Volume 16, Number 1

Suny Symposium on Biological Origins:
"Darwinian Naturalism vs. Intelligent Design"

On April 21, 1994, the Honors College of the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook sponsored a symposium on biological origins, pitting "Darwinian Naturalism" vs. "Intelligent Design." Defending Darwinian naturalism were SUNY faculty members Jeffrey Levinton (Ecology and Evolution), Elof Carlson (Cell Biology, and Dean of the Honors College), and Michael Simon (Philosophy). Defending intelligent design were Michael Behe (Biochemistry, Lehigh University), Bill Dembski (Ph.D., Mathematics, University of Chicago, currently at Princeton Theological Seminary), and Paul Nelson (Ph.D. candidate, Philosophy, University of Chicago, and Research Fellow of the Pascal Centre, Ancaster, Ontario).

The symposium format called for 25 minutes per speaker for his presentation, with 15 minutes of questions from the opposing panel. With six speakers, this format entails a four hour program, and, indeed, the symposium -- which began at 7:00 pm -- was still going strong at midnight when the moderator Donn Welton (Professor of Philosophy at Stony Brook) called it to a halt.

The first speaker was Bill Dembski, who addressed the theoretical basis for design inferences. Dembski first distinguished design theory "simpliciter" from "scientific creationism," observing that design is a far more modest theory than the usual accounts of creationism. Design inferences, he argued, are robust and tractable forms of reasoning which humans employ every day. All such inferences share a "standard operating procedure" by which events are sorted according to their probabilities. Events of sufficiently small probability which are also specified are candidates for explanation by design (or intelligent causation). Nothing except philosophical prejudice, urged Dembski, prevents this form of reasoning from being applied to the origin of the specified complexity of organisms.

The questions to Dembski from the Darwinian panel generally conceded that humans can infer design, but only when (and because) background information about probabilities, motives, and other causal possibilities is available. We lack that information for organisms, they stressed. Dembski countered by clarifying the notion of probability he was employing, and by arguing that sufficient background information was available to ground inferences to design in biology.

Michael Simon spoke next, on the topic of "Creationism, Science, and the Law." Simon, whose training includes a law degree, along with a Ph.D. in philosophy, argued that claims of design in biology are not proper scientific arguments, but confessions of failure. Evolutionary biology, he stressed, "is not going to give up" on its problems, but will continue to try to solve them by naturalistic means. Simon then reviewed the legal history of the creation/evolution controversy, noting that many philosophers had objected to the "questionable" philosophy of science employed by the late Judge Overton in his McClean decision overturning the Arkansas Balanced Treatment Act 590. Interestingly, Simon suggested that while "biological origins" is not part of biology proper, and while we do not know how life began, yet, "design is no explanation: current ignorance is evidence only for current ignorance."

The design panel asked Simon to reconsider his notion of "unsolved problems" in evolution. We see problems as unsolved, but capable of solution, when we are certain the background theories we accept are true. (Thus, the unsolved problem of galaxy formation is considered genuine by nearly all cosmologists, because they regard their more general theory, the Big Bang, as sound. Galaxy formation followed the Big Bang in time; galaxies formed somehow: the puzzle is to figure out exactly how.) But if the background theory is false, the "unsolved problem" at hand -- for instance, the naturalistic origin of organisms -- may be spurious.

Paul Nelson spoke next, on theological aspects of evolutionary reasoning. We have a picture, Nelson said, that science and theology have little if anything to do with each other. But this picture is false. Evolutionists regularly reason from theological premises to empirical conclusions, Nelson claimed, illustrating his point by analyzing Stephen Gould's well-known argument for evolution based on the panda's thumb. The key premise of that argument asserts that God would construct certain (optimal) structures, but not others. Darwin himself used many such arguments, effectively, to persuade his readers -- should the Origin of Species be excluded from science? But neither Gould nor anyone else knows what an optimal panda would be, and the suboptimality claim (about the thumb itself) is entirely groundless. The argument is unsound.

As Nelson was speaking, an audience member began shouting that evolution "isn't just the panda's thumb argument!" The moderator intervened, asking that Nelson be allowed to finish his remarks. Nelson replied that he was merely taking the panda's thumb argument seriously, and that "surely that wasn't such a terrible thing to do." The Darwinian panel argued that Nelson had misrepresented Gould's argument: suboptimality reveals descent from other forms. Nelson countered that suboptimality had not been demonstrated, and that homology alone was insufficient evidence of descent.

Following a short break, Jeffrey Levinton took the podium. His talk, "Evolution Reigns," began by arguing that Darwin established the fact of evolution beyond all doubt, whatever our knowledge of the mechanisms of evolution. The biochemical unity of life can be explained only by evolution, and the wide occurrence of "functionless" structures (e.g., pseudogenes) which match functionless structures in other species can be explained only by descent, unless one wishes to invoke a monstrously deceptive creator. "The whisperings of evolution within" are revealed by such evidence, and those patterns can be augmented by examples of "selection in action" (Levinton himself has worked on cadmium tolerance in aquatic worms). The fossil record is replete with transitional forms, quiescent genetic information is occasionally expressed (e.g., femurs in whales), molecular phylogenies confirm morphological phylogenies -- in short, evolution does indeed reign.

The design panel had several questions for Levinton. Nelson asked about the theory of natural selection: Levinton had argued that the theory avoided circularity by defining "performance criteria" for adaptiveness, and Nelson wondered what such "performance" was for, other than survival and reproduction (thus falling back into circularity). Levinton denied that performance criteria all devolve to survival and reproduction, although he allowed that they were "tricky" to apply. Behe asked Levinton if evolution really predicted anything. Didn't the theory follow the evidence around, fitting new data to untestable scenarios in a post hoc fashion? Levinton disagreed, arguing that the patterns of molecules and morphology made sense only in the light of common descent. How did the design panel propose to explain such patterns? Levinton asked. Nelson remarked that the congruence of molecules and morphology may be only apparent, as molecular data is often manipulated when phylogenies are constructed. Levinton disagreed strongly, but the issue was left open.

The last speaker of the design panel was Michael Behe, on the topic of "Molecular Machines: Experimental Evidence for the Design Inference." Behe argued that evolutionary explanation can travel a long way on the fuel of "black boxes." When we don't know the molecular details, we can "explain" the origin of features like vision in much the same way that Calvin explains how he and Hobbes take to the air in a cardboard box. It just happens, somehow. But powered flight occurs via complex mechanisms, and as biochemistry has opened the molecular black boxes of organisms, it has discovered that they are irreducibly complex. A mousetrap requires several components to function, all of which are jointly necessary, but none is which is singly sufficient. Likewise, molecular mechanisms exist at a level where no continuum of simpler function leads up to them. They must have been designed -- and the general absence of testable explanations for such systems, in journals such as the Journal of Molecular Evolution (JME) is evidence that evolution has failed in the face of biological complexity.

In reply, Levinton argued that the scientists who publish in JME just aren't interested in explaining the evolution of complex systems. Other topics (e.g., sequence comparisons) dominate the journal because that's what molecular evolutionists want to publish. But Levinton did not say where one could go, in the biological literature, to find the explanations Behe wanted.

Elof Carlson spoke last. He outlined basic criteria for defining "religion" and "science" (e.g., religion is faith-based, science is evidence-based), and asked where evolutionary theory and creationism landed respectively in that taxonomy. Carlson also focussed on issues of chronology -- something none of the design speakers had mentioned, except in passing -- and stressed that only long time scales, and, by implication, evolution, could make sense of the geological and cosmological data. "God" does not belong in science, Carlson urged, citing as evidence the decline of references to a Creator in the presidential addresses of the British Association (a major scientific organization) in the first half of the 19th century. God was on His way out of scientific explanation before Darwin published, said Carlson, and nothing the design panel had said provided any reason to bring Him back.

The debate continued in an informal fashion until midnight, and the participants parted cordially, all agreeing that the evening was worthwhile -- and worth doing again.

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File Date: 6.02.95