Evolution in Mind – Michael Ruse

Ruseblogging is in vogue currently, keen as he is to prosecute proponents of evolution (the charge: raising to a religion what should be simply an explanatory paradigm). For more on that issue best visit Butterflies and Wheels where close readings hew out the rhetoric from the facts on most issues. Specifics found here, here and here

What the above description might not make apparent is Ruse is a fierce proponent of evolution himself – indeed, was introduced at this week’s symposium as “Huxley to David Hull’s Darwin”. So as a sort of counterweight to Ophelia’s posts at Butterflies and Wheels I thought it would be interesting to see Ruse shot from both sides.

His talk, “Darwinism and its malcontents”, was essentially a j’accuse directed against those who try and keep humans outside of the realm of nature and evolution. His wide-bore approach scattered shot into Alfred Russel Wallace; Soapy Sam and various dissenters from the evolutionary view, through to Intelligent Designers; and critically individuals such as Elisabeth Lloyd, David Buller and other individuals who are in concord with evolution per se but are making sounds (not sure precisely what, but a ‘tut’ or drawn-out ‘hmmmmm’ should do it) about how it is currently applied to brains, minds, and certain other features which may (or may not be) particular to humans. Lisa Lloyd analyses the proposed adaptive value of the female orgasm and finds it wanting, David Buller critiques the E-Psych program (debated here at Crooked Timber), and so on. [NB the site containing the Lloyd piece is an excellent resource on major issues within current biology.]

This wallification (to abuse a phrase I suspect intended to be abused) of humankind off from evolution could well be a topic for concern. Yet I found Ruse entirely unconvincing because he presented none of David Buller’s arguments against Evolutionary Psychology, or addressed Lisa Lloyd’s concerns with some seemingly inconsistent adaptive analysis. It was really framed as an argument from authority: Darwin believed that selection was operating ‘all the way up’, and we are all good Darwinists if we are nothing. A corollary is the insinuation that if you hold beliefs that an Intelligent Design proponent would be happy you have, then your beliefs are suspect.

Flimsy stuff, really; I don’t give a damn what Darwin really thought about human exceptionalism. I’m a scientist dammit. Show me the evidence and convince me! If Lloyds arguments do ultimately hit a wall in that they are fundamentally anti-materialist – really unwilling to accept that physical forces shaped these properties – then put the argument out step by painstaking step. It’s not clear that this is the case at all, and readers will know that I myself have issues with several components of the EP program while still firmly wedded to materialism. Yes I have read Darwins Dangerous Idea and yes it is wonderful, but the fact that selection could operate in all realsm does not entail that it must, or that it can’t be outstripped by other forces – either selection at another level (the old meme idea) or cultural learning forces that aren’t well described as selection at all, due to the levels of top-down direction, non-heritability or what-have-yous that make natural selection a specific, designed process, rather than just a catch-all for any kind of change.

Engaging and rumbunctious as he was – the overall tone was that of giving his colleagues a good teasing – it still had the insipid flavour of some sort of jovial McCarthism – these are the sorts of things we should not be thinking in the United States of Darwin. So it seems that Ruse is fighting on two fronts. It leads me to wonder whether this is because he has a very narrow and specific view of what evolutionary science is, and how it should proceed, and leads me further into ruminating whether that is a exemplary or terrible perspective.

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