From Intelligent Design to BioLogos, Part 4: Reading Behe
For those familiar with my work here at Biologos, it might come as a surprise to know that until relatively recently I was a supporter of the Intelligent Design Movement (IDM). In this series of posts, I tell the story of my transition to the view that God uses evolution as a creative mechanism. In the third post in this series, I described how I had been invited to write an essay on “Christianity and Biology” for an edited volume, and simultaneously thrown into a crash-course on the Kitzmiller trial that tested the constitutionality of teaching Intelligent Design (ID) in the U.S. public school system. In this post, I describe my second encounter with the work of Michael Behe, a leading proponent of ID whose work I had found so compelling in the past.
Upon returning from the conference, I set to work on revising the essay. It turned out to be a lot more work than I had expected: in the end, only 10% of the original piece remained. The original had also avoided the creation / evolution issue almost completely, so there was lots to be done. As I had decided, I intended to start my research by reading Behe’s then-new book Edge of Evolution (EoE). I wanted to give the ID movement a fair chance to make its best case before I looked into the evidence for evolution. I checked with my pro-ID colleague down the hall, and sure enough he had a copy I could borrow. I poured myself a cup of coffee, closed my office door, readied note pad and paper, and settled in.
Losing my (ID) religion
To this day I wish I could have recorded myself reading those opening chapters of EoE. It was not long before the first suggestion of a frown would appear. Not many pages hence the frown would deepen into a furrow. I could hardly believe what I was reading: where was the Behe of Darwin’s Black Box that had so captivated me years ago? Though it is not polite to recount it (and I want to be clear that I hold no animosity towards Dr. Behe, but merely want to share my initial reaction) I clearly recall putting EoE down on my desk thinking, “What is this?” I was shocked: I had fully expected to once again be amazed and amused watching Behe take evolution down a peg or two. Yet here I was, knowing virtually nothing of evolution, and already I was seeing nothing but holes in Behe’s argument. Later on, when Behe began to discuss a topic I was familiar with (population genetics) I confirmed what I suspected: Behe was out of his area of specialty and out of his depth. Later work would convince me that this pattern applied to the whole of the book and the core of Behe’s arguments. My note pad was filling up, but not with what I had expected.
Before I had finished Edge of Evolution, I was done with ID. I would lose my faith in ID not by comparing it to the science of evolution, but by reading one of its leading proponents and evaluating his work on its own merits. ID, I decided, was an argument from analogy, ignorance and incredulity. I was looking for an argument from evidence. Due to an interesting set of circumstances, I was able to read Behe both as a credulous lay reader and as a skeptical trained scientist. Behe, I realized, hadn’t changed: I had changed, and what a difference it had made.
Gaining Evolutionary Creation
Having rejected ID, I began to look into the evidence for evolution. I can also clearly recall this transition, and, if memory serves, it happened on the same day I rejected ID. This transition, however, required only ten or fifteen minutes - just as long as I needed to read the first research article on my reading list: the 2005 Nature paper comparing the human and chimpanzee genomes. I put the finished paper down on my desk, said “well, that’s that, then” out loud to my empty office, and sat back in my chair. The contrast with ID could hardly have been starker: here was nothing but argument from evidence. As a geneticist, I was fully capable of evaluating that evidence, and it was compelling. Humans and chimps were close relatives, and I was no longer an anti-evolutionist. Game, set, match. Moreover, my eyes were now open to the wonder and scope of evolution as a foundational theory of biology: everywhere I looked, evolution informed what I knew, whether in cell biology, genetics, immunology or developmental biology. In an instant, the pieces clicked together, and I reveled in the deeper understanding.
As the essay took shape, I was able to put my brand-new outlook on to paper in a coherent form. As I knew, other Christians had walked this road before, and I found two books especially helpful: Finding Darwin’s God by Ken Miller, and The Language of God by Francis Collins. Though colleagues at TWU counseled against being “too open” about my new views, I was determined that the essay reflect what I thought to be the best way to put science and faith together. In the end, the essay would receive positive reviews despite its embrace of evolution as one of God’s creative mechanisms, and its lack of support for the Intelligent Design movement, Young-Earth creationism or Old-Earth creationism. For better or for worse, I had nailed my colors to the mast.
Looking forward, looking back
Though I didn’t know it then, the coming years would provide additional opportunities for engaging science-faith issues. What I had previously largely avoided was now an area of interest, and a natural fit for both my training in the sciences and my commitment to evangelical Christianity. It would also provide an opportunity to make amends for a previous mistake: a story I will relate in the next, and final, segment in this series.
Dennis Venema is Fellow of Biology for The BioLogos Foundation and associate professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signalling.