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Uncommon Knowledge: Wells vs. Pigliucci

Earlier this month, the PBS show Uncommon Knowledge taped a discussion about the controversy over the teaching of evolution and intelligent design. The guests were Darwinists Dr. Massimo Pigliucci of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and CSC Fellow Dr. Jonathan Wells. Uncommon Knowledge host Peter Robinson moderated the discussion.

The 30-minute show will be aired by PBS sometime in the next few months, but in the meantime Dr. Pigliucci has posted his version of what happened on a skeptics' web site.

We recommend that anyone interested in this controversy watch the actual show when it airs. Since Dr. Pigliucci has chosen to publicize his own version of the discussion beforehand, however, we have asked Dr. Wells to write down his own recollection of it. Here is Dr. Wells's account.

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January 24, 2005

My videotaped January 14 discussion with Massimo Pigliucci was an interesting experience in the sense that I thought Pigliucci conceded so many points that one would conclude that there is no real reason to debate the issue at all. When pressed (either by me or by the host), Pigliucci admitted that Darwinian evolution doesn't make any positive empirically verifiable prediction (hence, it isn't science by the currently accepted concept of it), and went as far as saying that it should not be taught in public schools, because it is "too outdated a theory."

Just kidding.

It didn't happen that way at all. But the description above (which is essentially Pigliucci's account with "Pigliucci" substituted for "Wells" and "Darwinian evolution" for "ID") is no farther from the truth than the account Pigliucci has posted on salon.com.

So, what really happened? I didn't take notes, and memory can be an unreliable guide, but here's my recollection of the discussion.

Host Peter Robinson started us off by asking what should be taught in public school science classes. As I recall, I answered that Darwinian evolution should definitely be taught, because it is so influential in modern biology, but students should learn the evidence and scientific arguments against it as well as for it. Intelligent design theory should not be required, because it is too new; but if teachers or students want to discuss it they should not be penalized for doing so.

Pigliucci answered (to the best of my recollection) that ID should not be taught in science classes at all, because it is not science. Robinson then asked: "What is intelligent design?"

I replied that the theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.

Robinson then asked: "What is evolution?" I answered (as I recall) that Darwin's theory of biological evolution is "descent with modification." This includes two aspects: the idea that all living things are descended from a common ancestors, and the idea that they have been modified primarily -- though not exclusively -- by natural selection acting on random variations. Robinson came back with a question implying that Darwinian evolution is random, and Pigliucci objected that this is a misunderstanding of Darwin's theory: Variation is random, but natural selection is not. I agreed, and emphasized that Darwinian evolution is not random but is "undirected." It was my impression that Pigliucci nodded in agreement.

At one point I said something to the effect that the Cambrian explosion poses a problem for Darwinian evolution because the relatively sudden appearance of most major animal phyla is inconsistent with the branching-tree pattern predicted by descent from a common ancestor. Pigliucci disagreed, saying that the explosion was merely due to the emergence of hard parts that fossilize easily. I disagreed with this, objecting that we have many soft-bodied fossils from before the Cambrian and that most fossils in the Cambrian explosion itself were soft-bodied.

Robinson asked whether falsifiability isn't the hallmark of science. I said that that was an over-simplification, but that it is true that the essence of science is testing hypotheses against the evidence. Pigliucci agreed.

In the course of the discussion Pigliucci and I disagreed over whether ID is science. I argued that it is, because it relies on evidence to test the hypothesis that a specific feature is designed. Pigliucci argued that ID is not science because it points to a supernatural designer, and science is by its very nature limited to natural explanations. I objected that "science" in this sense was different from science as the testing of hypothesis, but Pigliucci insisted that the two were equivalent.

Obviously, we touched on a lot of issues that deserved to be explored in much more depth than we could do in the limited time we had.

For his final question, Robinson asked us what we thought would be the situation with ID ten years from now. Pigliucci answered that ID would not be taught in science classes unless the U. S. Supreme Court were to decide that it is science rather than religion. I answered that I thought ID would be taught, not because of a court decision but because it would earn the respect of the scientific community. Robinson asked whether I really thought this would happen in ten years, and I hedged a bit: "Well, maybe twenty."

After the TV cameras were turned off, Pigliucci leaned over and thanked me for showing him the error of his ways. Then he asked whether he could add his name to the list of 300-plus scientists who have already signed Discovery Institute's "Scientific Dissent From Darwinism."

Just kidding, again.

Of course, the best way to find out what really happened is to watch "Uncommon Knowledge" on PBS when this segment airs in your area. In my opinion it will provide a balanced overview of some of the major issues in the controversy.