Darwinian Social Epistemology: Science and Religion as Evolutionary Byproducts Subject to Cultural Evolution, William T. Lynch

Author Information: William T. Lynch, Wayne State University, William.Lynch@wayne.edu

Lynch, William T. “Darwinian Social Epistemology: Science and Religion as Evolutionary Byproducts Subject to Cultural Evolution.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 2 (2016): 26-68.

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Image credit: Susanne Nilsson, via flickr


Key to Steve Fuller’s recent defense of intelligent design is the claim that it alone can explain why science is even possible. By contrast, Fuller argues that Darwinian evolutionary theory posits a purposeless universe which leaves humans with no motivation to study science and no basis for modifying an underlying reality. I argue that this view represents a retreat from insights about knowledge within Fuller’s own program of social epistemology. I show that a Darwinian picture of science, as also of religion, can be constructed that explains how these complex social institutions emerged out of a process of biological and cultural evolution. Science and religion repurpose aspects of our evolutionary inheritance to the new circumstances of more complex societies that have emerged since the Neolithic revolution. 

A key argument Steve Fuller makes for why intelligent design should be treated as a viable research program within science is that it can explain why science is even possible, while evolutionary biology cannot. For Fuller, evolutionary biology lacks an explanation for why humans can obtain knowledge in the first place, where knowledge is understood to be distinct from mere evolutionary success or instrumental rationality. Fuller wishes to revive ‘the idea of humans as creatures in imago dei for whom nature is therefore “intelligible”’ (Fuller 2008, 5). The fact that we can comprehend the world indicates that we have been designed in a fashion that allows us to see creation, in some sense, as God does.

At first blush, it is not clear what Fuller intends by this argument. Evolutionary biology can presumably give a nuanced account of how humans developed the cognitive capabilities that they have, showing how adaptation to changing environments in the prehistory of our species set the stage for the traits scientists employ every day in their scientific work. The ability to use tools, the increased size and complexity of the human brain, the development of social, cooperative behavior, and the development of modern language make science possible and each can be explained as the result of selection pressures in the environments in which our ancestors found themselves. Indeed, our understanding of the details of this evolutionary history have grown enormously in the past few decades as new fossil finds, genetic studies of human and Neanderthal populations, and reconstruction of past climate and ecology illuminate just how our species emerged from a process of natural selection.

At times, Fuller seems to suggest that the Darwinian picture of evolutionary history as purposeless makes science a psychologically uninspiring activity to engage in, while greater instrumental control over the world makes the role of human intervention and design a more significant component of modern science than detached observation of natural history at the root of Darwin’s work. Fuller speaks of ‘Darwin’s purposeless vision of life’ (Fuller 2008, 53) as if it would naturally lead one to have no motivation to do science in the first place, which he then spells out with a contentious reading of Darwin’s alleged dissatisfaction with the newly emergent concept of a ‘scientist.’ Theists have a privileged relationship with the history of science, for Fuller, shaping it in essential ways over its history, while atheists can hardly be understood to be able to do science at all, the prominence of atheists among science’s apparently self-selecting elite notwithstanding.[1]

Our ability to intervene in biological reality and shape and design life itself is held to reflect nature’s intelligent design and our special role in creation as a species that shares these divine characteristics. Such a ‘divine spark’ provides the real force of modern biology which Darwinism obscures: ‘The non-Darwinian history of modern biology, which goes from genetics to molecular biology to biotechnology, certainly vindicates the idea that nature has been designed with sufficient intelligence to be susceptible to purposeful human modification’ (Fuller 2008, 53). For Fuller, we engage in manipulation of the world through science and technology only because we have been designed by a creator who made the prior harmonious fit between representation and the world possible in the first place.

How did Fuller arrive at this distinctly medieval conception of realism and preordained harmony? Did not Fuller effectively dismantle the idea that human language could encode and transmit anything like a divine understanding of essences lying behind natural kinds (Fuller 1988, ch. 3)?[2] Does not social epistemology represent in some ways the extension of the Young Hegelians’ critique of religion to the critique of science, something evident in Fuller’s effort to root out residual idealist conceptions of the history of science (Fuller 1997, ch. 4). In demonstrating the residual religious character of doctrines in the philosophy of science, was Fuller not urging us towards a vision of the philosophy of science that grounds the field as ‘in and about the world’? [3] Why would the critique of science be accompanied by the renewed defense of theology, if the picture of science promoted by social epistemology was to show that it had to live by the social and material limitations of bounded rational agents rather than to be the product of reason in history, a secularized providence? Why go back to religion when one is debunking science?

To be sure, Fuller also warned us that language was productive of theoretical innovation, that the inability to monitor the dispersed conceptual extensions of an intellectual movement could result in the emergence of incommensurable perspectives from shared commitment. Perhaps I should not be as surprised when Fuller channels Priestley and Mendel rather than Marx and Darwin. Is the Cartesian demon at the start of Social Epistemology ultimately to be banished by a God that guarantees that we are not misled after all (Fuller 1988, xii)?

Rereading Social Epistemology after Fuller’s testimony on behalf of intelligent design in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, it is possible to see the emphasis on the social and material boundedness of science less as an invitation to extend the sociology of knowledge from religion and politics to science than the attempt to restore providential history to science, restoring the balance between forms of knowledge, science and religion, and in a Feyerabendian sense, separating science and the state, providing in the process a program of affirmative action for marginalized believers in a secular, scientistic world (Kitzmiller v. Dover 2005, 70-71). While a promoter of naturalism, Fuller believes that reflexivity may lead one to see that ‘naturalism cannot explain the actual motivation and/or the success of science’ (Fuller 2012, 271).

In the following, I would like to develop an alternative approach to social epistemology, following a different development of its key concepts, to try to envision a science of science, where evolutionary history informs our understanding of knowledge without resorting to Social Darwinism and without being construed as opposed to sociology—an approach Fuller criticizes as bioliberalism (Fuller 2006, 12, 30). In the process, I will develop a Darwinian conception of how science is possible as an alternative to Fuller’s conception, showing that science derives from abilities we gained from our evolutionary past, but that science as an institution is a culturally-reconfigured byproduct of evolutionary adaptive traits. The practice of science—as also religion—is not a ‘natural’ effect of our genes, but an ‘unnatural’ use of genetically-based traits, resulting in some degree of mismatch between our naturally evolved inclinations and our modern way of life.

This will also lead us to consider Steve Fuller’s transhumanism, which might otherwise have been seen as sitting uneasily with his theological proclivities, but in fact reflect his peculiar take of humanity’s unique mission in creation. In fact, Fuller may have unwittingly alerted us to the tacit theological limitations of transhumanist work (Shiffman 2015), something I will take up at the end by considering our continuing ecological dependence on nature, something ignored by the human-centered arrogance of monotheistic religion and scientism both. In short, I will develop a picture of social epistemology that is agnostic, Darwinian, and ecologically rooted rather than one tied to intelligent design, a special role for humanity, and a distinctly sociological view opposed to all biological limitations.

How is Science Possible?

As I have suggested above, there is nothing inherent to Darwinism that makes the activity of science difficult to explain, notwithstanding the difficulties contemporaries of Darwin may have had reconciling the doctrine with their prior beliefs. Fuller makes much of various expressions of unease, such as John Stuart Mill’s sense of unease that the ‘intelligibility’ of nature was eroded and the general move away from a conception of science as uncovering the hidden design of the Creator. Just as the transition to heliocentrism required the development of new languages to describe motion or to situate humanity in the cosmos, so too the denial of design brought about by Darwin required significant readjustments of previous ways of thinking.

The fact that belief in design motivated numerous contributions to science does not imply that the belief in design in justified. Curiously, only a naïve sense of realism would lead one to believe that the metaphysical ideas contributing to scientific theorizing in the past must be true if discoveries are made with their assistance. Time and again, in Fuller’s writings on design, he points to the heuristic role of religious belief as evidence that intelligent design should be treated as a legitimate scientific hypothesis.

Fuller might turn the tables—indeed, that is exactly what he does—in suggesting that modern design-oriented sciences like molecular biology or genetic engineering do not require Darwinism. There are two problems with this response, however. The first has to do with the limitations of would-be scientific perspectives that piggy-back on existing anomalies in ongoing science. The second has to do with a misunderstanding about how artificial selection and natural selection are related. I will look briefly to each problem in turn.

Heuristics and Hypotheses

The first problem with Fuller’s objection to evolution by natural selection is that natural selection is not just a dispensable heuristic behind modern biological discovery, but a hypothesis that has been tested against data in numerous fields, capable of generating novel predictions and revealing the convergence of evidence from new methods of tracking genetic change. Contrary to stereotypes about evolutionary explanation in the philosophical literature, evolution by natural selection has generated predictions about what kind of transitional fossils should exist and where they might be found, leading to discoveries showing transitional forms between sea and land animals (such as the Tiktaalik, a ‘fish with a wrist’ found in 2004), or the primate ancestors intermediate in form between apes and ourselves first predicted by Darwin (Wilson 2007).[4]

New techniques have added specificity, such as tracking genetic variation directly in and between populations, learning how to manipulate developing embryos to show how genes are activated in development to different purposes in different organisms, and identifying genes common to a wide range of animals and the variations introduced over time, such as the Hox genes shaping body symmetry from jellyfish to humans. Fuller treats the methodological diversity of such work as grounds for suggesting that some of the programs are falsely linked to Darwinism, since they don’t share Darwin’s natural historical methods. This is a curious response to a situation of convergence, widely lauded by scientists and philosophers of science, increasing the confidence that our understanding is not an artifact of one line of inquiry that could be faulty. In fact, Fuller’s criticisms of convergence in the past has been that allegedly independent lines of inquiry were subtly coordinated with each other, compromising their independence, not that independence of methods is a bad thing (Fuller and Collier 2004). An understanding of the dating of events in natural history does not only rely on carbon dating, so Fuller’s suggestion that a future (implausible) challenge to carbon dating would invalidate paleontology as a whole is vanishingly improbable.[5]

Darwin’s theory of natural selection is not a heuristic only, certainly not only a metaphysical basis for motivating scientific inquiry (which intelligent design is for Fuller), but a finding that continues to explain numerous discoveries and organize new programs of fruitful inquiry. We may put the point like this: Darwin’s discovery of another, viable explanation for the development of life than special creation made the assumptions behind belief in design subject to competition with another program. In that competition, design has fared poorly, and, at best, has sought to capitalize on shelved anomalies, a normal feature of scientific life that is not normally taken to discredit a research program.

I call this limited form of scientific criticism anomaly mongering. Focus on alleged anomalies (like Michael Behe (2006)’s statistical calculations of the improbability of the emergence of the cell from blind variation) have little force when a new scientific program is making lots of progress on its own terms, generating novel solutions from its own positive heuristics. (As we will see, scientists studying the emergence of evolutionary transitions to higher levels of complexity have wedded close attention to molecular mechanisms and evolutionary theory to explain how cells emerge.) By contrast, intelligent design was rendered merely reactive, pouncing on difficult, complex problems that have not yet been explained by natural selection and seeing them as, in principle, insoluble by Darwinian explanation.

Fuller rejects the validity of Darwinian scientists merely developing a tentative outline of possible solutions for unsolved problems in science, such as how the components of the biological cell come together into a unified form. Fuller takes to task ID theorist Micheal Behe for playing into this game of ‘in principle’ explanations, suggesting that he should demand equality with Darwinian biology so long as the proposed explanation remains unproven:

Behe would have been better advised to concentrate on a different modal argument: that something is possible does not mean that it is actual, let alone necessary. As long as evolutionists cannot bridge the modal gap between the possible and the actual in their core domain, the natural history of the Earth, the conceptual space remains for alternative explanatory scenarios for the emergence of the cell and other prima facie intelligently designed features of nature (Fuller 2008, 146-47).

With this rhetorical move, one can bring equivalence to ongoing research programs continuing to produce more and more insights, on the one hand, and invented (or re-invented) hypotheses not connected to this kind of generation of novel research and requiring commitment to a preferred outside belief system, on the other hand. It is hard to see how science as a distinct approach to gaining knowledge of the world could continue if candidate hypotheses to ground research programs are expanded without constraint based on extra-scientific motivations not well integrated with the ongoing development of knowledge in scientific fields over time.

The ongoing process of scientific work engages and recasts the built up inheritance of the past in a way that necessarily directs our attention in particular ways judged to be fruitful extensions of that legacy. While there are certainly grounds for challenging established orthodoxies or supporting minority views in science as my discussion of variant evolutionary theories will show, there is no precedent for the kind of wholesale revival of outmoded scientific thought that would require beginning again to remake broad areas of science from scratch.

Intelligent design (ID) theory does not come equipped with ready-made alternatives for all the variety of scientific approaches that support convergence for Darwinism. Indeed, Fuller (2008, 144-45) facilitates his case for ‘affirmative action’ in science by treating ID and Darwinism as equal to the extent that there exists a mix of different biological phenomena which will appear at first glance to be jury-rigged (in keeping with Darwin) or purpose built (in keeping with intelligent design). After this equality in science is obtained at free cost, if you will, by comparing the prima facie plausibility of two free-floating hypotheses detached from ongoing connection (or lack thereof) to research programs, Fuller introduces the metaphysical trump card that even jury-rigged phenomena will appear to fit a larger purpose in the fullness of time, given some role in God’s plan. This is playing at the game of science to get a hearing, then using theology to win.

But it goes against everything that we normally use to judge whether a science is making progress or not. If we instead see that the enormous explanatory advances that have been made with Darwinian biology are integrated with ‘actually existing science’ and not with the hope (and a prayer?) of creating one, if only more foot-soldiers can be recruited by a social epistemology-led rhetorical appeal, then we will not find this effort at equivalence convincing. A no-cost, salad bar approach to explanatory hypotheses to be made into the basis for research programs evidences a curiously ahistorical approach to scientific knowledge for the founder of social epistemology to make. Moreover, if a false equivalence is created and the case is left for future science to determine, it does little good to keep explaining new discoveries of Darwinian biology in ID terms after they have been generated. Intelligent design ceases to act as a program capable of generating new insights in those areas where Darwinism is active. Just as is the case with much of the interaction between science and religion, religion—and, by extension, intelligent design—maintain its credibility by limiting the scope of its explanatory coverage to what has not been explained by science.

Human Design

The second problem with Fuller’s objection to evolution by natural selection is that nothing in Darwinism implies that design is not possible by humans. Fuller (2008, 86) argues that the idea ‘that humans might bend the course of natural selection to satisfy their desires … was alien to Darwin’s entire line of thought’. Nothing could be further from the truth. Darwin motivated his discussion of natural selection by appeal to the artificial selection then kicking into high gear during the time he wrote. Indeed, Darwin’s experience with the breeding of pigeons taught him that different selected breeds of pigeons did not correspond to distinct wild species. Belief that breeds derived from wild species underwrote the view of other naturalists of the time that if artificial selection was abandoned, the different breeds would revert to the distinct, specially created species from which they were derived.

By contrast, Darwin argued that all the variability generated by domestication of animals and plants reflected real changes brought about by human selection (Darwin [1859] 2003, ch. 1). Thus, in contrast to the belief that individual species were specially created and domestication was limited in the extent to which variation could be produced, Darwin argued for no distinct line between bred types and distinct species, making artificial selection and natural selection examples of the same process (Darwin [1859] 2003, 105). Darwin was arguing for a continuity between natural and artificial selection (including intermediate unconscious selection where our actions favor certain traits), with the natural variability driving natural selection also making possible the development of significantly different types from a single ancestral line (Darwin [1859] 2003, 116-18).

This amounts to the view that humans could change natural lines more than his contemporaries believed, albeit by emulating the natural process driving speciation.[6] This emphasis on artificial ‘design’ did emphasize human powers to remake animal forms based upon the great success animal breeders were finding in modifying forms. As Darwin put it:

One of the most remarkable features in our domesticated races is that we see in them adaptation, not indeed to the animal’s or plant’s own good, but to man’s use or fancy. … The great power of this principle of selection is not hypothetical. It is certain that several of our eminent breeders have, even within a single lifetime, modified to a large extent some breeds of cattle and sheep. … Breeders habitually speak of an animal’s organisation as something quite plastic, which they can model almost as they please (Darwin [1859] 2003, 113).

Artificial selection represents significant capacity for humans to alter nature in line with their interests by emulation of the process underlying speciation in nature.

Moreover, artificial selection is itself a form of natural selection in that humans have manipulated the environment to which domesticated plants and animals have been exposed. Humans and their activities, after all, constitute just another selection environment for the domestic animals under their influence. Artificial selection, itself, is just natural selection in a larger framework, where a species evolved (Homo sapiens) that is capable of transforming ecological relationships in significant ways, extending to a greater degree cases in nature where species alter the environments faced by other species, including what could be seen as anticipations of domestication among other species (Diamond 1998). There is even an entire field of evolutionary ecology addressed to niche construction, which shows how alterations in the environment by a species in turn shape future selection (Odling-Smee, Laland, and Feldman 2003).

Humans and beavers both design their environments and that process can be understood as part of natural selection. What we might conclude, based on Darwin’s Origin of Species, is that only with the intensified artificial breeding programs associated with English agriculture during the industrial revolution did it became thinkable that natural selection had shaped the characteristics of species in natural settings. More speculatively, it can be argued that were it not for the peculiar circumstances leading humans to adopt a sedentary, agricultural lifestyle, Darwinian explanations—and quite possibly science itself—might never have been invented by our species (more on this connection to agriculture below).

Analogical thinking provides one of the main explanatory devices that sociologists in the strong programme have employed to explain how social circumstances have shaped scientific theorizing. Social interests—like the desire to expand agricultural production among English landowners—led to the analogical extension of activities in the human realm to conceptions of nature. Human intervention through selective breeding allowed for the scientific discovery of evolution by natural selection. Whereas Fuller sees a focus on reconstructing functional design in biology as a sign that intelligent design is alive and well, the use of the concept of design in these contexts presumes that natural selection has optimized adaptation over time given the constraints of prior forms and the generation of genetic variability through mutations.

This is ‘as if’ design and its differences with intelligent design are seen by the retrofitting of evolutionary structures to new purposes rather than designing from scratch. Designing a bipedal hominin from scratch would have led to a better design for our vertebrae than we now possess as the result of evolutionary changes that drove our ancestors from the rain forest to the savannah, converting a quadriped to a biped as a result. Evolutionary solutions can be studied for the purposes of arriving at better engineering designs because nature, over the course of time, has had more opportunity to try out different solutions in the struggle for existence. Modeling design on natural cases does no more, then, than Bacon urged: using our knowledge of natural causes to modify nature with more facility.

That being said, there may be a point to focusing upon the ability of a scientific theory—especially one with the broad implications for understanding our place in nature that Darwinism has—to explain how scientific discovery is possible for humans as a species. To be sure, nineteenth-century conceptions of induction or abduction did not fare well in explaining how scientific progress had begun to be made in the few centuries leading up to Darwin. Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, argues for an unconvincing view of induction in defending Darwin’s science. Darwin’s conclusions were so unexpected that it was important to Huxley to show that the methods that led Darwin to his views were continuous with the methods that people use in everyday life to make sense of the world. As he put it:

The method of scientific investigation is nothing but the expression of the necessary mode of working of the human mind. It is simply the mode at which all phenomena are reasoned about, rendered precise and exact (Huxley 1863).

Induction from observations to generalizations did not in fact explain how Darwin arrived at his conclusions, but they did help to attenuate the conflict between the esoteric and irreligious conclusions of science and the methods of reasoning familiar from everyday life.

Let us put this point like this: the explanation given at the time of how scientific breakthroughs took place does not necessarily explain how in fact they were arrived at. At times, there may even be a systematic reason why the causes are obscured, even up to including normalizing the trauma of a dramatic cultural shift. The point is related to a more general point about the transition from a monological religious cultural belief system to a secular—and eventually, pluralist—belief system. In the transition to secularism, all manner of previously accepted explanations are disrupted in ways that may not be easy to explain right away. If God is not watching over us, why should people behave ethically? If the universe is not preordained, how is life not meaningless? How can atheists act morally (or conduct scientific investigations)?

The key point to notice about these complaints is that they depend on construing the rejection of one value system for the rejection of any values whatsoever. Arguably, non-theists themselves contributed to such developments, for example, through existential or nihilistic worldviews. That being said, the problem that secularism raises with regard to moral (or scientific) norms is the problem that is peculiar to the transition from theistic to secular social systems (incorporating the constraints of path-dependence in the change of social systems just as occurs with the history of life). Nothing inherent in a secular approach makes science or morality impossible, though it may take time to work out the reasons why given prior associations that were dominant in the old system: atheists as immoral, creation as providing purpose to life, morality as defined by a creator, and so forth.[7]

Core Anomalies and Cooperation

To begin to understand where the institution of science comes from in an evolutionary perspective, it is necessary to first deal with how cooperation emerges by natural selection. Science represents a distinct institutional deployment of various abilities we derived during our evolution as a species, repurposed to shape a new kind of activity, even an ‘unnatural’ one that, at times, fits uneasily with our default cognitive tendencies. Like Fuller, I argue that the concept of science should not be understood as referring to any kind of investigation of the natural world whatever, a mere extension of our tendency to observe and explain the world. Science is not an institution practiced by hunter-gatherer societies and even most agricultural civilizations had only a marginal and episodic place for natural science outside instrumentally valued mixed mathematical sciences like surveying and astronomy. Science as a modern institution puts together different evolved capacities of its participants in new environments that extend, challenge, and even stress human capabilities.

To understand how science emerges from an evolutionary perspective, it is necessary to first understand how traits redeployed by science initially emerged in evolutionary history, then consider the historical changes in human history that led to the construction of institutions—like science, but also governments and religion—that extended cooperation beyond small, co-present bands and deepened the division of labor typical of human societies. To even understand how complex forms of cooperation are possible, it was necessary for Darwinians to innovate the basic conceptual tools they had inherited from Darwin.

One of the ways conceptual change happens within science has to do with periodic efforts to deal with what could be called core anomalies. Anomalies in science have been shown to be omnipresent in science ever since Kuhn and Lakatos, which implied that the mere presence of anomalies cannot be taken as reason to reject a paradigm or research program (at least short of rejecting the enterprise of science as a whole for failing to live up to an a priori conception of knowledge). Most anomalies are shelved most of the time, with the normal work of science addressed to no more than a few problems at a time. In fact, if Lakatos’ spin on Kuhn’s concept of anomalies is correct, most innovative scientific work that can be seen to advance a given research program is generated by the so-called positive heuristic of the program, a heuristic for generating novel predictions of unexpected form, rather than make-work matching of theoretical assumptions to known anomalies. On this view, anomalies are rather marginal to most scientific activity (Lakatos 1971).

A partial exception would be what could be called core anomalies. Core anomalies can be seen as apparent implications of the hard core that seem to be obviously false or, at best, confusing or obscure. When new, overarching research programs like Darwinism or heliocentrism emerge (that is, basic patterns of explanation that may be fitted to use in different disciplines or subspecialities in different ways), there are often obvious problems that are exposed by comparison with the older approach that are glossed over, set aside, and returned to in a cyclical fashion as conceptual elaboration finds ways to deal with them.

For instance, in proposing a heliocentric model of the universe, Copernicus had to explain why objects fell to the earth if the earth was now a moving planet. He proposed a rather unsatisfactory idea that objects fell back to the area they were separated from, objects near the earth to the earth and objects near the moon to the moon. For Aristotle, objects fell to the center of the universe, which was the earth, as a function of the natural place that all heavy objects sought. Copernicus’ explanation was so unsatisfactory that it functioned as little more than a placeholder for some alternative set of physical ideas, as yet undeveloped, that became even more urgently required when Kepler (and Brahe before him) eliminated the celestial spheres.

Galileo’s efforts a half-century later to forge a new observation language for motion, incorporating a circular version of the theory of inertia and an incorrect theory of the tides, are familiar from Feyerabend’s analysis, which connects the episode to the positive virtues of counterinduction for science, whereby constructing a theory deliberately flouting the known facts leads to progress (Feyerabend 1978). It remained for Newton to develop the classical account of planetary motion and linear inertia, which in turn would be dusted off and reconfigured by Mach and Einstein. Conceptual change proceeds via dialectical reworkings of previously proposed core ideas and the same applies to conceptual innovation within Darwinism, which makes it more conceptually and empirically ‘progressive’ than contemporary intelligent design’s focus on a few shelved anomalies.

Cooperation is a good example of a concept that Darwin addresses by papering over a core anomaly in his system. Cooperation exists within the animal kingdom in ways that seem to go against the genetic interests of individuals as understood by the principle of natural selection. Extreme examples include altruism and self-sacrifice, since any tendency to act in this fashion would seem to be selected against by weeding out those members of a species possessing altruistic traits over time, compared to selfish members. This creates a puzzle for how such traits could ever emerge via a process focused on individual fitness. As Bourke observes, for Darwinism, ‘the expectation of selfishness has frequently been taken to epitomize the theory’ (Bourke 2011, 21).

Intelligent design would be taken for granted in Europe and the U.S. prior to Darwin as the basis of human cooperation, as humans would be understood to be created in the image of God, resulting in their capacity for good, including cooperative and self-sacrificial behavior valorized by Christianity. Evolution by natural selection sought to replace the traditional view of creation and the idea of a great chain of being, an example of what has been called ‘Kuhn loss’: the abandonment of previous explanations of known facts about the world with a new theory, that at least in one respect, shows a loss of content. In Feyerabend’s terms, Darwin engages in counterinduction by introducing an approach that seems to be opposed to known facts.

Of course, Darwin did not ignore the existence of cooperation, but he relied on a supplementary concept of group selection that looks tacked on to deal with the problem and does not fit well with his core principles of natural and sexual selection at the individual level (but see Wilson and Sober 1998). Since the mechanisms were not known as to how traits were passed on, the concept of group selection was not necessarily a bad one—it just was woefully underdeveloped and served as a patch for explaining a core objection to the new theory. The patch functioned very much like Copernicus’ patch did for heliocentrism—most scientists rejected the theory for a time and those that did not treated the anomaly as a problem to be solved at some time in the future. (Fuller routinely uses the lack of a mechanism of inheritance for Darwin to imply that his science as a whole was confused, an approach that would render Kepler and Galileo’s work similarly deficient.) The core anomaly actually encouraged periodic waves of conceptual innovation, which illustrates how most radical scientific criticism works by dialectically engaging dominant ideas rather than proposing one-off theories like intelligent design.

When a better explanation is finally given for the core anomaly, the history of the research program is retold with the claim that the new explanation was tacit within the larger program all along, now made tractable as a research program by the new theoretical breakthrough. Group selection was particularly suspect after the discovery of the function of DNA and the development of the modern evolutionary synthesis with its focus on individual inherited characteristics passed along in genes. With the identification of the units of evolutionary inheritance, it became possible for W. D. Hamilton in 1963-1964 to separate out the effect of selection for individual organisms and individual genes.

Now altruistic behavior could be selected for even when it went against an organism’s direct reproduction, since it may support the indirect reproduction of shared copies of the genes present in relatives and other members of the group (Hamilton 1963; 1964a; 1964b). This so-called inclusive fitness theory set the stage for Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene theory, which argued that it is genes that are directly selected for by evolution rather than organisms as a whole. The selfish gene theory became the basis for current, orthodox views of Darwinian inheritance, though it is by no means the only alternative within Darwinism.

Conceptual innovations were developed to explain why ‘cheating’ does not take place—how social forms don’t just emerge but remain stable—by uncovering evolutionary mechanisms for the development of emergent ‘social’ forms at various points in evolutionary history, from the development of multicellular organisms to eusociality in insects. Appealing to mechanisms that facilitate the emergence of hierarchical ‘individuals’ from lower-level units that must cooperate requires appealing to factors like relatedness, repeated interactions where reciprocity develops, the generation of mutual benefits, and punishments or other mechanisms to curb cheating that are common to the major transitions (Calcutt 2011, 38).

Higher level units emerge after having met minimal conditions for Darwinian evolution—individual phenotypic variation, differential fitness, and heritability—as well as additional conditions necessary for the development of higher order complexity (Godfrey-Smith 2011, 2009). Cooperation at the lower level makes selection for fitness at the higher level possible, as lower-level individuals specialize in advancing the fitness of the whole (reproduction and viability), reducing or eliminating their own fitness as separate entities. The process of ‘fitness decoupling’ leads to conflicts between levels that need to be managed by mechanisms that ensure that this cooperation does not break down (Michod and Nedelcu 2003; Michod 2011; Rainsy and Kerr 2011).

Developed originally as an alternative to inclusive fitness theory, the hierarchical view of social evolution or multi-level selection theory has been increasingly integrated with it by some practitioners, treated as a replacement by others, and treated instrumentally by still others. (Bourke 2011; Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson 2010; Nowak and Allen 2015; Goodnight 2000; Marshall 2011). Multilevel selection theory transformed the core anomaly of inclusive fitness theory (how is it that altruism is not counteracted by cheating that preserves all of an organism’s genes) into a puzzle anomaly that provides a workable basis for constructing explanations about how higher level cooperative units form and are maintained and essentially generalizes the discussion of individual self-sacrifice and group benefits to include the cooperation evident at all level of biological organization.

Summarizing this literature, Calcott and Sterelny (2011, 7) state that ‘it has become clear that cooperation has played a deep and important role in the evolution of life’s complexity, resulting in alliances both within and across species, and producing stable, reproducing, units that can be treated as individuals in their own right within a Darwinian framework.’ This approach suggests novel insights that themselves become the basis for research programs, such as the view of cancer cells as cases of ‘selfish’ cheating of normally cooperative cells within a multicellular organism (Leroj, Koufopanou, and Burt 2003) or the view of aging and death as a germ-soma conflict (Heininger 2002).

The broadening of the cases of ‘cooperation’ includes not only social acts by complex organisms, but also the emergence of cooperation at major transitions in evolution, such as the emergence of chromosomes, DNA, the cell, sexual reproduction, multicellular organisms, colonies, and human societies. Focusing on all levels of ‘cooperative’ biological phenomena gives greater conceptual depth to the explanation of one form of a larger category and situates it in terms of the emergence of new levels of complexity (Maynard Smith and Szathmary 1995). The core anomaly for Darwin was to explain why cooperation was possible at all given his principles. The core anomaly for inclusive fitness theory was to explain why cooperation was stable, for instance, why cheaters didn’t prosper in social species, an anomaly that suggested similar issues to researchers investigating why all cells in a multicellular organism did not choose growth over specialized roles within the larger organism.

Social control mechanisms expand beyond self-sacrificial altruism directed to kin and attenuate the conflict between individual and group selection, allowing the emergence of a higher-level individual subject to consistent selection at the new level (Sober and Wilson 1998, ch. 4). The hierarchical view offered a deepened explanation for cooperation, now including a broader conception of cooperation at different levels of biological organization, revealing similar patterns where larger structures develop in a manner dependent on coordination of behavior and functional differentiation of lower units. A core anomaly of the predecessor theory was transformed by both theories into a puzzle anomaly, making Kuhnian normal science possible on that basis until further conceptual change was dialectically introduced, allowing new methods of research to be generated. It is this dialectical and generative quality of conceptual change in Darwinian biology that is lacking when considering intelligent design.

Be that as it may, it becomes possible to explain how cooperation is possible among humans. Human cooperation is unique among the animals in extending beyond small group cooperation of genetically similar individuals and reflects the emergence of a genetically-based capacity for cultural transmission, which begins to evolve on its own (Boyd and Richerson 1985). As Richerson and Newson (2009, 106) observe:

Humans are rare if not unique in engaging in cooperation within large communities of unrelated individuals. Our unusual form of cooperation is part of our genetic inheritance. We are endowed with the mental tools for operating a cultural inheritance system.

Cultural evolution proceeds as certain cultural forms favor the survival of human groups, as our genetically-based capacity for culture makes possible the faster generation of a diversity of social forms. For a full explanation of the emergence of science, we need to couple an explanation of the emergence of the cognitive and social traits used in science with an explanation of the historical emergence of science as an institution. This historical transition shapes human traits like cooperation, tool use, language use, and the like into a specific organizational and cultural structure that facilitates the construction of explanations that look different than those arrived at by foraging societies in their engagement with the natural world. We need to look, first, for key historical events that shaped the growth of complexity in social forms, and second, the events that led to the establishment of self-replicating traditions of conceptual innovation and empirical investigation.

Agriculture, Religion, and the Origin of Complex Civilizations

Much of Fuller’s resistance to evolutionary explanations of human behavior seems to stem from a commitment to sociology as a distinct discipline heroically opposed to biological determinism (Fuller 2006). In this, he has good company among science studies scholars who otherwise do not share his views on intelligent design, but are concerned by the influence of racist and sexist stereotypes within the sciences of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. An entire generation of critical leftists in science studies and biology was weaned on the slogan ‘Not in our Genes’ and have seen the need for sociological and anthropological emphasis on the diversity of human societies to challenge the pernicious effects of biological reductionism (Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin 1984; see also Sahlins 1976).

While both sides of this culture war have been fortifying the barracks, new approaches have emerged that confound these distinctions (Laland and Brown 2011; Keller 2010; Stotz 2012). While evolutionary explanations have breeched their bounds within biology, spilling over into the social sciences, they have also in large part changed form, as evolutionary arguments are combined with historical and social scientific theorizing in new ways. While essentialist views of human nature continue to be pressed into service (Pinker 2002; Wrangham and Peterson 1996), increasingly evolutionary explanations emphasizing neurological and social plasticity among humans are combined with traditions of anthropological relativism to provide a new view of the relationship between human nature and social organization.[8] The need for an understanding of the genetic mechanisms that make cultural acquisition and cultural diversity possible underlay new evolutionary approaches to social learning:

A wide range of human behaviors that most people would think of as purely cultural (dress, greetings, food taboos, etc.) are actually 100 percent cultural and 100 percent genetic. Many behaviors are cultural in that they are socially learned by observation and interaction in a social group—social learning can then be understood as the foundational capacity that underpins what is typically glossed as ‘‘culture.’’ All culturally acquired behaviors, beliefs, preferences, strategies, and practices … are also genetic in the sense that their acquisition requires brain machinery that allows for substantial amounts of complex, high-fidelity social learning (Henrich and Henrich 2007).

Understanding the evolved genetic capacities for cultural acquisition lacking from other animal species is the first step in integrating cultural and biological explanations (and in some ways delivers on the promise of a reflexive science of science called for by the strong programme in the sociology of scientific knowledge).

The second step in integrating cultural and biological explanations is observing how historical change has reworked an evolutionary inheritance of a cooperative species, adapted to living in nomadic bands. This new view reminds us that for the bulk of human history, humans lived in small, mobile, hunter-gatherer societies. The course of evolution shaped human characteristics in kind. We evolved to live in small bands, each of which is organized around distinct social and cultural practices.

Nomadic foraging societies, despite their wide cultural diversity (already wider than the diversity of all other primate species combined), share certain common characteristics: they tend to be relatively egalitarian, lacking centralized political coercion, status groups, or organized warfare; are organized around a gender and age-based division of labor and food sharing; and transmit tool use to the next generation through expert instruction and practiced imitation (Heinrich and Heinrich 2007; Boehm 1999; Wynn and Coolidge 2012). Human social organization reflects not merely ‘free’ cultural choice, but ecological characteristics requiring more or less episodic cooperation among distinct bands, something distinguishing Homo sapiens from Homo neanderthalensis. (Johnson and Earle 2000; Mellars and Stringer 1989).

It is this general shared ability to create distinct human societies of a common form that evolutionary explanation helps to explain, but it requires a hybrid explanation to explain how societies more complex than the foraging bands typical of the history of our species and genus emerged. Rather than reducing complex societies to proto-racialized categories, the development of complex societies reflects cultural evolution as the result of demographic pressures unleashed by the transition to sedentary and, especially, agricultural societies. Complex societies resulted, in one sense ‘unnatural’ because they are outside of the experience of our species and stressed our evolved genetic ‘expectations’ in new ways (and may still be too new to lead to dramatic genetic transformations beyond some level of adaptation to agricultural diets). In another sense, these more complex societies are perfectly natural as they reflect cultural evolution made possible by our genetic inheritance.

The resultant forms of complex social organization (tribes, chiefdoms, and states in the standard formulation) all evidence some level of ‘mismatch’ between evolved human characteristics and the demands of these societies, since the levels of stress, altered diets, and cognitive demands placed on modern humans exceeds that typical of the environments to which our species evolved. Quickened technological innovation and diffusion have intensified our ability to extract resources and improved life in many ways, but at the cost of creating environments that are outside the ‘design’ environments of human evolution—to use the expression that Fuller finds to be a tacit denial of natural selection rather than the shorthand for the intersection of processes spanning the different time scales affecting genetic changes, environmental changes, and development.

In this sense, understanding the ‘design’ of an organism amounts to tracking the ‘net outcome of the interaction of evolutionary influences and the processes of development, which results in a mature organism with its particular characteristics’ (Gluckman and Hanson 2006, 7).[9] Such use of an intersecting understanding of different time scales illuminates how an organism can be mismatched to its current environment because nature had ‘designed’ it in response to selection environments no longer present. While humans are adapted to a broad range of environments, the influence of a mismatch based on our evolutionary design characteristics implies that adaptations that functioned well in ancestral environments may do poorly in modern ones. Evolutionary medicine and dietetics are two of the more well known fields to emerge in this ‘mismatch paradigm’ that builds on the intersection of evolutionary biology and social scientific study of modern environments. For instance, modern diets with greater availability of hyperpalatable foods high in fat and sugar may confound our evolved desires for nutritional components that were scarce in ancestral environments.[10] This means that understanding historical events that shift the impact of slower-moving genetic constraints requires an integrated understanding of biology and sociology that does not reduce one to the other.

A good example is the discovery that religious institutions going beyond simple shamanism mediating with animal spirits emerged as sedentary societies developed in the transition to agriculture. Within the area near where einkorn wheat was domesticated in modern day Turkey, a progression of archaeological sites from Gobleki Tepe to Catalhoyuk show evidence of a two-fold development of religious practices.

First, the archaeological evidence indicates the increasingly pervasive role of religiously significant, but mundane, practices that engaged buried (and reburied) ancestors within settled family houses. Presumably such rituals functioned to solidify the settled, family lineage rather than the mobile, band-level society of foragers.

Second, these rituals infusing daily life were punctuated by intense religious rituals involving a larger community, often at specific ceremonial structures. At these rituals, human control of nature was enacted by rituals involving the teasing, butchering, feasting, and display of wild cattle or other dangerous animals. Rituals emphasizing the cathartic engagement with wild, dangerous animals functioned to harness the threat of violence among humans now living in concentrated settlements that placed them in closer proximity to more people with fewer traditional remedies for conflict resolution.

There is no community unless there is something to prevent vengeance. Vengeance is overcome when a victim is found that all can fight against; then a solution has been found. The frightening god is thus good for community. The bull is made a scapegoat and society is reformed.[11]

Early ‘fierce’ religions functioned to make family and community life possible by turning evolved cognitive heuristics, like the so-called Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device (HADD), with its bias to attribute agency even in ambiguous situations to better avoid predators, to new purpose (Schloss 2009; Atran 2002, ch. 2). Similarly, the characteristics of intense religious ritual may be related to their capacity to trigger similar mental states given genetic and shareability constraints of human memory processing (Whitehouse 2004; Boyer 2001; Sperber 1996, Boyd and Richerson 2000). In this sense, the alleged ‘God genes’ that code for supernatural thinking do not create religion (Pyysiäinen and Hauser 2009), but exceptional historical circumstances that repurpose them do. While our ability to cooperate seems to be independent of religion, the role of religion in promoting intragroup cooperation, with cultural selection proceeding on that basis, may account for the role of religions in historical societies.[12]

Religion itself, in its post-Neolithic institutional forms, is an example of a historically mediated alteration in the expression of human genetic inheritance, enabling more complex societies to transcend prior ecological limits by increasing the division of labor and intensifying the extraction of resources from a given environment. Çatalhöyük supplemented the domestication of wheat, sheep, and goats with cattle by 6000 BC. This process of religiously-mediated domestication began the process of displacing ecological complexity and biodiversity through agricultural and technological intensification of resource use and accompanying transformation of the local ecology that has been our legacy since then (Naeem, Duffy, and Zavaleta 2012; Naeem 2009). The religious roots of ecological despoilation run deep historically. The demands that early religions placed on believers helped ensure that societies larger than nomadic bands could be made to work, at the cost of thwarting many of the tendencies towards egalitarianism, autonomy, and fission within foraging societies.

In order to make this new research on evolution work, integrated explanations incorporating cognitive science, experimental psychology, sociology, human ecology, and cultural anthropology have developed. New approaches incorporating these fields are more likely to avoid 1970s-style sociobiology explanations that effectively ‘reduced’ social organization to an effect of genes, mapping variation in culture to variation in genes and promoting a racialized interpretation. On such a view, sociobiology represented an effort at scientific reductionism, whereby sociology is to be replaced as a science by biology, just as eliminative materialists sought to replace sciences of mind by biophysics. Such a reductive view of the unity of science is not what we are seeing in new, interdisciplinary collaborations throughout the sciences, not only in the evolutionary sciences but in other fields as well (Klein 1996).

A different conception of the unity of science than the reductionist one prevails, one where fields may legitimately maintain contradictory findings for a time, but where the trend is for all fields to provide constraints on explanations in neighboring disciplines without regard for older reductionist hierarchies. Such a view of unity is closer to the vision of the sociologist in the Vienna Circle, Otto Neurath, than his compatriot Rudolph Carnap (Uebel 1992). Interdisciplinary work of this kind has generated novel insights and integrated understanding of phenomena from different fields. For example, the development of Dual Inheritance or Gene-Cultural Coevolutionary theory has lead to novel insights about the psychology of modeling and learning. The research builds upon psychology experiments about the role of visual cues in child learning that elicit imitation of high status adult models.

The results of these experiments help explain how cultural information operates in a different manner than primate ‘dominance’ hierarchies. The approach has been extended to experimental work in economics and anthropology, study of the diffusion of innovation, and the sociology of suicide (Chudek at al. 2011; Henrich and Gil-White 2001; Henrich and Henrich 2007). A genetically-based cultural capacity among humans produces a separate cultural level at which adaptations are selected, which in turn alters the environment faced by humans, thereby shaping biological evolution in turn (Boyd and Richerson 1985; Laland, Odling-Smee, and Miles 2010)

Integrative Evolutionary Science

Much of this new perspective has emerged on the margins of a variety of fields that tend to still be dominated by the picture of human nature as violent and warlike, and which still dominates college textbooks and popular science coverage (Schifellite 2011), but also at the margins of those fields that emphasize unlimited variability of culture without specifying a mechanism by which cultures are produced (Kelly 1995).[13] Like the case often in the history of science, when one takes a ‘snapshot’ of different fields, the established consensus may be a function of perspective as conclusions and conceptual distinctions that are important to one field or theory may be ignored altogether by another. An example is evident in the debate about whether ‘primitive’ human societies are warlike or peaceable. It is hard to even begin to sort out the evidence on this question when one group of scholars considers violent tribes like the Yanomamo within the same category as nomadic bands, when tribes emerged only with the beginnings of sedentary society and agriculture not more than 12,000 years ago (this for a species that’s at least 100,000 years old and a genus that is two million years old) (Ryan 2011).

Alternatively, emphasis on ethnographic variability was rarely combined with consideration of evolutionary theory, as the field of anthropology was sharply divided between physical and cultural anthropology. Human behavioral ecology combined ethnographic observation with formal models that look at the adaptive role of behavior given environmental constraints, an approach that mediated between sociobiology and cultural anthropology (Laland and Brown 2011, ch. 4). Evolutionary psychology likewise extended some sociobiological themes, but new experimental methods addressed to mechanisms of cultural inheritance have confounded some of these biologically reductionist approaches and highly speculative ‘just so’ stories. Even Wilson himself incorporated select attention to cultural evolution, while Dawkins’ ‘memes’ approach to culture at least raised the issue of cultural evolution. (Laland and Brown 2001, chs. 5-7; Lumsden and Wilson 2005; Dawkins 2006). If sociobiology-influenced work has dispersed into more disciplines, some of it has been shifted away from biological reductionism and questionable interpretations of social science topics in the process.

Even when the sociobiology debates emerged after the publication of Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975 (Wilson 1975; Segerstråle 2000; Kitcher 1985; Sahlins 1976), there were already thinkers who challenged both cultural and genetic imperialism. These early outliers were often vanishing mediators on the path towards the new, integrative approaches. It took unusual combinations of interests to bring biological and ethnographic approaches together at that time. An early pioneer was Paul Shepard, trained in ornithology and conservation biology, completing an interdisciplinary PhD in Conservation, Landscape Architecture, and History of Art at Yale University, who went on to various biology programs, eventually becoming Professor of Natural Philosophy and Human Ecology at Pitzer College and the Claremont Graduate School by 1973 (Shepard n.d.).

Shepard became an alternative voice within the ecological movement emerging at that time and anticipated E. O. Wilson’s concept of biophilia. His version of biophilia incorporated a developmental theory of human nature rooted in an understanding of how genetic ‘expectations’ tied to human neotoney are met through ritual articulations addressed to the place of wild animals in nature (Shepard 1973; 1996). Convinced that contemporary cultural practices systematically thwarted these genetic predispositions, he developed a systematic critique of civilization that usually has him classified in the primitivist strain of deep ecology. He is better seen as having anticipated current interest in ‘evolutionary mismatch’ within biology and evolutionary medicine. Fuller would likely not be impressed, as he sees evolutionary medicine as itself a return to the Nazi’s racial hygiene (Fuller 2006, 187—citing Nesse and Williams 1996; see also Gluckman and Hanson 2006; Gibson 2009).

Identification of Nazism with the core of the environmental world view is an important part of the effort by Fuller (2006, 189-90) to malign environmentalism by criticizing the alleged leveling of the distinction between humans (privileged by God in creation) and animals. Attention to human impacts on animal diversity or to animal rights is taken to displace care for humans, for Fuller. Such a criticism ignores deep divisions among radical ecologists, reducing all of them to Malthusians. Anarchist and ‘social ecologist’ Murray Bookchin (1971, 1987) produced an early critique of environmental Malthusianism. It should be noted that he also wrote a critique of the impact of pollution on the environment published prior to Carson’s Silent Spring (Herber 1962).

At the same time, Fuller insinuates that there is something amiss with Rachel Carson’s politics in a way that converges with right wing attacks on her environmental, precautionary politics. The right-wing claim is that concern for pesticides caused human misery by allowing malaria to ravage the Third World, in favor of protecting prosperous Westerners from cancer. The absurdity of this viewpoint requires some knowledge of evolutionary mechanisms, as heavy application of DDT leads to an evolved resistance in malaria, so the alleged callousness of Carson towards Third World sufferers of malaria by critics—who in fact only want to prevent regulation of the chemical industry—falls short.

Fuller nonetheless insinuates that she is a proto-Nazi by invoking the influence of occupational cancer researcher Wilhelm Heuper on her, who is alleged to have had Nazi sympathies, having sought a position in Germany after the Nazis came to power. Robert Proctor, whose work on Nazi environmental and public health science Fuller cites, did not seek to imply that environmentalism and public health research are crypto-Nazi sciences, but to show that fascism, and science under fascism, are more complex and problematic than normally admitted. The fact that sciences we now value were pioneered in part by Nazi scientists shows us that ‘fascism is nuanced and complex, and that its appeal went deeper than we are usually willing to admit, and in different directions’ (Proctor 1999, 7). For Fuller, the convergence between Nazi science on the one hand, and left environmentalism and precautionary politics on the other, underwrites counterfactual speculation intended to characterize the latter as fatally flawed (Fuller 2005)

Proctor, by contrast, explicitly warns of ‘a possible misinterpretation of this book … that there is a fascist danger inherent in any state-sponsored public or environmental health protection’ (Proctor 1999, 12). German interest in cancer research reflected its status as the most advanced industrial and scientific power at the time the Nazis came to power, with one of the highest cancer rates brought on in part by the new petrochemicals developed by the German chemical industry. Nazi support for a state-sponsored war on cancer reflected this scientific legacy, as well as practical interest in useful health science, combined with an ideological commitment to the purity and health of the German bloodline.

The complex interaction of authoritarian politics, ideology, and scientific work is evident in Soviet biology as well, where Stalin’s support for Lysenkoism negatively impacted Soviet work in genetics at the same time that aggressive preventative health campaigns and research initiatives were carried out (Kuznik 1987). Should we conclude that preventative health is inherently fascist or communist? Or is it ‘totalitarian,’ testifying to the common errors of non-democratic social systems? Or were all forms of the emerging warfare/welfare states at the time given to state investment in public health (Bobbitt 2002)?

The more relevant political fact about Heuper’s research in the U.S. context, as Proctor was at pains to make clear when considering the U.S. war on cancer, was the lengths to which DuPont and the U.S. National Cancer Institute went to suppress his research showing the carcinogenic effects of plastics and pesticides (Proctor 1995, 39-45). Likewise, Carson was influenced by the debate about nuclear fallout, where Nobel Prize winner Hermann Muller’s argument that very low doses caused genetic mutations was suppressed by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Early environmentalism was not a crypto-Nazi plot but a response to military and corporate indifference to the effect of modern synthetic chemicals and nuclear materials on human health. (Lynch 2015a; 2015b).[14]

Common to all of Fuller’s spin doctoring is the commitment to the idea that arguing for genetic or ecological constraints on what humans can come to be as a collective project is opposed to the spirit of experimentation and openness to risk that is essential to this human project. Precautionary approaches and ecological views that fixate too much on nonhumans reflect a politics that is inappropriately ‘karmic,’ like Eastern religions, as opposed to ‘anthropic,’ like Abrahamic monotheisms. By including Islam within the ‘good’ category, he probably technically avoids Eurocentrism, but this view does look like a retreat from his earlier, pluralistic world history of science (Fuller 1997). The upshot of this view is that paying any attention at all to the influence of our genetic inheritance distracts from the glorious future we can make when we transcend our biology as creation’s unique being.

In opposition to the precautionary perspective of environmentalist and health movements since Carson, Fuller argues for a ‘proactionary imperative’ connected with the ‘transhumanist’ project of transcending our biological origins for our theological future. He defines transhumanism as ‘the indefinite promotion of the qualities that have historically distinguished humans from other creatures, which amount to our seemingly endless capacity for self-transcendence, our ‘god-like’ character, if you will’ (Fuller and Lipińska 2014, 1; see, especially ch. 2 for transhumanism as a theological project of playing god). Instead of seeing ourselves as bound by biological constraint and ecological relations, we look forward to transcending these constraints, in a process of neoliberal eugenics aggressively promoting and valorizing risky genetic experimentation (Fuller and Lipińska 2014, 111-28). Evolutionary mismatch is too pessimistic and backward-looking on this view. Be that as it may, evolutionary mismatch as a way of reading our current predicament backward in evolutionary time is only one way of framing the issue. It is also apparent that our evolved characteristics as a species make possible traits that were not directly selected for but emerged as byproducts of selection for other reasons.

The ‘positive’ spin on evolutionary mismatch is an understanding of culture as a byproduct of biological evolution, not a trait directly selected for by natural selection. In arguing against sociobiology’s excessive focus on finding an adaptive function for every human trait, Stephen J. Gould argued that many traits connected with the human brain, from language to religion, were byproducts of the evolution of a large brain. He referred to such byproducts as exaptations, a neologism coined expressly to avoid the teleological connotations of its former term ‘preadaptation.’ The idea was that current traits may serve an entirely different function than the function for which the trait evolved in a past environment, just as feathers evolved for warmth and were repurposed by natural selection for flight, leading some to call exaptations of this type ‘coopted adaptations’ (Gould and Vrba 1982; Buss et al. 1998). Gould also used the term exaptation to refer to ‘presently useful characteristics [that] did not arise as adaptations . . . but owe their origin to side consequences of other features,’ a type of exaptation he also called a spandrel, after the unintended space created between a bridge and the arches supporting it.

On Gould’s view, language was a spandrel in the sense that it was a characteristic not selected for directly by natural selection, but a side effect of large brains that were selected for other reasons (Gould and Lewontin 1979; Buss et al. 1998). Further confounding the terminology is the idea that a feature could be selected for by cultural evolution (i.e. not via genetic changes and hence not an adaptation in the biological sense) that could nonetheless be adaptive for humans by promoting the survival and reproduction of groups. Common to all these different concepts is the idea that some contemporary human traits may not be biological adaptations, but byproducts of adaptive features that emerged in the past for different reasons. These byproducts may be adaptive, via biological or cultural evolution (exaptation or cultural adaptation), and they may also be functionally meaningless in not being adaptive in either sense (spandrel or intentional products of cognition not yet selected for) (Karmiloff-Smith 2000; Ingold 2001). Moreover, properties that are the product of cultural evolution may require ‘atypical’ reconfigurations of biological adaptations, such as using skills functional to Paleolithic foraging environments for quite different purposes requiring special cultural modifications to pull off.

The main observation supporting the idea that science emerged as a byproduct of adaptive traits that originally served other functions is that scientific reasoning does not come easy to humans and that even trained scientists are subject to significant cognitive liabilities that interfere with accurate inferences. The cognitive liabilities exhibited by laypersons and experts, made so much of in Fuller’s second book (Fuller 1989), are examples of the kinds of human abilities that function well in nomadic foraging environments, but are exposed for their epistemic weaknesses in modern societies.

Fuller’s interest in promoting the psychology of science reflected his interest in ‘an account of knowledge that acknowledges at once the depth of our natural liabilities and our aspiration to transcend them artificially (aka the scientific method)’ (Fuller 2012, 171). At that time, Fuller (1989) explicitly denied that science had the kind of essential unity he is now claiming, challenging existing naturalistic epistemology as inadequate because it was ‘modeled more on Aristotle than on Darwin’ (58) and urging that the field take ‘seriously the metaphysics underlying evolutionary biology’ (65). Evolutionary biology was taken to offer a model for the social science of science by dismantling essentialism about science via an umbrella science uniting diverse fields that examined distinct behaviors that were conventionally brought together under the label ‘science.’ This is the kind of model I develop in this paper.

Some of our evolved traits that are adaptive in ancestral and/or everyday environments positively interfere not only with ‘methodological’ aspects of science, but tend to block consideration and acceptance of specific ideas within science. Most notable in this context is the evolved tendency to sharply distinguish humans from animals and the commitment to biological essentialism (De Cruz and De Smedt 2012; Vaesen and Houkes 2014). Indeed, if you think about it, it is rather remarkable that we are able to carry out scientific investigations given human cognitive liabilities. The cognitive plasticity that allows humans to remake and relearn social practices reveal a remarkable process where cultural evolution finds a way to work within the limitations of human cognition, what Richerson and Boyd call ‘work-arounds.’ With the development of agricultural civilization and later, industrial societies, these highly successful societies resulting from cultural evolution needed to interface with a slower changing evolutionary inheritance:

The past 10,000 years has seen a race, supported by agricultural and industrial production, toward ever more complex societies. The ability of large-scale complex social organizations to produce public goods like defense, and economic security, and intangibles like an interesting life-style, powers the race, along with the drive of elites to secure special privileges. According to our hypothesis, this breathtaking increase in social scale and complexity has occurred so rapidly that it has not been accompanied by any significant changes in the human social instincts. In the face of a psychology adapted to life in small, egalitarian societies, cultural evolution has led to beliefs and institutions that allow deep hierarchy, strong leadership, inegalitarian social relations, and an extensive division of labor. These institutions are built on top of a social “grammar” adapted to a simpler world (Richerson and Boyd 1999, 265).

The lack of biological adaptations to complex societies are remedied by reworking older evolved traits for sharing culture into distinct kinds of cultural institutions, at once products of our cultural inventiveness and frustrations of our evolved social instincts. They are ‘a grand series of [historical] experiments at the expense of the social instincts’ (Richerson and Boyd 1999, 265).

This conjoining of disparate time-scales is significant: a slower genetic evolution is conjoined with a quicker-paced cultural evolution that it makes possible, responding to emergent ecological demands that previous intensification of resource extraction brought about (Johnson and Earle 2000). While cultural evolution as implemented by our species is unique among animals, cultural transmission does occur among other animals and the process of culture-gene interaction shows continuities with the interaction between the modification of environments by species and the effect on their genomes addressed by niche construction theory within evolutionary biology (Leland, Odling-Smee, and Myles 2010; Mesoudi, Whiten, and Laland 2006; 367-68). (Human uniqueness and our continuity with the animal kingdom are not opposed, as Fuller’s objections to biological inroads against sociology presume.)

It is our ability to adapt our environments that makes it possible to attenuate the ‘mismatch’ between evolved human traits and our current environment. In other words, even though we have adapted to live in significantly different societies than we do now, it is our ability to alter our environment in significant ways that means we can affect our future biological and cultural evolution by our interventions in nature (Laland and Brown 2006). We are not just stone-age humans because our stone-age inheritance enables us to modify our cultural practices and physical environments.

In our species, cultural evolution can result in a process where unique cultural articulations of our evolved genetic capacities are produced. As an example, consider the development of reading and writing, two of Gould’s exaptations. There are no genes that code for reading, as there are genes associated with vision or speech functions in the brain. Our ability to read depends upon ‘neuronal recycling,’ where we use older cognitive structures designed for object recognition for the new purpose of reading. New specialized neuronal patterns develop, in ways that have to be purpose-built by the developing brain, until reading becomes automatic, building upon frequent exposure to literate environments. The way this is accomplished can vary across cultures, as Chinese and English readers exploit different neuronal pathways, with the learning of a primary language slowing second-language acquisition (Wolfe 2007, ch. 1). The capacity for reading is a cultural invention that builds upon the brain’s plasticity to evolve ‘unnatural’ phenotypic traits that enable extended cultural transmission of information.

Forms of writing can serve certain functions to varying degrees and become in turn subject to cultural evolution. Early ‘token’ systems developed in the Middle East from 8000 to 4000 BCE probably first associated visual recognition with conceptual and linguistic areas of the brain for the purposes of symbolic representation, as evidenced by brain-imaging experiments comparing observation of characters with and without associated symbolic meanings (Wolfe 2007, 28-31; Petersen et al. 1989).

By 3200 BCE, Sumerian and Egyptian pictographic writing systems had emerged that exploited the character’s visual similarity to the objects represented. As time went on, the Sumerian visual associations increasingly became associated directly with words and then syllables in the spoken language, representing a shift towards greater abstraction. Brain imaging studies of Chinese readers decoding a similar logosyllabary writing system reveal a greater involvement of visual, spatial, and motoric (muscle) memory brain areas than phonetic systems, with muscle memory developing as the result of the repetitive copying of characters required for learning Chinese. Surviving Sumerian clay tablets reveal a similar technique was used for learning semantic and phonological groupings of words. Later forms of Egyptian writing began to include characters representing consonant sounds in their spoken language, although the use of hieroglyphic signs grew to the thousands slowing acquisition and spread of literacy.

The transition from ideographic to phonetic writing systems was a particularly important change that made representation of any word possible by a small number of phonetic characters with consequent changes in how the brain responded, allowing novice readers to learn to become efficient readers more quickly. With the emergence of phonetic languages, literacy could spread from specialized groups to a wider public more easily. Arguably, the production of novel thoughts was facilitated by the transition from oral to written language systems, with the former dependent upon structures of meter and rhyme to ensure memorization that limited novelty (Wolfe 1997, chs. 2-3; Havelock 1976). Modern cross-cultural comparison of brain images of readers of different languages show both commonalties in the brain regions activated and differences in localization that may reflect variations in efficiency and adaptability of writing systems for different purposes, potentially leading to cultural selection at the level of groups and of the language systems themselves (Bolger, Perfetti, and Schneider 2005).

Cultural Evolution and the Historical Emergence of Religion

Returning to the new evolutionary explanations of religion will set the stage for an evolutionary explanation of science, insofar as both illuminate a crucial characteristic of integrated understanding of biological and cultural evolution. From an evolutionary perspective, cooperation has represented a core anomaly that has been reworked by a variety of approaches within evolutionary biology, beginning with the theory of inclusive fitness. In explaining cooperative social enterprises like religion and science, the core anomaly is brought into sharp relief and motivates the incorporation of perspectives from different disciplines to manage the different time scales and causal processes at work in shaping these institutions.

As Scott Atran puts it:

Explaining religion is a serious problem for any evolutionary account of human thought and society. Roughly, religion is (1) a community’s costly and hard-to-fake commitment (2) to a counterfactual and counterintuitive world of supernatural agents (3) who master people’s existential anxieties, such as death and deception (Atran 2002, 4).

In order to make explanations based on inclusive fitness or multilevel selection theory work for this instance of ‘biological’ cooperation, they must be integrated with accounts of how human minds and social organization are implicated in building cooperative institutions in historical time, with emerging complexities that transform the character of these institutions almost beyond recognition.[15] Among the key historical transformations that defy any reductive, one-to-one mapping of religions with genes coding for them, are

1) the development of Shamanistic religions by human societies undergoing the transition to (or intensification of) behavioral modernity (sometimes called the Human Revolution) (Lewis-Williams 2002; McClenon 1997);

2) the development of imagistic religions with emotionally intense revelatory spiritual encounters, especially those developed in the early history of sedentary and agricultural society (Whitehouse 2004; van Huyssteen 2010; Whitehouse and Hodder 2010);

3) the development of doctrinal religions with repetitive rituals and complex theology binding together large-scale agricultural societies, including the monotheistic religions at the core of Fuller’s account of modern science (Whitehouse 2004); and

4) modern, pluralist religious systems, part of a consumer-driven, market-oriented landscape of competing institutions emerging in secularly organized states after the demographic transition.

It should be noted that Fuller (2009, 61) discusses point 4, showing that secularism is not equivalent to the rise of atheism, but a shift from a producer to a consumer-driven approach to religion, particularly evident via the U.S. Constitutional separation of church and state. I agree with this analysis, but would add that this has a tendency to lead to more deflationary interpretations of religious doctrine in public discussion, even among religious believers, as when believers credit all religions with a piece of the truth.

Such deflationary tendencies lead many religious believers to abandon any attempt to hold science accountable to criticism based upon religious doctrine, seeing it as not the role of religion, so that Fuller’s efforts to use religious ideas to criticize modern scientific beliefs and practices goes against this evident trend in modern, secular societies (Taylor 2007). Fuller opposes this trend vociferously, explicitly criticizing scientists who find grounds to reconcile their religious beliefs with Darwinism. An especially sharp criticism is directed at those who testify on behalf or evolution as self-declared religious believers in U.S. legal settings related to creationist or ID cases, with Francisco Ayala compared to the Pharisees (Fuller 2008, 107).

A countertrend to secular deflationism certainly exists among fundamentalist movements that construct a critique of modernity out of a particularly contentious repackaging of traditional religious ideas. It is not clear that Fuller would be comfortable with these kind of fellow travelers (or they with him), given other aspects of his belief and program, although his appeal to biblical literalism (Fuller 2008, ch. 7) and his sometimes conspiratorial counter-Whig history that reclassifies the list of Lakatos’ ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ in the history of science, put him closer to that camp (Lakatos 1999). An example of this counter-Whig history is Fuller’s suppressed history of design in science, valorizing theologically motivated scientists like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Isaac Newton and Gregory Mendel over those like David Hume and Charles Darwin. Darwin is considered to be not only mistaken in his tendency to agnosticism, but to have led us down the wrong path in science (and morality) altogether (Fuller 2008, ch. 3). Fuller (2009, 67) argues that ‘as Darwin lost touch with his Christian roots, his science lost touch with its humanity.’

Another example is Fuller’s treatment of Peter Singer, who is seen as displacing an emphasis on human uniqueness inherited from the Abrahamic religions (and shared by older versions of leftist politics) for an emphasis on animal rights, biodiversity, and the ethical requirement to limit human populations to allow other species the right to exist. It is here that we see the kind of insinuation of moral impropriety familiar from right-wing attacks on the pro-choice and right-to-die movements, seen as pincer movements behind a vast, conspiratorial eugenic movement. As Fuller (2008, 104) puts it: ‘It is no accident that Peter Singer has been promoting the moral status of animals, while campaigning for the easing of restrictions on abortion and euthanasia in humans.’[16] Red meat for Fox News viewers this may be, but it is a curious way to argue against Singer’s philosophy, and rather dismissive of those who support pro-choice movements or assisted suicide on humanitarian grounds.

But then Fuller also criticizes the environmental movement as a whole, insinuating that environmentalism is contaminated by the original support for ecological thinking of the Nazis, which likewise is taken to be revealing of the hidden and conspiratorial motives of leftist environmentalism. Likewise, emphasis on the precautionary principle, introduced to prevent a recurrence of the worst abuses of polluting and dangerous technologies promoted by military and corporate sponsors, is derided as hamstringing our ability to remake nature and ourselves into a new thing, humanity 2.0. (Fuller 2011). It should be noted that some Darwinians also support transhumanism in seeing evolution as slowly liberating humans from embodiment (Taylor 2010).

In any case, Fuller’s opposition to Darwinism, his criticism of environmentalism, his climate skepticism (Fuller 2002a, 47-48; Riggio and Fuller 2015), his promotion of risky technologies over precaution, and his transhumanism are all of a piece, united by an effort to restore the integral place of religion in science and put humanity back on the path of dominion over the world. Seen in this light, Fuller’s recent political musings look a lot more like the odd fusion of free market economics and biblical literalism associated with the U.S. right wing than his earlier work arguing for a quasi-socialist management of science and a revisionist critique of the influence of the Cold War on our ways of thinking about science (Fuller 2000, 2002b).

Science as Evolutionary Byproduct

The dynamics of intellectual communities in historical societies build upon the basic dynamics evident in the evolved capacity of humans to transfer skilled expertise within human communities evident from archeological understanding of the diffusion of tool use among humans and Neanderthals. Within the archeological record, infrequent technological innovation is combined with evidence of quick diffusion, with literal ‘circles’ of expert/apprentice learning situations evident through sites where stone-tool construction was taught, along with transference between groups. Reconstructing how expertise in tool use is transmitted illuminates more general characteristics of expertise in our species (Wynn and Coolidge 2012; Sterelny 2012). Such transference of skills requires prestige-based patterns of imitation that focus attention on salient aspects of the task that are taken up by intellectual communities whose tool of choice is abstract language (Chudek et al. 2012; Henrich and Gil-White 2001). Specialized languages taken up by intellectual communities can function like markers of ethnicity do in defining in and out-group membership.

Moreover, the conceptual conservatism within both religious and scientific traditions can be understood as being built upon the prestige-based learning model. As it turns out, experiments in psychology and behavioral economics support the idea that humans learn by emulating high prestige models across the board, which represents a more efficient way to quickly adopt practices that will be reliable on average, compared with individual, trial and error learning. This is brought out well by findings which show that even when participants in a trial succeed on their own, they alter their own beliefs in accord with community findings.

In one experiment simulating investment strategies, ‘individuals with the highest payoffs (of the three) still moved their beliefs toward the other two. It is as if players adjusted their beliefs by doing a kind of payoff-weighted average of their own beliefs and others’’ (Henrich and Henrich 2007, 18). Clearly, religious belief systems exploit this tendency of our inborn learning system, but so too do intellectual and scientific instutitions, which rely upon enculturation within defined research programs to direct inquiry in ways judged to be most likely to be fruitful. Within these socially transmitted belief systems, different mechanisms for modifying beliefs exist, but they all begin with the transmission of dominant ideas through apprenticeship made possible by our evolutionary inheritance.

Intellectual communities with their own particular dynamics emerge as the deference-to-expertise model is coupled with the invention of written language in early agricultural civilizations, though the continuity of distinct schools in history still crucially depends upon face-to-face interactions employing the same master/apprentice model as early tool users (Collins 1998, 25-27). What sociologist Randall Collins calls the ‘law of small numbers’ of intellectual communities is shaped by the limitations of attention span available to intellectual communities (about three to six distinct, competing schools of thought across generations, which can schism or fuse as neeed) (Collins 1998, 30, 81).

This structural constraint of intellectual fields makes sense given anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s discovery that humans are limited to about 150 significant, close, affective relationships, what has been called our Dunbar number (Dunbar 1992; Hill and Dunbar 1993). This is because competing schools require mobilizing allies and pupils who will spread the school’s ideas across time and space. Members of a school need to have had shared, emotionally intense, ritualized experience with a school’s leading figures and their ideas. While close, face-to-face interaction organized ritualistically around symbolic objects defines the dynamics of intellectual communities, as it does foraging bands, the transmission of the written products of intellectual communities helps ensure that the members of an intellectual school can extend beyond continuously co-present members and that the products of one group can influence another. Just as religion had done within agricultural civilizations, intellectual communities put together larger social structures than can be done within band-level societies, creating institutions that ‘enhance’ human nature, if you will.

The eventual separation of religious and scientific intellectual communities into distinct type of institutions with different mechanisms for developing ideas and altered community structures for doing so can be traced back to the sixteenth and seventeenth century (with anticipations showing up in prior civilizations, especially in the mathematical sciences). While there has been a popular historiographical argument denying that anything like modern science emerged prior to the nineteenth century (Cunningham and Williams 1993), with its coinage of the term ‘scientists’ and the development of a professional role for scientists, the emergence of what look like expert ‘core sets’ in areas of modern science that highlighted focused competition on tractable questions took off during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A function in part of an ever more highly differentiated division of labor in the intellectual sphere, combined with emergence of national states from central, ideological control by the Catholic Church and the growth of market capitalism, the development of self-regulating, international, and problem-oriented sciences represented a shift away from dominant patterns of intellectual production.

Trendy disavowals of the existence of a ‘scientific revolution’ notwithstanding, the origins of new, more dynamic research programs, especially those modeled on the mixed mathematical sciences and systematic experimentation, and the formation of scientific associations to support them, represent a crucial shift in the character of knowledge production (Dear 1995; 2012). It is at this time that Latourian actor-networks become more prominent, incorporating ‘nonhuman’ actors, from specimens collected from around the world, laboratory artifacts, and new scientific tools within social networks of ideas. The new networks do not need to compete at the level of philosophy as a whole but can form ever more specialized sub-communities addressed to decomposable problems subject to eventual consensus and rapidly replaced by new ones, freeing up intellectual space to be exploited by growing numbers of specialists (Latour 2005).[17]

While not completely severing a connection with either theology or philosophy, the new approach to mathematical natural philosophy and experiment represented a new level of cooperation—a transition in cultural evolution, if you will—directed at the formation of ‘cross-breeding networks and rapid-discovery science’ (Collins 1998, ch. 10). These networks crucially channel attention in manageable ways appropriate to our species’ capacity to work with a limited number of co-present humans to sustain attention to a common problem, combined with the dispersal of wider networks that engage other small group networks. Thus, while sociologists of science have tended to emphasize the trusting relationships of small groups of humans at the cutting edge of scientific fields (Shapin 1994; Collins 1985), it is equally important to modern science that the results of each field be shared with other, distinct small groups in different fields, requiring that the cooperative work of science as a whole involve relatively ‘decomposable’ and ‘transportable’ solutions that can travel through wider networks, occasionally innovating core set work by their lack of integration into disciplinary core sets (Granovetter 1973; 1983).

Such networks were bound to run into conflict with older authority structures, even if the product of such research did not often challenge the starting assumptions of the natural theology motivating much of the work. Theology was seen as the queen of the sciences, and scholastic philosophy was similarly held more fundamental than the marginal activity of low-status mathematicians like Kepler and Galileo (Westman 2011). One doesn’t need to endorse later Enlightenment-era myths about an inherent conflict between science and religion to see that the net result of the struggle for autonomy and priority for the new mathematical sciences pushed for by religious believers like Kepler and Galileo was ultimately threatening to the design tradition Fuller sees as launching science.

Thus Fuller is surely right when he declares that ‘[m]odern science is an outgrowth of the secularization of Christendom, itself a descendant of the medieval Islamic quest for a unified understanding of a reality created by a God who is bound by his own actions.’ (Fuller 2006, p. 131). With the emergence of a largely self-sustaining scientific enterprise with this inspiration, the metaphysical roots of this vision were slowly jettisoned as irrelevant, or even positively impeding the new research networks and their increasingly internally-defined developmental trajectories. If the goal of understanding the religious roots of modern science was merely to counteract the caustic and ironically antievolutionary view of religious thinking propounded by the new atheists like Dawkins and Harris, then I would be in full support of Fuller’s arguments, as would many historians of science who have documented the influence and impact of religion on modern science. However, Fuller’s normative politics of science amounts to trying to reverse the differentiation of the modern research system in a way that requires that core set ‘relative autonomy’ give way to intrusive external regulation and interference, coupled with an attempt to simulate the dynamic structure of scientific research communities through programs tailor-made to the alienation of wider social movements from aspects of contemporary scientific knowledge.

While the social organization of modern science should by no means be seen as optimal—or else there would be no need for normative social epistemology at all—the plan to remake scientific institutions and programs without regard for properties of the existing system that function well in generating knowledge would be a mistake. The tension between a differentiated, dynamic, self-selecting research system and social systems still organized around religiously-based family and community structures (not to mention national and ethnic identities) is real, and reflects the fragile social context for modern science first raised by Merton and generally ignored by science studies theorists today in their rush to define all representations of nature produced by any human society whatever as equally scientific. Facilitated by the assumption that science is whatever scientists say it is, the anti-Mertonianism of contemporary sociology of science ironically cleared the way for Fuller’s project of rebuilding sciences from the ground up as like-minded would-be scientists agree to get along in the same way.[18]


In making the case for a reevaluation of Darwinism, Fuller separates out allegedly misleading and ideological Darwinian elements from true roots of discovery in modern biology:

At the time of writing, no Nobel Prize in the biological sciences (aka Physiology or Medicine) has been awarded to a Darwinist for work that requires being a Darwinist. To be sure, the Neo-Darwinian narrative is promoted by the scientific establishment, and its ideological function in banning religiously inspired arguments from scientific discourse is transparent. But if we focus on both the general drift of funding for biological research and its multifarious social impacts, they have been more to do with life’s generative capacities than the sheer historicity of life (Fuller 2008, 204).

This statement falsely distinguishes generative and historical components, when in fact Darwinism’s attention to historicity flows from the ‘generative’ dimensions of science that produce variations that can then become the basis of selection (Lynch 2001). Moreover, it is easy to see from a list of Nobel Prize winners and the reasons for their award that Darwinism is central to many of the recipients’ work going back to James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins’ 1962 prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA. Contrary to the bromide prevalent among defenders of ID, evolutionary theory was central to molecular genetics, with Crick crediting Mendel, and molecular genetics, with elucidating the mechanism behind Darwin’s theory, together supplying the key to the secret of life (Crick 1990, 23-25). Subsequent Nobel laureates contributed to a better understanding of these mechanisms (http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/). 2009 winner Jack Szostak’s research on chromosomes and telomeres even set the stage for laboratory production of replicating RNA strands that illuminate the transition from chemical to biological evolution in the emergence of the cell, Behe’s preferred anomaly (Blain and Szostak 2014; Behe 2006).

My sketch of developments in the past half century also reveals a proliferation of theoretical perspectives extending and deepening Darwin’s arguments, as well as expanding their role beyond the biological sciences, incorporating alternative disciplines and methods, and rethinking the categories of each part of Darwin’s explanatory scheme. For instance, treating the selection environment as static and unchanging has been challenged by studying how organisms themselves modify their environments, in turn affecting their future evolution (Odling-Smee, Laland and Feldman 2003).

The vision of ‘random’ mutations have been challenged by showing how existing mechanisms already selected for in the organism channel genetic mutations through epigenetic mechanisms in particular directions and promote constrained modifications of the genetic code, accelerating ‘evolvability’ to new circumstances while conserving core processes (Kirschner and Gerhart 2005; Vermeij 1987; Callott and Sterelny 2011).   In addition, distinct levels of evolutionary processes have been uncovered apart from natural selection of individual organisms that were the focus of the modern synthesis. Besides a more accurate understanding of the causal mechanisms underlying genetic inheritance, Darwinian processes have been identified across the range of physical and social sciences.

Probably the main remnant of design-thinking still playing a productive role in science is the place of the anthropic principle in cosmology, something Fuller makes a point of discussing. The anthropic principle specifically factors in our existence in seeking to understand the universe, noting life’s seeming improbability given counterfactual physical parameters that would have led to quite different outcomes devoid of life. Strong interpretations of the principle have a Lamarckian feel, whereby the universe is striving to produce life (Barrow and Tipler 1986). An argument can be made that the universe was designed to support life based on the existence of a narrow range of characteristics that make life possible. Even here in the heart of the remnant of theology in science there are still two points that need to be made vis-à-vis intelligent design theory.

First, the anthropic principle is not separate from Darwinian reasoning and elements of modern physics suggest that the anthropic principle may explain why we are in this particular universe suitable for life, as opposed to uncountable variant universes less hospitable where no one is around to notice. On the ‘multiverse’ interpretation in cosmology, our universe since the Big Bang is only one of many self-contained universes, all with different physical parameters and laws. However, only in those rare universes capable of supporting life will there be observers who can notice—and be puzzled by—the fact that their universe is set up ideally to support life. If we are here, then we are not getting a random sample of universes (or time periods of an evolving universe), but suffer from selection bias—the original view of the anthropic principle as proposed by Brandon Carter (2011).

Second, even if one uses the anthropic principle to argue that an intelligent being created the universe with us in mind, it is clear from both modern physics and evolutionary biology that the mechanisms by which this happened were via physical, chemical, and biological evolution by natural selection, not special creation. Nothing in the anthropic principle implies that evolution does not work by ‘blind’ natural selection, once the right parameters for the laws of physics have been set into place. This is not even the guided evolution perspective, a compromise view supported by Pope John Paul II that accommodates theology and science, by allowing that Darwinian process will occasionally be interrupted, for instance, by inserting souls into evolving primates (John Paul II 1997). Rather, we have a creation event followed by the inexorable workings out of the natural laws and initial conditions set into place by the designer.

Whether the hypothesis of God is ultimately dispensable I cannot say with any authority. There is a sense in which science not only cannot answer that question, but is set up in ways that require it to dispense with such a hypothesis for more tractable ones. It could well be that science ‘unfairly’ excludes religious interpretations of the data it uncovers, but it does so for reasons of its own. They have less to do with an ideological pogrom by elite scientists against popular belief than the fact that, as a matter of historical experience, arguments of design function poorly as continuing drivers of scientific research, whatever their historical role in generating the institution of science itself.

Fuller (2008, 224) refers to science usurping theology’s function as a ‘bloodless coup,’ rather than the result of a settlement of the formally declared war between science and religion. He does so on the basis that the information theory interpretation of genetics implies that materialistic and Darwinian science is giving way in practice to a new book of nature that is closer to what theology once was, but that science has refused to own up to this situation. I would see it as a result of the evident inability of the old theological presumptions to guide scientific theorizing in anything more than a loosely motivational fashion (‘Let’s explore Gods’ creation’) or though the use of heuristics that do not have a tight connection merely with religious thinking (‘DNA as information’).

Indeed, Fuller refers on numerous occasions to the distortions of the ‘track record’ of ID theorists, compared to Darwinians, where his conception of what the track record is taken to be involves the counting of contributing scientists who believed in ID versus those who believed in Darwin. This tallying up of the suppressed history of design in modern biology is carried out without any demonstration that the discoveries produced by loose association of alleged ID theorists were logically derived from research programs that required a commitment to design to do their work and were themselves generative of novel predictions. It is, consequently, a very different sense of a track record than that promoted by Lakatos as a way to judge the competition between research programs.

One of the more diffuse attempts by Fuller to define a non-Darwinian trajectory in modern biology involves an appeal to the distinct methodology and ontology of molecular biology, seen by Fuller as unfairly wedded to Darwinism by ideologically motivated narratives of the history of science. The fact that scientific methodologies interpret the underlying mechanisms studied by molecular biology as ways of storing information does not imply that a materialist vision of physical causes has given way to an idealist one where matter is merely the substratum for loading up on spirit. The residual, theological baggage that may have accreted to certain conceptions of information is an obstacle to our understanding, not its secret, hidden message.

Distinct methodologies, each with different ways of talking about the same natural reality, do not imply that one must choose between them or reduce one to the other through a reductionist philosophy of science. Where Fuller treats the variety of methods within the biological sciences as evidence of (unacknowledged) schism, scientists and philosophers of science see them instead as evidence that convergence on a more accurate view of the world is occurring. At the very least, the ‘interactive stabilization’ evident through the growth of interdisciplinary science in recent decades indicates that proposals that radically challenge that integrated structure are unlikely to find a toehold in science.

In a democracy, people should be encouraged to think for themselves and interpret and reinterpret what the experts tell them about the world, in line with other beliefs that have and other traditions of inquiry they find valuable. No shared, public religious belief system remains in our new, privatized, consumer-driven cultural moment that can be as international, as intersubjectively compelling in its production of new knowledge, and as dynamic as the modern institution of science has become. In this sense, science has replaced religion as the form of complex, organizing institution for a modern world system, what religion had been for agricultural societies. This helps explain why science has become pervasive throughout society and is implicated in virtually every aspect of everyday life.

On the other hand, as community and private belief systems, religion is alive and well and unlikely to be eliminated any time soon, certainly not by polemical attacks by the likes of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, ignorant as they are of the evolutionary imperatives behind religion having to do with the nature of our thinking and our social organization.[19] Within the body of science, Darwinian arguments do not suffer from the limitations and weaknesses that Fuller describes. Rather, evolutionary thinking is being expanded, revised, and integrated with other methodologies in a way that makes it difficult to believe that it isn’t here to stay. Whether it has a monopoly on truth, whether other traditions of inquiry have their own integrity as ways of understanding the world, are questions that have led some, like Feyerabend before and Fuller now, to ask us to see that a broader view of the underdetermination of theory by fact implies that witchcraft or natural theology may be no different than science in some sense (one is reminded of the claim by Collins and Pinch (1979) that there is nothing unscientific going on in parapsychology).

Fuller (2008, 227) explicitly proposes that (all?) excluded views purporting to possess viable scientific research programs based upon heterodox views be provided with ‘the resources normally needed to amass and promote research teams, including access to jobs and journals.’ This amounts to demanding state expansion of funding for any and all research agendas endorsed by an often scientifically ill-informed public, a ‘socialistic’ program of far-reaching impact, requiring in this case that Fuller’s anti-evolutionary allies put aside their fear of the ‘tax and spend’ liberal behemoth.

At the same time, the program of setting up a parascience with the trappings of modern science to support an outside agenda through reinterpretation of the considered judgment of the scientific community has been carried out systematically by corporations threatened by the findings of science, from tobacco companies and chemical companies looking to defend their products as safe to oil companies dissatisfied with theories of anthropogenic climate change (Oreskes and Conway 2010). These ‘merchants of doubt’ and pharmaceutical companies looking to expand their markets have exploited the breakdown of older models of science funding to begin to unravel the ‘Mertonian’ norms of science in a way that risks endangering the integrity of science (Mirowski 2011). The brute fact is that despite all the uncertainty and potential openness of scientific work to alternative perspectives, the institution is unlikely to preserve what most people value about it if it is extended too far from what makes it function as an institution. The urge to open up science with a social epistemological hammer should be done with caution.


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[1] In Fuller (2009), he asks ‘What has atheism ever done for science?’ On the higher percentage of irreligious views among elite scientists compared to the broader population of scientists, see the surveys of the National Academy of Science, where membership is an elected honor and disbelief in God comes in at 85% (Fuller 2009, 57), compared to that of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where membership is open and 51% believe in God or a higher power


[2] Although it should be noted that Fuller does have a nuanced, Hegelian, and performative—or shall we say, ‘non-literal’—sense of biblical literalism. See Fuller (2008, 212, 217-19).

[3] Fuller (1991); Radder (1996). See, especially, Fuller (2004, chs. 10-12), where Fuller’s critique of tacit religious presuppositions in philosophical discourse begins to tilt towards the development of a theology of science.

[4] Asa Gray (1860) objected to the extension of Darwin’s explanatory scheme to humans unless transitional forms could be found, as he doubted, in essence recognizing a risky prediction inherent to Darwin, that has been confirmed many times since then.

[5] One might compare the Vedic-inspired critique of paleontology, similarly grasping at sporadic anomalies in the historical record, found in Cremo and Thompson (1998).

[6] Thus, Darwin (1859/2003, 118) notes that the great impact human selection can have on natural forms nevertheless depends on natural variability as its engine: ‘He can never act by selection, excepting on variations which are first given to him in some slight degree by nature.’ Fuller denigrates the significance of biodiversity (Fuller 2006, p. 165), with its support for limiting human simplification of nature, but it would seem that biodiversity is a precondition for human intervention, not its opposite. Prospecting for useful chemicals in Amazonian rainforests, before they disappear for good, is a good example of this intimate connection between natural diversity and human technological capability.

[7] That Fuller (2009, 77) endorses at least some of these prejudices about atheists is made clear in his discussion of what he calls Fuller’s wager (after Pascal’s), where belief in God even given the non-existence of God has no cost but ensures that at least he ‘may have done some good in my lifetime.’ For point-by-point refutations of the idea that meaning and value are impossible without belief in God, see Aronson (2008); Flanagan (2007).

[8] Note that the poor empirical justification of evolutionary psychology’s ‘just so’ stories and its tacit naturalization of human inequality continue to exercise critics who compare the field unfavorably to anthropological studies of human diversity. See, for example, McKinnon (2005), who, however, ignores the alternatives discussed below that integrate genetic and cultural explanations.

[9] Fuller (2008) argues that temporal ‘action at a distance’ makes Darwinism occult, but there is nothing mysterious about the way evolutionary history carries forward causal chains within the genes (and for cultural evolution, via minds and artifacts) through time. A general denial of the propriety of appealing to the remote effects of past events in shaping present possibilities would make historical knowledge impossible, including the appeals to history Fuller makes throughout his work.

[10] Exactly what mismatch means is a subject of dispute, as evolutionary psychologists have appealed to a sometimes mythical Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) that is poorly connected to evolutionary biology’s understanding of the multitude of adaptations emerging in our past evolutionary history. See the limitations of EEA discussed in Laland and Brown (2006) and Buller (2005, 58-63), which point out that humans traits can depend on very ancient or very recent evolutionary pressures (rather than a single environment or an average of environments) and human cultural evolution makes possible alterations in the environment to ensure that the environments match our adaptations, ameliorating mismatch. However, despite these theoretical doubts, the concept of supernormal stimuli in modern environments—in food, information, social media, images, and the like—show significant differences with past exposures, leading to obesity, information overload, social isolation, and sexual dysfunction (Barrett 2010). While we can remake our environments thanks to our technological and cultural ingenuity, injections of insulin fail to completely correct for the negative impact of modern diets, for instance.

[11] Hodder and Meskell (2010, 47). For conflict resolution among foraging societies, see Fry (2007).

[12] Thus, Pyysiainen and Hauser (2009, 108) note: ‘Moral judgments … appear to operate independently of one’s religious background. However, although religion did not originally emerge as a biological adaptation, it can play a role in both facilitating and stabilizing cooperation within groups, and as such, could be the target of cultural selection. Religious groups seem to last longer than non-religious groups, for example.’ See also Johnson and Bering (2009); Sosis and Bressler (2003); Atkinson and Bourrat (2011); Henrich and Henrich (2007).

[13] It should be noted that Kelly (1995) channels cultural relativism by undermining essentializing typologies of foraging societies via ethnographic variability (ch. 1), but also emphasizes variation in the individual adoption of prevalent cultural traits in order to accommodate a synthesis of evolutionary behavioral ecology and cultural evolution/dual inheritance theory (ch. 2).

[14] On the reckless experimentation and lack of precaution by U.S. and Soviet military scientists, see Brown (2013)

[15] In Whitehouse’s cognitive theory of modes of religiosity, historical triggers are needed to coalesce the modes as distinct configurations of ritual activity, memory, and social organization in response to external pressures (Whitehouse 2000, 77).

[16] Fuller traces the roots of Singer’s approach to the rejection of design and support for suicide and euthanasia among the ancient atomists and Epicureans. See also, Fuller (2006, ch. 9), where Singer’s leftism is found wanting due to his ‘karmic’ borrowings from Darwin, whereby an understanding of how we evolved places limits on what we can be, in contrast to Fuller’s ‘anthropic’ emphasis on our central role in the universe as creators of our own destiny licensed to engage in risk and transform our environments.

[17] See Collins (1998, 524), who notes that ‘[a] network of techniques and machines now comes into symbiosis with the intergenerational network of human intellectuals.’

[18] It is interesting to note in this context, that the concept of cultural and group selection, adapted from evolutionary biology, provides a basis for reviving functional analysis within sociology against the flood of rational choice theory eroding sociology’s fundamental insight (Wilson 2002, ch. 2). As a result, Darwinian approaches may end up supporting the very features of sociology as a discipline that Fuller (and myself) value most.

[19] For a critique by an atheist of the new atheists’ distortion of religion and their failure to grapple with the evolutionary and cognitive science of religion, see Haidt (2009). For an argument that religion functioned to enable humans to transition from isolated bands to successful general-purpose transformers of natural environments by ramping up cultural group selection, see Wilson (2002).

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