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.
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.