Update on the Cornell Evolution and Design Seminar
Things have been developing in rather interesting ways in the Cornell "Evolution and Design" seminar. We have worked our way through all of the articles/papers and books in our required reading list, along with several in the recommended list. Before I summarize our "findings", let me point out that for most of the summer our seminar has consisted almost entirely of registered students (all but one undergrads, with one employee taking the course for credit), plus invited guests (Hannah Maxson and Rabia Malik of the Cornell IDEA Club). Two other faculty members (Warren Alman and Will Provine) attended for a while, but stopped in the middle of the second week, leaving me as the only faculty member still attending (not all that surprising, as it is my course after all - however, at this point I view my job mostly as facilitator, rather than teacher).
Anyway, here is how we've evaluated the books and articles/papers we've been "deconstructing":
Dawkins/The Blind Watchmaker: The "Weasel" example is unconvincing, and parts of the book are somewhat polemical, by which we mean substituting assertion, arguments by analogy, arguments from authority, and various other forms of non-logical argument for legitimate logical argument (i.e. based on presentation and evaluation of evidence, especially empirical evidence). Dawkins' argument for non-telological adaptation (the "as if designed" argument), although intriguing, seems mostly to be supported by assertion and abstract models, rather than by empirical evidence.
Behe/Darwin's Black Box: The argument for "irreducible complexity", while interesting, appears to leave almost all of evolutionary biology untouched. Behe's argument is essentially focused on the origin of life from abiotic materials, and arguments for the "irreducible complexity" of the genetic code and a small number of biochemical pathways and processes. Therefore, generalizing his conclusions to all of evolutionary biology (and particularly to descent with modification from common ancestors, which he clearly agrees is "strongly supported by the evidence") is not logically warranted. Attempts to make such extensions are therefore merely polemics, rather than arguments supported by evidence.
Dembski/The Design Inference and "Specification: The Pattern that Signifies Intelligence": Dembski's mathematical models are intriguing, especially his recent updating of the mathematical derivation of chi, his measure for "design" in complex, specified systems. However, it is not clear if empirical evidence (i.e. counted or measured quantities) can actually be plugged into the equation to yield an unambiguous value for chi, nor is it clear what value for chi would unambiguously allow for "design detection." Dembski suggests chi equal to or greater than one, but we agreed that it would make more sense to use repeated tests, using actual designed and undesigned systems, to derive an empirically based value for chi, which could then be used to identify candidates for "design" in nature. If, as some have suggested, plugging empirically derived measurements into Dembski's formula for chi is problematic, then his equation, however interesting, carries no real epistemic weight (i.e. no more than Dawkin's "Weasel", as noted above).
Johnson/The Wedge of Truth: To my surprise, both the ID supporters and critics in the class almost immediately agreed that Johnson's book was simply a polemic, with no real intellectual (and certainly no scientific) merit. His resort to ad hominem arguments, guilt by association, and the drawing of spurious connections via arguments by analogy were universally agreed to be "outside the bounds of this course" (and to exceed in some cases Dawkins' use of similar tactics), and we simply dropped any further consideration of it as unproductive. Indeed, one ID supporter stated quite clearly that "this book isn't ID", and that the kinds of assertions and polemics that Johnson makes could damage the credibility of ID as a scientific enterprise in the long run.
Ruse/Darwin and Design (plus papers on teleology in biology by Ayala, Mayr, and Nagel): Both ID supporters and evolution supporters quickly agreed that all of these authors make a convincing case for the legitimacy of inferring teleology (or what Mayr and others call “teleonomy”) in evolutionary adaptations. That is, adaptations can legitimately be said to have “functions,” and that the genomes of organisms constitute “designs” for their actualization, which is accomplished via organisms' developmental biology interacting with their environments.
Moreover, we were able to come to some agreement that there are essentially two different types of “design”:
• Pre-existing design, in which the design for an object/process is formulated prior to the actualization of that object/process (as exemplified by Mozart’s composing of his final requiem mass); note that this corresponds to a certain extent with what ID supporters are now calling “front-loaded design”, and
• Emergent design, in which the design for an object/process arises out of a natural process similar to that by which the actualization takes place (as exemplified by Mayr’s “teleonomy”).
In addition, the ID supporters in the seminar class agreed that “emergent design” is not the kind of design they believe ID is about, as it is clearly a product of natural selection. A discussion of “pre-existing design” then ensued, going long past our scheduled closing time without resolution. We will return to a discussion of it for our last two meetings next week.
As we did not use the two days scheduled for “deconstruction” of Johnson’s Wedge of Truth, we opened the floor to members of the class to present rough drafts/outlines of their research papers for the course. It is interesting to note that both papers so presented concerned non-Western/non-Christian concepts of “design” (one focusing on Hindu/Indian and Chinese concepts of teleology in nature, and the other on Buddhist concepts of design and naturalistic causation).
Overall, the discussion taking place in our seminar classes has been both respectful and very spirited, as we tussle with difficult ideas and arguments. For my part, I have come to a much more nuanced perception of both sides of this issue, and to a much greater appreciation of the difficulties involved with coming to conclusions on what is clearly one of the core issues in all of philosophy. And, I believe we have all come to appreciate each other and our commitments to fair and logical argument, despite our differences…and even to have become friends in the process. What more could one ask for in a summer session seminar?