Ghost of design rattles Darwinian orthodoxy

Steve Fuller, Dissent over Descent: Intelligent Design's Challenge to Darwinism, Cambridge: Icon Books, 2008, ISBN 978 1840468 04 5

Dissent over descent, by Steven Fuller, cover imageDissent over Descent is that rare book which will aggravate any reader with strong ideas about its subject. Intelligent Design inhabits the shell-pocked no-man's land between science and religion. Steve Fuller argues that it should be taught as an option because science depends on religion. But his version of religion will set pious teeth on edge.

Fuller does to science what scientific critics often do to religion. He studies it as a cultural construct. He looks down on it from the heights of the history, philosophy and sociology of science. He does not confine himself to what scientists think they are doing, but asks how scientific theories arose and what are the strands of contemporary understanding of science.

He also shows that the conflict between science and religion has largely been manufactured as propaganda in the struggle, first to control the educational curriculum, and more recently for funding.

Fuller is knowledgeable both about scientific and religious debates. He moves allusively but persuasively through a complex intellectual and cultural history.

The heart of his argument is that Darwinian evolution, although accepted as orthodoxy, is a shaky theory, and that power, not reason, lies behind the exclusion of intelligent design from the science curriculum.

He claims that scientific enterprises grew out of religious belief. Many fathers of modern science, like Linnaeus and Mendel and Newton, wanted in their science to define the relationship between God and the natural world. In particular, they wanted to explore the design of the universe. They assumed that reality is intelligible and coherent, and that in understanding it through science we also know something of God's design.

Because Darwin's principle of natural selection seemed to undermine the claims of scientific reason, it was criticised as strongly by philosophers like John Stuart Mill and by Darwin's fellow scientists as it was by bishops. If the human world was explained by chance phenomena, the mind and its capacity to reason, and presumably its belief in the intelligibility of nature, were also simply chance developments.

In fact, Fuller argues, proponents of evolution follow Darwin by importing into their theories the ghost of design. They assume that the world today is the culmination of evolutionary development, and so measure natural history by reference to this future stage.

The logical difficulties of evolutionary theory, too, are concealed by neo-Darwinian thought, which brings together the two strands of microbiology and population studies. The study of genetics and of fossils each have distinctive canons of evidence which are inconsistent, and make theories of evolutionary development highly speculative.

In one of his more provocative chapters, Fuller compares Darwinian theory to astrology. Astrology assumed that the universe is a rational and complete entity which can be understood mathematically. Its notion of celestial harmonies sparked discoveries in many fields of science, such as algebra and astronomy. It interested many scientists, including Isaac Newton.

Eventually the theory toppled over, leaving alive the areas of study it provoked. Fuller sees this as a warning for evolutionary theory.

Fuller's conclusions follow reasonably from his arguments. He claims that teleology in the natural world is worth exploring and should not be excluded on scientific grounds. He argues too that human beings, like God, have a part in designing the world. He wants the theory of evolution to be proposed in a way that shows awareness of its limitations and of its complex history.

Fuller's book will leave any open-minded reader with an invitation to revisit apparently settled questions. He calls into question the neat distinction between science that deals with how the world came to be the way it is, and religion or philosophy that deal with ultimate questions. In this view God is an answer only to ultimate questions. Fuller, however, argues persuasively that God as designer may be needed to underpin scientific evidence.

I am not finally persuaded by his argument. The intelligibility of science cannot be established by scientific reasoning, but must come from outside it. But whether a scientific theory of beginnings itself demands a concept of design remains open for discussion.

I was intrigued by the kind of God which Fuller associates with intelligent design. It is a generic designer-God consistent with the monotheistic religions. This God also underpins the intelligibility of the world and human intelligence that are necessary for science.

I'm not sure how large a gain it will be for religion or for churches to import that kind of God. It raises all the difficulties of any theistic understanding, particularly those posed by the existence of evil. But it offers few of the more persuasive and attractive features of the God of the Scriptures — a God of love whose relationship to the world is expressed in gift more than in predictability.

Fuller develops in an interesting way the understanding of humanity as made in the image of God. He develops creatively a hint in St Augustine's writing to argue that the image consists in creative power. Like God, human beings are creators who give shape to the way the world will develop.

The idea is attractive in general, but horrifying in its implications. It is bad enough to contemplate the mess that financiers, eugenicists and emperors make of the world, without having to give them divine warrant for their Promethean antics.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.



Topic tags: hamilton, dissent over descent, intelligent design, steve fuller, darwinism, charles darwin, evolution



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Existing comments

Intelligent design is an idiotic childish belief in magic.
bobxxxx | 10 October 2008

Evolution is NOT a shaky theory. It is a sound, scientific tool. IDiots make many scientific sounding arguments, enough to fool the dimwitted, but nothing testable or predictive has ever nor will ever come out of that creationist blather.
Mike | 11 October 2008

Why stop with ID? Teach ALL the possibilities and let the children decide what is best! Mao tried this with the peasants and the cultural revolution. Look how well that turned out!
mafarmerga | 11 October 2008

I am encouraged that Mr Fuller studies science as a cultural construct. After all, the hernias, bad backs, sinus blockages and haemherroids that afflict we upright uptight bipedal apes are self-evidently figments of our culturally constructed imaginations.
Intent, aka design, can be seen everywhere. For example, I was yesterday shovelling soil into a wheelbarrow. Pausing to stretch, I stepped back, and trod on the foot of the small dog that was silently and faithfully at my heels. She yelped and fled, looking balefully and sorrowfully over her shoulder to try and fathom why I chose to so hurt her.
Rather than looking for designers, Fr Brennan and Mr Fuller would do well to read Brian Goodwin’s “How the Leopard Changed Its Spots”, Phoenix 1995, ISBN 1-85799-251-2, and Stephen Jay Gould’s “Life’s Grandeur”, Vintage 1997, ISBN 0-099-89360-6.
With interest, I look forward to Fr Brennan’s review of “Unintelligent Design”, by Robyn Williams, Allen & Unwin, 2006, ISBN 1-74114-923-1.

David Arthur | 11 October 2008

ID does not, as you say, inhabit the no-man's-land between science and religion. It's purely on the side of religion.
Here's why: ID theory presents no a priori argument that says "an intelligently designed universe would look like X", and then go on to show that the universe does indeed look like that (which would be at least the form of scientific argument).
The only argument for ID, dressed up in various guises, is: "This looks designed. So someone must have designed it."
It's nothing more than garden-variety religious thinking.
Matt | 11 October 2008

Bats supposedly evolved from rodents. What kind of mutations would cause webbing to continually grow between the digits? What advantage would this confer upon the organism? And then millions of years later along with muscle and bone mutations one day one is born that is aerodynamically capable of flight? What could the intermediate forms look like? The vast diversity of life forms can't be explained by quadrillions of beneficial deformities. Darwinism no longer makes sense.
DavidM | 12 October 2008

Darwinism is a science fiction, based on a myth known as evolution.No evolution ever took place.All the 'fossil records' show different animals existed in pre-historic era.No animal appeared to be giving rise to another animal.Genes follow the codes which produce the offspring just like the parents.Any deviation would cause physical abnormality or cancer not evolution.The Darwinists are afraid of a logical idea, because it may affect their employment opportunities.It is a matter of economics not science.Darwin was no more than a science fiction writer.All those who teach 'evolution' as 'science' are pseudo scientists.From a foot ball to a galaxy cannot emerge without a design or pattern.From the shapes and colors of cars to to millions of animals cannot appear without well planned designs.The theory of evolution, as such is based on the notion of occurrence of endless series of flukes in nature.Not a logical idea.
morris | 12 October 2008

How big is your God? is a question one may well ask Mr Fuller
Paul Gill | 12 October 2008

Evolution is reality. The fossil record quite clearly shows, for example, the second jaw hinge of an amphibian transforming into the ear bones of mammals.

And the intermediate forms of bats? Think flying squirrels. I'm sure you've met someone with webbed toes. I've got a brother-in-law who does.

Go educate yourself. Go look up "vinyl-eating bacteria." You might be shocked.
Robert "Bob" White | 13 October 2008

The close minded and intolerant attitude of people towards ID prove that their world view is not based on reason, but on faith, and that Darwinism is a necessary myth to support that world view.

ID arguements are ignored, it is misrepresented as creationism, its criticisms of darwinism is brushed aside, and the ID opponent is insulted and ridiculed. This behavious has more in common with religious persecution than scientific inquiry.

More than anything, it is the EMOTIONAL response of Darwinists that betray their close mindedness.

Most critics only read the Darwinist propaganda of what ID is, and never bother to read for themselves what the ID proponents have to say. No wonder many critics refuse to acknowledge that ID is about the nature of the design, not the designer.
Hanno | 15 October 2008

Robert "Bob" White --

i believe you meant NYLON-eating bacteria.
J.Wallis | 21 March 2009

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