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Michael Ruse: Darwin’s Hedgehog Searches for Purpose

Michael Flannery
Image: Moses with the Tables of the Law, by Guido Reni, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In his book On Purpose, which I will review here and in two following posts (with references included in the final entry), Michael Ruse refers to British philosopher and intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin as dividing thinkers into one-idea “hedgehogs” like Plato and multi-idea “foxes” like Aristotle. He confesses to being “very obviously a hedgehog” (234), not Plato’s but Darwin’s hedgehog since, for him, “Darwin is like Moses” who “led his children [himself among them] to the Promised Land but never got there himself,” the Promised Land of “a purely naturalistic understanding of purpose” driven by natural selection that powerfully explains purpose at individual and historical levels (90). This forms the central theme of On Purpose. But there are two others: a historical survey and analysis of purpose (technically teleology) from ancient to present times; and finally, the author’s personal search for meaning and purpose in life.

Subsidiary Threads

These subsidiary threads of the author’s search for purpose can be dealt with briefly. When the history and philosophy of science is being discussed by Ruse it is well worth listening if only because he has as much made it as he has studied it. It began in the 1970s with The Philosophy of Biology (1973) that helped launch an emerging discipline including the journal Philosophy & Biology that he founded in 1986. Also significant is The Darwinian Revolution (1979, 2nd ed. 1999), and a host of books and publications along these lines too numerous to mention here. In many ways On Purpose represents the synthesis of a long, productive career.

As for the history of purpose/teleology itself, Ruse explains that essentially three kinds have been influential: external (best exemplified by Plato), internal (à la Aristotle), and heuristic (developed by Kant). Prior to the Scientific Revolution, especially during the “High” Middle Ages (1200-1450), the Platonic views of Augustine and the Aristotelian perspectives of Thomas Aquinas shared center stage. Then with Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, Plato’s rather than Aristotle’s view of purpose held sway. With Aristotle’s Final cause removed from nature (aided and abetted by David Hume), teleology was stalled with a singular — Platonic — concept of purpose in nature until Immanuel Kant admitted purpose as indispensable in any discussion of nature, but only as an explanatory tool for making sense of the world around us; in other words, its heuristic value. Ruse’s section on Kant is masterful; distilling in a few pages (55-60) what would otherwise require lengthy trudging through the dense thickets of the Königsberg philosopher’s often anfractuous prose.

This fascinating historical tour runs through eight of twelve chapters, although Ruse frequently stops along the way to critique certain positions (more on this later). Then, in chapter nine, he stakes out his position as a — pardon the piled adjectives — neo-Darwinian, Aristotelean-ordered, Kantian monist. It makes sense. After all, if, true to a basic Darwinian tenet premise, humans and animals are different only in degree not kind with purpose serving as heuristic only, we have a Kantian monism seen through a neo-Darwinian lens. Ruse has thus compounded an interesting philosophical ointment; only a few of the flies can be picked out here.

No Flies Here

Let us begin where the flies are not located. Ruse’s final chapter, “The End,” makes his case against the transcendent purposes found in his preceding chapter, “Religion,” by showing that purposes can be found elsewhere, such as in family, service to others, and the life of the mind. I, and presumably many readers of Evolution News, can relate to these personal satisfactions or purposes. That Ruse or anyone else can find these without a transcendent God-inspired, God-directed teleology is perfectly understandable. We each find our purposes where we may, with or without religion. But belief is as much about truth as about feelings, and Ruse levels a number of familiar charges against religious claims — humans’ hypersensitivity to agency-detection, the competing and contradictory claims of different religions, the age-old problem of evil — all premised on an ontologically inflated view of Science that, purportedly like Laplace, has no need of that hypothesis. Of course, these have all been carefully responded to by many apologists from various faith traditions. But Ruse ignores them, leaving the reader with only his assertions and convictions. Although this is disappointing, the author’s prerogative to express his faith should be permitted here.

Flies in the ointment, however, do appear in this polyphilosophical concoction.

Tomorrow, “Michael Ruse on Purpose: The Flies in the Ointment.”