Thursday, April 13, 2006

Evolution and Design: What Will the Course be About?


ARTICLE: Cornell to Offer Class on Intelligent Design

SOURCE: The Associated Press

COMMENTARY: Allen MacNeill (following the article)

ITHACA, N.Y. (AP) — Cornell University this summer will offer a class on intelligent design, a theory that has sparked heated debate around the country on whether alternatives to evolution should be taught in public schools.

The course will include texts that oppose and support the theory of intelligent design and will be offered through the undergraduate biology program. It will be a history of biology class that looks at ethics and philosophy.

"I'm not going to be bashing (intelligent design), but I'm also not going to be advocating it," said lecturer Allen MacNeill, an evolutionary biologist who will teach the course. "I'm going to be using it — and evolutionary biology too — to think about these very complicated ideas."

Cornell President Hunter Rawlings III in an Oct. 21 speech condemned the teaching of intelligent design as science, calling it "a religious belief masquerading as a secular idea."

Intelligent design is a theory that argues that life is too complex to have developed through evolution, implying a higher power must have had a hand. It has been harshly criticized by The National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which have called it repackaged creationism.

Around the country, attempts to introduce public school students to alternatives to evolution such as intelligent design have largely failed.

Hannah Maxson, president of the Intelligent Design Evolution Awareness Club at Cornell, said she is glad the issue is being taken seriously.

"We'd just like a place at the table in the scientific give-and-take," she said.

********************************************************************************
COMMENTARY:

Let me assure my faithful readers that I am not “teaching intelligent design” at Cornell Univesity this summer. Rather, I am offering a seminar course in which the participants (including me) will attempt to come to some understanding vis-a-vis the following:

As Ernst Mayr pointed out in his 1974 paper (”Teleological and Teleonomic: A New Analysis.” In Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Volume XIV, pages 91 -117), it may be legitimate for evolutionary biologists to refer to adaptations as teleological. However, such adaptations have evolved by natural selection, which itself is NOT a purposeful process. Therefore, we have a fascinating paradox: purposefulness can evolve (as an emergent property) from non-purposeful matter (and energy, of course) via a process that is itself purposeless (as far as we can tell). This immediately suggests the following questions:

• Is there design or purpose anywhere in nature?
• If so, are there objective empirical means by which it can be detected and its existence explained?
• Can the foregoing questions be answered using methodological naturalism as an a priori assumption?
• What implications do the answers to these questions have for science in general and evolutionary biology in particular?

To answer these questions, we will read several books and a selection of articles on the subject of design and purpose in nature (the course description is available here). As you can see from the reading list, we will be looking at all sides of this very challenging issue. My own position is very strongly on the side of evolutionary biology (i.e. in the tradition of “methodological naturalism”). Consequently, I disagree very strongly with the positions of Michael Behe, William Dembski, Phillip Johnson, and other representatives of the Discovery Institute. I will therefore be attacking both their positions and the metaphysical assumptions upon which they are based with as much logic and vigor as I can muster. At the same time, I have invited members of the Cornell IDEA Club to participate in the course and to explain and defend their beliefs and positions. From my previous interactions with them, I expect that they will make an equally forceful and well-argued case for their position. The students taking the course will be expected to follow the arguments, participate in them, and come to their own conclusions, which they will then be required to defend to the rest of us. Regardless of whether they agree with me or with my opponents, their work will be judged on the basis of logical coherence and marshalling of references in support of their arguments.

As to the question of whether “intelligent design theory” is worthy of study (and is especially appropriate for a science-oriented seminar course), I have several reasons to believe that it is:

First, by clearly drawing a distinction between the traditional scientific approach (i.e. “methodological naturalism”) and the “supernaturalist” approach, we can clarify just what science is capable of (and what it isn’t). Like Ernst Mayr, I believe that the question of the existence of design or purpose in nature can ultimately be answered without resort to supernatural explanations. Indeed, as an evolutionary psychologist, I believe that we do have the ability to recognize design and purpose in nature (and to act purposefully ourselves), and that this ability is the result of natural selection. That is, both of these abilities have adaptive value in a world in which some phenomena are not designed and/or purposeful and others are (the latter having potentially fatal consequences if unrecognized).

Secondly, by studying what I believe to be a flawed attempt at identifying and quantifying design or purpose in nature, we may be able to do a better job of it. Clearly, there are purposeful entities capable of “intelligent design” in the universe: I am one and I infer that you are another. There are also objects and processes that clearly are not: the air we are both currently breathing clearly fall into this class. As a scientist committed to naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena, it is clear to me that there must be some way of discerning between these two classes of objects and processes, as both of them are clearly “natural.” Therefore, we will use several approaches to the identification and explanation of design and purpose to do so.

Thirdly, the recent resurrection of “intelligent design theory” has historical and political, as well as scientific roots. By studying these, we can learn better how science proceeds, how scientific hypotheses are tested, and how scientific theories are validated (and invalidated). In my opinion, “intelligent design theory” as it is currently promulgated falls far short of the criteria for natural science, but is very useful at demonstrating how to distinguish between science and pseudoscience.

Finally, the question of design and purpose in nature is one that goes back to the foundation of western philosophy. The Ionian philosophers - Thales, Anaximander, Democritus, Epicurus, and their Roman descendant Lucretius - were the first people in recorded history to assert that nature can be explained without reference to supernatural causes. Their ideas were overshadowed by the academy of Plato and his student, Aristotle, who proposed that supernatural and teleological causes were primary. Darwin revolutionized western science because he completed the subversion of the Platonic/Aristotelian world view, replacing it with a naturalistic one much more like that of the Ionians. It is this tradition we will investigate, and which I hope we can in some way emulate this summer.

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11 Comments:

At 4/13/2006 10:22:00 AM, Blogger Todd I. Stark said...

I think this is a great idea. A thoughtful analysis of the concepts of design and purpose can only aid our understanding of science. It is hard to imagine science taking living things seriously as objects of study without any conception of agency. The details are important in discussing where and how the concept applies to explanations.

My own viewpoint is that we can make the most progress by examining how each kind of agency or each kind of purposiveness arises historically. This helps us take the question of purposiveness itself seriously but leaves the notion of a "designer" where it belongs, as a vague speculative notion not particularly helpful in causal explanations. I particularly like Peter Corning's discussion of the origin of purposiveness in cybernetic terms.

 
At 4/13/2006 10:50:00 AM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

Here's a quote from the most recent newsletter of the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell:

"The value of science studies is to teach non-scientists more about the practice of science and perhaps to help scientists to see the social component of their work a little more clearly. However...science studies should not be used to establish what is, or is not, to be considered science; that is work for the scientific research community itself.

Where science studies can have a role in the debates around ID is by emphasizing the non-fundamentalist nature of good science. Teaching that creating agreement on scientific knowledge is an untidy business does not devalue that knowledge. In fact, it does the opposite. Emphasizing the enormous practical skill, theoretical work, and social negotiation that is needed to bring order to the chaos of experimental results only adds to our appreciation of science as a cultural achievement.

Neither does it let ID in through the backdoor. The difficult technical and theoretical issues raised by scientists sympathetic to ID, such as Michael Behe or William Dembski, should be debated by research scientists in their particular fields of expertise.

Couldn't have said it better myself!
--Allen

 
At 4/13/2006 06:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that at the most basic level the question "Is there design in nature?" is at the root of my issue with the subject. To attempt to understand whether there is design or purpose in nature, is to simply attempt to make scientists do what cannot be done with our existing knowledge base. One of the most important things a scientist can do is doubt, constantly. While it may be valid to apply this to an established theory such as evolution because of certain inconsistencies which ID proponents are quick to point out, it is unnecessary to shout "design" because of this doubt. There is simply no evidence of any design in nature. The best that "expert" in intelligent design William Dembski could say was that "machine-like qualities of certain tightly integrated biochemical systems [...] are highly unlikely to have come about by purely material forces." What kind of analysis is that? All kinds of things are unlikely in the world today. For example, that impoverished people all over the US would vote for a republican President based on his religious principles even though his obvious, actual agenda was completely contrary to their needs and wants. It was unlikely, but it happened. To say that something is unlikely and immediately discard it as untrue is a ridiculous way of looking at the world.
Regardless, a truly open minded person considering the current intelligent design/evolution issue, should simply decide that scientific knowledge has not yet reached a point where we can say with any degree of certainty whether some higher power designed things in the universe or not. This being the case, the only logical course is to pursue scientific study as most scientist are now doing. It seems illustrative that no particularly well qualified biologists even showed up to the Dover, PA trial. The question of whether ID exists or not is a completely moot point with our existing level of knowledge, constituting nothing but speculation. You state that you expect the Cornell IDEA Club members to make a forceful and well-argued case. How can they possibly do that, when not even the top "experts" in the field of ID can do so according to even a conservative judge.
While the argument that humans are capable of design and therefore other things in nature may be is an interesting one, it seems odd to compare even our greatest achievements with the complexity surrounding us. In addition, it seems to simply underline the fact (again) that we just don't know. Finally, in light of these things, it is mighty kind to call ID not-quite-science, or psuedoscience. To me, ID seems like stumbling around a dark house to the kitchen in the middle of the night looking for a snack, when one could just turn on lights as they became available. Why grasp at straws when the usual, and historically effective progression of science could be allowed to take its course? This is why it seems to be a waste of time to look at ID in an academic setting, even if only for the cause of understanding the opposition. Because really, ID doesn't constitute a theory that needs to be taken into consideration, at least not yet. The ID folks can't even sell their case in court with essentially no one to rebut their ridiculous assertions. That is because nobody knows, and most of the scientific community accepts that, and will continue to work, bit by bit, towards knowledge that is carefully and meticulously understood.
I feel very strongly that religion in general is at the root of many of the worlds problems, and that to even acknowledge ID is to propagate irrationality and ignorance. I will certainly be paying attention to your blog in the future, and will be interested to watch developments.

 
At 4/13/2006 08:27:00 PM, Blogger Axinar said...

Boy that is just a little spooky that an "Intelligent Design" class is being taught at the same university where none other than Carl Sagan himself taught.

 
At 4/14/2006 09:39:00 AM, Anonymous afdave said...

Some analysis of Prof. MacNeill’s comments ...

First, by clearly drawing a distinction between the traditional scientific approach (i.e. “methodological naturalism”) and the “supernaturalist” approach, we can clarify just what science is capable of (and what it isn’t). Like Ernst Mayr, I believe that the question of the existence of design or purpose in nature can ultimately be answered without resort to supernatural explanations.

Prof. MacNeill appears to be attempting to elevate Methodological Naturalism as superior to the Supernaturalist Approach, by calling it the “traditional scientific approach.” May I point out, sir, that the Supernatural Approach appears to me to actually be more “traditional” than the Naturalist approach if we measure by length of years and numbers of people holding the view throughout history. Also noteworthy is that most of the great modern scientists were Supernaturalists who regularly mixed their Supernaturalist views in their scientific writings, Isaac Newton being a prime example.

Secondly, by studying what I believe to be a flawed attempt at identifying and quantifying design or purpose in nature, we may be able to do a better job of it.

I have never been able to see the difficulty in identifying purpose in nature. It is clear to me that legs have the purpose of walking, eyes have the purpose of seeing, brains have the purpose of thinking or computing, mouths have the purpose of eating, Behe’s blood clotting mechanism has the purpose of preventing the death of the organism by stopping the bleeding, etc. etc. My perspective is that Darwinists make this issue out to be far more complicated than it is.

As a scientist committed to naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena,

It has always struck me as an arrogant position to be committed to naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena … to be sure, many natural phenomena can be explained naturalistically … this is the bread and butter of engineers like myself … but to rule out a priori the possibility of an Intelligence outside of nature who may have Caused the phenomena in nature seems arrogant. Were you there to see firsthand how the natural phenomena came to be? Answer is No. And since you were not there, it seems unwise to rule out the possibility of the Supernatural. To me, this would be similar to young ants born inside an anthill, having never ventured outside, saying “We are committed to the proposition that there is no such thing as humans!” I think humans are very limited creatures with very limited knowledge ... we have short lifespans and are subject to all manner of physical and mental limitations. How can we say categorically that there is no Supernatural Being?

And finally …

Finally, the question of design and purpose in nature is one that goes back to the foundation of western philosophy. The Ionian philosophers - Thales, Anaximander, Democritus, Epicurus, and their Roman descendant Lucretius - were the first people in recorded history to assert that nature can be explained without reference to supernatural causes.

The thought strikes me that just because the Naturalistic Religion is old, doesn’t mean it is correct, or beneficial to humanity. (And Darwinism does have every appearance to me of being a religious belief, not a fact of science) Prostitution, they say, is the oldest profession, but that does not mean it is a good idea to practice it. The fact of the matter is that with the continued advance of science, Naturalism appears to be proving itself to be bankrupt as Denton and Behe show in such an engaging manner.

In any case, I think this is a historic class because it is the first that I know about of its kind in an Ivy League school. I’m also glad you are requiring students to read one of the great books of the 20th Century, Darwin’s Black Box. This will truly enlighten many minds.

 
At 4/14/2006 12:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

afdave writes: May I point out, sir, that the Supernatural Approach appears to me to actually be more “traditional” than the Naturalist approach if we measure by length of years and numbers of people holding the view throughout history.

One should also point out that the Natural Theology enterprise succombed and died during a protracted childbirth sometime in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is survived by its offspring, which most would easily recognize as "currently practiced science".

 
At 4/14/2006 05:08:00 PM, Anonymous Will Schubert said...

afdave-

There is no need for MacNeill to "attempt to elevate" methodological naturalism. While your argument may be true, science is a progression. Many things in the world can certainly be called more traditional than whatever they are replaced by. That does not make them right, or good, especially in the context of science where new knowledge is constantly supplanting old.

You are misunderstanding the definition of purpose here. Observe that the professor says "design OR purpose". He is clearly referring to a higher purpose, a designer. You have (perhaps wilfully) chosen to think of purpose in a much more basic sense.

Your analogy involving the ants is cute. However, a slight change is necessary to make the analogy work. The ants would have to be unable to venture outside the ant hill, either due to physical constraints, or lack of knowledge. In addition, MacNeill has not said that he rules out a higher power, or supernatural being. He merely says he is committed to the progression of science. That is not to rule out a higher power's presence, but merely to say that we don't know. One day we may know, but now we don't. Why should we speculate when we have as yet no way to test the hypothesis?

As for Darwinism not being a fact of science, I recommend that you read "The Beak of the Finch." It is a book detailing the findings of a couple studying Darwin's Finches in the Galapagos Islands over many years. It turns out that evolution can be seen, IN ACTION over periods of even a few years.


-Will Schubert

 
At 4/15/2006 05:11:00 AM, Anonymous afdave said...

Will-

Science is a progression, you are correct, but not always in what I would call the "up" direction. My opinion is that the wholesale adoption of Darwinism by Western society as a alternative to a Supernatural Cause was an enormous blunder, which is only recently coming to light.

I don't think I have misunderstood the professor's definition of purpose ... note the next to last paragraph of Prof. MacNeill's 4/14 post. I think that in his class, you will find him analyzing many natural phenomena in an attempt to identify purpose.

I believe my ant analogy is a good one because it is just that ... an analogy. Remember I said "having never ventured outside the anthill." By the way, I happen to believe, as many Christians do, that we humans will someday "venture outside the anthill" and see our Creator face to face. But the Prof would call that a religious discussion and I assume would not want it on his blog. I also believe that I DO know that there is a Higher Power with as much certainty as I believe there was a man named George Washington, though I have seen neither.

I do know what you are talking about with the finches, and I agree with you that MICRO-evolution--I call it "Designed Adaptation"--is a proven fact, as is natural selection, change by mutations, etc. I don't know of any informed Creationists or ID people who would disagree with these. Where we disagree with Darwinists is in extending MICRO-evolution to MACRO-evolution which has never been observed and supporting it with the fossil record which has very few (if any) fossils which can be construed as transitional. Natural selection does not produce NEW information ... it only selects EXISTING information and thus cannot be the agent for the creation of new life forms. In a similar fashion, while a handful of mutations might be thought of as beneficial, the vast majority are harmful and there are no observed mutations that I know of that have ultimately given rise to a new, distinct life form.

 
At 5/14/2007 05:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is the topic of the summer 2007 Seminar in History of Biology course?

 
At 5/14/2007 07:20:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

The title of this summer's (2007) course is "Evolution and Religion: Is Religion Adaptive?" You can read more about it at:

http://evolutionlist.blogspot.com/2007/03/evolution-and-religion-is-religion.html

 
At 3/24/2010 06:40:00 PM, Anonymous Shining said...

I hope they also ask, "Is evolution adaptive?" I am so glad that SOMEone SOMEplace is going to try to look at everything and not a prioi exclude half of the material and people from the discussion. Wish I were younger, richer, and closer to NY. I would certainly take the class. When I was young, there seemed nowhere to go to work through my doubts about both sides of the issue. The devout were horrified with my questions and the secularists were hostile/agressive. No one presented a reasonable, systematic, evidence-driven account that went from start to finish. I ended up coming to the same conclusions as Anthony Flew and John Sanford but will still be most interested with where your quest takes you all.

 

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