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Friday, November 25, 2005

The Mad Scientist

"The world as we know it was created by a fortuitous collision of atoms."
-- Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Book V

ON THE EVENING OF SEPTEMBER 24, ABOUT 500 PEOPLE squeezed into the lecture
hall at the Tate Laboratory of Physics on the University of Minnesota's Twin
Cities campus. There were none of the usual Friday night attractions� no music,
no beer, no sports. A celebrity of sorts had come to town. Dr. Michael Behe, a
biochemist at Lehigh University, is best known for his 1996 bestseller Darwin's
Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. The book made Behe one of the
leading voices of the intelligent design movement, and a hero to religious
conservatives who have long yearned for credentialed scientists to take up their
cause. At the time of his appearance at the U, Behe was just a few weeks removed
from his star turn as a defense witness in the so-called Scopes Two trial in
Pennsylvania�the highly publicized legal melodrama occasioned by a local school
board's decision to include intelligent design in its high school science

A short, balding man with the prepossessing manner of a
lifelong lecturer, Behe was greeted at the lectern with a torrent of applause.
As he began to click through his Power Point presentation, he offered a simple
declaration: ID theory, he said, is not "mystical" in nature. It is a matter of
common sense. Life on earth is simply too complex not to have been designed. A
click of his mouse then revealed a schematic diagram of a mousetrap. For the
mousetrap to function properly, Behe explained, each component must be in the
right place. The complex arrangement of parts proves that the mousetrap was
designed by some intelligent being. In Behe's view, all sorts of other
biological mechanisms�the mechanisms that allow people to talk, that enable
bacteria to swim in petri dishes�cannot be accidental or random. At that, he
dropped in the descriptive phrase for which he is best known. Life, he intoned,
is "irreducibly complex," too sophisticated to be explained by Darwinian notions
of natural selection and random mutation.

"The evidence for design,"
Behe said repeatedly, "is the purposeful arrangement of the parts." Though he
talked for a long time, this was in effect his entire argument. Ironically, his
mousetrap analogy is a direct restatement of the clockmaker analogy that was
popular among self-styled "deists" during the Age of Enlightenment 300 years
ago. But the deists were a pallid lot as believers go; they promulgated the idea
that God the clockmaker had constructed the whole thing and left it to run as
dictated by the workings of the pieces he made. Prominent deists from Voltaire
to Thomas Jefferson were, ironically, among the leading critics of religious
intolerance and superstition in their day. Evangelicals they were not�poisoned
by the then-fresh virus of humanism, they preferred to live and let live.
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