Steve Fuller — Dissent over Descent

March 18, 2009 at 3:05 pm 5 comments

The wonderful thing about Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), whatever you make of the theory advanced within it, is the way it’s written. For anyone who wants to make a scientific argument, Darwin is the exemplar. Be cautious, never dogmatic. Infer, never assert. Base your reasoning on hard evidence, never the word of other authors. I can’t help but think that, when held up next to Darwin’s classic, Steve Fuller’s silly and shallow defence of Intelligent Design, Dissent over Descent (2008), reveals the intellectual gulf between the two rival theories.


The strange thing about Fuller’s book is that I doubt it’s the kind of defence a typical Intelligent Design advocate (say, Michael Behe or William Dembski) would actually want to hear. Fuller stood up for Creationism at the Kitzmiller vs Dover Area School District (2005) court case, but he’s actually a sociologist — not a biologist, and not a Christian fundamentalist either. He’s on the frontline in the “science wars” — he’s the sort of postmodernist academic Alan Sokal parodied in his famous hoax.

So what does Fuller believe? He sets out his credo in the introduction:

While I cannot honestly say that I believe in a divine personal creator, no plausible alternative has yet been offered to justify the pursuit of science as a search for the ultimate systematic understanding of reality.

It’s not that Fuller prefers Bible stories to scientific stories. He thinks neither gives us an understanding of reality. Fuller’s cynicism about Darwin’s theory appears to be motivated by an all-pervading scepticism about the ability of science to tell us anything about reality at all. Evidence of this scepticism — this fundamental doctrine that science is not to be trusted, that its claims are “unjustified” — can be found all the way through.

Fuller’s stance here rests implicitly on the philosopher David Hume’s (1711-1776) brand of scepticism about the unity (or uniformity) of nature. We don’t know, says Hume, that nature is lawful and predictable. We don’t know that the future will be like the past, or that unobserved instances of a given phenomenon will be like the observed instances. So we don’t know that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that the vacuum in my lab is like outer space, or that the bacteria in my Petri dish are like bacteria in the soil. And we don’t know (pace Darwin and Charles Lyell) that the world we live in was formed by natural processes acting constantly and regularly for millions of years. Hume’s challenge to commonsense reasoning is the problem of induction, and to justify scientific claims about the world like Darwin’s, we need a response to Hume.

About 50 pages in, I suddenly realized that Fuller, whether he realizes it or not, is in the grip of Humean scepticism:

STS researchers do not question the actual results of scientific inquiry, only the larger significance ascribed to them: what licenses extrapolations from the lab or the field to the world at large?

He assumes that, since there is no obvious answer, scientists actually “make the world conform to the lab or field”.  He tells us that “incentives and conduits are introduced to ensure that the world behaves in accordance with the findings”.  He reveals that “calling something ‘scientific’ is to sign a blank cheque to construct the world in the image and likeness of our theories”. Finally, he delivers his grand verdict, in italics:

Scientists can only make sense of a world they could have created.

The success of modern science, then, “certainly vindicates the idea that nature has been designed with sufficient intelligence to be susceptible to purposeful human modification.”

I suppose what Fuller is proposing here is a kind of “God Solution” to the problem of induction. To have knowledge of the world, we must believe the world to have been intelligently designed. Reject this and, according to Fuller, inquiry into nature will seem futile.

This is bizarre. Fuller’s stance is apparently that the world has to have been intelligently designed for us to have scientific knowledge of it. I don’t think any rigorous argument can be made in defence of this, and Fuller certainly doesn’t have one. The upshot of Hume’s sceptical argument is, arguably, that we just have to presuppose that nature is lawful and predictable. We have to presuppose that we can infer from our data to the facts about the world. But we don’t also have to presuppose that the world was intelligently designed.

So Darwin, examining his Galapagos specimens, had to presuppose the uniformity of nature in order to consider them representative of living beings from the Galapagos. And he had to presuppose the uniformity of nature to maintain that life on the Galapagos was formed by the same processes as life everywhere else. But what Darwin discovered, given these simple presuppositions, was that this could all have come about without an intelligent designer. Presuppose only the existence of regular, mechanical laws of nature, and suddenly you can explain the origin of species.

Dissent over Descent is a mess. Arrogant, rambling and unpersuasive, it’s provocative for the sake of being provocative, full of odd sociology jargon and sweeping generalizations. But I’m glad I read it — because it reveals how thin some of the arguments against the theory of evolution really are. Read this, read the Origin, and decide for yourself. I gave Fuller a hearing, and there was nothing to hear.


Entry filed under: Book Reviews, Fuller Steve. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Candy Schultz  |  April 6, 2009 at 5:36 am

    What an excellent exegesis. I find the problem with ordinary people (as opposed to the scientist or the faithful) in understanding evolution is that they don’t understand how science works. They stumble on “theory” of evolution and you can’t convince them otherwise because our educational system does not teach science properly. You don’t have to be a scientist to see why intelligent design is specious but a decent education would help a lot.

  • 2. Ian MacDougall  |  November 2, 2009 at 7:37 am

    Yes, I agree with Candy. Excellent stuff.

    Fuller wrote in the New Humanist forums (part 4 of the debate):

    “Most of what Grayling writes in the rest of his response is simply catering to certain secularist prejudices, with little connection to what I say, let alone reality more generally. His omnibus pronouncements about the thoughts and actions of religious people, especially Christians, are on a par with academically respectable anti-Semitism in the early 20th century. Only three points [of which I will discuss two – IM]here: (1) Generally speaking, ID-style arguments (though less so Paley’s) in the 17th-19th centuries took very seriously the imperfections of nature and set itself the task of rationalizing them, on the basis of which ‘God’ came to be portrayed as the ultimate optimizer. (2) Engineers, contrary to Grayling’s suggestion, have been among the biggest boosters of ID precisely because their own job is one of optimizing an outcome in the face of multiple constraints – ‘God’ faces the same task on the largest possible scale.”

    Notice that somewhere between (1) and (2), Fuller has quietly moved from ‘God’ in the 17th C to ‘God’ in the present, ID’s engineer

    Any undergraduate in the biological sciences could have told re point (2) that evolution proceeeds largely through modification of genes, organelles, cells, tissues, and organs so that they move, often completely, from one purpose to another. For example, flower petals are modified leaves, as are the scales clustered into pine cones. In electronics, TV picture tibes are modified cathode ray tubes, which in turn are modified incandescent light globes; the lineage is there in the history of electronics, just as the history of plants is there in palaeontology.

    But should Fuller try to use this as an ID argument, and postulate ‘God’ as the great engineer of nature, he not only has to deal with evolution’s blind alleys and failures as ‘God’s’ mistakes, but with the fact that the engineering parallel most definitely does not imply the Christian God or even a single god. It implies multiple gods.

    Nothing, not TV picture tubes, wheels or watches or anything else can be ascribed to one inventor. ID implies, as the most likely designer, a multitude of gods, literally working like human inventors and engineers.

    But something tells me that that is not what the ID school had in mind.

    More on this at

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