Stranger Fruit

Reviewing Ruse

Grrlscientist has a review up of Ruse’s book, The Evolution-Creation Struggle (2005), so I thought I’d copy a review I wrote that appeared in Nature Cell Biology (Dec 2005 issue).

As an undergraduate in Ireland in the mid-80’s I ran across a copy of Ashley Montagu’s book Science and Creationism. Frankly, I felt that I was reading some kind of parody – could there actually be people in a technologically literate country like the United States who denied both the fact of evolution and the hypothesis that natural selection was a mechanism for such change? Such opposition was not an issue in Ireland and I could not see why it should be in America. Subsequent experience has taught me that this is sadly the case, and indeed that anti-evolutionists often have understandable (perhaps even rational, though Richard Dawkins would disagree) reasons for their opposition to Darwinian evolution.

The Montagu volume contained an article by the philosopher Michael Ruse describing his experiences during the 1981 Arkansas “Scopes II” trial in which he provided Judge William Overton with a somewhat controversial definition of “science” and thus the basis of the decision to ban “creation science” from Arkansas public schools. This decision, along with the 1987 Supreme Court ruling in Edwards v Aguilard, marked a sea-change for the anti-evolution movement in America. Creationism itself was forced to evolve and the resurgence of intelligent design (ID) is one indication that anti-evolutionism has not died in the United States. With ongoing creationist action at the state and local level in Kansas, Pennsylvania, and many other states, the struggle between supporters of evolution and creation is not likely to disappear soon, and indeed ID appears to be making some inroads into Europe.

In this relatively short and readable book, Ruse sets out his vision of this ongoing struggle between evolution and creation. Readers of his previous works – especially From Monad to Man (1997), Mystery of Mysteries (2001) and Darwin and Design (2003) – will be in familiar territory for much of this work, but for those who are new to Ruse’s historical and philosophical views, this volume is as good place to start as any.

Following a broad historical narrative beginning with the Enlightenment and discussing the development of evolutionary biology as a fully-fledged professional science, Ruse is careful to distinguish between evolution and evolutionism. The former is a professionalized field within biology, the latter, a secular religion of evolutionary philosophical naturalism that smuggles extra-epistemic values into evolution, and Ruse notes that it is practiced – if not preached – by many of the most skillful popularizers of evolutionary biology (Dawkins and E.O. Wilson spring quickly to mind) as well as perhaps less well know figures (e.g. William D. Hamilton, Jerry Coyne, and William Provine). These supporters of evolutionism, Ruse claims, exhibit a worldview that is ultimately optimistic and supports progress. In fact, adopting a theological viewpoint, he sees such individuals as essentially post-millennial, that is believing that humans can work towards a better future. This is in opposition to pre-millennialists who, believing in Christian providentialism, hold that human action alone cannot and will not make the world a better place. This Ruse identifies with creationism.

It would be tempting – and easy – to misread Ruse as saying that evolution is a religion, and I expect creationists will (if past history is any guide) misquote portions of this work. Ruse clearly states that evolution is a mature, professional science exhibiting “[p]rediction, consilience, consistency, and fertility” (p. 276). Indeed, Ruse denies these very characteristics to intelligent design, stating “we find no empirical or conceptual reason whatsoever to think of intelligent design theory as genuine science … [T]here are no results. And there are no new predictions leading to new and unexpected discoveries. ” (p. 278-9). On this point, I wholeheartedly agree with Ruse.

Ruse carefully and clearly states in a number of places that Darwinism – or any other form of evolution – does not entail such a secular theology, and that Christianity does not entail any form of anti-evolutionism. In short, one can be a Darwinian and a Christian – an observation backed up in the writings of theologian John F. Haught or biologist Kenneth R. Miller. Ruse sees it as a fatal flaw for supporters on evolution not to realize that there are deeply religious individuals who are supportive of evolution yet dismissive of evolutionism, and he states that evolutionists need to “start thinking about working together … rather than apart” with such individuals (p. 274).

Ruse’s point is clear; “Those of us who love science must do more than simply restate our positions or criticize the opposition. We must understand our own assumptions and, equally, find out why others have (often) legitimate concerns. This is not a plea for weak-kneed compromise but a more informed and self-aware approach to the issues. First understanding, and then some strategic moves” (p. 288). The “evolution-creation struggle” has generated more heat than light in the quarter century since the Arkansas trial, and it shows no sign of letting up. Whether Ruse’s analysis is ultimately accurate or not, he is correct in claiming that, as educators and evolutionists, we need to be aware of the potential perils of evolutionism.


  1. #1 Markomar
    February 21, 2006

    I’m a new visitor to your site, John. A couple thoughts on the content of your review. As someone who is both a committed Christian and a science journalist for many years, I find that the tendency of some evolution advocates to argue that the two can’t co-exist drives me crazy.

    The immense variety of theological and social views among Christians would astound those who want to believe that Christianity and religion in general are anti-scientific. One of the latest attempts at this kind of reductionism comes from Daniel Dennett, and the New York Times has just printed a scathing review of his book by Leon Wieseltier (

    I’m as fascinated as anyone by many of the evolutionary biology explanations that are put forward for different behaviors and other natural phenomena, but I also am skeptical that this rubric can explain everything about everything. Those who believe that every aspect of human behavior, creativity, social interaction, motivation and, for that matter, religious beliefs can be explained by whether it served an evolutionary advantage seem as dogmatic to me as the Biblical literalists.

    I’d be interested in your own views (and I may have missed them from previous postings).

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