Letters

Evolution: Good science, bad religion, or both? Readers respond to Andrew O'Hehir's "Priests in Lab Coats."


Salon Staff
August 9, 2005 7:31PM (UTC)

[Read "Priests in Lab Coats," by Andrew O'Hehir.]

Michael Ruse's so-called philosophy, as expressed in his interview, is so riddled with logical errors that it would be impossible to address them all, so let's just look at the biggies.

First of all, he trots out the tired old creationist/postmodernist sling that science is as much a religion as Christianity and that, as such, its teaching should be restricted in the same way as religious doctrine. The simple truth is that science is not remotely a religion, and here's why in a nutshell: Everything in science is open to change. Everything. Every tenet of knowledge about the natural world, every theory, every hypothesis, every interpretation of experiment and observation, is subject to being adjusted, modified or discarded completely, given sufficient evidence to justify doing so.

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Christianity and all other deistic religions hold certain doctrines to be absolute and unalterable, regardless of what evidence or arguments may be brought to bear against them. That's the difference, and it is an absolutely fundamental one.

-- Scott Stoeffler

Every once in a while, Salon puts forth a book review or author interview that entices me to venture out and obtain a copy of the work in question. You did it for Steven Erikson and his "Malazan Book of the Fallen" and with Nick Arvin's "Articles of War." Now, Andrew O'Hehir has done it again with philosopher Michael Ruse. I am very excited to see a work by such a principled, intelligent man who is working so hard to return some civility and reasoned debate to one of the issues that has come to divide Americans in such a vitriolic manner. Both sides of the evolution-creation debate would do well to heed Ruse's call for a return to mutual respect and civility of discourse.

The only real flaw I can find in Ruse's argument is, unfortunately, fairly significant. He conflates the evolution-atheism connection (which he correctly points out need not be) with a religion. Religion is not merely a belief (or, as he would have it, a nonbelief) in a divinity. Nor is it merely a creation-myth to explain our origins and where we are going. A religion encompasses all these things: belief in a divinity of some fashion, an origin myth, and eschatology; but it must also include an absolutist morality, an ethical system predicated on the threat of punishment and promise of reward. While evolution and atheism may lead to -- or dovetail nicely -- with one another, neither requires each other or a morality that is primarily linked to them to exist. If evolution rises to the form of religion, it is an ad hoc one, and evolution will merely be one component.

Ruse's approach leads us down an unfortunate avenue that fits nicely with the hopeful worldview of fundamentalist religionists: that all ideology is a religion. One must ask, how does one have a secular religion? Where Ruse is correct is his thinking that what we now have in this society are competing orthodoxies. Ardent believers in atheism or evolution can be just as dogmatic as the most fundamental of fundamentalists. All orthodoxies are not religions, though they may engender zealous followers.

-- James Elliott

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It strikes me as an amazingly weak argument, that "evolution should not be taught because it might lead to atheism, but atheism's a religious position, and therefore evolution is religion." Dr. Ruse is blurring the boundaries of what is science and what is religion. Understand: Evolutionary biology says nothing whatsoever about God. There's no "God" in the equations and laboratories, which doesn't mean "There is no God" but rather "There is no need for that hypothesis." Rejection of, or simply not needing, God is not a scientific position but a metaphysical one. Evolution -- especially as taught in schools -- is based on sound, peer-reviewed science. There is never a need for God, or a need to reject God: It simply doesn't enter the equation.

Dr. Ruse's error is in taking "evolutionism" as quasi-religious and then reflecting this religious nature back onto the science itself. That's BS. As Dr. Ruse points out, many evolutionary scientists hold religious beliefs; many don't -- it's a fundamentally metaphysical choice. Sure, the practice of science is unlikely to lead to devout Christianity, but to believe in God or not is a personal decision that one cannot reach solely within the theories of the science. Religion (based on faith) is irrelevant to the practice of science (based on skepticism and evidence); so evolution is not a religion.

By so blurring the boundary of what is properly science, and what is properly religion, Dr. Ruse has done us all a great disservice.

-- Erik Henriksen

Michael Ruse seems to think that if evolutionary biology has religious implications, then it should not be taught in American public schools.

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Teaching an idea that has implications for religion is not the same as teaching religion itself.

If we limited ourselves to teaching only things that have no religious implications then we would be teaching practically nothing in schools.

We can't deny kids a fully rounded education based on this kind of flimsy argument. If something is a scientific fact, then it should be taught, whether or not it conflicts with someone else's religion. Would Michael Ruse also advise that astronomy classes not teach that the universe is billions of years old, or geology classes not teach the actual age of the Earth?

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-- Jason Barker

The distinction Michael Ruse tries to draw between evolutionary science and this so-called religion of evolutionism is so subtle it's barely visible. All it seems to amount to is that some scientists and pro-science philosophers have said, "If this is the way the universe works, maybe we should shape our ethics to that reality, rather than untestable supernatural claims." This hardly qualifies as a religion, unless the definition of religion is so broad and vague it can cover anything.

Just as intelligent design is just a rehash of the old "half an eye" critique of evolution, so Ruse's book sounds like a rehash of the old "the pot calling the kettle 'black'" cliché of pro-religion people accusing scientists of being dogmatic or turning science into religion.

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Scientists' certainty comes from mountains of evidence found in the natural world. Creationists' certainty comes from, well, just being certain. All their fighting against evolution is really little more than a spoiled child throwing a tantrum upon finding that Santa Claus does not, in fact, exist. When well-meaning fools like Michael Ruse jump in with this stuff, all they're doing is drawing an equivalency similar to a comparison between a convicted murderer and someone who's gotten a parking ticket on the principle that they're both criminals.

I hardly even want to touch the line, "If in fact Darwinian evolutionary theory implies atheism, then you ought not to be teaching it in schools!" What? We're not supposed to teach an important pillar of scientific thought because it might have negative implications for some popular beliefs? Should we refuse to teach about the genocidal wars against the American Indians because that might upset some people's notion that Americans are always the good guys? Science, history, mathematics, even phys-ed, can have implications for people's belief systems. That's what education is about.

And the bit where he connects atheism to Nazism is downright despicable.

So much of what Michael Ruse says is so wrong-headed it's hard to take him seriously. Yes, he means well, but to paraphrase a famous line, all it takes for the bad to prevail is for the good to be too good.

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-- George Peterson

Michael Ruse seems to confuse purpose with result when he talks about the implications of science. It should not, and need not, be the purpose of a science teacher to preach atheism or even skepticism about any religious doctrine, but if such should be the result of his teaching in one, two or even a half-dozen of his students, that has nothing to do with his purposes. His purpose is to teach the science as it is currently understood. A semester of study of the weather and meteorology may result in a student's new realization that the god Thor does not cause thunder and lightning. We might even say, so much the better! But the science teacher's purpose is not to rid the student of such belief; his or her purpose is to teach the science about the weather.

-- Hal Tritz

Fascinating article, and it seems clear Michael Ruse has thought heavily about these issues. I tend to agree with his thesis that I.D. and evolution theory are brothers in many ways, but I would like to take issue with one point he seems to make between the lines in his article.

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Ruse would have us believe that evolutionary theory rests on sound science and is based strictly on extrapolation from available empirical evidence. While that is true for much of the field, this article never specifically points out that evolution rests on an assumption that is not based on empirical evidence.

The notion that species evolve through mutation, and that the geologic record shows a progression of life from simple forms to more complex ones is true, and is based on observation. But the issue I have comes before that ... at a certain point, some 3 billion years ago, inert matter "changed" somehow to become the basic building blocks of life. Something happened, clearly in the geologic record, that changed this planet from a lifeless one to one with the beginnings of life.

Evolutionary theory says it happened spontaneously because of chemical, electrical and atmospheric conditions at the time. But such an assertion isn't supported by any available evidence. No one can show me an example of how that spontaneous generation happened, nor can they even provide a theory that is replicable in any real way in a laboratory. In short, the best thing you can say about the possibility that spontaneous generation of life happened is that it is speculation, a logical guess based on some observed facts (like the fact we are here).

My point here is that nothing in evolution can prove to me that assumption has any more validity than the assumption of I.D. theorists, who say that an intelligence of some sort (aliens are a non-God theory) "seeded" our planet for life. Both of those theories rest on unprovable assumptions, and which you choose to believe is really a matter of personal choice.

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-- Lyle Bateman

Ruse does not seem to have read "Unweaving the Rainbow," where Richard Dawkins clearly explains how evolution is not "a dark theology," but the only rational, scientific explanation for how we got to this world filled with majestic sights like rainbows. Evolution only becomes a dark idea when you distort its purpose (explaining the past) by trying to control it in the future, at which point it ceases to be evolution by natural selection and becomes social policy. Ad hominem attacks against an evolutionist like Dawkins work politically to separate Ruse from mainstream biologists, and I'm sure that will help sell more books to credulous Christians and right-wingers. Congratulations on all your success, Dr. Ruse.

-- Nick Glatyer

I'm deeply bothered by several aspects of this interview. One: Nowhere does Michael Ruse explain why religion should get a free intellectual pass. "I can't understand why I can't get through people's thick skulls on this one. If in fact Darwinian evolutionary theory implies atheism, then you ought not to be teaching it in schools!" Is he making a legal or a philosophical point? If his business is philosophy, then he should want the truth taught in school whether it squares with religion or not. The fact is that all of science implies atheism; Darwin is just the popular battleground.

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Two: Because Ruse exempts the fact of religion itself from genuine scrutiny, focusing instead on modern Christianity, his arguments are convoluted and disingenuous. The problem is not just to reconcile Christian practice with science, it's to reconcile the historical phenomena of all religion with the same rules and logic and evidence you'd use to decide any matter of fact whatsoever. Why are we trying to reconcile Christianity with science and not with Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Navajo shaminism, Shinto, and the rituals of Borneo headhunters? Once Ruse can explain how, from all of religion, we're entitled to draw theistic facts, and not just poetic metaphors, then he's entitled to compare those facts to science and argue that they deserve some kind of equal treatment. Until he does that his argument is a sham.

Three: Both Andrew O'Hehir and Michael Ruse are enjoying some lazy slaps at popular evolutionists like Richard Dawkins while misrepresenting their stances on life. While it's true that there are a number of people who misrepresent the logical conclusions of science in the social and cultural realm -- eugenicists and social Darwinists come to mind -- it is false to represent as morally "dark" the views of atheists as a rule. One is led to assume from this language that it follows a priori that a world without theistic values must be a dark and depressing place, but people like Dawkinsand, in fact, nearly all atheists -- argue anything but that. Freedom from religious bigotry allows one to examine what makes people good and happy for real and develop values accordingly, most would say.

-- Marvin Long


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