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Cambridge Professor writes History of Intelligent Design Print E-mail

The Laurence Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, David Sedley, has published a scholarly account of the debate over intelligent design among classical philosophers.

“David Sedley’s treatment of ancient views on intelligent design will transform our current thinking”, writes Oxford University’s Dr Thomas Johansen on the book’s cover.

The book, published by the University of California Press, is titled “Creationism and its critics in antiquity”. In the preface Professor Sedley makes clear that he has a particular definition of “creationism” in mind:

What I intend by creationism is neither [creation out of nothing or creation at some past time], but rather the thesis that the world’s structure and contents can be adequately explained only by postulating at least one intelligent designer, a creator god. This is indeed the primary issue that divides modern “creationists” from their Darwinian critics. It also divided the greatest thinkers of antiquity.

As a history from 500 to 300 BC, this book is a powerful refutation of the view that intelligent design was invented in the United States in the late 1980s.

The arguments between ancient philosophers have a surprisingly modern ring, as Dr Armand Leroi (evolutionary biologist at Imperial College London) points out in his review in Nature [Nature 452, 153 (13 March 2008)]:

Listen to Empedocles describing a time when the world was filled with a diversity of creatures with improbable combinations of features, most of which were then winnowed out, and you hear the late Stephen Jay Gould illuminating the body plans of the Burgess Shale fossils. Listen to Aristotle heaping scorn on Democritus for supposing that living things self-assemble from accidental combinations of atoms, and you hear Fred Hoyle's gambit that "a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein". Truly it has been, as Darwin said, just "one long argument".

How did the ancients argue for intelligent design? Here are two examples.

Xenophon’s Socrates would take a statue or painting, which everyone would attribute to an artist or craftsman, and argue that the human body, with its greater complexity and functionality, must have been formed by a greater artist or craftsman.

The Stoics would take Archimedes’ mechanical model of the world’s rotations in space. Even an ignorant barbarian would not doubt that this was the work of intelligence. Yet the celestial motions of the world are a vastly more complex and superior machine, and therefore we can infer that they are the work of a greater intelligence than Archimedes.

These arguments are similar to the recent argument that complex, specified information in computer programs and in the DNA of living organisms both allow us to infer intelligent design

The arguments against intelligent design in the ancient world also have close similarities to those used today. The Atomists of 3rd-1st Century BC used the idea of infinitely many worlds as a way of explaining away highly improbably structures, just as the idea of multiple universes is used today. Lucretius also used the idea of natural selection: “that accident on a sufficiently vast scale accompanied by the systematic survival of the fittest could account for the presence of apparently purposive structures in nature” (p. 151). Sedley argues that this idea was not original even to Lucretius, but that he gained it from the earlier poet Empedocles.

Clearly, the modern debate over intelligent design is not new. Professor Sedley argues that it developed when thinkers first began to question something that had previously been taken for granted: that there is a supreme governing power present in the world.

 
When is a Mammal a Mammal? Print E-mail

The issue of New Scientist dated 27 February 2008 carried a major article on intermediate or transitional forms in nature which was entitled “What Missing Link?”. It was written by Donald Prothero who is Professor of Geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles and lecturer in Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Thus far, we have considered the first three examples of his list of ten. These are (1) Velvet worms  - see the blog item “What Missing Link?”, (2) Lancelets – see the blog item “Sounds very Fishy to Me!”, and (3) Fishibians – see our article entitled “Tiktaalik - the Fishopod from the Canadian Artic”.

The fourth item in this series concerns the emergence of mammals in the fossil record. In his New Scientist review, Professor Prothero’s suggests:

Another excellent example of a transitional sequence is the evolution of mammals from their ancestors, the synapsids. These were once called "mammal-like reptiles", but that term is no longer used because synapsids are not reptiles - the two groups evolved in parallel from a common ancestor.
There is no doubt that the so-called synapsid transition leading to the emergence of mammals is regarded by neo-Darwinists as the best evidence that the fossil record has to offer. We encourage you to read a new TiS article in the Evidence for Evolution section of this website. The article is entitled “Synapsids and the Evolution of Mammals” and is to be found here.

 

 
Nature journal retreats on evidence for evolution Print E-mail

The world’s leading science journal has today published an article 'Science teaching must evolve' that agrees with several of Truth in Science’s criticisms of current school science teaching on evolution. It calls on educators to retreat from the use of several forms of evidence critiqued by Truth in Science, and concentrate instead on DNA evidence of molecular evolution.

For over a year, Truth in Science has criticised the widespread use of similarities in form as evidence for evolution. Today, Nature writes: “Phylogeny based on similarity of form is fundamentally unsound because of the adaptation and convergent evolution witnessed in nature.” This statement is more outspoken and controversial than Truth in Science’s mildly-worded criticisms, but we are glad that Nature is now in basic agreement with us.

Since September 2006, Truth in Science has argued that theories for the origin of life taught in schools are flawed. Today, Nature writes: “Speculations on the chemical origins of life are almost universally covered in school curricula under ‘Evolution’, despite the questionable relevance of the topic for evolution, and its rather uncertain scientific basis...it is far from sound evolutionary theory.” Again, we are pleased that we now agree with the prestigious British journal on this point.

Nature even criticises teaching based on the fossil record (covered by Truth in Science here), writing: “Worse still, the understanding they [pupils] have — based on the fossil record — is easy prey to specious arguments from anti-science movements.” The fossil record is apparently now seen as vulnerable evidence. At Truth in Science we reject specious arguments by anti-science movements, but we do hold there to be valid scientific criticisms of the fossil evidence that is claimed for the theories of natural selection and universal common ancestry.

The Nature article, written by Andrew Moore of the Science & Society Programme at the European Molecular Biology Organization, suggests that many teachers have trouble with basic concepts in molecular evolution. It argues that teachers need to be re-educated: “many teachers are not scientifically capable of teaching evolution using modern approaches”, it claims.

While Truth in Science welcomes the fact that some of its criticisms of the evidence for evolution are being heard, it seems that a simple desire for truthfulness is not the only motivation felt by Dr Moore. He holds that trust in Darwin is a very serious issue. After discussing the need for molecular biology education early in biology teaching, he writes: “There is something more serious at stake: the erosion of public trust in Darwin’s original theory of evolution by natural selection in the face of ‘alternative theories’ from the Intelligent Design movement”.

We hope that Nature’s article will result give new momentum to the removal of misleading evidence for evolution from British schools, and look forward to analysing new resources on molecular evolution.

 
Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed Print E-mail

The new film Expelled which highlights the intelligent design controversy, opened in the USA last weekend, in 1000 cinemas. The actor, game-show host and former presidential speech writer Ben Stein interviews scientists and journalists across the world to understand how the ID debate is being played out and explore its wider implications.

Stein meets various scientists whose careers were damaged after they published in favour of ID. He then interviews leading Darwinists and other more neutral academic onlookers, to gain their perspective on what happened and the general background of the events. The main emphasis of the film is a lack of freedom of speech in the scientific community. On the way, scientists explain current theories for the origin of life, discuss the difficulties of rigorously testing evolutionary theory, and describe the amazing complexity of living cells, visualised with realistic and beautiful animations.

Stein also investigates some of the possible moral, social, cultural and spiritual implications of Darwinism. The particular focus is on eugenics in the USA and Germany in the early twentieth century. The leading Darwinists whom Stein interviews are very forthcoming about their own religious views.

The film culminates with an interview with Richard Dawkins, held at the Natural History Museum in London. Dawkins says little that he has not already published, but those who have not read his latest book may be surprised at some of his admissions.

Ben Stein’s deadpan style and the range of interviewees and locations hold attention throughout the film. The current day interviews are interspersed with black and white footage from the 1950s which is used variously to provide humour, recount history, and draw startling parallels.

The film is aimed at an American audience, with references to the Declaration of Independence and investigation of cases of discrimination in the USA. But it is very relevant to the UK and Europe. Many of the interviewees (on both sides of the controversy) are British, or based in the UK: Sir John Polkinghorne, Prof. Alister McGrath, Dr John Lennox, Prof. Steve Fuller, Prof. Richard Dawkins and Prof. Peter Atkins.

Opposition to ID is perhaps stronger in British universities than in the USA, and many scientists have been intimidated or discriminated against for this reason. The cases covered in this film are the tip of an international iceberg.

DVDs of this film, with much additional material, are due for release this winter.

 
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Quote

It is wrong that any debate, especially on so momentous a subject as the origin of species, and the human race above all, should be arbitrarily declared to be closed.
Paul Johnson (The Spectator, 27 August 2005)

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