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A letter from an alum about Origins of Life professorship

December 9, 2003

Jim Paulson’s letter (November 5) not only smacks of the closed-minded intellectual elitism that has become so prevalent at Princeton, but clearly contradicts his own case.

While ridiculing “creation science” and “intelligent design,” he asserts “…natural selection recruited one gene duplication after another, gradually fashioning a system …”.

Both recruitment and fashioning are functions of intelligence, and in applying these terms, Paulson characterizes the “powerful opportunistic pressures” as nothing less than a creating force.

It is a very small step from Paulson’s statement supporting a fashioning, or creating, force to a creator. This is the historical tightrope that “evolution scientists” have walked, and conscientiously tried to avoid.

As one of the laymen at whom Paulson looks down his nose, I sincerely hope that Princeton will shake off its intellectual stupor and reengage in open and constructive debate, on this topic and many others. Where is the danger in open, honest intellectual exchange?

Perhaps Paulson and his ilk fear losing the intellectual crutch which the evolutionary theory provides them, and have to face the fact that there is an intelligence greater than their own, one that has been inside the door of biology all along.

Gerrit L. Wright ‘70
Harrisburg, Pa.

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November 20, 2003

Consider Jim Paulson's November 5 letter as Exhibit A in the People vs. the Prevailing Paradigm, the latter standing accused of stifling rather than promoting serious intellectual discourse.

Kenneth Miller and his colleagues would have us believe that most or all of the incredibly complex and interdependent biological systems that we observe came about through the gradual, random introduction of spare parts from other systems.

Many of us who work with complex informations systems every day find such claims worthy of significantly more skepticism than they receive in mainstream academia. At the very least, such explanations require more detail and rigor than the evolution community has provided to date. In fact, many scholars believe that Michael Behe and others have answered Dr. Miller's quasi-populist, anti-design rhetoric quite satisfactorily.

If it were true that the enormously difficult problem of specified and irreducible complexity has been addressed in anything more than a cursory way by the vocal critics of design, then Dr. Behe, William Dembski, and their colleagues in the intelligent design movement would close their doors tomorrow. Their own theoretical framework gives preferential treatment to legitimate explanations based on chance.

Design is a theoretical last resort, a legitimate one, but one that, apparently, is too painful to acknowledge by the prevailing modern synthesis. Stifling such discussion does nothing for the cause of intellectual discourse.

The Grand Evolutionary Story that places microbes in my family tree might or might not be true. Some evidence exists to support it, and significant evidence and theoretical work exists in opposition to it.

A growing group of serious scientists now view intelligent design as an alternative worth exploring. The unconvincing just-so stories of Ken Miller do not change that, despite Dr. Paulson's argument to the contrary.

It is the role — the responsibility — of institutions like Princeton to explore all sides of these issues in an intellectually rigorous manner. Great institutions will only marginalize themselves in the long term if they paper over the nonprevailing views with waves of the hand and far-fetched "explanations," explanations that must be true simply because what they explain is assumed to have occurred.

One need analyze Dr. Paulson's statement about "study of the simpler systems ...in lower organisms..." only for the briefest moment to see this in action.

I would welcome further involvement by Princeton in this critical area of inquiry.

Tom Marchione '84
Doylestown, Pa.

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September 28, 2003

William Galey's letter in support of a chair in origins of life biology is nothing more than a request to inject creationism into the study of biology at Princeton.

Without clearly saying so, the "intelligent design" movement that he favors would require an act of special creation for each biological structure that is declared, by Michael Behe and other advocates, to be "irreducibly complex." Mr. Galey misunderstands what makes a hypothesis "scientific" — not that it invoke "methodological naturalism," but that it be testable and open to falsification. "Intelligent design" in itself is not falsifiable, but one of its key assumptions is: that the parts of "irreducibly complex" structures serve no function on their own.

Ken Miller (a cell biologist, and theist) and others have shown this assumption to be false for some of the major cases championed by Behe. Mr. Galey should appreciate that endowed academic positions are built on well-supported academic foundations, not on ideological agendas.

Bob Podolsky '85
Chapel Hill, N.C.

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September 24, 2003

In the September 10 PAW, William T. Galey ’38 proposes a new professorship devoted to the study of "intelligent design" and "what Lehigh University Michael Behe calls the irreducibly complex engines within cells." Galey even expresses the hope that Behe could be appointed to such a chair.

As a biochemist with a professional interest in evolution, I sincerely hope that President Tilghman and Princeton will not follow Galey's suggestion. Behe's work has been highly touted by "creation scientists," but it has been thoroughly discredited (though the layman might not be aware of this).

Behe claims that some molecular systems in living cells could not have evolved from simpler systems because they are "irreducibly complex" — take any part of the system away and it won't work.

As one example, Behe cites blood coagulation. However, others have shown that this and the other systems Behe cites are in fact NOT irreducibly complex. In the words of biologist Kenneth R. Miller, blood coagulation "did not evolve all at once . . . it evolved from genes and proteins that originally served different purposes. The powerful opportunistic pressures of natural selection progressively recruited one gene duplication after another, gradually fashioning a system in which high efficiencies of controlled blood clotting made the modern vertebrate circulatory system possible."

These statements are backed up by extensive molecular analysis of clotting genes and proteins and by study of the simpler systems, with fewer parts, that exist in lower organisms. On the other hand, as Robin Holliday has suggested, truly irreducibly complex systems, such as the wheel, can be imagined, but they are not found in living organisms. In short, "intelligent design" is just an attempt by "creation scientists" to get their foot in the door of biology, even though scientifically they don't have a leg to stand on. It has no place in the science departments of a great university.

Jim Paulson '72 *77
Professor of Chemistry
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Oshkosh, Wisc.

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June 22, 2003

Two items in the June 4 PAW were of particular interest to me.

On the President’s Page, President Tilghman writes of a looming “paradigm shift” in the science of biology, in which “entirely new kinds of questions” will be asked.

Among the Professors’ Picks (feature) is one by Andrew P. Dobson h’76, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

With these two bits of information in mind, I recommend that the University create a chair of Origins of Life Biology.
One of the functions of this chair would be to explore the application of information theory to molecular biology. It would include studying the information content of DNA and proteins, and what Michael Behe calls the irreducibly complex engines within cells.

It should open up the science of the origins of life to the design hypothesis. For too long science has operated under a self-imposed straight jacket of methodological naturalism, in which for a hypothesis or theory to qualify as “scientific” it must invoke only such causes. Yet the intelligent design hypothesis is at least as valid and thought provoking as any that have been proposed under methodological naturalism.

Perhaps some wealthy alumnus or alumna could be found to endow such a chair. Perhaps Michael Behe could he induced to accept appointment to it.

It would make for another riveting President’s Page.

William T. Galey ’38
Falmouth, Maine

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