Saturday, April 15, 2006


Cornell Wild

For some more on the Cornell seminar this summer that will include discussion of Intelligent design, where better to go than the horse's mouth, Allen MacNeill, who will be teaching the course? He gives the background on how the course came about and his intentions for it at his blog, The Evolution List, in an article not so surprisingly called "Riding the Evolution-Design Roller Coaster." Among his points:

For years Will Provine and I have been teaching an undergraduate seminar in the Cornell Summer Session entitled "Seminar in History of Biology." Between ourselves, we have always called the course "philosophical implications of evolution," and have always thought of it in those terms. The course description stayed the same from year to year, but the focus of the course changed, depending on what we found most interesting to discuss with our students. For the past few years, Will has focussed on the implications of evolution for the concept of human free will. When I taught the course, I focused on three topics: the implications of evolution for free will, purpose, and ethics.

After reviewing how the media and blogosphere frenzy developed, he discusses his aims in the course in particular and in teaching generally:

I believe (based on past experience) that when the cases for ID and evolutionary biology are fully and fairly made in this way, evolutionary biology will be the winner. After all, it has mountains of empirical evidence to back it up, and empirical evidence is the basis for all of science, as far as I understand it.

In answer to some of my critics from evolutionary biology, therefore, I feel that it is very appropriate for this kind of discussion to take place in a science course, rather than just a history or philosophy of biology course. Students, including science majors, are far too often not given enough credit for their ability to both formulate and judge rational arguments in a free and open forum of ideas. Despite the fact that the topic is ostensibly the philosophy of science, the debate over the validity of ID versus evolutionary theory is fundamentally a scientific debate. If scientists refuse to debate the subject, we will leave the floor open for not-quite-science, pseudoscience, and (worst of all) anti-science to claim victory, and believe me that will be what the general public perceives the ID community has achieved.

Then he ends with some good sense (including sense of humor):

So, we shall proceed this summer, a little less naive about the "culture wars", but firmly in the belief that courteous, rational, informed discussion is the only reliable way to truth. And then, when we come to the end, we can step off the roller coaster, take a deep breath, and go look for a cotton candy stand.

While I'm afraid he is still being naive to think that public opinion will be swayed by academic debate, it sounds like it will be a fascinating course. I wish I could take it.

Incidentally, for the morbidly curious, according to this article, MacNeill attends Quaker meetings, used to practice Zen Buddhism and says "I can say I was an evolutionist before I was a Buddhist or a Quaker. I've been an evolutionist since I was 8 years old."
Also of interest is an article over at the Panda's Thumb with more about Professor MacNeill's intentions for the course.

P.S. Sorry about the title . . . I just couldn’t resist.
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