Thursday, January 24, 2008

Teaching Intelligent Design

What is the basis of "Scientific Intelligent Design"?

Intelligent Design (ID) is a teleological (purpose-driven) explanation of the origin and development of biological life on Earth. In its more recent "scientific" form, ID makes use of science-based arguments, mainly "irreducible complexity", to argue that some designer must have created the first biological cells because they could not have originated on their own.

Some ID proponents are prepared to believe that, after the origin of those first cells, something like neo-Darwinian evolution and natural selection took over and resulted in the wide diversity of life forms on Earth. However, they believe the evolutionary process is not without purpose. The intelligent designer had some purpose in mind when the initial biological cells were designed. Even if the various species were not designed per se, the designer of the original biological cells knew the laws of nature and how those cells would inevitably evolve into current-day species. Mainstream science is critiqued for believing advanced life forms evolved by undirected, blind chance and for no purpose at all. If there is no purpose what is the reason for life, for ethics? Why should we continue to live? See: and

What is the basis of Darwinian Evolution?

The basis of Darwinian evolution is that more complex life forms originate when a random mutation or crossover of genes occurs and the resultant life form happens to be both more complex and have a higher survival/reproduction rate than the less complex form. Darwinian evolution and natural selection are central to mainstream science and all standard science courses

What is the basis of "Irreducible Complexity"?

"Irreducible complexity" argues there is no viable life form below that of the most basic biological cell. Therefore, there is no way that that first biological cell could have evolved from something simpler. Thus, there must be some "intelligent cause" rather than the "undirected process" of evolution, at least for the origin of the most basic biological cells. ID proponents demand scientific study of what they call "origins science". The want ID to be included in science classes.

Why not teach both Darwinian and ID explanations in science classes?

ID rejects any purposeless explanation, at least for the initial origin of the most basic biological cells. ID concludes there must have been some "intelligent designer" and the clear implication is an intelligent supernatural being (e.g., "God"). Mainstream scientists reject ID as a religious belief that has no place in a science class.

I accept mainstream science ...

I totally accept the mainstream scientific explantion of both the origin and evolution of life on Earth. Although no scientific experiment has completely duplicated the process of origin of life, I accept the current explation that traces origins from random mixing and chemical reactions in self-reproducing autocatylitic cycles that happened to be confined in porous rock or clay or lipid (fat) molecules. Autocatylitic cycles have been demonstrated in the laboratory.

As a result of the autocatylitic cycle process, some primitive type of self-reproducing RNA originated and that lead to the origin of RNA's first cousin, self-reproducing DNA. Given RNA and DNA, even in their primitive forms, it is possible for a life form that is not yet a biological cell to survive and reproduce in porous rock or clay or lipid molecules. RNA codes for the production of proteins and this must have lead to the first biological cells that produced their own membranes and were thus freed of dependence upon porous materials. At that point, standard Darwinian evolution and natural selection took over.

but ... I favor mention of ID in science classes

Although you might expect me to oppose teaching ID in science class, I think it deserves some mention. Why ???

1) According to Gallup polls, over 40% of our fellow Americans believe God created human beings pretty much in their current form as recently as 10,000 years ago. An additional nearly 40% believe God guided evolution over a longer period. That means four out of five Americans accept God as Creator, Designer, and/or Guider. Fewer than one in seven accept the mainstream scientific explantion that God had no part in the process. Hard as this is to believe, it is a fact to be contended with. "Head in the sand" won't work!

2) What better place than a science class to demonstrate use of the scientific method to evaluate ID vs Darwin? Give the best possible arguments for ID, using examples directly from their textbooks. Do the same for Darwin and then ask the hard questions. For example:

  • If ID is true, the first biological cells on Earth were designed and brought here by alien space travelers or by God.

  1. If the former, how did the alien space travelers originate? Perhaps they evolved through a Darwinian process on some other planet? If so, Darwin got the process right but the planet wrong! Perhaps meteors harboring live biological cells were flying through space and seeding life on various planets including Earth? How did life originate on the meteors? If not by some Darwinian process, life always existed on those meteors! Does that make any sense?

  2. If the latter, how did God come into existence? Did God design and create Himself or was it a Super-God who created Him, and so on with Super-Duper-Gods all the way up? You say God always existed? Does that make any sense?
3) Even though flogiston was a discredited idea, I learned about it in science class! It was a great lesson in the scientific method! Early scientists weighed a piece of wood, burned it, and then weighed the ashes. Sure enough, the ashes weighed less than the original wood, which proved that the fire and heat was due to the flogiston leaving the wood. QED. Then, some smarter scientist repeated the experiment in a closed chamber. The results were just the opposite. Oxygen from the air combined with the carbon from the wood producing energy and carbon dioxide, which is why the ashes plus the smoke weighed more than the original wood.

4) Same story about the discredited idea the Sun and stars rotated about the Earth or that maggots were generated spontaneously on dead meat or that alchemists could change lead into gold and all those other early science myths. The best way to demonstrate the scientific method is to ... uh ... demonstrate the scientfic method!

5) Given the Gallup poll results, it is highly likely a student will be exposed to "scientific" ID by his or her family, friends, neighbors, religious leaders, and even some politicos running for president of the USA. Shouldn't they understand what is behind the ID concept and know the pros and cons? We push sex education in the schools to counteract information students are bound to pick up on the streets. Isn't understanding Darwinism as important?

6) Any responsible social sciences curriculum should include information about alternatives to democracy, including discredited forms of government such as monarchies, theocracies, fascism, communism, and so on. In each case, a fair presentation should be made of the arguments for that form of government, historical examples of widespread prevalence of that form, and examples of problems.

7) Darwinism has nothing to fear from ID! The arguments for a naturalistic chemical origin of life (autocatalytic cycles, RNA, DNA, ...) and neo-Darwinian evolution and natural selection are very strong. Scientists have been studying the laws of nature and properties of energy and matter for quite some time and are always discovering new things about them. We believe the laws of nature are Universal, the same in every corner of the Universe. We believe those laws and material properties guarantee that, over billions of years and with billions of stars and planets, life was bound to come into existence without any external intelligent designer. So, it is quite natural and totally expected that life came into existence, and here we are on Earth to prove it. Where did those complex laws of nature and matter/energy come from? How did they originate? Well, they always existed! (OOPS)

Ira Glickstein

Sunday, January 13, 2008

"Runaway Trolley" Moral Problem

While working on my review of Dawkins' God Delusion book, I came across his enlightening discussion of a tangential issue, the famous "runaway trolley". Dawkins [pg 225] introduces an ingenious twist.

Dawkins (and I) believe Darwinian natural selection has ingrained some "moral universals". These "deep structures", like our inherent capacity to learn language, may vary a bit from culture to culture, but are evidence of a natural sense of right and wrong. The trolley example is designed to tease out this basic sense.

The traditional example assumes a trolley is running amuck along the main tracks and will kill five people if it is not switched onto a siding or stopped in some way.

1) A moral person, Denise, is standing by a track switch and could divert the trolley from the main line to a siding. Everyone would agree Denise should throw the switch to save the people.

2) However, there is one man on the siding, and he will be killed if she throws the switch. (Assume Denise does not know any of the potential victims and there is no time to warn them, etc.) What should she do? Should she kill one innocent person to save five innocents? Write down your answer and proceed as the example gets more and more difficult.

3) Alternatively, a moral person, Ned is on a bridge over the trolley tracks. If he could throw a large weight off the bridge onto the tracks, that would stop the trolley and save the lives of the five innocents. Everyone would agree he should throw the large weight off the bridge to save the people.

4) However, the only large weight available at the moment is a very fat man resting near the low railing and in a perfect position to be dropped to the tracks. Ned is strong enough to push him over and the man is certainly fat enough to stop the trolley. What should Ned do? Should he kill one innocent man to save five innocents? Write down your answer and proceed as the example gets more and more difficult.

5) Alternatively, a moral person, Oscar is standing by a track switch that could divert the trolley to another line. A large weight (say an empty stationary trolley) is parked on that line and would certainly stop the runaway trolley and save the innocents. Everyone would agree Oscar should throw the switch and have the runaway trolley crash into the large weight to save the people.

6) However, there is a hiker on the other line. Unlike the fat man thrown off the bridge, his body will not be used to stop the runaway trolley, but he will surely be killed. Should Oscar kill the innocent hiker to save five innocents? Write down your answer.

If you think Denise and Oscar should act, but Ned should not, you are with the vast majority of people surveyed. That this is a moral universal is attested to by the fact there was no statistically significant difference on this issue between religious and non-religious people. An analogous problem, featuring crocodiles and canoes, was posed to primitive tribesmen in Central America with similar results.

I'd appreciate discussion of why you think Ned should spare the fat man and condemn to death five equally innocent people. Why should Denise and Oscar "play God" and condemn one innocent to save five? Do you agree with Dawkins and me that there are certain "moral universals" that have been hard-wired into each of us by Darwinian evolution?

Ira Glickstein

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Scientific Inquisition

If we believe as scientists that we are any different from the church that forbid Galileo from airing his views, we need to study the disgrace of Watson at this web site.

James Watson Tells Inconvenient Truth

Here's just the last paragraph:

Along with E.O. Wilson, James Watson is perhaps the most distinguished living figure in American biology, and yet even he was not immune to immediate expulsion from the very lab he created and built up over 40 years of his life, and excommunication from the scientific establishment that celebrated him. All this for one crime: voicing scientific facts and hypotheses that made this community uncomfortable. The same personal and professional fate befell former Harvard president Larry Summers in 2005 for a purely academic discussion of females in science during an economics conference intended for discussing this very subject!

What effect will this continuing intellectual mob violence have on future and current scientists and researchers who want to freely study human genetics, cross-cultural psychology, sociology, or any discipline that may reveal similar facts that have the potential to cause their professional or personal destruction by an intellectual community that resembles the medieval church?

Those who punish, those who lie, those who silence, those who condemn, those who intimidate... they have corrupted science.

They have injured the intellectual openness, freedom, and fairness of our society and our institutions, with untold costs to our collective human well-being.

Not James D. Watson.