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Looking inside Darwin's Black Box


 A biochemist examining the molecular and cellular foundations of life has come to the conclusion that the source of life was an Intelligent Designer, not neo-Darwinian materialism. The conclusions, set forth in his books, have been met with some controversy.

Michael Behe

In 1996 Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, published Darwin's Black Box: the Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, a book which directly challenged the neo-Darwinian account of evolution. Even more disturbing to scientific orthodoxy, Behe argued that science actually shows that nature has been crafted by an Intelligent Designer. His arguments could not be ignored. Not only was he a biochemist, but he was also an engaging writer, and the book became a bestseller.

"Sometimes when a fellow is feeling frisky," says Behe, "he throws caution to the wind and breaks a few rules. In fact, that is just what I did in Darwin's Black Box: I proposed that, rather than Darwinian evolution, a more compelling explanation for the irreducibly complex molecular machines discovered in the cell [in the last 50 years] is that they were indeed designed purposely designed by an intelligent agent."

"That proposal has attracted a bit of attention. Some of my critics have pointed out that I am a Roman Catholic and imply, therefore, that the proposal of intelligent design is a religious idea, not a scientific one. I disagree. I think the conclusion of intelligent design is completely empirical. That is, it is based entirely on the physical evidence, along with an understanding of how we come to conclude that an object was designed."

Four years after Darwin's Black Box, Michael Behe is still at the center of the debate between proponents of Intelligent Design and proponents of neo-Darwinian materialism, and is a major contributor to a new book, just published by Ignatius Press, Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe.

Darwin's Black Box has sold over 100,000 copies since it was published in 1996. The book gained almost immediate national and international attention and made you a leading spokesman for the Intelligent Design movement in science. May we assume that the success of the book took you by surprise?

Behe: Yes, I was floored when I heard from my editor at The Free Press that the New York Times was reviewing the book within a few weeks of its publication! And that attention set the tone for the subsequent years. Before publication, in my own mind I just hoped that the book wouldn't be ignored that it would at least be read by people in the field.

There is a popular perception that scientists are almost invariably atheists or at least agnostic because science undermines religion, but your book would seem to argue the opposite, that science, properly understood, actually strengthens belief in God. Why?

Behe: Most people easily apprehend the design of nature from what they see in their everyday lives. But when one studies science, you see that the design goes much deeper than you had imagined. Not only does, say, the flight of birds evoke wonder because of its intricacy, but the workings of the cell and the atom do as well because of their much greater intricacy.

The microscopic and submicroscopic realms are more complex than the world visible to the naked eye? Could you give us some idea how much more complex?

Behe: As an analogy to the complexity we've found in the cell, think of a jet. The outside of a jet appears rather complicated, with the wings and tails and engines and so on, and it might take a person who was ignorant of flight dynamics quite a while to figure out how such a heavy object could fly. But that's just the surface of things. The interior of a jet engine and control structures are much more complicated than the exterior. The cell contains the nuts and bolts of living organisms and is much more complicated than the exterior.

In your book you say that the cell was Darwin's "black box." What do you mean by that?

Behe: In science we use the phrase "black box" to indicate a machine or system that does something interesting, but no one knows how it works. Well, to Darwin, the cell was a black box. It did wonderful things, but nobody of that time knew how it worked. So the cell is Darwin's black box.

He didn't understand the real complexity of the cell? What effect did that have on his theory of evolution?

Behe: Darwin and other scientists of his day thought that life was at bottom very simple they thought the cell was just a little glob of "protoplasm." Now that we've learned of the enormous complexity of the cell, the basic assumption of Darwin's theory is shown to be incorrect, and the whole idea of random evolution is cast into doubt.

What led you to write Darwin's Black Box? Had you been suspicious of the materialist account of evolution all along?

Behe: Not all along. I became suspicious after reading a book entitled Evolution: A Theory in Crisis by an Australian geneticist named Michael Denton. He pointed out problems with the theory that I had never encountered in my years of study. That made me think that perhaps I wasn't getting a complete picture of evolution, warts and all, and I've been skeptical ever since.

Skeptical of evolution as such, or do you accept some aspects of evolution and reject others?

Behe: Well, one has to be careful about what is meant by the word "evolution." Some people use it to mean something as simple as change over time, while others take it to mean materialistic Darwinian evolution. In my work, I question only whether Darwin's mechanism of random variation and natural selection is adequate to explain all of biology. I have concluded that it isn't, that intelligent input was needed at one or more points.

As a Catholic, I know that you have read John Paul II's statements about science in general and evolution in particular. How do your criticisms of Darwinian evolution fit with what he has said?

Behe: Yes, I have read the Pope's statement. In it he stressed that the question of the mechanism of evolution remained open. That fits just right with my own argument that the proposed mechanism of natural selection has serious shortcomings.

You believe, then, that some type of evolution occurred, but that mere random mutation and natural selection are insufficient explanations of how it occurred?

Behe: Yes. The process must have been intelligently guided.

From reading the reviews of Darwin's Black Box, it would seem that you not only made intellectual "converts," but ruffled quite a few feathers. Most of the controversy focuses on your argument about the "irreducible complexity" of microbiological entities and systems. What is irreducible complexity?

Behe: "Irreducible complexity" just means that a machine or system needs several parts to work and doesn't function if a part is missing or broken. A good example is the common mechanical mousetrap which generally doesn't work if one of its parts is removed. Many molecular machines that the cell needs are like that take a part away and they don't work. That's a problem for Darwinian evolution since natural selection can only work on things that are useful, gradually improving them. Irreducibly complex systems, though, seem very hard to improve gradually.

Could you give us an example in regard to your own work in the laboratory?

Behe: Well, I think the best example is one that I haven't personally worked on, but appears in many biochemistry textbooks. It's called the bacterial flagellum. The flagellum is quite literally an outboard motor that some bacteria use to swim. It's got a motor, propeller, drive shaft, bushings, stator, and many other parts, all of which are necessary for it to work.

Why is "irreducible complexity" so controversial? What ruffled the feathers?

Behe: The idea is controversial, I think, mostly because it's such a big problem for Darwinism. If Darwinism can't deal with it, then something else must have happened.

Have any significant criticisms of your argument for irreducible complexity arisen from the scientific community?

Behe: Not in my opinion. Some scientists have written that perhaps some process other than natural selection, but not intelligent design, produces irreducible complexity. Others have pointed to minor variations in systems I discussed in my book, and said perhaps there are ways to gradually put together complex systems. Some others have simply mistaken what I meant by irreducible complexity and argued against their own definition. But no one has shown how the things I've written about could be produced step by step, as natural selection would have to do.

Does the existence of irreducible complexity demonstrate the existence of God?

Behe: Irreducible complexity does not "demonstrate" the existence of God. Taken by itself it just points to an intelligence that is responsible for life. Who that intelligence is can't be determined directly by study of the cell. For example, some people might opt for designers that strike the rest of us as pretty strange: a space alien, some New Age force, or something else. Nonetheless, the existence of design in life is exactly what Christians expect.

More properly, then, you would say that wherever it can be demonstrated that irreducible complexity exists, then we know that an intelligent being must have been the cause, but science as science cannot demonstrate the nature of that cause only that it must have been intelligent?

Behe: Well, that's almost right. One should never say science can't demonstrate something, only that science must leave the question open. If the designer is in fact God, as I and probably most others assume, then the question of the identity of the designer will remain permanently open, never to be resolved by science.

Is it then the task of philosophy and theology, rather than science, to hash out the nature of that intelligent cause?

Behe: Yes. Science is a wonderful way to gain knowledge, but it is not the only way, and many important questions are better addressed by theology and philosophy. This is very likely to be one of them.

Do you think part of the resistance to your arguments by scientists comes from a deeper source? Could it come ultimately from an underlying desire not to have a Divine Intelligence behind it all?

Behe: It is the case that some people just don't want there to be any design or purpose in life. That certainly is the source of at least some of the resistance to the idea of irreducible complexity.

Because of your criticisms of the standard "textbook" account of evolution, you are often thrown in with "creationists." You are not a creationist, but a proponent of Intelligent Design. What is the difference?

Behe: Generally, a "creationist" is someone who is attempting to support the literal Genesis account of creation, or at least argues that there was supernatural intervention in nature at some points. Intelligent design proponents, on the other hand, are not out to argue for any particular account of how life arose. Rather, from the study of the structure of life and by understanding how one infers design, we argue that intelligence was necessarily involved in its production.

To focus a little on the Intelligent Design movement itself, could you tell us about "The Wedge"?

Behe: "The Wedge" is simply a name for a group of intelligent design proponents who are at the forefront of arguing the case for the intelligent design of life. The term was coined by University of California law professor Phillip Johnson. His intention was to drive a wedge between two definitions of science. In one definition, science is the simple search for the truth about nature. In the second, science is restricted to materialistic explanations. But what if those two definitions conflict with the evidence? What if the study of nature points away from materialistic accounts? The purpose of the Wedge is to split apart the two definitions and again make science the search for the truth about nature, no holds barred.

By "no holds barred" you mean that the "Wedge Movement" welcomes any legitimate argument about nature, even if it seems to undermine the argument for intelligent design?

Behe: Sure. We are seeking the truth, which is best served by having a wide-open discussion of all points of view. The only thing we fight against is an a priori attempt to rule out explanations because they have theistic implications.

As a Catholic, has your work in science strengthened your faith?

Behe: It really hasn't affected my faith. I've always believed God made the universe and life, and was taught in parochial school that he could make it any way he chose: by using secondary causes, by direct action, or by some combination. My work has convinced me God used more than secondary causes, but it hasn't affected my basic conviction that God is the Author of life, one way or another.

More than secondary causes? Please explain.

Behe: By "secondary causes" I mean standard physical laws, such as those of gravity, electromagnetism, and so forth. It is clear that such laws do not contain sufficient information to yield life; more is necessary. Whatever means God did use, then, to produce life, it wasn't only standard physical laws.

Do you see your work as serving the Church in some way?

Behe: I don't view my work directly as serving the Church; I'm just trying to do my job as a scientist. My most important work to serve the Church is with my wife in raising our children.

And how many children is that now?

Behe: Eight four boys and four girls.

Wonderful! But we should add, in regard to your job as a scientist, that the "simple search for truth" is a great service to everyone, including the Church especially insofar as you uncover more evidence for intelligent design in nature. You are a major contributor to a new book coming out with Ignatius Press this October called "Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe." Could you tell us about that?

Behe: The book brings together the basic arguments for design by myself and two prominent writers in the Intelligent Design movement William Dembski and Steven Meyer. Dembski is a mathematician, philosopher, and author of The Design Inference, who has studied exactly how we come to a conclusion that something was designed. Meyer is a professor of philosophy at Whitworth College who has written extensively on the problem of the origin of life and the origin of genetic information as seen in DNA. It will give the average layperson a very good introduction to the modern argument for design.  


Wicker, Ben. "Looking inside Darwin's Black Box." Catholic World Report (December, 2000)

Reprinted with permission of Catholic World Report.


Benjamin Wiker holds a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Vanderbilt University, and has taught at Marquette University, St. Mary's University (MN), and Thomas Aquinas College (CA). He is now a Lecturer in Theology and Science at Franciscan University of Steubenville (OH), and a full-time, free-lance writer. Dr. Wiker writes regularly for a variety of journals, including Catholic World Report, New Oxford Review, and Crisis Magazine, and is a regular columnist for the National Catholic Register. He has published three books, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (InterVarsity Press, 2002), The Mystery of the Periodic Table (Bethlehem Books, 2003), and Architects of the Culture of Death (Ignatius, 2004). He is currently working on another book on Intelligent Design for InterVarsity Press called The Meaning-full Universe. He lives with his wife and seven children in Hopedale, OH.

Copyright 2000 Catholic World Report



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