Intelligent design news from the 6th of April to the 13th of April, 2011.
This week was fairly interesting with regards to the online ID movement. However, it wasn’t a great week for author diversity. Yes, all the posts I’ll be talking about were written by Casey Luskin, everyone’s favourite non-scientist attorney. What I want to know is: how does he find the time to write so much? Surely his work as Program Officer in Public Policy & Legal Affairs at the Discovery Institute occupies much of his time, so where does all of this time come from to discuss so many different topics relating to ID? As a full-time student I barely have enough time to scrape this together every week… (And I’ve been sick and quite busy, which is why this post is a day late, I apologise.)
Anyway, this week’s posts are about Lynn Margulis and academic “status”, the Tennesse academic freedom bill and language in biology. Let’s get into it.
As I mentioned above, all of this week’s posts are by Casey Luskin. At least we know who he is. The first point of order is a piece about a recent interview Discover Magazine ran with controversial evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, well-known as both the scientist behind the endosymbiotic theory of mitochondria and chloroplasts, and as the ex-wife of the late science communicator Carl Sagan. Of course, Casey loves Margulis’s anti-Darwinian approach to evolution, but he gets a little confused about the supposed discrimination against “dissenters from neo-Darwinism”:
Are Darwin-Critics Tolerated in the Academy?
The short answer is sometimes maybe–but only if they are materialists like Margulis who openly oppose intelligent design. Even then, many anti-ID biologists feel pressured to withhold critiques of neo-Darwinism.
Nonetheless, some Darwin lobbyists have cited Margulis as evidence that one can critique the neo-Darwinian paradigm and not face opposition. Let’s consider that argument in light of her express attacks on ID.
In the interview, Margulis shares some personal experiences about whether she receives pushback due to her non-Darwinian views. She explains that “[a]nyone who is overtly critical of the foundations of his science is persona non grata. I am critical of evolutionary biology that is based on population genetics.”
In the end, however, there’s no doubt that as a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Margulis is generally tolerated. Why is that?
Well, for one Margulis has made significant contributions to evolutionary thinking with her endosymbiosis hypothesis–an idea which is highly flawed–but nonetheless courts her favor with modern evolutionary biologists.
But when critics of the Darwinian paradigm like Margulis are tolerated, it’s because they wholly reject intelligent design and believe that unguided material causes built all of life’s complexity. They don’t threaten the core materialism of neo-Darwinism, making it unsurprising that they have experienced no persecution. Rejecting ID and embracing materialism seems to be a necessary condition of being tolerated as a dissenter from neo-Darwinism.
I’ll let the “endosymbiosis is highly flawed” comment slide for now (as annoyed as that made me – it’s one of the best supported theories in evolutionary biology), because a bigger issue needs to taken care of. Casey is pretty much destroying a lot of the ID rhetoric that the Discovery Institute has been putting out for years, that rejecting Darwinism is the important bit for a scientist to have, not acceptance of ID – the Dissent from Darwin petition exemplifies this position. The debate is no longer about natural selection as a sufficient mechanism for explaining evolution, but about materialism vs. non-materialism. Of course, ID critics have known this for years – ID literature is saturated with references to, and even arguments for, a supernatural worldview – this is merely another nail in the coffin, to use an overly-dramatic metaphor.
But Casey is, in a way, right. A scientist is more likely to be “tolerated”1 by the academic community if their ideas are at least scientific. Lynn Margulis’s ideas about evolution by symbiosis, as fringe as they are in places, can be and have been tested scientifically, to varying degrees of success. But their accuracy does not impact on their nature as fundamentally scientific ideas. Intelligent design, as you are probably aware, is not a scientific idea. As such, the status of someone who holds it up as a scientific alternative to evolutionary theory is rightly lower than someone like Margulis who has unconventional evolutionary hypotheses.
As such, materialism vs. non-materialism is quite beside the point2. It’s about science vs. non-science. Those who stick to science are (relatively) fine, and those who do not are quite rightly shunned.
Again, I may have to partially agree with Casey Luskin about something. I apologise. It won’t happen again, you have my word. You see, an “academic freedom” bill has just passed out of the Tennesse House – terrible news – and Casey had something to say about it:
As seen, the bill only protects instruction concerning “existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.” Evolution is part of the curriculum in every school district in every state, including Tennessee, and is covered in every high school biology course. Thus evolution comes under the bill, and when teachers teach evolution they can teach it objectively.
On the other hand, intelligent design is not presently part of the curriculum in any school district, including Tennessee, and is not covered in any biology classes in Tennessee. Thus ID does not come under the bill. (If ID were part of the curriculum in any Tennessee school district, I assure you we’d be hearing about lawsuits against that school district quite quickly.)
The bill only protects topics that are already covered in the curriculum, and it does not protect teachers that introduce entirely new theories that aren’t already part of the course curriculum. But if a theory is already covered in the curriculum, as is the case with evolution, then teachers are protected if they choose to teach the both scientific strengths and weaknesses.
In sum, if a topic is already part of the curriculum (e.g. evolution), the bill allows a teacher to cover it objectively. If it isn’t (e.g. ID), then the bill provides no protections.
This is pretty much all true. I only have issues with the semantics, of course. You see, “academic freedom” bills are fundamentally designed to disrupt the proper teaching of evolutionary biology. While they hide behind words and phrases such as “strengths and weaknesses” and “objectively”, they legitimise the activities of teachers who would teach unsupported contrary evidence against evolution in classrooms. In essence, they bypass the defined curriculum and allow teachers to do whatever they want with regards to specific subjects like evolution, about which much misinformation exists. Under one of these bills, a teacher could show an anti-evolution documentary by the Discovery Institute (one which didn’t mention ID), filled with scientific errors, and pass it off as academic freedom. The problem is obvious. Curriculums should vett the information being given to students, not individual teachers – the curriculum’s job is to let only correct information through into the teachers’ lessons.
Of course, Casey is correct that this particular bill does not allow ID to be taught in schools, and that’s good, but such bills are still a terrible idea even without the added complication of ID. Science needs to be taught objectively, but what is and isn’t objective should not be defined by the individual teacher.
Lastly this week, Casey talked about the removal of design-like phrases and expressions from biology, as hypothesised by Andrew Moore. Casey’s post was pretty much just grandstanding, but it raised some interesting points in my mind:
A recent article in the journal Bioessays by its editor Andrew Moore, titled “We need a new language for evolution. . . everywhere,” suggests that biologists should stop using the term “design.” According to Moore, under “Evolution old-speak” we would say, “Structure X is designed to perform…” but under “Evolution new-speak” we must simply say, “Structure X performs Y.” If there’s any doubt that Moore is worried about the intelligent design implications of the language used by biologists, consider the following passage from his article:
A banal example shows how an apparently trivial change in words can radically change perceived meaning: to accomplish metabolic process X, enzyme Y evolved a specificity for Z. In an objective scientific sense, we should phrase this as ‘in accomplishing X, Y concomitantly evolved a specificity for Z’. It is that innocent little word ‘to’ that transforms the meaning, giving enzyme Y the essence of ‘will’ – ‘to’ being short for ‘in order to’, or ‘with the purpose of’. Purpose can only be exercised by a supernatural entity in this situation.
Apparently Moore is so worried about any implications of language that might be friendly towards intelligent design that he’s unwilling to even state that any particular structure exists “to” perform some function. Clearly this shows that evolutionary thinking is taking biology into the realm of the absurd.
The language that humans use to describe reality does not change reality: describing an organism as intelligent designed does not make it so. What language is about, however, is effective communication of information and ideas. What someone says to someone else will affect how they view the world around them. As such, it could be useful for biologists to stop using expressions, when describing life, that imply some sort of design behind it all, if they don’t want to give the wrong impression. It’s surprising how many people take design-inspired language used by both scientists and laypeople as an obvious justification for intelligent design. “That tree has leaves to absorb sunlight – it has purpose, it was designed.” It sounds silly, but it’s an argument many ID critics and biologists have heard many times before.
However, perhaps this problem is not with the language biologists use, but with the understanding of evolutionary biology that most people have. Of course, due to selection being a major force in evolution, many biological structures and systems exist because they provide reproductive advantages to the organisms that have them. This advantage provides a “purpose” for those structures – it’s just not a teleological one, like I would say a car has cup holders for the purpose of making endrinkened3 passengers or drivers happy and dry. Because of this, using words such as “to” are accurate on some level. It’s only people who don’t understand that evolution by selection is an active, discriminatory process that would equate such language with design.
Evolution education should be the main priority here, not changing the biologist’s language. Once more people understand what evolution is all about and how it works, this language miscommunication should disappear. So long as biologists don’t say “X was designed for Y”…
Rapid fire ID news!
- A new BIO-Complexity paper is out. I might have to write about it soon…
- Does O’Leary (I assume it’s O’Leary) even understand what natural selection is?
- Well that’s not an argument from authority, nosiree.
- Way to gloss over the properly persuasive evidence for endosymbiosis!