Back in June, Brown University biologist Ken Miller published this review of Michael Behe’s book The Edge of Evolution in Nature magazine. Considering the venue, Miller quite appropriately focused on Behe’s rather dubious scientific arguments and showed that they were entirely incorrect.
Miller has now published a second review (not freely available online), this time in the Catholic magazine Commonweal. The scientific flaws are hardly the only thing wrong with Behe’s arguments, it seems. In Miller’s view, Behe’s arguments have disturbing theological consequences:
A hopeful reader might be forgiven if he dismissed my criticisms as little more than partisan carping from a true believer from the “evolutionist” camp. After all, if God exists, he would indeed be an “intelligent designer” of the very highest order. So, why shouldn’t we regard this provocative book as a helpful and timely scientific defense against the forces of atheistic materialism? One reason, as I mentioned, is that what it says is wrong. Its scientific arguments are built on a mistakenly improbable view of evolution. There is, however, a deeper reason that will also be of interest to Commonweal readers: Behe’s view of the designer.
The final chapter of The Edge is a confusing investigation of the nature of the “designer,” as implied by Behe’s case against evolution. Behe happily notes, as I would, that we live in a universe whose fundamental physical constants are remarkably hospitable to life. To me, and apparently to Behe, these constants may well reflect the will of a creator we would both identify as the God of Abraham. That, however, is where we part company.
Behe’s designer-God never gets it quite right. Behe accepts at face value common descent and the long natural history of life, but he attributes their complex features to the mutational tinkering of the designer. As a result, Behe’s interventionist God had to produce millions of failed species over billions of years to arrive at the present state of the world. If today’s world were God’s only intent, just how “intelligent” could he be? Furthermore, it turns out that this designer-God has crafted some pretty awful things along the way. One wonders about the day he designed the malaria parasite so well that it could kill a million children a year, or the poliio genome that crippled my aunt, or the parasites that eat the livers of millions of souls in the tropics. To Behe these are not byproducts of a fruitful and creative natural world that also gave us the beauty of a sunset, the grace of the eagle, and the talent of Beethoven. No, each vicious parasite and fatal disease is the the direct and intentional work of the designer.
Quite right. Behe’s insipid theorizing is impossible to reconcile with the idea of a just and loving God. He takes the already serious problem of evil, and makes it ten times worse.
Incidentally, this argument against ID is made also by the young-Earthers in a rare fit of clear-thinking. Their response is to argue that the good bits of creation are God’s handiwork, while the nasty bits are the result of human sin. That’s a pretty weak argument, but it is not the subject of this post.
So where do I agree with Behe? Well, Behe has responded to Miller. After pointing out that Miller’s attempted answer to the argument from evil in nature is the same as that presented by Francisco Ayala, Behe writes:
So, how to respond to such a position? The first thing to say is that it’s very hard to see how the Miller/Ayala position gets God off the hook. The “byproducts of a fruitful and creative [Darwinian] natural world” that Miller alludes to are not simply byproducts — they are deadly, dangerous, vicious byproducts. No matter if malaria were designed directly by God or indirectly by a sloppy process He put in motion, many children of mothers in malarious regions of Africa are going to be just as dead. There is going to be as much suffering in the world one way as the other.
Why couldn’t a grieving mother justifiably demand of an infinitely powerful God that He explain why He chose such a sloppy process to make life, instead of a more efficient process that would not produce natural evils such as parasites and tsunamis? One that wouldn’t cause such enormous pain? It seems to me that designing a poor Darwinian process that inevitably spins off natural evils leaves One as vulnerable to being sued for incompetence as directly designing them as finished products.
Bingo! That’s exactly right, and it nicely punctures the sophistry offered up by theistic evolutionists. Miller is quite right that a God who directly creates malaria, polio, and all manner of other nastiness is not the all-loving, all-powerful God of Christianity. But he is dead wrong that he can do any better. I’m afraid the moral distinction between directly creating malaria and directly setting in motion a process that has things like malaria as inevitable side consequences (when other mechanisms of creation were available) eludes me.
And if you add to this the fact that evolution by natural selection is a rotten way of creating intelligent life (if the fossils are to be believed, then evolution on this planet stagnated at several moments in history, and could only be started up again by mass extinctions that must have been horrible for the species who experienced them) then you see just how feeble a view of things theistic evolution really is.
But here’s the catch. Behe has no answer either. This is the best he can do:
On the other hand, as a theist one can make an argument that what strikes us as evil in nature is part of a larger whole which is good. In his recent book Francisco Ayala wrote that one could regard tsunamis as the unintended side effect of a good process (plate tectonics) which is necessary to build a habitable world. Well, heck, one can make the same argument for parasites and viruses. It may well be that such seemingly vile creatures actually play positive roles in the economy of biology, of which we are in large part unaware. If that’s the case, then directly designing parasites and viruses is as defensible in terms of the overall goodness of nature as is designing the processes of plate tectonics. The fact that they are dangerous to humans is an unintended side effect of something that is good in itself.
Yes, it is always an option to hide behind the “mysterious ways of God” defense. Does anyone really find that satisfying? Just so we’re clear as to the challenge faced by theists, to salvage God talk from the clutches of the problem of evil it would have to be the case that parasites and viruses are logically necessary to achieve the hypothetical greater good Behe mentions here. That’s a pretty steep burden.
Richard Dawkins summed up the essential problem very nicely in River Out of Eden:
Cheetahs give every indication of being superbly designed for something, and it should be easy enough to reverse-engineer them and work out their utility function. They appear to be well-designed to kill antelopes. The teeth, claws, eyes, nose, leg muscles, backbone and brain of a cheetah are all precisely what we should expect if God’s purpose in designing cheetahs was to maximize deaths among antelopes. Conversely, if we reverse-engineer an antelope we find equally impressive evidence of design for precisely the opposite end: the survival of antelopes and starvation among cheetahs. It is as though cheetahs had been designed by one deity and antelopes by a rival deity. Alternatively, if there is only one Creator who made the tiger and the lamb, the cheetah and the gazelle, what is He playing at? Is he a sadist who enjoys spectator blood sports? Is he trying to avoid overpopulation in the mammals of Africa? Is He maneuvering to maximize David Attenborough’s television ratings?
The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so. If there is ever a time of plenty. this very fact will autmoatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.
Exactly right. The day I find a scientist or theologian who has any plausible answer to this objection is the day I will stop thinking of Christian theism as utter foolishness.
I would add only that in Miller’s view God tolerated millions of years of this ceaseless suffering and misery all so that one day humans might appreciate the beauty of a sunset, or the pleasures of a Beethoven sonata. And Miller says Behe has no answer to the problem of evil?