Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Friday, January 28, 2005

Book Wars - when philosophers attack!

One of the nice things about philosophy of biology is that everyone thinks the ideas matter more than heartily agreeing with the authorities. So when respected philosopher of biology, Sahotra Sarkar, whose work on molecular reduction I admire greatly, lists his top ten list of essential books for philosophers of biology (well three lists, actually), it is only a short time until someone disagrees. The "someone" in this instance is Michael Ruse.

Now everyone is expected to have their important books. Some of mine include David Hull's marvellous and controversial magnum opus, Science as a Process and Susan Oyama's The Ontogeny of Information. Even worse, I was greatly influenced by two books that now seem rather quaint:

Toulmin, S. Human Understanding. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1972.


Garfinkel, Alan. Forms of Explanation: Rethinking the Questions in Social Theory. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1981.

neither of which are directly on philosophy of biology, but are foundational in thinking about the evolution of (scientific) ideas.

But be that as it may, what is interesting here is that Ruse revives the sociobiology debate once more, and declares his allegiance to a flag: "Darwinism". Sarkar rejects this flag as being a way to draw religious ire - if we are "Darwinians" then creationists have a prima facie right to call what those who accept evolution think is right a "religion".

Part of the problem appears to be that Ruse thinks it is. He has engaged the Intelligent Design marketers in serious debate, coediting books with them, and treating design arguments with respect. Can it be that there is a point at which one wants to say, "this idea is dead; it has ceased to be, it has shuffled of the mortal coil and gone to join the choir invisible; it is an ex-argument"? I think there is, and it was passed some time back, despite the asseverations of William Lane Craig in reviving the anthropic principle. Why does Ruse do this? He only maintains the illusion of the viability of these arguments. Perhaps he does think evolution is a religion. Perhaps he wants a worldview that replaces religious belief. If he finds it there, fine, but that is not to say this is, in fact, what evolution really is in the world of science.

Worse still, Ruse continues to talk about "evolutionists", as if we were a set of ideologues marching in concert. There was such a movement - it tended to focus more on Schopenhauer and Hegel at the end of the nineteenth century than on Darwin, and it was largely based on a pre-Darwinian understanding of transmutation. Bergson and Spencer are two representatives, and Teilhard was a late flowering of what was by then a largely mystical belief in progress. I never understood why Huxley and Simpson gave it credence either.

But today, there are battlelines drawn that are quite different. "Evolutionist", if it means anything at all, means a philosophy that drew on evolution as an inspiration for idealist (in both senses) philosophy. It was roundly rejected in analytic Anglo-American philosophy, as described in

Cunningham, Suzanne. Philosophy and the Darwinian Legacy. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1996.

Other philosophers who were influenced by Darwin but whose philosophy was not directly evolutionist included Peirce, Dewey and James, among others, and the pragmatist tradition appears to have remained evolutionary. Quine once wrote, tongue in cheek, that creatures that inveterately made bad inductions tended to die out.

But evolution provides no overarching worldview. Worldviews have been built upon evolutionary ideas of course, but all of them appear to have imported their metaphysics, morals and value-judgments from elsewhere. So why does Ruse want to go that way?

In his Monad to Man and Can a Darwinian be a Christian? Ruse makes the claim that evolutionists and Darwinians have had worldviews. The first argues that progressivism has always been close to the surface in evolutionary thinking from Darwin to the modern era, contra the common claim that Darwinian thinking is non-progressive. In the latter he seems to take for granted, although I have not read it closely yet, that the framing of the debate over evolution in the United States and elsewhere is correct - that evolution contradicts the moral claims of religion.

Ruse, Michael. Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

________. Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? : The Relationship between Science and Religion. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

I think this is just wrong. Science is influenced by the morés and values of the day - but this is different to suggesting that it must involve those values. Science is not a worldview. It is a way of knowing. It feeds into worldviews, perhaps, and is often affected by the worldviews of those who practise or criticise it, but it is not a religion, and Ruse does it a disservice with this approach. For all that I admire him and his work, this is a mistake. I'm with Sarkar on this.

For what it's worth...