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Briefly Reviewed: July-August 2022

A Mousetrap for Darwin: Michael J. Behe Answers His Critics

By Michael J. Behe

Publisher: Discovery Institute

Pages: 558

Price: $25.95

Review Author: Preston R. Simpson

Michael J. Behe’s latest book might depress you; keep reading to find out why. Behe is well known to anyone interested in the debate about Darwinism. He achieved renown with the publication of his groundbreaking and controversial book Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (1996), which introduced the concept of irreducible complexity in biochemical operations. Behe has a gift for explaining complex scientific matters in a way comprehensible to any curious layman. In A Mousetrap for Darwin he illustrates the notion of irreducible complexity by analyzing a mousetrap.

A mousetrap has only a few basic parts: platform, spring, hammer, catch, and holding bar. In order to catch mice, each part has to be present and in a particular relation to the other parts. If any one piece is removed, the trap will not catch mice. And if one imagines the construction of a mousetrap, it is immediately apparent that it cannot evolve in a Darwinian fashion by beginning with one piece and gradually adding others. A single piece will not catch any mice, nor will two pieces, and so on. The device works only when all the pieces are in place.

Modern biochemistry has shown that living organisms are made up of countless biochemical “machines” in which the pieces are primarily proteins. Many of these biochemical machines, if examined carefully, are also irreducibly complex, such that if any one piece is absent, they do not function at all. Hence, they cannot have been assembled by natural selection because Darwin’s mechanism requires that each step in the construction of a biological machine perform a function, and each successive step must be an improvement on the previous ones. To Behe, and to any thoughtful observer, the construction of any such machine requires foresight to assemble a group of non-functional items into a finished product that does function. But of course, natural selection has no foresight. Only intelligent beings do.

Behe followed up Darwin’s Black Box with two books that make use of the tremendous advances in genetics and biochemistry that enable researchers to know precisely how genes and the proteins they encode are structured. The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (2007) shows how random mutations and natural selection can, and have, produced significant changes, such as malaria’s resistance to chloroquine and resistance to malaria in people with the sickle-cell gene. But now that the biochemical bases of these changes are known, they are seen to be trivial genetic changes of the kind that can occur randomly and then be selected so as to spread widely in the respective populations. But any improvement requiring more complicated changes is beyond the possibility of randomness. This is the edge of evolution.

Behe’s Darwin Devolves: The New Science About DNA That Challenges Evolution (2019) points out that many changes that adapt an organism to a local environment are the result of gene breakage that happens to produce a favorable effect. But again, no new systems are being built.

As one might expect, these challenges to the received wisdom of Darwinism created firestorms of protest in scientific circles. But Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, has the scientific wherewithal and good-natured humor (as well as extraordinarily thick skin) to meet the protests. A Mousetrap for Darwin is a compilation of his decades-long scientific and rhetorical battles with his many critics, as well as his reaction to, for example, Pope St. John Paul II’s declaration that “evolution is more than a theory.” For anyone who has followed the Darwin debates assiduously since the 1990s, there will not be a lot of new material here. Most of it has been previously published in the form of answers to critical book reviews, op-eds, and attacks in online forums.

For the lay reader, a couple warnings are in order. First, there is a large amount of repetition. Some is necessary because many critics make the same mistakes but publish them in various forums. As Behe runs around putting out these various journalistic fires, he must repeat himself for each new magazine or scientific journal simply because the reviewers repeat the same errors.

Second, the book is heavy on scientific details, and a layman might get discouraged. I am a physician, though certainly no expert in modern genetics and protein chemistry, and I found it a bit of a slog in some areas, requiring considerable concentration and re-reading of many of the arguments. In this respect, the book is different from Behe’s previous ones, which he made understandable to the conscientious layman by his folksy style and appropriate analogies to everyday life. This book, by contrast, deals with criticism from working scientists in which both sides cite complex genetics and protein chemistry.

So, why might A Mousetrap for Darwin be depressing? Because of what it tells us about our society and its quest for knowledge. It is remarkable how many of Behe’s critics are unable to engage with his arguments. Remember that these are mostly working scientists, philosophers of science, and science journalists who should have a good grasp of the issues and an ability to evaluate the literature. Yet they repeatedly either fail to understand what Behe is saying about the challenges to Darwinism or badly misrepresent it. This happens so often and is done by such knowledgeable people that one is strongly drawn to the conclusion that they do not want to understand the problems, or they understand them too well and don’t want to face the implications. Behe has written, when accused of trying to insert religion into science, that his scientific data may have religious implications, but that is unrelated to the scientific question of whether his conclusions follow from the evidence.

Darwinism has become the creation story for our civilization, and to question it is often treated as blasphemy. Prejudicial blinders slow the advance of science. We see this playing out today in the initial refusal of many scientists and journalists even to consider the possibility that the COVID-19 virus came from a Chinese lab primarily because an obnoxious and unpopular politician advanced the notion. Now, after calm consideration, that idea is not so crazy (though the issue is unresolved as of this writing). It will take a lot longer for cooler heads to evaluate Behe’s claims, but the evidence is looking stronger all the time.

The Cosmic Vision of Teilhard de Chardin

By John F. Haught

Publisher: Orbis Books

Pages: 260

Price: $26

Review Author: Charles Molineaux

John F. Haught, an enthusiastic acolyte of geologist and evolutionist Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, has released what he describes as a sort of adaptation and rearrangement of his own previous lectures and essays about the prolific French Jesuit (1881-1955). The Cosmic Vision of Teilhard de Chardin confirms Haught’s longstanding concurrence with, even adulation of, Teilhard’s evolutionism, despite an extant Vatican warning. Teilhard struck out boldly in new directions — with a new vocabulary — to re-examine teachings of the Church in the light of evolutionary science. He even reconsidered Sacred Scripture, from Genesis to the Incarnation and Redemption, in his quest for a “new religion.” As a result, his Jesuit order silenced him, and the Holy Office (today the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) issued a monitum in 1962 regarding his work that has never been revoked. It reads, in part:

Several works of Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, some of which were posthumously published, are being edited and are gaining a good deal of success. Prescinding from a judgment about those points that concern the positive sciences, it is sufficiently clear that the…works abound in such ambiguities, and indeed even serious errors, as to offend Catholic doctrine. For this reason, the most eminent and most revered Fathers of the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office exhort all Ordinaries, as well as the superiors of Religious Institutes, rectors of seminaries and presidents of universities, effectively to protect the minds, particularly of the youth, against the dangers presented by the works of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin and of his followers.

Haught, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, sneers at the monitum. “Fortunately,” he says, “I was one of those who escaped efforts to protect the tender minds of young Catholics.”

A recurring theme in Cosmic Vision is Teilhard’s assertion that the universe continues to evolve. Haught asserts in the first chapter that Christian theology “has failed to reflect deeply on what it means that we live in a still-becoming universe.” As a result, “Ecclesiastical officials and religious educators still cling at least tacitly to ancient and medieval images of a fixed universe, a primordial human innocence, a historical Fall, and a God who exists above or outside of the natural world.” There is nothing tacit about teaching in accordance with the basics of Catholic doctrine. In one sentence, Haught has jettisoned the concept of Original Sin, the need for Redemption, and the existence of God in the natural world.

Teilhard’s “cosmic vision” includes the prediction that through technological “complexification,” the earth will be increasingly encircled by what the Jesuit termed the noosphere, the thinking envelope around the earth, part of evolving geology. Haught admits that most geologists and cosmologists do not view the noosphere as a new layer in natural history, but he later asserts that, per Teilhard, thought is part of nature, “no less a flowing of nature than are rivers and trees.”

The third chapter, with its broad rejection of historic Christianity, gives an idea where Teilhard and Haught are headed. Haught writes, “Teilhard’s expert grasp of natural history convinced him of the need for a radical reinterpretation of Christian teachings about God, Christ, creation, incarnation, redemption and eschatology in the light of evolution” (emphasis added). Here Haught briefly treats the embarrassing Piltdown hoax, a faked anthropological “missing link” episode in England in which Teilhard as a young cleric was involved. Haught contends that Teilhard is only “gratuitously linked” to it. This rebuff is risible, considering entire books have been written on the topic, including The Piltdown Forgery (1955) by J.S. Weiner and Unraveling Piltdown: The Science Fraud of the Century and Its Solution by John E. Walsh (1996). Teilhard himself never explained whether he colluded with others or was simply duped.

In the fourth chapter, we learn that Teilhard “allows that God…is in some sense changed by what happens in the world” (emphasis in original). This seems to suggest, absurdly, that God can be changed by man’s inclination — a notion quite contradictory to Catholic teaching on the unchangeability of God. By the eighth chapter, Haught makes clear the distinction between Teilhardism and traditional Judeo-Christian norms of the moral life and individual salvation. Ignoring both the Mosaic Law and Christ’s words to the rich young man (cf. Mt. 19:16-22), Haught, citing Teilhard, tells us that “the moral life” is one that “contributes…to the great work of creation and becoming more in a still unfinished universe.”

The book’s final chapter, entitled “Criticisms,” implies that Haught seeks a degree of balance, a recognition of the principle Audi alteram partem (Let’s hear from the other side). Yet he includes no serious criticisms of Teilhard but only an attack by a “young Catholic theologian and recent graduate” (emphasis added) whose focus seems to have been on Teilhard’s alleged racist legacy. This strawman argument is well off the point of Haught’s text on Teilhard’s cosmic vision. Omitted is any reference to true scholarly critics of Teilhard (e.g., Wolfgang Smith, David H. Lane, and Msgr. Leo Schumacher; see my review of America’s Teilhard, Jul.-Aug. 2021).

Haught summarizes what he sees as Teilhard’s true legacy, consisting of four cardinal principles: (1) The universe is still coming into being; (2) “To create means to unify…. Teilhard’s true legacy lies in his rich Christian sense of a universe converging on Christ”; (3) “True union differentiates. True union does not mean uniformity or homogeneity but a rich, complex mode of being built up out of a diversity of components that are permitted to coexist in a relationship of complementarity”; and (4) “The world rests on the future as its sole support.”

Teilhard, in a letter to Léontine Zanta, wrote of his “effort to establish within myself, and to diffuse around me, a new religion (let’s call it an improved Christianity).” One might characterize some of Teilhard’s positions as, at best, doctrinal development. But development of doctrine, as St. John Henry Newman explained, takes place within existing Catholic teaching, which Teilhard seems to reject in his search for a “new religion.”

It is curious that, despite his enthusiasm for Teilhard, Haught does not argue for a lifting of the Vatican’s monitum. Perhaps he considers it unnecessary because the very concept of a monitum is arguably contrary to free expression. Or perhaps, since interest in Teilhard’s cosmic vision “has waned,” it does not really matter. “Teilhard draws less attention today than he did fifty or sixty years ago,” Haught admits. Despite waning interest, a Teilhard Project staggers on. An effort to produce a TV special on Teilhard has been talked about for years and is now promised for late 2022. Several of the project’s advisors, like Haught, come from Georgetown. It is also revealing that more recent scholars writing on evolution and emergence make no mention of Teilhard (e.g., Mariusz Tabaczek’s Emergence: Towards a New Metaphysics and Philosophy of Science, 2019).

Cosmic Vision, as a compilation, contains a fair amount of overlapping ideas and no sequencing of Teilhard’s thought as it may have developed or changed through the years. Haught’s effort, in his role as a sort of evolutionist Sancho Panza to geologist Teilhard, fails to persuade the reader why the French Jesuit shouldn’t just exit stage left, along with his “new religion.”

 

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