Allen MacNeill, Hannah Maxson on Cornell Evolution and Design Class
|July 28, 2006||Posted by scordova under Intelligent Design|
I provide here some snapshots of the Biology 467 Evolution and Design class at Cornell.Ã‚Â Allen MacNeill is the professor and Hannah Maxson is a student representing the IDEA club.Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Whether what we hear is something we like or dislike, it still constitutes a data point which we should not dismiss.Ã‚Â Even if I may disagree with Allen, he is to be commended for trying to keep the dialogue on the issues open.Ã‚Â He has done his utmost to get students to read ID literature and to study it to depths few people in the USA have ever explored in a college classroom setting so far.Ã‚Â I post now some random snapshots ofÃ‚Â the class as it enters it final week.
Class CompositionÃ‚Â reported by Allen
Here is the info people provided at the first class:
Allen/Cornell/Senior Lecturer in Biology/Professor/evolutionary psychology
Bruce/Cornell/employee/registered student/evolution, philosophy of science
Bruno/Cornell/Senior/registered student/Science & Technology Studies
Elena/Cornell/Junior/registered student/Anthropology, Biology & Society
Greg/Cornell/Senior/registered student/biology, music
Hannah/Cornell/Junior/invited guest, CU IDEA Club/chemistry & physics
Josh/Cornell/Senior/registered student/asian studies
Kirby/Cornell/Senior/registered student/history, philosophy of science
Rabia/Cornell/Junior/invited guest, CU IDEA Club/Biochemistry
Teddy/Cornell/Senior/registered student/English literature, ethics
Todd/Cornell/Senior/registered student/natural resources
Warren/Paleontological Research Institute/Director/invited guest/cenozoic gastropods
Will[Provine]/Cornell/Professor/evolutionary biology, history of science
I decline to state (or even estimate) which Ã¢â‚¬Å“sideÃ¢â‚¬Â of the issue people support (or oppose, the two being different things, IMHO)
Update: Where We Are NowÃ‚Â by Allen
Things have been developing in rather interesting ways in our Ã¢â‚¬Å“Evolution and DesignÃ¢â‚¬Â 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 Ã¢â‚¬Å“findingsÃ¢â‚¬Â, 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 weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve evaluated the books and articles/papers weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been Ã¢â‚¬Å“deconstructingÃ¢â‚¬Â:
Dawkins/The Blind Watchmaker: The Ã¢â‚¬Å“WeaselÃ¢â‚¬Â 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). DawkinsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ argument for non-telological adaptation (the Ã¢â‚¬Å“as if designedÃ¢â‚¬Â argument), although intriguing, seems mostly to be supported by assertion and abstract models, rather than by empirical evidence.
Behe/DarwinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Black Box: The argument for Ã¢â‚¬Å“irreducible complexityÃ¢â‚¬Â, while interesting, appears to leave almost all of evolutionary biology untouched. BeheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s argument is essentially focused on the origin of life from abiotic materials, and arguments for the Ã¢â‚¬Å“irreducible complexityÃ¢â‚¬Â 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 Ã¢â‚¬Å“strongly supported by the evidenceÃ¢â‚¬Â) is not logically warranted. Attempts to make such extensions are therefore merely polemics, rather than arguments supported by evidence.
Dembski/The Design Inference and Ã¢â‚¬Å“Specification: The Pattern that Signifies IntelligenceÃ¢â‚¬Â: DembskiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s mathematical models are intriguing, especially his recent updating of the mathematical derivation of chi, his measure for Ã¢â‚¬Å“designÃ¢â‚¬Â 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 Ã¢â‚¬Å“design detection.Ã¢â‚¬Â 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 Ã¢â‚¬Å“designÃ¢â‚¬Â in nature. If, as some have suggested, plugging empirically derived measurements into DembskiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s formula for chi is problematic, then his equation, however interesting, carries no real epistemic weight (i.e. no more than DawkinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Ã¢â‚¬Å“WeaselÃ¢â‚¬Â, as noted above).
Johnson/The Wedge of Truth: To my surprise, both the ID supporters and critics in the class almost immediately agreed that JohnsonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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 Ã¢â‚¬Å“outside the bounds of this courseÃ¢â‚¬Â (and to exceed in some cases DawkinsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ use of similar tactics), and we simply dropped any further consideration of it as unproductive. Indeed, one ID supporter stated quite clearly that Ã¢â‚¬Å“this book isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t IDÃ¢â‚¬Â, 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 Ã¢â‚¬Å“teleonomyÃ¢â‚¬Â) in evolutionary adaptations. That is, adaptations can legitimately be said to have Ã¢â‚¬Å“functions,Ã¢â‚¬Â and that the genomes of organisms constitute Ã¢â‚¬Å“designsÃ¢â‚¬Â for their actualization, which is accomplished via organismsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ developmental biology interacting with their environments.
Moreover, we were able to come to some agreement that there are essentially two different types of Ã¢â‚¬Å“designÃ¢â‚¬Â:
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ Pre-existing design, in which the design for an object/process is formulated prior to the actualization of that object/process (as exemplified by MozartÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s composing of his final requiem mass); note that this corresponds to a certain extent with what ID supporters are now calling Ã¢â‚¬Å“front-loaded designÃ¢â‚¬Â, and
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ 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 MayrÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Ã¢â‚¬Å“teleonomyÃ¢â‚¬Â).
In addition, the ID supporters in the seminar class agreed that Ã¢â‚¬Å“emergent designÃ¢â‚¬Â is not the kind of design they believe ID is about, as it is clearly a product of natural selection. A discussion of Ã¢â‚¬Å“pre-existing designÃ¢â‚¬Â 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 Ã¢â‚¬Å“deconstructionÃ¢â‚¬Â of JohnsonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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 Ã¢â‚¬Å“designÃ¢â‚¬Â (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 differencesÃ¢â‚¬Â¦and even to have become friends in the process. What more could one ask for in a summer session seminar?
P.S. An open invitation to the other members of the class: if any of the statements strikes you as unrepresentative of what has been happening, please post a comment to that effect hereÃ¢â‚¬Â¦and thank you for keeping me honest!
And here is a snapshot from Hannah Maxson the IDEA founder at Cornell:
[Hannah writes:] Analogies. They come up all the time; useful in teaching or explaining, perhaps essential to our way of viewing the world; and yet highly problematic when too much relied upon. In his summary of BeheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s argument Allen suggests intelligent design theorists have made a fatal mistake in their reasoning, and are presenting nothing but the poorest form of logical argument, an Ã¢â‚¬Å“argument from analogyÃ¢â‚¬Â. Is this a fair criticism?
[Allen writes:] “All of the examples of design Behe provides in pages 194-204 to support his definition and design detection algorithm are clearly and unambiguously designed because they are all designed by humans, and we all agree that humans can indeed design things. However, arguing that this somehow validates his definition/algorithm is simply an argument by analogy, and we have already concluded that this form of argument alone is logically specious.”
[Hannah responds:] I submit that this charge is itself specious; that the design hypothesis, while based on analogies in the same way all non-deductive reasoning must necessarily be, is nevertheless a valid inductive argument; fraught with the same pitfalls as other non-mathematical inductive arguments, but neither unsound nor of inferior logic.
Our reasoning is as follows: in all situations in which we have a causal history, the presence of complex specified information (or, in BeheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s case, IC systems) unequivocally entails intelligent agency. While intelligent agency is capable of producing CSI, no other causes have been shown to have that capability. The reasonable inference, then, in those situations where we observe CSI but do not have a causal history, is to infer design by intelligent agency as the best explanation.
AllenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s charge is grounded upon the Ã¢â‚¬Å“humanÃ¢â‚¬Â element in most examples of unequivocal design; he claims that this shared property moves the argument into the camp of logically specious transductive arguments. This claim is unwarranted. In any inductive argument there is a case to be made for potential dissimilarities between the set that is observed and that to which we are generalizing; indeed, simply by virtue of having been observed, the initial set will always have some common property the extended one does not. While we may take this as a warning of the uncertainty that accompanies any inductive inference, this does not in any way invalidate the argument.
Michael Behe addresses this briefly in his response to Kitzmiller:
Cellular machines and machines in our everyday world share a relevant property Ã¢â‚¬â€ their functional complexity, born of a purposeful arrangement of parts Ã¢â‚¬â€ and so inductive conclusions to design can be drawn on the basis of that shared property. To call an induction into doubt one has to show that dissimilarities make a relevant difference to the property one wishes to explain. Neither the judge nor the Darwinists he uncritically embraces have done that in respect to intelligent design.
I didn’t particularly care for the PandasThumb crowdÃ‚Â ganging up on the public weblog with their usual lame taunts, ad hominems, misrepresentations,Ã‚Â obfuscations, and their usual mindless spamming.Ã‚Â They outposted the pro-IDers 3 to 1 in one thread.Ã‚Â PvM wasÃ‚Â obfuscating with a Chewbacca Defense shutting down useful discussion.Ã‚Â
But in the middle of all that noise, I found this comment by Hannah insightful:
ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not a personality issue at all, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s an issue of good math and rigorous science, and avoiding charlatan rebuttals. No-one is going to take PvM seriously on this subject until he presents a serious critique of CSI. That would mean one not based on the premise Ã¢â‚¬Å“for convenience, CSI may be defined as everything we donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t knowÃ¢â‚¬Â or the embarassingly bad Ã¢â‚¬Å“P(T|H)=1 for all known chance/necessity mechanismsÃ¢â‚¬Â.
DembskiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s character is not a matter of discussion on this thread; even if he is a vile scoundrel, that is perfectly irrelevant. The question here has to do with math, which, happily, is not relative and cannot be tarnished by unsavory associations. It remains that everyone here has utterly failed in making any relevant critique of CSI or its use in the design inference. There hasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t been anything to clarify/improve simply because the critiques havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t got to that level.
Indeed, Hannah being very good at math saw right through PvM’s mathematical distortions of Dembski’s work.Ã‚Â
Regarding the technical issues over Bill’s writings, everyone tried their best to understand it.Ã‚Â If their understanding seems compromised, I don’t think it was lack of effort on Allen’s part or the students’ part.Ã‚Â It’s just awfully difficult material to get through in a week, and some of the students are not math majors.Ã‚Â I don’t think anyone should be faulted for having a hard time with brand new material that is highly technical.Ã‚Â Even I am sad to say, I misinterpreted some of the most recent ID literature on Bill’s website pertaining to specifications and had to correct myself a few times.Ã‚Â I expect I’ll have to go through a few more corrections before I get it right!Ã‚Â And I have degrees in mathematics, computer science, and electrical engineering.Ã‚Â So if I fumbled, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the unitiated fumble a bit as well!
Thank you for reading.Ã‚Â
Comments are invited, but I request that no matter how strongly we mayÃ‚Â feel on some issues in thisÃ‚Â discussion, we try toÃ‚Â keep the discussion academic and refrainÃ‚Â from attacking Allen personally in this thread.Ã‚Â However, swipes at the UDers mortalÃ‚Â foes, the Pandas, I’llÃ‚Â look the other way. :=)
If you all really want to bash Allen, you may do so on another thread, but not here, please?Ã‚Â He stuck out his neck in the interest of academic freedom,Ã‚Â and he hasÃ‚Â exposed students to more ID literature in a biology class than any classÃ‚Â I know ofÃ‚Â at a secularÃ‚Â college in the USA.Ã‚Â He set aside his feelings and encouraged students to study ideas which he personally may disagree with.Ã‚Â I find that exemplary.Ã‚Â Furthermore, Allen has upheld the dignity of his students independent of their position on these issues, and for that I also publicly applaud him.Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Let us keep the dialogue open, and let us hope there are more Allen MacNeill’s in the USA who will be willing to step forward in the spirit of academic freedom and explore controversial ideas like Intelligent Design with their students.