Michael Ruse: Philosophers Rip Darwin, But They're Ignorant of Science





[Michael Ruse directs the program in the history and philosophy of science at Florida State University. His latest book, Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science, was just published by Cambridge University Press. He contributes to The Chronicle Review's blog, Brainstorm.]

Last year was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. The anniversary was marked by conferences the world over. I will not tell you how many I attended; ecologically sensitive readers of The Chronicle might start whining about carbon footprints and that sort of thing. Let me just say that I found myself going no fewer than three times through the Quad City International Airport, in Moline, Ill. Moline!

I mention this as background to the publication of a new book by Jerry A. Fodor, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, a professor of cognitive science at the University of Arizona. The title of the book, What Darwin Got Wrong (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), tells you their opinion of the old English naturalist and of his theory of evolution through natural selection. If Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini were an isolated case, one could dismiss their book with a grimace (if you were a biologist), or welcome them with a cheer (if you were a creationist). But in the philosophical community, there is an increasingly vocal cadre of eminent philosophers harboring doubts about Darwin. To understand their critique, we must first put the clock back a year, to the beginning of the celebrations.

The anniversary conferences usually had a smattering of professional Darwin types like me—I am a historian and philosopher of science specializing in evolutionary theory—but the bulk of the presenters and attendees were evolutionary biologists. For two reasons, the atmosphere was universally positive. First, scientists deeply respect Darwin and his achievements. These people are evolutionists—they take the past seriously. Second, there was not a person at these conferences who was not excited about the science today. Evolutionary biology is on a roll, and that was a cause for celebration—and frenetic presentations that jammed in as much new science as possible. Moreover, to a person, the scientists saw that the first point led smoothly into the second. Everyone appreciates the tools of Darwinism, above all the mechanism of natural selection. But great science doesn't stand still. It picks up and carries ideas and findings way beyond the wildest hopes of its founders. Evolutionary biology today is deeply Darwinian, but it has outpaced the Origin in ways that its author could never have imagined. To use a hackneyed phrase, Darwin gave biology a paradigm, and biologists have been expanding it ever since....

Exciting times, which makes it all the more remarkable to hear voices from within the mainstream of philosophy questioning the veracity of evolutionary theory. I'll mention three. First there is Alvin Plantinga. Although he teaches at the University of Notre Dame, a Roman Catholic institution, Plantinga is North America's most distinguished Protestant philosopher of religion. A deeply sincere Calvinist, he has never hesitated to argue for his faith and has done groundbreaking work on questions of knowledge and belief. Even if you disagree with his conclusions, you can admire his skill and learn from his arguments. Plantinga, however, has long harbored a distrust, even an ardent dislike, of evolutionary theorizing in general and of Darwinian thinking in particular. In an essay published in 1999, he wrote, "Consider the role played by evolutionary theory in our intellectual world. Evolution is a modern idol of the tribe; it is a shibboleth distinguishing the ignorant fundamentalist goats from the informed and scientifically acquiescent sheep. Doubts about it may lose you your job. It is loudly declared to be absolutely certain, as certain as that the earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun—when it is no such thing at all."...

Much more surprising is the position of the New York University philosopher Thomas Nagel, who has established himself right at the top of the field thanks to a long series of dazzling essays on topics as diverse as the thinking apparatus of a bat and the nature of sexual perversion. Although he states firmly that he does not believe in a deity, he has now come out against Darwinism. If Nagel is not a supporter of intelligent design, one wonders why he says what he does. He has endorsed a book by Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2009), naming it one of the top books of 2009 in the Times Literary Supplement....

Jerry Fodor, no less distinguished than Nagel and Plantinga, is well known for his claim that the mind is composed of separately functioning modules. And he, too, has taken to criticizing Darwinian theory, first in an article in the London Review of Books and now in What Darwin Got Wrong. Fodor finds something deeply flawed in contemporary evolutionary thinking: "An appreciable number of perfectly reasonable biologists are coming to think that the theory of natural selection can no longer be taken for granted. This is, so far, mostly straws in the wind; but it's not out of the question that a scientific revolution—no less than a major revision of evolutionary theory—is in the offing."...

I often joke, as one who spends a lot of time fighting creationists, that when one of them says something silly, that means more work for me: bread on the table. When one of them says something really silly, there is strawberry jam, too. In 2005, after a trial in Dover, Pa., a federal judge ruled that intelligent design should not be taught in schools. Pat Robertson's response—"God is tolerant and loving, but we can't keep sticking our finger in his eye forever. If they have future problems in Dover, I recommend they call on Charles Darwin. Maybe he can help them"—kept me and my family well fed for weeks.

Now those of us who love Darwin and his theory have got the philosophers to deal with, too. I see steak in my future. But in truth, I am not really happy. I might even turn vegetarian if I could persuade my fellow philosophers to start taking science seriously. Could they possibly entertain the idea that being at one with the living world does not make us any less worthy as human beings? After the Origin was published, the wife of the Bishop of Worcester supposedly reacted: "Descended from monkeys? Let us hope that it is not true. But if it is true, let us hope that it not become widely known."

A century and a half later, the time has come to shout the truth from the rooftops....



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