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Department: Featured Blip
The first time biochemistry professor Michael Behe saw a diagram of the bacterial flagellum, he was captivated. Wow! he thought. That's really fascinating! I wonder how that evolved? Then he turned the page and went on, confident that somebody, somewhere, knew the answer. After all, everyone said Darwin's theory was true.
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Sometime after that, he read Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, in which Michael Denton argues that the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection operating on random mutations isn't capable of producing major biological innovations. Behe started raising questions with colleagues and grad students at Lehigh University, where he taught, but mostly they would just listen politely and then return to their business. No one seemed to have any idea how complex systems like the bacterial flagellum might have evolved. Who does know? he began to wonder.
So in 1996, he published Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, which describes several biological systems that are irreducibly complex, the term he coined to describe systems whose many parts must be present and correctly assembled all at once in order for it to perform its function. Since irreducible complexity posed a serious challenge to the Darwinian process, Behe proposed intelligent design theory (ID) as a better explanation for the origin of such systems. Although his inference to design was based on empirical observation and scientific reasoning, critics accused him of pushing religion, but more notably, they didn't respond to the questions he'd raised.
Revolutionary is a film that tells the story of this quiet, unassuming scientist and the scientific revolution he's helped to launch. The science content alone makes it worth seeing, but there's also a human element to Revolutionary that's unusual among science documentaries. The story of Günter Bechly, for example, is fascinating. A paleontologist and curator at the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, Germany, Bechly set out to emphasize that there was no debate about evolution among scientists, and so he designed a display with a balance scale to dramatize the overwhelming evidence for Darwin. On one side of the scale he placed the books challenging Darwin, and on the other side a single volume, The Origin of Species—which was displayed as significantly outweighing the other books because it possessed the "real evidence."
But Bechly made one "mistake." He actually read the books on the "lightweight" side, including Darwin's Black Box. Upon finishing them, he had two thoughts: (1) ID theorists' positions were being misrepresented, and (2) their arguments had merit and were not receiving appropriate responses. Like Behe before him, Bechly continued to dig, and in 2015, he "came out" as an ID supporter.
The standard story is that anyone who doubts Darwin and comes to embrace ID was probably religiously motivated from the beginning, Bechly said. But he himself came from a thoroughly irreligious background and embraced ID as a valid scientific research paradigm because it is most consistent with the evidence.
Revolutionary also goes into some detail about the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, a controversial case about including ID in school science curricula. The film explains how the judge's ruling was based on falsehoods about ID and the flagellum—which featured prominently in the testimony—and it also covers subsequent discoveries vindicating both Behe and ID.
In some ways, Revolutionary is a tribute to Michael Behe, although he's clearly not one to seek attention. Rather, when students' (or museum curators') minds awaken to see the issue differently—to consider the possibilities suggested by the evidence—those, he says, are the moments that he as a teacher "just lives for." Judging by developments in real science, there will likely be more of those moments to come. •
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