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Darwin slayer

Interview | Scientific discoveries on the foundations of life, argues MICHAEL BEHE in his new book, fatally strike the theory of random mutations

Issue: "When the base cracks," July 21, 2007

Michael Behe's debut work, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (1996), was the Intelligent Design movement's magnum opus, its biggest book of the decade. Here was a biology professor (at Lehigh University, where he has taught since 1985) who could write well and develop good metaphors.

Behe's emphasis on "irreducible complexity" explained why chance mutations could not be the driving engine of macroevolutionary change. He showed how the complexity of organs and organisms means that not one mutation but dozens would have to kick in all at once, an event as improbable as would be the production by complete chance of a spring-driven mousetrap.

Now Behe is back with his second book, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (Free Press, 2007). Those who wonder why he doesn't publish more often should know that he has nine children. But a book once every decade or so is about as much as Darwinians can take. Behe's new work shows that Darwinism's random mutation and natural selection explain little about how one species has led to another.

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Behe's insistence that key mutations in the history of life must have been nonrandom, and that the universe is clearly designed for life, will infuriate Darwinian materialists. But he will also displease creationists, for he argues that "the evidence for common descent seems compelling." Modern DNA sequencing, he contends, shows that many creatures have common ancestors, and that God did not create man from dust.

WORLD: Compared to modern scientists, how much did Charles Darwin and other scientists of his day know about the nature of the cell and the fine-tuning that makes life possible?

BEHE: Darwin and his contemporaries knew very little about the cell, which is the foundation of life. Microscopes of that era were too crude to see many critical details. So 19th-century scientists thought the cell was simple "protoplasm," like a piece of microscopic Jell-O. Now we know that the cell is chock full of sophisticated nanotechnology, literally machines made from molecules. The same goes for the universe. In Darwin's era the universe was thought to be pretty simple. Now we know its basic laws are balanced on a razor's edge to allow for life, and that our planet may be the only one in the universe that could support intelligent life. The more we know about nature, the more design we see.

WORLD: The Edge of Evolution takes a long, hard look at malaria. Why is the lack of fundamental change among malaria cells over the past 50 years, since widespread drug treatments first appeared, evidence against Darwin?

BEHE: Suppose some fellow bragged that he could hurdle a tall building by first jumping up past the first floor, gaining a foothold, jumping from there to the second floor, and so on. But if you called him on it, and after a billion tries he hadn't made it even to the second floor, you'd know his boast was just bluster. Darwinism asserts that, given enough chances, by tiny steps random mutation and natural selection can build sophisticated molecular machinery. Yet given an astronomical number of chances over thousands of generations with malarial parasites that are under strong pressure from human drugs, no new or sophisticated machinery was found, only tiny changes in old machines. That gives us compelling reason to conclude Darwinism's boasts are bluster.

WORLD: You write that "HIV has killed millions of people, fended off the human immune system, and become resistant to whatever drug humanity could throw at it. Yet through all that, there have been no significant basic biochemical changes in the virus at all." Why is that significant in the debate over Darwin?

BEHE: Like malaria, HIV is a microbe that occurs in astronomical numbers. What's more, its mutation rate is 10,000 times greater than that of most other organisms. So in just the past few decades HIV has actually undergone more of certain kinds of mutations than all cells have endured since the beginning of the world. Yet all those mutations, while medically important, have changed the functioning virus very little. It still has the same number of genes that work in the same way. There is no new molecular machinery. If we see that Darwin's mechanism can only do so little even when given its best opportunities, we can decisively conclude that random mutation did not build the machinery of life.

WORLD: You show that "random mutation is almost certainly useless, even for the largest populations, when a flight of stairs is missing between biological floors." Please explain that metaphor.

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