Even if we’re unsure about whether there is a God most of us would not doubt that religious belief has had a profound influence on intellectual progress throughout our history. As science has developed it has had many things, both good and bad, to say about religion. I spoke to Prof Steve Fuller, a controversial apologist for intelligent design theory, about the place that religious ideas now have in our largely secular society.
Fuller has gone against the grain by attacking a view held by the vast majority in western society: the view that theories about divine creation should be kept out of science lessons. Fuller is a respected academic at Warwick University but despite the possibility of career damage he defended his view in the controversial ‘Dover trial’ of 2005. This trial gained worldwide publicity as the first in which the idea of teaching intelligent design as an alternative to Darwinian evolution was challenged through the US federal courts.
Fuller has become a somewhat unlikely hero of the intelligent design movement since he does not profess to believe in a God or anything supernatural. During his time at Cambridge he was even head of the Humanist’s Society. Fuller is not motivated by any personal religious beliefs; he is motivated by a desire to improve the teaching of science which he thinks is impossible without a consideration of intelligent design theory.
Intelligent design or ID, then, is the view that the complexity of the universe is such that an intentional designer (something like God) is required to explain it. As Fuller sees it, ID theorists seek to embark on an evidence-based inquiry. Like evolutionists, ID theorists look at evidence (DNA, fossils, skeletal structures etc) in order to come up with an explanation of how that evidence came about. The difference between the two theories is that ID theorists interpret some findings as revealing a level of complexity within organisms that can only be explained by positing the existence of a designer.
When I spoke to Fuller he made sure to make a distinction between ID and creationism, the latter of which, he thinks, is an attempt to justify a similar view but on purely religious grounds. He told me: “Creationists are basically teaching the bible as science. They have abandoned the scientific method.” For Fuller, ID and evolution ought to be taught alongside as they both, unlike purely religious theories, approach evidence in a scientific manner.
Fuller’s defence of ID goes beyond its credibility as a modern scientific theory. Even if we reject the ID’s scientific legitimacy Fuller wants to say that its teaching is still important as a means to understanding evolutionary theory. “My argument is that intelligent design has a strong historical track record and, in fact, it is the actual theory that Darwin opposed […] At the very least you can make an argument for teaching intelligent design to understand what it was that Darwin was rejecting.”
He is pointing out that in the 19th century, when Darwin was writing, divine creation was the accepted explanation of the way our world had come to be. It was this position that Darwin was specifically trying to refute.
Evolution by natural selection is a theory that originated with Darwin. What Fuller points out is that without an understanding of ID we cannot have a full understanding of Darwin. As a result our understanding of modern evolutionary theory, at least in the public sphere, is doomed to be half baked unless our system of education on this topic is revised.
Fuller thinks that just as Darwin had a position to refute modern evolutionary biologists need one. Just as evolutionary theory has itself evolved so have arguments in opposition to it. Fuller worries that evolution, which is often seen as one of the defining theories of modern science, is actually being taught in a way that is quite unscientific. For Fuller consideration of a theory with respect to opposition is essential for scientific development. Evolution is no longer being taught scientifically, in Fuller’s eyes, because opposing arguments are no longer being taught, or at least given proper emphasis, in the way that they should be.
Fuller worries that evolution is starting to become taught as dogma without reference to what he calls “the critical foil of intelligent design.” Since it is essential to constantly antagonise scientific theories it is not helpful for us to decide that evolutionary theory is ‘true’. In fact he thinks that the very idea of teaching ‘true’ theories in science and rejecting ‘false’ ones is a fundamental misunderstanding of the scientific process.
“The issue here is not whether intelligent design theory is ‘good’ or ‘better’ than neo-Darwinism. The issue, when we’re talking about scientific inquiry (where in the future we may not believe what we currently believe), is whether a theory ought to be taught. It’s a fool’s game to say “this is ‘true’ so we should be teaching it” or “this is ‘false’ so we shouldn’t.” We need different criteria other than just straight ‘true’ or ‘false’ judgements because what is considered ‘true’ or ‘false’ can change over time.”
The Dover trials were designed to rule on the publication of a textbook which was said to aid the teaching of ID theory. Fuller was consulted to defend the scientific legitimacy of ID theory as a whole. It should be said that his views were not intended to support the specific teaching methods employed by the Dover Area School District or the specific textbook on trial. As a result the eventual loss of the case was viewed with mixed emotions by Fuller. He told me that the textbook that the DASD advocated was, “basically a warmed-over creationist textbook” with “just a couple of words changed.” He was glad to see that particular textbook rejected but disagreed with the way that the judge delivered his verdict.
“What I was not happy about was the way in which the judge did not separate the disposition of the School Board from the disposition of the theory. In other words he took the textbook as indicative of the theory itself. A court case is always about a lot of things at the same time so in one sense it’s about the big ideas, it’s about whether intelligent design is science (that’s certainly what made the headlines), but of course it’s also about the particular litigators and the details of the School Board. What’s going down there, in Dover Pennsylvania, ends up colouring how the big issues look.”
Fuller still has a lot of convincing to do in his defence of the scientific legitimacy of intelligent design as the majority of the scientific community would still like to see the theory discredited. But regardless of the current scientific consensus on the theory it seems that the pedagogical point that Fuller is making is a fundamentally valuable one: providing a historical backdrop for our scientific theories is essential to fully understanding them. As far as evolution is concerned understanding ID is crucial to understanding Darwin. Ironically, on Fuller’s view, ‘God’ now has to play the role of Devil’s advocate if we are to breed a new generation of biologists who view evolutionary theory from a critical scientific standpoint.