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Michael Ruse: Darwinism and its Discontents.

Michael Ruse

Darwinism and its Discontents.

New York: Cambridge University Press 2006.

Pp. 326.

US$45.00 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-521-82947-2); US$19.99 (paper ISBN-13: 978-0-521-72824-9).

Ruse, philosopher of science who taught for thirty-five years at the University of Guelph and currently teaches at the Florida State University, has published around 20 authored or edited books, nearly 150 scholarly articles and more than 150 book reviews. The prevalent topic of this opus is evolutionary theory, especially its defense against a range of criticisms developed by philosophers, social scientists, theologians and biologists themselves. Darwinism and its Discontents is a sort of 'digested Ruse', in which Ruse presents criticisms of Darwinism without omitting to highlight the strengths of those criticisms (if there are any). Nevertheless, Ruse does not hide his loyalties, and argues that Darwinism is not in the least compromised by any of the objections discussed. The book touches on numerous topics, from the highly technical (such as the relevance of Hardy-Weinberg law for understanding natural selection, the importance of Hox genes for development of particular organisms) to the rather speculative (such as the would-be implications of Darwinism for fatalism or the philosophical problem of evil). Ruse's central points are probably best presented if grouped around the following three questions: What are the basic claims of the theory of evolution? What are the major objections to it, and how serious are they? What are the implications of Darwinism for 'human affairs' and for some non-biological areas of inquiry?

According to Ruse (Chapter 2), the clearest fact about evolution is that it is a fact. He supports this thesis by invoking various types of direct evidence, e.g., the power of natural and artificial selection to produce changes in diverse populations of organisms, and various types of indirect evidence, e.g., findings from paleontology, biogeography, embryology and other biological disciplines. Contrary to the idea of special creation of life a few thousand years ago, Ruse shows (Chapter 4) that phylogeny of life started much earlier (some 3.5 billion years ago). Against the trendy opinion which takes fossil record as crucial for unearthing life's history, Ruse's emphasis is on other mutually consistent methods for reconstructing evolution's path and duration: radioactive dating, comparative studies of physical traits of organisms, or calculating the mutation rates of DNA molecules (especially of the 'junk DNA'). The fact and the path of evolution are best explained, argues Ruse (Chapter 5), if one assumes that there is a unique (not the only) cause behind them. This cause, originally proposed by Charles Darwin, is natural selection. And as Ruse shows us (Chapter 1), although only few were originally convinced that natural selection can be the cause of evolution, the 20th century integration of Darwinian selectionism and Mendelian genetics definitively confirmed that Darwin started the major revolution in our thinking about the nature of evolutionary process.

Ruse also (Chapter 6) deals with a number of scientific charges against Darwinism, e.g. it overemphasizes the power of natural selection ('adaptationism'), it underemphasizes cases of conflict between natural and sexual selection, and it ignores situations of genes having pleiotropic effects (maladaptive features evolving due to their genetic links with adaptive ones). Ruse dismisses these and similar charges by showing either that they make a 'straw man' out of Darwinism or that they actually are not alternatives to Darwinism, but quite consistent with it. He also discusses (Chapter 8) one 'external' criticism to the effect that Darwinian theory is a 'social construction' or a reflection of values of a particular society, especially of the one in which it was conceived. Ruse concedes that a particular Zeitgeist may have influenced the inception of Darwinian theory. However, as he argues, the social context of its appearance or maintenance does not preclude its objectivity, since the theory has proven to be predictively fruitful regardless of any social context. As for the idea that Darwinism is compromised due to some of its proponents being involved in plagiarism, fraud or charlatanism (Chapter 9), Ruse claims that, even if some charges of scientific dishonesty within evolutionary camp are in place--and some definitely are--to argue that they somehow taint the entire field is simply a gross non sequitur.

A particularly interesting set of Ruse's considerations concerns religion and philosophy. As Ruse illustrates (Chapter 12), the relation between Darwinism and religion usually was and still is one of mutual exclusion. A paradigmatic example of this is the replacement of traditional 'argument from design' (explanation of organisms' design-like features as created by God) with explanations in terms of natural selection. For Ruse, the winner of this clash is Darwinism: after Darwin, most religious views lost their authority and cannot be restored in spite of cunning attempts of contemporary Intelligent Design theorists. However, Ruse does not want to suggest that the clash between Darwinism and religion is inevitable, especially as they both agree that we humans are beings of limited knowledge about the world we live in. As for the philosophical side of the story, Ruse focuses (Chapter 10) on impact of Darwinism on epistemology and ethics. Against the tabula rasa tradition, Ruse's recommendation to epistemologists is to focus on the idea that we have certain innate knowledge which was probably adaptive during our evolution and which is now part and parcel of our nature. In his descriptive ethics, Ruse sees morality as the product of evolution, selected to prompt us into biologically useful cooperative action. In his metaethics, he argues that our belief in objective morality is just a collective illusion created by our genes. In short, Darwinism entails metaethical subjectivism or at least skepticism.

Ruse is skilled writer able to present the most intricate details of evolutionary theory in an understandable way. He is more than well-informed; in fact, there are few philosophers today as familiar as Ruse is not only with history and current state of evolutionary theory, but also with its fate in areas as diverse as philosophy, social science or literature. This book is suitable for an inexperienced reader, with opening chapters dealing with the essentials of evolutionary theory and with later chapters touching on more speculative issues. Ruse takes care to provide brief explanations of particular notions (from history, philosophy of science or theology) he introduces, whereas his candid and often humorous style adds a special spice to the book. Although it is likely to provoke reactions as varied as there are people interested in evolutionary theory, the book should be evaluated primarily for what it is: a guide to standard 'Darwinism vs. anti-Darwinism' debates, and an ardent defense of the former. In fact, some complaints may be expected from Darwinians, e.g. that some critical voices were taken more seriously (social constructivists) or treated more gently (defenders of compatibilism of Darwinism and religion) than they deserve to be. Be that as it may, this book offers a good selection and a relatively fair picture of standard criticisms of Darwinism, and it seems quite persuasive in its refutation or at least neutralization of them. It should be read by anyone wishing to be introduced to or reminded of the 'state of the art' of the 'Darwin wars'.

Tomislav Bracanovic

University of Zagreb
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Author:Bracanovic, Tomislav
Publication:Philosophy in Review
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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