Prof. Steve Fuller – An Intelligent Person's Guide to Intelligent Design

Prof. Steve Fuller is Professor of Sociology, University of Warwick
Seminar on Wednesday 25 January 2006

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From the outset, I would like to give you a sense of what this issue is about and why it arises the way it does before moving on to talk about the larger and more conceptually oriented issues.

Many of you probably know that the United States constitution is founded on the separation of the Church and the State and that has a lot to do with the nature of the original settlers. This is especially true in the northern parts of the United States where many were religious dissenters in Britain who were not allowed to participate in political office or have much influence at all – despite the fact that many of them were quite wealthy people – just because they were not members of the Church of England. Many of these people settled the original colonies of the United States so when the constitution was finally established in 1787, one of the main articles ensured that people could never be excluded from participation in public life because of their religious affiliations. There would be no State Church and there would be no way of enforcing a State Church, especially through the educational system.

That raises another issue about the way in which education is governed in the United States; there is no national Ministry of Education that could enforce a National Curriculum, which is different from most other countries. Instead, in the US, education decisions are taken at a very local level. Typically, curriculum guidelines are set at a State level but the decisions made in the selection of textbooks to meet these guidelines are taken at local levels, usually by the parent-teacher associations in various districts. This is why court cases that have to do with religion and science in the classroom have typically come from individual school districts.

For instance, the case I was involved with was in Dover, Pennsylvania, which is basically a suburb of Harrisburg, the state capital. It was not at all surprising that this small town traditionally consists of a population who are quite conservative in religious beliefs. Nonetheless, in recent years more people moved in from Harrisburg due to suburban sprawl and they tended to be quite secular and were concerned about the content of the curriculum, especially what was being introduced under the guise of science. As such, it was not at all surprising that this issue arose in Dover where a culture clash already existed in the population.

The beginning of this debate in the United States in terms of court challenges started in 1925 with the famous, so-called ‘Monkey Trial’: Dayton Tennessee School Board vs. John T. Scopes who was accused of teaching evolution. This case was made into a national media sensation because John T. Scopes (the defendant) was defended by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Over the last eighty years and including the Dover trial, the ACLU has probably been the single most active force in enforcing the secularisation of the classroom in the United States. Scopes was actually a substitute teacher and there was no evidence that he taught much evolution but he did use Hunter’s Civic Biology which was very much an evolutionary text. The final chapter of this book is the most controversial as it talks about the evolution of humans in a way – by our standards and bearing in mind that this took place in 1925 – that would probably be considered racist. That chapter comprised among other things, arguments for eugenics and racial superiority. This was in fact brought up in the testimony of William Jennings Bryan, the great champion of the local people against evolution.

Despite the media coverage of the trial and subsequent appeals (when Scopes lost the original case), the teaching of evolution did not get institutionalised very widely in the United States because it was fiercely contested throughout the twentieth century. One of the things to keep in mind here is that the history of evolution was not a steady linear progress growing from strength to strength starting with Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859.  In fact the history of the ascendancy of what we call the neo-Darwinian synthesis should give us pause for thought that there is some sort of straight path to scientific truth even if we accept the neo-Darwinian synthesis as being the truth. Indeed, there were long stretches of time when people thought that Darwin was as dead as the Dodo as far as biology was concerned.

The Origin of Species – which was published in 1859 – is what we would consider a popular success on many different levels, certainly not just among scientists. It resonated a lot with the laissez-faire liberalism that was very popular at the time, especially among the ascending middle-class culture of Victorian England. Nonetheless, you did not have to be a Marxist to subscribe to the views of this book; it received excellent reviews from right across the board. This was testimony to the fact that it was possible to be a biologist (although essentially an amateur one as Darwin did not hold university post) and a sort of ‘leisured gentleman’ at the same time. Also, it showed that he was a very good writer as he was able to address issues at multiple registers at once and to appeal to a very wide audience. This book was even enthusiastically embraced by conservative religious people, who took a line – which I think is quite common today among many such people – that God works through evolution. This idea was very popular even among evangelical schools up to the time of the First World War. Indeed, the First World War was an important watershed for people’s views about Darwin’s ideas.

Nonetheless, the point that has to be made is that Darwin’s popular success actually carried the book and the theory along even when doubts were being expressed by practising biologists. This is where the genius of being able to persuade at many different levels counts because the people who were most widely convinced were the social commentators and social scientists; people whom we call social Darwinists. They held on to the book despite the fact that many biologists were questioning core Darwinian ideas; for instance the mechanism of natural selection. After all, natural selection was presented as a metaphor from artificial selection, which farmers do when they selectively breed plants and animals. In other words, there is a kind of anthropomorphic origin to this idea of natural selection which suggests that nature behaves kind of like the way the human farmer behaves.

Darwin actually gives several different accounts of hereditary transmission in the Origin of Species (and other subsequent works), so quite frankly he never really worked natural selection out. Nevertheless, that is the lynchpin for the scientific status of this theory. The underlying concept of the Darwinian theory of evolution hangs on reproductive success over time so it is important to know how it works in terms of the relationship between the organism and the environment. Darwin did not work out the actual mechanism but simply left it as something that could be studied. This was, of course, because laboratory scientific genetics had not yet been developed. Interestingly, the tradition of biology from which genetics eventually came is not intrinsically aligned to evolution.

A neo-Darwinian synthesis was necessary because the line of thinking that Darwin was coming from was a kind of natural historical tradition. It looked at animals (and fossils for that matter) as whole organisms living in environments and ecologies and was really quite different from the pioneering geneticists. The first geneticists were very laboratory-based and had a strong background in the chemical and physical sciences (often coming into biology from physics). They had a completely different conception whereby they did not have any particular views about the age of the Earth, the sequence of species, etc. Rather, they were more interested in understanding reproduction to be able to manipulate it in agricultural contexts (this is where a lot of the early support for genetics took place). On evolutionary matters, they were largely agnostic. As a result, there were two streams of thinking and practice which ran along in parallel to each other.

As a Professor in the Social Sciences, the story of the co-existence of two streams of thought which deal with ostensibly the same subject-matter but from two different perspectives is a familiar one. In the Social Sciences, we have a branch which is more historically based, where the idea is to convey a historically or culturally specific message. A lot of Sociology is like this. Certainly most of Anthropology has been like this, and of course History is exactly like this. There is however, another branch of Social Science where one looks for an underlying mechanism and is somewhat indifferent to the extent to which these things have operated in history. This is because one’s intention is to make changes that would influence the situation now. We see this in experimental psychology and economics, especially when modelling economies. Clearly, there is a struggle within the Social Sciences – sometimes cast as a struggle between the qualitative and the quantitative, or between the macro and the micro – and it is one of the things that prevent any synthesis from taking place.

In a sense, the great genius of the Biological Sciences in the twentieth century is that a synthesis was produced from amongst disciplines that have a similar range of differences in terms of theoretical and methodological orientations as is seen in the Social Sciences. As such, people who trained in genetics before the 1930s would not have had to know anything about evolution because it was a historical discipline. They were more concerned about the mechanism that one could demonstrate in the laboratory.

Neo-Darwinian synthesis put these two things together. It says that the experiments with various organisms and mutations that were conducted in the laboratory are essentially reproductions of mechanisms that have been in operation for the past four billion years. This is something that has never been accomplished in the Social Sciences. No historian, anthropologist or sociologist has ever been convinced that the work that goes on in a psychology lab or economics computer simulation is actually a sub-structure of what has been going on throughout history. There have been attempts – perhaps the most famous is the efforts of Talcott Parsons (Head of Social Relations at Harvard University at the time) after the Second World War – to bring together all the disciplines of the Social Sciences in a sort of neo-Darwinian synthesis. Suffice it to say, it did not work.

I have given you this background because it conveys a sense of my interest on this topic. From my standpoint, the ne -Darwinian synthesis is a rare and very interesting achievement. It is, in a sense, an unnatural achievement as it brought together experts from fields like palaeontology, ecology, ethology, genetics and biochemistry. I do not think that there is any other covering theory that has people from so many different fields using so many different methods to contribute to its elaboration.

Philosophers of science are very impressed by this feat, which has led them to change the definition of a scientific theory. Incidentally, one of the questions raised in the Intelligent Design court case was whether or not Darwinian synthesis is ‘just a theory’. Among the things the School Board wanted the children to be told included a kind of intellectual ‘health warning’ which stated that evolution is ‘just a theory’. That was exactly the thing that the ACLU wanted to prevent including and eventually succeeded in excising.

This was offensive because it denigrated the epistemological status of intelligent design, which is the only alternative theory that aims to explain all the relevant phenomena about the nature of life. The connections between the overarching picture you get from the neo-Darwinist synthesis and the particular disciplines that are contributing data to it is looser than you would expect from, say, Physics. In the philosophy of science, we have traditionally set Newtonian mechanics as the benchmark of what a science is. So if we were to talk about hypotheses being testable and produce observations from theoretical premises by adding auxiliary and boundary conditions, we really have in mind a sort of souped-up idea of Newtonian mechanics. This theory could be expressed mathematically and different levels of physical reality can be inferred from one another in the form of a logical sequence.

Evolutionary theory is not a theory in that sense. Thus, to accommodate evolutionary theory, philosophers of science over the last forty years – in what has amounted to essentially a generational change – have had to say that a theory is not necessarily a deductively tight structure that provides a unified picture of phenomena. Rather, a theory is a collection of models. When we discuss natural selection, we could speak about the selection model, demonstrate it happening in the laboratory and in the field, and imagine it happening four billion years ago. This is a kind of model that one can use and apply in all these different contexts which can make sense of what is going on. It shows organisms generating variation, environmental constraints acting like a kind of selection device, the tracking of reproductive patterns that result from this selection, et cetera. Various organisms can be modelled in the same way.

Nevertheless, it is not a mathematically specifiable, deductively tight, theory such as Physics has traditionally produced. In that sense, if Newtonian mechanics is to be taken as a benchmark of the definition of a theory, evolutionary theory is not really a scientific theory. I am not saying that this is the stance you should adopt, but the point is that until about thirty years ago, that was the stance that was taken. The attitude of philosophers of science thirty years ago – like Karl Popper or Carl Hempel (the Logical Positivists) – towards evolutionary theory was that it is a metaphysical research programme.

Incidentally, that is also my personal view. If one looks at it carefully, one would find that there is actually a rather loose relation between the general picture and all the constitutive disciplines. One would then conclude that the neo-Darwinian synthesis provides a kind of inspiration that gives ideas and a framework, i.e., the positive virtues that are normally associated with a metaphysical framework. This, I believe, is the healthiest way of thinking about neo-Darwinian synthesis and indeed it is more powerful than anything else on the table. Of course, this is partly because it is the only thing on the table! Needless to say, it is difficult to get an opposing view when one has a single metaphysical framework dominating a whole set of sciences. A quote that is associated with me at the trial was my statement that ‘intelligent design needed affirmative action’. This refers to the sense in which the neo-Darwinian synthesis is the one and only show in town.

One of the ways in which you can see that this is a metaphysical view is a very disturbing phenomenon that took place seven years ago, when the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America – the advisory council to the President (of self-selecting great scientists) – issued a remarkable statement about the definition of science. For them to suddenly require a definition of science in 1998 suggests straightaway an attempt to exclude certain parties. That definition states that science requires ‘methodological naturalism’. I am trained in the history of the philosophy of science and this term does not sound quite right. Naturalism is a metaphysical position that has something to do with the singularity of nature – that is, that nature as empirically understood is all there is.

Historically, naturalism as a term in philosophy is associated with Spinoza against whom it was used as a term of abuse. It is essentially a kind of monistic world-view where God coincides (or is one) with nature, rather than transcending nature as the Christian God does. There was a debate between naturalism and supernaturalism in the nineteenth century and as the tide turned more towards science, naturalism became a more positively inflected term. For John Dewey and others like him who called themselves naturalists in the twentieth century, the enemy was those who promoted supernatural views, i.e., theologians, etc.

Having said that, the philosophy of naturalism is today considered a relatively harmless view. This is because philosophers no longer argue with theologians. It is as if religion had disappeared from the philosophical horizon. As a result, the opposite of naturalism is thought to be belief in voodoo or spooks, essentially non-rational ideas that should not even be considered. Supernaturalism is thus not merely metaphysical but unintelligible. While this is an interesting sociological fact, naturalism is itself clearly a metaphysical position specifically attributed to Spinoza, who excluded the supernatural and denied any kind of transcendence.

Nevertheless, here we have the National Academy of Sciences saying that one needs to have this view in order to be a scientist. Furthermore, not only does the judge in the Dover case (in which I was an expert witness) subscribe to it but it also turns out to be the main talking point among the people involved in the case. Keep in mind that the trial was supposedly over the content of high school science textbooks. Nonetheless, the idea of students having exact, up-to-the-minute knowledge about a particular branch of biology was not really the issue. The issue was really at a more conceptual level about how science is being presented. That was why expert witnesses on both sides comprised not only scientists but also philosophers, theologians and historians. All kinds of people were offering their opinion on this because the question was what is inside as well as outside science.

Moreover, the idea of defining science in terms of methodological naturalism is to say that a scientist can be a religious person and there would be no imposition of any particular metaphysics on him. However, he would still have to abide by a few ground rules: belief in God or any kind of transcendental belief should not be brought into science work or class. Once the slaves were free in the United States of America, there was this idea of being ‘separate but equal’: black and white, each in their own place. The separation of religion and science enforced by methodological naturalism is somewhat like that: separate but equal. The judge reinforced this attitude by asserting that while religion is not false or wrong, it does not belong in a science class.

The main thrust of my testimony in the trial was that historically there is no such clear separation. Many scientists – who had what we would today call supernatural views – had posited causes that went beyond what most scientists of the day thought was natural and ended up developing quite good science. The examples that I brought up were Newton, in regard of his theories on gravity, and Gregor Mendel, the founder of genetics. Both men’s insights have been made the foundation of mainstream science and both were retrospectively anointed ‘honorary’ naturalists.  

However, science is done forwards, not backwards. So if one is thinking about the cultivation of ideas that might lead to good science, one has to ask: what are the kinds of ideas that stimulate the imagination of schoolchildren to enable them to go forward with such bizarre notions: notions that at some point can be tested and verified? In the history of science, it is clear that some great scientists – who were motivated in fact by considerations that went beyond the naturalistic facts of the day – were widely criticised. There is no doubt that if the Newtonian Law of Gravity – which as it is, was fiercely contested for a long time – was the only thing Newton had come up with, he would have been dismissed. Mendel, of course was ignored for forty years before he was rediscovered belatedly by the scientific community.

The point is that if we are to motivate students to think scientifically, causes that go beyond the natural level are just as much a part of that intellectual armament as those that stay within it. Mendel is a very interesting case because his findings went wholly against the thinking of evolutionists of the time with regard to hereditary transmission. Basically, he found that he was able to predict the kind of traits an organism would have, based on a study he conducted on pea plants. His supposition was that each generation of the pea plant will reproduce a particular type of pattern because the pea as a species is programmed with this. On the other hand, Darwin and other evolutionists believed that traits tend to blend into each other over time. Mendel disputed this and showed that there was the same programme in each generation of peas which can be expressed by a mathematical formula. He was – what we might term today – a ‘special creationist’. Not many like to call him that because Mendel is the founder of modern genetics, but he was definitely not an evolutionist. In fact, the evolutionists were the ones who rejected his articles that were sent to journals of botany at the time.

This seems to me to be a very important feature of the source of efficacious ideas about science. One needs to be open -minded about this and go beyond the boundaries of the naturalistic realm. This is the standpoint that I was coming from in the trial and the evidence that I offered to the court reflected this. Nonetheless, there is a great fear of religion entering into the science classroom in the United States of America (and not just there!). A lot of this has to do with the trauma of the founding of the country and the concern of having one church dominating public life. This appears to have contaminated a lot of the discussion about education and so religion becomes taboo, even in cases where it does lead to good scientific work.

This is a real issue in the United States of America, probably more so than it is in Europe. According to the polls, two thirds of Americans believe in some notion of compatibility between evolution and creation. In other words, many people do not think of themselves as anti-science but at the same time do not want to seem to be anti-God. This indicates to me that some sort of segregation is required if science and religion are to be kept apart. Also, court cases like the one in Dover reinforce the idea that Intelligent Design is motivated by religious ideas (as was expressed by the judge in the terms of his decision). After all, the main proponents of Intelligent Design like Michael Behe and William Dembski do not deny that they are religiously motivated. That fact in itself – to some – disqualifies their arguments from being science. We then end up having a scientific establishment which at a metaphysical level is very anti-religious, making it impossible for the introduction of an alternative metaphysical perspective to motivate science. This is despite the fact that ID’s alternative metaphysical framework has done considerable work throughout the history of science.

One of the problems with my argument is that the people who subscribe to the Intelligent Design idea are themselves not connected to their own history. When Intelligent Design theory is referred to today, one is normally speaking about the people who are funded by the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington – the great Mecca for Intelligent Design theory – and I think that this is a real mistake. It gives an artificial newness to Intelligent Design and diminishes its epistemological status because it is not sufficiently drawing from past precedents. After all, this kind of thinking actually brought about results which are now routinely taken for granted by science. In my testimony, I advised proponents of Intelligent Design to get reacquainted with their own history, to reposition themselves as a mature metaphysical research programme that cuts across established disciplinary boundaries so that it is a science of design rather than a science of biology. After all, Darwinism has in a sense defined the frame of reference for discussing biology. Intelligent Design overlaps in some parts but does not pose the same questions. As I mentioned earlier, Intelligent Design proponents do not necessarily have a view on the age of the Earth because it is a science of design. Indeed, I think that it is no accident that the type of people who are attracted to this view tend to come from laboratory-based sciences or mathematical sciences with a strong computer simulation orientation. These emphasise the role of the scientist as a kind of designer.

The other piece of advice that I would give to Intelligent Design proponents is that while religious precedents are good and clear to draw upon, there are also people with secular views that are worth considering. Herbert Simon – some of my Ph.D . thesis was about him – is one such person. He won the Nobel Prize in economics and was a political scientist by training who worked across the social sciences and also in some artificial intelligence research. Thirty years ago, he wrote a book called The Sciences of the Artificial which basically forwarded a visionary agenda about reorganising the sciences as sciences of design. This was the idea of considering the realisation of ends or form in matter and thinking about the various constraints that matter places upon form whilst looking at it as something that cuts across humans, animals, etc. This seems to me to be a concept that could be easily accepted by proponents of Intelligent Design. 

Another book that influenced the discussion about evolution in the mid-nineteenth century – about fifteen years before Darwin’s book came out – had this kind of theme as well and it was called Vestiges of Natural History, by Robert Chambers. It was a great, best-selling and scandalous book. It first presented all the knowledge about the fossil record and diversification of the animal species and went on to hypothesise that the various species that have become extinct were rough drafts in the achievement of God’s ultimate purpose, which is us. Needless to say, this outraged both religious and scientific establishments. However, this seems to me just another way of thinking about the whole issue of design. In fact, Intelligent Design theory can draw from quite a wide range of intellectual resources, some of them religious and others not. They do add a certain richness to this way of thinking as they offer ways of looking at a whole host of physical phenomena quite different from that which we take for granted in the neo-Darwinian synthesis.

Let me end by saying that the neo-Darwinian synthesis is primarily a rhetorical achievement of getting people from many different fields – who are doing radically different things – to think that they are all contributing to the same theory. If Intelligent Design is able to come up with a better metaphysical framework, I think some of these people can be taken along. This is the challenge that proponents of Intelligent Design face.




Dr. Andrew Hegarty: Might I just start by offering a story which, in a sense relates to this? It has been related that some years ago, George Bush Sr., the former American president (and not a man who was very good with words), was interviewed on television about his Second World War experiences, specifically the occasion when he was as an airman shot down in the Pacific. The interviewer asked him, ‘Mr. President, when that plane was going down, what were you thinking about in what might well have been your last moments?’. George Bush Sr. is said to have responded, ‘I was thinking about the separation of Church and State’.

The story, true or not, seems to me illustrative how of how deep that instinct is rooted on the other side of the Atlantic. You have looked at the situation in good measure from an American perspective. Are there not broadly similar patterns of scientific thinking where separation of Church and State does not exist in quite the same way, as for instance in parts of Europe?

Prof. Steve Fuller: I think that has a lot to do with the resurgence of fundamentalism generally. For example, I have noticed that among the people who are most attracted to Intelligent Design are a lot of Muslims who are also interested in pushing forward faith schools. On the other hand, I think that people who are very concerned about the spread of fundamentalism are very wary of touching the Intelligent Design issue. So I think the politically fraught nature of fundamentalism is part of it.


Russell Wilcox: It is very interesting to note a connection with the dispute between naturalism and the supernatural of which you spoke and two debates within traditional Catholic philosophy and theology during the early to middle part of the twentieth century. The first of these was the debate over whether of not there could be a peculiarly Christian philosophy. Etienne Gilson – the great scholar of medieval scholasticism – argued very strongly that there was a distinctive Christian philosophy that emerged in the medieval period, drawing its critical inspiration from Christian doctrine, but which nevertheless retained its own properly philosophical and non-theological integrity. The second debate was amongst theologians over the question of the relationship between nature and the supernatural. In this context, Henri de Lubac, following on in a certain way from the earlier work of Maurice Blondel, argued that the need for the supernatural was somehow virtually contained within the natural. It seems to me that these, each in their own way, offer potential intellectual models for the resolution of the present debate. Interestingly enough, towards the end of his life, Jacques Maritain – who was one of the great neo-scholastics – started to speculate upon the manner in which the philosophy of physical nature which was contained within the neo-scholastic synthesis could come to terms with and explain evolutionary development. In the process he came up with a number of very interesting speculative suggestions which are being re-visited by some philosophers today. It just struck me when you were talking about the numerous parallels which exist here, though in a slightly differing contexts.

Prof. Steve Fuller: I would like to make a couple of points relating to this last point with regard to the emergence of the supernatural through evolution…

Russell Wilcox: It is not quite that. Rather, it is the idea that the supernatural is presupposed by the natural. The last idea I was talking about – Maritain’s idea – was that the evolutionary mechanism can be fitted within the philosophical paradigm of Aristotelian-Thomism. In other words, it is quite possible to employ the notions of form and nature in the context of Darwinian evolution.

Prof. Steve Fuller: This last point is true not only among Catholics but also among Evangelicals before the First World War . I alluded to that before but never got back to it. Some movements were actually thinking of Darwin in those terms, at least among theologically sophisticated people. However, the First World War was actually seen by the Evangelical community as the failure, and indicative of the self-destructive nature, of science. Many self-proclaimed Darwinists were saying that war was inevitable and because of the struggle for survival and unprecedented levels of destruction, there has since been an Evangelical recoil – which we see today – against Darwin. Up to that point the Evangelicals were reconciling in all kinds of ways. They were thinking of theistic evolution, and ideas of that kind were very popular in seminaries in the United States up to the time of the First World War which had a very important role in turning people off from what might otherwise have been a kind of reconciliation.

Let me say something about the fraught issue of the supernatural and the natural thing within. When I was giving a rehearsal of the testimony that I was to give in the trial – the defense that I testified for was located at the Thomas More Law Centre in Ann Arbor, Michigan – there was a lot of concern about my mentioning of Newton on theological grounds. The question I was trying to answer was one about the role of the supernatural in science. What makes Newton the ultimate intelligent designer is that he really thought he was able to get into the mind of God. (The question of whether or not God exists does not really matter, although pre-supposing does help you do good science; look at Newton or William Whewell!) This is where man got the idea of the whole context of scientific discovery, that of getting into the mind of God, of accessing the laws of Physics as divine psychology.

Nevertheless, this is a potentially sacrilegious view, especially with the theological material that was backing up a lot of Newton’s thinking. People who have attempted to excavate this kind of Unitarian Christianity that he was promoting through Physics have got into a lot of trouble. An example of this in this country would be Joseph Priestley – the great chemist – whose house in Birmingham was burnt down and who eventually had to move to the United States of America. The point here is that when you get to this issue of rational theology – of trying to rationalise the supernatural – there is potential for someone like Newton actually getting into the mind of God to a large extent and really pushing our knowledge in a certain way. This raises questions about the closeness between human and divine intelligence: is it merely an analogy or could it be that the human can become divine?  

Clearly, this is a controversial issue and it is one of the reasons why a lot of the churches have either wanted to collapse the supernatural into the natural, or at least to restrict the supernatural from having too much of a free rein in science. This stems from a fear of the idea that humans can aspire to be divine in a more direct way. It is not that the supernatural does not lead to good science, but rather that there is a theological concern about the implications of Newton having figured out the blueprint of the divine plan.

It seems to me that there is a problem not just at the level of science, but also at the theological level. That is why I think religious people have not been very comfortable with the idea of a supernatural element in science which can be pursued as a topic of research. For those who are concerned about the relationship between science and religion, it is not just about showing religion as scientifically credible but also about whether the religious implications are acceptable. Many fundamentalists are really scared of Intelligent Design because of people like Dembski and Behe who go way beyond using the Bible as their evidence base. For instance, when Behe talks about ‘irreducible complexity’, he is trying to use science to figure out the joints at which reality is cut. He says that God creates cells holistically, not in a bit-by-bit fashion. These sorts of statements scare a lot of religiously-oriented people who want to say that there is an absolute distinction between the human and the divine intellect, and that it is sacrilegious to second-guess the units of creation.


Peter Brown: Could you tell us something about the court case? For example, did the views you have expressed this evening get a hearing and were you surprised at the outcome of the case?

Prof. Steve Fuller: Yes, they got a hearing in the sense that I said them and they caused a lot of controversy amongst the people who read the transcript. The problem with my own testimony was that the judge actually cited it a lot, but for his own purposes. As you could tell from what I said this evening, I do not hide the fact that Intelligent Design is religiously motivated. In fact I think religion provides a kind of strength for it. I attempted to illustrate this in my testimony but that was enough to condemn Intelligent Design because the judge operated with a distinction that an argument is either for or against science. His idea was that religiously motivated ideas and scientific thinking are mutually exclusive and that, therefore, the former should be kept out of science textbooks.

As such, then, I did get a hearing but the actual effects of my testimony are a bit of a mixed bag. Because I am not strictly a proponent of Intelligent Design, it was possible to interpret my testimony in different ways. The judge’s decision is unique in the sense that he did not spend any time weighing up different points of view. Rather, he talked about the points that he agreed with and ignored a lot of other material. That was quite an interesting reaction because there was a lot more evidence and testimony put forward about Intelligent Design than what he commented on.


Dr. James Le Fanu: The essence of the scientific world view must be that everything is ultimately explicable, that there is nothing it cannot know as this would undermine its exclusive claims to knowledge. Scientists thus must either minimise or play down anything truly ‘extra-ordinary’. We see this with the recent completion of the Human Genome Project and the ‘extraordinary’ discovery of its incomprehensibility. It makes no sense that a human being should be fashioned from a mere 26,000 genes, just a few hundred more than a mouse. This in turn poses a major challenge to the supposed mechanism of Darwinian evolution – natural selection working on the random mutation of genes – as it forces one to confront the question of which mutations in which genes transformed a mouse into a man.

Prof. Steve Fuller: The point you made about Darwin is very interesting. Naturally, Darwin thought that natural selection happened with individual organisms. He had no conception of genes – his was a sort of a field naturalist’s view of the world – for him it was all about organisms and environments. His concept of natural selection was one where the fitter organisms would survive and the weaker would die. The selection of genes (and possibly even smaller units) only gets introduced when genetics is included in the neo-Darwinian synthesis. This complicates the situation, especially since human beings may be able to manipulate genetics for their own ends.

What then of evolution? The person who is most responsible for bringing together the neo-Darwinian synthesis is the geneticist, Theodosius Dobzhansky – who was Russian Orthodox – and who wrote a very interesting book towards the end of his life called The Biology of Ultimate Concern. One of the reasons he thought it was important to bring the natural history perspective together with that of genetics was as a means of curbing the ambitions of geneticists. Four billion years of natural history should make one a little more modest as nature has grown in such a way that only certain kinds of creatures are able to survive in certain environments. While geneticists could do wonderful things to these creatures in a lab, it is another thing to have them survive out in the wild. It was to serve as a reminder to geneticists that there are boundaries in their field of work that should not be passed. I think that as the genetics side of neo-Darwinian synthesis becomes more prominent, these questions are going to come back again.

Dr. James Le Fanu: That was not really my point. The problem is the moment one begins to understand the nature and complexity of the genome – how incredibly and deeply inscrutable it is – the presumption of knowledge of our origins evaporates. Thus the genome tells us nothing about ‘the form, shape and characteristics’ of plants and animals and that is precisely what the Darwinian theory is meant to tell us.

Prof. Steve Fuller: Essentially, I see the disaggregation of the neo-Darwinian synthesis as an effect of the situation that you describe. In other words, geneticists will come to realise – as they had realised at the beginning of the Twentieth Century – that they do not need Darwinism to do their work. After all, Darwinism – in a sense – does not really do that much for them. The neo-Darwinian synthesis will then start to fall apart and geneticists will come up with some other meta -theory to make sense of their practices. Historically, that was the point of the synthesis.  

Russell Wilcox: This is actually a profoundly dangerous time for the synthesis to break down because it is at this time that we have people like Lee M. Silver around…

Prof. Steve Fuller: That is exactly the point. This is why it would be worthwhile for those of you who are interested in this to read people like Dobzhansky who wrote the landmark book Genetics and the Origins of Species in 1937. This man became the President of the American Eugenics Society because he wanted to ensure that geneticists did not go overboard in their zeal for their work.

Having this naturalistic check – which Darwin provided – is an important point. Basically, Darwin said that you cannot just experiment with nature in any way that you choose. Most of the processes in nature have taken billions of years to develop and this understanding should inspire a certain amount of humility in one who is working in the laboratory.

My personal view is that Intelligent Design could replace Darwinism in this area of the meta-theory of genetics.


Peter Adams: I would like to make two footnotes and then put forward a question. With reference to your mentioning of the watershed of the First World War, I would say that the Second World War was the watershed for eugenics. As for the manipulation of your testimony by the judge, Vikram Ashing was an expert witness against evolution in a trial in the 1980s and the judge actually used his testimony for the case. This was because he was asked whether the Earth was made in seven days and he answered that it was not. My question is a general one: do you have anything to say about the influence of Behe’s ideas?

Prof. Steve Fuller: They say that there is no such thing as bad publicity and even though Intelligent Design had lost the case, it got so much attention that some people felt they had to take a position on it. That can only help at one level but it is really just a short-term fix. This goes back to my point about affirmative action: a way of institutionalising the reproduction of this idea is needed because the people involved in it are quite isolated to the extent of their colleagues disowning them and no graduate students wanting to work under them. These people could stir up some interest in the topic for a while by writing persuasive books but at the end of the day that does not make Intelligent Design a science. It is necessary for a science to have the ability to institutionalise and develop into a fully fledged research programme (with many people working to develop the idea). Darwinism, for instance, took a long time to grow to the size that it is today. 

As such, unless the necessary institutional openings to allow Intelligent Design to be taught are made – to allow students to pursue it – its propagation is not going to happen by itself. This is why I think the judge was being a bit disingenuous.


Dr. Anthony Newman-Sanders: Nothing I have ever read indicates that the Evolutionists have ever disputed the idea of the pre-origin of the gene being the primordial seed of life. My reading on this is that no one really believes that lightning flashes suddenly caused a cell to twitch to life. Clearly, Intelligent Design has answers to questions in this area.

Prof. Steve Fuller: There dawned on me during this trial something which I had not really noticed before: the degree to which Darwinists wanted to exclude this question from consideration. The line that was repeated over and over again during the trial was that Darwin was just talking about the origin of the species, not the origin of amino acids or anything like that. There was clearly a sense in which no one could say anything about this, neither the Intelligent Design proponents nor the evolutionists.

I thought this was very strange because it seemed to me that a kind of primordial soup concept could arise from within the Darwinian idea. Needless to say, whether or not it is plausible is another issue because one would run into issues of timeframe. It is not realistic that all these randomly co-located micro-particles could at some point achieve enough stability to diversify and become all the species that we know, over a timeframe during which we know evolution occurred.  

The point is that evolutionists should be held accountable for that story. They do not, however, want to bring the matter up. This reflects a kind of conceptual problem about the way we think about the origin of life. We tend to think in an analytic way, always going from the simple to the complex. We imagine naturally that the simplest self- maintaining particles combined to produce complex amino acids, and that history proceeds in exactly that way, from simple to complex. Of course, it is an empirical question whether or not history actually goes from simple to complex. It might possibly go from complex to simple.

In other words, there may be all kinds of possibilities. You may get a biologist who theorises that aliens settled on earth from another planet and created a new level of biological complexity that had not existed before. Historically, that cannot be ruled out because the historical story of the development of life on earth should be determined by actual evidence, not the conceptual idea that we must go from simple to complex.


Prof. John Henry: A bit of speculation from you please: about how long before the Darwinian theory of evolution becomes extinct?

Prof. Steve Fuller: It is difficult to tell because of its institutionalisation. In other words, as long as neo-Darwinism is the dogma, the National Academy of Science will protect the theory.

I have carried out an empirical study on the mentioning of ‘evolution’ in biology articles and abstracts and titles of papers from 1960 onwards (replicating another study that a historian of science had done fifteen years ago). My findings were as follows: ‘natural selection’ – even today – arises in eight-tenths of one percent of all articles in biology and ‘evolution’ appears now about twenty-four percent of the time. Interestingly, ‘evolution’ appeared in only ten percent of literature a mere fifteen years ago and this figure becomes smaller, the farther back one goes.

This does not square with the idea that evolution is so taken for granted that people do not need to talk about it anymore in biology. In fact, it is increasing, albeit by small increments. The word ‘evolution’ can mean many different things in biology and so one really has to look for words like ‘natural selection’, which is mentioned in a very small proportion of the literature . It is not that biologists do not believe in evolution. It is just that evolution is not instrumental in day-to-day biological practice. It operates like a metaphysical theory that may influence, inform or inspire, but is certainly not necessary for the day-to-day research that one does to produce a peer-reviewed article.

This seems to me to be an important point to drum home: Biology would not go down the tubes if Darwinism were quashed tomorrow. That is why it should be perfectly possible to have a serious argument about it. As I mentioned before, very little hangs on it in terms of day-to-day biology. Impairing Darwin’s ideas will not impair civilisation. Needless to say however, there are many ideological, intellectual and philosophical issues involved in this debate.


Dr. Anthony Newman-Sanders: Do you see a problem emerging with having to dislodge Global Warming as an overarching dogma from textbooks?

Prof. Steve Fuller: I have written some charitable words about Bjorn Lomborg who wrote The Sceptical Environmentalist. This is a really good book to read if you tend to believe strongly in Global Warming and feel that all the indicators are converging in that direction. It looks at the statistics, as well as at the source of the statistics, and gives alternative interpretations.


Dr. Andrew Hegarty: I would like to pick up on something you mentioned towards the end of your paper. Has any serious study been made of the rhetoric of modern science?

Prof. Steve Fuller: Definitely. As I was saying, the neo-Darwinian synthesis is one of the areas in which many professional rhetoricians have studied the rhetoric of science. This is because of the remarkable nature of the things that are synthesised in it and the fact that all of these biologists are singing from the same hymn sheet even though it does not materially affect their work.

There is a book – published by the University of Chicago Press about five years ago – called Shaping Science with Rhetoric, by Leah Ceccarelli. It examines all the great synthetic works of science of the Twentieth Century and presents them as rhetorical accomplishments. This is done by attempting to get people from different disciplines to show that they can be working on different portions of a particular theory.

The field of the rhetoric of science is peopled by a small but growing group. In fact, many who study science communication today are very much into this sort of thing.