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.