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Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution — Book Review


Michael J. Behe, begins his book, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, by showing how neo-Darwinism, the reigning dogma since the 1930s, is in serious trouble. It has long been clear that Darwin's explanation of the origin of species is due for retirement. Yet, because of a strong materialistic bias, scientists like Stephen Jay Gould are tempted to play spin-doctor with the evidence.

It has long been clear that Darwin's explanation of the origin of species is due for retirement. Neither the fossil record, nor breeding experiments, nor mathematical probability support the idea that small mutations guided by natural selection created everything from bacteria to human consciousness. Leaving aside the vexed question of how DNA assembled itself in the first place, a growing number of scientists admit that Darwinian selection of small genetic shifts is a grossly inadequate mechanism for the emergence of new life forms.

As a result, there is a genre of science writing whose purpose is to maintain the credibility of evolutionary materialism while groping for a new mechanism to replace natural selection. It began with the notorious 1980 essay by Stephen Jay Gould — “Is a New and General Theory of Evolution Emerging?” which declared neo-Darwinism “dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy.” Scientists like Gould know that Darwin's version of evolution is finished. But a strong materialistic bias tempts them to play spin-doctor to the evidence. They will not state plainly that the origin of life forms is as much a scientific mystery today as it was when Darwin wrote his book.

Michael J. Behe, an accomplished biochemist, has no such philosophical hang-ups. In Darwin's Black Box he demonstrates with wit and lucidity how Darwin's theory utterly breaks down in his own special field of molecular biology. Given the strong reductionist impulse of most Darwinists, the news that their theory flunks at life's most basic level will not be welcome. The book, in fact, already is making the evolutionary camp gag and cough ink.

Behe begins by showing how neo-Darwinism, the reigning dogma since the 1930s, is in serious trouble. Whatever their differences, scientists like Lynn Margulis and Stuart Kauffman agree that the major evolutionary jumps — from reptile to mammal, for example — cannot be the result of a gradual accumulation of genetic copying errors. Their dissent falsifies the claim by Harvard's Ernst Mayr, dean of American evolutionists, that criticism of Darwin comes only from creationists and crank journalists.

Behe then examines the verbal shell games played by Richard Dawkins, the best-selling populizer of Darwin and holder of what Paul Johnson has dubbed Oxford's Chair of Militant Atheism. In explaining the evolution of the eye, whose intricacies make a Cray computer seem low-tech, Dawkins starts with a “light-sensitive spot,” which certain animals indeed have, and “merely adds complex systems to complex systems and calls that an explanation.” Dawkins ignores the “Irreducible complexity” of each component, assuming that it will appear in perfect form when it is needed. His method of argument is straight out of Alice in Wonderland: Because I say it three times, it is so!

Behe's real quarrel with Darwin, however, goes below the level of gross anatomy. As a biologist, he's struck by the incredible intricacy of the molecular machines that power the cell. These machines have finely calibrated parts, the absence of any one of which would disable them. How can Darwinism explain the exact cascade of chemicals that must be triggered in order for blood to clot? It can't — if you remove but a single link in the process, it won't work. Any precursor to the blood-clotting mechanism would not have been functional, and therefore would not have been available for natural selection. In other words, there's no gradual Darwinian route between these mechanisms and whatever preceded them.

The professional literature of molecular biology, according to Behe, avoids the subject of evolution because no respectable journal will publish Just So stories that sound even more implausible when told about molecules than about the hump of a camel.

Darwinism's glaring inadequacy has caused some evolutionists to embrace the new “complexity theory.” The idea is that disparate components of a system will spontaneously organize themselves into ordered patterns. But complexity has rightly been dubbed a fact-free science by its critics. Behe argues that it is based on mathematical models that have nothing to do with the real guts of evolutionary theory, which is supposed to explain how we came to have giraffes and elephants and horseshoe crabs. Complexity in the biological realm is, at best, analogical rather than explanative. Watch for it as the next intellectual confidence game in the usual journals of opinion.

My only reservation about this fine book is that its author, like most people in the modern world, needs a strong dose of Thomism. In the final chapters he proposes the “theory of intelligent design” as a new discipline in the natural sciences. But natural science deals with quantifiable reality, not philosophical concepts. When it hits a brick wall like biological complexity, it should admit its puzzlement and humbly pass the data to philosophers and theologians, who may then talk about design. That way both camps can avoid a disedifying confusion of realms.


Johnston, George Sim. “Doubting Darwin.” Crisis 16, no. 6 (January 1997): 43-44.

Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.

Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution by Michael J. Behe, The Free Press, 1996, 307 pages, $25.


George Sim Johnston is a writer living in New York City and a contributing editor with Crisis magazine and the National Catholic Register. His most recent book, Did Darwin Get it Right?: Catholics and the Theory of Evolution is published by Our Sunday Visitor and may be ordered by calling 1-800-348-2440.

Copyright © 1997 Crisis



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