Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin
Michael Ruse
Malden (MA): Blackwell, 2008, 337 pages
Reviewed by
Doren A Recker

Michael Ruse’s most recent book, like his Darwinism and its Discontents (2006; reviewed in RNCSE 2007 Jan–Apr; 27 [1–2]: 50–2), is a general work on Darwinism, including chapters on Darwin’s biography, the history of Darwinian evolution, evidence for his theory, and chapters on religion and morality. This time, however, he is contributing to the Blackwell Great Minds series, which includes such titles as Kant, Descartes, and Sartre. So, as one might expect, there is more attention paid here to philosophical issues, and the general tone is also more philosophical than the earlier text. Still, the style is informal and should be both accessible to readers of various backgrounds and useful for readers at various levels of expertise in evolutionary (and philosophical) matters.

Most of the topics included here have been canvassed before, and Ruse has not changed positions on controversial topics such as the relationship(s) between Darwinism and religion or morality, or the status of neo-Darwinism (including the centrality of population genetics). The novelty here is (again) the concentration on Darwin’s contributions to issues of primary concern to philosophers. In order to provide a sense of this approach, I will concentrate on one issue, evolution and morality.

The general importance of the relation between Darwinian evolution and ethics has increased recently, with texts such as Richard Weikart’s From Darwin to Hitler and Ben Stein’s recent movie Expelled painting Darwinism red with innocent blood. The Discovery Institute (among others) is using these sources to push the moral bankruptcy and culpability of evolutionary science to anyone who will listen and is sending copies of Expelled to “key policy makers” throughout the country (as reported in a recent fundraising letter from NCSE).

Even if justified, of course, such a claim does not affect the scientific status of Darwinian evolution. Concern with the Naturalistic Fallacy (attempting to derive an “ought” from an “is’” or to defend a course of action ethically because it is deemed natural, and so on) has led more than a few philosophers and scientists (from Thomas Henry Huxley to Stephen Jay Gould) to refrain from finding any clues about morality in nature. The flip side of the Naturalistic Fallacy, however, is the Moralistic Fallacy (trying to derive “is not” from “ought not”, or attacking the scientific status of a theory based on its allegedly unpalatable moral consequences). None of the evidence supporting evolutionary biology is changed one iota by attacking social policies allegedly based upon it. Still, such political attacks push evolutionists to investigate seriously what, if any, implications evolutionary biology may have for moral theory. This blending of philosophical and biological perspectives has been a concern of Ruse’s for some time — his position on evolution and morality has been greatly influenced by Edward O Wilson, with whom he coauthored two articles in the mid- 80s (Ruse and Wilson 1985, 1986) — and is addressed again in chapter 9 of Charles Darwin.

Basically, Ruse holds that human social behavior is largely under biological influence, often masked behind psychological predispositions (“epigenetic rules”) to behave as we ought to. These predispositions are perceived as being based on objective moral rules, applicable to all rational beings (p 239–40). Our innate moral intuitions allow for quick and dirty judgments about social challenges where actual calculations of costs and benefits (and/or duties) would take far too long to be useful in most day-to-day affairs (p 236). The biological mechanisms fueling the psychological motivations are kin selection and reciprocal altruism, well-known to evolutionary biologists and more than adequate for mapping onto our actual (as opposed to idealized) moral behavior (p 232, 237). Objective, transcendent moral rules are an illusion on this view, due to our objectifying (or reifying) strong moral sentiments (p 240). They are, however, “noble lies”, since they provide motivational teeth for altruistic behavior and hold some of our other more selfish motivations in check for the sake of social intercourse. So Ruse promotes a skepticism about the objectivity of morality (there are no species-independent moral facts), while arguing for the possibility of (limited) altruism being a successful evolutionary adaptation (that is, evolution does not invariably favor selfishness or nature red in tooth and claw).

This represents one among many recent attempts to unpack the relationship between evolutionary theory and human morality, and the evolutionary models used (kin selection and reciprocal altruism) are accepted by the majority of interpretations (which eschew any use of group selection). With more sophisticated models of group selection (Sober and Wilson 1998) on the table, however, serious investigations of evolutionary morality may need to expand the usual armaments available to individual-level selection. In fact, another recent work interpreting Darwin and Darwinism from a more philosophical perspective (Lewens 2007) takes just this path. Lewens shows that group-level selection is both closer to Darwin’s own views concerning evolution and morality, and also has better evidential support than many biologists acknowledge.

Another consideration involves the meaning of “objective moral facts.” If moral realism is committed to the view that legitimate “ought” statements refer to species-independent moral truths or moral rules that all rational creatures (human or not) must acknowledge, then Ruse and Wilson are right to disavow such moral facts. But if moral realism instead (as a counterpoint to relativism and subjectivism) need only be committed to species-wide moral facts, contingent on human evolutionary and cultural history, but independent of individual (or even individual cultures’) beliefs, then it is not so clear that objective morality need be an illusion. If our sentiments are structured by evolutionary history and our basic moral intuitions are grounded on strong emotional sentiments that include sympathy (and empathy) and motivate altruism, then it is possible that, at some level(s), moral claims can correspond with human truths, and in that sense, be factual.

This, too, would be controversial. But it is not clear that faith-based or other so-called absolutist moral codes can do any better at justifying objective, non-relative moral claims. There are at least as many disagreements within and across such views as there are among non-absolutist approaches. In the end, whether one accepts a position like Ruse’s, or prefers one that utilizes some notion of group selection, Darwinists will have no more difficulty supporting the grounds for moral behavior than will the faith-based approaches that blame Darwinism for the Holocaust. After all, anti-Semitism has rich roots in the history of Christianity, and this history includes at least as much intolerance and immoral behavior as does Darwinism (even when the latter is construed most broadly, and inaccurately).

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.