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Design, Inc.

July 15, 2004
book cover

A review of Michael Ruse’s Darwin and Design: Does Evolution have a Purpose?.

Psalms 19:1 declares: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork.” The divine design inference is not confined to the ancient Hebrews.

In 1999 social scientist Frank J. Sulloway and I conducted a national survey, asking Americans why they believe in God. The most common reason offered was the good design, natural beauty, and complexity of the world. One subject wrote: “To say that the universe was created by the Big Bang theory is to say that you can create Webster’s Dictionary by throwing a bomb in a printing shop and the resulting explosion results in the dictionary.” He is not alone. A 2001 Gallup poll found that 45 percent of Americans believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so,” 37 percent believe that “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process,” while only 12 percent believe that “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process.”

The reason people think that a designer created the world is because, well, it looks designed, and philosopher and Darwinian defender Michael Ruse thinks that it’s high time we quit tiptoeing around this inference. This he does in Darwin and Design, the comprehensive, scholarly, and highly accessible third volume in his trilogy on the history and impact of evolutionary thought that began with Monad to Man (on progress in evolution), and continued with Mystery of Mysteries (on evolution as a social construction). Ruse has done as much as any scholar of the past century to explicate the social and cultural meanings engendered by the theory of evolution, and to identify clearly when scientists step out of their roles as objective observers of nature to speculate on the higher and deeper implications of their theories (compare, for example, Edward O. Wilson’s technical book The Ants with his general work attempting to unify the sciences in Consilience). In this third volume Ruse asks whether the apparent design of nature implies not only a designer, but a purpose.

Let’s admit right from the start, says Ruse, that life looks designed because it was … from the bottom up by evolution. Purpose follows. “There is nothing very mysterious about purpose in evolution,” Ruse explains. The purpose is functional adaptation: “At the heart of modern evolutionary biology is the metaphor of design, and for this reason function-talk is appropriate. Organisms give the appearance of being designed, and thanks to Charles Darwin’s discovery of natural selection we know why this is true. Natural selection produces artifact-like features, not by chance but because if they were not artifact-like they would not work and serve their possessors’ needs” (273). More cautious evolutionary theorists like Ernst Mayr worry that “the use of terms like purposive or goal-directed seemed to imply the transfer of human qualities, such as intent, purpose, planning, deliberation, or consciousness, to organic structures and to subhuman forms of life.” To which Ruse replies: “Well, yes it does!” So what? At the heart of science is metaphor — Ruse notes that physicists talk of force, pressure, attraction, repulsion, work, charm, and resistance, all quite useful metaphors — and the metaphors of design and purpose work well as long as we stick to natural explanations for nature and understand that natural selection (another metaphor) is the primary mechanism for generating design and purpose, from the bottom up.

What role, then, is there for a top-down designer? If you are one of those 37 percent who believe that God guided the process of evolution then, on one level, Ruse has no truck with you, and he is in good company. In his 1996 Encyclical Truth Cannot Contradict Truth, Pope John Paul II told a billion Catholics that, in essence, evolution happened — deal with it: “It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.” Since both the Bible and the theory of evolution are true (and truth cannot contradict truth), John Paul II reconciled theological dualism with scientific monism by arguing that evolution produced our bodies while God granted us our souls.

This conciliatory position is fine as far as it goes, but Ruse shows through a rich and variegated historical recapitulation of design arguments that many thinkers are not content to keep the magisteria of science and religion separate. They want empirical data to prove faith tenets, and it is here where Ruse steps out of his role as historian and philosopher and becomes an evolutionary activist, debunking in no uncertain terms the claims of the latest species (some would call them mutants) of creationists: Intelligent Design Theorists, or William Paley redux. Paley was the 18th century natural theologian whose “watchmaker” argument became the foundation of all modern design arguments. IDers recast Paley in modern jargon with new and more sophisticated biological examples (such as bacterial flagellum and blood clotting agents). But as Darwin showed — and a century and a half of research has proven — the designer is (in Richard Dawkins’ apposite phrase) a blind watchmaker. Complex structures can and do arise out of simple systems through blind variation, selection, and adaptation. This is an inevitable outcome of Darwinism which, says Ruse, “Whether we like it or not, we are stuck with it. The Darwinian revolution is over, and Darwin won” (330).

It would appear that this leaves us with a worldview shared by only 12 percent of the American public. This will not do, so Ruse closes his volume with an intriguing plea: “What I am arguing for is a theology of nature … where the focus is back on adaptation. A theology of nature that sees and appreciates the complex, adaptive glory of the living world, rejoices in it, and trembles before it. I argue for this even though the people who reveal it to us today in its fullest majesty may be people for whom Christianity evokes emotions ranging from bored indifference to outright hostility. This is irrelevant, especially to those of us who know professional Darwinian evolutionists. As Ernst Mayr once said to me: ‘People forget that it is possible to be intensely religious in the entire absence of theological belief.’ Theologians working on the science/religion relationship, few of whom have actually had hands-on experience with nature, let the hostility of atheists like Dawkins, or their embarrassment with the Intelligent Design enthusiasts, blind them to the genuine love and joy with which today’s professional evolutionists respond to their subjects” (335).

Ruse’s poetically courageous proposal will no doubt generate cries that the theory of evolution is a religion, but the fact is that as pattern-seeking, storytelling primates who need origin myths, the theory of evolution fulfills that need for us and has the added advantage that, unlike most origin myths, it is very probably true.

(Harvard University Press, 2003, ISBN 0674016319)
This review was originally published in the New York Times.

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7 Comments to “Design, Inc.”

  1. Brian Larson Says:

    I have not yet read Ruse’s work, but I shall. What intrigues me most is the quote from p. 335 (second to last paragraph above), that appears to offer a positive “rhetoric” for evolutionist belief. (I use “rhetoric” not in the pejorative sense, but rather in the sense of clothing content in manners of speech that make people WANT to believe it.)

    I fear that greatest obstacle to victory for evolutionary thought over “creation-science” and ID is its lack of a positive rhetoric for evolution that makes the listener want to believe it. Too often, folks like Dawkins and others have spoken in ways that make them seem negative or nihilistic. (That’s not the content of their speech, but its rhetorical bent.)

    Creation-scientists and IDers, meanwhile, have mastered very clever rhetorical tools, which they use to spread untruths about the physical world.

    I hope Ruse’s contribution to the subject points the movement in the right direction.

  2. Laia Solen Says:

    I am one who has come through a transformation from an “intensley religious” adherent of a conservative Christian religion, with a “close, personal, daily relationship with God”, to someone who applied the perspective and tools of reason and examination gained from my study of science, history, philosophy, and insights into human behavior, to a careful examination of my own and other’s religious beliefs, to find them no longer believable. The fear of someone leaving such beliefs behind is that they are loosing a perspective of life that gave meaning, a sense of comfort, love and joy…a fear that a cold dark world of meaninglessness awaits them. In fact, a close friend put voice to those fears when she was talking to me about my reasons for changing my beliefs, and what it would mean for her if she was ever to follow the same path. What awaits someone who values the scientific process and explanations that fall within the testable natural world as their means to find answers and truth? It is a truly scary prospect to someone contemplating such a change… and it still torments my close religious friends, when they contemplate my change in beliefs. But for me, I was in for a wonderful discovery… the deep joys of life, the sense of awe and wonder, compassion, connectedness, nobility, love and joy, that I thought were part and parcel of my religious beliefs, I was delighted to find are in no way owned by one world-view. For so much of my life and what is so often expected by other people, is that these emotions and their full depth are tied to religiousness. So I fully appreciate the impulse to describe yourself or someone else as “intensely religious in the entire absence of theological belief”. Often when someone asks me if I am religious, wanting to be able to express to them my love for life, my awe and wonder at the world, my love and concern for my fellow human beings, my recognition of our connectedness with each other…I often yearn to say, “yes, I am religious”, simply to express all those things…the irony being, that those things are all richly a part of my life, flourishing from my world view that happens to be completely devoid of belief in a God.
    I recently had a wonderful experience, that caused me to reflect on just how much emotionally my new world-view has to offer me… I just finished reading “A Primate’s Memoir” by Robert M. Sapolsky. For me it was like reading “Chicken Soup for the Atheist Soul”, though I in no way want to imply that it was sappy. I came to the close of the book, feeling inexpressibly moved. I realized that because of my new perspective, I was able to experience and understand life and the bitter-sweet human experience in new and meaningful ways.

    So, to those like my friend, who fearfully would ask what awaits someone who adopts such a world view, I would answer, that if you can survive the traumatic transition and often alienation from family and friends… it is a rich, rich world.

  3. frank Says:

    another discussion of bacterial flagellum attempted to deny its appelation of “machine” to it because it was not simple, regular, or symmetrical IN APPEARANCE.

    well, nor is a hand-built wooden clock necessarily – at least when compared to switzerland’s finest – but surely a machine is defined by FUNCTIONAL properties? if so then one is entitled to use simplified, symbolic representations to illustrate the functional interrelations.

    what i want to see falsified is the propostiion that a ‘machine’ requires a ‘designer’

  4. Dave Says:

    I have not read the above mentioned book as of yet, so forgive me if my comments are too generalized.

    First of all, let me state that I believe Darwin’s theory of “Survival of the Fittest” to be brilliant and provable by use of the scientific method. His’ “Origin of the Species” theory however, While interesting, does not afford the proponent the opportunity to scientifically observe the process, being that no observer was present at Life’s supposedly accidental inception. Therefore, anything that follows the afore mentioned theory is merely hypothetical in nature being that it cannot be scientifically proven. That being said, I believe that the same is true for those who take the ID position as well. I find it amusing that while the ID proponents seem to be ridiculed for including some measure of faith in their research, to the truly objective observer the same can be said for anyone actively practicing Evolutionary Biology, as it pertains to our beginnings.

    As for as the “watchmaker” argument mentioned above, I think that type of argument is constructive and has it’s place in any philosophical debate as to our origins. It is meant to be thought provoking in nature, and was not designed to once and for all answer the question of where/how life began.

    The complexity of bacterial flagellum is an interesting argument for ID, but one could also use the complexity of DNA and it’s components, due to the entropic nature of the earth, and everything on it. Or one could argue that most mutations in biological systems produce weaknesses and new vulnerabilities rather than advantages.

    In conclusion, since neither Evolutionary Origins nor ID origins can be scientifically proven, why is it that in most U.S. schools and Universities only the former is taught in science/biology classes? Why not present them both and let people decide for themselves which “Origin Myth” is the most logical?

  5. Brandon Says:

    Dave- Ignoring the fact that you have confused evolution of the seperate species and the beginning of life (the formation of organic polymers leading to self-replicating proteins), I would like to offer up 2 instances of evolution being observed and proved:,2663,Lizards-make-adaptive-change,Stan-Freeman

    I would also like to point out that, contrary to your assertion, the Earth is not entropic in nature. I’ll Explain- Here’s the definition of Entropy-

    entropy en·tro·py (ěn’trə-pē)
    For a closed thermodynamic system, a quantitative measure of the amount of thermal energy not available to do work.
    A measure of the disorder or randomness in a CLOSED SYSTEM.

    Simply Put- the Earth is not a CLOSED SYSTEM. The life on this planet, since its inception some 4.5 billion years ago has been powered by an external nuclear reactor pouring more energy into this planet than could ever be needed; namely, the Sun.

    As for your conclusions, I’m going to have to disagree. Evolution has been proven time and time and time and time again. It’s been biologically proven, Backed up geologically,Tested genetically, Radio-Carbon verified, Anthropologically confirmed, and Astrolgically slam-dunked.

  6. aaron Says:

    i want to thank ” brandon ‘ and ” laia solen “.

    i could not be happier with thier statements and echo thier sentiments . excellent coments.

  7. Carolyn Foy-Stromberg Says:

    I am not convinced that God could not have any kind of already figured out plan such as The Big Bang! Why not? Sounds important and just as feasible as anything else that has been “discovered.” Why base every bit of “God evidence” on scripture that has been written, rewritten ad finitum all of which could be changed by many humans in the process.????? CF-S

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