Democratic candidates for president try to appeal to an ideological audience that pays attention to early campaigns, but will that hurt the candidates in the longer term?
German paleontologist Günter Bechly, former curator of the Stuttgart State Museum of Natural History, is a world expert on fossilized dragonflies. He has discovered more than 170 new species, and eight species, two genera, and one family of organisms have been named after him. To prepare for an exhibit celebrating Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, Bechly read intelligent design books—and became an ID proponent. He is now a fellow at the Discovery Institute and a senior research scientist at Biologic Institute. He now lives in Austria, but I interviewed him in Seattle, Wash. Here’s an edited Q&A.
Why dragonflies? When I was researching in the tropics, I simply discovered that I loved these animals and found them very interesting: aquatic larvae, helicopterlike flight, compound eyes, beautiful colors, and strange, intricate mating behavior.
In what ways do they add to the case for intelligent design? One way is their sudden appearance in the fossil record with fully formed wing articulation. Another evidence concerns the reproductive system in suborders of dragonflies. While the organs in each suborder are constructed from the same basic parts, in each one a different part of the system has the function of sperm transmission—a parallel development in which it appears the same kind of solution was derived independently in several instances. It indicates a kind of design template used several times, as an engineer would use to build different motor engines, using the same parts.
Their mouths are interesting? Larvae have prehensile mouths that can be thrust forward like a chameleon’s tongue. To do that, they must be partially detached from the head. How this happened at each intermediate state, as the Darwinian process would require—to be a viable state with an adaptive advantage—is very hard to imagine.
‘If humans originated from the animal realm by a purely unguided process, there is no real reason in nature to treat humans differently from stones.’
What challenges do intelligent design proponents face in Europe? The reaction I received was as hostile as it would have been in America, but most people reject ID arguments without knowing what they reject. The problem for neo-Darwinists is that if this idea should fail, there is no alternative. If the only naturalistic explanation for complex information is the Darwinian process and this process is shown to be unfeasible, then it’s game over for naturalism. That is why, especially in biology, the aggression is very high against intelligent design explanations.
Could the overwhelming percentage of biologists who reject ID be wrong? The problem is that, of the biologists who reject ID, 98 percent don’t work on the actual underpinnings of the neo-Darwinian theory. They simply learn the theory at university, accept it as true, and apply the theory to detailed problems: They study whether the East African locust is related more closely to the Asian or Australian locust, but they don’t think about the mathematical feasibility of the neo-Darwinian process. The few theoretical biologists who work on the underpinnings of the theory have mostly become critical of the neo-Darwinian process.
You cite a conference organized by the Royal Society in London in 2016. The opening talk by a famous evolutionary biologist was about the explanatory deficits of the neo-Darwinian theory. The failure of Darwinism as an explanation is not at all an exclusive, idiosyncratic idea of ID proponents or creationists.
What do you think of the link scholars have made between Darwinism, 19th-century social Darwinism, and the rise of 20th-century fascism? It is certainly not simple causation, but a certain mindset combined with a rejection of human dignity leads to atrocities. This is true in Nazism, in Soviet gulags, and now in North Korea. If humans originated from the animal realm by a purely unguided process, there is no real reason in nature to treat humans differently from stones. It’s just a different aggregate of atoms. But the connection is not simple: Darwin wouldn’t have been a supporter of Nazi Germany.
Wikipedia users deleted an article there about you? I was a scientist with a certain profile who changed my mind for rational reasons. That’s something that’s not supposed to happen. That made me dangerous, so I was ostracized. It shows that Wikipedia is not unbiased. The best alternative is to google to find the information and weigh its reliability yourself.
How would you encourage someone entering the field of biology today? Be open-minded, read both sides, and don’t be indoctrinated by propaganda. Weigh all the evidence and then look for the best explanation of the evidence. Those who see that the standard Darwinian picture might be wrong should attend a Discovery Institute summer seminar to meet the scientists and ask critical questions. But I would also advise staying undercover until their career is a bit settled, because the risk to ruin their career is real, as I and many others have encountered.
What areas of biology are particularly compelling for the future? One is the whole field of genetics, where you see the striking phenomena of overlapping genes where the same strands of DNA are used to code different genes. It’s like a book that you can read backwards and forwards and it still makes sense. This is nearly unbelievable to have originated with a Darwinian process.
Evo-devo? “Evo-devo”—evolutionary development—strongly suggests that the whole paradigm about the organism being coded only in the DNA is wrong. Look at how sugar code on the cell membrane is necessary to produce a viable fetus. If you want to change an organism from one type to another, it’s not sufficient to just fiddle with some mutations in the DNA.
What does paleontology tell us? The gaps we can observe in the fossil record are certainly real. More and more strong statistical support means we should look at gaps as data and not anomalies.
What are your current projects? I’m working on discontinuities in the fossil record and explosionlike events in the history of life. Not just the Cambrian explosion, but all over the history of life you see new body plans and complex new structures appearing out of nowhere without the kind of gradual transitions you should find according to Darwinian predictions.
You’re working on the “waiting time problem”? Darwinian evolutionists seek confirmation in the fossil record and population genetics. But if you combine these two fields, you find that the time necessary for certain transitions would be at least 10 times longer than the time available. Michael Behe used empirical data from drug resistance in malaria to calculate the waiting time for the necessary genetic changes. Translating these results to a vertebrate species with a smaller population size and longer generational turnover, we find the time needed to get a single coordinated mutation is much longer than the existence of the entire universe.
Just not enough time? A mathematician is doing the modeling, I’m establishing the fossil dating and windows of time. Molecular biologists and biochemists are working on the genetic underpinnings. We want to show that across nature and through all eras of Earth history, this time problem is everywhere and is the rule, not the exception. This refutes Darwinism. If Darwinism is still upheld as the ruling paradigm, it will be in spite of the contradictory, conflicting evidence.
This story has been updated to correct editing and transcription errors involving the type of biological taxa named after Bechly, the description of dragonfly traits in the second paragraph, the description of the cell membrane, and the description of Michael Behe’s research on malarial drug resistance.