Friday, April 14, 2006

Riding the Evolution-Design Roller Coaster

[Scroll Down For Update]

This has certainly been an educational experience...but what else should one expect at Cornell? The past week has been a roller coaster of media attention, not to mention extreme reactions from both sides of the issue. What started out as an act of kindness toward an old and dear friend (my colleague and mentor, Will Provine, who was originally scheduled to teach this course), turned into a media circus, conducted almost entirely online. Here's the backstory:

For years Will Provine and I have been teaching an undergraduate seminar in the Cornell Summer Session entitled "Seminar in History of Biology." Between ourselves, we have always called the course "philosophical implications of evolution," and have always thought of it in those terms. The course description stayed the same from year to year, but the focus of the course changed, depending on what we found most interesting to discuss with our students. For the past few years, Will has focussed on the implications of evolution for the concept of human free will. When I taught the course, I focused on three topics: the implications of evolution for free will, purpose, and ethics.

Last fall, when we began talking about the focus of the course for this summer, Will (who was scheduled to teach the course) decided to focus exclusively on "intelligent design theory." Anyone who knows Will (or me, for that matter) knows that he always invites people from the opposing side to make a presentation in his course. He has debated Phillip Johnson several times, both at Cornell and Stanford, and several ID theorists (including Michael Behe and John Stanford) have made presentations in his large evolution course at Cornell. And so, since we both know the students in the Cornell IDEA Club, we planned to contact them and see if they would be interested in participating in some way in the seminar course this summer.

Then tragedy struck in Will's family, and he was unable to committ to teaching the seminar this summer. He asked me to fill in for him, and I agreed to do so. I went ahead with our plans to invite the Cornell IDEA folks to participate and submitted the course description and reading list to the department and to the Summer Session.

The Cornell IDEA Club then posted a notice on their blog about the course, pointing out that it would be a seminar in which intelligent design theory would be discussed in the larger framework of its relationship to evolutionary theory. However (perhaps because of the source), this was immediately picked up by several websites supporting ID (most notably World Net Daily) and spun as "Cornell to Offer Course in Intelligent Design."

And that was when the roller coaster crested the top of the "pull" hill and started its free roll down. The Site Meter hit counter at the bottom of my blog, which had been reading < 50 hits/day jumped to > 600 hits/hour. I was unaware of this until I glanced at it early Monday morning and was non-plussed...what in the world was happening? By Tuesday, the spin had become positively centrifugal: the course, the proposed content, the reading list, the venue, and everything else about the course (including my personal character) were being debated by literally thousands of people who knew absolutely nothing about me nor (apparently) about the course.

Luckily my Site Meter shows referrals, and so I quickly found out where most of the traffic to my site was coming from and posted much more detailed clarifications of the course, mostly for the benefit of the vast army of people who don't know me nor where I stand on the issues. The result has been very interesting: although there is less euphoria among the ID supporters, there is respect for the fact that the course is intended to be a forum for free and open discussion on the topic of purpose in nature, with ID as one of the principle examples.

But not the only one, of course. As I pointed out in the course description, the concept of purpose is one that evolutionary biologists have debated and investigated for almost two centuries. Darwin himself talked about the idea of purpose in nature, in both the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. No less eminent an evolutionary biologist than Ernst Mayr wrote several important papers on the subject, responding to other papers by such luminaries in the field as Francisco Ayala, Colin Pittendrigh, and William Wimsat. Philosophers have also weighed in on the issue, beginning with Aristotle and including Andrew Woodfield, Ernst Nagel, and, most recently, Michael Ruse.

Most disconcerting to me were some of the early comments from evolutionary biologists, who asserted that ID should not even be mentioned in a course in evolutionary biology. Well, I not only teach a course on evolution, I also sit in on the other introductory evolution courses at Cornell and elsewhere, and ID theory is mentioned in all of them. True, it is mentioned in the context of an alternative explanation for adaptation in nature, one that is far outside the boundaries of mainstream science, but mentioned none the less.

The difference between what happens in a lecture course on evolution and what will happen this summer in the seminar course is that, rather than lecturing on the subject, I will (as always) invite the participants in the seminar to inform themselves about the subject and discuss it with as much clarity and vigor as they can muster. I believe (based on past experience) that when the cases for ID and evolutionary biology are fully and fairly made in this way, evolutionary biology will be the winner. After all, it has mountains of empirical evidence to back it up, and empirical evidence is the basis for all of science, as far as I understand it.

In answer to some of my critics from evolutionary biology, therefore, I feel that it is very appropriate for this kind of discussion to take place in a science course, rather than just a history or philosophy of biology course. Students, including science majors, are far too often not given enough credit for their ability to both formulate and judge rational arguments in a free and open forum of ideas. Despite the fact that the topic is ostensibly the philosophy of science, the debate over the validity of ID versus evolutionary theory is fundamentally a scientific debate. If scientists refuse to debate the subject, we will leave the floor open for not-quite-science, pseudoscience, and (worst of all) anti-science to claim victory, and believe me that will be what the general public perceives the ID community has achieved.

Furthermore, the paradox of purpose in nature is one that has not yet been solved by evolutionary biologists. What are evolutionary adaptations if not structural and functional characteristics that serve a purpose in the life of an organism? While it sounds silly to say that rocks fall "in order to" reach the ground, it doesn't sound silly to say that the heart pumps the blood "in order to" circulate it throughout the body. The debate over such explanations is not just semantic, and as Ernst Mayr pointed out in several articles and his book Toward a New Philosophy of Biology, focussing on the "purposefulness" of adaptations has important implications for evolutionary biology, as well as such diverse fields as cognitive psychology, epistemology, and the development of "expert" computer systems (not to mention "smart weapons" like the eminently teleological "Sidewinder" missile).

So, we shall proceed this summer, a little less naive about the "culture wars", but firmly in the belief that courteous, rational, informed discussion is the only reliable way to truth. And then, when we come to the end, we can step off the roller coaster, take a deep breath, and go look for a cotton candy stand.

UPDATE (as of Mon17Apr06@16:59EST)
After a week of riding the roller coaster, several discussions stand out as representing where things were and are (and probably will be, once the course actually starts). Here they are (be sure to scroll down and read the comments):

Design Paradigm: Evolution and Design

Design Paradigm: Teaching ID

Design Paradigm: Why Teach Design

Panda's Thumb: Comments on "Riding the Evolution-Design Roller Coaster"

Panda's Thumb: Neutrality, Evolution, and ID

Sounding the Trumpet: Cornell Offers First Class on Intelligent Design

Telic Thoughts: Cornell Offers Course on Intelligent Design I

Telic Thoughts: Cornell Offers Course on Intelligent Design II

Uncommon Descent: ID at Cornell, John Sanford and Allen MacNeill

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At 4/14/2006 06:10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the backstory, Allen! You know I disagree on where the empirical approach leads, as well as the probable result of a full and fair examination, but the important thing is to have that sort of inquiry in the first place.

At 4/14/2006 07:27:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

Thank you, Hanna. I hope you're looking forward to this summer as much as I am!

At 4/15/2006 06:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, I don't think the naivete about the culture war has quite ended with this course. I have debated ID with some IDEA club members, and after you look at ID for awhile, there really is not much to it apart from the culture war. What "content" it has is just the leftovers of creation "science" from the 1980's. IDEA club members are basically always conservative Christians, and when you scratch the surface a bit, the biblical doctrine of special creation of "kinds" that only reproduce "after their kind" is usually what IDEA club members are actually defending. These are the same kinds of kids who formed creation science clubs in the 1970's and 1980's. Yes, many of them are quite smart and are even good science students, but the Bible comes first, and usually the science students have self-selected themselves into majors where they don't actually learn much comparative biology or evolution. They generally have some pretty naive ideas about evolution, e.g. if humans evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?

The issues with the history of the Design Argument and philosophical issues surrounding "purpose" are interesting, but really these are mostly deployed as misdirection by modern ID advocates, to make the ID movement look more academically serious than it actually is. The fundamental issues for most ID advocates still basically common ancestry and the age of the earth, its just that these tend to be hidden because "creationism" has been so thoroughly discredited, and is unworkable politically. The whole idea behind ID was simply to relabel creationism, hide the dirtier bits of laundry, and hope to convince naive academics that this was actually a new debate and a live "scientific" "controversy."

If you want to do something productive in a class like this, prominently bring up (both with students and ID speakers) the issues of the age of the earth and whether or not humans and chimps share a common ancestor. Then you will see where the "sophisticated" ID advocates really are at.


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