Biologist Michael Behe explains Intelligent Design on the Science Channel

osted by Morgan FreemanThe Science Channel's Through the Wormhole regularly raises provocative questions regarding life, the universe, and everything.  

On a recent episode, Through the Wormhole gave Michael Behe the opportunity to voice his theories on Intelligent Design. According to intelligentdesign.org, this theory "...holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection." 

Behe justifies his belief thusly: "Irreducibly complex systems appear to me to be very difficult to explain within a traditional gradualistic Darwinian framework, because the function of the system only appears when the system is essentially complete. Despite much general progress by science in the past half century in understanding how complex biochemical systems work, little progress has been made in explaining how such systems arise in a Darwinian fashion. I have proposed that a better explanation is that such systems were deliberately designed by an intelligent agent." 

The theory of Intelligent Design has sparked extensive - and sometimes vitriolic - controversy in the scientific community. Rationalwiki.org calls it a "psuedoscience" and states that "Intelligent design has been widely criticised for its failure to state what mechanism drives it, its lack of falsifiability, and many other problems that leave it lacking as a scientific theory."  

Both Intelligent Design and Neo-Darwinism - the most widely accepted theory for the origin and development of life - both face the same questions in regards to the existence of life: how did it get here, what is its purpose, and what is its ultimate goal? 

These are ultimately philosophical questions, and Biology is a science - meaning that its purpose is to observe and define the material aspects of life. As such, the question becomes: can biology rise to the level of explaining origin, purpose, and destiny? 

Neo-Darwinism and Intelligent Design both tend to agree on the process by which life adapts and develops. Where they tend to diverge is at the questions of how it arose in the first place and whether or not it has a purpose. If it can be shown that there is some kind of design behind the existence of life, then the answer of purpose may be addressable; but is such a thing possible through scientific means? 

In 1944, during the Pacific Campaign of World War 2, three separate B-29 Bombers belonging to the U.S. Airforce made emergency landings in Soviet Russia. Russia did not possess the technology for heavy aircraft of this type, nor had the U.S. consented to share this technology. So when the Russians came into possession of the downed aircraft, they had their engineers examine the aircraft. Taking these planes apart piece-by-piece, the Soviet engineers were able to determine how these craft had been designed, and to replicate these designs. 

Three years prior to this, a Swedish man named Georges de Mestral was returning from a hunting trip when he noticed burrs sticking to his clothing and to his dog’s fur. Fascinated by the way these seeds hooked onto fibers, de Mestral carefully studied the seeds design, and discovered that they were covered with tiny hooks. Georges de Mestral carefully copied this design to create the product now known as Velcro. 

Both the re-creation of the U.S. bomber planes and the invention of Velcro reflect a process known as “reverse engineering.” Reverse engineering is when a scientist looks at a design and then tries to determine how that design was put together so that they may understand its purpose. Often this is done in order to replicate the design. 

Before reverse engineering is employed, however, it is almost always assumed that the subject of study has a purpose and a design to study. There is no compelling reason to take a pile of trash and try to determine its purpose and design. It is self-evident that the trash pile has no design, and that its only purpose is to dispose of unwanted and unusable materials. However, when an archaeologist stumbles upon a stone temple, they will spend whole lifetimes attempting to determine both its purpose and its design.  

It may be at some point in the future that the mechanics of biology and physics will have been completely comprehended and recorded. At that point, the greatest portion of scientific pursuit will be retired, as there is nothing left to study. What will not stop, however, is the process of design. Humans will continue to attempt to improve the universe by designing and constructing new things out of a drive for a more desirable world.  

However, if the thing that lies behind - that drives - the observable universe (or one aspect of that universe, such as life) is a mind, it is possible to infer certain things about that mind by studying the things it has produced. 

The scientific process often becomes mired in those things that motivate the scientist. When it comes to observing and recording aspects of the universe, there is very little room for controversy. However, when scientists are called to hypothesize why things function or how they came to be, and then use these hypotheses to make predictions, it requires the scientist to fit their observations together under a larger framework of understanding. If a scientist's observations lead her or him to conclude that systems work together and exist as a function of design, then their predictions will tend to meet those expectations. If, on the other hand, the scientist feels that the observable universe is best explained through mindless chaos and happenstance, these also will drive their predictions. 

But this is the beautiful thing about the scientific method. It necessarily filters out bad hypotheses when their predictions come up false again and again. For this reason, the debate over Intelligent Design need not be so heated. If it turns out to be bad science, it will fail or fall in step with the mainstream just as did steady state theorymiasma theory of diseasevitalismcaloric theory, and spontaneous generation.