Sunday, April 09, 2006

Evolution and Design: Is There Purpose in Nature?

I am very pleased and excited to announce the following new course at Cornell:

COURSE LISTING: BioEE 467/B&Soc 447/Hist 415/S&TS 447 Seminar in History of Biology

SEMESTER: Cornell Six-Week Summer Session, 06/27/06 to 08/03/06

COURSE TITLE: Evolution and Design: Is There Purpose in Nature?

COURSE INSTRUCTOR: Allen MacNeill, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University

COURSE DESCRIPTION: This seminar addresses, in historical perspective, controversies about the cultural, philosophical, and scientific implications of evolutionary biology. Discussions focus upon questions about gods, free will, foundations for ethics, meaning in life, and life after death. Readings range from Charles Darwin to the present (see reading list, below).

The current debate over "intelligent design theory" is only the latest phase in the perennial debate over the question of design in nature. Beginning with Aristotle's "final cause," this idea was the dominant explanation for biological adaptation in nature until the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species. Darwin's work united the biological sciences with the other natural sciences by providing a non-teleological explanation for the origin of adaptation. However, Darwin's theory has been repeatedly challenged by theories invoking design in nature.

The latest challenge to the neo-darwinian theory of evolution has come from the "intelligent design movement," spearheaded by the Discovery Institute in Seattle, WA. In this course, we will read extensively from authors on both sides of this debate, including Francisco Ayala, Michael Behe, Richard Dawkins, William Dembski, Phillip Johnson, Ernst Mayr, and Michael Ruse. Our intent will be to sort out the various issues at play, and to come to clarity on how those issues can be integrated into the perspective of the natural sciences as a whole.

In addition to in-class discussions, course participants will have the opportunity to participate in online debates and discussions via the instructor's weblog. Students registered for the course will also have an opportunity to present their original research paper(s) to the class and to the general public via publication on the course weblog and via THE EVOLUTION LIST.

INTENDED AUDIENCE: This course is intended primarily for students in biology, history, philosophy, and science & technology studies. The approach will be interdisciplinary, and the format will consist of in-depth readings across the disciplines and discussion of the issues raised by such readings.

PREREQUISITES: None, although a knowledge of evolutionary theory and philosophy of biology would be helpful.

DAYS, TIMES, & PLACES: The course will meet on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 6:00 to 9:00 PM in Mudd Hall Room 409 (The Whittaker Seminar Room), beginning on Tuesday 27 June 2006 and ending on Thursday 3 August 2006. We will also have an end-of-course picnic at a location TBA.

CREDIT & GRADES: The course will be offered for 4 hours of credit, regardless of which course listing students choose to register for. Unless otherwise noted, course credit in BioEE 467/B&Soc 447 can be used to fulfill biology/science distribution requirements and Hist 415/S&TS 447 can be used to fulfill humanities distribution requirements (check with your college registrar's office for more information). Letter grades for this course will be based on the quality of written work on original research papers written by students, plus participation in class discussion.

COURSE ENROLLMENT & REGISTRATION: All participants must be registered in the Cornell Six-Week Summer Session to attend class meetings and receive credit for the course (click here for for more information and to enroll for this course). Registration will be limited to the first 18 students who enroll for credit. Auditors may also be allowed, space permitting (please contact the Summer Session office for permission to audit this course).

REQUIRED TEXTS (all texts will be available at The Cornell Store):

Behe, Michael (2006) Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Free Press
ISBN: 0743290313

Dawkins, Richard (1996) The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton (reissue edition)
ISBN: 0393315703

Dembski, William (2006) The Design Inference : Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
ISBN: 0521678676

Johnson, Phillip E. (2002) The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: InterVarsity Press
ISBN: 0830823956

Ruse, Michael (2006) Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose?
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 0674016319

OPTIONAL TEXTS (all texts will be available at The Cornell Store):

Darwin, Charles (E. O. Wilson, ed.) (2006) From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin's Four Great Books
Hardcover: 1,706 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton
ISBN: 0393061345

Dembski, William & Ruse, Michael (2004) Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA
Hardcover: 422 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press (July 12,
ISBN: 0521829496

Forrest, Barbara & Gross, Paul R. (2004) Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design
Hardcover: 416 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
ISBN: 0195157427

Graffin, Gregory W. (2004) Evolution, Monism, Atheism, and the Naturalist World-View
Paperback: 252 pages
Publisher: Polypterus Press (P.O. Box 4416, Ithaca, NY, 14852; can be purchased online at:
ISBN: 0830823956

Perakh, Mark (2003) Unintelligent Design
Hardcover: 459 pages
Publisher: Prometheus Books
ISBN: 1591020840

For more information about this course, click here to email me directly.

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At 4/09/2006 11:24:00 PM, Blogger crevo said...

If the purpose of the course is "This seminar addresses, in historical perspective, controversies about the cultural, philosophical, and scientific implications of evolutionary biology" then I would suggest to use Johnson's "Reason in the Balance" rather than "The Wedge of Truth". Just my 2c. Another good one from that side (but on a slightly different topic) might be Hunter's "Darwin's God", or even for a short read get a copy of Paul Nelson's paper "The Role of Theology in Current Evolutionary Reasoning" (summary here -- Hunter's book covers the historical aspects, while Nelson's paper covers the philosophical aspects more fully)

At 4/10/2006 08:32:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very cool, Allen!

At 4/10/2006 11:14:00 AM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

In reponse to Crevo:

Although I strongly considered Johnson's Reason in the Balance and The Right Questions, I finally chose Johnson's The Wedge of Truth because it includes an extended discussion of the so-called "wedge strategy," which Johnson has advocated for many years as the most effective method to "defeat Darwinism." "Intelligent design theory" is an integral part (indeed, the lynchpin) of this strategy, and so I chose The Wedge of Truth because it most completely embeds the argument for "intelligent design" in the wider political movement which has stimulated its formulation.

I also considered Ken Miller's Finding Darwin's God in addition to Hunter's Darwin's God, but felt that they were too far from the central purpose of the course, which is to examine the scientific argument for design. Also, from a purely practical standpoint, there wouldn't be enough time in the six weeks alloted for the course to read so many texts, and as some are available only in hardcover, it would be a hardship to require that students read them. I will be providing a much larger list of suggested readings for the course, and will post that list to this blog, so watch this space!

At 4/10/2006 04:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might want to throw a quick review of formal logic in there; students will need a good understanding of the argument from ignorance, the false dilemma, and the argument from consequences, among others.

I would also suggest adding the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision to the reading list, it's available on the web as both HTML and PDF. Check at Talk.Origins if you don't have it already.

At 4/10/2006 08:14:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like an interesting course. Thanks for presenting both sides. Best wishes.

At 4/10/2006 09:09:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

A lively discussion of the upcoming course hs already broken out at Telic Thoughts; just follow this link: This summer is going to be so much fun!

At 4/11/2006 01:57:00 PM, Blogger havoc said...

Dr. MacNeill,

Does Cornell have a policy regarding recording your lectures, and posting them on the net? Do you have the facilities to even produce a quality recording? I would be very interested in "listening in" on your course in this way. Being in New Mexico, the commute would be prohibitively expensive.

At 4/11/2006 02:14:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

In response to havoc:
I'm looking into the possibility of podcasting the course, and especially the class discussions. If it works out, I will announce it in this blog. Watch this space!

At 4/11/2006 02:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. MacNeil,

Kudos for thinking a bit outside of the box and offering this course, without, necessarily, adopting the views of Behe et al.


1. What is the primary barrier to MORE professors offering these courses?

Hank Barnes

At 4/11/2006 05:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. MacNeil, I read your comments re: Dr. Dembski at TelicThoughts.

Do you hold the same contempt for Panda's Thumb and PZ Meyers who are far more malicious in their commentary? Do they represent good science?

PZ Meyers, ranting, cussing, calling esteemed Professors names. We can all point to examples. Where doth ye stand?

Ask Dilbert cartoonist what happens when one innocently surveys a question re: evolution. He was attacked by Meyers and his wolves, who knipped at, fed upon and tore him apart as fresh red meat. Did you comment on PZ or Panda so boldly? Please point me to such historical evidence and I'll greet you with balanced appreciation.

Otherwise, touche.

Dr. Dembski been attacked relentlessly as a lone voice online at his site for a long time. I do not condone all things said on a blog by all moderators. But remember, most are in response to attack dogs of Panda and the likes of PZ Meyers. Misquoted, Lied-about profusely, derided, called names. My temper would flare too.

Darwin had his Bulldog, the greatest gift to his master was the word - agnostic.

And while I commend you on the class. Having attacked Dembski as a liar(read your remarks of hyperbole), and then leaving Pianca alone for his euphoria of sterilization is frankly, a stumbling block to any objectivity on your part. It is rare the man who can be so balanced.

Experience of Elders, Education have taught me to be suspicious. Natural Selection would've left me in the dark.

Shawmar Sir, indeed, be on guard for the word is more powerful than any two-edged sword. And while France aborts itself into history unless they change their ways, we may parry, but not for long.(posting again, if not registered)

At 4/11/2006 10:01:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

In response to michael:
Personally, I find PZ Myer's attacks (and many of those in the Panda's Thumb) to be both unnecessary and counterproductive. I have generally believed that we should attack each other's ideas, rather than our persons. However, I must admit to having fallen prey to the same temptation in a post I made to "Dispatches from the Culture Wars" in which I "fisked" as posting by William Dembski. I was admittedly somewhat heated in that post, and can only claim in my defense that I had been spending altogether too much time reading posts at his blog at Uncommon Dissent. Doing so is a lot like spending time reading the posts at Free Republic: if you do it for more than a few minutes, the result is acute nausea.

So, it is my place to claim "touche", for indeed you have scored a touch against me, and I have only an appeal to my all-to-human temper in my defense. This is why my fending master always warns us that a true fencer is always calm, never angry, for in anger lies inevitable defeat. I shall try to do better in the future.

As to PZ's science, it's top notch – he gets his hands dirty. Richard Dawkins, on the other hand, is IMHO something of a dilletante. As far as I am aware, he doesn't get his hands dirty in field or lab work, and I am biased against people who do not. Science is done in the field and in the lab, not in the ivory tower. That's why the Nobel prizes are awarded for discoveries, not theories.

At 4/18/2006 12:36:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is important to distinguish between PandasThumb postings and comments left by visitors. PT's postings tend to be extremely well reasoned (note: I am a contributor and thus exclude my own contributions in this analysis) and while hard hitting, they show how ID is scientifically vacuous.

Also the claims that Misquoted, Lied-about profusely, derided, called names. could benefit from some examples. Name calling perhaps, but lied about or misquoted? I have yet to see evidence of such on these sites. Derided? Perhaps his work but that's based on the quality of the research.

I agree that some of the commenters on PT tend to make things far too personal but PT does not control the content of the comments (see the moderation policy on PT for exceptions).

PZ Meyer's Pharyngula is an excellent blog which explores many exciting new research at the same time showing what is so wrong with ID. And PZ Meyer's blog is also a very politically motivated blog. It's important to separate these.


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