Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Dover “Monkey Trial”

AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill

CONTENT: Original Reviews

COMMENTARY: That's up to you...

Reviews of:

Humes, Edward (2008) Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul. Harper Perennial, New York, NY, ISBN #0060885491 ($15.95, paperback), 400 pages. Available for $10.85 from Amazon.com.

Judge John E. Jones, III, presiding judge for the Federal District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, in the case of Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover School District, et al. (2005) Memorandum and Order, 138 pages. Available online.

Lebo, Lauri (2008) The Devil in Dover: An Insider's Story of Dogma v. Darwin in Small-town America. The New Press, New York, NY, ISBN #1595582088 ($24.95, hardcover), 256 pages. Available for $16.47 from Amazon.com.

NOVA (2007) Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial. WGBH, Boston, MA, ISBN #9781593757199 ($19.95, DVD). Available from WGBH.

In 2004 the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania voted to require that the following statement be read to students taking biology in the Dover Area School District:

The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.

Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book Of Pandas and People is available in the library along with other resources for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves.

With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families. As a Standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on Standards-based assessments.

Thus began the most recent battle in what historian and philosopher Michael Ruse has called “the evolution wars”. This particular battle climaxed in a civil case brought in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Judge John E. Jones, III, presiding, begun in September of 2005 and ending with Judge Jones’ decision in the case, issued on December 20, 2005. Entitled “Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover School District, et al.”, the trial is often referred to as the “Dover Monkey Trial”, in reference to the 1925 trial of John T. Scopes in Dayton, Tennesee, as chronicled by H. L. Mencken in the Baltimore Sun and dramatized in the award-winning play, movie, and television drama, Inherit the Wind.

The title of Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee’s play about the Scopes “monkey trial” comes from the King James version of the Bible:

He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind
and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.
- Proverbs 11:29

In many ways, that quotation would be even more fitting to the outcome of the Kitzmiller v. Dover trail. As chronicled in two new books and a new NOVA video, the Dover trial not only set a new standard for the teaching of evolution and intelligent design in the public schools, it also set neighbor against neighbor in a little town in Pennsylvania where the most common source of conflict was local sports rivalries. As one of the participants in the trial, Casey Brown (a witness for the plaintiffs) commented,
“I was afraid Dover would never be the same [after the trial], and I was right”.

The title of Edward Humes’ book about the Dover trial, Monkey Girl, comes from a taunt that was hurled at the daughter of the chief plaintiff in the trial, Tammy Kitzmiller. Humes analyzes the Dover trail from both an historical and legal perspective, and provides many vignettes that illustrate the truth of Casey Brown’s concern. The Dover trial divided the citizens of Dover along political and religious lines in much the same way that the Scopes “monkey trial” divided the nation in 1925.

Humes’ book not only follows the legal arguments in the case, it also chronicles the personal and social costs of the trial, to members of both sides of the dispute. In particular, he analyzes the political and religious views of the members of the school board who voted for the reading of the statement recounted above, and the reactions by the science faculty at the Dover schools to the requirement that it be read to their classes.

It becomes clear on reading Humes’ account that there was much more at stake in this dispute than the wording of what appears to be a fairly harmless statement to be read to biology students. Underlying this action was (and is) an ongoing dispute about the moral effects of science education in general, and the teaching of evolutionary theory in particular. One side – represented in the Dover case by the members of the school board who voted for the reading of the statement – believed that the teaching of evolution is causally linked to what they perceive as the “rising tide of atheism and social disintegration in America”.

The other side – represented by the plaintiffs and their supporters among the Dover science faculty – believed that the intrusion of “intelligent design” into the public school curriculum was not only detrimental to the understanding of science, it was also part of a covert program of religious indoctrination and intolerance. It was these views, and not the simple wording of the statement to be read to students, that generated the heat in the courtroom, and the bitter controversy that divided the Dover community during and after the trial.

Lauri Lebo was a newspaper reporter covering the Dover trial, and also a long-time resident of the Dover area. She knew most of the participants on both sides of the dispute in the trial personally, and experienced first hand what some of the people on both sides of the issue suffered as a result of the political process that led up to the vote approving the reading of the statement, and the subsequent trial. Her account in The Devil in Dover is less focused on the legal issues, and more concerned with the effects of the trial on the personal lives of the people involved. It becomes clear from her account that there were no “winners” in this dispute, at least not insofar as individuals on one side or the other emerged from the trial unscathed. In her opinion (and in Humes’), science was the winner in the Dover trial, but at a significant cost to the participants on both sides of the dispute.

The NOVA video, Judgement Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, focuses primarily on the political and scientific issues in play in the Dover trial. As is the case in most Federal courts, photography and video recording of the trial were not allowed. Therefore, the producers of Judgement Day used dramatizations of key testimony in the trial to illustrate not only the content of the testimony, but to also give a flavor of how the testimony was presented and received.

Of these dramatizations, perhaps the most effective is that of intelligent design theorist Michael Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University. Behe’s own evaluation of his testimony immediately after he presented it was that it would decisively carry the day for intelligent design, not only in the Dover case, but in American society in general. However, it is clear while watching the dramatization that exactly the opposite was the case: Behe’s testimony was devastating, not only to his own credibility as an expert witness, but also to the reputation of intelligent design as a science.

Taken together, these two books and video present both the essential facts and the personal and social impact of the Dover “monkey trial”. In my opinion, they are probably as close to an unbiased account as has appeared in the popular press since Judge Jones issued his historic decision in December, 2005. Readers who are interested in the legal details can read Judge Jones’ 138 page decision online here and consult the transcripts of the trial, available online here. Readers who are interested in how such a trial affects the participants would do well to read Humes’ and Lebo’s accounts, both of which are sympathetic to participants on both sides of the controversy.

There is one very important difference between the outcome of the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” and the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover “intelligent design” trial: in 1925, John T. Scopes was convicted of having violated the Butler Act, which made the teaching of evolution in the public schools of Tennessee illegal. In 2005, the Dover Area School Board’s requirement that the statement at the beginning of this review be read was ruled unconstitutional, along with any inclusion of “intelligent design theory” in biology classes in the public schools of the Middle District of the Federal Circuit Court of Pennsylvania.

This difference marks a tectonic shift in the legal status of evolutionary theory versus creationism in the United States. What the two books and the video reviewed here also illustrate is how such shifts also involve personal and social costs (not to mention the huge monetary cost of pursing such complex legal cases) in the communities in which such court cases are tried. If history is any guide, the Dover trial will not be the last battle in the “evolution wars”. However, it does mark the “high tide” to date of science versus religion in American public education.

Judge Jones’ decision should be required reading for anyone concerned about science education in America. The NOVA video, Judgement Day, provides an excellent dramatization of the core of the legal dispute in the Dover case. Humes’ and Lebo’s books should be read by anyone concerned about the effects of injecting religion into science classes, both on the students, the teachers, and the communities in which all of them live. I recommend them all with the highest possible praise.

As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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Monday, July 28, 2008

Phillip Johnson & "Theistic Realism"

AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill

SOURCE: Original essay

COMMENTARY: That's up to you...

Phillip Johnson, one of the founders of the intelligent design movement, has proposed an alternative form of reasoning to that used by modern scientists. He refers to his form of reasoning as "theistic realism", while the alternative could be called "empirical naturalism". In this blog post, I intend to contrast these two forms of reasoning, to determine what assumptions one must hold to apply them, and what consequences flow from adopting one or the other position, which I freely admit at the outset are essentially metaphysical (i.e. not scientific) positions.

According to Charles Darwin, Ernst Mayr (and most other evolutionary biologists), evolution has two stages:
• the origin of variations via various mechanisms
• the origin of adaptations via natural selection

Johnson's critique of evolution centers on the origin and patterns of variation, since he has repeatedly granted in various venues that natural selection occurs. However, according to Johnson, "God" (i.e. the supernatural entity/force behind "theistic realism") causes and/or guides the generation of variations, leaving natural selection as a mere "stabilizing force" that only maintains adaptations by weeding out unfit individuals. In this sense, Johnson's version of "natural selection" is virtually indistinguishable from that proposed in 1835-37 by Edward Blyth.

There are two fundamental problems with Johnson's position, one theological and one metaphysical:

• First, the idea that stabilizing selection maintains God-created variations is essentially a form of "statistical norming", and therefore violates the Judeo-Christian (and presumably, "theistically realistic") principle of "sanctity of the individual". If "not a sparrow falls, but that [God is] mindful of it", then God doesn't (indeed, cannot) treat individuals (including, presumably, individual humans) as instrumental entities (i.e. as means, rather than as ends) by weeding them out if they depart too much from the statistical norm of His created types. But, if God does pay attention and therefore intervenes on behalf of any and all individuals, then stabilizing selection doesn't really exist, and we are back to a theory of "theistic evolution" in which God directly intervenes in nature, controlling and guiding (i.e. determining) absolutely everything that happens at all times and in all places.

• Second, if Johnson grants that God directly intervenes only in the generation of variations (and lets stabilizing selection maintain the particular variations He specifies), there are still two alternatives:

- That God creates a multiplicity of variations, and then lets natural selection operate to choose which ones will become adaptations; or

- That God determines which variations will be adaptive at the instant of their creation, thereby rendering natural selection (and all naturalistic mechanisms of variation) superfluous.

In the first case, God not only commits the sin of "statistical norming" (as described above), the process by which He does so would result in a pattern of evolutionary change that would be virtually indistinguishable from purely naturalistic evolution by natural selection, which does not require God to intervene at all. He would, in other words, render Himself and His actions completely pointless and invisible.

But in the second case, the apparent stabilizing selection described earlier is illusory, since all created individuals would be ipso facto adaptive. Indeed, unless God deliberately intends to create maladaptive individuals that depart significantly from the adaptive norm (and which therefore would be eliminated by selection), there should be virtually no maladaptive individuals at all, which should be easily verifiable by empirical analysis.

Either Johnson must grant that stabilizing selection does, in fact, operate (and God is therefore not mindful of individuals, but only of types), or he must grant that it does not. In the second case, natural selection doesn't really happen at all, at any level, and God must therefore intervene directly in the survival and reproduction of every living organism that has ever existed, exists, or ever will exist. Furthermore, God does this despite the fact that only one type of organism, namely humans, has any choice about its behavior, about its living or dying (as far as we can tell).

To sum up, either:

• God (or the “Intelligent Designer”) intervenes directly in evolution via stabilizing selection, thereby destroying uncountable trillions of His creations (all of them innocent except humans, and even some of them, too) in order to "stabilize" His specified adaptations, or

• God (or the “Intelligent Designer”) doesn't intervene via stabilizing selection, in which case He's either irrelevant (i.e. natural selection "just happens") or He completely determines absolutely every event that occurs throughout all time and space, in which case "free will" (and therefore sin) is an illusion.

Furthermore, since Johnson grants that natural selection really does occur, but only as stabilizing selection, this limits God's intervention in the evolutionary process to the instant of the creation of variations. Under such conditions, the circumstances following this instant are empirically indistinguishable from pure naturalistic processes, regardless of whether God "specifies" such variations. Either that, or such variation is essentially random (and therefore "Godless" and “unspecified”).

But this position puts Johnson inescapably in the position of arguing once again for a "God of the gaps" position, since the only intervention God is capable of under such conditions is into the generation of variations; what happens afterwards is essentially "Godless". This is a "God of the gaps" position because there are only two alternative scenarios:

• A mechanism that produces variations that does not rely upon supernatural intervention will eventually be discovered and applied to the entire fossil and genetic record, the "gap" will be closed, and God (like the Baker) will "softly and silently vanish away"; or

• No matter when one inquires, a mechanism that unambiguously does not rely upon supernatural intervention will not yet have been (and indeed, cannot ever be) discovered.

It would seem like the second situation would validate Johnson's position. However, the second situation involves a fundamental (i.e. metaphysical) problem: the only absolutely validating outcome for the second alternative is that every possible mechanical (i.e. "Godless") explanation for the origin of variations must have been tested and falsified. This is a metaphysical impossibility, as the empirical method relies on induction, and no amount of positive evidence for Johnson's hypothesis (i.e. negative evidence for a "Godless" origin of variations) is enough to absolutely validate it (unless Johnson wishes to declare himself a logical positivist, which seems highly unlikely).

Given the foregoing, it appears that Johnson's assertion that God guides the origin of variations directly violates Popper's falsifiability criterion (just as Johnson claims evolutionary theory does). This is because, no matter how fine a level of discrimination one specifies for ruling out supernatural intervention in the origin of variations, Johnson can claim that God's intervention lies somewhere "deeper" (even if we someday get down to the level of sub-subatomic particles).

But, at some arbitrarily fine level of discrimination, either God's intervention will "jump out" of the statistical analysis (i.e. it will violate accepted principles of statistical reliability) or it won't. If it doesn't, the hypothesis of God's direct intervention in the origin of variations will have once again become unnecessary, and by the standard of parsimony (i.e. "Occam's razor"), if a causal factor is unnecessary, it isn't included in a scientific (i.e. empirically grounded) explanation of a phenomenon.

When one examines Johnson's metaphysical positions on these subjects, it is clear that he doesn't give a damn about empirical validation or falsifiability or statistical reliability or anything else that could conceivably be called "scientific". For example, in Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds [1], Johnson states quite unequivocally:

"Truth (with a capital T) is truth as God knows it. When God is no longer in the picture there can be no Truth, only conflicting human opinions. (There also can be no sin, and consciousness of sin is that built-in moral compass [pro-Darwinian philosophers] reject...as illusory.)" [Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, page 89]

In my opinion, no more succinct a statement of anti-scientific thinking could be imagined. Johnson asserts that the only two alternatives are
(1) God-given Truth and
(2) conflicting human opinions.
Where, in either of these, is empirical verification? Is "God-given Truth" amenable to empirical verification? If Johnson thinks so, he flies in the face of centuries of both scientific and theological metaphysics, which has consistently concluded exactly the opposite. But what about the alternative: is Johnson asserting that all scientific principles, such as the law of gravity, are "human opinions"? This was the position taken by the author of the "Sokol Hoax", which of course was shown to be both a hoax and an indirect validation of the assumption that physical laws are not subject to human opinions. Ergo, if Phillip Johnson were of the opinion that the law of gravity does not apply to him, could he thereby escape its operation? Don't be ridiculous...

Johnson argues that we should, as scientists, conflate two totally incommensurate forms of "knowing":

Deontological Absolutism - a universe in which God's direct intervention in events occurring in the real world is self-evident and does not require empirical verification (in fact, to attempt such verification would qualify as blasphemy), or

Scientific Empiricism - a universe in which the assumption that God intervenes in any event that occurs in the phenomenal/physical universe is unnecessary, and therefore irrelevant to such an explanation.

That's what all this really comes down to: Johnson's "theistic realism" is semantically reducible to "its True because I say so, and I say so because I believe that God says so, too", since no amount of empirical evidence can either validate (or invalidate) his position. The only "proof" he provides (or requires) for his position is his assertion of it. Interesting, perhaps, as an exercise in theological metaphysics (not to mention hubris), but not, by any stretch of the imagination, science.


[1] Johnson, Phillip (1997) Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, ISBN #0830813624, 137 pages.

As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Day One of the Evolution Revolution

AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill

SOURCE: Original essay

COMMENTARY: That's up to you...

I have mentioned several times in other posts that 2008 is the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin and the sesquicentennial of the publication of the Origin of Species. Hundreds of scientific and cultural organizations are gearing up to celebrate Darwin's birthday on February 12th, proclaiming it the kickoff for the "Darwin bicentennial year".

However, in a very real sense, today is the first day of that centennial celebration. On the first of July 1858 two papers and two letters were read to the members of the Linnean Society in London. One of the papers, entitled "On the Tendency for Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type", was written by Alfred Russell Wallace. The other paper and the two letters were written by Charles Darwin, and outlined his theory of evolution by natural selection.

The paper by Wallace had been sent to Darwin, with a request by Wallace that if it were of sufficient merit, would he please forward to the society for publication? Darwin was stunned; he had been working on the very same idea for almost twenty years. Here is what he wrote on 18 June 1858 to his friend, the geologist Charles Lyell, following his receipt of Wallace's paper:

My dear Lyell

Some year or so ago, you recommended me to read a paper by Wallace in the Annals [a natural history journal], which had interested you & as I was writing to him, I knew this would please him much, so I told him. He has to day sent me the enclosed [manuscript] & asked me to forward it to you. It seems to me well worth reading. Your words have come true with a vengeance that I shd be forestalled. You said this when I explained to you here very briefly my views of “Natural Selection” depending on the Struggle for existence.—I never saw a more striking coincidence. if Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as Heads of my Chapters.

Please return me the M.S. which he does not say he wishes me to publish; but I shall of course at once write & offer to send to any Journal. So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed. Though my Book, if it will ever have any value, will not be deteriorated; as all the labour consists in the application of the theory.

I hope you will approve of Wallace’s sketch, that I may tell him what you say.

My dear Lyell
Yours most truly

C. Darwin

Knowing how long Darwin had labored on his theory, Lyell and botanist Joseph Hooker prevailed on Darwin to allow them to read his unpublished essay on natural selection (written in 1844) and two letters on the same subject from Darwin to Hooker and to the American botanist, Asa Gray, along with Wallace's paper at the July meeting of the Linnean Society. Neither Darwin nor Wallace attended the meeting (Darwin was at his home at Down, in Kent, mourning the death of his son, Charles, who had died three days earlier; Wallace was still in the Maylay archipelago), and the joint reading raised hardly a ripple of comment.

Despite their lack of notoriety at first, these papers and letters were the first public presentation of the theory that would fundamentally and radically change the way we view ourselves and the natural world around us.

Here are some links to websites with much more information about this sesquicentennial event:

Happy 150th Birthday Natural Selection!

On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties

How Darwin won the evolution race

Darwin, Wallace and The Linnean Society of London

150th Anniversary of the Darwin-Wallace Papers

The Darwin-Wallace Letters of 1858

Fire the starting gun! The Darwin year begins…NOW!

Previous anniversary celebrations

July 1, 1858: Darwin and Wallace Shift the Paradigm

As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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