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Michael Ruse. Darwinism and Its Discontents.

Michael Ruse. Darwinism and Its Discontents. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. 326 pp.

Biology is hot, as all informed people will have noticed, due not only to a creationist resurgence, nor only to stunning scientific developments since the discovery of DNA. The creationist controversy and genetic engineering get the biggest headlines, but biology's in-house debates about evolution are showing equally significant philosophical resonance: about the reducibility of biology to physics, about the explanatory adequacy of natural selection, about the proportionate influence and nature and nurture, and even about the nature of science itself. Not since the Scopes trial has the power and scope of philosophical naturalism been so much in question, yielding a burgeoning literature ranging from the popular to the academic. In that literature, the works of Michael Ruse (philosopher and historian of science) address a remarkably wide audience with scholarly literacy and a writing style notable for its lucidity and wit.

Darwinism and Its Discontents is Ruse's most comprehensive look at Darwinism to date. Beginning with historical background (chapter 1), he establishes the core "fact of evolution" (chapter 2), and proceeds with chapter-length accounts of the sorts of problems that test the limits of Darwinian theory: the origin of life, the path of evolution, the cause of evolution, and human nature. He devotes a chapter to the "limitations and restrictions" of Darwinism (chapter 6), while chapters 8 through 12 examine the wider issues that cluster about cultural landmarks and ideological flashpoints: factuality, professional honesty, philosophy, literature, and religion. Ruse is well suited to such an overview. He negotiates the terrains of history, philosophy, and theology well enough to offer cogent versions of the central issues and their multiple sides.

Ruse's own perspective is ultimately a pro-scientific agnosticism. But he knows enough theology to recognize which theological arguments are more consistent with science and which hold up better to philosophical scrutiny so that his approach never degenerates into a brief for science-as-such against religion-as-such. In his treatment of the faith-science issue, for instance, Ruse effectively uses the theological arguments of Ernan McMullin (a catholic priest) against fundamentalist arguments that dismiss natural evolution in favor of miracles, showing the latter hostage to a faith in biblical literalism and inerrancy that leave scientific arguments untouched. Similarly, Ruse shows how the recently christened Intelligent Design movement not only inhibits science by accepting its current gaps as final, but also raises embarrassing theological questions about the features of nature that seem not so intelligent at best, and cruel at worst.

Ruse's view of science might be called a methodologically prudent naturalism. That view is doubly provisional: first, by provisionally assuming that natural science's methods are adequate to explain nature; second, by recognizing that science's limits do arise, however provisional their location. Unlike Intelligent Design advocates and biology's more outspokenly atheists, this approach avoids underestimating or overestimating the authority of science.

Perhaps surprisingly, Ruse's partiality is more intrusive when he turns from religion to the intramural issue of Darwinism as science. His manifesto-like introduction closes with the categorical claim that "all of the critics of Darwinism are deeply mistaken" (4). Unfortunately, this dismissive attitude underestimates the ambiguity of Darwinism, whose boundaries have been controversial, and whose conceptual underpinnings are still undergoing reexamination.

Like many pioneering theories, Darwin's theory of evolutionary causation was incomplete and ambiguous. At first, Darwinism had no genetic mechanism at all. Even with genetics, Darwinians have differed on points as basic as whether the target of selection is the organism, the species, or the gene. Darwinians have debated how continuous or how punctuated evolution might be. Now, developmental systems theorists are suggesting that much of evolutionary change and adaptation happen before the unfit are selected against. Such debates constitute a long-standing vacillation of Darwinian causation between atomistic, competitive models and more systemic, cooperative models. The content and boundaries of Darwinism, in short, have always been controversial and subject to change.

Perhaps the ambiguity of Darwinism and Ruse's partisanship prompt him to conflate Darwinism with everything that is now thought to be true of evolution. In any case, Ruse's categorical dismissal of Darwinism's critics casts Darwinism--ironically--in the sort of essentialist terms that Darwinism was supposed to have expunged from biology. Before Darwin, species were thought to have eternal essences. Darwin transformed the concept of species by showing that species evolved gradually from a common ancestor, in which case species have histories rather than essences. The image of a bulletproof Darwinism suggests a finished product rather than a theory that has evolved in response both to criticism and to new evidence.

Like species, Darwinism has experienced diversity and change, shedding ideas under the pressure of scientific selection. In fact, Darwinism's growth has depended on criticism from within and without. Early Darwinians thought particulate genetics (Mendel) incompatible with Darwin's thesis of gradual change, and later Darwinians thought gradual change incompatible with punctuated equilibrium (Eldredge and Gould). The notion of gradualism evolved to include both. In the long run, Darwinism has succeeded not just by defeating critics when they were wrong, but also by accommodating them when they were right. To suggest that Darwinism has been or is immune to criticism mischaracterizes its strength: Darwin's theory has survived not because its essential boundaries were well defined and impervious, but by adapting its self-interpretation to fit new evidence. Ruse's partisanship mutes the evolution of Darwinism as a scientific paradigm by downplaying its dialectical nature.

In the end, however, Ruse's good sense and erudition outweigh the limitations of his occasional partisanship. Indeed, for an introduction to the mainstream Darwinian view and its wider context, one might not find a better entree than Ruse's account.

Horace L. Fairlamb, University of Houston-Victoria
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Author:Fairlamb, Horace L.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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