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Remote Ready Biology Learning Activities

Remote Ready Biology Learning Activities has 50 remote-ready activities, which work for either your classroom or remote teaching.

Intelligent Design and the Story of Evolution:
No Need for Drawing Lines in the Sand

An Update

Paul Grobstein
5 October 2005
Emergent Systems Working Group

See On Line Forum for continuing discussion

From "Intelligent Design and the Story of Evolution: No Need for Drawing Lines in the Sand"

"Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense -- an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection -- is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science" ... Christopher Schönborn, New York Times, 2005

"Belief in the supernatural, especially belief in God, is not only incompatible with good science, Dr. Hauptman declared, 'this kind of belief is damaging to the well-being of the human race.'" ... New York Times, 2005


"Evolution is only a theory. So is God - only a theory ... The question is whether it leads anywhere." ... Lindon Eaves, Advent Sermon, 2005

" ... scientific statements are not either claims or approximations to "Truth," but provisional stories, reflecting human perspectives, that get progressively less wrong. Whatever practical usefulness the stories have derives from and needs always to be understood in light of their provisional character ... Scientific stories are written not to be believed but to be understood, made use of as appropriate, and revised ... The resulting assailability, conflicts, and resolutions, concerning both observations and stories told about them, are as much a part of the successes of science as any other feature of the scientific method." ... Paul Grobstein, Science As Story Telling and Story Revision, 2005

"All people should be encouraged to think of their ideas/perspectives as "in progress": to make them available as potential contributions to the thinking of others, and to make use of the thoughts of others as of potential significance to their own thinking" ... Serendip, 2001


I've always been curious about the world, about myself and other people and the things we find around ourselves. I still am. About little things, like what makes the sun shine, and big things, like how it all fits together and what it all means. And I expect I always will be curious, because one of the things I've discovered over the years is that there are indeed some useful answers to little questions, but every time someone comes up with one that answer itself creates new questions. And while there are lots of different answers to the big questions, they all have problems with them and none of them are convincing to everyone. Maybe you've noticed that too? Maybe you too have the sense that being curious is more useful and fun if one thinks of it as a process, a way of life, instead of as a task to be completed? And so doesn't get too committed to particular answers to big questions?


Anyhow, that's how I think about science. And about what I do as a scientist. What interests me is not finding "Truth", the final answers to big questions. In fact, I'm not at all sure there ARE final answers to big questions and I am, in any case, quite sure neither I nor anyone else yet knows how to find them if there are. What I enjoy, what motivates me, is wondering about things and the stories I hear about them, and seeing new things because I wondered, and making up new stories that take into account the new things I've seen. Which in turn always (so far) creates new things to wonder about, new observations to be made, and new stories to be tried out. THAT's useful ... and fun. And that's science, at least as I understand it (see Science as Story Telling and Story Revising and Getting It Less Wrong, the Brain's Way).


Some people, within both the scientific and the religious communities ARE interested in "Truth". And that, I suspect, is is part of the problem. For some people, there can't be more than one "Truth" about something nor more than one right way to pursue "Truth", and so people with one set of understandings or methods feel threatened by people with another set. They assert their own version and attack any other to defend their own.

Fights about "Truth" have been going on for thousands of years, and we're probably not going to entirely fix that problem in the immediate future. We can, though, agree that since science is about ongoing exploration and not about "Truth", it doesn't belong in such confrontations. Evolution is not "Truth" and can't be. Like any scientific story, it is no more and no less than a way to make sense of observations, and is significant only insofar as it does that well and, in so doing, motivates new observations that would in turn lead on to new stories and further new observations.

In these terms, evolution is not only a good scientific story, it is a VERY good one. It accounts for an extraordinary number of observations that are difficult to account for in other ways, and raises a large number of approachable new questions. Moreover, it is a demonstrably useful story in a wide range of contexts.


"Random variation and natural selection" is the idea that seems to be most bothering some people now. But that too makes sense of a lot of observations, raises lots of new interesting questions, and is demonstrably useful. Without that idea, it would be very difficult to make sense, for example, of the development of antibiotic resistance, and of many other features of epidemic disease. There is a reason why its important not to overuse antibiotics. Antibiotic resistant bacteria are produced randomly during reproduction. They are selected for and become more prevalent when antibiotics are improperly used. Random variation and natural selection is also an idea that underlies a lot of the programming in many contemporary computer applications. So perhaps we can trust that this idea too is useful enough that it will become over time a comfortable part of most peoples' stories?

In fairness, though, it's probably not the idea itself but it's potential breadth of application that is most troublesome to some people. Could it be that EVERYTHING we wonder about, ourselves and everything we find around ourselves, derives, at least initially, from nothing more (and nothing less) than "an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection"? Now THAT is an interesting question, exactly the sort of new question that good scientific stories are supposed to create.

The question is troublesome for some people and exciting for others, for all sorts of reasons. The important point though is that it is just that: a good question.


The story of evolution is not something that "denies or seeks to explain away" anything ... and is certainly not "ideology". It is a scientific story, one that usefully summarizes a very large number of observations and creates questions that motivate new observations. It is not "Truth" nor a candidate/competitor for the status of "Truth". It is a product of curiosity, and a stimulus for ongoing curiosity, about small questions and big ones. It is not an answer to any big questions but rather a continuation of the process of asking them and exploring possible answers.

There IS no final answer to the question of whether what gave rise to ourselves and what we find around us is "random variation and natural selection". Maybe there was and/or is a "designer". Or maybe intention, meaning, and purpose didn't exist until organisms that themselves resulted from random variation and natural selection, ourselves included, were able to add them. And there never will be a final answer to that question, at least from a scientific perspective, since science is not about "Truth" but rather about making sense of observations made up to the present. Its stories are always subject to change based on future observations.


That's what I think. Evolution is a story. So too is intelligent design. Whats worth paying attention to is what observations the stories help to make sense of, what things they are useful (and not useful) for, what new questions they raise. You? What do you think? Join in, and let's see whether we can together keep people from unnecessarily drawing lines in the sand.

Can we do without "Truth"?

"So I think at some point you have to (at least I have to) come back to the proposition that "useful" means "usefully explanatory of something about the universe around us", which means (to me), "has some truth to it that goes beyond whether the story aesthetically satisfies the person hearing it". Some capacity to explain the world in a way that can be collectively validated or tested, that is predictively powerful, that can be reconciled with other stories possessing similar qualities of "usefulness"."

"for some stories - perhaps these are special and can be defined - their relative 'truth' (thanks, Tim, for not being afraid of the word) is relevant

"to call this 'truth' -- even 'relative' truth' -- is to hide the action of choice "

Yes, we can do without "Truth"/"truth" and the problems it creates (see also Getting It Less Wrong: The Brain's Way and Revisiting Science in Culture). Replace "truth" with

Some capacity to explain the world in a way that is predictively powerful, can be collectively validated or tested, and that can be reconciled with other stories possessing similar qualities of "usefulness". The difference is important and not just fiddling with words. Note in the above the inherent context dependence, ie the inherent dependence on the perspective of an author or authorial collective. Also the fundamental uncertainty about future validity and the potential (certain?) existence of other "equally good" stories (ie stories that cannot be discriminated between using the criteria provided). Note also that this does NOT imply an inability to discriminate between ANY stories but only the likelihood that there exists at least some between which discriminations can not be made in these terms.

"Getting it less wrong" IS different from getting it more right. Both "Truth" and "truth" are global concepts, "less wrong" is a local one. Stories are always to some degree local, ie they reflect a given set of observations and an objective of dealing more effectively in the future, and involve the exercise of some degree of authorial discretion. "Scientific" stories, in addition, make the observations themselves public and have the further objective of promoting new observations and hence new stories. In this regard, efforts to reduce the locality of the stories has been demonstrably productive.

Is the concept of "story" appropriate/useful?

"presenting [evolution] as a story is, I think, very useful and diffuses the potential for damage in espousing evolution as the version "smart" people believe"

"The consistent problem or concern I have with Paul's attachment to the concept of "stories" as he sees it, despite the fact that I'm almost equally attached to a very similar way of thinking about a great many things, is that it's difficult to make his judgement that some stories are more useful in some fashion"

Perhaps this difficulty is a feature rather than a bug? Being required to make explicit what one means by "useful" is itself more useful (for others AND oneself) than characterizing/justifying by appeals to some unverifiable non-local "truth" or "reality"?

Discriminating stories, evaluating their usefulness

ContextIntelligent Design
in minimal form (first mover)
in extreme form (pure emergence)
"Truth", "Reality"Could beCould be
"They have been told that God relies upon them and that the pageant of the world has been written around them that they may be tested in the important or unimportant parts handed out to them. How could they take it, were I to tell them that they are on a lump of stone ceaselessly spinning in empty space, circling around a second rate star? What then would be the use of their patience, their acceptance of misery?" ... Brecht, Galileo (Scene 7, the little monk) Better story in providing basis for "acceptance of misery"? Less useful story for that purpose?
"If I'm taught there is a God I'm responsible to, I know I have to treat people right ... But if there's no creator to answer to, it changes your whole lifestyle. Then its just survival of the fittest. That's where our society is headed. That's why we have so many of the problems we do" ... Judy Grim, Dover, Pa, quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 October 2005 Better story in to assure control of others/self? Less useful story to assure control of others/self?
"In an attempt to answer the question that you posed: why should we accept our need for one another? - I have come up with yet another question. I wonder if a distinction should be made between a primal need for one another and a desire for some connectivity. Do we really "need" one another's stories or do we desire them in order to arrive at a sense of being part of the whole? Should the question be, then, why should we accept the desire to be part of this whole?" Historically: has both promoted connectedness and created separateness Might do a better job of making sense of our own behavior and in turn promoting effective connectedness?
"Some capacity to explain the world in a way that is predictively powerful, can be collectively validated or tested, and that can be reconciled with other stories possessing similar qualities of "usefulness"." Take your pick? Take your pick?
As above, together with inclination to summarize the widest array of observations in a way that in turn generates the widest array of new observations and new stories Based on both history and projectable future: VERY bad bet Based on both history and projectable future: Very good bet
Science classrooms (presuming science as story telling in action Worth a passing mention Worth substantial investment of time

Some generalizations

Postdiscussion notes

After first session

Points clear?

  • scientific stories always have authorial dependence, hence the need to have some basis for discrimination other than "Truth", "Reality" which depend on some non-local (and non-achievable) perspective
  • the ability to discriminate among stories is always context dependent
  • "Truth", "Reality" do not allow one to discriminate between significant "scientific stories"
  • Neither does "relative truth"
To go on to ...
  • Use of context dependence to better understand what WE mean by "science"
  • LIKElihood of generating new observations/stories DOES discriminate
  • Issue IS "story generativity", which one can make good guesses about but can never be certain of
  • Relevance not only for science but for other human issues
To come back to ...
  • significance of efforts to expand the "local"
  • ways to break out of the hill-climbing problem
  • the reality of discriminating between evolution and ID in terms of new questions, observations, stories
  • the significance or lack thereof of discriminating wrt "supernatural"
  • the issue of morality as a basis for discrimination

After second session (19 October)

An exercise in thinking about "science", ie in trying to figure out how we actually make a discrimination that we think is important

Important to do so because we have won prior battles (Scopes trial) while losing war (current situation) using criteria ("Truth", "testability", "assailability") that we really need to question the appropriateness of in light of history

Yes, there IS a "line in the sand" to be drawn, but it is between "fixed" and "labile" stories, not between science and religion etc etc

That line reflects the DISTINCTIVE character of science: an interest in the generative (but is not unique to science, eg Oliver Wendel Holmes re law)

Other people can, and should, use different contexts to discriminate between stories. This one is the appropriate one for science education.

Generativity is always a bet, never a sure thing.

The issue of the relative value of the "evolution" and "intelligent design" stories re security, morality, and community deserves more attention.

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