A mild apology

I haven't done much philosophical blogging lately. There are Reasons. I'm preparing to move to Sydney over the next few months (and there may be a period in which I have no laptop too), and trying to catch up on a bunch of projects I have in play and which deserve my attention. Also, there's a stack yay high of books to review. To impress you all and disgust my editors, they include the following:


Sober, Elliott. 2008. Evidence and evolution: the logic behind the science. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

This continues Sober's general project of giving a Bayesian account, and in particular an inductivist Bayesian account, of the use of evidence in biology. He applies it to intelligent design (an easy target!), natural selection, and common ancestry. I think that the latter is problematic - Sober proposes the "modus Darwin" (analogous to "modus tollens" and so forth in logic): similarity, ergo common ancestry. This is, I think, both philosophically undersupported and historically and methodologically false in the actual practice of Darwin and others. It is not similarity that licences the common ancestry inference, but identity, which is to say, homology. Deep homologies of structure, and the less deep homologies of subgroups ("Darwin called it "group within group", and it was just the nested classifications of people working in the Linnean schema) is what licences us to suppose that common ancestry explains it. Consider the fusiliform shape of the tuna and the dolphin (and some sharks, plesiosaurs and other fishes) - there is a great degree of similarity, or convergent evolution. Taxonomists call this superficial similarity homoplasy and it is a muddier of the phylogenetic signal. They eliminate it from their inferences, contrary to Sober's claim. To identify common ancestry, you need to have nested groups of identity.

Bowler, Peter J. 2007. Monkey trials and gorilla sermons: evolution and Christianity from Darwin to intelligent design, New histories of science, technology, and medicine. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press.

Bowler, who practically invented historical studies of evolution as a subject, strives to put the ID debate into historical context. Those familiar with his work will not meet anything that new, but it's a worthwhile book.

Fuller, Steve. 2008. Dissent over descent: intelligent design's challenge to Darwinism. Colchester UK: Thriplow: Icon.

Fuller's latest attempt to get money out of his bought testimony in the Dover trial. I can't bring myself to read it just yet.

Sedley, David N. 2007. Creationism and its critics in antiquity, Sather classical lectures. Berkeley, CA; London: University of California Press.

I bought this book, and I'm not reviewing it for any journal, but I can't praise it enough. It is just a beautiful treatment of the source material, with the knowledge of an expert and a critical historian being brought to bear. I have found some of the extended footnotes more interesting than the main text, which is high praise of the footnotes. For example, he argues (well!) that Socrates is the originator of the idea that purpose has to be impose from without. I am reading it for the second time, and will reread it again; there is so much to absorb.

There are others, but I forget who they are by and for, so I had better go work out the list...


I'm arguing against the esteemed Michael Devitt, who wants to introduce essentialism into biology. It's going to be a hard argument, as I may end up agreeing with too much of what he wants to claim.

I have to finalise the evolution and religion volume introduction for Ashgate. The other editors have set high standards in their work on other volumes, so I am working up to it.

I have to find out what happened to my "species as phenomenal objects" article I submitted to Philosophy of Science, who haven't responded after six months. I'll probably pull it from them.

I'm working up a "two dogmas of taxonomy" paper. Secret thoughts... which you've all encountered here before. [And there's a book I'd like to write too, in my spare time.]

I recently finished a short history of the philosophy of biology in Australia and New Zealand for Brian Ellis' history of philosophy in ANZ. Fortunately some experienced individuals (Paul Griffiths, and Kim Sterelny) have made sure I didn't say much that was wrong or stupid.

My article with Gareth Nelson on Pierre Trémaux is in proof with HPLS.

I have been asked to write something about the Darwin bicentenary: I'll probably write on Darwin's influence on philosophy.

And there are several other papers I keep meaning to submit somewhere: in particular my claim that genes are not information bearing entities.

So bear with me.

More like this

in particular my claim that genes are not information bearing entities.

That's one way of stopping Dr. Dr. Dembski in his tracks.

I for one am happy that you're not doing any philosophical blogging - that hard thinking stuff makes my brain hurt.

I'm arguing against the esteemed Michael Devitt, who wants to introduce essentialism into biology.

Really? You don't like any type of essentialism? Even Richard Boyd's essentialism (aka. lets revise essentialism to actually reflect biological kinds rather than claiming there are no kinds in Biology)?

Richard's idea (homeostatic property cluster essentialism - the notion that there are mechanisms that make properties cluster) works in some cases, but not all, and I think that essentialism is a sufficient but not necessary condition for a taxon. I particularly fail to see how it can work in higher taxa, not even with phylogenetic inertia.

Hi all,

Philosophy can stop denialist creationism/ID in its tracks even with religious folk if would only remind people that today's creationism/ID lobby is not only a political power base that happily deals in science hoaxes, but one that promotes the astonishing biblical heresy of "accidentalism." You might enjoy this from today's Google News:

Intelligent Design Rules Out God's Sovereignty Over Chance


"What proponents of so-called intelligent design have cynically omitted in their polemic is that according to Biblical tradition, chance has always been considered God's choice as well."

I actually met Steve Fuller the other week during my lightning trip to the UK; I even had a bit of a good-natured public disagreement with him (on a totally different subject) at the symposium where we were both speaking in Liverpool.

Interesting man and quite personable in ... well in person. On the Dover thing, I can kind of guess where he thinks he's coming from as an activist for academic freedom. I just think he miscontrues the concept in this instance. Academic freedom allows you to challenge all sorts of ideas but not to teach students that there is a genuine scientific controversy in an area where no such controversy exists. Still, I don't know what Fuller actually said in the Dover case and I'd be interested to read his book.

By the way, there's nothing wrong in principle with paying a fee to an expert witness. Doing that sort of work is difficult and time-consuming, and the legal system depends on it being done. We really do need all those doctors, engineers, etc., to give their opinions on technical matters to various courts (and be cross-examined on them), and we can't expect them to give up their time for nothing. If Fuller charged some kind of fee, I don't see that as any different in principle. It wouldn't worry me if, say, Michael Ruse charged a fee, either, if asked for an opinion about whether ID is "science" (for example).

Expert witnesses swear an oath or make a solemn affirmation when and if they give evidence on whatever reports they produce, and we have to assume they are giving honest opinions. There's always cross-examination to challenge their credibility, but the mere charging of a fee to look at an issue and give an opinion - and appear in court if called - is neither here nor there.

FYI Philosophy of Science is notorious for not getting back to people in a timely manner. And by not timely I mean literally years. I'm not sure about right now, but as of a year or two ago they were a year or two behind their publication schedule. It is really poorly run right now. BJPS is much much better

Re #7:

I have tangled with Fuller a number of times over a number of issues in the last 15 years. I can understand why one might find him "personable", though, for my money, the term "gladhander" is a good deal mor insightful. I think this has a lot to do with his trajectory through academic life, where he has convinced quite a few people (mostly sociologists who know even less about science than he does, if such a thing were possible) that he is a Deep Thinker. His career is a specimen instance of the unfortunate fact that in academic life, one may bullshit one's way to the top of the hill, provided only that one is sufficiently shameless and brazen about tooting his own horn.

Fuller is given to running off at the mouth pretty much non-stop, and without much regard to whether he has the faintest idea of what he purports to talk about, whether it's mathematics, evolutionary biology, or 18th century theology. His books, which flow like a toxic stream, tend to be compendia of bare, unsupported assertions, the authority for which, such as it is, consists of endless citations of Fuller's own work. I've reviewed a few of these works, as well as commenting on some of the even more offhand dicta he turns out for the benefit of his colleagues in "social studies of science". Reading this stuff is a very tedious business, for which the only reward is that close analysis reveals an inexhaustible stock of solecisms, howlers, and bloopers, which, in a saner academic environment, would get the miscreant consigned to the ranks of burger-flippers.

My personal favorite, amongst my encounters with Fuller, is my rejoinder to a review he produced of a book of mine; my comeback, just for the hell of it, was entirely in verse--strict Shakespearean sonnets, to boot. Lots of wicked fun! At the risk of blowing my cover and neutralizing my pseudonym, I'll note that this can be found in "METASCIENCE--An International Review Journal for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science" (Blackwell Publishers), vol. 7, no. 1.

As to what Fuller is really up to with his entry into the lists of ID defenders, let me offer a cynical but quite defensible hypothesis: Given the anemic sales of academic books, it's next to impossible to make real money by writing and publishing them. On the other hand, an outfit like the Discovery Institute (Philip Johnson, William Dembski & Co.) has access to a fairly large network of creationist zealots to whom books like Fuller's "Science vs. Religion" and "Dissent over Descent" (the latter being the former warmed over) make the kind of comforting noises on which they dote. Sell to this crowd and the royalties begin to turn into serious dough.

Still, I don't know what Fuller actually said in the Dover case and I'd be interested to read his book.

You can read his testimony starting here. He wasn't just advocating academic freedom, he was saying we should teach poorly-supported ideas like ID to children, so that they will continue to work on them in the future, and overturn the status quo.

Dear Fossil (no, it wasn't hard to figure out who is behind the mask), you re not making it easy for me to read this book. I read and commented on his testimony at the trial at the time. The egregious slides in logic and the misrepresentation of all manner of things were enough to make me uneasy then; I don't know if I have the energy. But I have promised a review, so I must.

The thing about his views as I know them is that they are covered with a pretty solid veneer of respectability, in the appearance of scholarship. Anyone who knows the source material knows that he is using excuses from history and science to get to a conclusion that he was going to anyway (and there's an interesting psychopathy there for the investigation; does he think he's being Feyerabend in the 60s?), like his comment that you had said one needs to be a practising scientist to criticise science, which is not what you had said at all. That sort of twisting is something I cannot tolerate - one sees it from creationists and other science deniers all the time. It's obvious rhetorical sophistry, but explaining it takes a lot of time that could be spent profitably on other matters, like convincing philosophers of biology there never was a taxonomic esssentialism.