Feature Article - June 1997
by Do-While Jones

Darwin's Black Box

It was once expected that the basis of life would be exceedingly simple. That expectation has been smashed. Vision, motion, and other biological functions have proven to be no less sophisticated than television cameras and automobiles. Science has made enormous progress in understanding how the chemistry of life works, but the elegance and complexity of biological systems at the molecular level have paralyzed science's attempt to explain their origins. There has been virtually no attempt to account for the origin of specific, complex biomolecular systems, much less any progress. Many scientists have gamely asserted that explanations are already in hand, or will be sooner or later, but no support for such assertions can be found in the professional science literature. More importantly, there are compelling reasons-based on the structure of the systems themselves--to think that a Darwinian explanation for the mechanisms of life will forever prove elusive. 1

Biochemist Michael Behe says that modern science has made the Darwinian explanation of the origin of complex life forms much less believable than it was in Darwin's day. In the 19th century, it was believed that a cell was just "a homogeneous globule of protoplasm." 2 They did not know about DNA or the complex processes that go on inside a cell. Blood clotting, cellular transport, vision, and the body's method of fighting diseases are "irreducibly complex systems" which could not possibly have evolved.

Take blood clotting, for example. On the surface it would appear that when blood is exposed to air, it dries out and clots. It isn't that simple. Behe used a whole chapter to describe the process. He even included a "blood coagulation cascade" flow chart showing how 32 proteins are involved in the process. Blood has to clot rapidly to prevent the animal from bleeding to death, but must not clot in the arteries or veins. It is a very complicated feedback and control system.

Behe also discusses Darwin's 1859 argument that a simple light-sensitive spot could have evolved into a complex eye. (This argument is repeated in Richard Dawkins' 1996 book, Climbing Mount Improbable.) It turns out that a "simple light-sensitive spot" is the result of a complex series of chemical reactions that takes three pages to explain. If any one step of the series of events fails, then the whole process fails, and the spot is not sensitive to light.

In the same way, the transfer of material through membranes inside a cell, and the body's mechanism for fighting disease, could not have evolved because every part of the system must be present for it to do anything useful.

Behe also examines the idea that chemicals could assemble themselves into the first living cell. He gives an excellent presentation of why origin-of-life experiments, which were viewed as promising successes decades ago, are now viewed as disappointing failures in professional circles. Despite this, students are still being taught in high school and college that these experiments were successful. Behe says,

In light of these well-publicized successes an outsider can be excused for feeling a sense of shock when he stumbles across pessimistic reviews of origin-of-life research in the professional literature, such as one written by Klaus Dose, a prominent worker in the field. In his assessment of the state of the problem, Dose pulls no punches. "More than 30 years of experimentation on the origin of life in the fields of chemical and molecular evolution have led to a better perception of the immensity of the problem of origin of life on Earth rather than to its solution. At present all discussions on principal theories and experiments in the field either end in stalemate or in a confession of ignorance." 3

He then devotes 13 pages to his literature search of 1200 papers in the Journal of Molecular Evolution (JME) and other technical sources.

In fact, none of the papers published in JME over the entire course of its life as a journal has ever proposed a detailed model by which a complex biochemical system might have been produced in a gradual step-by-step Darwinian fashion. 4

He also searched the 20,000 papers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (1984-1994) and found 400 papers that were concerned with molecular evolution. Examining these 400 papers he found that "no papers were published in the PNAS that proposed detailed routes by which complex biochemical structures might have developed. 5

Then he searched the indexes of 30 bio-chemistry text books for entries on evolution. Out of 185,500 index entries, only 138 claimed to deal with evolution. Typically they were single baseless assertions like, "Organisms have evolved and adapted to changing conditions on a geological time scale and continue to do so." 6

Behe's book is subtitled, "The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution." That might have made a better title than the main title. Twentieth century science has opened the "black box" of living systems and has found the insides to be much more complex than 19th century scientists supposed. What is found inside the box presents a challenge that the theory of evolution simply can't answer.

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1 Behe, Michael J. (1996) Darwin's Black Box, page x
2 Ibid. page 101, attributed to Ernst Haeckel.
3 Ibid. page 168, quoting Dose, K. (1988) "The Origin of Life: More Questions than Answers," Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 13, 348.
4 Ibid. page 176
5 Ibid. page 178
6 Conn, E.E. et al. (1987) Outlines of Biochemistry, 5th edition, page 4