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Michael Ruse

Extended Book Review

This book came to us as part reference materials collected for our field research into natural history. It addresses the heated controversy between Darwinists and the Intelligent Design folks in an evenhanded manner. One of these folks maintains a Web Site we critique.

During January of this year, we joined a tour group in retracing the voyage of the Beagle, the ship Darwin traveled on while collecting specimens of flora and fauna which eventually led to his theory of evolution. As the saying goes, we are from Missouri; we have to see it for ourselves, not so much to understand, but to get the feel of it, to see the evidence that so convinced Darwin of its logical consistency. Our second purpose was to better understand the origins of our violent natures. Our notes and photos must await another time.

Ruse is a gifted writer in two ways: Not only does he keep your attention, but he makes the arcane simple. Unlike many authors on Evolution, Ruse does not deny all value in religion. He does, however, let the chips fall where they may and leaves the question of faith and its interpretation up to the reader as she or he will.

Ruse devortes a chapter to religion and he also defends Darwinism against alternate theories such as punctuated equilibrium while not denying they may be appropriate on occasion.

Darwin had no intention of creating an "-ism." He was a scientist, largely self-taught. Some rank him ahead of all other scientists. We do not go that far, though he did discover a new subdiscipline with immense consequences for those who need faith just to survive. Darwin completed his discovery in 1838; he wrote a 35 page sketch of the main theme in 1842. He wrote a 230 page essay in 1844. By 1858 he was nearing completion of his deep studies, a massive work. After his first formulation of of his theory, it was some two decades before he decided to publish it. Motivation came from a colleague, Alfred Wallace, who sent him a manuscript on Evolution in 1858. Darwin forthwith sat down and prepared his book for formal printing. He was careful to ensure that Wallace's paper was published at the same time. Both were published in 1859. Only Darwin's great book dealt with the full theory in the detail needed to be convincing. Only Darwin went on to put everything together in his later work, "Descent Of Man" On the other hand, it was Wallace who reverted to spiritualism and argued that human evolution demands the intervention of nonnatural forces. In summary, Darwin followed up, effectively extending his theory; Wallace reverted to mythos. There can be no question who the father of Evolution is.

Darwin knew his work would rouse a lot of opposition, so he was very careful to document and employ logic tightly. In that arena, Darwin contributed to the practice of science. What Darwin did not want was for his theory to become the "-ism" it has become. As a creator of the most earthshaking theory in the history of science or philosophy, Darwin is in a league all by himself. He has no peer. He was the right man at the right time and place.

What follows is a series of excerpts and commentary thereon. Our primary goal is to provide highlights so the interested readers can look for deeper insights than might be there upon a first read. A secondary goal is to integrate the many highlights and show how they comprise the spine and tissue of the discipline of biology.

"The Problem Of Final Causes"

Even more than Abraham, the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, influenced how humanity thought about existence. For over two millennia, his mode of thought held sway. In all logic, Aristotle's frame of reference was the cause that brings on adaptive functioning. Again in all logic, he named intelligence as that cause, and he named it the final cause. His idea is in opposition to causes that start things, which might be termed efficient, but not intelligent. Aristotle's views were not seriously questioned for some two millennia. They did not permit thinking of the type Darwin found necessary to explain what he saw on the voyage of the Beagle.

As the scientific revolution generated steam, Aristotle's final cause came under attack. The concepts were useless scientifically in the physical sciences. Live science was a different matter. Like Wallace, many hung on to final cause as an element in biology. The French anatomist, Georges Cuvier, loathed evolution. For one thing, he thought it to be empirically false. This was the situation Darwin found himself in. Like his physical science counterparts, Darwin dared to explore logical origins behind what he saw. Ruse carefully traces many of them.


When "Origins of Species" became available, the facts of evolution were overwhelmingly accepted. At the same time, most rejected the mechanism, Natural Selection, he proposed. In retrospect, one might have expected that, and even forecast its longevity, for that attitude is still alive today. In the mid-19th century, very few people were aware of the power of science in driving the modernization going on all around them. Fewer still were skilled in the arts of science and its logical methodologies. Moreover, for two millennia, people had no better explanation than the allegories and parables of the Old Testament. So while most people could accept factual evidence, few could shift their mind sets away from the final cause that monotheism is based upon.

Darwin did not intend to establish an "-ism." The public mindset did that for him. When one element of society fights another element, the element attacked has little traditional choice but to fight back. This new-age battle between mythos (static dogma) and logos (dynamic discovery) was joined in earnest with the publication of "Origins." It is still going on.


Ruse sums up this issue neatly:
    "...Darwin saw the big issue, and he answered it--not by chance, not by luck, but by hard work, and genius.

    "Was there a revolution? Well, yes, there was a revolution. What was it? At a more limited level, it was moving to an evolutionary view of life's history from a static on--or from no history at all. One almost defines the meaning of the word revolution by this. One moves from a view of life created by a good God, a short while ago, in a very limited time and through miracles, to a slow, naturalistic (lawbound) view of origins, through a mechanism that has no intention, no goal. At a more general level, there was a move from a religiously inspired view of nature to one that does not necessarily have to behave like this -- to a view that is potentially materialistic, meaningless. Again, if this is not revolution, I do not know what is. Obviously, how you assess Darwin hinges on how you think of revolution. He did come up with the cause. To use the obvious analogy, he was Newton to the Copernicus or Diderot and grandfather Erasmus and Lamarck and the others. "

Was Darwin the first to conceive evolution as a fact? No. Others had already done that. What was his novel insight? The mechanism of evolution, and that is what has fueled the debate into our times. Humanity now largely accepts his main idea, but significant pockets still regard evolution with great antipathy.

"Fact or theory? Darwin's Three Approaches"

Theory has two connotations: One is akin to conjecture. It is unproved, but it is the starting point for all new science. The other meaning is that theory provides a self-consistent explanation of how events occur. Neither meaning demands truth, for new facts with a better hypothesis may come along. Theories today are only as good as our ability to measure and interpret events in natural science. From the days of Aristotle, humanity has come a huge distance in this regard.

To support what he saw in the real world, on different continents, on ocean islands, and at home next door, Darwin found three convincing lines of evidence that became compelling in their consistency.
  • In the animal world, breeders have bred for various stains. For example, from the original domesticated wolf, breeders have created the Saint Bernard, the Greyhound, the Pit Bull, the Dachshund, the Toy Poodle. Are they the same species? If so, why cannot the Saint Bernard and Toy Poodle breed? They all came from the original set of genes. By selection, breeders in effect created strains that cannot interbreed, the very definition of a species. Now, if nature, by providing naturally different environments, why could it not effect the same result?
  • The above is a powerful argument. And Darwin concluded that a mechanism as powerful as this must be operating continuously, whether consciously or not. This of course gives rise to the term natural selection.
  • Darwin went on to consider whether evolution is really central to biology. He explored a gamut of biological observations. He found in each case that observations fit theory. Therefore, they supported the theory.

All three lines of inquiry have only been strengthened in the 150 years since "Origins" was published.

"Consilience of Inductions"

Induction refers to the thought process whereby we generalize an effect from a particular result. William Wherewell, a 19th century philosopher of science used the term Consilience in the sense that Darwin did. Consilience is a more complex concept than induction and is not now part of the vocabulary of a typical world citizen. In Wherwell's words: "The Consilience of Inductions takes place when induction obtained from one class of facts, coincides with an induction from another class of facts. This Consilience of Inductions is a test of the truth of the theory in which it occurs."

More briefly stated, consilience refers to the unity of knowledge. Each branches of science must not only be self consistent within its own purview, but consistent with all other branches of science as well. The laws of physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy and geology are consistent with one another. Nature is consilient in all its manifestations.

The Cape Verde and Galapagos Islands provide perhaps the most vivid example of Consilience of Induction. In each case, there are several "native" species. Those on Cape Verde are closely related to those of the nearest African coast, and they are vastly fewer in number. The Galapagos Islands bear exactly the same relationship with the nearest coast of South America. Darwin was not alone in observing these facts. We verified them for ourselves after discounting species imported by settlers from the mainland. The final key observation is that the islands are so different from each other, they could not have had similar founding populations. The flora and fauna of each differs greatly from the other. They are similar in one respect--mammals. Neither supported much in the way of mammalian species common to the mainland. Observations from other islands are similar; each differs markedly from other distant islands while bearing resemblance to nearby land masses. Visit Australia and Tasmania and you will see as we did, the truth of that observation. Kangaroos thrive in this region, but nowhere else in the world. The two major land masses, East and West differ in like manner. Similarities among species remain, but are obviously more distant genetically.

How could all this this be? Darwin began with a single hypothesis. Like most of his neighbors, he embraced the Old Testament allegories. He also believed, as most monotheists do, that God is both good and rational. How could God be otherwise? This was thinking in the Aristotelian mode. Try as he might, the concept failed unless his concept of God was distorted in some distasteful way. When he considered evolution as a process, all the disparate results fell into place straight away. One could argue that evolution is not true. However, if that is so, then a better hypothesis must come along. The Old Testament allegories won't do it.

Embryology was in its infancy in Darwin's time, but he wondered what it meant to his theory. Animal embryos are quite similar in their early development, but they diverge into animals that differ markedly. Why could this be? Darwin realized that if they had common ancestors, how else could it be? Taken alone, this feature is not compelling. But it is consilient! And that is the important point.

To digress from Ruse for a moment. Before Darwin, animal husbandry (and corn) were practices in inheritance. No one understood either how it happened, or the rules it followed. Mendel discovered the rules of inheritance, and founded a new field of biology. Then Watson and Krick showed us how it happened with their description of the DNA molecule. With the immediate discovery of RNA and how it manages replication, yet another sub-science of biology was founded. And guess what, through it all Consilience Indention for Evolution held true. Natural Selection provides the best explanation available for the myriad of biological observations. If it is not true, it will certainly have to due until a better induction comes along.

Darwin did not ban a creator, only one that created life all at once. Both Darwin and Ruse were careful to make this distinction. They avoided the induction that might hypothesize, if God didn't create all humans all at once, then there is no god. Modern science postulates, for it cannot be observed, that the universe started all at once in a Big Bang. Whether or not that was literally the case, the universe is certainly some 13-14 billion years old. Our sun seems to be a second or third generation star, roughly five billion years old.

"The Fossil Record"

Intelligent Design folks, many of them anyway, claim that Evolution cannot be true because the fossil record is full of missing links. Only the missing links part of their contention is true. Natural Geologic processes destroy fossils even as they preserve them. Various landcapes come and go, and with them most of the record of life. Those changes occur simply because the earth is changing, evolving. So missing links are to be expected, counter to the ID argument.

The essence of Darwin's thinking should now be apparent. For those interested, Ruse's book is comprised of twelve chapters that pretty much cover the waterfront of social questions critics raise time and again. Those not covered here, address additional arguments raised by detractors of Darwinism--the very last being on religion.

In summary, Ruse has done a masterful job in explaining a complex, counterintuitive idea. And he does so in such a sensitive way, that even the most devout monotheist will find precious little to complain about. We recommend this book to the casual, serious, and classroom readers alike. It bears on the most vital questions of our time:

Why are we here?
How did we get here?
What is our purpose?
What happens after we die?

Darwin's answer is simple, it is not in the final cause, rather it is in the first cause--what came before us. And that is in itself a fascinating history. It speaks of an original creator who put the universe together in a big bang, an implication that all signs point to. However the universe came to be, it is beyond our knowing, and we can take it on faith while we enjoy our time in this Eden. Aristotle, the greatest man of his era, would applaud.

Editorial Comments

On this, the 150th anniversary of the publication of "Origins," it is disquieting how tenaciously Creationism and Intelligent Design advocates press their case. They are in a marked minority nearly everywhere, but they have astonishing influence, and not just in the US. The government of Turkey represented by its science minister, Meymet Aydin, who oversees TUBITAK, Turkey's national science funding agency, removed a picture of Darwin from the cover of Bilim ve Teknik (Science and Technology), its science magazine as it was going to press. Aydin also sacked its editor.

This move does not represent the people of Turkey. Hopefully this will turn out to be Aydin's problem, not one of the government as a whole. Otherwise it will be a long, cold day before Turkey can join the EU. Maybe this is not so astonishing; after all the theme of this web site is the bi-polar societal feature where the autocrats (sociopaths, psychopaths, narcissists) co-opt the Authoritarian personalities that most people have to enforce their reactionary, anti-science, agenda. The Bush era is a case in point.

This event seems to add Turkey to the list of nations ambivalent about science. We can only hope that is not so. In general, Turkey is supportive of science.

Ruse's book looks quite timely.

To stay current on this issue visit: Evolution Update.


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