Lord Percy / Prof Fuller: Spot the Difference


The Black Adder: The Queen of Spain’s Beard

Percy: My Lord…
Edmund: Yes, what is it?
Percy: You know, they do say that the Infanta’s eyes are more beau­ti­ful than the fam­ous Stone of Galveston.
Edmund: Mm! … What?
Percy: The fam­ous Stone of Galveston, My Lord.
Edmund: And what’s that, exactly?
Percy: Well, it’s a fam­ous blue stone, and it comes (points dra­mat­ic­ally) from Galveston.
Edmund: I see. And what about it?
Percy: Well, My Lord, the Infanta’s eyes are bluer than it, for a start.
Edmund: I see. And have you ever seen this stone?
Percy: (nods) No, not as such, My Lord, but I know a couple of people who have, and they say it’s very very blue indeed.
Edmund: And have these people seen the Infanta’s eyes?
Percy: No, I shouldn’t think so, My Lord.
Edmund: And neither have you, pre­sum­ably.
Percy: No, My Lord.
Edmund: So, what you’re telling me, Percy, is that some­thing you have never seen is slightly less blue than some­thing else you have never seen.
Percy: (finally begins to grasp) Yes, My Lord.

And from the cur­rent Times Higher Education Supplement:

…Newton presen­ted his math­em­at­ical phys­ics as the divine plan that was impli­citly writ­ten into the Bible. He clearly thought he had got into God’s mind. In con­trast, Darwin pur­sued the hum­bler path of William Paley’s ana­logy of nature’s order being like a watch found on a beach, which implied the exist­ence of a watch­maker. Unfortunately, the fossil record revealed to Darwin only a lot of broken half-watches, noth­ing that could have been pro­duced by a God worthy of human respect. Darwin’s humil­ity remained, but his faith disappeared.

In today’s sec­u­lar cul­ture, Darwin is more read­ily embraced than Newton as a sci­entific icon although Newton remains unques­tion­ably the greater sci­ent­ist. The American Museum of Natural History has an exhibit devoted to Darwin’s life that includes a recon­struc­tion of his home. This is not sur­pris­ing. Darwin’s bio­graphy pro­jects the polit­ic­ally cor­rect image of a Christian who loses his faith through sci­entific inquiry. We are unlikely to see a sim­ilar exhibit for Newton because his life teaches that the Bible can provide a sure path to great science.

I don’t recall Darwin’s the­ory being strongly built on fossil evid­ence. In fact it has a chapter where he talks about the paucity of fossil evid­ence. Equally I don’t recall the Bible being a primer on basic math­em­at­ics, so I’m not con­vinced that Newton’s tale would be one of the Bible being a sure path to great sci­ence. At the end of his life Newton either turned from the Bible to fail at alchemy, or else the Bible’s chapters on alchemy are in error, or as a third option, Fuller is in error and the Bible is irrel­ev­ant to Newton’s sci­entific success.

Fuller goes on:

Contrary to pop­u­lar accounts, Darwin never provided a mech­an­istic account of evol­u­tion because he lacked a cred­ible the­ory of genet­ics. Indeed, by the time The Origin of Species reached its 50th birth­day in 1909, Darwin’s the­ory was itself close to extinc­tion. It could offer only “just so”

The pop­u­lar accounts that I’ve read say that Darwin failed to provide a mech­an­istic account of evol­u­tion, and instead tried to argue for blend­ing of attrib­utes. I’m not aware of any evid­ence that Darwin’s the­ory of Descent with Natural Selection was on its way out before the Modern Synthesis with Mendel’s Genetics. Can any­one sug­gest some help­ful read­ing to plug that gap?* Mendel’s work was re-discovered in 1900 (Steve Jones Almost Like a Whale 1999 p144). While the import­ance to evol­u­tion was recog­nised there wasn’t agree­ment on exactly how that mech­an­ism worked. The dis­cus­sion was rather vig­or­ous and, I think the first paper to fully syn­thes­ise the two didn’t appear till 1918 but there were argu­ments aplenty before them. Indeed, argu­ments on the details of mech­an­ism con­tinue to this day, so I’m not quite sure how “close to extinc­tion” is an accur­ate descrip­tion. I would have thought a the­ory close to being dis­carded would have been ignored rather than debated.

I have to admit Fuller’s argu­ments are pretty con­vin­cing so long as you don’t actu­ally exam­ine the evid­ence. As a res­ult I’m not that bothered about his opin­ion per se. What is inter­est­ing is the ques­tion “How does this stuff get published?”

Incorrect ideas are pub­lished all the time. The really inter­est­ing ones are the ones that people are still arguing are wrong dec­ades later. If you’re writ­ing on pre­his­toric Europe then Gordon Childe, who I think has been argued by vari­ous people to be wrong on almost every spe­cific detail, is a good place to start. He may be wrong, but he’s inter­est­ing, intel­li­gent and a thought-provoking depar­ture point to dis­cuss what may have happened in pre­his­toric Europe. If you want to argue that Childe was wrong about some­thing you have to do quite a bit of work to show it. Fuller’s argu­ments on the other hand, when he presents them in clear lan­guage seem to be plainly erro­neous, irrel­ev­ant or both. And these are not dif­fi­cult things to show. If it’s not depth of thought, intel­li­gib­ilty or inter­est­ing­ness that’s the reason for suc­cess in soci­ology then what is?

Speaking as a non-sociologist*, it would appear there’s no qual­ity con­trol in soci­olo­gical peer-review. That doesn’t mean that all soci­ology is rub­bish. On the con­trary there’s some inter­est­ing mater­ial. Rather it means that if you want to know what the good mater­ial is, the last per­son you should ask is a soci­olo­gist. It would also sug­gest that if everything does go wrong I can move to Warwick and become a sage of sci­ence without hav­ing to do dif­fi­cult stuff. Instead I can argue that someone’s work that haven’t really read is less sci­entific that someone else’s work that I haven’t read.

…and finally. The intro­duc­tion says:

Steve Fuller argues that intel­li­gent design shows how the Bible has been a power­ful spur to science…

Well, I sup­pose he does, but he doesn’t provide any evid­ence that intel­li­gent design is the least bit sci­entific. He does seem a little intent on trash­ing his own repu­ta­tion.

* Update: Jonathan Badger and Bob O’H cor­rect me on the eclipse of Darwinism in com­ments 3 and 5. Buridan under­stand­ably skew­ers the para­graph “Speaking as a non-sociologist…” in com­ment 7. I could pre­tend that the first half of that para­graph was satir­ical, but the real­ity is that it was typ­ing without enga­ging the brain. As the say­ing goes: “When arguing with a stu­pid per­son, make sure they’re not doing the same.”