Slate Article: The Brontosaurus

From: Keith Miller <>
Date: Thu Oct 27 2005 - 23:41:10 EDT

For your interest:


> The Brontosaurus
> Monty Python's flying creationism.
> By William Saletan

> "There is an elephant in the roomful of scientists who are trying to
> explain the development of life," wrote Michael Behe, a professor of
> biochemistry, in his 1996 book Darwin's Black Box. The elephant was
> ubiquitous evidence of "intelligent design" in nature. Darwinian
> evolutionists, Behe argued, were unable to explain life's origins and
> its emerging complexity because they couldn't see the elephant.
> Behe has the same problem, but worse. Last week in a Pennsylvania
> courtroom, he testified in defense of a school board's requirement
> that biology teachers mention ID. Behe offered a number of
> interesting criticisms of Darwinism. But it's impossible to focus on
> any of these criticisms, because they were so completely overshadowed
> by the brontosaurus in the room: ID's sophomoric emptiness.
> What makes Behe's non-explanation a brontosaurus rather than an
> elephant is its resemblance to a famous Monty Python sketch in which a
> television newsman interviews a theorist.
> Q. You say you have a new theory about the brontosaurus.
> A. Can I just say here, Chris, for one moment, that I have a new
> theory about the brontosaurus.
> Q. Exactly. Well, what is it? ?
> A: Oh, what is my theory?
> Q: Yes.
> A: Oh, what is my theory, that it is. Well, Chris, you may well ask me
> what is my theory.
> Q: I am asking.
> A: Good for you. My word, yes. Well, Chris, what is it that it is?this
> theory of mine. Well, this is what it is?my theory that I have, that
> is to say, which is mine, is mine.
> Q: Yes, I know it's yours. What is it?
> A: Where? Oh, what is my theory? This is it. My theory that belongs to
> me is as follows. This is how it goes. The next thing I'm going to say
> is my theory. Ready?
> Q: Yes.
> A: This theory goes as follows and begins now. All brontosauruses are
> thin at one end; much, much thicker in the middle; and then thin again
> at the far end.
> As though that explained anything. Which brings us to last week's
> cross-examination of Behe by Eric Rothschild, the lawyer opposing the
> school board in the Pennsylvania case.
> Q: Please describe the mechanism that intelligent design proposes for
> how complex biological structures arose.
> A: Well, the word "mechanism" can be used in many ways. ? When I was
> referring to intelligent design, I meant that we can perceive that in
> the process by which a complex biological structure arose, we can
> infer that intelligence was involved. ?
> Q: What is the mechanism that intelligent design proposes?
> A: And I wonder, could?am I permitted to know what I replied to your
> question the first time?
> Q: I don't think I got a reply, so I'm asking you. You've made this
> claim here (reading): "Intelligent design theory focuses exclusively
> on the proposed mechanism of how complex biological structures arose."
> And I want to know, what is the mechanism that intelligent design
> proposes for how complex biological structures arose?
> A: Again, it does not propose a mechanism in the sense of a
> step-by-step description of how those structures arose. But it can
> infer that in the mechanism, in the process by which these structures
> arose, an intelligent cause was involved.
> The interrogation goes on like this for pages and pages. Like the
> theorist in the Monty Python sketch, Behe throws up a blizzard of
> babble: process, intelligent activity, important facts. What process?
> What activity? What facts? He never explains. He says the designer
> "took steps" to create complex biological systems, but ID can't
> specify the steps. Does ID tell us who designed life? No, he answers.
> Does it tell us how? No. Does it tell us when? No. How would the
> designer create a bacterial flagellum? It would "somehow cause the
> plan to, you know, go into effect," he proposes.
> Can ID make testable predictions? Not really. If we posit that a given
> biological system was designed, Rothschild asks, what can we infer
> about the designer's abilities? Just "that the designer had the
> ability to make the design that is under consideration," says Behe.
> "Beyond that, we would be extrapolating beyond the evidence." Does
> Behe not understand that extrapolating beyond initial evidence is
> exactly the job of a hypothesis? Does he not grasp the meaninglessness
> of saying a designer designed things that were designed?
> Evidently not. "That is exactly the basis for how we detect design
> when we perceive the purposeful arrangement of parts," Behe declares.
> The essence of science that detection means going beyond perception
> escapes his comprehension. It also escapes his interest. He says his
> belief t hat the bacterial flagellum was intelligently designed could
> be tested, but he's never run the test. Why not? "I'm persuaded by the
> evidence that I cite in my book that this is a good explanation and
> that spending a lot of effort in trying to show how random mutation
> and natural selection could produce complex systems is not real likely
> to be fruitful," he says. Who needs science when you've got faith?
> So, this is my theory, which belongs to me, and goes as follows. All
> intelligently designed things are brought about by an intelligent
> designer through a process of intelligently conducted design. If it's
> good enough for Monty Python, it's good enough for biology class.
> William Saletan is Slate's national correspondent and author of
> Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War.
> Article URL:
Received on Thu Oct 27 23:50:50 2005

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