The latest issue of Science has a deservedly cruel review of Steve Fuller’s dreary philosophical assault on evolution, Dissent over Descent: Intelligent Design’s Challenge to Darwinism. I could tell from the title alone that the book was going to be worthless—Intelligent Design creationism provides no coherent “challenge” to evolution other than the purblind relabeling of it as “Darwinism”—but poor Michael Ruse had to actually read the whole book. Here’s his quick summary of the contents:
More amused than cross, let me go to the heart of Fuller’s case against Darwinian evolutionary theory and for IDT—for his is as much a negative critique of the opposition as a positive defense of his own beliefs. Fuller feels that Charles Darwin failed to make the case for his mechanism of natural selection. Darwin did not give a cause for evolution. He certainly did not unify the field. At most he gave lists of facts. Moreover, today if we feel that advance has been made, it is primarily in the molecular field, and this owes little or nothing to traditional evolutionary thought. At best Darwinism is a kind of tarted-up natural theology and, this being so, why not IDT?
Well. If that is an accurate description, and I have no reason to think otherwise since I have read some of Fuller’s pronouncements on these topics and they are entirely in line with the summary, then Fuller is an even bigger fool than I thought. Those statements are wrong in every case. Not just wrong, but transparently wrong, since even a non-philosopher like myself can read The Origin and see that his accusations against Darwin’s argument are false, and as someone who follows the field of molecular evolution somewhat closely, I think his claims about the state of the modern biological sciences are utterly silly.
Fortunately, Ruse has concisely skewered Fuller’s arguments for us.
The important thing is that all of this is completely wrong and is backed by no sound scholarship whatsoever. In at least one case, Fuller makes his case by an egregious misreading—of something I wrote about the role of genetic drift in Sewall Wright’s shifting balance theory. For the record, Charles Darwin set out to provide a cause, what he called—following his mentors like William Whewell (who in turn referred back to Newton)—a true cause or vera causa. Darwin felt, and historians and philosophers of science as well as practicing evolutionary biologists still feel, that he succeeded, for two reasons. First, he showed how organisms can be changed by human picking or selecting. Although Fuller repeatedly claims that Darwin intended no analogy here, that is simply not true. In the face of virtually everybody—including Alfred Russel Wallace, who (in the manuscript he sent to Darwin in 1858) explicitly denied a link between artificial and natural selection—Darwin insisted that we can gain confidence about selection in nature from what happens when humans are active. Second, Darwin brought everything together in a “consilience of inductions.” He argued that if you take selection as the causal mechanism, then you can explain instinct, the fossil record, geographical distributions of organisms, anatomy, systematics, and embryology. In turn, the success of these explanations feeds back to support the belief in selection. About as unifying a setup as it is possible to imagine.
One can go on to look at things today. It is ludicrous to claim that modern evolutionary biology is not integrated with molecular biology. Motoo Kimura’s neutral theory depends crucially on the claim that selection has little or no effect on processes down at the molecular level. Genetic fingerprinting has proved absolutely vital for observational and experimental studies of evolution. Someone like British ornithologist Nicholas Davies, working out the relationships among individual dunnocks (Prunella modularis), would have been powerless without the technique. And in evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo), currently the hottest area of evolutionary research, how does one speak of genetic homologies between fruitflies and humans without talking about molecules?
Somehow, Fuller has been granted the status of an authority by Intelligent Design creationists. I don’t know how or why, but I hope they keep picking buffoons to represent their cause.
Ruse M (2008) A Challenge Standing on Shaky Clay. Science 322(5898):47-48.