Intelligent Design: Professors discuss Teaching the Controversial Subject

Xiaowei Cathy Tang
Cornell Daily Sun
November 15, 2005
Original Article

Last month, Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III devoted his State of the University address to what he called the “challenge to science posed by religiously-based opposition to evolution, described, in its current form, as ‘intelligent design.’”

Last Tuesday in Kansas, the Board of Education voted 6 to 4 to approve new science standards that will expand the definition of science beyond natural explanations and incorporate criticisms of evolution into the state curriculum.

And in early January next year, a federal district court will rule on whether biology teachers in Dover, Pa. can read a brief statement introducing intelligent design (I.D.) as an alternative to evolution.

As the I.D. controversy gathers momentum, students and faculty at Cornell and in the nation face serious questions about what constitutes science and what falls in the realm of philosophy or religion.

To gain deeper insight into the movement that Rawlings criticized in his address as “a religious belief masquerading as a secular idea,” The Sun spoke with a number of Cornell faculty members who said they supported I.D. or at least found some validity in its ideas.

In its simplest form, I.D. posits that there are natural realities too complex to be explained by chance; rather, these realities are the product of an intelligent designer.

Most advocates of I.D. support microevolution, the idea that changes in a species gene frequencies result in small-scale changes within the species. They argue, however, that these changes — even if compounded over a long period of time — cannot give rise to a new species, as one view of macroevolution suggests.

These gradual changes also cannot explain the existence of some biological mechanisms that appear irreducibly complex or incapable of functioning properly unless all parts are present, according to Prof. Mark Psiaki, mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Psiaki discussed the mechanism of blood-clotting in mice, an example used by leading I.D. advocate Prof. Michael Behe, biological sciences, Lehigh University.

“There’s a whole biochemical chain of reactions that has to happen for [mouse] blood-clotting to work,” Psiaki said. “The claim is that this [mechanism] cannot have arisen through Darwinism because if you take out any one part of it, all of the sudden it serves no function at all.”

He said that several attempts to disprove this irreducible complexity, by knocking out a gene from the blood-clotting mechanism, proved unsuccessful.

Evolutionists, however, counter that irreducibly complex mechanisms in one organism can show up in other organisms as simpler systems using fewer parts.

Also, while parts of a mechanism may have no use as standalone parts in that particular mechanism, they may serve a purpose in another mechanism within the organism. Psiaki recalled that when Behe lectured at Cornell, an audience member asked him about this possibility.

William Provine, the C.A. Alexander Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and an outspoken opponent of I.D., also criticized the cellular mechanisms that Behe used as examples of irreducible complexity.

The mechanisms “are mostly on the order of one to three billion years ago,” he said. “When something happens two billion years ago, it’s kind of hard to observe it and see what happens precisely.”

However, any plausible explanation of how the mechanism evolved naturally would disprove the mechanism’s irreducible complexity, Provine said.

Specified complexity — the notion that things that are simultaneously specified and complex indicate design rather than naturalistic chance — is another view commonly held by I.D. advocates.

Prof. John Sanford, horticultural sciences, used the analogy of a car to illustrate this idea. “A car is complex, but so is a junkyard. However, a car is complex in a way that is very specific — which is why it works. It requires a host of very intelligent engineers to specify its complexity, so it is a functional whole,” he wrote to The Sun in an e-mail. Sanford testified for I.D. proponents this past May at hearings held by the Kansas Board of Education.

Mathematician and philosopher William Dembski, who first developed the notion of specified complexity, asserts that because the human DNA sequence demonstrates specified complex patterns, there is evidence that intelligence guided the formation of those patterns.

For I.D. proponents, the challenge of specified complexity is how to mathematically model the difference between design and chance. Senior Lecturer Art Lembo, crop and soil sciences, said that although currently no satisfactory solution exists, this challenge is worthy of exploration.

He said that the ability to differentiate empirically between design and randomness holds far-reaching potential for other areas of science. Applications include “scanning faces on airport monitors to find terrorists, making inferences about locations of non-point source pollution or determining whether O.J. killed Nicole,” he said.

I.D. also espouses the idea of a “finely-tuned universe,” which states that fundamental constants in physics and chemistry, such those found in the weak nuclear force and the force of gravity, are just the values need to sustain life on earth. If the constants were even slightly different, the universe could not have been created, proponents of I.D. argue.

The most common argument by cosmologists is that there are “an infinite number of universes, and a ‘natural selection’ for us to live in that one that allows life,” Sanford discussed in his email.

He continued, however, that “an infinite series of universes is entirely outside the realm of verifiable science.”

Most of the faculty members The Sun interviewed distinguished between what they considered the scientific aspects and the philosophical aspects of I.D.

Psiaki said that although irreducible complexity is scientific and testable, people who infer an intelligent designer exists based upon irreducible complexity are currently making a philosophical leap.

I.D. has “legitimate and scientific sort of claims to offer,” Lembo added. “Now is that claim true? It’s premature to say.”

In a Christian faculty panel discussion on Nov. 4, Lembo quoted a passage from Darwin: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”

He explained, “Darwin asked those same questions himself. Maybe in thirty years from now [we find out] that it’s not true. That’s okay, that’s what science is all about.”

Sanford underscored that “I.D. is partly science and partly philosophy, in exactly the same way as is materialistic naturalism. When we address the issue of origins we are automatically at the border between true operational science and philosophy [and] religion.”

The faculty members urged the University and the nation to view I.D. as a valid challenge to some aspects of evolution.

Darwinists can see I.D. as presenting “counter-examples that they can overcome to strength [their] arguments, or they can see it as an attack on their philosophical world view,” Lembo said.

He continued, “I think the latter is more a problem with people in evolution not sticking to science and integrating that into their philosophical world view.”