Rifts over roots of the family tree

The Evolution-Creation Struggle
December 9, 2005

Michael Ruse is a well-known philosopher who has spent his professional life analysing clashes over evolution and contributing to the debate on the side of science. This excellent and accessibly written book is based on his deep and sympathetic appreciation of both sides. I learnt a lot from it. The one real problem is holding all the gradations of Christianity and evolution in one's head. The subsequent paperback edition needs an appendix in which the entire relationship with all its subtleties is summarised in a table and a few pages of commentary. It would be a very involved table but so much the better: the complexity is Ruse's main point.

From a distance, it seems to be a straightforward matter of progress versus obscurantism; but look closely and not all creationists are fools while quasi-religious fervour drives both sets of protagonists with political ideology as the cement. Commendably, given the significance of this debate for our way of life, Ruse rejects postmodernist neutrality and defends science to the end.

Ruse does show that the raucous pro-evolution lobby's attacks on creationism are far too unsubtle to have integrity. None of the bite-sized facts the evolution-mongers serve up on television proves the theory. Like any piece of science, evolution may have already fallen at the last hurdle without anyone noticing or be about to fall at the next. It is easy, then, for the creationists to find flaws in the story; confronting evidence for evolution with evidence for subtle versions of creationism is likely to lead to the greater discomfort for the scientists. For example, "intelligent design" uses mathematical arguments to show that features of certain living creatures are almost infinitely improbable. It is not enough to use the known facts to counter it, you have to look at where it leads.

Thus, the trouble with intelligent design is not that it is demonstrably wrong but that it is a "science stopper" - something that discourages further scientific probing rather than encourages it. In this sense, intelligent design is not a scientific hypothesis.

It is all easier if one's opponent is a literalist. There is almost no scientific fact that is compatible with the idea that all living organisms were created about 6,000 years ago during six successive periods of 24 hours unless you are also prepared to say that the fossil record was created to confuse us. On the other hand, the Old Testament enthusiast has only to read the word "day" as "extended period" and the tension between the theory of evolution and the Bible is largely dissipated.

Take one more step on the metaphorical road and let the deity do no more than start things off, and provide a little nudge here and there, and the scientific evidence is completely indecisive. It follows that the proclamatory atheism of someone such as Richard Dawkins must grow out of anti-religious passion, not Darwin's theory. When it comes to evolution, one can be on the side of Dawkins without being on the side of his reasoning or wider conclusions. Too much stridency gives both atheism and science a bad name.

The spectrum of evolutionary beliefs is nearly as wide as the spectrum of types of Christianity. Funnily enough, Lamarckianism (the inheritance of acquired characteristics) and Darwinism are more or less the same as far as creationists are concerned. In contrast, the differences between those who believe the fossil record will eventually be found to be continuous and those who think its gaps represent reality are significant. Wherever there are gaps there can be gods, so some forms of evolutionary theory are easier to reconcile with some interpretations of the Bible.

It is at this point that we need to refer to the missing table that I mentioned in the first paragraph. Evolution is related to "evolutionism" - belief in the improvability of mankind in the absence of divine intervention. Here we gain a sudden insight into the strange land of DUSA - the DisUnited States of America. Somewhat "thrown away" in a paragraph or two around page 150 we discover why, when a tiny bit of metaphorical licence could reconcile Genesis with science, much of the American South insists on a literal reading. It is because metaphor means interpretation and interpretation needs interpreters and that all smacks of authoritative institutions and sophisticated intellectuals. The Southern version of democracy, on the other hand, implies that anyone can converse with the Creator as easily as with the President. It follows that the Bible must be transparent and mean "exactly what it says on the tin". Suddenly I comprehend the response of an American academic friend of mine to my complaint that his nation had elected someone as unabashedly dumb as George W. Bush: he told me that the uneducated were entitled to have someone to represent them, too.

It gets worse: a theory that claims that mankind can improve itself begs for beneficent state intervention, whereas biblical salvation is dished out by God according to His own purposes to each person according to his or her individual deserts. In the current state of politics, then, evolution means evolutionism, means state intervention, means a big state or even socialism, means high taxes. Miraculously (or is it a mundane kind of intelligent design?), both evolution and high taxes turn out to be against the Bible.

Ruse, it has to be said, does not spell things out so brutally. His sociology is a sub-theme to the thesis that evolutionism and creationism are competing religions. Nevertheless, Ruse, the philosopher of science who has revealed his discomfort with "social constructivism" in his previous writings, has rediscovered it here in its least modulated form - interest theory.

In the appendix to the new paperback edition, Ruse might also give us an explicit analysis of his own explanatory mix: in what proportions is the debate he knows more about than anyone else (i) science versus religion, (ii) religion versus religion, (iii) socioeconomic interest versus socioeconomic interest? New edition or no, anyone who wants to understand the debate should read this book.

Harry Collins is distinguished research professor of sociology at Cardiff University.

The Evolution-Creation Struggle

Author - Michael Ruse
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 3
Price - £16.95
ISBN - 0 674 01687 4

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