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Michael Ruse on Purpose: The Flies in the Ointment

Michael Flannery
Photo: Flies in amber, by Manukyan Andranik, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

I have been reviewing philosopher Michael Ruse’s book, On Purpose. (See my post yesterday, here.) I turn now to certain problems with his work. First, Ruse’s dismissal of all other teleological positions save his own presumes that “science has moved on” (153) since current evolutionary theory has ruled all transcendent forms obsolete. Anything else “has to remain your opinion” trumped by “today’s Darwinian science” (153). Such scientistic reductionism is troubling, revealing a fallacy that C. S. Lewis has called chronological snobbery,  “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited” ([1955] 1991, 114). This occurs elsewhere, as when Ruse dismisses debates over intelligent design and the anthropic principle because they “have a very old-fashioned look about them. A bit like arguing about whether it is moral for women to use the pill” (128).  However, arguments for the kind of external teleology and vitalism in biology along with cosmic fine-tuning that Ruse so glibly dismisses hardly belong to a bygone era (Denton 1998; Gonzalez and Richards 2004; Schönborn 2007; Sheldrake 2012; Lewis and Barnes 2016; Turner 2017). Ruse’s comparison with “the pill” seems more silly and strained than clever and convincing. 

Snobbery Forgiven?

Ruse’s chronological snobbery might be forgiven if the claims he makes for Darwinism can be unequivocally substantiated. But add to scientistic reductionism and chronological snobbery a third interrelated objection: Whiggishness. The obsessive Darwinian triumphalism on almost every page suggests Herbert Butterfield’s coinage as the unfortunate “tendency . . . to praise revolutions provided they have been successful  . . . and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present,” an unwarranted factual abridgment causing presentist extravagance to “fly into the sky . . . when in reality it requires to be brought to earth” ([1931] 1965, v, 99). For example, Ruse applauds Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (1976) for demonstrating that humans are simply “survival machines” taking “God and vital forces and those sorts of things out of the equation. Molecules in motion is all we have” (86). But the “selfish gene” concept has received harsh criticism then and now for its many misconceptions and untestable assertions (Langley 1978; Wade 1979; Noble 2011). As Charles Langley noted, “Everything is revealed to Dawkins [and apparently to Ruse] by a glimpse of Darwinian theory,” but the concept is “untrue to the science of evolutionary biology” (1978, 692). Chapters nine on “Human Evolution” and ten on “Mind” form the core of Ruse’s Darwinian infatuations. Darwin’s hedgehog follows Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley, in showing that comparisons of human and chimp brains prove “that we did come from monkeys” (156). These monkey-to-man links are nonetheless at best superficial and at worst (particularly in Huxley’s case) calculated subterfuges (Cosans 2009). Ruse’s proclaimed significance of our genetic affinities with chimps is equally overrated (Cohen 2007). In fact, Alfred Russel Wallace’s insistence that it is difficult to explain human exceptionalism — those unique human capacities for abstract thought, mathematics, music, art, etc. — by the conventional operations of natural selection, the very principle he cofounded, is still very much in play (Varki, Geschwind, and Eichler 2008; Diamani 2009). While easy extrapolations of bonobo and other primate-to-human behaviors might be the preferred answer in that freshman biology exam, some very good scientists would favor different answers (Penn, Holyoak, and Povinelli 2008; Bolhuis and Wynn 2009; Shettleworth 2012). Yet Ruse blithely asserts his Darwinian monism as if an undisputed fact.

Of course if it serves to make his point, Ruse readily abandons his chronological snobbery in favor of Noam Chomsky’s sixty-odd year-old research that “showed convincingly  that language is not something purely cultural but that all languages . . . share certain innate deep structures — a kind of biological ground plan on which everything is based” (173). But Chomsky’s much-touted “universal grammar” or “grammatical recursion” is in serious doubt. The Pirahã people of South America vis-à-vis Daniel Everett have taught Chomsky his most important linguistics lesson, namely, that language appears to indeed be a cultural tool of human invention rather than a product of evolutionary determinism (Everett 2011; Wolfe 2016; Wood et al. 2017). 

A Surprising Sense of Proportion

Additional examples of such fallacies could be heaped upon Ruse’s head, but any more might invite charges of cruelty to hedgehogs. In fairness, despite Ruse’s adamant convictions and his constant use of science as a synecdoche for Darwinism, he has always exhibited a surprising sense of proportion. For example, he chides his fellow Darwinians for their Darwin Day excesses, complaining, “The next thing is they will be putting him in a manger” (210-211). For more on this see his Darwinism as Religion (2017). Ruse is true to his Darwinian progenitors. One is reminded of Huxley’s recoiling against the Comtian positivists of his day — passionate enthusiasts like Frederic Harrison and John Henry Bridges — for trying to make science a religion. Ruse is also well aware that Darwinian evolution has become an author’s playground and a publisher’s paradise, admitting some years ago that “Darwin and his ideas are being co-opted for all sorts of ends” (Ruse 1996, 231). The Darwin Industry shows few signs of reducing production. Although you will not find it here, he has been pretty hard on the so-called “New Atheists” too. 

Tomorrow, “Michael Ruse on Purpose: A Conflicted Response.”