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More Articles on Evolution

Enough Speculation

Michael Ruse

Allen Orr's critique of Darwin's Black Box is devastating and, assuming that there are some out there who find the book plausible and yet have open minds, might do some good. For me, although I did not need convincing, there is the sheer pleasure in seeing an expert in his field take on the ignorant and arrogantly presumptuous. However, I do feel that Orr failed to raise the most important issue of all: Did Behe have the right, in the first place, to appeal to design?

Do not misunderstand me. As far as I am concerned, if Behe wants to appeal to design to understand the world, he can do so all that he wants. I will defend to the end his right to do so. If he wants to spend the next six months standing on his head in Harvard Square, I am his backer. Rather, I ask whether he has the right to do so in a context where he expects us to take him seriously, especially to take him seriously as a scientist.

Think of an analogous example. This last summer, a large jetliner went down in the Atlantic just off Long Island. Six months later, no one has any real idea as to how or why it happened. Would the pertinent aviation authorities, or the President of the United States for that matter, have the right to declare that it was an act of God, in the sense of a miraculous intervention by the Deity? Or, if you prefer, by an evil spirit? Our reaction to such a suggestion would be somewhere between humor and disgust, even in a country like the United States where God is invoked in public discourse with a frequency and familiarity which makes the members of older civilizations cringe with embarrassment.

Why is this so? Two reasons. First, we know that bringing in the Deity is simply not helpful--a hinderance rather. Experience has shown us that, when we are faced with a mystery, the way to get an answer is to keep inquiring, not to give up and put in all on the shoulders of the Chap Upstairs. In the nineteenth century, the English scientist and philosopher William Whewell, faced with an inability to explain the Swiss Alps, told us that geology says nothing, but "points upwards." Fortunately for us all, practitioners of that particular science ignored him and now finally we have plate tectonics. The same is true of flight. Perhaps we will never be absolutely certain as to what happened. But my bet is that an answer will come. Even if one does not come in this particular case, it is still more reasonable to blame our own limitations (together with the difficulty of the puzzle) than to invoke the supernatural.

Second--and this is a point which would be stressed by today's theologians, including no doubt the present Pope given his recent endorsement of evolution--dropping a dollop of design into your scientific mix is not only not the way to do good science, it is not the way to do good theology either! Design is not something you add to science as an equal--miracles or molecules, take your pick. Design is an interpretation which makes some kind of overall metaphysical or theological sense of experience. In the words of the theologian Langdon Gilkey, it is answering the why questions whereas science is answering the how questions.

What this means is that the early stages of life can be both designed and natural (in the sense of understandable by science). It is not a question of one or the other, but not both. Of course, you may not opt for design at all--things like the imperfections in organic nature may spoil that interpretation for you--but that is something quite apart from whether there is a scientific explanation of the world of experience.

Moving across now to Robert Berwick's critique of Richard Dawkins's Climbing Mount Improbable, I found myself in a bit of a quandary. I agreed with everything that Berwick said, but at the same time I agreed with Dawkins too! Part of the problem here is that I am not really quite sure of the level of disagreement. As far as I can make out, everyone agrees to some adaptation; everyone agrees that not everything is always tightly adapted; everyone agrees that sometimes evolution is gradual; everyone agrees that if not jumpy, sometimes evolution moves quickly sideways or forwards.

Some of the dispute is over the meaning of a "large" mutation, but I am still in the dark as to the exact meaning of this. If my wife gives birth to an elephant, then this is a large mutation. But if she gives birth to a child with Down's syndrome is this a large or a small mutation, and does Berwick think that this kind of mutation could ever be effective and does Dawkins think that this kind could never be effective? Or if not Down's syndrome, what about a mutation which makes my children two inches taller? Is this a large mutation or not? How many inches until it is?

My suspicion is that (as with Orr's critique of Behe), two points are worth making. First, we have a cultural difference between author and reviewer. This is a difference which is really a question of perspectives and not going to be solved by argumentation--at least, not of the kind that Berwick and Dawkins offer. Since Darwin, English evolutionists have tended towards selectionism and adaptationism and gradualism--think of Alfred Russel Wallace, of Raphael Weldon, of Ronald Fisher. Since Darwin, American evolutionists have tended towards a more Germanic transcendentalism, downplaying selection and playing up Bauplan and jumps--this position came partly through the influence of Herbert Spencer (always more popular in America than in his homeland) and partly thanks to Louis Agassiz, who may have lost the evolution battle with Asa Gray, but who won the biological war since it was he who had the students and thus influenced the future generations. What we have in the Dawkins/Berwick clash is this national divide playing on--both sides arguing that the positive cases support their case and that the negative cases fail to support the other side.

Second, and this takes me back to Orr's critique, whether or not we can ever bridge this national divide, would we not all be better if we stopped this kind of philosophical argumentation that we find in Berwick and Dawkins and got on instead with looking at the real science of the professional practicing evolutionist? I am getting tired of computer analogies. I want to see what the real workers are finding in the field and how their discoveries affect their thinking. Even though I am myself a professional philosopher, I think the time for speculation and pop science is over. We need to look at what is really being discovered. Then some of these issues about gradualism and adaptation may get resolved--or perhaps they will not seem so important and other matters will come to the fore.

Originally published in the February/ March 1997 issue of Boston Review

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