Intelligent Design

Student papers from Cornell’s evolution and design class

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For those wishing to hear the thoughts by students of Cornell’s infamous Evolution and Design class, I’m pleased to announce the papers are now made available online, courtesy of their professor, Allen MacNeill.

I will request that all comments on this thread be expressed with the highest civility commensurate with academic inquiry when references to the students or their professors are made. After all, the previous students and future students of such classes may reading what is said here.

Visit: The Student Papers Are Up

Here are Allen’s opening remarks:

Greetings, faithful readers! As promised, selected final research papers from the students enrolled in the “Evolution and Design” seminar at Cornell have now been uploaded to their own area in the Evolution and Design website. Just click on the “Student Papers” link in the menu bar on the right to find links for downloading them.

I was immensely impressed by the final research papers that the students submitted for this course, as well as by the level of participation in discussion and debate that took place during our seminar classes. All of the participants in the seminar worked hard this summer, but as you can see by the quality of the final papers, the enrolled students worked hardest of all. Each of the papers represents a diligent effort on the part of the author to come to clarity on some aspect of the “evolution-design controversy.” All of the authors argue for a specific position vis-a-vis the controversy, and as you can tell by reading them, they come down on both sides of the issue.

Personally, I was most impressed with E. Broaddus’s paper on the apparently innate tendency for humans to infer design in nature. This is a topic that I have long wanted to investigate, and Brauddus’s paper provides an extremely comprehensive and well-thought-out entrance to this topic, one that I believe is central to the entire controversy.

J. Bruno’s paper on mimicry and camoulflage provides a “design-friendly” perspective on a perennial topic in evolutionary biology, and provides a “synthetic” perspective that tries to reconcile the two viewpoints.

G. Huang’s paper on empirical evidence for natural selection in the wild addresses a crucial topic in evolutionary biology: how we can objectively determine whether natural selection has actually affected the evolution of a particular species? His analyses of natural selection in Galapagos finches and Labrabor blue/snow geese points out that natural selection, while central to the neo-darwinian theory of evolution, is difficult to measure in natural populations, requiring many years of careful demographic analysis and challenging field work.

E. Mathisen’s paper comparing philosophical and religious approaches to the problem of “origins” shows that the American tendency to separate into “pro-evolution” and “pro-design” camps doesn’t map very well onto other cultures, particularly those of India and China. Questions of origins and evolution are interpreted differently in different cultures, and as Mathisen shows, these concepts are not viewed with the same importance nor with the same presuppositions that generally pertain in America and western Europe.

J. Schaub’s paper on the implications of darwinian evolution for altruism and religion is a commentary on the current state of understanding in those fields. Schaub analyzes the work of Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran among others, showing how their evolutionary and anthropological theories of the origins of religion are intimately tied to the evolution of altruism, a subject of much debate and research during the second half of the 20th century.

Finally, J. Schlachet’s paper on a buddhist outlook on the evolution-design controversy, like E. Mathisen’s, shows that when viewed through a non-western perspective this controversy looks very different. Unlike the western Abrahamic religions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, and their derivatives), buddhism is much more easily reconciled with the basic principles of evolution by natural selection. Schlachet shows how a buddhist perspective can possibly provide a way of reconciling what appear to be two radically non-congruent paradigms of nature and purpose, and suggests ways in which this reconciliation might be accomplished.

All in all, a fascinating set of perspectives on what has always been (and will almost certainly continue to be) one of the core issues of evolutionary biology, if not all of natural science: the relationship between purpose and natural cause, and how we can distinguish between them. I’m sure that this is only the beginning of a much longer conversation (if not debate) over these issues, and I hope that all of the visitors to this website will continue to contribute their insights into this most fascinating of intellectual puzzles.

Allen MacNeill

8 Replies to “Student papers from Cornell’s evolution and design class

  1. 1
    scordova says:

    Allen was kind enough to give the student, faculty, and invited guest profiles here

    Here is the info people provided at the first class:

    Allen/Cornell/Senior Lecturer in Biology/Professor/evolutionary psychology
    Bruce/Cornell/employee/registered student/evolution, philosophy of science
    Bruno/Cornell/Senior/registered student/Science & Technology Studies
    Elena/Cornell/Junior/registered student/Anthropology, Biology & Society
    Greg/Cornell/Senior/registered student/biology, music
    Hannah/Cornell/Junior/invited guest, CU IDEA Club/chemistry & physics
    John/Cornell/Senior/registered student/history
    Josh/Cornell/Senior/registered student/asian studies
    Kirby/Cornell/Senior/registered student/history, philosophy of science
    Rabia/Cornell/Junior/invited guest, CU IDEA Club/Biochemistry
    Teddy/Cornell/Senior/registered student/English literature, ethics
    Todd/Cornell/Senior/registered student/natural resources
    Warren/Paleontological Research Institute/Director/invited guest/cenozoic gastropods
    Will[Provine]/Cornell/Professor/evolutionary biology, history of science

    I decline to state (or even estimate) which “side” of the issue people support (or oppose, the two being different things, IMHO)

    Allen MacNeil

  2. 2
    Michaels7 says:

    Thanks Salvador and to Prof. MacNeil and students. Its a starting point and its healthy for both sides to be open minded enough in a university setting to approach the subject with intent on searching for truth no matter where it may lead.

  3. 3
    johnnyb says:

    I haven’t read them, but from Allen’s descriptions I’m surprised no one tackled the idea of agency itself.

  4. 4
    bFast says:

    Of the papers published, it does disappoint that none of them seem to present a clear ID worldview. It seems that all hold to a neo-Darwinian view.

  5. 5
    scordova says:

    I like them all, I feel bad that I should even comment on my favorites:

    Elena B:

    I believe there is sufficient evidence to conclude that we
    are innately biased to view and talk about things teleologically, and that our cognitive
    processes lead us to see purpose almost constantly in the world surrounding us.

    John Bruno:

    there are certain indicators that may give credibility to intelligent design.

    My favorite, by the biology major, since I like his skepticism:

    Greg H:

    As the focus of this paper is the scientific evidence for natural selection in the wild, I open with an excerpt from Michael Behe’s 1996 book, Darwin’s Black Box. He
    quotes microbiologist James Shapiro from the University of Chicago: “There are no detailed Darwinian accounts for evolution in nature, only a variety of wishful speculations.” Behe, professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, adds: “Call them
    wishful speculation or plausible scenarios—both just mean a lack of real answers” (Behe 271). Both men are active in laboratories; they design experiments, collect data, and
    generate conclusions from that data. So, as scientists, I take their accusations to mean there is a lack of empirical evidence for natural selection in the wild.

    Evolutionary biologists Peter and B. Rosemary Grant seem to agree,
    these new questions will also require rigorous, scientific testing in order to make robust conclusions from the data. If not, we have not science, but speculation built upon speculation.

    My second favorite since I’m a bit of utilitarian:

    Edward M:

    The examination of cases of other cultures, governments, and nation, and their approaches and theories about origins can only help to further the cause of knowledge. Indeed, there is much merit to the Chinese method by sidestepping the issue entirely, and thus focusing energy upon productivity in a global market. India’s flexible educational environment allows for personal belief to coexist next to the generic education, but provides enough concrete learning that debate could be fostered at the interest of an individual.

    John S:

    Today men need to justify why they exist, and how everything came into being. Our cognitive functions are such that we are able to think about our purpose, and need a reason for life,

    Josh S:

    By removing the roots of the intelligent design movement from Judeo-Christian monotheistic conceptions of an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God, a broader concept of purpose can be applied to, and witnessed in, the natural observable world. To illustrate this point, I will examine the concept of purpose in a Buddhist context, showing how the traditional criticisms of intelligent design become less problematic when broader alternative standards of purpose are applied.

    The invited guests for the Cornell IDEA Club Hannah Maxon and Rabia Malik did not submit papers, but their views were abundantly expressed on the Evolution and Design Website.

  6. 6

    Re comment #3 by johnnyb:

    Actually, E. Broaddus’s paper on the “innate tendency to infer design” was all about agency and our ability to detect it, which she proposes is an adaptive trait. I have long thought the same thing, and am encouraged that multiple lines of evidence from anthropology, evolutionary biology, and even comparative religion are pointing to the same conclusion. Agency does indeed exist; this is not the question. What is much more interesting to me is where agency comes from, and how we can be sure. As an evolutionary biologist, I am actually grateful that ID supporters have shined a bright light on what has long been ignored by evolutionary biologists and psychologists: the concept of purpose, and where (and how) purpose arises in nature. Perhaps I’m sounding a bit Hegelian here, but I believe that a fruitful synthesis of views on this subject is indeed possible, so long as people listen to each other carefully, come to clarity on what the issues and disagreements are, and make honest good-faith efforts to resolve them. That was why I offered the seminar course at Cornell this summer, and if the outcome of the course (as reflected in the student papers and accompanying weblog) is any indication, this hope has been at least partially fulfilled.

  7. 7
    scordova says:


    Thank you for visiting. I would like you to know that your conduct of the course has had a positive influence on this myself and probably the rest of this weblog. It’s not quite the same UD you were accostomed to 4 months ago. And I’m glad you have felt comfortable posting here.

    If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to exmplain my recent reluctance to visit your weblog. The reason is because I do not want my presence to make your weblog another UDers versus Pandas battle ground. In the summer I was there because IDEA’s reputation was at stake and I could not really turn my back on my comrades up there at Ithaca. However, you saw what kind of posting war can erupt when UDers show up anywhere on the net! Goodness, did both sides put up over 1000 posts combined? Perhaps, I may simply visit with my ideas form time to time so as to spare you course weblog from a UDer/Panda skirmish….

    Regarding you field of expertise, you might be surprised to know I very much liked the work of Helen Fisher who correlated her work to high tech brain scans and brain chemistry. Her book, Why We Love is one of my favorites! Though I’m not an evolutionists, I found much to like about her work in evolutionary psychology. Of late, I become a big fan of Allen Orr and Richard Lewontin as well….

    You pointed out your inability as a child to see faces in foilage, smoke, linoleum, etc. If I may then offer something of interest along those lines. I was quite the opposite! I think the way you and I view the issues is influence by how you and I are wired. I think you will find many other correlations, and some that will not require large amounts of technology to infer.

    For example, you mentioned that you don’t see IDers getting their hands dirty in the field. I chuckled because, I would really not be surprised to see very strong correlation in other behaviors and perceptual tests between the two groups: EBers and IDers.

    I don’t know if you are aware of Salem Hypothesis

    An education in the Engineering disciplines forms a predisposition to Creation/Intelligent Design viewpoints.

    I would actually go one step further and suggest a heretical exploration to see if there are any measurable differences in the way IDers and EBers are wired neurologically. I bet you will see correlation.

    Many biologists will often say that life doesn’t look designed to them. Pro-ID engineers on the other hand see the exact opposite, but are instead bewildered at the design they see.

    This is not to say that I ID is necessarily an artifact of neurology. I would not presume mathematics is inherently wrong because individuals with innate nuerology toward math have more aptitude toward it and thus promote the field. Still, relating ID to neurology would be an interesting question, as much as relaiting mathematical aptitude to neurology. The topic would be of interest to both sides.

    It might show where either side genetically inclined to exercise (in Mike Gene’s words) confirmation bias.

    I have learned much about how biologists think through my intereactions with them. That is why I have come to believe that the traditional disciplines had physiological differences in the way their brains are wired.

    If I may suggest, the subjects should be 40 or older so as to get the most extreme polarities and thus the best possible correlations. The reason is in the modern day more engineers are entering biology, and the younger one will show poorer corelation. That is my prediction both sociologically and neurologically anyway….

    Finally, you said you viewed the ability to infer intent or teleogy as an adaptation. You are aware that I think that this ability, like so many of mans abilities, are far beyond mere survival value and thus, I think must come from the Intelligent Designer. But if I can offer a middle ground, I might suggest, in the spirit of Lewontin and Goulds Spandrel’s that one need not look for adaptationist value to justify the existence of “intention detection modules in the brain”, it might be a quality of man that simply IS.

    Please visit again.


    Do you have geneticist Brian Goodwin’s Book How the Leopard Changed It’s Spots published by Princeton 1994?

    Here is an interesting quote that made me think of Evolutioanry Biology, and I said to myself, “I have to hear what Allen thinks of this”. I found it amusing, since it was a new fact to me recently, but something you’ve probably known for years:

    The spectacle of animals at play is a puzzling one from the point of view of natural selection. Imagine two young cheetahs frolicking about in the grass of the savannah, not far from a herd of Thomson’s gazelles. They’re running, tumbling, feinting, frowling–expressing a joy of movement that is totally infectious. But they are taking enormous risks. Lions are constantly on the lookout for young cheetahs, which they ruthlessly destroy. And these two have just scattered the gazelles, one of whom their mother was carefully stalking, anticipating a meal that she badly needed because of the demands of feeding her two rapidly growing dependents. What is the point of this play that apparently reduces the cheetah’s chances of survival? They would do much better to carefully copy their mother in stalking, chasing, and catching prey, directing their energies and activities to something useful that increases their chances of survival, which for cheetahs is none too good to being with. But we see this type of behavior throughout the higher animal kingdom. A troop of monkeys is a familiar example. The amount of energy used by the young in chasing, climbing, leaping, frolicking, and general high jinks is so infectious that you want to join them….

    It is in play that we see the richest, most varied, and unpredictable set of motions of wich an animal is capable. Compared with most goal-directed behavior, which tends to have strong elements of repetition that give it a somewhat stereotyped, even mechanical, quality, play is extraordinarly fluid.

  8. 8
    tragicmishap says:

    I certainly don’t want to ruin the positive mood here, but it looks to me like the “innate tendency to infer design” is an admission from the author(s) that they do see design in nature. The only alternative left for doubters is to doubt their own brains. When you doubt your own brain, what can you trust?

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