Bioethics @ TIU

Twentieth Anniversary of Darwin on Trial

Posted November 15th, 2011 by Heather

Aside from my work in bioethics, I have worked in the area of science and culture, in general, and intelligent design, in particular. Intelligent design is a paradigm that 1) allows for non-naturalistic explanations of design in nature and 2) seeks to detect design in nature. Much of the early ID literature was devoted to countering methodological naturalism, a worldview that presupposes only natural phenomenon and explanations. This worldview had a stronghold in our culture and in academia. The rules of the game excluded any non-naturalist theory from being an active contender in the market place of scientific ideas. However, evidences were mounting that showed the narrow range of acceptable explanations needed to be extended. In other words, there were some observations in nature that cannot be explained from naturalistic presuppositions.

In 1991, UC Berkley Law professor, Phillip Johnson, wrote a little piece entitled Darwin on Trial. In this book, he brings Darwinian evolution to task as being a theory motivated more so by a commitment to methodological naturalism than to scientific evidence. Not all aspects of evolutionary theory were wrong. We see small-scale changes that involve adaptation to environmental pressures all of the time. We see changes in populations due to fitness in a particular environment. However, this is not what Darwin proposed. Darwin provided a naturalistic origins story that takes the observations of microevolutionary events and extrapolates them out to large-scale events that explain the origins of all of the organisms that we see today. Darwin was operating on a worldview that removes any supernatural or non-natural events from the picture.

These distinctions were not always so clear. It was Johnson’s book that first put teeth on the rhetoric. Yes, there was something different between the microevolutionary events that were observed and the extrapolations to account for origins and creativity, but it was difficult to untangle the knot of science, philosophy, worldviews, and religion. Johnson did that. He wasn’t the first to address these issues, but he certainly got the ball rolling. Using his adept skills as a lawyer, he carefully untangles the knot through discourse, examples, and analysis. He framed the debate.

Today, a new web site is being launched in honor of the twentieth anniversary of Darwin on Trial. Whatever your views may be on evolution, Darwinism, and intelligent design, the information content in DNA, the fine tuning of the universe and the irreducible complexity of molecular machines demand an explanation. Methodological naturalism does not provide an adequate framework to explain these phenomena, so perhaps we need to adjust our framework. I encourage you to explore this web site about who provided the spark that set “the match that lit the tinder beneath a stockpile of dry logs” of mounting evidences.

 

 

As a note: While this post does not deal with bioethics directly, it deals with worldview issues which affect how we approach bioethics. Methodological naturalism and Darwinian evolution inform our views on anthropology. Much of Darwin’s work in Descent of Man discusses the implications of his theory coupled with his worldview presuppositions for man and morality. By definition, methodological naturalism rejects supernatural explanations and therefore non-natural criteria for personhood.

20 Responses

  1. psiloiordinary says:

    Sorry but missed this earlier – your question for me;

    “A question for you: On what foundation can ethical thinking be developed?”

    On the foundation of thinking and talking about it carefully with people and always being prepared to think and talk some more.

  2. Psiloiordinary says:

    David,

    Let’s quickly look at these gems;

    “My reason for responding is your claim that ID is too vague to be tested. This is a charge that is often repeated, but without being informed by previous answers. Just to point out one source here:
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2011/03/a_closer_look_at_one_scientist045311.html
    Here are 4 predictions from that essay:
    (1) Natural structures will be found that contain many parts arranged in intricate patterns that perform a specific function (e.g. complex and specified information).
    (2) Forms containing large amounts of novel information will appear in the fossil record suddenly and without similar precursors.
    (3) Convergence will occur routinely. That is, genes and other functional parts will be re-used in different and unrelated organisms.
    (4) Much so-called “junk DNA” will turn out to perform valuable functions

    These are all predictions of ID but are not predictions arising from Darwinism. The evidence supports ID predictions. The list could easily be extended.”

    1 is an expected result of evolution.
    2 to add to Jeffrey’s points I would point out that even ignoring the problems with tossing the word information around so glibly, geology and our understanding of when and how fossils form do predict this anyway.
    3 predicted by evolution
    4 ditto

    So you have done two things here, first of all demonstrating a clear lack of understanding of the basics. Secondly the empty “predictions” highlight the very vagueness that makes ID untestable, which was the pint I was making.

  3. leebowman says:

    “Can you name a single mainstream biologist who thinks that Johnson’s book had anything valuable to say about evolutionary biology? Where are the dozens of papers in the biological literature citing Johnson?”

    The thrust of the book was to point out the political and regulatory constrains unjustly placed upon competing hypotheses. And who better than a lawyer to do so.

    “(In contrast, Dawkins’ book has received hundreds of citations in the peer-reviewed biological literature.)”

    Which one? I notice that whenever I peruse Barnes and Noble, I see all of his books in the science section, including ‘The God Delusion’, a religion and philosophy based tome. Also saw ‘The God Theory’, ‘The Mind of God’, and Shermer’s ‘The Believing Brain’, while under Christianity, I saw ‘Signature in the Cell’.

    Let’s analyze: While the God books all touch on aspects of science as evidentiary, they are plainly philosophy and religion based critiques, both for and against theology as substantive, while Meyer’s book focuses on cell biology alone. But I digress …

    Johnson’s book asked more questions than it answered regarding origins, which is precisely what stimulates science. And in challenging the invocation of the various in-place legal hurdles and regulatory restraints [NAS, AAAS et al], it has opened many doors.

    “Most people who have followed the creation-evolution debate know that Johnson’s book consisted largely of recycled creationist canards that were debunked long ago.”

    Not at all. While he mentioned Hoyle’s junkyard tornado, he cited it only in passing, and somewhat in jest. What he pointed to most with regard to evolution were things like mitochondrial DNA, synthesis via RNA, phenotypic and genotypic distinctions, chemical evolution, as well as some anatomic functional issues such as the evolution of flight and bipedality.

    His quotes from many known scientists* were informing as well, and never done in a quote-mine-to-lie formulation. Nor have I run across his support for ‘creationist canards’, sans occasional mention of a few [second law of thermo dynamics for one].

    * Futuyma, Mayr, Dobzhansky, Kettlewell, Himmelfarb, Dawkins, Darwin, Ayala, Kimura and Raub, Eldredge and Gould just to name a few.

    But in cases where he did discuss the problematic ‘eye evolution’ conundrum, he presented extensive arguments to support the design conclusion and in opposition to convergent evo claims, rather than merely spouting ‘god-did-it.’ If his logic is flawed, why then the fuss over it by evo die-hards? Where are the follow up studies to augment Dan-Eric Nilsson’s work?

    To conclude, dated as the book is now, it still holds relevance in the issues raised, perhaps even more so today. Much more than a puff piece, it corroborates well the arguments presented, chronicles in detail the prior legal battles, and is well worth the read.

    • Jeffrey Shallit says:

      In other words, you admit that Johnson’s book did not receive many citations in the biological literature, thus proving his influence on the scientific debate was nonexistent.

      As for Dawkins’ book, I was clearly referring to The Selfish Gene. It is easy to compare citation counts, and I invite you to do so.

      My comments seem to be censored by the owner of this site, so it is not clear this will get posted.

      • leebowman says:

        “In other words, you admit that Johnson’s book did not receive many citations in the biological literature, thus proving his influence on the scientific debate was nonexistent.”

        Any published work, in particular one written for general consumption (pop press), is not generally cited in biological literature reviews and listings. Add to that, one that is critical of Darwinian theory add another negative strike. But its effect was ancillary IMO, and has definitely influenced scientific debate. Otherwise, why the concern over it by the scientific community, including of course, those at talkreason.

        “As for Dawkins’ book, I was clearly referring to The Selfish Gene. It is easy to compare citation counts, and I invite you to do so.”

        I know that. I used your comment to divert to a side issue; that of Barnes and Noble’s policy of book placement. ;~)

      • Heather says:

        As a note, bioethics is a multidisciplinary field. Citations in peer-reviewed science journals are one way to measure a work’s impact factor, particularly within the sciences, but in the larger context of culture,* it is not the only way. For example, some might consider book sales the most important factor, or number of editions of a particular book. Others might consider the pervasiveness of vocabulary and ideas within the mainstream culture as the most important factor.
        While I appreciate your position, I would argue that for the purpose of dealing with bioethics issues, determining the influence of a work is more complex than the number of citations in peer reviewed science journals.
        * The larger context of culture includes but is not limited to the sciences.

    • Jeffrey Shallit says:

      I will add that

      http://www.talkreason.org/articles/honesty.cfm

      is a perceptive review of Johnson’s book, explaining the many misunderstandings and misrepresentations contained therein.

      • Jeffrey Shallit says:

        It’s fine with me if you reject citation as a viable way to measure impact. But since you’re the one claiming that Johnson’s book had impact, you’re the one who has an obligation to support that claim. So far I haven’t seen any support.

        I also note that one of my comments has been held in moderation for more than 24 hours now.

      • Heather says:

        (I apologize that your comment was held for 24 hours. Comments with more than one link require approval, and I had not seen it to approve it.)

        I do not reject citation as a valid way to measure impact, but I do think the impact of a work is based on a complexity of factors that involves more than the number of citations.

      • leebowman says:

        Brian Spitzer’s review has been widely distributed and revered, and makes some valid points. But I have to say, many are specious, which I’ll detail here.

        First, his overview of lawyers is based largely upon a popular perception of lawyers in general, and says nothing of substance regarding Johnson. Spitzer states:

        “It follows logically that a courtroom lawyer will spend half of his or her time trying to convince a jury of the truth; the other 50% of the time, they are trying to persuade the jury to believe something which isn’t the truth.”

        And,

        “Because of this, it is entirely acceptable for a lawyer to play his or her false part in court, just as it is acceptable for an actor to play someone fictional on the stage.”

        Not so. Even tho a lawyer may skew his remarks to highlight what he wants the jury to focus on, lying is not permitted.

        Oh, and this …

        “This is not only permissible in the courtroom, it’s necessary for our justice system to work.”

        Maybe Spitzer needed to follow the Dover trial to critique the witness leading and theatrics employed by Walczak and Rothschild . . .

        But that aside, let’s critique Fitzer. He says he’s a Christian, but he’s also an Assistant Professor of Biology at UC Davis. Does that make him open minded and unbiased regarding ID? Hardly.

        Spitzer wrote that a 1982 Gallup Poll [of an unknown population tally] stated that “only about 10% of Americans think that “Man evolved over millions of years from less developed forms.” “ And then concluded that “90% of us, then, reject “Darwinism” as Johnson defines it, and the “intelligent design” creationists are fond of quoting this statistic.” Also, “There is plenty of other evidence suggesting that Johnson should know this argument to be just that: bunk.”

        But none of those Gallup Poll numbers were even mentioned by Johnson in his book, so why inject it into the review? It was not “his argument.”

        This was interesting: Spitzer wrote, “Several reviews of his book have criticized him for pretending that the personal views of a few inflammatory scientists are the consensus view of the scientific community, but Johnson has made no attempt to correct his claims or provide evidence for them.” Emphasis mine.

        Interesting. Spitzer makes reference here to scientists who may have offered criticisms of Darwinian precepts as “inflammatory scientists”, an abject example of his apparent bias against any who don’t accept natural causation “in toto.” IOW, no dissent from Darwinism allowed. Period. I view that of a biased viewpoint.

        And finally, his point that: ”Quote mining” is the practice of hunting for quotes which appear superficially to support your position, even if the rest of the source you’re quoting from clearly states otherwise.”

        Granted, and it’s done virtually willy nilly in many published pieces, and in blogs in particular.* But for just one prime example, ‘Creationism’s Trojan Horse’ brings up Behe [146 hits], Johnson [185 hits], and Dembski [210 hits], many with quotes out-of-context. The good part for both Johnson and Forrest is that references are provided, and that virtually all of the quotations are available somewhere for additional scrutiny.

        * for a famous blog quote-mine, Google ‘behe’ and ‘astrology’ [190,000 hits]. Virtually all of them are out of context, with the sole intent of skewing his testimony. A common misstatement: Behe admitted his definition of “theory” was so broad it would also include astrology. – Wrong. He stated that it was once accepted as valid science [Newton et al], but no longer.

        Regarding technical arguments in the remaining review, they are too numerous to detail here. Nor, are the arguments on either side set in stone, but are, like all of science, due for further scrutiny to finalize, if ever that comes to fruition. The theory of evolution is not denied by ID’sts, save perhaps those on the fringe of the ‘big tent’, the creationists who hold to a literal interpretation of Genesis. Rather, and I’ll state it in my current definition of ID:

        Intelligent Design in its most viable and cohesive premise resides as an adjunct hypothesis, to sit along-side natural selection as explanatory for phyla diversity. Natural processes yes, but a prediction of directed genetic alterations at key points in the progression.

        The Cosmos? Perhaps, but that remains a religious oriented viewpoint. ID within biology remains the most viable explanation of phylogenetic diversity, at least for now. And that, I feel, was Johnson’s prime emphasis.

      • leebowman says:

        Sorry for the messed up formatting. Let’s see if bolding works …

  4. Jeffrey Shallit says:

    I cannot concur with your recommendation of http://www.evolutionnews.org . This is just the blog of the Discovery Institute, whose systematic misrepresentation of evolution, evolutionary biology, and biologists is well-documented (e.g., http://ncse.com/creationism/general/analysis-discovery-institutes-bibliography ). To illustrate their lack of commitment to open debate, note that the Discovery Institute does not allow comments for most of its articles.

    As for “Phillip Johnson’s analysis of the presuppositions of proponents of Darwinian theory are important for understanding the ethical implications of that theory”, let’s see some proof of this. How about some articles favorably citing his analysis in the peer-reviewed secular literature on ethics?

  5. Psiloiordinary says:

    “objections to Darwinism that rely solely on empirical evidence and logic and were directed only to the adequacy of the Darwinian mechanism,”

    Wow.

    Please pick the best one and we can talk about it.

  6. Jeffrey Shallit says:

    Can you name a single mainstream biologist who thinks that Johnson’s book had anything valuable to say about evolutionary biology? Where are the dozens of papers in the biological literature citing Johnson? (In contrast, Dawkins’ book has received hundreds of citations in the peer-reviewed biological literature.)

    Most people who have followed the creation-evolution debate know that Johnson’s book consisted largely of recycled creationist canards that were debunked long ago. The main effect of the book was to help bring together religious, not scientific, opposition to evolution.

    As for the claim that the “information content in DNA” demands an explanation, this has been done long ago. The known mechanisms (mutation, selection, gene duplication, drift, etc.) are perfectly adequate to generate the information we see. Creationists have been obtuse about this for years. See, for example, my paper with Elsberry here: http://www.talkreason.org/articles/eandsdembski.pdf

    • David Tyler says:

      Regarding the citations Phillip Johnson has received, it is worth considering his review essay in Think, a philosophy journal published by The Royal Institute of Philosophy. His article has the title “Intelligent Design in Biology: the Current Situation and Future Prospects” and has this sentence:
      “To my disappointment, however, influential scientific organizations formed a solid bloc of opposition to the consideration of whether evidence points to the possible involvement of intelligent causes in the history of life.”
      Source: http://www.discovery.org/a/3914

      Regarding your comments on creationism, Johnson has this to say:
      “I had hoped that the mainstream scientific profession could be persuaded to consider objections to Darwinism that rely solely on empirical evidence and logic and were directed only to the adequacy of the Darwinian mechanism, rather than to defending the chronology of the Book of Genesis. This was not to be, however. Darwinists, including many in positions of authority in science, reacted by stigmatizing the concept of intelligent design in biology as “creationism,” as if it were another attempt to defend the literal creation chronology of the Book of Genesis, rather than a scientific movement that relies only on scientific evidence and logical analysis.”

      What we expect from scientists is an engagement with the scientific arguments that are being made. Your stance, however, prohibits you from even admitting even that there are scientific arguments about evolutionary theory.

      The link with ethics needs to be explored – the worldview issues are socially very important. Those who appeal to evolutionary biology for ethics appear to be swimming in a sea of post-modernism with nothing solid on which to ground ethical practice.

      • Jeffrey Shallit says:

        The writer of this piece, and David Tyler, have both failed spectacularly in backing up the implication that Darwin on Trial had any influence on the scientific debate about evolution. Darwin on Trial was only influential among the religious, because it had nothing novel to say. All of its arguments were debunked long ago in the scientific literature.

        I remember well when Phillip Johnson visited the talk.origins newsgroup to try to defend his ideas. He was soundly defeated, his ignorance of the scientific literature was exposed, and he left in a huff.

        David Tyler claims, “What we expect from scientists is an engagement with the scientific arguments that are being made”, but fails to respond to the fact that I, and many others, have published papers that specifically address claims of intelligent design creationists and show they are false. What other sort of engagement would David Tyler want?

      • Heather says:

        First, thank you for your comments. I do want to mention that this is not a forum for dissecting intelligent design theory, so I recommend going to http://www.evolutionnews.org as a place were many objections to intelligent design have been addressed as well as analyses on evolutionary theory and Darwinism. This site also has articles about Johnson’s books and other resources, and I believe provides a a very thorough on-going discussion on intelligent design, evolution, Darwinism, and current science news.

        Secondly, as for the purposes of this blog, bioethics deals with ethical issues in science, medicine and technology. The underlying presuppositions by which one evaluates the scientific data, practices medicine and uses technology inform our ethic. So while someone may or may not be a fan of intelligent design, Phillip Johnson’s analysis of the presuppositions of proponents of Darwinian theory are important for understanding the ethical implications of that theory.

  7. psiloiordinary says:

    “By definition, methodological naturalism rejects supernatural explanations and therefore non-natural criteria for personhood.”

    That isn’t true. The supernatural can be tested and has been tested by the scientific method (methodological naturalism) for example the effect of intercessionary prayer.

    One of the reasons that ID is rejected is that it is too vague to be tested.

    If you don’t agree then please explain how it can be tested.

    • David Tyler says:

      I suggest you look up the definition of methodological naturalism. The only difference between methodological naturalism and naturalism is that MN chooses to operate on the presupposition that nature is all there is. Heather is correct in her statement.
      I am not convinced by your claim that the supernatural can be tested by the scientific method, and your example of the effect of intercessory prayer needs much more discussion and analysis.

      My reason for responding is your claim that ID is too vague to be tested. This is a charge that is often repeated, but without being informed by previous answers. Just to point out one source here:
      http://www.evolutionnews.org/2011/03/a_closer_look_at_one_scientist045311.html
      Here are 4 predictions from that essay:
      (1) Natural structures will be found that contain many parts arranged in intricate patterns that perform a specific function (e.g. complex and specified information).
      (2) Forms containing large amounts of novel information will appear in the fossil record suddenly and without similar precursors.
      (3) Convergence will occur routinely. That is, genes and other functional parts will be re-used in different and unrelated organisms.
      (4) Much so-called “junk DNA” will turn out to perform valuable functions

      These are all predictions of ID but are not predictions arising from Darwinism. The evidence supports ID predictions. The list could easily be extended.
      A question for you: On what foundation can ethical thinking be developed?

      • Jeffrey Shallit says:

        David Tyler’s “predictions” of intelligent design are laughable. But let’s look at one in detail:

        “Forms containing large amounts of novel information will appear in the fossil record suddenly…”

        OK, let’s see this fleshed out a bit. What measure of “information” are you using? Shannon? Kolmogorov? Which “forms” were measured? By whom? Where can we read the scientific papers determining the amount of information that these “forms” contain? What is “novel information” (the term does not appear in the information theory literature)? How does one determine if a “form” contains “novel information” or some other kind of information? Where in the scientific literature was this computed? What does “suddenly” mean? Millions of years? Thousands of years?

        Without more details, this “prediction” is pseudoscience masquerading as science.

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