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The Case of Behe vs. Darwin

COLUMN ONE

An unassuming biochemist who became the lead witness for intelligent design is unfazed by criticism but glad he has tenure.

November 05, 2005|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

HARRISBURG, Pa. — 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?

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.

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.

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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