Monty Python's flying creationism.
"There is an elephant in the roomful of scientists who are trying to explain the development of life," wrote Michael Behe, a professor of biochemistry, in his 1996 book Darwin's Black Box. The elephant was ubiquitous evidence of "intelligent design" in nature. Darwinian evolutionists, Behe argued, were unable to explain life's origins and its emerging complexity because they couldn't see the elephant.
Behe has the same problem, but worse. Last week in a Pennsylvania courtroom, he testified in defense of a school board's requirement that biology teachers mention ID. (For Hanna Rosin's reports from the trial, click here.) Behe offered a number of interesting criticisms of Darwinism. But it's impossible to focus on any of these criticisms, because they were so completely overshadowed by the brontosaurus in the room: ID's sophomoric emptiness.
What makes Behe's non-explanation a brontosaurus rather than an elephant is its resemblance to a famous Monty Python sketch in which a television newsman interviews a theorist.
Q: You say you have a new theory about the brontosaurus.
A: Can I just say here, Chris, for one moment, that I have a new theory about the brontosaurus.
Q: Exactly. Well, what is it? …
A: Oh, what is my theory?
A: Oh, what is my theory, that it is. Well, Chris, you may well ask me what is my theory.
Q: I am asking.
A: Good for you. My word, yes. Well, Chris, what is it that it is—this theory of mine. Well, this is what it is—my theory that I have, that is to say, which is mine, is mine.
Q: Yes, I know it's yours. What is it?
A: Where? Oh, what is my theory? This is it. My theory that belongs to me is as follows. This is how it goes. The next thing I'm going to say is my theory. Ready?
A: … This theory goes as follows and begins now. All brontosauruses are thin at one end; much, much thicker in the middle; and then thin again at the far end.
As though that explained anything. Which brings us to last week's cross-examination of Behe by Eric Rothschild, the lawyer opposing the school board in the Pennsylvania case.
Q: Please describe the mechanism that intelligent design proposes for how complex biological structures arose.
A: Well, the word "mechanism" can be used in many ways. … When I was referring to intelligent design, I meant that we can perceive that in the process by which a complex biological structure arose, we can infer that intelligence was involved. …
Q: What is the mechanism that intelligent design proposes?
A: And I wonder, could—am I permitted to know what I replied to your question the first time?
Q: I don't think I got a reply, so I'm asking you. You've made this claim here (reading): "Intelligent design theory focuses exclusively on the proposed mechanism of how complex biological structures arose." And I want to know, what is the mechanism that intelligent design proposes for how complex biological structures arose?
A: Again, it does not propose a mechanism in the sense of a step-by-step description of how those structures arose. But it can infer that in the mechanism, in the process by which these structures arose, an intelligent cause was involved.
The interrogation goes on like this for pages and pages. Like the theorist in the Monty Python sketch, Behe throws up a blizzard of babble: process, intelligent activity, important facts. What process? What activity? What facts? He never explains. He says the designer "took steps" to create complex biological systems, but ID can't specify the steps. Does ID tell us who designed life? No, he answers. Does it tell us how? No. Does it tell us when? No. How would the designer create a bacterial flagellum? It would "somehow cause the plan to, you know, go into effect," he proposes.
Can ID make testable predictions? Not really. If we posit that a given biological system was designed, Rothschild asks, what can we infer about the designer's abilities? Just "that the designer had the ability to make the design that is under consideration," says Behe. "Beyond that, we would be extrapolating beyond the evidence." Does Behe not understand that extrapolating beyond initial evidence is exactly the job of a hypothesis? Does he not grasp the meaninglessness of saying a designer designed things that were designed?
Evidently not. "That is exactly the basis for how we detect design—when we perceive the purposeful arrangement of parts," Behe declares. The essence of science—that detection means going beyond perception—escapes his comprehension. It also escapes his interest. He says his belief that the bacterial flagellum was intelligently designed could be tested, but he's never run the test. Why not? "I'm persuaded by the evidence that I cite in my book that this is a good explanation and that spending a lot of effort in trying to show how random mutation and natural selection could produce complex systems … is not real likely to be fruitful," he says. Who needs science when you've got faith?
So, this is my theory, which belongs to me, and goes as follows. All intelligently designed things are brought about by an intelligent designer through a process of intelligently conducted design. If it's good enough for Monty Python, it's good enough for biology class.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Image of brontosaurus by Ed Bohon/CORBIS.