Evolutionary Biologist Austin Hughes Praises Fine-tuning Arguments, Critiques Scientism

Casey Luskin


In The New Atlantis, University of South Carolina evolutionary biologist Austin Hughes has a great article titled “The Folly of Scientism.” He argues that scientism (the belief that “sciences are the only valid way of seeking knowledge in any field”) is flawed because “the reach of scientism exceeds its grasp.” While I have no reason to think that Hughes himself is a proponent of intelligent design, he makes some very good points in his paper, including highly perceptive comments about cosmic fine-tuning and a designed universe:

[T]here has arisen a curious consilience between the findings of modern cosmology and some traditional understandings of the creation of the universe. For example, theists have noted that the model known as the Big Bang has a certain consistency with the Judeo-Christian notion of creation ex nihilo, a consistency not seen in other cosmologies that postulated an eternally existent universe. (In fact, when the astronomer-priest Georges Lemaître first postulated the theory, he was met with such skepticism by proponents of an eternal universe that the name “Big Bang” was coined by his opponents — as a term of ridicule.) Likewise, many cosmologists have articulated various forms of what is known as the “anthropic principle” — that is, the observation that the basic laws of the universe seem to be “fine-tuned” in such a way as to be favorable to life, including human life.

(Austin L. Hughes, “The Folly of Scientism,” The New Atlantis (Fall, 2012):32-50.)

Hughes goes on to note that a proliferation of multiverse hypotheses try to explain this fine-tuning, but he doesn’t find that approach satisfying: “Though these arguments may do some work in evading the conclu­sion that our universe is fine-tuned with us in mind, they cannot sidestep, or even address, the fundamental metaphysical questions raised by the fact that something — whether one or many universes — exists rather than nothing.”

Again, Hughes is an evolutionary biologist — who endorses material accounts of evolution. Let’s not forget that. This makes it quite compelling that he later critiques those who tell evolutionary just-so stories to explain how certain traits arose:

These invocations of evolution also highlight another common misuse of evolutionary ideas: namely, the idea that some trait must have evolved merely because we can imagine a scenario under which possession of that trait would have been advantageous to fitness. Unfortunately biologists as well as philosophers have all too often been guilty of this sort of invalid inference. Such forays into evolutionary explanation amount ultimately to storytelling rather than to hypothesis-testing in the scientific sense. For a complete evolutionary account of a phenomenon, it is not enough to construct a story about how the trait might have evolved in response to a given selection pressure; rather, one must provide some sort of evidence that it really did so evolve. This is a very tall order, especially when we are dealing with human mental or behavioral traits, the genetic basis of which we are far from understanding.

And what is one of those traits for which he thinks evolutionary biology lacks a strong explanation? The human intellect:

The fact that any species, including ours, has traits that might confer no obvious fitness benefit is perfectly consistent with what we know of evolution. Natural selection can explain much about why species are the way they are, but it does not necessarily offer a specific explanation for human intellectual powers, much less any sort of basis for confidence in the reliability of science. (emphasis added)

Hughes is also critical of those who try to define science as being limited to what has already been published. In a striking comment, he takes issue with precise definitions of science:

By this criterion, we would differentiate good science from bad science simply by asking which proposals agencies like the National Science Foundation deem worthy of funding, or which papers peer-review committees deem worthy of publication.

The problems with this definition of science are myriad. First, it is essentially circular: science simply is what scientists do. Second, the high confidence in funding and peer-review panels should seem misplaced to anyone who has served on these panels and witnessed the extent to which preconceived notions, personal vendettas, and the like can torpedo even the best proposals. Moreover, simplistically defining science by its institutions is complicated by the ample history of scientific institutions that have been notoriously unreliable. Consider the decades during which Soviet biology was dominated by the ideologically motivated theories of the geneticist Trofim Lysenko, who rejected Mendelian genetics as inconsistent with Marxism and insisted that acquired characteristics could be inherited. An observer who distinguishes good science from bad science “by reference to institutional factors” alone would have difficulty seeing the difference between the unproductive and corrupt genetics in the Soviet Union and the fruitful research of Watson and Crick in 1950s Cambridge. Can we be certain that there are not sub-disciplines of science in which even today most scientists accept without question theories that will in the future be shown to be as preposterous as Lysenkoism? Many working scientists can surely think of at least one candidate — that is, a theory widely accepted in their field that is almost certainly false, even preposterous. (emphasis added)

Indeed, Hughes isn’t sure that science should always be trusted to regulate itself. While he makes it very clear he doesn’t believe that evolutionary biology provides any rational basis for eugenics, he says we shouldn’t be quick to forget historical connections between the two:

When evolutionary psychology emerged, its practitioners were generally quick to repudiate Social Darwinism and eugenics, labeling them as “misuses” of evolutionary ideas. It is true that both were based on incoherent reasoning that is inconsistent with the basic concepts of biological evolution; but it is also worth remembering that some very important figures in the history of evolutionary biology did not see these inconsistencies, being blinded, it seems, by their social and ideological prejudices. The history of these ideas is another cautionary tale of the fallibility of institutional science when it comes to getting even its own theories straight.

Hughes concludes by taking direct aim at scientism:

Advocates of scientism today claim the sole mantle of rationality, frequently equating science with reason itself. Yet it seems the very antithesis of reason to insist that science can do what it cannot, or even that it has done what it demonstrably has not. As a scientist, I would never deny that scientific discoveries can have important implications for metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and that everyone interested in these topics needs to be scientifically literate. But the claim that science and science alone can answer longstanding questions in these fields gives rise to countless problems.

Hughes is a highly respected evolutionary biologist, an important researcher who has broken ground in his field. That, of course, makes his essay all the more striking.

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