Val Dusek. Review of Dissent on Descent by Steve Fuller

Author Information: Val Dusek, University of New Hampshire,

Dusek, Val. 2012. “Review of Dissent on Descent by Steve Fuller ” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 1 (3): 35-45.

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The appearance of the philosopher, social epistemologist, and sociologist of science Steve Fuller at the Dover, Pennsylvania trial as a witness defending the teaching of Intelligent Design (ID) led to consternation among some members of the history and philosophy of science community. It also delighted opponents of science studies in the “Science Wars” debate such as the late Norman Levitt. Here appeared to be the smoking gun of the alliance of “relativist” humanist and social science studies of science and the anti-science and know-nothing creationist movement.

In fact Fuller presented a sweeping historical and philosophical account of the role of notions of divine design in western science. This review will not deal with the politics and the issue of strategic wisdom of Fuller’s willingness to testify, issues that have been reviewed (and mostly denounced) extensively elsewhere, but consider the metaphysical, epistemological, and intellectual history claims that Fuller makes in justifying his position.

In the book being reviewed Fuller argues like a courtroom lawyer in associating ID with all that is admirable in past and contemporary science and linking Darwin to a denial of the traits that have made western science great and successful. A major thesis of the book is that Darwin is not a true scientist, or, at least, has doubtfully scientific credentials, while the advocates of Intelligent Design are inheritors of the mainstream of western science, leading through Mendel’s genetics, and part of the cutting edge, including biotechnology, artificial life, and nanotechnology. Fuller claims that Darwin’s work denies the intelligibility of nature (allying Darwin with Hume). Yet it was the acceptance of the divine design of the cosmos that made western science possible. Though far more deep and wide ranging, Fuller’s case is a very sophisticated and historically informed version of the creationist and ID claims that Darwin’s world is meaninglessness (a view that ironically, some neo-Darwinists such as historian of evolutionary genetics William Provine and some science warriors, such as physicist Steve Weinberg, embrace).

Fuller presents an extremely broad, rich, and informative history of the role of divine design in traditional western science. Part of the historical thesis on early modern science is highly plausible and well documented. Figures such as Boyle, Newton, Linnaeus (and Fuller wishes, with less evidence, to include Mendel via and ingenious but tenuous connection with Joseph Priestly) based their belief in the rational intelligibility it nature and their motivation to find the rational structure of the universe on a faith in the divine design of the cosmos.

Fuller is perfectly correct that “modern science” in the 17th century strict sense is design-based. His testimony on this at the Dover PA trial was a perfect corrective to the usual naturalist and cracker barrel atheist claims about science as anti-religion that one finds in Dawkins, Dennett, and many anti-creationists. Unfortunately the judge completely misinterpreted the point of it. The judge accepted that ID was theology based, but despite Fuller’s account of the design basis of the physics of Kepler and Newton, concluded that ID could not be science if religiously motivated.

Fuller fills out his very well informed and richly informed historical account with delineation of varieties of theodicy, discussing Leibniz as well as the conflict between the approaches to the perfection of nature of Nicholas Malebranche and Pierre Gassendi. Fuller claims that Leibniz’s concern in theodicy was with the moral education of humankind, using St. Augustine’s “light needs shadows” argument to justify the existence of evil. Gassendi the Christian atomist claimed that God’s creations are perfect, but that our intellect is incapable of fully discerning the nature of the perfections, while Father Nicholas Malebranche in contrast claimed that the imperfections of created things were part of a trade off to produce the greatest total overall perfection. (Fuller aptly notes that Catholic ID advocate Michael Behe and Catholic theistic evolutionist Miller replay the Malebranche vs. Gassendi debate.)

The less justified flip side of Fuller’s account of the history of the design hypothesis is his denigration of Darwin. Chapter 2 if entitled “Was Darwin really a scientist?” This is a bit sophistical. Of course Darwin was not a scientist in our contemporary, professional sense. Indeed, the word ‘scientist’ was first used in an important context by William Whewell in a reply to a question by Samuel Taylor Coleridge at the British Association of Science in 1832. Darwin’s “bulldog,” T. H. Huxley was an early campaigner for professional science and forged the professional role thereof in Britain. Darwin, in contrast was wealthy and unemployed, but respected in the professional societies of London. On institutional grounds one could question many other notable pre-1859 students of nature were really “scientists” in the modern sense.

Fuller contrasts Darwin’s natural history approach with the developing laboratory-based biology of the time. However, Darwin did do a number of experiments – simple ones indeed, but ones that did modify or create conditions. In the Origin chapter 11 on biogeography he did a number of experiments to test the resistance of seeds and hibernating snails to survive floating in the ocean for long periods of time, showing they could indeed survive floating at sea for two weeks leading to dispersal. He also did minor experiments with slave-making ants reported in his chapter 7 on instinct in Origin. In The Power of Movement in Plants and his other botanical books he did a great number of experimental manipulations.

Fuller claims that Darwin, by basing his theory on “chance,” “random” variations, inscrutable underlying causes and (more controversially) variation presented a random, chaotic, and meaningless universe. However, explicators of Darwin have noted that his variations are “random” only in the sense of not directed toward improving function or improved fitness. Later, with the rise of quantum mechanics, it has been suggested that some variations may be genuinely random. Stamos has studied the possibility of mutations involving single hydrogen bonds in DNA bases are well within the Heisenberg limits. Many have argued that Darwin thought that variations were ultimately physically explainable and under the sway of natural law, just not analyzable by us. (Provine, mentioned above, takes the extreme deterministic view of Darwinism that many working biologists not concerned with philosophical subtleties embrace.)

Statistical thinking was at the heart of Darwin’s theoretical innovation. One of Darwin’s readings (including a summary of Adam Smith by Dugald Stewart, Wordsworth’s poetry, Shakespeare plays, Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees and the famous essay on population by Malthus) was a summary of Quetelet’s statistical social science. Darwin’s innovative introduction of statistical thinking in biology was stimulated by sociology. This in turn probably stimulated the subsequent introduction of probability into the core of physics by Ludwig Boltzmann in statistical mechanics (Boltzmann). Isaac Asimov suggested, but was too modest to publish, the speculation that Boltzmann’s introduction of probability into statistical mechanics was inspired by his appreciation of Darwin. (R. S. Cohen) Via Exner and others, Boltzmann’s approach may have contributed to the development of indeterminacy. (Charles S. Peirce, an anti-Darwinian evolutionist was one of a number of later nineteenth century figures that advocated real indeterminism and recognized the significance of the introduction of statistical thinking by Darwin.) Quantum field theorist Sylvain Schweber became an historian of Darwinism by tracing James Clerk Maxwell’s own version of the introduction of probability into statistical mechanics to the same Scottish political economy and anthropology that impacted Darwin.

Fuller himself plots his own trajectory for Maxwell and Boltzmann emphasizing Boltzmann’s determinism and both Boltzmann and Maxwell’s ‘anthropic” claim that the region of the universe in which humans live is a thermodynamically special one. (Although one might wonder whether being in a region of increasing entropy is anthropically beneficial compared to one of locally decreasing entropy.) Fuller, in contrast to this thread, by tracing through Boltzmann’s disciple Schrödinger, ties Boltzmann to Fuller’s deterministic design tradition.) Ironically, Schrödinger’s teacher Franz Exner was himself an indeterminist.

Fuller also links ID’s design-based approach with contemporary information science. He refers to Charles Babbage’s Bridgewater Treatise where divine creation is described as analogous to the writing of a computer program that activated the creation of species at successive times. He links the Unitarian religious training of figures in cybernetics and artificial intelligence such as Norbert Wiener and Herbert Simon to the Intelligent Design approach. For Fuller, the rise of disciplines such as artificial intelligence and artificial life, as well as the general computer orientation of bioinformatics and contemporary molecular biology are cutting edge science, and themselves is a kind of “Intelligent Design” theory.

By linking ID theory, generally castigated as pseudo-science by the biology community (or at best as “dead science” by Philip Kitcher) with the grand tradition of design in nature of the Greats of early early modern science, as well as with cutting edge biotechnology and molecular biology Fuller attempts to boost the credentials of Intelligent Design. The only problem is that, despite Fuller’s allusions to ID as an ongoing “research programme,” there really seems to be no positive research going on among ID advocates. The ID “researchers” give criticisms of natural selection often borrowed from somewhat heretical evolutionists such as Steve Gould, Richard Lewontin, and Conrad Waddington, critical of the all-powerful nature of selection. Michael Behe recycles a molecular version of the troublesome objection by the tragic, Catholic evolutionist St. George Jackson Mivart’s that partially evolved organs would not be of selective value, and that therefore the intermediate steps could not survive. Dembski argues for the irreducible information content of living things, impossible to achieve by natural selection. Other, lesser figures deny that the Cambrian explosion could have arisen by Darwinian selection (borrowing in part from Gould). However, none of the design advocates use their appeal to the mysterious Intelligent Designer to articulate explanations in detail or to make predictions or retrodictions. Perhaps a very radical “left Popperian” approach in which only refutations are given would fit with the purely negative claims of contemporary ID.

One implication of the claim that Darwin does not fulfill the ideal of the scientist because of his Hume-like denial of the ultimate comprehensibility of nature and, according to Fuller, of design, is that quantum mechanics, and, perhaps, much of statistical mechanics and chaos theory, is not science. Chaos theory has some resemblance to Darwin’s own views in that, although ultimate determinism is assumed, predictability is impossible, because knowledge of the literally infinitesimal microstructure that makes significant differences in trajectories is beneath our ability, even in principle to measure. Is Fuller on his design-based pedigree of genuine science willing to bite the bullet and reject quantum mechanics and quantum statistical mechanics as real science? Fuller takes Einstein’s “God does not play dice” completely literally.

Emmanuel Mesthene, in an early STS defense of a kind of moderate technocracy nicely summarizes the claim that modern science completely denies the existence of the surd in nature. However, other cultural forms of knowledge of nature did yield contributions to description of nature that are not modern western science, but which denied the ultimate comprehensibility of nature at the micro-level. Aristotelian matter, Platonic matrix or chora (that Heisenberg later appealed to retrospectively justify his indeterminacy, and which sometimes are claimed to have come from his reading of the Timaeus) as well as Chinese science, with its notion of ultimate indeterminacy or vagueness of measurement according to Nathan Sivin, would be the prime examples of this. Earlier, at the end of his book Science, Fuller claimed rightly that contemporary science is moving in the direction of the governmentally directed and purely practically oriented science of ancient Asiatic despotisms, losing the commitment to absolute truth of early modern science. Fuller might say the turn to quantum mechanics, indeterminacy, and chaos is simply another sign of this degeneration in postmodern science and society.

Fuller elsewhere makes comments concerning divine creation which are inconsistent with the rejection of the incomprehensible surd aspect of matter. Fuller discusses God’s design as being limited or channeled by the recalcitrance of matter. (172-173) This seems to reject the creatio ex nihilo view in traditional Judaism and Christianity since the first or second century. What distinguishes Christianity from pagan religion (at least after the Alexandrian Platonist Philo Judaeus’ interpretations of Genesis were accepted by the Church Fathers) is that God created everything, including matter, from scratch. In other creation myths (and probably were the original understanding of “without form and void” and “darkness over the face of the deep” in the earliest version of Genesis) God or gods simply mold pre-existing stuff (matter) that pre-exists and is not itself rationally formed. The omnipotent, omniscient, rational God could make the matter to fit His design. This view fits well with the view of Western science as rejecting any surd, or inexplicable aspect of nature, present in the cosmologies of all ancient and pagan cultures.

Fuller agrees that Newton’s use of divine plan in understanding the universe is valuable, but Newton’s use of a sort holy cattle prod or pool stick to realign the planets in their orbits is not. However, the standard ID account of individual organisms seems to accept both sides of Newton. ID seems to more resemble the individual acts of intervention by Divine power, rather than the laying down of an overall plan or laws or the universe. If Charles Babbage shifted his so-called Ninth Bridgewater Treatise computer programming God to develop programs that evolved species one from another rather than successively creating them, this version of creationism (to which Fuller is sympathetic) would be turned into theistic evolution.

Fuller castigates theistic evolution for not having God make a difference and being a metaphysical idle wheel, criticizing the single act, all at once, model of creation of organisms, in such a way as to make them instantly intelligible. Fuller seems to be inadvertently moving back to something closer to theistic evolution. It would seem that there is a whole continuum of degrees of intervention between fiat creation and theistic evolution. At one extreme, Darwin’s first American advocate, Asa Gray, left natural selection alone, but claimed God was guiding the apparently random variations. Some theistic evolutionists, such as Fuller’s beloved Teilhard de Chardin, do modify natural selection by claiming that there is an overall purpose to evolution. A tinkering designer rather a creator of whole species by fiat Intelligent Designer might move closer to theistic evolution if the acts of tinkering were small enough.

There is a strong theme of human control and planning of nature in western history. Humans as completers of God’s work or stewards of nature would certainly fit with this. Nevertheless, one may ask, does this legitimate ID in the specific sense in accounting for the past? Lurking less obviously in the back of Fuller’s model of creationism with humans made in the image of God is Fuller’s belief that the duty and destiny of humans is to control nature. This is made more explicit and much further elaborated in Humanity 2.0. While Fuller supports Karl Popper’s critical rationalism against the defense of dogmatism by Kuhn and Michael Polanyi, Fuller apparently rejects Popper’s structures against global planning, either of society or the universe.

In the appeal to design in biotechnology and computers there is an apparent or hinted justification of belief in ID as an explanation of biological species. Fuller is probably right that (at least on an ideological level) notions of humans engineering and designing organisms will dominate the new biology. (There is, however, the issue of how much of the bioengineering will really be from scratch, as opposed to minor modifications of already existing organisms – even the restriction enzymes basic to gene splicing were natural enzymes discovered in bacteria, not constructions by synthesis—though this is an empirically open question.) However, will the prospective promise or claim of bioengineering design lead to belief in former ID of organisms in the distant past?

To caricature a bit the argument goes something like: 1) Von Neumann is intelligent. 2) Von Neumann designs things. 3) Von Neumann knows this. Therefore von Neumann believes in Intelligent Design. This argument suffers from some shift of meaning to say the least. (I chose von Neumann because, until his death bed conversion to Roman Catholicism during a painful death from cancer, he was not an advocate of ID, even if one of intelligent design. Fuller actually does claim, in an exchange elsewhere with Norman Levitt that Norbert Wiener and Herbert Simon were advocates of “Intelligent Design”.)

Fuller attempts to downgrade the scientific importance of Darwinism by noting that no Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine has been rewarded for Darwinian work. (Nobel also gave no Nobel Prize for mathematics, because he thought it not directly practical. Einstein’s relativity was not awarded a Prize, but only his photoelectric effect, which was more obviously practical.) Of course Darwinian population biology is not physiology or medicine (despite recent unfulfilled claims for “Darwinian medicine”). Fuller also claims that Darwin’s causal analysis is “feeble” and that Darwin is “no Newton.” This ignores the innovative and original nature of natural selection as a mechanism. (At least Fuller does not try, as some have done, to downgrade Darwin on the basis of Wallace’s independent discovery of natural selection.) However, perhaps it is Wallace’s spiritualism, inconsistent with the meaningless Darwinian universe thesis that leads to his omission.

In his Humanity 2.0 Fuller is certainly correct to denigrate the Uriah Heap role of pseudo-“humble” underlaborer publically played by contemporary philosophers of science. He takes particular umbrage at the Darwinism epigones in the philosophy of biology (although I should rate Sober considerably higher in rigor and independent thought than Ruse, Dawkins, and Dennett). However, Fuller over-rates the unity and historical continuity of Darwinism as opposed to Newtonianism. We speak of “neo-Darwinism” but not “neo-Newtonianism.” Fuller thinks that while Darwinism had to add Mendelian genetics to flourish in the twentieth century, Newtonianism developed continually and successfully based solely on its axioms. Even Fuller’s nemesis, Thomas Kuhn, was forced to add a footnote to the second edition of Structure in 1970 noting that he had overestimated the unity of Newtonianism in the eighteenth century, referring to Clifford Truesdell’s work on Euler and the Bernoullis. Even the early Kuhn had recognized that the “Newtonianism” in chemistry was quite different from the austere Newtonism of rational and celestial mechanics. Even within rational mechanics it was Jacob Bernoulli who began the formulation the general differential equation version of Newton’s laws used since. Leonard Euler developed this further for solid, flexible bodies. I go further than Kuhn and Truesdell and claim that Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics are in some ways as different from the Newton’s original mechanics as are relativity and quantum mechanics. Least action principles from Leibniz through William Rowan Hamilton, Max Planck and David Hilbert have a teleological aspect absent from the past-to-future efficient causality of the differential formulation of Newton and John Bernoulli. Hamiltonian mechanics, but not Newton’s Laws, is necessary to formulate quantum mechanics, as is Hamilton’s light-ray particle analogy. (His quaternion forulation is used for spin in quantum mechanics. There are some quaternion fanatics who do all quantum mechanics this way. Suggestively, there is a deep, topological connection between Hamilton’s quaternions and the Hamiltonian energy function.) So-called potential theory formulation of classical mechanics yields yet another conceptually different science, yielding, in the end, all of Aristotle’s four causes in 19th century mechanics. (Dusek 2000) Fuller blames Darwinism for producing the recent philosophy of science rejection of the hypothetico-deductive unified approach for treating theories as families of models. But later classical mechanics taken seriously yields the same result in the theory of theories. Bas Van Fraassen, for instance, had no interest in Darwin when he formulated his model theory of science. He was surprised and intrigued at a dinner when I mentioned to him that Lewontin applied state space mathematics to population genetics. He immediately saw that this would allow application of the semantics he had applied to physics. Only later did he turn Elizabeth Lloyd to application of his approach to natural selection).

Fuller is right in his claim that much biology can go on as usual without evolution or Darwinism, but this may be because Darwinism plays a unification role in biology analogous to particle physics in the rest of physics and chemistry. The French physicist Levy-Leblond suggests post-war particle physics doesn’t do much of anything practical (such as building nuclear bombs or power plants as does the earlier nuclear physics), but serves an ideological role of giving a reductionist grounding to physical science as a whole. Darwinism plays this role for the unification for biology but in a less directly reductionist and more historical manner.

There are several parallels of Fuller’s case for ID to Jeremy Rifkin’s Algeny. Rifkin, although less scholarly than Fuller, sets Darwinism and biotechnology in a broad social setting. Rifkin claims that Darwinism reflects industrial society and biotechnology reflects post-industrial society. (Rifkin mentions competition, division of labor, immigration, and other terms in Darwin’s work.) Rifkin gives a fairly accurate, readable popularization of the work of Robert Young, Sylvain Schweber, and others, on the industrial and capitalist terminology in Darwin’s work (though emphasizing French positivist “industrialism” rather than the Marx’s “capitalism”). Rifkin claimed that the informational and computer orientation of biotechnology more thoroughgoing today with bioinformatics than then) makes biotech the expression of post-industrial or information society. One of the peculiarities of Rifkin’s thesis is that model of nature and biotech with post-industrial society he thinks the rise of biotech will be tied to the young earth creationism of Duane Gish and Henry Morris. Rifkin is on to something in the first part his book, but spoils it with very naïve young earth creationism of later chapters. Fuller, on his part, links molecular biology, biotechnology, and artificial life to ID, not to young earth creationism.

Fuller ties modern design oriented computer-enhanced bioscience to the role of humans “playing God.” This phase is unfortunately and unreflectively overused in the popular debates over genetic engineering, a theme which Fuller takes much more seriously than the usual cliché and develops favorably philosophically in his more recent Humanity 2.0.

He certainly is correct in this claim. Indeed he could make an even stronger, more well-documented case for this than he does. He cites (200) one passage from Norbert Wiener’s God and Golem, Inc. on the power of the devil, but there are numerous discussions throughout that work dealing with the theme that the engineer is to his or her device as God is to creatures. Derek de Solla Price (1965), one of the earliest citation index sociologists of science and popularizer of the term “big science” wrote:

The making of tangible artifacts showing the nature of the material universe and the nature of a creature was … the two movements of a “do-it-yourself creation kit.” By playing God, man could know God … For almost five thousand years this urge dwelt in the minds of ingenious men, fostering their ingenuities and calling forth a wealth of mechanical skills and scientific understanding (as quoted in Heims, 1980).

Finally, in an issues relating to classical sociological theory disputes, Fuller criticizes contemporary Darwinian evolutionary theory for mixing or shifting between the lawful (nomological) and the individual-descriptive (idiographic). He notes that methodologists of the social sciences are well placed to analyze these (purported) confusions in evolutionary theory. He is correct that the Modern Synthesis of neo-Darwinism, as well as explicitly mores o the competing version of Darwinian evolution of Gould, shift between or mix the two approaches. However, this is hardly a criticism of Darwinian evolution. Rickert, the neo-Kantian analyst of science and history granted that there were fields, such as geology, where the two approaches were mixed. Max Weber’s methodology of the social science involves combining the two as it combines explanation (erklaerung) with understanding (verstehen). Evolutionary theory similarly combines idiographic narration with nomological model building.

It is true that often neo-Darwinists portray their methodology and explanatory strategy as wholly nomological, aping the physicists, as do many social scientists that suffer from “physics envy.” However, this methodological self-misunderstanding does not vitiate the effectiveness of the actual mixed method applied. Steve Gould and some other evolutionists have explicitly emphasized, indeed reveled in, the historical aspect of geology and paleontology, and hence in the historical aspect of macro-evolutionary description of the paths of evolution. Mathematical population geneticists do indeed usually follow a wholly nomological approach, producing statistically predictive mathematical models. Similarly laboratory fruit fly and bacterial geneticists follow an experimental, nomological method. However, the Modern Synthesis involves tying mathematical population genetics and laboratory genetics to field work. The locus classicus of this was Dobzhansky’s founding volume of the Modern Synthesis, Genetics and the Origin of Species combining Sewell Wright’s mathematical genetics with laboratory fruit fly genetics, and fieldwork on wild fruit flies. Pure mathematical population genetics, which usual lacks access to independent measures of fitness of organisms, often uses numbers of offspring (or gene frequencies) in future generations to act as a surrogate for fitness. If this approach is taken literally, it is indeed vulnerable to the crude and usually though discredited accusation that “survival of the fittest” really means “survival of the survivors” and is a “tautology.” Replies to this by evolutionists and philosophers of biology include noting that “survival of the fittest” is Spencer’s not Darwin’s invention (though Darwin did take it over), and that the slogan is a gross oversimplification of the structure of population genetics. However, in fact the equation of population genetics with fitness represented by reproduction rates do fall prey to the accusation. The more effective reply is that fitness is not defined as survival, and that an engineering measure of fitness in terms of some sort of efficiency (as in nutrient absorption in Egbert Leigh’s examples, used by Lewontin in his influential article on adaptation) detaches the definition of fitness from the definition of survival and makes the population genetics results empirically testable. However, the fitness estimates must be made in each particular case for each species and environment, introducing the idiographic element.


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5 replies

  1. More fuel for the fire: “Score one for science this week. Evolutionary biologists were horrified by the news that a scholarly press was going to publish a work in favor of intelligent design. But a spokesman for the publishing house confirmed to Inside Higher Ed Wednesday that the book’s publication is on hold as it is subjected to further peer review.”

    Read more:
    Inside Higher Ed

  2. This is an interesting review, and I hope to write a proper response in the next couple of weeks.

  3. Steve Fuller is one of Richard Dawkins’ “enemies of reason” (go 4 minutes and 30 seconds into the clip).


  1. Gregory Sandstrom. In Steve Fuller’s Words: Intelligent Design « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective

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