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Review of Darwin and Design (2005)

Anthony Campbell

[This review was originally published on Anthony Campbell's book reviews page.]

Book coverReview: Michael Ruse. 2003. Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. x + 371 pp.

Although there are still people today, particularly in the USA, who adhere to the biblical account of special creation of the different species, most educated people accept that evolution has occurred. That is, they accept that the animals and plants we see about us have come into being by a process of progressive modification of earlier forms. The really contentious claim put forward by Darwin, however, was that this has happened without any underlying plan. Instead of a plan, evolution, according to Darwin and his successors, has occurred because essentially random variations have been acted on by natural selection. This theory seems to many to leave no room for any divine purpose.

This is the question that Ruse tackles in his new book. Although he touches fairly briefly on pre-Darwinian thought, starting with classical Greece, he naturally concentrates mainly on the period after the mid-nineteenth century. Darwin, he says, planted a bomb under Victorian teleology, and although argument about the role of design in evolution continued and is still alive today, the terms of the debate were altered forever.

Darwin's central idea of natural selection was not widely accepted in the decades following publication of The Origin, and even Darwin's most vigorous defender, T. H. Huxley, did not emphasize it. Not until the 1930s did interest in natural selection revive. Partly this was due to the belated discovery of Mendelian genetics, and partly it was due to the work of the statistician Ronald Fisher. Theodore Dobzhanski and Ernst Mayr, among others, built on these developments and brought about a revival of interest in natural selection--neo-Darwinism.

For some modern Darwinists, notably Richard Dawkins, the clear implication of Darwinism is that there is no place for purpose or direction in evolution. Progressive theologians, however, insist that there is no conflict between Darwinism and theism, and this is the question that Ruse takes up in his concluding chapters. He gives natural theology a fair summing up but concludes that it cannot ultimately work. "The Darwinian revolution is over, and Darwin won." We must "recognize that Dawkins is right, that Darwinism is a major challenge to religious belief and that you cannot simply pretend that nothing very much has happened."

Perhaps rather surprisingly, however, Ruse continues to argue for what he calls a theology of nature (as opposed to a natural theology). This seems to rely on an aesthetic response to nature--a near-mystical appreciation of the beauty of the living world. He quotes a remark once made to him by Ernst Mayr: "People forget that it is possible to be intensely religious in the entire absence of theological belief." This attitude would be quite at home in Buddhism but I think that many Christians would find it too impersonal.

This is a thoughtful and quite detailed discussion of the design question in evolution. As in his earlier book, Ruse is particularly good on the background of the people who figure in his narrative of events. I had not known previously that Fisher was a committed Christian as well as a "fanatical Darwinian," who thought of adaptation as representative of God's creative intent.

Copyright ©2003 Anthony Campbell.