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The parasite in Darwinism

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Michael Ruse, Taking Darwin Seriously

I’ve have been debating over at Andrew’s Bound by Gravity, on the subject of how evolution and religion are to be reconciled, if they are indeed reconcilable. Andrew’s an agnostic and he found a passage from a New Republic article that moved him to say he thought the subject of intelligent design had to be in a complete tatters. My response – and we’ve had this debate before, he and I, was that I do not see how we on earth, living a mere seventy years or so and seeing nothing more than a tiny fraction of this one planet, could be in a position to extrapolate from that and say with certainty that there is not a hidden order to the universe that is beyond our understanding. I added that a randomly evolved mind would be in an even worse position to judge, as it was not made with any goal in mind (like having a real and significant compass towards finding ontologic truths about the universe). Finally, I tried to show that in our everyday activity we are always invoking metaphysical ideas and methodological heuristics that are not scientifically proven (and cannot be), and this is true even in the field of science itself. That last point had me under fire from a lot of folks (not Andrew, who is always gracious), some of them obviously very smart and knowledgeable – in their field. That field just happens not to be philosophy. If there had been a greater awareness of issues in the philosophy of science in that comment thread, the suggestion that there is no double blind stat sheet proving Occam’s Razor would not have been as contentious as it was.

I also suspect that since I let it be known from the beginning that I am a Christian theist, I was always under a cloud of doubt, expected to invoke a passage of scripture to make a point, or to personally testify to having seen Angels, or what have you. That is not going to happen – to make points in a conversation you have to use things that are mutually accessible or you’re not going to get very far. I even admitted I do think a good case can be made for evolution and that I don’t hold to a literal reading of Genesis. Still, reminding the Nominalists that (by their own criteria!) we do not know for certain that genetic mutations are random did not get a warm reception. Hmmm. What could it be under that particular rock?

So – just to prove some of my points are not due to my “muddle headed” theism, I am going to post a passage from a Micheal Ruse, who is a both a philosopher and a former professor of zoology at the University of Guelph. Ruse is not an ID advocate; quite the opposite. He’s an agnostic with heavy naturalistic leanings, and a scholar of all things Darwinian.

From the final chapter of Taking Darwin Seriously, which is a chapter devoted to Darwin’s New Critics:

Here I believe the critics – including new Creationists like Phillip Johnson – may indeed have a point. The fact of the matter is that right from the beginning back in the middle of the eighteenth century, evolutionary ideas have frequently (most of the time, to be honest) been used as a vehicle for ideologies, philosophies, religious hopes and thinking. Most particularly, as you must have gleaned from the main chapters of the book, evolution has been the child of the belief in the possibility and desirability of progress: upward change in human knowledge, society, industry and more, through unaided human effort (Ruse, 1996). It was the urge to find a physical counterpart to this ideology that drove the early evolutionists like Erasmus Darwin and Jean Baptise de Lamark, it was the belief in progress that made Herbert Spencer the leading evolutionist of the nineteenth century, and it has been something which motivates evolutionists even today. Wilson, as we have seen, is open and ardent in his enthusiasm.

I think I underestimated the extent to which the belief in progress did permeate evolutionary thinking. I stressed then, and I would stress now, that I am not claiming that evolutionary theory has to be interpreted in a progressivist fashion. One can focus on the non-directional, and this is something which can come readily if one makes much of natural selection through random mutation. I surmise that many (probably most) of today’s professional evolutionists have little or no interest in progress. But the fact is that it has been the prominent motive and ideology in the history of evolutionary theorizing: furthermore, although Darwin’s natural selection may lend itself to a non progressivist treatment, many prominent Darwinians have been progressionists (Ruse 1993, 1996). Charles Darwin himself was one such person. Sir Ronald Fisher was another. And there are Darwinians today of a progressionist ilk: other than Wilson, Richard Dawkins’ name comes at once to mind. In a tradition started by Darwin himself, it is argued that selection can lead to a kind of comparative progress, through a sort of ‘arms race’ competition between lines: the prey gets faster, the predator gets faster. Overall, this leads to a kind of progress – brains and so forth – as organisms strive to stay on top.

Progress was traditionally a philosophy or a world system to rival Christian thinking – the former stresses the capability of human beings to raise themselves up, the latter stresses that only through God’s Providential intervention have we hope of future happiness. People like Fisher show that the division was hardly clear cut, but the fact is that evolution with this secular ideology behind it, with (as Johnson notes) its own creation story, has functioned as a kind of religion substitute. More: as a kind of religion. Not for nothing did Julian Huxley, one of the architects of twentieth century evolutionary thought, label one of his books Religion without Revelation (1927). And as in all good religious systems, one finds moral directives. Or, rather, as with all major religious systems, one finds a moral framework which gets different interpretations by different people and at different times. Promulgation of progess is taken as the highest good, which translates as the nurturing and betterment of humankind; but how one sets about this is another matter. Spencer was laissez faire and free trade; Fisher was an ardent eugenicist; and Wilson – believing humans have evolved in symbiotic relationship with nature – feels that our highest obligations are to biodiversity and the preservation of natural resources like the Brazilian rainforests (see Spencer 1851; MacKenzie 1981; E.O. Wilson 1984, 1994).

The new Creationists are right in seeing evolutionary ideas as a threat – as a rival religion – although they are hardly right in laying at the evolutionists’ door all of the moral moves of modern society. I suspect that, like all of us, evolutionists reflect their place in society as much as they create it. But the new Creationists are even more correct than I have thus far allowed. Even though one certainly can interpret Darwinism in a Christian fashion, the fact is that many Darwinians – many Darwinians today – have no wish to do this. Rather, they flaunt what they take to be the atheistic implications of their theory. Take Richard Dawkins (1995, 1996). He thinks that Darwinism, explaining adaptation as it does, makes unnecessary the appeal to the Christian God of Design. He thinks also that selection, stressing that life is a struggle for existence, intensifies the problem of evil to such an extent that the appeal to the Christian God is untenable.

[Ruse quotes Dawkins here, the details of which are not important; the point has been summed up above]

I will say two things to this argument. First, the fact that natural selection does not make necessary an appeal to a creator obviously does not make such an appeal impossible. Many have thought – including Darwin himself at the time when he wrote the Origin – that the Creator designs at a distance through unbroken law, but that he designs nonetheless (Ruse, 1999). Second, while it is indeed true that natural selection can focus our attention on the problem of evil, it does not create it. It was a problem for Christian belief for centuries before Darwin. This means that, if you have found some way to reconcile evil with your religious belief, there is no reason why Darwinism should disturb it…

The conclusion I am drawing is that you can and should step between the Charybidis of Johnson and the Scylla of Dawkins.

Ruse is a biologist who will admit that it is indeed a struggle to keep scientific study of Darwin squeaky clean of any bit of metaphysics or politcal yearnings. Other fields of scientific study do not seem to have the problem to the same a degree – and I suspect this is so because math and physics do not deal with the problem of pain and death.

In this day of the privately funded lab, one really has to keep one’s head about what assumptions one is going to make – and there are going to be assumptions no matter how sparkly your lab coat is. Labs and scientists cost big money, and that money comes, more and more, from private capital. Government funding has its own problems, of course, but private capital is probably even more structurally motivated to Utilitarianism, which gives it the largest scope for both the type of testing that can be done and also gives it the broadest umbrella under which it can raise money. The issue is a bit like that of the family doctor being paid a stipend for promoting one pill over another. Is his advice now tainted, or not? It’s hard to say, but the odds have no doubt gone up.

If we want to keep science all about a noble quest for truth, it will require careful thought and two open eyes. The truth, nobility, and neutrality of a specific scientific endeavor cannot simply be assumed. And, more, guardianship will require a rigorous assessment of metaphysics lest we carry parasitical assumptions unawares, as when Dawkins links natural selection to atheism. When he does that, he is no longer acting as a dispassionate scientist. If he is not rebuked, the only way to avoid a double standard is to allow others the same freedom, even if their conclusions differ from his. Alternately, we can simply say that we do not know what drives mutation, just as in physics it is generally acknowledged that causation is not at all well understood.


Written by Curt

August 23, 2005 at 7:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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