Tuesday, 12 August 2008

"Dissent Over Descent": Steve Fuller interviewed at Acheron LV-426

Given this blog's interest in the growing cultural significance of the biological sciences, I was especially keen to speak to the renowned sociologist, Steve Fuller, about his book, Dissent Over Descent. I've already speculated about the rationale behind Fuller's interest in Intelligent Design, which I now also regard as consistent with his pronouncements on the enduring value of the social sciences and the humanities.
I tried to avoid the generation of more heat than light, which would have followed if the interview had simply recapitulated positions familiar from the so-called "science wars". I therefore regard the interview as striking a fair balance in its examination of Fuller's stated objectives in this, his most recent work.

Q: Before you got involved in the US court case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005), which pitted intelligent design against evolution, most people knew of your work in the philosophy and sociology of science associated with ‘social epistemology’. I suppose a fair summary of your views is that you are for the democratisation of scientific authority, but you would also expand science’s jurisdiction to cover morally sensitive matters like humanity’s genetic potential.

A: Yes, I suppose I am for both extending the range of people eligible to exercise scientific judgement and intensifying the role that science plays in our lives.

Q: OK, that already sounds pretty futuristic – if not science-fictional (and I want to get back later to what relationship, if any, your work has to sci-fi). But then how do you square that with your support for intelligent design, which you call on page one of your latest book, Dissent over Descent, ‘scientifically credentialed creationism’?

A: Well, I guess I don’t see ‘creationism’ as necessarily pejorative. It’s a commonplace in the field in which I was trained – history and philosophy of science – to explain the West’s 17th century Scientific Revolution in terms of Christians taking the Bible into their own hands (i.e. not accepting the word of priests) and seeing themselves as literally having been created in the image and likeness of God to comprehend and perhaps even complete the divine plan. Thus, people like Newton read the Bible like a script in which they saw the roles they were being asked to perform. So, Newton saw himself in the role of God and articulated a world-system from God’s point of view in the abstract mathematics and with the predictive accuracy that you might expect of a transcendent being detached from ordinary human affairs. I talk more about this in the final chapter of Dissent.

Q: But you’ve got to admit that this is not how creationists seem to behave these days – I mean, they’re not exactly Newtonian demi-gods.

A: Of course, you’ve got a point. And it’s an interesting historical question how the Protestant Reformation, which has empowered so many people over the past five centuries, has nevertheless left its evangelical wing with such a timid and negative view toward science. My guess is that the unprecedented science-based and science-backed destruction on the part of Germany in the First World War caused evangelicals to recoil from the advancement of science in a way they had never done before. The Anglo-American ‘fundamentalism’ that continues to form the main ideological opposition to evolution dates from this period. Nevertheless, as I observe in my book, among the most scientifically credible proponents of eugenics in the same period have been such devout Christians as Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright and Theodosius Dobzhansky.

Q: But these are all people normally counted as founders of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis that brought genetics under a general theory of natural selection. Surely you don’t mean to include them as creationists?

A: Well, I do think their exact commitment to Darwinism can be questioned. In particular, I don’t think they shared Darwin’s considered view that we will never be able to trump natural selection. Fisher, Wright and Dobzhansky all believed that we had not only the power but also the obligation to engage in genetic engineering in order to bring God’s plan to completion. It doesn’t follow that they had a libertarian attitude toward human life – à la ‘designer babies’ and easy abortions and euthanasia – but they certainly did believe that the more we know about our genetic potential, the greater our responsibility for its future cultivation. This is clearly to be an exercise in social decision-making – part of social epistemology, if you will. Nazi excesses do not undermine this point, especially in light of the revolution in molecular biology that occurred less than a decade after the end of the Second World War.

Q: But how do you expect creationists – or intelligent design theorists – to sign on to a view that would basically make us co-creators with God? It still sounds pretty sacrilegious to me.

A: Yes, I suppose it does. But the view in fact runs quite deep in Western theological thought, not least in the legends surrounding the character of Faust, who tried to derive god-like powers through a certain heretical reading of the Bible. In today’s world, the theological appeal of genetic engineering and other technoscience-based forms of human enhancement is that they stress the sense in which humans are at once fallible and corrigible. The German-Canadian scholar Gregor Wolbring has promoted the idea of ‘ableism’, whereby we are ‘always already’ disabled because science has taken the lid off what counts as the ‘normal’ performance of various abilities. A good case in point is the slow but perceptible acquiescence to the acceptance of various (physical and intellectual) performance-boosting drugs. There may come a point in our lifetimes when a person who refuses to take such drugs is regarded as disabled.

Q: But so far most religious people seem simply to want to stop this drive toward enhancement before it gains too much momentum. There is still a strong appeal in society to ‘natural law’ and what is ‘natural’ to the human condition, all of this traceable back to relatively conventional readings of the Bible. It even has resonance with certain aspects of contemporary environmental movements.

A: And this conservative attitude toward pushing the limits of humanity would also find sympathy with Charles Darwin himself, who saw evolution as pretty pointless, when seen on a cosmic scale, and not something that can be enhanced in any meaningful long-term way. But again, Darwin greatly underestimated just how much we would come to understand the inner working of cells and especially genes. In particular, he would be especially surprised to learn that these micro-entities are literally constituted as complex pieces of machinery.

Q: I suppose that this is how the story gets back to intelligent design?

A: Yes, precisely. It’s not by accident that the vast majority of scientists who endorse intelligent design come from engineering, biochemistry and other fields associated with industry – rather than the field sciences. These are the people most likely to resonate to the idea that creation is one big technological project. And that was precisely the idea that animated the original Scientific Revolution. Here it’s worth recalling what a strange idea this is, when seen from a cross-cultural standpoint. Many cultures, notably China and India, had very advanced technology and very advanced mathematics but it never occurred to them to imagine that reality might be itself constituted as an artefact. Rather, they sharply divided nature and artifice, with nature always appearing rather mysterious and elusive and the extent of human artifice relatively limited and transient. Only cultures descending from the Bible (including Islam) have blurred the boundary to such great effect.

Q: But do you think that is really the intent of intelligent design theorists – to treat nature as a big machine?

A: Well, they’ve certainly set themselves up for this question, if you consider that their main criticism of Darwinism is that it ignores the engineering prowess demonstrated at all levels in the natural world. Nothing goes to waste in nature -- we just need to discover the point of seemingly useless things like ‘junk DNA’, proteins that don’t seem to code for anything, and then make the most of them. If you look at the graphics in ID books and videos, you’ll see just how much of ID’s visual rhetoric is dominated by the desire to get the viewer to see nature as a well-honed super-factory that humans have been entrusted to manage and render productive. There is no mystery-mongering here at all, and frankly it doesn’t sit well with the more ‘scientophobic’ attitudes of the religious fundamentalists. Not surprisingly, there is considerable mixed feeling between intelligent design theorists and, say, young earth creationists – though they are all joined in their opposition to Darwinism.

Q: It sounds like you’re saying that intelligent design faces a religious – as well as a scientific – challenge.

A: In fact, the religious challenge is greater. To be sure, the scientific challenge is symbolically charged because it draws unwanted attention to the authoritarian character of contemporary science. Nevertheless, it is relatively narrow. After all, most biologists can get on with their day-to-day research without adopting a hard line on whether nature is ultimately the product of intelligent design or chance-based processes. However, the religious challenge goes to the heart of what it means to be a human being in the 21st century. It’s easy to appeal to natural law to stop inquiry into all sorts of matters if you believe that life is ultimately mysterious. However, and perhaps unwittingly, intelligent design casts serious doubt on this appeal with its strong pro-mechanistic, anti-chance line on the nature of life. Thus, I am always surprised when people see a concept like Michael Behe’s ‘irreducible complexity’ as a science-stopper. They focus on the fact that he nominates, say, a particular kind of cell or organism as something that must have been purpose-built. Rather, they should step back and consider that he is nominating anything at all – in other words, he’s presupposing that in principle we can know God’s building blocks. Darwinists never make comparably bold claims to knowledge, which is why I think, for example, Catholics find it much easier to accept Darwin than ID.

Q. I am interested in the implications of your previous remarks insofar as they appear suggestive of some continuity in the corpus of your work as a sociologist. For example, and not least of all, you would be aware that an earlier book, The New Sociological Imagination, has been viewed [in some instances] as couched in the terms of theology, metaphysics, and world-view, and therefore in conflict with the legacy of positivists and classic sociologists (who questioned the adequacy of explanations situated at this level in sociological studies of religion). No doubt you would question and wish to complicate such a characterisation, so the meaning of “newness” remains to be determined in this instance. In other words, how legitimate is it to construe Dissent Over Descent as consciously developing a new sociological imagination?

A: I suppose there are two senses in which Dissent over Descent contributes to the development of a new sociological imagination. The first is very obvious from the first chapter, and ID supporters have quickly picked up on it: Science is organized in such an elitist and authoritarian fashion today that we simply don’t know whether a ‘scientific consensus’ literally exists on an issue as far from the scientific workbench as Darwinism vs. ID. Nobody ever bothers to survey the full range of professional scientists systematically. The other sense is much subtler and also, I think, much more controversial. Basically I believe that sociologists are in an ideal position to offer a methodological critique of the sort of pan-Darwinism we see spreading across both the natural and social sciences. This is because we are taught to be sensitive to the potential pitfalls of generalising from a few cases – be they based in history, the field or the lab. Yet, Neo-Darwinists engage in such heroic generalisation all the time. I don’t only mean the tendency of evolutionary psychologists to generalise across species (something I criticized in The New Sociological Imagination) but also the more general tendency of supposing that if natural selection can be demonstrated in the lab, it therefore has been happening on a regular basis on Earth for the last several billion years. Of course some psychologists might want to claim that their lab findings say something deep about human nature that transcends differences in time and place, but such claims are routinely and reasonably met with considerable scepticism. ID’s response to Neo-Darwinist claims is in a similar vein. Of course, to stick with the example, lab psychologists usually get traction not because they’ve discovered the deep structure of history but because their experimental technique can be used as the basis for manipulating some real-world situation that might interest us now. In other words, the power of lab-based knowledge lies in its ability to remake, not understand, the world. Thus, when a Neo-Darwinist claims to have demonstrated natural selection in the lab, I see instead a sophisticated form of artificial selection that might have some bioengineering function in the future – a matter that falls under the remit of social epistemology.

Q. Would you care to comment on the possible implications of this new sociological imagination for the burgeoning field of cultural studies, which in some cases explicitly situates itself as directly challenging the disciplinary authority of sociology. No doubt you've heard the clarion call sounded by scholars such as Cary Wolfe on behalf of the analytic program known as “the posthumanities” (which perhaps typifies a logical extension of the earlier interest in cyborgs and postmodernism among cultural studies practitioners). In Dissent Over Descent you maintain something like the elective affinity between Darwinism and postmodernism as featured in The New Sociological Imagination. You then intriguingly argue that becoming progressive is more readily associated with non-field based, less naturalistic areas such as cybernetics. I feel that Wolfe would be in partial agreement with you on that point, but rather than focus on Wolfe per se, could you instead briefly comment on any possible relationships between the popular cultural studies trope of the cyborg and the neo-Darwinian synthesis targeted in Dissent Over Descent? Furthermore, if transhumanism or android epistemology, for example, in any way present as viable critical alternatives to the cyborg, could you recommend any authors to Acheron’s interested readers?

A: This is a tricky issue because phrases like ‘posthumanism’ and ‘transhumanism’ can refer to states in which humanity is either perfected or superseded. My inclination is towards the former interpretation, which was certainly the spirit in which Julian Huxley originally coined ‘transhumanism’. However, it is also the tougher option because it foregrounds the difficult normative question of what it is about historical humanity that we wish to preserve, cultivate and extend in the future. It is not obvious to me that the answer must include a provision for preserving the human genome intact. In this respect, I am open to serious bioengineering and the prospect that the features of humanity we value the most are better preserved, cultivated and extended in, say, silicon or some silicon-carbon cyborg than in the sort of hominid descendant that dominates the Darwinist imagination (e.g. in Enhancing Evolution by John Harris). Here I think there is still much to learn from, on the science side, Norbert Wiener, and on the religious side, Teilhard de Chardin – both of whom I talk about in Dissent over Descent. What they shared was the sense that the distinctive feature of humanity is to provide purposeful order to what otherwise is an inherently unruly nature, whether one is talking about the contingencies of Darwinian evolution or the non-linear dynamics of microphysical reality. But from their conceptualisations of this ultimate human condition, it’s clear that both of them were open to significant changes in our makeup. I believe that concrete steps towards such ‘transhuman’ states should be cautiously encouraged, by which I mean that people should be socially insured against the risks they and their loved ones will inevitably undertake by exposing themselves to would-be enhancements.

Q: Finally, I want to return to the role, if any, that science fiction has played in your thought.

A: My attitude toward science fiction is coloured by the fact that H.G. Wells was a finalist for the first UK chair in sociology, which was started at the LSE in 1907. His candidacy was taken seriously because, in some quarters, sociology was still seen as a kind of science of utopias. Against the backdrop of figures like Saint-Simon, Comte, Marx, Mill, Spencer and Galton, Wells did not look so out of place. But of course, he didn’t get the chair. Much of the history of what is called ‘science fiction’ is of people with bold, typically futuristic visions falling out of the academic mainstream and adopting of style of writing that is part-novel, part-projection. I suppose, sociologically speaking, the most interesting feature of science fiction is its large market. Considering that very little of it stands up on traditional literary grounds, it strikes me that science fiction ultimately appeals to a way of relating to theoretical and empirical knowledge that is not normally permitted by academic disciplines. You might say that it sees a lot more in the academic material than academics themselves do. At least, that’s how I read science fiction – as a prod to the imagination. Consequently, I read the stuff pretty fast, simply for plot and device, rather than entertainment. Now speaking epistemologically, I think that science fiction is a bit like very abstract branches of mathematics like non-Euclidean geometry, which were invented before they had any use but subsequently came to function as templates for comprehending new phenomena or aspects of reality. So, for example, a film like ‘The Matrix’ seems to have revived, at least for some philosophers, the idea of God as the great computer programmer, which was the context in which Charles Babbage, the computer’s inventor, made his own argument for intelligent design back in the 1830s.

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