymen must take on trust. His suggestion that science must explain the actual detailed route by which any evolutionary step took place seems ill-founded, and it all goes a bit pear-shaped towards the end, when he reveals his Creationist agenda.
For all that, it's a thought-provoking read.
on 3 February 2016
Irreducible Complexity. This is a clever observation and an argument for teleology that has got many taking it as a challenge to disprove Behe. I read this in 1996 and has since observed the Intelligent design battle with their critics. Design seems obvious to me and their arguments makes sense. It's well written and worth a read.
I'd like to purchase his book Edge of Evolution for Kindle, but I don't see it in that format. Sounds like a good follow up.
on 25 October 1998
'Darwin's Black Box' is undoubtedly an IMPORTANT work in that it represents probably the best argued and most plausible attempt to overturn the Neo-Darwinian paradigm yet published (though, considering the standard of most anti-Darwinian 'literature', that is not saying very much). However, 'important' in this context is a weasel word; the extraordinary number of reviews of the book posted here give some indication of it's impact on the reading public- but 'impact' is not here to be equated with 'enlightenment'. Behe is NOT a latter-day "Newton, Einstein, Lavoisier, Schrodinger, Pasteur [or] Darwin", as he so humbly claims in his book. (By contrast Darwin himself was famously modest about his 'Dangerous Idea', despite it being "the best idea that anybody ever had", according to Dennett- a sentiment that Dawkins and, incidentally, I myself echo. I hasten to add that I do not seek to commit here the Behean sin of delusion of scientific grandeur- I do not seek to place myself on an intellectual par with Dennett, Dawkins, Darwin or, for that matter, Behe himself!). The reasons for Behe's non-membership (on his current output at least) of this ultimate Scientific Hall Of Fame are many. Some of the Behe-critical reviews posted below have pointed out factual errors and logical flaws in his book, as well as his frankly dishonest flat denial of the progress made through the (according to Behe "non-existent") work of evolutionary biochemists over the last several decades.
A pertinent web-page, 'Behe's Empty Box', has already been cited by it's author in an earlier review here, but it is such an excellent resource for anyone interested in this book and the issues it raises that I hope the Amazon webmaster will forgive me for reposting it. Here are to be found MANY professional and non-professional reviews of 'Darwin's Black Box', links to other online writings by Behe, his proponents and his critics. Anyone with sufficient interest in the subject to post a review here (or, indeed, to read THIS review) will quite likely find themselves, like me, spending whole evenings digging through the mine of information presented on this site. I must say in advance though that those who have been convinced by Behe's Irreducible Complexity/Intelligent Design thesis are likely to find their viewpoint radically undermined by the (in my view) devastating critiques of a number of biologists, geneticists, and other biochemists presented here.
In the final analysis, alas, Behe's Box, unlike that of Pandora, has revealed nothing truly new or unexpected, and has in fact already been firmly shut again by his scientific peers. I fear, however, that it may be quite some time before the more credulous of his readers realise this.
on 25 September 2014
I finally got round to buying this book and it has answered a nagging question that had been in my head for a couple of years. Some time ago I came across a Youtube denunciation of Michael Behe's Irreducible Complexity argument, delivered by someone with a beard. It was a lecture. The beard furiously wagged up and down as it's owner (can't remember who it was) told his audience that every component protein in the bacterial flagellum had a separate function elsewhere in the cell. Since (said the beard) Behe's definition of Irreducible Complexity was a system whose constituent parts had no function outside the system, the bacterial flagellum was not irreducibly complex. When I saw this clip I wondered why Behe should weaken his argument by insisting the constituent proteins had no function outside the system in question. Well it turns out Behe never said any such thing. He clearly states in the original part of the book that the proteins in the biochemical systems he is considering can have roles elsewhere - for example, he mentions that the motor proteins in the cilium are also in use as transport vehicles, hauling cargoes along tubulin trackways inside the cell. This is confirmed in the additional chapter which Behe has added to the 2006 edition of the book. He reveals that the stipulation that the protein components had to be unique to the complex system was the invention of one of his opponents, evolutionist Kenneth Miller.
As well as the bacterial flagellum the author covers several other irreducibly complex systems, principle among these being the cilium, blood clotting, the immune system, and biosynthesis of adenosine monophosphate. For each of these systems he gives strong reasons why they could not have arisen from random processes. All of them have multiple interlocking components which must all be present otherwise the system would not function at all, so their construction would need forethought and planning.
Just one little niggle, nothing to do with his science (which I think is robust and convincing). In his introductory remarks the author has an amusing variation of the Elephant in the Room expression (or maybe it's the original). He imagines a flattened body in a room. Detectives are scouring the room for clues to the identity of the culprit, oblivious to the presence of an elephant standing by the body. They are so intent on looking for a man that they are blind to the elephant. In the same way, says Behe, secular scientists are so focussed on naturalistic mechanisms that they don't see the obvious hallmarks of design in biochemical systems. But I think Behe misses an elephant himself in the discussion in the latter part of the book, where he is talking about the implications of intelligent design. He says people should accept the shock of a designed cell in the same way physicists had to accept the shock of quantum mechanics, and makes some soothing noises about non-religious possibilities for the identity of the designer. The elephant, of course, is that few believe the designer could be other than God, and God means Judgment. I'm convinced that's why he's getting the flak. I think his ID colleague Stephen Meyer is more satisfactory here. Stephen Meyer openly says ID, though not based on religion, has religious implications. Read the last paragraph of Meyer's Darwin's Doubt if you have it.
Despite that small proviso, Darwin's Black Box is a five-star book.
on 3 September 1999
Behe's book supposedly raises new and shocking arguments against the theory of evolution and in the process totally destroys Darwin's little idea. Right? Wrong!!! The argument of irreducible complexity has been around for a while (think of the old query: what good is 5% of an eye?)and has been quite sufficiently refuted several times (read anything by Richard Dawkins). The fundamental problem lies in the fact that a structure is only irreducibly complex in relation to its current function. A cilium is irreducibly complex AS A CILIUM. This does not mean, however, that the various components of a cilium are useless unless they are in a cilium. In fact, it is highly likely that many of the components of a cilium can be used for other cellular functions. The same holds for any other organelle(or organ or tissue or .....). Behe elegantly displays his laziness by the curious lack of a testable alternative theory to evolution by natural selection. Giving up and saying that God made everything is NOT a theory and as such has no place in a supposedly scientific book. Furthermore, Behe's argument loses even more credence when one realizes that, in spite of his use of molecular biology against natural selection, molecular biology places the fundamental processes of life firmly within the purely objective and godless realm of chemistry and ultimately physics. Nothing that happens within a cell needs to be explained by appealing to a vague supernatural entity. As a final point, Behe admits that microevolution does occur (it's hard not to, since there are a good deal of hard data that support it). But is there any other type of evolution besides microevolution? The answer is no because the environment acts upon the individual during its life span. This is where it all actually happens, folks, and by that I mean differential survival and differential reproduction, two cornerstones of evolutionary theory. By admitting that Darwin was correct on the small scale, Behe inadvertantly refuted himself and, as a result, produced this wonderful example of anti-intellectualism.