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May 25, 2005

A matter of perspective

A week ago a mildly positive profile of the doyen of the Intelligent Design movement, Phillip Johnson, appeared in The Washington Post. I was going to comment on the relationship between Johnson's positive comments about Critical Legal Studies and the Anabaptist takeover of Munster in 1534 until other time sensitive tasks came to pressing attention, nevertheless I want to take a moment and point something out that I noticed. Note:

William Provine, a prominent evolutionary biology professor at Cornell University, enjoys the law professor's company and has invited Johnson to his classroom. The men love the rhetorical thrust and parry and often share beers afterward. Provine, an atheist, also dismisses his friend as a Christian creationist and intelligent design as discredited science.

Here is Provine's research project as listed on his website:

I am working on four disparate research projects: (1) a history of the theories of neutral molecular evolution (Kimura, Ohta, King, Jukes, and many others); (2) a history of geneticists' attitudes toward human race differences and race crossing; (3) implications of modern biology for free will, moral responsibility, and the foundations of ethics; and (4) a history of ideas about speciation from 1963 to the present.

The point is that anyone who is in-the-know would recognize William Provine as a prominent historian and philosopher of biology, not an evolutionary biologist, though he is based out of the ecology and evolution department at Cornell. Provine wrote a great intellectual biography of Sewall Wright, where he argues that the University of Chicago biologist was the most influential evolutionist of the 20thcentury.1 I think Provine's status as a student of "meta-biology" (since he focuses on history and philosophy of biology) explains his excitement in debating Johnson, for rhetoric and disputation scaffolded by logic would likely come naturally to him as a tool of the trade. Not so for real scientists who are busy focusing on the minutiae of lab work or the esoterica of mathematical models.

As I have noted before the sophisticates who man the turrets in the Intelligent Design movement are skewed toward philosophers and other like-minded disciplines (though there are a smattering of natural scientists like Michael Behe). That is why I oppose the argument that bringing Intelligent Design into the classroom will aid in the understanding of evolution in any way, it is in essense a philosophical challenge to methodological naturalism, not an alternative research program. Until proponents of Intelligent Design start up an alternative nuts & bolts laboratory based research program (see what Michael Behe focuses on in his day job as a biochemist, his technical papers have little to do with Intelligent Design, those are all to be found in debate-focused books and philosophical and essay oriented journals) meta-biologists like Michael Ruse and William Provine are their true adversaries, not the scientists. Seeing as how most high school students aren't even familiar with the basic foundations of Western philosophy I find the intellectual arguments for exploring the frontiers and margins of modern philosophy of science uncompelling (the political arguments are a different matter, since they can start from so many different axioms).

1 - This is a defensible assertion, seeing as how Wright lived for 99 years and was the primary theoretical influence on thinkers based in America like Dobzhansky and Mayr (and you can connect many evolutionary biologists in the United States to these two individuals). Nevertheless, I think one can not underestimate the prodding influence that R.A. Fisher had on Wright's exploration of the mathematical geography of evolutionary genetics (see both Provine's book and R.A. Fisher, the Life of a Scientist). Without R. A. Fisher there might never have been a Sewall Wright as we remember him today.

Posted by razib at 07:54 PM