Friday, May 13, 2005

The Evolution Ruse

My friend Halifax has asked my opinion on a recent article from the Boston Globe about Michael Ruse, a “philosopher of science” who supports evolution. He has teamed with a proponent of Intelligent Design in his latest book and offers theories regarding the fronts in the war between evolutionists and creationists. He believes that evolutionists have been ineffective in getting their point across to creationists and therefore Ruse teams up with a follower of Intelligent Design supposedly to promote evolution. I’ll summarize a few points about the article.

1) The social Darwinism mistake.

From the Boston Globe article, “Evolution is controversial in large part, [Ruse] theorizes, because its supporters have often presented it as the basis for self-sufficient philosophies of progress and materialism, which invariably wind up in competition with religion.”

Darwinism pertains to biology, and biology alone. It is neither a social theory nor an economic theory. Granted, many scientists and nonscientists alike have been enamored with the sheer elegance of natural selection over the past century and a half. History has been littered with sociologists and economists such as Herbert Spencer, T.H. Huxley and Karl Marx who could not resist the temptation of (inappropriately) applying Darwin’s unique theory to various other fields of discipline, but that does not negate the eleganct usefulness of Darwin’s theory as it pertains to biology.

Supposedly, even Darwin himself considered the social manifestations of natural selection, but his conjecture was never pursued further than a few idle thoughts in letters to personal friends. This could hardly serve as the basis of widespread dissolution of Darwinian biology as certain creationists have argued. Creationist, David N. Menton, PhD states: “When man ceases to give credit to God as Creator, he generally gives the credit to nature (evolution). Not only is nature then perceived as ‘creator’, but also man's guide for morality and behavior.” As obtuse as this statement seems to me, after reading it a few times I guess I can see why Old Testament literalists would take issue with Darwinism taken to social and moral extremes. As someone who understands Darwinism, I would reassure Dr. Menton that biologists are not out to steal his morality or his faith in God—he can have them. We just want science taught in science class and religion taught in religion class.

Ruse says, ''This is a fight about different worldviews.'' I would argue that nothing could be further from the truth. This fight is about the purity of biological science and the ability for school teachers to present it as such. The fight is about diluting evolution as presented within a science curriculum with creationism and intelligent design, and any number of other improvable and irrational ideas that relate more to religion than science. Biology is one single natural science and it should not be made into a “worldview” of religion, philosophy, sociology and economics.

2) Science as knowledge; religion as belief.

The Globe article says that “according to a Gallup survey released last November, only about a third of Americans believe that Darwin's theory is well supported by the scientific evidence, while nearly half believe that humans were created in more or less their present form 10,000 years ago.”

This disturbing statistic demonstrates my point exactly that science as taught today is not presenting evolution in a responsible way. Every new finding since Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859 has corroborated his theory of natural selection and disproved the Biblical teaching of an earth lifespan of 10,000 years; yet more believe the latter than know the former. Science should not be subject to the wiles of democratic votes. Just because millions of red-state troglodytes believe something doesn’t make it true. Likewise, Galileo was nearly executed because he disagreed with the erroneous conventional wisdom of the day about planetary motion*. Our school systems are charged with turning out the next generation of scientists and researchers who will have a lot of problems to solve; let’s not prolong this conspiracy of ignorance any longer.

The Globe article states: “But Ruse asserts that popular contemporary biologists like Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins have also exacerbated the divisions between evolutionists and creationists by directly challenging the validity of religious belief…”

I feel that E. O. Wilson is one of the least understood philosophers of our time. His book Consilience has been much maligned by religious people as being anti-religious, and having read this work a few times, I cannot see the argument. As a scientist Wilson observes nature and attempts to reduce it down to its component parts. In Consilience, he casts his scientific eye on human social structure and religion and looks for reasons why we believe the things we do. Why do we have faith in irrational things? Wilson conjectures, sometimes wildly, and comes to no concrete conclusion. That’s philosophy.

Ruse unfairly castigates Wilson by describing his ''search for objective reality'' as a replacement for religious seeking. Rather than a “replacement”, Wilson is looking for a ‘rationale for religion.’ In my opinion Wilson’s Consilience is an unparalleled opportunity for us to benefit from a scientist’s truly philosophical appraisal of the human condition and his work hardly challenges the “validity of religious belief.” The fact that Wilson has drawn ire from religionists and rationalists alike could be evidence that he is either pushing the envelope of our understanding or that he is simply way off base; I prefer the former. If fundamentalist religionists cannot grasp Wilson’s point, then screw ‘em. I am less familiar with Dawkins’ religious views, and reserve judgment on his work.

3) Evolution vs. Mythology.

The Globe article says: “If the book raises hackles, though, it also raises critical questions. Given the inherent conflict between evolution and a literal reading of Genesis, does it really matter what evolution's advocates say? Or are creationists bound to attack evolutionary science regardless? And to what extent does Ruse's own approach, as the in-house critic of evolution's advocates, help or hinder his cause? ...Evolution is so embattled, Michael Ruse argues, because Darwinians have historically tried to compete with religion.”

Oh my. Ruse is exactly 180 degrees off on this. Evolutionists did not pick any fight with religionists; most understand the inability of fundamentalists to wrap their minds around anything more comlex than a football game. Unfortunately, in modern America irrational anxiety-based beliefs will trump rational scientific observation almost all the time (reference Iraq and the fear of WMD.) Creationists are certainly bound to attack evolutionary science on every front because they fear for their souls. Teachers are merely asking for a few hours within a science curriculum to present scientific findings of geology, biology, anthropology, genetics, and archaeology and to show how they support natural selection and species evolution. And not having to compromise their principles and waste valuable time passing off wild irrational theories and mythologies as science. Go ahead and teach the Bible and creationism-- in religion class. Is treating the Bible as an historical science book truly appropriate in 21st century America? Evolution is “so embattled” because raving religionists have irrationally targeted it as the cause of humankind’s social and moral undoing. Evolution led the 20th century assault on relegating the various stories of the Bible to allegorical mythology, and in so doing, evolution has attracted the wrath of innumerable panic-stricken ideologues.

Intelligent design is the theory du jour. It maintains that plant and animal species are too complex to be a product of gradual evolution and some higher intelligence must be responsible. Arguments fly back and forth, and evolutionists cite biochemical and genetic mechanisms and physical evidence in the form of fossils to support their theory that chemicals and energy can form single-cell life forms which in turn evolve over time into complex organisms. [Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God is an excellent summary.] In the end, intelligent design proponents shrug and state that while evolution may have occurred as theorized, so may intelligent design be correct, too. This is tantamount to watching the evening news and puzzling about the workings of a television set, having an electrical engineer explain in detail how it works, then scratching your head and concluding, “yeah, well I still believe that Tom Brokaw is sitting in that box talking to me.” I’m not sure even religion class is ready for this malarkey.

The Globe article says that “Ruse acknowledges this dynamic. But he says that precisely because scientists ‘are plunged into a situation not of their own making,’ they should change tactics, and seek out religious moderates who might be willing to accept evolution if it were presented in a more diplomatic manner….Ultimately, Ruse says, 'Evolution is true. Evolution works.' But as he sees it, the traditional ways of presenting evolution have hurt as much as helped. [emphasis mine]”

I appreciate Ruse’s sentiments and I welcome his diplomatic patience on the issue. My cynicism sees that religious ideologues have assaulted the moderates with fear-based irrationalism to the point that large numbers of Americans see all social ills as the result of “moral relativism” as supposedly espoused by Darwinists and rationalists. If "religious moderates" fall for this slop, then they are well down the path of ignorant banality, and certainly any chance of luring them back to reality would not be improved by espousing something as imbecilic as intelligent design. Back to E. O. Wilson: he would argue that social values and morality are somehow programmed into our biological makeup, and humankind would do well to pursue this connection and work toward real solutions to our problems instead of perseverating on with current fear-based tendencies which will eventually destroy our planet.

Eugenie C. Scott, an anthropologist who is executive director of the National Center for Science Education, is one of the most eloquent advocates for evolution. She argues that the debate should not be about the individual religious beliefs of scientists, but rather about the validity of the narrow scientific theory being discussed. Natural selection, as presented by Darwin in Origin of Species, is simple to understand. In fact, its elegance is due largely to its simplicity. It’s not morality, it’s not social science, rather it is a simple biological theory—which just so happens to have been supported by a mountain of other findings in the last 150 years. Not a single scientific finding in any scientific field—not one—has disproved or even legitimately countered evolution. Dr. Scott argues that to have another generation of school children grow up without proper instruction in such a fundament of science would be an egregious indictment of our educational system.

Ruse seems passionate in his support for evolution and for that I admire him. His tactic, however, of teaming with a proponent of intelligent design risks the degradation of pure science apparently to sell a few books. Intelligent design is not bad science, it is not even non-science. It’s certainly not religion. In fact, I do not know how to characterize it at all, except as one more snotty Kleenex cast into the waste bin of our pop culture. Not knowing him or having read his book, I can only conjecture on the motives of Michael Ruse and his recent collaboration. Certainly, the media hype will furnish generous readership from the religious right to this latest pseudo- “disproof” of the demonic Darwinists—which tells me that this philosopher may indeed be living up to his surname.

*thanks to Vorkosigan at

This blog has also been published at dailykos here.

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