Thursday 4 September 2008

Evolving consensus

Dissent Over Descent: Evolution's 500-year War on Intelligent Design, by Steve Fuller (Icon Books)

Steve Fuller’s foray into the frenzied debate about evolution and ‘intelligent design’ is, perversely, one of the stranger contributions to a row normally characterised by pedantry over Newton’s second law of thermodynamics and mind-boggling theories about dinosaurs. Fuller doesn’t defend the legitimacy of Intelligent Design (or ID) as a stereotypical foaming-at-the-mouth Christian fundamentalist, but takes the perspective of a postmodern atheistic liberal sociologist. Dissent Over Descent seems designed to wind up ‘new atheists’ and militant Darwinists, and is pretty infuriating when it comes to biological theory and the use of cogent argument.

The book is divided into seven chapters and each asks a question, like, ‘Was Darwin really a scientist?’ or, ‘Is there really a scientific consensus?’. The first chapter iinvestigates the ‘social construction’ of the current consensus that says evolutionary theory is right, citing the powerful influence of groups like the National Academy of Sciences in the US and the Royal Society in the UK as forces that carry undue weight. Fuller’s critique of their increasingly ‘Jesuit’ claims to authority is an interesting one, shown for instance in the recent change in the Royal Society’s translation of its own motto, ‘Nullis in Verba’, from ‘On the word of no-one’ to the more domineering ‘Respect the Facts’. Fuller notes these academies have an elite character, and describes how the current structure of science, with its reliance on funding and orthodox training, has lost something of the old amateur freedom.

Whilst on one level, being suspicious of elite organisations and challenging the unearned political authority of science is useful, Fuller misses the point that just because the elite believe it, doesn’t make it automatically wrong for the rest of us to agree. Suggesting circulating a questionnaire to gauge the opinions of lower ranking scientists and members of the public (as Fuller does) is at best a patronising sop, and at worst would allow ignorance to muddy the waters. Unfortunately for Fuller, there really is a scientific consensus: most biologists do believe in evolution and operate quite happily in an evolutionist paradigm. Fuller also misses the point that scientific training isn’t indoctrination; it’s a necessary discipline that enables a proper understanding of the often counter-intuitive and esoteric nature of the world.

The bad-tempered nature of Fuller’s critique comes through clearly. He cites scientific ‘fascism’, the corporatist ‘Nazi’ structure of the scientific establishment, and the ‘separate but equal’ status of science and religion (a reference to the racist Jim Crow laws in the Southern states of the US). Demonstrating ‘Godwin’s law’ (ie. the tendency for debates to degenerate into accusations of Fascism) on numerous occasions in your own book (a look at the index shows the Nazis alone are referred to on pages 17, 18, 45, 104, 131 and 177-8) just isn’t good technique.

As he goes on he picks at supposed contradictions in the evolutionist narrative in an attempt to pull apart the entire thing; ‘qualitative vs quantitative methods, field vs lab research sites, macro vs micro perspectives’. Unfortunately for Fuller, none of these contradictions come anywhere close to disproving the legitimacy of evolutionism, despite the diverse, rapidly changing and often difficult to follow brickbats he throws towards Darwinism.

One example is his discussion of the debate around the ‘molecular clock’, the theory that the more differences in accumulated in DNA sequences between organisms, the longer they have been separated in evolutionary time. Fuller finds a real, but now largely resolved, disagreement between palaeontologists and molecular biologists about the strength of molecular vs fossil data, claiming that palaeontologists aren’t keen on their ‘subordinate position’ in modern biology. Well, if they are subordinate, they’d better get used to it, as the two sciences have been synthesised to such an extent that many long running palaeontological conundrums related to human and other species origins have been conclusively resolved by genetics. Humans’ recent origins in Africa (as opposed to multi-regional development from Homo erectus), and the hippo’s evolutionary closeness to the whales and dolphins rather than the pig, are now established facts rather than disagreements over skeletal interpretation. Similarly, fossil evidence is used to calibrate the ‘molecular clock’ and help interpret genetic data; both branches of biology back each other up to create an increasingly accurate understanding of the reality of nature.

Fuller goes off on an even more bizarre tangent, claiming that as the use of fossil evidence to time splits between species (the ‘calibration’ mentioned earlier) relies on ‘the vicissitudes of the radiometric dating of trace elements in fossils’, biologists have ‘outsource[d] a crucial part of the story to physicists’ which ‘leave[s] open the question of whether the Cambrian explosion happened 5000 or 500,000,000 years ago’. It begins to look like Sokal Hoax territory. He objects to the use of the ‘language of design’ by evolutionists, teleological and purposive phrases like ‘selfish gene’ or even ‘useful mutations’, claiming that ‘’adaptation’ is a secular synonym for ‘design’ and ‘natural selection’ is a secular synonym for ‘God’’. To Fuller, concepts like ‘functionality’ imply a beholder or frame of reference to distinguish between it and ‘non-functionality’. This, to him, implies ‘theodicity’, a divine standpoint, which contaminates evolutionism, and means it’s unable to escape its historic connection with traditional theories of ID.

In one sense, Fuller is right; there is a ‘divine observer’ in any science: man. Science is an inherently subjective attempt to break down and then reconstruct objective physical reality in, for and using human minds. Of course it will reflect elements of human society; another of Fuller’s implied criticisms of evolution. However, this subjective reconstruction is still based on objective reality; whether something was subjectively described as ‘functional’ or not, it would still play the same role in nature. This is really the crux of the problem with Fuller’s tradition of ‘STS’ or Science and Technology Studies, a postmodern fixation on the subjective part of science; equally, their opponents in the ‘science wars’ were often guilty of overestimating the objective element and neglecting that science is an inherently human pursuit.

Fuller appreciates ‘the brutal honesty of Richard Dawkins’ that ‘organisms are just more or less successful vehicles for the transmission of genes’, and that other biologists aren’t so keen on the ‘profoundly alienating world’ created by this insight. It’s clear this lies at the heart of at least part of Fuller’s objection to evolution: Darwin’s insight into humanity’s animal nature accords us a ‘diminished cosmic status’ and reveals the ‘self limiting character of science’, calling evolution itself into question. He suggests the ID belief in human beings created ‘in imago dei’ will give us the progressive impetus to truly master nature.

It’s unfortunate that someone who tries to advocate a human centred paradigm has to retreat into such arrant cobblers in order to justify it. The ‘alienated’ world described by Dawkins in The Selfish Gene is a largely accurate one (in my opinion) of the natural world; genetic information which is more ‘successful’ at producing more copies of itself will increase in frequency in a population, meaning that population will change gradually over time in response to selective pressures. But even Dawkins gets there is something special about human beings, whose social character has enabled us to ‘rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators’ (1). A consistent humanism would take the legitimacy of scientific discovery on board, no matter how disquieting its conclusions.

All in all, Fuller’s book is probably a necessary read for biologists, as creationists will surely try and use it as ammunition in their continuing struggle; and despite its profound wrongness on all points of evolutionary theory, it is wrong in an interesting way, and throws up the odd, occasional insight.

(1) Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1976

Robin Walsh is producing a session on ’Is our behaviour determined by our evolution?’ at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 1-2 November 2008.

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Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

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