Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Is Evolution a Religion? The March 7, 2003 Issue of Science features a characteristically insightful
article by Florida State philosophy professor Michael Ruse. A favorite taunt of creationists is to accuse scientists of using evolution as a prop on which to support an atheistic worldview. Evolution, in this view, is just as much a religion as their own preferred brand of fundamentalism. No doubt this will come as news to the thousands of scientists who see evolution as an effective tool for guiding their research. Ruse argues that today evolutionary biology is primarily a rigorous science, complete with mathematical models and experimental protocols. However, in popular writing, some writers stray too far into the realm of metaphysics, thereby providing some fuel for the Creationist complaint. Ruse supports his thesis by outlining the history of the field, and tracing its development from the sloppy reasoning of early proponents like Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) through Darwin, Huxley, Fisher, Haldane, Dobzhansky and others.

Ruse overstates his case a little, however. The handful of prominent scientists such as E.O. Wilson (specifically mentioned in the article) who can plausibly be said to be using evolution to undergird a materialist worldview are a tiny minority of the biological community generally. When Creationists level their canard, their intent is to paint evolution as the foundation of a world view that smiles upon promiscuity, immorality, homosexuality, and everything else they find undesirable. They then contrast this worldview unfavorably with the benevolent Christian fundamentalism they prefer. There is no sense in which evolution actually plays this role. Ruse states this bluntly, but then writes, "But, if we wish to deny that evolution is more than just a scientific theory, the Creationists do have a point." Of course evolution has greater implications for how we view ourselves than, say relativity, and in that sense it is more than just a theory. Indeed, that is why mainstream publishers routinely print books about evolution, but not about quantum physics. But this weak claim bears no relation to any point the Creationists are making, and it was unwise of Ruse to phrase his argument in this way. We can now look forward to Creationist misuse of Ruse's statement; they will make it appear as if Ruse supports their strong point, when he does not.

Pigliucci's Book For a book length treatment covering many of these issues in more detail, from the perspective of a professional evolutionary biologist, check out Massimo Pigliucci's magnificent Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science, available here.


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