Revisiting Intelligent Design

The fall 2006 issue of Jewish Action contained a debate about intelligent design (ID). Unfortunately, neither of the two proponents of ID explained what is meant by the new concept of ID, which was first introduced by Professor Michael Behe in his 1996 book, Darwin’s Black Box. Professor Behe claims that he has discovered an ironclad proof for the existence of a supernatural being, whom he calls the “intelligent designer,” meaning, of course, God.

Professor Behe recognizes that standard evolutionary theory explains the overwhelming complexity of living creatures. In his book The Blind Watchmaker, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins lucidly explains how any degree of biological complexity can be achieved in the course of time by Darwinian evolution. However, Professor Behe states that living cells exhibit a very special type of complexity, which he calls “irreducible complexity.” He claims that the “irreducible complexity” of living cells cannot be explained by Darwin’s theory but only by the activity of a supernatural intelligent designer.

Professor Behe’s proposed proof for the existence of God generated a storm of interest that has swept the United States (reported in Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times, Commentary and National Review), and which culminated in the December 2005 ruling of the United States Federal Court in Pennsylvania that banned the teaching of ID in the classroom.

Why has so much excitement been generated by ID? How does ID differ from the “anthropic principle”? The essence of the anthropic principle is that our universe appears to have been designed for life in general and for human life in particular. The laws of nature are extremely fine-tuned in just the manner required to permit human beings to exist. Therefore, the anthropic principle certainly suggests design, and thus a Designer, meaning God. What is new about ID?

Although the anthropic principle does suggest, and in the opinion of this author very strongly suggests, the existence of God, this principle is not a proof. However, Professor Behe claims that ID constitutes an absolute scientific proof for the existence of God. It is therefore not surprising that there is such widespread interest in ID.

When Professor Behe speaks of “irreducible complexity,” what does he mean? How does “irreducible complexity” differ from the usual idea of complexity? What is the basis for his claim that “irreducible complexity” cannot be explained by evolutionary theory and his implication that only an “intelligent designer”—meaning God—can account for the animal kingdom?

Evolution proceeds by the chance appearance of a favorable mutation in the genetic makeup of an animal. The favorable mutation may make the animal a bit stronger or faster or less susceptible to disease, et cetera. In some way, the favorable mutation enhances the animal’s chances for survival. For this reason, the favorable mutation will probably be carried to the next generation and eventually become incorporated into the species gene pool. The accumulation of many such favorable mutations over many generations brings about large changes, eventually leading to an entirely new species. This, in a nutshell, is how Darwinian evolution works.

The key point is that only the mutations that enhance the animal’s chances for survival will be incorporated into the species gene pool. It is very unlikely that a mutation that provides no survival advantage will be incorporated into the gene pool.

Professor Behe, a biochemist, asserts that the accumulation of favorable mutations cannot explain the development of many vital biochemical mechanisms. He cites the mechanism for blood clotting. (If the blood does not clot, the animal will bleed to death.) A large number of reactions are involved in blood clotting, and—here is the crucial point—if even one of these reactions does not occur, the blood will not clot. Therefore, claims Professor Behe, the mechanism for blood clotting could not have evolved through a succession of favorable mutations, with each mutation producing yet another step in the blood-clotting mechanism. Each such mutation would, by itself, be useless. All the mutations have to be present to be of use to the animal because every one of the necessary reactions for blood clotting must occur or the blood-clotting mechanism will not work at all.

This is what Professor Behe means by “irreducible complexity.” The mechanism for blood clotting is “irreducible” in the sense that it cannot be reduced to a series of steps with each step affording an additional survival advantage to the animal. Rather, the complete blood-clotting mechanism had to appear in the species gene pool all at once. According to Professor Behe, this implies design—“intelligent design.”

How have evolutionary biologists reacted to Professor Behe’s thesis? They have ripped it to shreds. See, for example, the lucid article by leading evolutionary biologist H. Allen Orr (Boston Review 21:6, December 1996). Professor Orr summarizes his critique of Professor Behe’s book as follows: “[Professor] Behe’s attack on evolution is cleverly argued—but wrong.” Many scientists have proclaimed the demise of ID because of its scientific errors.*

With the demise of ID, where does the believing Jew see the “fingerprints of God” in nature? We see them everywhere! (“His glory fills the universe,” Isaiah 6:3.) Scientists state: “As we identify the many peculiarities of physics and astronomy that have worked together for our benefit, it almost seems as if the universe knew that we were coming,” and “The origin of life appears to be almost a miracle, so many conditions had to be satisfied to get life going,” and “Human beings are the result of a staggeringly improbable series of events, which are utterly unpredictable and completely unrepeatable.”

These pronouncements of contemporary scientists confirm the 800-year-old words of Rambam (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2:2) “How can one come to love God? By studying the wonders of nature and God’s creatures, and seeing in them His infinite wisdom.”

Finally, a few comments should be made about the two Jewish Action articles by the proponents of ID. In “Finding the Intelligence Within the Design,” Dr. Gerald Schroeder presents an incorrect description of the scientific status of Darwinian evolution: “There are brilliant scientists who argue for neo-Darwinian evolution … and there are equally brilliant scientists who say that there is no way this could have happened without some Outside help.” “Outside help,” with a capital “O,” is, of course, intended to imply God.

In fact, there is not a single secular scientist who claims that it is necessary to invoke supernatural intervention to explain the animal kingdom. Dr. Schroeder has assumed a false dichotomy, implying that if Darwinian evolution did not occur, then it must be God (“Outside help”) Who was responsible for the animal kingdom.

There is no such dichotomy. During the last thirty years, evolutionary biologists have come to recognize that the fossil record does not support gradual evolution. As a result, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge introduced the concept of “punctuated equilibrium” to describe the fossil record, which exhibits a series of abrupt changes, “most un-Darwinian abruptness”—as quoted by Dr. Schroeder. However, this fact does not imply that “Outside help” is needed to explain the fossil data.

Evolutionary biologist Steven Stanley has written a book entitled The New Evolutionary Timetable describing the absence of gradualism in the fossil record. Professor Stanley writes (p. 114): “Darwin would have been confounded by the fossil evidence … he would have been shocked….” Nevertheless, in spite of these strong statements against gradual evolution, Professor Stanley repeatedly emphasizes that the new paradigm of abrupt evolutionary change does not require or imply Divine intervention.

In “The Faith of Darwinism and the Science of Intelligent Design,” Dr. Arnold Slyper writes that according to Darwin’s theory, evolution is driven by random changes: “The question is whether this process [evolution] proceeded randomly or by design … random mutation … is at the heart of Darwin’s theory….”

In fact, evolutionary biologists have long emphasized that Darwinian evolution is not driven by chance or by random mutations, but by the non-random process of “survival of the fittest.” An analogy to card games is useful. Bridge tournaments are invariably won by the stronger players, while weaker players are relegated to defeat. Though the game begins with a random dealing of the cards, what drives bridge players to victory or to defeat is their skill. Both in bridge and in evolution, the “more fit” survive, while the “less fit” become extinct.

Dr. Slyper also claims that Darwin’s theory is incompatible with Torah hashkafah: “If one agrees with Darwin … then it follows that God is no longer involved in His universe … the concept of a God who has an intimate and ongoing involvement with this world has been negated … Darwinian views are antithetical to a religious life ….”

This all-encompassing statement is not the view of many prominent Torah personalities who accept Darwinian evolution. In Challenge: Torah Views on Science, Cyril Domb and Aryeh Carmell quote Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook (p. 136): “Thinking people have always seen gradual, evolutionary development in the spiritual essence … the same principle applies in the physical development of the world.” They also quote Rabbi Yisrael Lipschitz (author of Tiferet Yisrael) (p. 135): “This lends strong support to the passage in the Talmud [that] they were formed by evolution, following the natural laws inscribed by God.”

Professor Yehudah Levi has kindly pointed out to me that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch saw no contradiction between Darwinian evolution and Torah hashkafah. Rabbi Hirsch writes: “If this notion [Darwinian evolution] were to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world … Judaism would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence to the One G-d Who, in His boundless creative wisdom, needed to bring into existence no more than a single amorphous nucleus and the laws of adaptation and heredity in order to bring forth the infinite variety of species that we know today” (Collected Writings 7:263-264). Other Torah giants who accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution can be found in an article by Raphael Shuchat (The Torah U-Madda Journal 13 [2005]: 15-47).

*Professor Orr explains the fundamental error—“just plain wrong”—in Professor Behe’s claim:

An “irreducibly complex” system can be built gradually by adding parts that, while initially just advantageous, eventually become essential, because of later changes. The logic is very simple. Part A initially does some job. Later, Part B gets added because it helps Part A. The new Part B isn’t essential; it merely improves things. But later on, Part A changes in such a way that Part B becomes essential. The system now consists of two essential parts (Parts A and B) and it will not function at all unless both parts are present. This is precisely what Behe means by “irreducible complexity.” We have thus illustrated how an “irreducibly complex” system can evolve through a series of changes, in complete accordance with evolutionary theory.

Professor Orr gives a simple example. The function of the mammalian heart is to drive the blood through the blood vessels. The heart consists of two parts: a pump and a set of valves. Both parts are essential for the mammalian heart to function. A pump without valves is useless, and valves without a pump are useless. Thus, the mammalian heart is an example of irreducible complexity. Nevertheless, evolutionary biologists have no difficulty in tracing out the precise series of gradual steps that led to the evolution of the mammalian heart.

Dr. Nathan Aviezer
Petach Tikva, Israel

Dr. Schroeder responds
Professor Aviezer argues that my claim that “there are brilliant scientists who argue for neo-Darwinian evolution … and there are equally brilliant scientists who say that there is no way this could have happened without some Outside help” is false. To support his claim he states that “there is not a single secular scientist who claims that it is necessary to invoke supernatural intervention to explain the animal kingdom.” I should imagine not, since any secular scientist who invokes “supernatural intervention” suffers from what might be termed “separation,” or even worse, schizophrenia. How else could a secular person invoke the supernatural and remain secular? The fact, again as cited by Professor Aviezer, that evolutionary biologist Steven Stanley “repeatedly emphasizes that the new paradigm of abrupt evolutionary change [punctuated evolution] does not require or imply Divine intervention” does not make Professor Stanley’s claim true. In fact, it is probably wrong. Punctuated evolution is no theory of evolution. It is merely a description of the absurdly staccato nature of morphological development as evidenced by the fossil record. But, as I have written and lectured on, none of this proves there is a God. It does, however, prove unequivocally that the theories of evolution are in great need of repair and may in fact require “supernatural intervention.”

Professor Stanley’s claim, as cited by Professor Aviezer, that “Darwin would have been confounded by the fossil evidence … he would have been shocked…” is also probably not true. Recall that in The Origin of Species, Darwin repeatedly (I counted seven places) urges us to ignore the fossil record if we are to believe his thesis. Darwin, in writing to a correspondent, suggests that we “use our imagination.” He was well aware that the fossil record did not support his claim of life’s gradual natural development from the simple to the complex. He did believe that in time the gaps in the fossil record would be filled. In all too many places this has not been the case.

Though Darwin insisted time and again that nature does not makes jumps, most ironically, he was likely not aware of the two greatest “punctuations” that led to complex life. The first was the creation of the universe from absolute nothing, the physical emerging from the metaphysical. Recall that the validity of the creation of the universe was only confirmed in 1965 and then, last year, via data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (the WMAP satellite), firmly established by NASA. The second leap of nature of which Darwin would not have known, considerably downstream in the flow of cosmic time from the Big Bang creation, was the appearance of life almost immediately after the once molten crust of the earth had cooled to the temperature at which water could exist in liquid form. Though it had been the standard catechism and totally logical that eons of time passed between the appearance of liquid water and the first forms of life, the discoveries of Elso Barghoorn at Harvard University in the late 1970s changed all that. Dr. Barghoorn discovered that the oldest rocks that can bear fossils already have fossils of fully formed microbial life, including cells undergoing mitosis. Nature not only invented life in a geological snap of time, but invented life with the ability to reproduce. This totally changed conventional theories of life’s gradual origins and evolution. Even if all other aspects of the development of life were explainable in purely scientific terms, which I think they are not, these two leaps of nature would cry out for explanation in terms that go beyond a purely materialist view of existence.

Professor Behe’s seminal book, Darwin’s Black Box, and its underlying thesis of irreducible complexity being a proof of ID, forced the scientific community to state more clearly its arguments regarding evolution. This was a major contribution to the entire debate. In fact Professor Behe’s book is one of the central reasons for the entire ID debate. That is why the scientific community has reacted so strongly and so negatively to Professor Behe’s thesis. Negative or not, Darwin’s Black Box has opened a Pandora’s box of inquiry. In my opinion, there are stronger reasons for invoking ID since not all examples of what seem to be irreducible complexity are in fact such. For example, Professor Behe claimed that the clotting of blood in humans is such a complex process, requiring the finely sequenced interaction of twelve factors, that it could not have developed sequentially. Yet research has revealed that the clotting of blood in a different mammal, the dolphin, occurs with one of the twelve factors absent. This implies the possibility of measured, staged incorporation of each of the twelve factors rather than the need for the complete finished product to be Divinely placed into the human body.

As humans, we measure the world in terms of time-space-matter, the physical terms of reality that we observe. But God is not bounded by the physical. This obviates the possibility of our totally understanding God’s intimate role in nature. Let’s not pigeonhole God into how we think the metaphysical interacts with the physical. We can only study the results of God’s interventions. With that in mind, we marvel at the complexity of existence and stand in awe at the intricacy of the design, however that design was achieved.