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-by Nancy Pearcey

The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution

Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution

By Michael Behe

Free Press

307pp.; $25

When light strikes the retina, a photon is absorbed by a molecule called cis-retinal, which causes it to change to trans-retinal." Such scientific jargon was unfamiliar terrain for a Washington, D.C., think tank, and the audience grew hushed.

"The change in retinal forces a corresponding change in the protein rhodopsin, which allows it to interact with another protein called transducin." Glances shot around the room as members of the audience furtively sought out others who were equally mystified.

"Transducin dissociates from a small molecule called GDP and binds to a different molecule called GTP, and this complex binds to a protein called phosphodiesterase. . . ." For several minutes the polysyllabic mysteries piled up, until finally embarrassed laughter broke out. But Michael Behe had made his point: Speaking to a group of educated nonscientists, he had walked them through the complex molecular interactions required for vision in a way they will never forget.

Behe's book, Darwin's Black Box, does the same thing for readers, painting a vivid picture of the cell's complexity. But his purpose is not simply to give a charming exposition of popular science, it is to challenge the Darwinist hegemony in biology.

Behe's thesis is that life depends on a host of molecular systems that are irreducibly complex, a phrase he introduces to indicate that such systems consist of several interlocking parts, all of which must be in place before they can function. And since Darwinian processes kick in only after there is minimal function, the origin of an irreducibly complex system is out of reach of standard Darwinian explanations.

As an analogy, Behe invokes the humble mousetrap: You cannot start with a wooden platform and catch a few mice, add a spring and catch a few more mice, add a hammer, and so on, with gradual improvement of function. To function at all, a mousetrap requires a minimum number ...

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