Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

The Evolution-Creation Struggle

Even though Michael Ruse is an evolutionary philosopher, he also is a self-described deist, so I probably should have been ready to be disappointed. Instead of saving my hard-earned money, I optimistically purchased his book, The Evolution-Creation Struggle (2005, Harvard University Press), with the expectation that it would explain the history that underlies the conflict between science and religion regarding the origins of life on earth, particularly as it is being acted out in science classrooms in America — which it did accomplish. Kinda. Sorta.


In this book, Ruse defines and explores subtle differences between religious philosophies that arose in response to critiques launched during the Enlightenment, roughly at the end of the 18th century. He describes how these analyses triggered a crisis for Christianity in the Western World and how Christianity responded in two ways; evangelicals withdrew by vigorously defending the absolute authority of the Bible as it was written, while postmillennialists evolved; they ended up placing a high value on social and intellectual progress — including an acknowledgment of evolutionary theory.

At approximately the same time, and while Darwin began developing evolution into a true science by proposing natural selection as its underlying mechanism, evolutionism also appeared. Let me make this clear: evolutionism is not evolutionary science and evolutionary biologists are not necessarily evolutionists. Evolutionary biology comprises a set of interrelated facts that support a testable theory describing the mechanisms that result in evolutionary change in living organisms throughout time. However, evolutionary science is not a religion because it does not provide any insight into how humans should live, nor the underlying purpose for our existence nor does it address our ultimate fate after death. These facts were obvious to T. H. Huxley, sometimes known as “Darwin’s bulldog”, who wisely insisted that the theory of evolution had no more implications for theism than did the first book of Euclid.

By contrast, evolutionism provides spiritual and ideological philosophies built on or around a scientific narrative (namely, evolution) and proposes a progressive worldview based on directed mechanisms of organic change. Basically, evolutionism claims that evolutionary change is not random, that it is the source of biological progress. These philosophies determine evolutionism’s ideological framework that define what can be believed about the nature of human existence and the place of humans in the world. As such, according to Ruse, evolutionism functions as a secular religion or at least as a ‘quasi-religion’.

In his book, Ruse quickly reviews relevant historical events (I would have liked to read more about this), detailing the surprising philosophical similarities between postmillennialist beliefs and “evolutionism” and he probes the complicated nature of the ensuing debate. Ruse’s main premise is that the often bitter evolution-creation conflict is really a disagreement between two conflicting religions, Christianity and evolutionism, instead of a debate between religion and science. Because of the similarities between these philosophical worldviews, this controversy frequently takes on the intensity and bitterness of a family feud.

As promised, this book delivered a thoughtful, but sadly abbreviated, overview of the depth of historical disagreements between science and religion, and between major religious points of view. And I generally agree with Ruse’s claim that religious and scientific spokesmen have become entrenched in their particular viewpoints. However, the last two chapters — typically the strongest in most books — were really disappointing because Ruse weakly admonishes scientists that we should “try to understand the other side”. This is silly because most scientists in America were raised as Christians so they already have a clear understanding of “the other side” based on knowledge and experience. He seems to forget that it is difficult to escape a basic Christian indoctrination in this nation because it is literally everywhere. At the same time, I was astonished that Ruse simply ignores the shocking levels of violence that “the faithful” are capable of committing against those who disagree with their narrow worldview. Further, I see Ruse’s passionless and non-confrontational narrative as only serving to muddy the debate by elevating religious dogma, which has no basis in fact whatsoever, to the same level as reality-based science.

Despite my criticisms of this book, I do agree with Ruse’s argument that, despite our philosophical differences, scientists and the public can and should form a coalition to prevent evangelicals from sabotaging this nation’s science education. If we don’t collaborate in this battle, the flat-earthers, creationists and “intelligent design” wingnuts will continue to inject religious doctrine into science classrooms where it doesn’t belong. This will ultimately have severe consequences for the scientific, technological and intellectual future of this nation. But this one argument doesn’t demand an entire book.

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Included in the Carnival of the Godless
Issue 35.

Comments

  1. #1 RBH
    February 20, 2006

    Just what is it that we are to understand about those who, while concealing their conservative Christian religious motives, seek to have school children taught flat lies, as the ID pushers on the Ohio State Board of Education did? (Lest anything think “lies” is hyperbole, “lie” was the exact word used by an Ohio Department of Education staffer to characterize a claim in the creationist model lesson plan that was finally whacked out the model curriculum a week ago.)

  2. #2 Carl Buell(OGeorge)
    February 20, 2006

    Understand the other side? I grew up in a fundamentalist household and I don’t understand them. Nine hours of church a week for 10+ years and I don’t understand them. I don’t know how to deal with someone whose basic tenet of faith is that a Jewish mystic rose from the dead 2,000 years ago based on accounts written years later by people with no methodology for understanding their world. I was talking to a young man the other night at an evolution seminar at the New York State Museum, but just had to throw up my hands and leave when he started talking about “sin”. After 59 years, I still honestly don’t understand them.

  3. #3 John Landon
    February 20, 2006

    I think Ruse’s distinction of evolution and evolutionism is misleading: Darwin’s theory proposes a mechanism of change, hence makes a statement about how progress, or the lack of it, occurs. An inverted theory of progress is no better than an ‘evolutionist’ ideology.
    The real problem is that all these theories are too clumsy to deal with their subject matter and always scramble biological and cultural issues

  4. #4 Alon Levy
    February 21, 2006

    Actually, evolutionism is real, though lately it has been very weak. It’s rooted in a 19th century idea of progress, which included many planks, of which Darwinism was only one; in fact evolutionism works better with Lamarckism than with Darwinism. Part of evolutionism includes a Christian-like belief in supreme, irresistible forces, whether capitalist or socialist: and indeed, evolutionists were very keen on central planning, the socialists believing in Marxism and the capitalists eventually developing Taylorism.

    Moderate liberal Mark Rosenfelder’s article on the 20th century is mostly about 20th century developments, but also contrasts them with the evolutionist ideologies of the 19th century and early 20th century.

  5. #5 Rexroth's Daughter
    February 21, 2006

    I’m glad to see someone tackle the history of this enmity, but I am absolutely dismayed that we should be asked “to understand the other side.” Unless to understand them is to allow them to keep their churches and voodoo mentality, their dark-ages, narrow-minded thoughtless notions– as long as they keep it in their churches and leave science alone. I could undertand that.

  6. #6 biosparite
    February 21, 2006

    The review in SCIENCE argued that the enmity is so severe not because of the Neo-Darwinist findings per se but because of the larger evolutionism penumbra. Does anyone buy this? I don’t. A few years ago Tom Delay said on the floor of the House words to the effect of how dare those scoundrels say man is descended from pond scum. The core science is what has these folks feeling threatened, and hence the attack on the teaching of science in the schools. My ex-wife, whose tutoring business fed off the anxieties of the local elite for their children’s reading comprehension ability, told me that standardized testing in Texas schools had been blocked for years partly because the Religious Right felt the questions on the tests had not been vetted to eliminate any reference to any lifestyle or practice not in conformity with their religious beliefs. In Huston restaurants it is difficult on a Sunday not to hear the most absurd conversations (recent example from a couple of Sundays ago: since God and Heaven are outside of time, all the dead arrive at the Pearly Gates simultaneously [sort of an internalized metaphor for Houston traffic]). The excess religiousity co-exists with the most un-Christian behavior; for example, one of the rudest lawyers I have ever known frequently perused a King James Bible on his desk with Jesus’s purported words in red type. Having been an Episcopal-school preppie who had to take a Sacred studies course each year, I was made to read much of the New Testament critically, and my impression is that Jesus wasn’t all that nice a guy. Evangelical/fundamentalist/pentacostal Christianity expands like a gas to fill all the interior mind-space of adherents. So what’s not to understand about it? You must need your body-Thetan audited.

  7. #7 Rexroth's Daughter
    February 21, 2006

    I was just reading this from Sam Harris’s “The End of Faith” and thought it suitable to this discussion. About his own book he writes:
    One of the central themes of this book, however, is that religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance–born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God–is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.

  8. #8 Lee J Rickard
    February 21, 2006

    Readers who want the meat of Ruse’s historical analysis, but want to get some extra reading for the money, would be well advised to get Evolution and Ethics, edited by Philip Clayton and Jeffrey Schloss. Ruse has an extended essay in that collection that is virtually the first draft of his book.

  9. #9 clvrmnky
    February 22, 2006

    The
    centred
    paragraphs
    are
    driving
    me
    crazy!
    ;)

  10. #10 Bro. Bartleby
    February 22, 2006

    And now it has come to this?!

    Non-Religious Turmoil Escalates

    15,000 atheists in London rioted after a blank sheet of paper was found on a cartoonist’s desk.

  11. #11 Dan S.
    February 24, 2006

    “Ruse’s main premise is that the often bitter evolution-creation conflict is really a disagreement between two conflicting religions, Christianity and evolutionism”

    Of the many ways this seems wildly off the mark, the descripton of evolutionism – at least for the current day – makes no sense. If you drop the bit about progress, I can kinda see it, but . . .

  12. #12 Alon Levy
    February 24, 2006

    Well, as I explained, evolutionism as Ruse defines it died after World War One, when Europeans saw that their society was just as capable at producing carnage as all other societies.

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