Of Biochemistry and Belief
by William Bole
Pope John Paul II's recent statement that evolution is more than
just a theory caused a flurry of headlines across the
international media. One startled newspaper in Italy declared:
"The Pope Says We May Descend from Apes."
But the papal message came as no surprise to one Catholic
scientist, who first learned about the origins of the species at
St. Margaret Mary's grade school in Harrisburg, Pa.
"I don't remember exactly what was said about life, other than it
came from God, and that He could use whatever means He wished to
produce life, and that the leading scientific explanation for how
He did it was Darwin's theory of evolution," said Michael Behe, a
professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.
"I never gave evolution a second thought, and certainly saw no
conflict with Church teaching," said Behe, who attends St. Therese
of the Child Jesus Parish near Bethlehem with his wife, Celeste,
and their six children. (They're expecting number seven.)
A cantor who is also active in the parish's Holy Name Society,
Behe still sees no conflict between faith and evolution, but is
nonetheless giving Darwinism more than just a second thought. He
is making waves with a newbook and a fresh attack on the notion
that mere accidents of nature can explain how human beings
This strikes at the heart of Darwin's theory.
Pointing to Cod
Pope John Paul, in his Oct. 23 speech to the Pontifical Academy of
Sciences, affirmed the teaching of Pope Pius XII, whose 1950
encyclical ("The Human Race") left the door open
to the idea of a gradual process of human evolution.
While noting this, newspaper articles gave the impression that in
Pope John Paul's remarks, religion was finally bowing to the truth
The New York Times, for example, cautiously compared the Pope's
statement with his earlier admission that the Church made a
grievous error when it persecuted Galileo for arguing that the
Earth revolved around the sun. The article further described the
Catholic view of Darwinism as historically "an emblem of conflict
between reason and dogma, faith and science."
Yet in speaking out-fittingly on The Times' opinion page-Behe
asserted that religion has made ample room for science over the
The question today, he argued, is whether science will be as
generous in acknowledging the role of religion in coming to grips
with the physical universe. In an interview with Our Sunday
Visitor, he elaborated by pointing to advances in physics that
cast the universe.
In an interview with Our Sunday Visitor, he elaborated by pointing
to advances in physics that cast the universe as "precariously
balanced to produce life. If any of a number of fundamental
physical constants, like the speed of light or the charge on the
electron, had been different by a tiny bit, the universe could not
have produced life."
He said this fine-tuning of nature reveals the hand of an
intelligent force -"but no scientific agency has issued a
statement saying that God's design is more than just a theory," as
the Pope has done for evolution.
For Behe, the matter has become more interesting with modern
investigations into the cell, the basis of life. It is on this
ground, his own field of molecular biology, that Behe is waging
his assault on Darwinism.
He has mounted evidence from several decades of research
demonstrating an unfathomable complexity of cellular systems, and
presented the findings in his new book "Darwin's Black Box: The
Biochemical Challenge to Evolution" (Free Press, $25).
In Darwin's day, scientists knew little about the design of the
cell, but they have today unlocked this "black box."
Behe contends that the information contained in the cell smashes
to bits Darwin's theory that life has evolved more or less by
chance-a result of random mutations paired with natural selection,
or the so-called survival of the fittest.
"What we see [in the cell] is this incredible complexity that no
one ever imagined. It is the complexity itself that calls for a
conclusion of design" by an intelligent agent, said Behe. He added
that Darwin's mechanism of random chance cannot account for the
complexity of life, especially the intricate machinery of the
Behe does not think science can say who or what the "intelligent
agent" is that has intentionally arranged the cell in this way.
But the grand theological implications of these microscopic units
would be enough to make him an outcast in certain scientific
"Heretical is a word that is frequently applied to my idea. It's
an odd word to hear in science, which is supposed to be open to
any idea that accords with the data," he said.
"Many people thought that science was somehow supposed to take us
away from dependence on a Creator. I suppose it is distressing for
them to think that modern science actually points strongly toward
The stakes at this crossing of religion and science are more than
academic. Ever since the Scopes "monkey trial" of 1925, Darwinism
has proved one of the more politically explosive of scientific
theories. The teaching of evolution has detonated controversies in
public schools, with "creationists" aligned against Darwin's
Behe distinguishes himself from creationists, who believe God made
man and the universe in one fell swoop, as well as from
"I am not a creationist, but that doesn't stop others from
labeling me one in order to gain a rhetorical advantage. I define
a creationist as a person who thinks that life had to have been
created by a direct supernatural act," he said.
While keeping I open the possibility of direct creation, Behe
emphasizes that the basic material of life "could actually have
been built into the universe from the beginning." This would rule
out a direct supernatural act, though "the ultimate cause of life
would be attributable to God."
In his recent address, Pope John Paul spoke of "theories of
evolution," not singularly of Darwinism. Behe said the Pope was
getting across the point that evolution can mean different things
to different people.
For example, it could simply mean that all human beings descended
from a common ancestor-to which the Church poses no objection in
But this leaves unanswered the question of how humans, as well as
plants and animals, changed over time.
"Darwin's claim to fame is that he proposed a simple, naturalistic
mechanism that might cause such change-natural selection acting on
random variation. So if an animal is born that is stronger or
somehow better fit than its siblings, it will tend to survive and
pass on its genes to its descendants," Behe said.
"You can look at Darwin's theory and say the laws of nature,
including natural selection, are the work of the Creator. Or you
can say that if nature can do the job, there is no room for a
Creator, which is simple atheism," he said, adding, that the Pope
spoke plurally of "theories" because of the different philosophies
as well as mechanisms that someone can attach to evolution.
In Behe's view, it is not theology but rather science that has
tossed a wrench into Darwin's mechanism. He said no Darwinist has
managed to explain how the bacterial flagellum or blood-clotting
cascade-or any other complex, interacting cellular system-could
have resulted from a gradual process of random variation.
When considering/he intricate mechanisms needed to sustain even
the simplest of cells, "I am quite certain that the cell was
produced by intelligent design."
What might all this say about Pope John Paul's observation that,
in order for evolution to square with Christian faith, the human
ancestor must at some point have taken an "ontological leap;" that
is, a sudden leap to a higher level of being-with the moral and
spiritual powers that make him a person in God's image?
Like the Pope, Behe doubts that science can shed light on this
moment of spiritual transition, which he sees as a theological
Generally speaking, though, he thinks modern science does lend
support to people who are willing to take the leap of faith: "It
is only with considerable effort that a person can cling to
materialistic views of the universe." O
Bole is a senior correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor. For more
information on Ron DiCianni's "In the Beginning," call 1-800-944-
THE FREEDOM OF A CATHOLIC SCIENTIST
In the battles over the origins of the human species Michael Behe
has found that being a Catholic can offer distinct advantages. He
submits that Catholics may have "the most freedom to follow the
research wherever it may lead."
By contrast, Behe pointed to atheists at one end of the evolution
divide and biblical literalists at the other.
"People who are materialists or atheists simply have to come up
with some unintelligent [natural] process for every thing they see
in the world," he explained "So even if they look at the most
fantastically complex biological system, they're constrained by
their philosophy to say that it was produced by ultimately random
On the other hand, "people like biblical literalists are
constrained by their own views to shoehorn everything they see
into a 10,000-year-old earth," Behe said, referring to the
fundamentalist account of creation.
Somewhere in the middle are Catholics
"With Catholicism, you start with the knowledge that God made the
universe and made light, but you don't know how He did it," Behe
said "He might have done it in a puff of smoke, or He might have
done it entirely through natural laws.
"And so the job for a Catholic scientist is to get out there and
look and just try to evaluate the evidence on its own terms You're
really free to come to whatever conclusions your observations
lead". -William Bole
This article was taken from the December 1, 1996 issue of Our
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