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The Case of Behe vs. Darwin

Times Staff Writer

As he took the witness stand in a packed courtroom, ready to dissect Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, biochemist Michael J. Behe looked confident and relaxed. Then he learned what it felt like to be under a microscope.

Isn’t it true, an attorney asked, that Behe’s critique of Darwin and support for intelligent design, a rival belief about the origins of life, have little scientific support?

Yes, Behe conceded.

Isn’t it also true, the attorney pressed, that faculty members in Behe’s department at Lehigh University have rejected his writings as unscientific?

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Behe, a slight, balding man with a graying beard, grudgingly answered yes.

“Intelligent design is not the dominant view of the scientific community,” he said. “But I’m pleased with the progress we are making.”

After two grueling days on the stand, Behe looked drained. He was also unbowed. In a nationally watched trial that could determine whether intelligent design can be taught in a public school, the soft-spoken professor had bucked decades of established scientific thought.

Behe (pronounced BEE-hee), one of the nation’s leading advocates of intelligent design, challenged Darwin’s theory that life evolved through natural selection and a process of random variation. He argued that living organisms are so highly complex that an unseen, intelligent designer must have created them. That designer, he said, is God.

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His testimony was crucial for those who believe Darwinism is not the final word in how life evolved. Even some of Behe’s strongest critics believe he may have scored important points in his mid-October court appearance. His detailed presentation might have given intelligent design the appearance of credibility it had been struggling to achieve, they said.

“Behe does not convince me in the slightest,” said Michael Ruse, a Florida State University philosophy professor who wrote “The Evolution-Creation Struggle” and is in the Darwinian camp. “But he’s a genial, personable guy, and he comes across as a very serious man. I don’t think you can dismiss him as a crank. He is a real scientist.”

Although most scientists dismiss Behe, they make a big mistake if they try to demonize him, Ruse added: “We tend to think these people favoring intelligent design are all evil people, and they’re not. That’s the trouble on my side. Our opponents come in different shapes and sizes, and Michael is proof of that.”

Behe, 53, was the lead witness for intelligent design in the federal trial in Harrisburg. His testimony marked a high point in the career of a once-obscure scientist who never dreamed he’d become a celebrity in the fledgling movement.

The notoriety also underscored the professional price he has paid.

“I’m not a member of the inner club when it comes to mainstream science,” Behe said days after his testimony, looking back on the path he has traveled. “I probably never will be.”

The trial is the result of a decision last year by school board officials that teachers must mention intelligent design to high school biology students in Dover, Pa., a small agricultural town 100 miles west of Philadelphia.

Eleven parents filed a lawsuit to block the policy. They contend the concept is a thinly disguised version of creationism, an interpretation of the origins of life that was banned from public schools by a landmark 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

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Creationism is a belief that a supreme being created the universe; although there are different schools of thought, many adherents believe in a literal interpretation of the biblical Book of Genesis as to how and when life began.

Intelligent design holds that organisms are so complex and highly perfected, a designer must have created them. The designer is not identified, although some supporters like Behe voice opinions. The concept does not mention religion or God.

Evolutionary theory, which gained prominence in the 19th century, is based on scientific evidence that life on Earth has evolved through a process of natural selection and random mutations, with no supernatural plan or purpose.

Although disputes over intelligent design have flared in school districts nationally, the Dover case marks the first time the issue has come to trial.

Plaintiffs hope to prove that adding intelligent design to the curriculum violates the Supreme Court ban on teaching religion in public schools; they also want to show that board members included it for religious reasons. Board members have said they included intelligent design only to broaden the curriculum.

After his testimony ended, Behe pulled on a plaid woolen cap and headed for his car, eager to get back to his family in Bethlehem, Pa. He had been taken aback by the harshness and intensity of some questions.

“I’m the kind of guy who would rather be at home cutting the grass and drinking a beer,” he said. “Or grading papers at the university. Anything but this.”

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On a blustery fall morning, the hallways in the Lehigh University biological sciences department are hushed, with a few students drifting in and out. Behe sits in his second-floor office, gazing out the window at a vast green field below.

He wears a faded flannel shirt, blue jeans and work boots; he laughs easily at himself and disparages the notion that he has achieved any genuine celebrity.

Mostly, he’s relieved that the intense experience of being on the witness stand is over.

In August, Behe’s colleagues placed a departmental statement on the Lehigh website, opposing his views: “It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.”

If he hadn’t had tenure, Behe said, it would have been “extremely unlikely” that he could have taken such a contrarian stand and survived in the academic world.

“Students and aspiring teachers who are intrigued by my work often ask me for advice, how they can help me out,” he said. “And I tell them: ‘Until you have tenure, until you’re protected, keep your mouth shut and your head down.’ ”

Behe has written one of the few books on intelligent design to reach a mass audience, “Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution,” and is finishing a sequel. The 1996 book has sold more than 200,000 copies. His colleagues at Lehigh and many other scientists are not impressed.

“When I run into people at the water cooler, it’s always been very polite,” he said with a wry smile. “The talk is basically, ‘How about those Phillies?’ ”

Colleagues stress that Behe is a generous and friendly man. But some voice chagrin that his views have brought unwanted controversy to Lehigh.

“We all thought he’d have his 15 minutes of fame when his book was published, and then it would go away,” said Lynne Cassimeris, a Lehigh biology professor who recently wrote an op-ed piece in a local newspaper criticizing Behe’s work. “That hasn’t happened.”

No one, Behe least of all, could have predicted such a turn of events.

Born in Altoona, Pa., he grew up with seven siblings. His father worked for Household Finance Corp., and his mother stayed home to raise the children.

Behe went to Catholic schools and grew interested in science, mainly chemistry. He liked to fool around with experiments and wanted to find out how things worked.

“I did a series of science projects in school like everybody else, but they were all very dumb,” he said, laughing. “I certainly won’t tell you what any of them were.”

Like many Roman Catholics, he had believed in God and Darwinism. “I didn’t think the two were exclusive,” Behe said. He remembers learning about Darwin’s theory of evolution.

“In the seventh, eighth grades, I recall nuns teaching that God can make life any way he wants,” Behe said. “If he wants to create life by the outplaying of natural laws, well, who were we to tell him otherwise? Here was Darwin’s theory, and it looks like God set up the world to begin producing life. I remember thinking, ‘That’s cool.’ ”

Behe went on to study chemistry at Drexel University in Philadelphia and biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania and did research in biochemistry at the National Institutes of Health. He later got a job as an assistant professor of chemistry at Queens College in New York, where he met his wife, Celeste, an English literature major.

When the couple decided to start a family, they looked for a less hectic environment. In 1985, he took a job teaching biology at Lehigh University in Bethlehem. In the years to come, Behe would be consumed by the demands of five sons and four daughters.

A turning point came in 1988: Behe was granted tenure. He also learned of a book, “Evolution: A Theory in Crisis,” by geneticist Michael Denton.

“It was an epiphany; he presented a lot of scientific arguments where he said Darwinian ideas were really overblown, incomplete, contradicted by data and so on,” Behe said. “I had never heard of a scientist who criticized Darwin. It was intriguing.”

Denton argued there was little physical proof of Darwin’s evolutionary theories, despite widespread support for his conclusions. Behe began to wonder.

“I checked research papers, and I was shocked to find that none of these things had been explained,” Behe said. “I came to realize that a pillar of my thinking was supported not by evidence but by sociological factors, what other people think.”

*

Behe’s doubts grew several years later when he read a review in Science magazine of “Darwin on Trial” by Phillip E. Johnson, a UC Berkeley law professor.

Johnson raised similar questions about Darwin’s theories. The review “was very dismissive.... They didn’t address his arguments, and simply said here’s this crazy guy spreading confusion, so keep your students away from him,” Behe said.

He dashed off a letter of protest, which was published. Johnson was one of the early leaders in what would become the intelligent design movement.

The Berkeley professor introduced Behe to a circle of like-minded thinkers, who became members of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a think tank for intelligent design. He also helped Behe get an agent to publish his book.

By then, Behe’s thoughts about evolution were changing. He agreed with a portion of Darwin’s theories, including arguments that the Earth is several billions years old and that all organisms are descended from a common ancestor.

He also raised provocative challenges as a biochemist.

Behe argued that organisms are too complex to have evolved through natural selection and random mutation. He coined the phrase “irreducible complexity” to suggest that organisms are arranged with a purpose in mind.

This complexity, he said, suggests the external designer.

Although “Darwin’s Black Box” got several good reviews, the majority of Behe’s colleagues dismissed his arguments. In a scathing review, Kenneth R. Miller, a biologist from Brown University, said Behe offered no scientific proof for the existence of a designer and had simply tried to poke holes in Darwinism. He also noted that there is ample proof documenting the truth of evolution.

Readers “may be entertained by Behe’s energy and his enthusiasm,” Miller wrote, but the book “ends up teetering on little more than rhetoric and personal skepticism.”

Since the publication of his book, Behe said, he has tried and failed to get research grants. Scientific journals have rejected his articles.

Colleagues “think I went bad,” he said. “But they’ve had a chance to show what a dope I am, and in my completely unbiased view, they’ve failed.”

Behe notes that he gets a “strong vote of support” from his children, who have been taught intelligent design along with evolution.

The kids are home-schooled by Celeste, who joins with him to present the information when each child reaches the ninth grade. It is, Michael Behe says, the same kind of instruction they would receive in a “balanced” biology curriculum.

Behe appears frequently at religious institutions, universities, private retreats and other forums whose audiences are eager to hear his views. He has also found a receptive audience among students. The professor teaches a course on differing theories and concepts about the origins of life and is scrupulously neutral.

“I don’t agree with him on Darwin,” said Colin Chambers, a former student who is now an environmental scientist. “But he never told us what to think. He challenged us to think. He said a scientist questions everything and is always ready for surprises.”

Behe got a dose of that after he finished his testimony in Harrisburg. As he walked down the courthouse steps, journalists and documentary filmmakers surrounded him. One in particular peppered him with tough questions.

“Why do you demonize Darwin?” he asked. “Why can’t you leave Darwin alone?”

Behe tried, and failed, to convince the journalist that he was only challenging a scientific theory. He was astonished to learn later that the questioner, writer and filmmaker Matthew Chapman, was Charles Darwin’s great-grandson.

“That was amazing!” Behe said later, eyes wide with wonder. “To think that I came all this way, to this court, and encountered him, of all people. How cool is that?”


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