Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemistry of the Cell
What do mouse traps, molecular biology, blood clotting, Rube Goldberg machines, and irreducible complexity have to do with each other? At first glance they seem to have little if anything to do with each other. However, they are all part of a recent book by Free Press titled, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution by Michael Behe. Michael Behe is a biophysics professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and his book, released last summer, has been causing a firestorm of activity in academic circles ever since.
The stranglehold that Darwinism has had in the biological sciences for decades has already been weakened over the last 30 years due to the new creationist movement and more recently by the push from intelligent design theorists. But Behe’s new book may end up being the straw that broke the camel’s back. Usually books like these are released by Christian publishers or at least a secular press that is small and willing to take a chance. Also, creationist books are rarely sold in secular bookstores or reviewed in secular publications. Darwin’s Black Box has gained the attention of evolutionists not normally accustomed to responding to anti- evolutionary ideas in the academic arena. People like Niles Eldredge from the American Museum of Natural History, Daniel Dennett, author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Richard Dawkins of Oxford University and author of The Blind Watchmaker, Jerry Robison of Harvard University, and David Hull from the University of Chicago have all been forced to respond to Behe either in print or in person.
In summary, the reason for all this attention is that they readily admit that Behe is clearly a reputable scientist from a reputable institution and his argument is therefore more sophisticated than they are accustomed to hearing from creationists. Mild, backhanded compliments aside, they unreservedly say he is flat wrong, but they have gone to much greater lengths in the literature, from the podium, and in the electronic media to explain precisely why they think he is wrong. Creationists and intelligent design theorists are usually dismissed out of hand, but not Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box.
Behe’s simple claim is that when Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, the cell was a mysterious black box. We could see the outside of it, but we had no idea of how it worked. In Origin, Darwin stated,
If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find no such case.
Simply put, Behe has found such a case. Behe claims that with the opening of the black box of the cell through the last 40 years of research in molecular and cell biology, there are now numerous examples of complex molecular machines that absolutely break down the theory of natural selection as an all-encompassing explanation of living systems. The power and logic of his examples prompted Christianity Today to name Darwin’s Black Box as their 1996 Book of the Year. Quite a distinction for a book on science published by a secular publisher!
In this essay I will be examining a few of Behe’s examples and detailing further just how the scientific community has been reacting to this highly readable and influential book.
Irreducible Complexity and Mousetraps
Behe claims the data of biochemistry argues strongly that many of the molecular machines in the cell could not have arisen through a step-by-step process of natural selection. In contrast, Behe claims that much of the molecular machinery in the cell is irreducibly complex.
Let me first address this concept of irreducible complexity. It’s really a quite simple concept to grasp. Something is irreducibly complex if it’s composed of several parts and each part is absolutely necessary for the structure to function. The implication is that such irreducibly complex structures or machines cannot be built by natural selection because in natural selection, each component must be useful to the organism as the molecular machine is built. Behe uses the example of a mousetrap. A mousetrap has five parts that are absolutely necessary for the mousetrap to function. Take any one of these parts away and the mousetrap can no longer catch mice.
The mousetrap must contain a solid base to attach the four other parts to, a hammer that clamps down on the mouse, a spring which gives the hammer the necessary power, a holding bar which holds the now energized hammer in position, and a catch to which the holding bar is secured, holding the hammer in coiled tension. Eventually, the jiggling action of a mouse, lured to the catch by a tasty morsel of peanut butter, causes the holding bar to slip away from the catch, releasing the hammer to spring down upon the unsuspecting mouse.
It’s fairly easy to imagine the complete breakdown of functionality if you take away any of these five parts. Without the base, the other parts can’t maintain the proper stability and distance from each other to be functional; without the spring or hammer, there is no way to actually catch the mouse; and without both the catch and holding bar, there is no way to set the trap. All the parts must be present and accounted for in order for a mouse to be caught and the machine to function at all.
You can’t build a mousetrap by Darwinian natural selection. Let’s say you have a factory that produces all five parts of a mousetrap but uses them for different purposes. Over the years as the production lines change, leftover parts of no-longer-made contraptions are put aside on shelves in a storage room. One summer, the factory is overrun with mice. If someone were to put his mind to it, he might run by the storage room and begin to play around with these leftover parts and just might construct a mousetrap. But those pieces, left to themselves, are never going to spontaneously self-assemble into a mousetrap. A hammer-like part may accidentally fall from its box into a box of springs, but it’s useless until all five parts are assembled so they can function together. Nature would select against the continued production of the miscellaneous parts if they are not producing an immediate benefit to the organism.
Michael Behe simply claims that we have learned that several of the molecular machines in the cell are just as irreducibly complex as a mousetrap and, therefore, just as unable to be constructed by natural selection.
The Mighty Cilium
One of Behe’s examples is the cilium. Cilia are tiny hair-like structures on the outside of cells that either help move fluid over a stationary cell, such as the cells in your lungs, or serve as a means of propelling a cell through water, as in the single-celled paramecium. There are often many cilia on the surface of a cell, and you can watch them beat in unison the way a stadium crowd performs the wave at a ball game.
A cilium operates like paddles in a row boat; however, since it is a hair-like structure, it can bend. There are two parts to the operation of a cilium, the power stroke and the recovery stroke. The power stroke starts with the cilium essentially parallel to the surface of the cell. With the cilium held rigid, it lifts up, anchored at its base in the cell membrane, and pushes liquid backwards until it has moved nearly 180 degrees from its previous position. For the recovery stroke, the cilium bends near the base, and the bend moves down the length of the cilium as it hugs the surface of the cell until it reaches its previous stretched out position, again having moved 180 degrees back to its original position. How does this microscopic hair-like structure do this? Studies have shown that three primary proteins are necessary, though over 200 others are utilized.
If you made a cross-section of a cilium and made a photograph of it with an electron microscope, you would see that the internal structure of the cilium is composed of a central pair of fibers surrounded by an additional 9 pairs of these same fibers arranged in a circle. These fibers or microtubules are long hollow sticks made by stacking the protein tubulin. The bending action of cilia depends on the vertical shifts made by these microtubules.
The bending is caused by another protein that is stretched between the pairs of tubules called nexin. Nexin acts as a sort of rubber band connector between the tubules. As the microtubules shift vertically, the rubber band is stretched taut, the microtubules continue to shift if they bend. Whew! I know this is getting complicated, but hang with me a little longer. The microtubules slide past each other by the action of a motor protein called dynein. The dynein protein also connects two microtubules together. One end of the dynein remains stationary on one microtubule, while the other end releases its hold on the neighboring microtubule and reattaches a little higher and pulls the other microtubule down.
Without the motor protein, the microtubules don’t slide and the cilium simply stands rigid. Without nexin, the tubules will slide against each other until they completely move past each other and the cilium disintegrates. Without the tubulin, there are no microtubules and no motion. The cilium is irreducibly complex. Like the mousetrap, it has all the properties of design and none of the properties of natural selection.
Rube Goldberg Blood Clotting
Rube Goldberg was a cartoonist in the earlier part of this century. He became famous for drawing weird contraptions that must go through many seemingly unnecessary steps in order to accomplish a rather simple purpose. Over the years, some evolutionists have alluded to living systems as Rube Goldberg machines as evidence of their construction by natural selection as opposed to being designed by a Creator. Things such as the Panda’s thumb and the intricate workings of the many varieties of orchids are said to be contrived structures that an intelligent creator surely would have found a better way of doing.
If you have never seen a cartoon of a Rube Goldberg machine, let me describe one for you from Mike Behe’s book, Darwin’s Black Box. This one is titled the “Mosquito Bite Scratcher.” Water falling off a roof migrates into a drain pipe and collects into a flask. In the flask is a cork that floats up as the glass fills. Inserted in the cork is a needle that eventually rises high enough to puncture a suspended paper cup filled with beer. The beer then sprinkles onto a nearby bird that becomes intoxicated and falls off its platform and onto a spring. The spring propels the inebriated bird onto another platform where the bird pulls a string (no doubt mistaking it for a worm in its intoxicated state). The pulled string fires a cannon underneath a small dog, frightening him and causing him to flip over on his back. His rapid breathing raises and lowers a disk above his stomach which is attached to a needle positioned next to a mosquito bite on a man’s neck allowing the bite to be scratched, causing no embarrassment to the man while he talks to a lady.
Well, this machine is obviously more complicated than it needs to be. But the machine is still designed and as Behe claims, it is also irreducibly complex. In other words, if one of the steps fails or is absent, the machine doesn’t work. The whole contraption is useless. Well, there are a few molecular mechanisms in our bodies that are very similar to Rube Goldberg machines and therefore irreducibly complex. One is the blood-clotting cascade. When you cut your finger an amazing thing happens. Initially, it begins to bleed, but if you just leave it alone, after a few minutes, the flow of blood stops. A clot has formed, providing a protein mesh that initially catches the blood cells and eventually closes up the wound entirely, preventing the plasma from escaping as well.
This seemingly straightforward process involves over a dozen different proteins with names like thrombin, fibrinogen, Christmas, Stuart, and accelerin. Some of these proteins are involved in forming the clot. Others are responsible for regulating clot formation. Regulating proteins are needed because you only want clots forming at the site of a wound not in the middle of flowing arteries. Yet other proteins have the job of removing the clot once it is no longer needed. The body also needs to eliminate the clot when it has outlived its usefulness, but not before.
Now it’s easy to see why some, when considering the blood-clotting cascade, wonder if a Creator could have devised something simpler. But that assumes we fully understand the system. Perhaps it absolutely needs to be this way. Besides, this doesn’t in any way diminish the fact that even a Rube Goldberg machine is designed just as the blood clotting system seems to be.
Silence of Molecular Evolution and the Reaction
Clearly, the irreducible complexity inherent in many biochemical systems not only precludes the possibility that they evolved by Darwinian natural selection, but actually suggests the strong conclusion that some kind of intelligent design is necessary. Behe makes a very significant point by recognizing that the data that implies intelligent design doesn’t necessarily mean one knows who the designer is. Inferring that intelligent design is present is a reasonable scientific conclusion. Planetary astronomers, for example, claim that we will be able distinguish a radio signal from space that was sent by an intelligent civilization from the surrounding radio noise even though we won’t initially understand it and won’t know who sent it.
Yet the astounding complexity of the cell has gone largely unnoticed and greatly unreported to the general public. There is an embarrassed silence. Behe speculates as to why; he says,
Why does the scientific community not greedily embrace its startling discovery? Why is the observation of design handled with intellectual gloves? The dilemma is that while one side of the elephant is labeled intelligent design, the other side might be labeled God (p.233).
This may also help to account for another curious omission that Behe highlights, the almost total lack of scientific literature attempting to describe how complex molecular systems could have arisen by Darwinian natural selection. The Journal of Molecular Evolution was established in 1971, dedicated to explaining how life at the molecular level came to be. One would hope to find studies exploring the origin of complex biochemical systems in this journal. But, in fact, none of the papers published in JME over the entire course of its life as a journal has ever proposed the origin of a single complex biochemical system in a gradual step-by-step Darwinian process.
Furthermore, Behe adds,
The search can be extended, but the results are the same. There has never been a meeting, or a book or a paper on details of the evolution of complex biochemical systems (p. 179).
Behe’s sophisticated argument has garnered the attention of many within the scientific community. His book has been reviewed in the pages of Nature, Boston Review, Wall Street Journal, and on many sites on the Internet. While some have genuinely engaged the ideas and offered serious rebuttal, most have sat back on Darwinian authority and claimed that Behe is just lazy or hasn’t given the evolutionary establishment enough time. Jerry Coyne in Nature (19 September 1996, pp. 227-28) put it this way:
There is no doubt that the pathways described by Behe are dauntingly complex, and their evolution will be hard to unravel. Unlike anatomical structures, the evolution of which can be traced with fossils, biochemical evolution must be reconstructed from highly evolved living organisms, and we may forever be unable to envisage the first proto-pathways. It is not valid, however, to assume that, because one man cannot imagine such pathways, they could not have existed.
But that’s precisely the point; it is not one man but the entire biochemical community that has failed to elucidate a specific pathway leading to a complex biochemical system.
I highly recommend Behe’s book. Its impact will be felt for many years to come.
©1997 Probe Ministries