Evolution Icon Evolution
Faith & Science Icon Faith & Science

Michael Ruse on Purpose: A Conflicted Response

Photo: A hedgehog, by Gibe, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

I have been reviewing a book by philosopher Michael Ruse. See my earliest posts, here and here. Overall, On Purpose left this reviewer conflicted. Certainly Ruse’s interests have always been my interests, and his writing style is unfailingly lively and engaging. Moreover, I have learned a great deal of history and philosophy of science from him over the years. Nevertheless, he recalls something C. S. Lewis once said of his Anthroposophical friend Owen Barfield: “he has read all the right books but has got the wrong thing out of every one. It is as if he spoke your language but mispronounced it” ([1955] 1991, 110). Ruse and Barfield could not be more different as writers and thinkers, but parallels are, after all, not affinities. In today’s pop parlance I regard Ruse as a frenemy (a writer whose work is always worth reading and indeed a joy to read, but always somehow fundamentally wrong and wrongheaded). Ruse’s cocksure certainties on everything from evolution to religion are sometimes amusing and often bewildering. One has to smile at Ruse’s excesses. He fits what the Jewish author/philosopher Israel Zwangwill once said of atheist George Bernard Shaw: The way he “believes in himself is very refreshing in these atheistic days when so many people believe in no God at all.” In fact, Shaw might be a good match because the Irish playwright eventually exchanged his atheism for a vague mysticism. Ruse certainly is not there yet, but his admission to being “sympathetic to a panpsychic perspective” (235) might reveal some chinks forming in the atheist’s armor. 

Whatever else might be said of Ruse and his work, like all his books this one is worth having on the shelf. Interesting, instructive, and at times exasperating, it would make a wonderful required reading for any upper level undergraduate or graduate seminar on the history and philosophy of science or even for seminary students ready to sharpen their apologetic knives. On Purpose demonstrates the fine line between polemical drumbeating and wishful thinking that makes an obstreperous hedgehog like Ruse such interesting company. 


  • Bolhuis, Johan J., and Clive D. L. Wynne. 2009. Can Evolution Explain How Minds Work? Nature 458:
  • 832–833. https ://doi.org/10.1038/45883 2a.
  • Butterfield, Herbert. [1931] 1965. The Whig Interpretation of History. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Cohen, Jon. 2007. Relative Differences: The Myth of 1%. Evolutionary Biology 316: 1836.
  • Cosans, Christopher E. 2009. Owen’s Ape & Darwin’s Bulldog: Beyond Darwinism and Creationism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Denton, Michael. 1998. Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe. New York: The Free Press.
  • Diamani, Giuseppe. 2009.  Corrections to Chance Fluctuations: Quantum Mind in Biological Evolution? Rivista di Biologia 102(3): 421-448. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20533189/.
  • Everett, Daniel L. 2011. Language: The Cultural Tool. New York: Pantheon Books. 
  • Gonzalez, Guillermo, and Jay W. Richards. 2004. Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing. 
  • Langley, Charles H. 1977. Review of The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins. BioScience 27 (10): 692. https://doi.org/10.2307/1297562.
  • Lewis, C .S. [1955] 1991. Surprised by Joy. In The Inspirational Writings of C. S. Lewis. New York: Inspirational Press.
  • Lewis, Gerant F. and Luke A. Barnes. 2016. A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Noble, Denis. 2011. Neo-Darwinism, the Modern Synthesis and Selfish Genes: Are They of Use in Physiology? The Journal of Physiology 589(5): 1007-1015. https://dx.doi.org/10.1113%2Fjphysiol.2010.201384.
  • Penn, Derek C., Keith J. Holyoak, Daniel J. Povinelli. 2008. Darwin’s Mistake: Explaining the Discontinuity Between Human and Nonhuman Minds. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 31: 109-129. https://doi.10.1017/S0140525X08003543.
  • Ruse, Michael. 1996. The Darwin Industry: A Guide. Victorian Studies 39(2): 217-235. 
  • Schönborn, Christoph Cardinal. 2007. Chance or Purpose? Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith. Translated by Henry Taylor. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
  • Sheldrake, Rupert. 2012. The Presence of the Past: The Memory of Nature. Rev. and expanded ed. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.
  • Shettleworth, Sara J. 2012. Modularity, Comparative Cognition and Human Uniqueness. Philosophical
  • Transactions of the Royal Society B. 367(1603): 2794–2802. https://doi/10.1098/rstb.2012.0211.
  • Turner, J. Scott. 2017. Purpose & Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It. New York: HarperOne. 
  • Varki, Ajit, Daniel H. Geschwind, and Evan E. Eichler. 2008. Explaining Human Uniqueness: Genome Interactions with Environment, Behavior and Culture. Nature Reviews/Genetics 9: 749-763. 
  • Wade, Michael J. 1978. Review of The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins. Evolution 32(1): 220-221. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1558-5646.1978.tb01115.x.
  • Wolfe, Tom. 2016. The Kingdom of Speech. New York: Little, Brown and Co.
  • Wood, Peter, Geoffrey Clarfield, Glynn Clustred, Carol Iannone. 2017. Can We Talk? Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of SpeechAcademic Questions 30: 182-198. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12129-017-9636-6.

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.



Anthroposophical SocietyatheistsC. S. LewisevolutionfrenemyGeorge Bernard ShawHistoryIsrael ZwangwillMichael RuseOn PurposeOwen Barfieldpanpsychismphilosophersphilosophy of sciencereligion