In Defense of Darwinism

In American Scientist, Richard Bellon reviews Michael Ruse’s Darwinism and Its Discontents.

Ruse argues that the unrelenting controversies that cling to evolution reflect its 18th-century origins. Enlightenment thinkers, including Darwin’s own grandfather, sought a non-Christian alternative history of creation. Evolution, by wrapping the craving for social and cultural advancement in a narrative of biological progress, fit the bill nicely. Any answers to unresolved scientific questions provided by pre-Origin evolutionary theory were, in Ruse’s view, only happy accidents. In that era, conservative Christians were not being paranoid when they interpreted evolution as a dagger pointed directly at their spiritual and cultural authority.

Ruse believes that only with Origin did evolution debut as a fully legitimate scientific theory, one designed primarily to provide rational explanations for the regularities of the physical world, rather than one concerned chiefly with the validation of underlying metaphysical commitments. Darwin had neither the stomach nor the motivation to join fights over worldview, but as he understood acutely, he could never entirely extricate his theory from these battles, as much as he might have wished to do so. Ironically, the more successfully he and his colleagues demonstrated the scientific validity of evolution, the more potent the theory became for extrascientific purposes.

From the moment that Origin became a surprise instant bestseller, Darwin lost direct control over ideas to which his name was (often dubiously) affixed. Although no scientifically literate person rejected evolution by the time of Darwin’s death in 1882, acceptance of natural selection as the chief mechanism in evolution remained a minority view among biologists. Natural selection had legitimate scientific problems, suffering most significantly from the lack of any adequate theory of heredity. Nonetheless Ruse believes that the unwillingness, even (or perhaps especially) among many biologists, to employ evolution as straight science stunted its development as a mature causal theory with natural selection at its heart. Natural selection was scientifically resurrected only in the 1930s with the rise of population genetics. Historians argue over aspects of Ruse’s interpretation of this history. But he is certainly correct to insist that evolutionists of the 19th century and early 20th century bear much of the blame for the ideological baggage that has complicated Darwinism’s place in both science and culture.

One complication is that, for many religious conservatives, evolution in any guise retains the indelible stench of blasphemy, for which creationism is the only fumigant.