Truth in Science

Truth in Science
Wolpert and Fuller debate ID at University of London PDF Print E-mail

Yesterday two professors debated the proposition “Intelligent Design and Evolution have the same status as scientific theories,” at Royal Holloway University of London.

Steve Fuller, who spoke for the proposition, is professor of sociology at Warwick University. He is a philosopher of science, founder of the research program of social epistemology, and author of eleven books.

Lewis Wolpert, who spoke against the proposition is Emeritus Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College, London. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He is author of ten books, including the standard textbook “Principles of Development”.

The debate was chaired by Johannes Zanker, Professor of Neuroscience and Head of Psychology at Royal Holloway. About 200 students and academics from Royal Holloway and other institutions were in the audience. Both speakers had 20 minutes in which to make their cases, then five minutes to respond to their opponent, before the debate was opened to the floor.

The debate’s opening statements can be found here: Image

Steve Fuller opened with the following points:

  • Intelligent design is often presented as a purely negative proposition but in fact it is far more than this.
  • In sociological terms, evolution is currently superior to intelligent design, as the evidence of global science is used to support it. But could exactly the same evidence support ID?
  • Probably more scientists believe in evolution than ID, but we have no clear idea. We don’t know what most scientists think. The only surveys are on sub-sets of the scientific community, and may use questions that bias the issue.
  • A benchmark statement on the teaching of evolution signed in June 2006 by 67 national academies of science was very superficial. It did not mention natural selection, common descent, or any specific mechanisms for evolution.
  • The strengths or weaknesses of evolution versus ID are usually discussed with reference to specific versions of each theory, such as Dawkins’ view of evolution or Behe’s view of ID. But both theories are more general and sufficiently abstract as to be supported by much the same evidence. This is both a minus and a plus.
  • MINUS: Both theories are arguably unfalsifiable. This is for two reasons:
    • Nothing in principle escapes the theory’s scope: Evolutionists make all traits out to be either an adapation or an exaptation. ID theorists turn every trait into either a manifest or a latent function.
    • The theory’s key concepts are defined residually: Design is whatever cannot be explained in terms of necessity or chance, while evolution is whatever moves the gene frequency of a population from a Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium.
  • PLUS: The two theories are ‘metaphysical research programmes’ that provide alternative ways of organizing and orienting scientific research
    • Evolutionists are anchored in Darwin’s original concern with the survival of self-reproducing carbon-based entities in terrestrial environments that ultimately descend from a common, albeit mysterious but decidedly non-divine, ancestor. Biology here appears as a fundamentally historical and field-based science increasingly supplemented by lab- and computer-based research.
    • ID theorists are anchored in a Biblical conception of God as a super-engineer whose designs are much better yet fathomable versions of human designs. This analogy reflects the privileged position that we are presumed to enjoy in the comprehension of nature more generally. Biology here appears as the divine branch of design science, the human side of which is technology. Thus prominent British advocates of ID are researchers in the field of biomimetics. ID would likely re-orient biology and make biotechnology and bioengineering more prominent.
    • ID is more optimistic than evolution about what human intelligence can achieve. It is not a science stopper but assures us that we can understand the natural world and even take control. It seems evolution is not committed to this view, and Darwin always stressed that artificial selection is less powerful than natural selection.
  • Darwin was a naturalist, not a biologist in the modern sense. He did not think that we could figure out the microstructures of the cell. If he was here today, he would be surprised at biotechnology and would be persuaded of ID.

Lewis Wolpert opened with the following points:

  • Note that Steve did not provide a single example where ID provides a better explanation than evolution.
  • ID is bunkum.
  • ID is rubbish.
  • ID does not provide a mechanism. God producing something is not an explanation.
  • There is not a shred of evidence for ID.
  • There is not a single refereed paper that discusses in a positive way the evidence for ID.
  • This talk of ID as a competition for evolution is totally beyond me.
  • Science is based on evidence.
  • There is zero evidence for ID on the refereed literature.
  • Irreducible complexity is a silly notion.
  • An arch is an irreducible complex structure – if a single stone is taken from an arch it falls down – yet all the arches that I know were built gradually.
  • The evidence for the existence of God is very poor. Most of it comes from the Bible. What has God done in the last 2000 years since the Bible was finished? Believers can’t tell me.
  • Evolution works by genes changing. Richard Dawkins is right. Genes determine development.
  • Embryos of different animals look similar.
  • Pentadactyl limbs are very similar.
  • Horse legs have evolved. Genes control the growth of things like that.
  • Philosophers of science have zero understanding of science. I know of no scientist who pays attention to what philosophers of science say.
  • Evolution could be falsified by an out-of-sequence fossil, or discovery of an animal built on entirely different principles to those we currently know (without DNA etc.).
  • Snakes have lost legs.
  • I have a theory that multi-cellularity evolved because in times of resource limitation the cells could eat each other.
  • Development is at the core of evolution. We can see how human hands could evolve from fish limbs.
  • Bacteria can evolve resistance to antibiotics. Does God intervene to help individual bacteria?
  • Look how varied dogs are. This is due to human selection.
  • I don’t want to argue that everything is OK with Darwinism. The origin of life is still a mystery.
  • We are nothing more than a society of cells.
  • We can see how the mammalian ear could have evolved, through comparative anatomy.
  • Hox genes control development in animals. We know how they evolved.
  • We know the genes responsible for naked patches on flies.
  • Some mutant flies have legs instead of antennae.
  • There are common developmental pathways. No intelligent designer would waste their time on these.
  • There is no evidence even that the origin of the first cell was due to design.
  • Intelligent design should be binned.  

In the time for response, Steve Fuller referred to the proliferation of design language in the evolutionary literature. This is nonsense, as design implies a designer. Evolutionary biology should be consistent, and get rid of all design language and engineering metphors.

Lewis Wolpert replied that he would be quite happy with that.

Steve Fuller read an extract from a paper on the evolution of the Krebs Cycle, which has been cited as an answer to Michael Behe’s argument that the Krebs Cycle is irreducibly complex. This paper co-opts design-based language to evolution. For example it refers to evolution as either an “optimising engineer” or an “opportunistic tinkerer”.

The chairman, Johannes Zanker, said that he used design language very often when talking about biology, but this does not imply a designer.

Lewis Wolpert asked Steve Fuller to give a biological example of where ID explains something that evolution does not. Fuller pointed to the Krebs Cycle.

Wolpert said that such systems show design without a designer. Fuller responded that such a claim is a science-stopper.

Wolpert asked Fuller who the designer is. Fuller replied that there are many possible charateristics: a global optimiser, a local optimiser, Paley’s watchmaker…but it is basically a reference to God. The issue is, though, do you have to presuppose a designer to do science? We would not have the science we have here today if people did not presuppose a designer.

Fuller challenged Wolpert to show him how the Krebs Cycle evolved, and to do so without any reference to design.

The debate was then opened to the floor and a great diversity of questions and comments ensued. This included: Jack Cohen suggesting that humans are conditioned to see design, in the same was as they feel horror when the arm is ripped off a teddy bear; James Williams calling for better education in schools on the status of scientific theories; and Lewis Wolpert saying that the Krebs Cycle was not in his academic areas and he could not explain how it evolved.