Evolution: What’s Controversial (outline of issues)

I'm interested in teaching / facilitating a public discussion course for interesting community members, with the tentative title "Evolution: What's controversial about, why and to whom?" There are issues related to evolution in science, of course, as well as in religion and theology, philosophy, politics and culture, law and education. More specifically, there is also the anti-evolution movement itself, which argues against the theory and teaching of evolution in all the above fields. Here is an outline of issues that would need to be addressed in such a course if it were to be truly thorough.
1) Science
  • The nature of science - what it does and what it doesn't do
  • The theory of evolution - what it says and what it doesn't say
  • The "philosophical naturalism" vs. "methodological naturalism" issue
  • "Traditional" anti-evolution arguments: lack of transitional fossils, 2nd law of thermodynamics, inability to create "new information" and new organs or creatures (the macro-micro) argument.
  • Intelligent Design - the new anti-evolutionism, and the new ID arguments: IC and CSI, the EF, etc.
  • What are legitimate scientific controversies about and in science, as opposed to the controversies offered by the ID movement? What distinguishes cultural/socio-political controversies from true scientific controversies, both in content, and more importantly, in how, and who, the proponents go about trying to persuade.
  • 2) Theology, religion, and metaphysics
  • Explaining the relationship between scientific knowledge and larger metaphysical beliefs about issues that go beyond what science can do
  • Summarizing various possibilities: Western monotheism; Eastern approaches such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and various New Age mysticisms; militant agnosticism (we can't really know); materialism and atheism, etc. Students should know that there are many different ideas about the metaphysical nature of the world, and that science (nor no other method) can investigate which, if any, are true.
  • Specific issues in Christian theology, describing the differences among at least three approaches: "theistic evolution" which reconciles evolution with Christianity, ID and various "old-earth creationism" positions which imply an occasionally interventionist God; and YEC
  • The nature of religious belief in general, ranging from "Truth" with a capital T for some to no more than a "fairy tale" for others
  • 3) Philosophical issues
  • The role and nature of chance and randomness in the world, including the difference between how science considers these concepts and how various religious and philosophical consider them.
  • 4) Cultural and political issues
  • Secular humanism and naturalism (or materialism)
  • Tie-in with conservative politics, mostly associated with conservative Christians, on other issues such as decay of society, abortion, gun control, etc.
  • Concerns about values and morals: evolution via atheism the source of moral decay.
  • 5) The anti-evolution movement in general, and ID in particular
  • YEC issues in the past
  • The DI and the ID movement: summary of the players, the tactics, etc.: influencing standards, legislation attempts (Santorum, bills at state level), Evolution disclaimers, op-ed pieces, "Conferences" such as DDD, RAPID, etc., speeches, most often at churches
  • Recent events in NM, KS, Ohio, Montana, Santorem, etc.
  • The ID arguments: IC, CSI, Icons, etc.
  • Negative argumentation vs. lack of positive ID hypotheses
  • 6) Legal
  • Creationism court cases
  • Separation of church and state issues
  • 7) Educational issues
  • The role of BOE's and curriculum standards
  • The realities of teaching teenagers in the time we have, and the role of teaching controversies and critical thinking in the overall curriculum
  • Concerns about public education in general - lack of morals, secular humanism, no accountability, etc. - all the right-wing critiques

    Mr. Krebs:

    I am very interested in participating, if you require the input of a slightly cantankerous lawyer with a modest background in philosophy. In spite of those “credentials,” I promise to behave myself.

    Ed knows me as EON from the evolution v. creationism forum at the link provided.


    IMO 4b is a very important issue, because it goes to the heart of why most creationists are so willing to blind themselves to the obvious scientific facts & simple logic.

    Conservatives believe in moral individualism, as opposed to collectivism. We generally believe that Western society was infected with various collectivist ideas & permutations that destroyed the USSR & Germany in the last century. Collectivist philosophies have had less of an impact on America than, say, the USSR, but it was toxic nevertheless.

    So conservatives usually don’t find anything objectionable about the Wedge Document’s general critique of modern society.

    Those of us of the Objectivist & libertarian persuasions judge a philosophy’s truth by its real-world consequences. Religious conservatives do as well, but they suffer from a fundamental crisis of confidence in that approach.

    Religious conservatives believe that even the best possible moral philosophy cannot win out in the marketplace of ideas on its own merits. The only way for the good to triumph and prevent the nihilistic Hobbesian “war of all against all” is to get people to believe that there’s an all-powerful Authority Figure who can come down, deus-ex-machina like, and cow us all into accepting His word that this particular morality is the One True Code we must all follow, just trust Him on this.

    Ironically, religious conservatives agree with the most nihilistic postmodernist, that the real world really provides us with no objective Truth at all. The postmodernists seem happy to just choose an interest group and enter the fray against the competing interest groups with their incompatible private truths (“competing texts”). The religious conservatives at least have the good sense to be repelled by this vision of the world - it’s too bad they don’t trust societies to be able to freely & rationally learn, over time, what moral frameworks really are appropriate for human beings to follow here in the real world.

    For this Objectivist conservative, it’s so very, very ironic.

    Thanks you for your comments, Emma. In my debates with anti-evolutionists, I have found this topic to be the most intractable - if there is no “objective” (i.e. God-given) morality, they argue, then anything goes and you might as well .… (and then they rattle off some horrible thing that I don’t even want to honor by typing.)

    This is related to their belief that if one takes science as producing a particularly effective kind of universally accessible knowledge, then that relegates all other types of beliefs (religious, moral, aesthetic) to an equally meaningless category of “figments of the imagination” - or, as Johnson is fond of saying by way of illustration, that belief in God is no different than belief in Santa Claus.

    In regards to my outline in the opening post, my long term goal (very long term) is to write an short essay on each issue in the outline. I’ll keep your comments in my notes. Thanks.

    It seems to me that this aspect of the controversy is one that is shifting dramatically. As vice-president of the IDEA (Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness) Club at the University of Oklahoma, I can say that from my experience, ties to conservative politics play close to no role in what we do; I fashion myself a political liberal, but that’s pretty irrelevent to ID/evolution/creation at OU, as is the fact that some people in our group are conservatives.

    The challenge for us has been to keep discussions with the evolutionists focused on the scientific and philosophical issues, without dragging in religious issues. Of course, as students, we’re not just presenting ID and arguing for it, we’re trying to learn as much as we can about both sides of the debate. We readily admit we don’t have all the answers, but we find the questions clearly worth asking. If the debate was as clear-cut as it is sometimes portrayed, I certainly wouldn’t be wasting all my free time trying to learn the intracacies of each side.

    Unfortunately, most (but by no means all) of the outspoken evolutionists do not seem to be interested in educating and discussing the questions raised by ID, but merely dismissing them. The conflation of ID with creationism (for example, Brian Leiter rarely types “intelligent design” without “creationism” or “scam artist” following immediately after) is part of the problem. Creationism is used as a pejorative to imply creation science or some sort of anti-science perspective, when the brand of creationism represented by IDers is often nearly indistinguishable from that of many evolutionists. I think most people who consider themselves evolutionists could be designated “theistic evolutionists,” which is just as much a creationist perspective as ID. The only difference is that IDers think the “theistic” part of evolution has some empirically evidence.

    It may be, or may not be, that the ID movement in general is motivated primarily by conservative religious/political motives. But at OU, at least, the driving motivation for promoting and discussing ID is a belief in the unity of all knowledge, combined with a healthy skepticism inspired by the history of science and a hopeful outlook that although science has some pitfalls, it has the potential to lead us closer to truth. That, and the fact that, at least to us amateur scientists and philosophers, the arguments of ID seem to have quite a lot of substance.

    What we need is the kind of thing your discussion course is could provide: a fair and balanced presentation of the relevent issues (and not in the Fox News sense). The fact is that practicing scientists have made up their minds, right or wrong, and overwhelmingly support evolution. They did the same for Aristotelian physics and geocentric cosmology in the past. But when the next generation of scientists decides the questions all over again, will they have their minds made up for them, by being told there is no debate and ID isn’t worth the time of day, or will they decide for themselves by looking into it themselves.

    We may be seeing the start of a new revolution, or we may not be. In any case, recent news about cold fusion and a thousand other examples from the history of science should teach us not to rush to judgement.

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    Thanks for writing, Sage - if you were up here in Lawrence, Kansas I would be happy to have you as a member of my discussion course (which hasn’t happened yet, by the way.)

    I have a few comments about your post, and also some questions/comments about the IDEA Club. You write three things that I think go together:

    1) “The challenge for us has been to keep discussions with the evolutionists focused on the scientific and philosophical issues, without dragging in religious issues.”

    2) “The conflation of ID with creationism … is part of the problem.”

    3) I think most people who consider themselves evolutionists could be designated “theistic evolutionists,” which is just as much a creationist perspective as ID. The only difference is that IDers think the “theistic” part of evolution has some empirically evidence.

    Statement 3 and IDEA FAQ from your website make it clear that your working hypothesis is that the designer is God, even though you are careful to separate what you see as the scientific question of designer from the religious question. You write (and this is well stated)

    “Although intelligent design theory itself is not a religious theory, IDEA itself does have a religious affiliation. Our mission statement says that we hold that “that the identity of the Designer is consistent with the Christian God”. Our claim that life was designed by intelligence is a “scientific” claim, while our claim that the Designer is the Christian God is a religious one. For this reason, we promote intelligent design “as a scientific theory” but “hold, through other arguments, that the identity of the Designer is the Christian God”, with those “other arguments” being logical and rational, but typically philosophical, historical, and religious in nature”

    The place where you disagree with the theistic evolutionist is that you believe that there is empirical evidence for design, and clearly you believe this evidence is consistent with the designer being an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent deity.

    This is the place where mainstream science disagrees with you (including, as you correctly state, those that are theistic evolutionists.) I know that you believe that “the arguments of ID seem to have quite a lot of substance.”, and that “practicing scientists have made up their minds, right or wrong, and overwhelmingly support evolution.” Practicing scientists have “made up their minds” because they do not find that the arguments of ID are substantial nor that they point to valid scientific evidence.

    In regards to this, here are a few questions that those skeptical of ID commonly ask:

    1) What exactly are the hypotheses of design you wish to put forward: what, when, and where did design occur (not to mention how,) and how can those hypotheses be tested in reference to empirical data?

    2) In particular, given what you say about being primarily evolutionists who believe in addition that God’s activity can be empirically detected, just exactly what aspects of the theory of evolution do you or don’t you agree with?

    I assure you, knowledgeable and thoughful critics of ID have looked at the ID arguments and offered substantial critiques. I encourage you to think seriously about these critiques (and your presence here at the Panda’s Thumb shows that you are.)

    I also encourage you to not be misled by idea that just because some paradigms have been overturned (you mention Aristotelian physics and geocentric cosmology, for example) that therefore any challenge to the mainstream should be given credence just because it is a challenge - the vast majority of challenges to the dominant paradigm in the past have been wrong, and only a few have truly “rocked the boat.”

    And last, your FAQ says you take no stance on the age of the earth (although your web page does say you used to be the Creation Science Club). However, how can you have any detailed hypotheses about design if they are not in some geological context? Frankly, most critics of ID see this as disingenuous - a means of keeping the young-earth creationists involved.

    But the evidence for a young-earth is primarily separate from the biological issue, and the the truth of the matter is that young-earth ideas are given no credence whatsoever among the world’s geologists except for those associated directly with Biblically-based creation science organizations.

    If you are serious about truly exploring ID in a biological context, it seems to me you need to accept the geological context which is accepted world-wide, even by most (but not all) of the main ID advocates at the DI. To do otherwise leaves the impression that you are less than serious about separating religion from science in general and about separating the scientific nature of the Designer from your religious belief that he is the Christian God. Among other things, until you are able to convincingly show that you are looking at the situation from a purely empirical point of view, you are likely to be seen (probably correctly) as creation scientists, and thus creationists.


    Thanks for your hospitality. You have some good questions, and I’ll give ‘em a try:

    You point out the three things about separating religion from ID, despite the obvious connections.

    Admittedly, most (but by no means all) ID enthusiasts are Christians, and IDEA Club at OU is a Christian organization. Additionally, if design really is the best explanation of the scientific evidence, that has theological implications. But that does not mean the theory of intelligent design itself is a religious theory. The problem is when people often dismiss it out of hand as religious rubbish when we want to discuss it’s scientific merit.

    Of course you say that it’s scientific merit is nil, but a small minority of scientists disagree, and we want to examine the evidence ourselves, and present some of the counterarguments to other students who might be interested. We aren’t sophisticated enough yet to examine the most technical aspects of the debate, but we’re making headway in our understanding of arguments from both sides. As it stands now, we still find ID arguments pretty forceful, even after looking at a lot of the back-and-forth between the ID theorists and the naturalistic evolutionists.

    I realize, of course, that most scientific dissent comes to very little, and revolutions are rare. But I would not characterize any of the members of IDEA Club as BELIEVERS in ID; we’re very interested in it, and think it’s probably right, but it’s not a matter of faith. We believe, as Christians, that the world was designed and created, but the empirical detectability of that design is not very critical, religously speaking. But it is a scientific question.

    Your questions: 1)OU IDEA club is not trying to put forward any explicit hypotheses, except that design can be detectable. We’re trying to encourage people, especially young scientists, to approach their science from a perspective that considers the possibility of design… if design is detectable, AND God’s design in nature is an instance of detectable design, scientists will probably find it, if they don’t discount it a priori. If it’s not, at least we’re encouraging people to think about and discuss science. You might be surprised at how little many professors know about evolution, much less students. The sad fact is that public education has been steering clear of evolution for a while, and most people that have opinions about it one way or the other really have no idea what they’re talking about (obviously, people who frequent this site, and probably most of their friends, are not a representative sample of evolution knowledge).

    2) It’s hard to say what parts of evolutionary theory I take and which I leave, as that’s in a constant state of flux, the more I learn. I don’t think there’s much hope for a naturalistic origin of life (a lot of what we do at OU is focused on origin of life, but that often gets lumped in with evolution, and it is often connected educationally, despite the obvious difference between origins science and evolution). I’m not sure what I think about the common ancestry of all life… if common ancestry is true, then I would imagine some sort of “front-loading” design would have been necessary. I certainly think evolution by natural selection is a powerful force, and it is probably responsible for most of the types of changes we see in the fossil record. Then again, I don’t know much about paleontology or anthropology, and some of my friends who study that more think the evidence for evolution is pretty weak there. Of course, these are just my opinions… OU IDEA Club doesn’t have a unified voice on specific topics.

    As far as I know, we don’t have any young-earthers in our group. On the other hand, we have a number of people who used to be young-earthers, before we convinced them otherwise. So, yes, we want to get young-earthers involved… it’s hard enough to find college students who want to study more academic stuff outside class, so we try not to exclude anyone. But I think the material you cited off our website was taken from the general IDEA Center mission statement… for all practical purposes, we don’t dispute geology (we might be interested in that, but none of us know much geology, nor do we have much reason to believe the earth isn’t old).

    I’m baffled at the front-loading hypothesis – why is supposed to be necessary? It would also be a risky design strategy, since much of that initial genetic information would be lost if it is not immediately useful.

    Also, I don’t see why “intelligent design” is supposed to be opposed to evolution, since evolution could take place by genetic engineering. Of course, there is the question of what positive evidence there is of such engineering – and also if one could recognize such engineering if it ever happened.

    Thanks, Sage, for your thoughtful response. I’m sure that as you keep reading the Panda’s Thumb you will find opportunity to discuss some of the critiques of ID and to learn about the scientific evidence that has convinced scientists about evolution.

    I also hope you have read my essay “A Response to Beckwith,” because there are some issues there that are relevant to our mutual interests.

    Loren: IMO, the front-loading thing just seems like an extremely elegent and cool way to do it, and one that still leaves plenty of room for contingency. “Necessary” was a poorly chosen word on my part. I think some other explanation would be necessary, but not necessarily that one.

    I don’t think ID is explicitly opposed to evolution. It is opposed (among other things) to the idea that evolution is completely explainable in terms of mutation and selection. It isn’t as if (despite the fanciful World articles) ID becoming the dominant paradigm would invalidate the work of all the evolutionary biologists of the past 70 years; it would just be a reinterpretation of evidence.

    Jack: I haven’t read your response to Beckwith, nor have I read the Beckwith book. I’ll try to read your essay sometime soon, and maybe glance through the relevent sectionso of Beckwith, which my roommate has.

    Mere minutes after posting my comment several days ago, God smote my hard drive.


    Now please G-D don’t crash my hard drive again, pretty, pretty please?

    These discussions lead me to consider the “watch and watchmaker” parables. Where does creation start if there is a watchmaker? In other words, what made the watchmaker? It is easy to say that the watchmaker is some kind of eternal being present from even beyond the moment of what we can perceive as the singularity that yeilded the apparent physical universe. The word before, as opposed to beyond, even becomes irrelevant in relation to that beings place in existence, readily perceived by humans or not. Also, the intelligence many people attribute to a “higher” being seems to me like a projection of the way our brains work instead of the discovery of some solid truth about our origin. This post doesn’t really lead anywhere, just rolling ideas around.

    For Sage Ross,

    I’ll be more than happy to start taking the ID crew seriously around the time they begin publicly and loudly acknowledging their intellectual heritage and debt to William Paley. Unfortunately, it appears that the rhetorical implications of acknowledging that ID is simply a ressurection of a flawed and failed 17th century ideology do not lend themselves to this type of open disclosure by the promoters of ID. In many ways, ID authors are in essence plagiarizing Paley by promoting a design argument without acknowledging Paley’s contributions to the philosophy and logic of such arguments. Of course, to acknowledge Paley would also make it rather clear that the intent of ID is promotion of a specific world view in regard to ultimate origins.

    Therein lies a serious part of the problem. The promotion of ID appears to an external observer to be part and parcel of an agenda to displace biological science with an inherently religious ideology. Why does it appear this way? Simple, if you think about it.

    Rather than take the time and effort to perform scholarly work, publish it within peer-reviewed journals, and allow independent verification of claims, the ID movement has decided to take its case to the “court of public appeal.” I cannot find merit in this approach and can only conclude that such an approach is made because the promoters of ID know beforehand that their purported research will not withstand peer review and has no scientific validity. Ironically, people who make such a loud noise about the ethics of their critics (IDers) appear to feel free to operate outside the scientific method and continue to claim that what they do (ID) is science and is somehow superior to science performed in a rigorous and critical setting. Add to this situation the public and print statements of Dembski, Johnson, et al concerning their perspectives on God and the relationship of God to humans, and the agenda becomes clear.

    Using this rationale, it is rather obvious that the rhetorical strategy of ID (or insert Discovery Institute if you prefer) is to remove the argument from a scientific venue and try to place it in a legal setting, doing by legislation and regulation what they cannot do with results and logic. It is ultimately, an unprecedented assault upon scientific method and a politicization of science issues that brings to my mind the worst excesses of Stalinist Russia with Lysenkoism.

    These are some of the reasons my personal attitude towards ID falls within the range of cynical to contemptuous. When ID begins to do science, let me know, I’ll be more than happy to take a look at it. Until that time, why not save the polemics for other puposes?

    Cheers, Marty Erwin aka FishHeadStu

    Sage, front loading (big bang) indeed allows one to combine faith and science without one unnecessary intruding on the other. But front loading is not really a scientific solution to ID since it merely moves our ignorance to the initial conditions. ID needs to present its (positive) hypothesis/es, until then it will remain scientifically irrelevant (as well as theoretically flawed).

    Sage Wrote:

    It is opposed (among other things) to the idea that evolution is completely explainable in terms of mutation and selection.

    That’s such a strawman. ID needs to be opposed to ANY scientific explanation for it to be relevant. If ID’s argument is that there are other mechanisms then they should embrace Darwinism. Darwin himself allowed for the existence of other mechanisms than selection.

    I am working on a posting on the topic of evolvability, which will show how evolution can evolve itself to adapt itself to its environment. This observation (supported by theory and experiments) shows how evolvability can be under the influence of natural selection. Somatic hypermutations, junk DNA, transposons etc all fall into place with evolutionary theory quite nicely.

    About this Entry

    This page contains a single entry by Jack Krebs published on March 23, 2004 8:25 PM.

    Specified Complexity: Darwin’s Panic? was the previous entry in this blog.

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