Michael Behe on Point of Inquiry

The Point of Inquiry podcast interviewed Michael Behe this week. Prof. Behe is a leading advocate of the ‘intelligent design’ movement, and Point of Inquiry really really isn’t. It’s great fun, and perfect for playing Spot the Logical Fallacy. Behe comes out with straw men, ad hominem attacks and false premises, as well as poisoning the well, saying things I believe to be demonstrably untrue and continually crying conspiracy. Interviewer D.J. Grothe doesn’t pull any punches, although is of course polite throughout, and calls Behe on his evasions when necessary.

A particularly interesting moment comes when D.J. Grothe asks how ID-ers can criticise evolution for not providing a full and complete explanation, yet offer no mechanisms of their own. Behe’s response is that everybody is trying to explain the appearance of design, so saying ‘it looks designed’ isn’t something that needs to be backed up. This is slippery.

As I see it, the point of evolutionary theory isn’t to explain why things look designed, it’s to explain how they arose. That they appear designed is a side-effect, as it were, and related to the way our brains look at things (also interesting from an evolutionary standpoint). Books like ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ explain evolution from a basis of ‘how come things look designed’ as a) a response to creationists, who use this argument all the time, and b) it’s a useful way of structuring an explanation. But evolution isn’t there to explain the appearance of design any more than round-earth ‘theory’ is there to explain the appearance of a flat planet – that’s just something that arises from the theory.

D.J. Grothe also asks him the obvious: isn’t intelligent design just ‘god of the gaps’? Behe denies this, saying ID uses what we know rather than what we don’t know. But this misses the point: ‘what we know’ in this case is entirely based upon what they claim evolution can’t explain – in other words, gaps. He doesn’t address the question.

The final question is also particularly telling. Behe’s latest book apparently claims malaria cannot have evolved and must have been designed. Why, he is asked, would a designer create something that kills so many innocent people? Unlike his scientific evasions, which sometimes took me a few minutes to unravel, the answer is obvious: god has a secret plan.

It’s worth a listen, although it probably helps if you have a passing familiarity with intelligent design and its recent history – particularly the recent US court case in which ID had its ass handed to it by a conservative judge. Understanding the position of people you’re arguing against is always a good idea, and it’s cool that both sides agreed to the interview.