Friday, September 02, 2005

ID in PE?

Amanda and Jonathan Witt comment on the interesting article in the Washington Post by Sally Jenkins on observing intelligent design in athletes. She says:

First, let's get rid of the idea that ID (intelligent design) is a form of sly creationism. It isn't. ID is unfairly confused with the movement to teach creationism in public schools. The most serious ID proponents are complexity theorists, legitimate scientists among them, who believe that strict Darwinism and especially neo-Darwinism (the notion that all of our qualities are the product of random mutation) is inadequate to explain the high level of organization at work in the world. . . .

The idea, so contentious in other contexts, actually rings a loud bell in sports. Athletes often talk of feeling an absolute fulfillment of purpose, of something powerful moving through them or in them that is not just the result of training. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, a neuroscientist and research professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, is a believer in ID, or as he prefers to call it, "intrinsic intelligence." Schwartz wants to launch a study of NASCAR drivers, to better understand their extraordinary focus. He finds Darwinism, as it applies to a high-performance athlete such as Tony Stewart, to be problematic. To claim that Stewart's mental state as he handles a high-speed car "is a result of nothing more than random processes coming together in a machine-like way is not a coherent explanation," Schwartz said.

And she concludes:

But science class also teaches us how crucial it is to maintain adventurousness, and surely it's worthwhile to suggest that an athlete in motion conveys an inkling of something marvelous in nature that perhaps isn't explained by mere molecules. Johann Kepler was the first to accurately plot the laws of planetary motion. But he only got there because he believed that their movements, if translated musically, would result in a celestial harmony. He also believed in astrology. And then there was Albert Einstein, who remarked that "Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind." Historically, scientific theorists are sandlot athletes, drawing up plays in the dirt.

The Witts observe:
Her explanation recalls to mind the wonderful line in Chariots of Fire where the great sprinter Eric Liddel tells his sister, "When I run I feel His pleasure."

But all of this brings up the obvious question: since the Darwin Dogma Only gang thinks ID has nothing to do with science, and therefore does not belong in science class, would it be OK to discuss it in Phys. Ed.? As for me, I believe strongly in academic freedom for gym teachers.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Scientific Theories In Their Cultural Context

The Washington Post article on the new Pew poll can be found here. It contains this endorsement of teaching the controversy:
Some want to see evolution taught in a broader context. Warren Nord, a professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina, said it's important for students to learn about evolution in context with culture generally. "Students should understand the controversy," Nord said. The different theories "should be addressed in science classes. All science textbooks and courses should locate them in a larger cultural conversation about how to make sense of nature."

Professor Nord, you are a very wise man. At the same time, students could examine whether it was evidence alone that led a majority of scientists to embrace macroevolutionary theory. Or were there historical, cultural and worldview factors that played a role as well?

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

New Poll: Liberal Democrats Support Teaching Both Evolution and Creationism

For what it is worth, there is a new poll by Pew on a number of topics, including beliefs about origins. But who comes up with these questions? Better questions would have produced more interesting results.

On the other hand, there were some remarkable results in the demographic breakdown of opinions on teaching policy. The New York Times article discussing it, entitled "Teaching of Creationism Is Endorsed in New Survey," contains this:
John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum, said he was surprised to see that teaching both evolution and creationism was favored not only by conservative Christians, but also by majorities of secular respondents, liberal Democrats and those who accept the theory of natural selection. Mr. Green called it a reflection of "American pragmatism."

I note that the poll was conducted in July, which was before Bush's recent comments on August 2 in response to a reporter's question on teaching intelligent design.

I wonder what the results would have been if they had included the option of teaching the scientific evidence and arguments for and against macroevolutionary theory. This is the position of many of the leading proponents of ID.

Oops! Wrong Definition of MN, Hector

I was pretty surprised, although I probably should not have been, at the faux pas in the statement signed by the "Avalos 120" at Iowa State University. The statement contains this pronouncement:
Methodological naturalism, the view that natural phenomena can be explained without reference to supernatural beings or events, is the foundation of the natural sciences.

But this is not the definition of Methodological Naturalism. It is the definition of Philosophical Naturalism. There is a very important difference. MN is a methodology of doing science and does not take a position on whether there is a supernatural realm or not. Philosophical Naturalism takes the position that there is no supernatural realm.

Here is one definition of Philosophical Naturalism:
The system of thought holding that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes and laws.

Here is another:
The view that nothing exists but the world — that there are no supernatural entities.

A good example of the proper definition of Methodological Naturalism (from the current version of Wikipedia, which also currently has a decent discussion of the distinctions) is:
Any method of inquiry or investigation or any procedure for gaining knowledge that limits itself to natural, physical, and material approaches and explanations.

As this definition makes clear, MN does not assume that an explanation will be found. It certainly does not presume to assert that all natural phenomena can be explained without reference to supernatural beings or events.

I believe that this confusion, to some extent, explains why so many scientists feel so comfortable stating that there is overwhelming evidence for macroevolutionary theory. Since it is the only plausible materialistic explanation for life on earth, it must be accepted. But this logic injects their own metaphysical beliefs into their science.

In any case, the Avalos 120 should be embarrassed and ashamed of themselves. And we should all be concerned that 120 academics do not know the difference between MN and Philosophical Naturalism.

* * * *

More discussion of the Avalos 120 and the controversy at Iowa State can be found at Telic Thoughts. My discussion of a related topic can be found here.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Daniel Dennett: the Original Darwinian Fundamentalist

Several other bloggers have commented specifically on Daniel Dennett's attack piece in The New York Times on August 28, 2005. You can read them by following the links on the side to Telic Thoughts, Uncommon Descent (William Dembski) and ID the Future. I do not feel the need to add further specific comments.

However, I note that his article was the number one most emailed article in the Times yesterday, and is already number 3 with a bullet on the 7-day most emailed list. Given how much the readers of the Times appear to be eating it up, I thought it might be a good time to remind people that Daniel Dennett (and his sidekick Richard Dawkins) were the original "Darwinian Fundamentalists" in Stephen Jay Gould's essay entitled "Darwinian Fundamentalism," discussed previously in my posts here and here. For those who do not know, Stephen Jay Gould was a leading paleontologist and evolutionary theorist at Harvard.

Recalling Gould's defense of himself is especially appropriate in light of Dennett's abrasive attack on William Dembski, the Discovery Institute and the intelligent design movement. I do not agree with everything that Gould says, of course, but many of his observations are valuable for obvious reasons.

What is noteworthy is how eloquently Gould argues that random mutation and natural selection are not adequate to explain all the phenomena in the living world. He does not know what all the other mechanisms are, but he believes that other natural mechanisms can explain the complexity of life we see around us. Is it so radical to agree with Gould on his analysis of the limitations of random mutation and natural selection, but not share his faith in the power of other unknown natural mechanisms? And do not high school students deserve more than the diet of Darwin-only dogma that Dennett wants to serve them? Why can't students decide for themselves whether they agree with Dennett, Gould, or neither?

And now over to some extended quotes from Stephen Jay Gould (bold added by me):

Some of these ideas have filtered into the general press, but the uniting theme of Darwinian fundamentalism has not been adequately stressed or identified. . . . Amid the variety of their subject matter, the ultra-Darwinists share a conviction that natural selection regulates everything of any importance in evolution, and that adaptation emerges as a universal result and ultimate test of selection's ubiquity.

. . . .

This strategy of research—the so-called adaptationist program—is the heart of Darwinian biology, and the fervent, singular credo of the ultras.

Since the ultras are fundamentalists at heart, and since fundamentalists generally try to stigmatize their opponents by depicting them as apostates from the one true way, may I state for the record that I (along with all other Darwinian pluralists) do not deny either the existence and central importance of adaptation, or the production of adaptation by natural selection. Yes, eyes are for seeing and feet are for moving. And, yes again, I know of no scientific mechanism other than natural selection with the proven power to build structures of such eminently workable design.

But does all the rest of evolution—all the phenomena of organic diversity, embryological architecture, and genetic structure, for example—flow by simple extrapolation from selection's power to create the good design of organisms? Does the force that makes a functional eye also explain why the world houses more than five hundred thousand species of beetles and fewer than fifty species of priapulid worms? Or why most nucleotides—the linked groups of molecules that build DNA and RNA—in multicellular creatures do not code for any enzyme or protein involved in the construction of an organism? Or why ruling dinosaurs died and subordinate mammals survived to flourish and, along one oddly contingent pathway, to evolve a creature capable of building cities and understanding natural selection?

I do not deny that natural selection has helped us to explain phenomena at scales very distant from individual organisms, from the behavior of an ant colony to the survival of a redwood forest. But selection cannot suffice as a full explanation for many aspects of evolution; for other types and styles of causes become relevant, or even prevalent, in domains both far above and far below the traditional Darwinian locus of the organism. These other causes are not, as the ultras often claim, the product of thinly veiled attempts to smuggle purpose back into biology. These additional principles are as directionless, nonteleological, and materialistic as natural selection itself—but they operate differently from Darwin's central mechanism. In other words, I agree with Darwin that natural selection is "not the exclusive means of modification."

. . . .

My own field of paleontology has strongly challenged the Darwinian premise that life's major transformations can be explained by adding up, through the immensity of geological time, the successive tiny changes produced generation after generation by natural selection. The extended stability of most species, and the branching off of new species in geological moments (however slow by the irrelevant scale of a human life)—the pattern known as punctuated equilibrium—requires that long-term evolutionary trends be explained as the distinctive success of some species versus others, and not as a gradual accumulation of adaptations generated by organisms within a continuously evolving population. A trend may be set by high rates of branching in certain species within a larger group. But individual organisms do not branch; only populations do—and the causes of a population's branching can rarely be reduced to the adaptive improvement of its individuals.

. . . .

Why then should Darwinian fundamentalism be expressing itself so stridently when most evolutionary biologists have become more pluralistic in the light of these new discoveries and theories? I am no psychologist, but I suppose that the devotees of any superficially attractive cult must dig in when a general threat arises. "That old time religion; it's good enough for me." There is something immensely beguiling about strict adaptationism—the dream of an underpinning simplicity for an enormously complex and various world. If evolution were powered by a single force producing one kind of result, and if life's long and messy history could therefore be explained by extending small and orderly increments of adaptation through the immensity of geological time, then an explanatory simplicity might descend upon evolution's overt richness. Evolution then might become "algorithmic," a surefire logical procedure, as in Daniel Dennett's reverie. But what is wrong with messy richness, so long as we can construct an equally rich texture of satisfying explanation?

. . . .

Daniel Dennett's 1995 book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, presents itself as the ultras' philosophical manifesto of pure adaptationism. Dennett explains the strict adaptationist view well enough, but he defends a miserly and blinkered picture of evolution in assuming that all important phenomena can be explained thereby. His limited and superficial book reads like a caricature of a caricature—for if Richard Dawkins has trivialized Darwin's richness by adhering to the strictest form of adaptationist argument in a maximally reductionist mode, then Dennett, as Dawkins's publicist, manages to convert an already vitiated and improbable account into an even more simplistic and uncompromising doctrine. If history, as often noted, replays grandeurs as farces, and if T.H. Huxley truly acted as "Darwin's bulldog," then it is hard to resist thinking of Dennett, in this book, as "Dawkins's lapdog."

. . . .

"Straight is the gate, and narrow is the way." Fundamentalists of all stripes live by this venerable motto, and must therefore wield their unsleeping swords in constant mental fight against contrary opinions of apostates and opponents (who usually make up a sizable majority—for, as Jesus also noted, "Wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction"). The favored fate for the nonelect varies, according to the temperament and power of true believers, from the kindness of simple pity to the refiner's fire of extirpation. But the basic ideological weapon of fundamentalism rarely departs much from the tried and true techniques of anathematization.

Unfortunately, at least for the ideals of intellectual discourse, anathematization rarely follows the dictates of logic or evidence, and nearly always scores distressingly high in heat/light ratio. Anathema also requires an anathemee—and I seem to have been elected. (Whatever my professional contributions to proper Darwinian pluralism, I stand convicted, I suggest, primarily for my efforts to bring the full scope of technical debate, with all its complexities and messiness, but without loss of substance, to general readers.)

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Gross Error at the NY Times

There have been many misrepresentations of intelligent design in the media and much knocking down of straw men, but the Op-Ed piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg in the August 23, 2005 New York Times is perhaps the most egregious example, and I find it simply comical. He shows amazing ignorance of the intelligent design movement by stating that its proponents question the common scientific understanding of the age of the earth and the length of time life has appeared on it:
Nearly every attack on evolution - whether it is called intelligent design or plain creationism, synonyms for the same faith-based rejection of evolution - ultimately requires a foreshortening of cosmological, geological and biological time.

In fact, none of the leading proponents of intelligent design question the age of the earth or the length of time life has been on it- Not Dembski, not Meyer, not Behe, not Johnson. (Young earth creationists do, and this is one of the many differences between them and the ID folks.) But that is not what makes his error so remarkable. His gross misrepresentation of intelligent design was explicitly contradicted by a New York Times news article the day before, and he spends no less than eight paragraphs of his patronizing essay focusing on this issue.

But here is the greatest irony: the force of one of the leading arguments for intelligent design depends on a very old earth. One of the arguments that flows from the Cambrian Explosion in the fossil record is that life has been on earth for 3.5 billion years, yet nearly all the animal phyla and complex animal body plans "exploded" onto the scene in a relative geological moment of 5-10 million years (sometimes called "Biology's Big Bang"). That is .2% of the history of life on earth. This, of course, is not what Darwinian theory would predict. Shorten the 3.5 billion year part and the argument gets weaker, not stronger.

As noted, the critique based on the Cambrian Explosion appeared in a sidebar in the Times the day before. It was also the subject of the Meyer's article that lead to the Sternberg witch hunt at the Smithsonian.

It is becoming clearer and clearer that many of the people at the Times have not done any reading of the primary literature of the ID movement, and have no intention of doing so, or even informing themselves of the basics by taking a few minutes of web research, or even reading their own news articles. The former "paper of record" is fast becoming an excellent record of the way the Darwinian fundamentalists use ignorance, misrepresentation and obscurantism, either intentionally or through gross negligence, to further their cause.

* * * *

For a short summary of the peer-reviewed scientific literature on the Cambrian Explosion, go here.

For a less scholarly post on the Sternberg witch hunt and Monty Python, go here.

Post Note: The Klinkenborg article is, as of writing, the number five most emailed article at the Times over the last 7 days. Lots of people are being very misled, and, apparently, loving it.

Post Note 2: I did not even bother to refute his ridiculous statement that "intelligent design" and "creationism" are "synonyms." Many evolution advocates acknowledge very important differences. But this kind of misinformation is a very important tactic for the Darwinian fundamentalists, because they know they have a much easier time attacking traditional creationists. Why fight the real thing when your blissfully gullible readers are more than happy to let you fight a straw man?