From Soup to Sioux City
The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History (WW Norton & Co.: 1980), pp. 20-21.
Our textbooks like to illustrate evolution with examples of optimal design — nearly perfect mimicry of a dead leaf by a butterfly or of a poisonous species by a palatable relative. But ideal design is a lousy argument for evolution, for it mimics the postulated action of an omnipotent creator. Odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proof of evolution — paths that a sensible God would never tread but that a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce.
"Introduction" in Modern Philosophy of Mind (Everyman: 1995), p. iv.
Physicalism] seem[s] to be in tune with the scientific materialism of the twentieth century because it [is] a harmonic of the general theme that all there is in the universe is matter and energy and motion and that humans are a product of the evolution of species just as much as buffaloes and beavers are. Evolution is a seamless garment with no holes wherein souls might be inserted from above.
Jerry A. Coyne (Viking Adult: Jan 22, 2009), 304 pages.
In all the current highly publicized debates about creationism and its descendant “intelligent design,” there is an element of the controversy that is rarely mentioned—the evidence, the empirical truth of evolution by natural selection. Even Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, while extolling the beauty of evolution and examining case studies, have not focused on the evidence itself. Yet the proof is vast, varied, and magnificent, drawn from many different fields of science. Scientists are observing species splitting into two and are finding more and more fossils capturing change in the past—dinosaurs that have sprouted feathers, fish that have grown limbs. Why Evolution Is True weaves together the many threads of modern work in genetics, paleontology, geology, molecular biology, and anatomy that demonstrate the “indelible stamp” of the processes first proposed by Darwin. In crisp, lucid prose accessible to a wide audience, Why Evolution Is True dispels common misunderstandings and fears about evolution and clearly confirms that this amazing process of change has been firmly established as a scientific truth. ~ Synopsis
"Address to the Pontifical Science Academy" (Libreria Editrice Vaticana: Oct 31, 2008).
To "evolve" literally means "to unroll a scroll", that is, to read a book. The imagery of nature as a book has its roots in Christianity and has been held dear by many scientists. Galileo saw nature as a book whose author is God in the same way that Scripture has God as its author. It is a book whose history, whose evolution, whose "writing" and meaning, we "read" according to the different approaches of the sciences, while all the time presupposing the foundational presence of the author who has wished to reveal himself therein. This image also helps us to understand that the world, far from originating out of chaos, resembles an ordered book; it is a cosmos. Notwithstanding elements of the irrational, chaotic and the destructive in the long processes of change in the cosmos, matter as such is "legible". It has an inbuilt "mathematics". The human mind therefore can engage not only in a "cosmography" studying measurable phenomena but also in a "cosmology" discerning the visible inner logic of the cosmos. We may not at first be able to see the harmony both of the whole and of the relations of the individual parts, or their relationship to the whole. Yet, there always remains a broad range of intelligible events, and the process is rational in that it reveals an order of evident correspondences and undeniable finalities: in the inorganic world, between microstructure and macrostructure; in the organic and animal world, between structure and function; and in the spiritual world, between knowledge of the truth and the aspiration to freedom. Experimental and philosophical inquiry gradually discovers these orders; it perceives them working to maintain themselves in being, defending themselves against imbalances, and overcoming obstacles. And thanks to the natural sciences we have greatly increased our understanding of the uniqueness of humanity’s place in the cosmos.
Gary Marcus (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Mar 2008), 224 pages.
Why are we subject to irrational beliefs, inaccurate memories, even war? We can thank evolution, Marcus says, which can only tinker with structures that already exist, rather than create new ones: "Natural selection... tends to favor genes that have immediate advantages" rather than long-term value. Marcus, director of NYU's Infant Language Learning Center, refers to this as "kluge," a term engineers use to refer to a clumsily designed solution to a problem. Thus, memory developed in our prehominid ancestry to respond with immediacy, rather than accuracy; one result is erroneous eyewitness testimony in courtrooms. In describing the results of studies of human perception, cognition and beliefs, Marcus encapsulates how the mind is "contaminated by emotions, moods, desires, goals, and simple self-interest...." The mind's fragility, he says, is demonstrated by mental illness, which seems to have no adaptive purpose. In a concluding chapter, Marcus offers a baker's dozen of suggestions for getting around the brain's flaws and achieving "true wisdom." While some are self-evident, others could be helpful, such as "Whenever possible, consider alternate hypotheses" and "Don't just set goals. Make contingency plans." Using evolutionary psychology, Marcus educates the reader about mental flaws in a succinct, often enjoyable way. ~ Publishers Weekly
Stephen J. Pope (Cambridge University Press: September 2007), 352 pages.
Can the origins of morality be explained entirely in evolutionary terms? If so, what are the implications for Christian moral theology and ethics? Is the latter redundant, as socio-biologists often assert? Stephen Pope argues that theologians need to engage with evolutionary theory rather than ignoring it. He shows that our growing knowledge of human evolution is compatible with Christian faith and morality, provided that the former is not interpreted reductionistically and the latter is not understood in fundamentalist ways. Christian ethics ought to incorporate evolutionary approaches to human nature to the extent that they provide helpful knowledge of the conditions of human flourishing, both collective and individual. From this perspective, a strong affirmation of human dignity and appreciation for the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity is consistent with a revised account of natural law and the cardinal virtues. ~ Product Description
"The Dawkins Confusion" at ChristianityToday.com (March 1, 2007).
Since we have been cobbled together by (unguided) evolution, it is unlikely, he thinks, that our view of the world is overall accurate; natural selection is interested in adaptive behavior, not in true belief. But Dawkins fails to plumb the real depths of the skeptical implications of the view that we have come to be by way of unguided evolution. We can see this as follows. Like most naturalists, Dawkins is a materialist about human beings: human persons are material objects; they are not immaterial selves or souls or substances joined to a body, and they don't contain any immaterial substance as a part. From this point of view, our beliefs would be dependent on neurophysiology, and (no doubt) a belief would just be a neurological structure of some complex kind. Now the neurophysiology on which our beliefs depend will doubtless be adaptive; but why think for a moment that the beliefs dependent on or caused by that neurophysiology will be mostly true? Why think our cognitive faculties are reliable?
Daniel C. Dennett (Penguin : February 6, 2007), 464 pages.
In his characteristically provocative fashion, Dennett, author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea and director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, calls for a scientific, rational examination of religion that will lead us to understand what purpose religion serves in our culture. Much like E.O. Wilson (In Search of Nature), Robert Wright (The Moral Animal), and Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), Dennett explores religion as a cultural phenomenon governed by the processes of evolution and natural selection. Religion survives because it has some kind of beneficial role in human life, yet Dennett argues that it has also played a maleficent role. He elegantly pleads for religions to engage in empirical self-examination to protect future generations from the ignorance so often fostered by religion hiding behind doctrinal smoke screens. Because Dennett offers a tentative proposal for exploring religion as a natural phenomenon, his book is sometimes plagued by generalizations that leave us wanting more ("Only when we can frame a comprehensive view of the many aspects of religion can we formulate defensible policies for how to respond to religions in the future"). Although much of the ground he covers has already been well trod, he clearly throws down a gauntlet to religion. ~ Publishers Weekly
Michael Ruse (Cambridge University Press: Jul 31, 2006), 326 pages.
Ruse, a well-known evolutionary historian and philosopher, defends Darwin from all comers, whether religious critics; those who, like Gertrude Himmelfarb, have accused Darwin of being a second-rate scientist; or postmodernist critics who say science is a social construction and not objective truth. Ruse (Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?) expounds on why he accepts evolution as fact. Though he doesn't buy the argument that all science is merely a social construct, he acknowledges that Darwinism holds a mirror up to the times and reflects contemporary thinking, and he looks at the forms Darwinism has taken in philosophy, literature and popular culture. Some readers may think that Ruse, who freely and frequently admits that he isn't a Christian, doesn't quite provide a level playing field on which to confront some of his intellectual opponents, in particular the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga and the atheist scientist Richard Dawkins. Still, Ruse's agnosticism keeps him from being doctrinaire ("Perhaps there is a God on the other side... I do not know"). Some readers will struggle with Ruse's occasional philosophic density. Nevertheless, this should interest fans of the philosophy of science and readers caught up in the contemporary debate about evolution.
Richard Dawkins (Oxford University Press: May 25, 2006), 384 pages.
Inheriting the mantle of revolutionary biologist from Darwin, Watson, and Crick, Richard Dawkins forced an enormous change in the way we see ourselves and the world with the publication of The Selfish Gene. Suppose, instead of thinking about organisms using genes to reproduce themselves, as we had since Mendel's work was rediscovered, we turn it around and imagine that "our" genes build and maintain us in order to make more genes. That simple reversal seems to answer many puzzlers which had stumped scientists for years, and we haven't thought of evolution in the same way since. Why are there miles and miles of "unused" DNA within each of our bodies? Why should a bee give up its own chance to reproduce to help raise her sisters and brothers? With a prophet's clarity, Dawkins told us the answers from the perspective of molecules competing for limited space and resources to produce more of their own kind. Drawing fascinating examples from every field of biology, he paved the way for a serious re-evaluation of evolution. He also introduced the concept of self-reproducing ideas, or memes, which (seemingly) use humans exclusively for their propagation. If we are puppets, he says, at least we can try to understand our strings. ~ Rob Lightner of Amazon.com
Richard Joyce (MIT Press: February 2006), 283 pages.
Moral thinking pervades our practical lives, but where did this way of thinking come from, and what purpose does it serve? Is it to be explained by environmental pressures on our ancestors a million years ago, or is it a cultural invention of more recent origin? In The Evolution of Morality, Richard Joyce takes up these controversial questions, finding that the evidence supports an innate basis to human morality. As a moral philosopher, Joyce is interested in whether any implications follow from this hypothesis. Might the fact that the human brain has been biologically prepared by natural selection to engage in moral judgment serve in some sense to vindicate this way of thinking — staving off the threat of moral skepticism, or even undergirding some version of moral realism? Or if morality has an adaptive explanation in genetic terms — if it is, as Joyce writes, "just something that helped our ancestors make more babies" — might such an explanation actually undermine morality's central role in our lives? He carefully examines both the evolutionary "vindication of morality" and the evolutionary "debunking of morality," considering the skeptical view more seriously than have others who have treated the subject. Interdisciplinary and combining the latest results from the empirical sciences with philosophical discussion, The Evolution of Morality is one of the few books in this area written from the perspective of moral philosophy. Concise and without technical jargon, the arguments are rigorous but accessible to readers from different academic backgrounds. Joyce discusses complex issues in plain language while advocating subtle and sometimes radical views. The Evolution of Morality lays the philosophical foundations for further research into the biological understanding of human morality. ~ Product Description
"Was Darwin Wrong?" in National Geographic Magazine (November 2004).
Charles Darwin was shy and meticulous, a wealthy landowner with close friends among the Anglican clergy. He had a gentle, unassuming manner, a strong need for privacy, and an extraordinary commitment to intellectual honesty. As an undergraduate at Cambridge, he had studied halfheartedly toward becoming a clergyman himself, before he discovered his real vocation as a scientist. Later, having established a good but conventional reputation in natural history, he spent 22 years secretly gathering evidence and pondering arguments—both for and against his theory—because he didn't want to flame out in a burst of unpersuasive notoriety. He may have delayed, too, because of his anxiety about announcing a theory that seemed to challenge conventional religious beliefs—in particular, the Christian beliefs of his wife, Emma. Darwin himself quietly renounced Christianity during his middle age, and later described himself as an agnostic. He continued to believe in a distant, impersonal deity of some sort, a greater entity that had set the universe and its laws into motion, but not in a personal God who had chosen humanity as a specially favored species. Darwin avoided flaunting his lack of religious faith, at least partly in deference to Emma. And she prayed for his soul.
"Was Darwin Wrong?" in National Geographic Magazine (November 2004).
Evolution by natural selection, the central concept of the life's work of Charles Darwin, is a theory. It's a theory about the origin of adaptation, complexity, and diversity among Earth's living creatures. If you are skeptical by nature, unfamiliar with the terminology of science, and unaware of the overwhelming evidence, you might even be tempted to say that it's "just" a theory. In the same sense, relativity as described by Albert Einstein is "just" a theory. The notion that Earth orbits around the sun rather than vice versa, offered by Copernicus in 1543, is a theory. Continental drift is a theory. The existence, structure, and dynamics of atoms? Atomic theory. Even electricity is a theoretical construct, involving electrons, which are tiny units of charged mass that no one has ever seen. Each of these theories is an explanation that has been confirmed to such a degree, by observation and experiment, that knowledgeable experts accept it as fact. That's what scientists mean when they talk about a theory: not a dreamy and unreliable speculation, but an explanatory statement that fits the evidence. They embrace such an explanation confidently but provisionally—taking it as their best available view of reality, at least until some severely conflicting data or some better explanation might come along.
John Hare in Evolution and Ethics: Human Morality in Biological and Religious Perspective (Eerdmans: 2004), pp. 187-203.
I am going to talk about the question of whether we can find an evolutionary basis for human morality. I am not a scientist, but a philosopher. So I am not going to try to pass judgment on the theory of evolution itself, as it applies to human beings. I do not regard philosophers as professionally competent either to pass a positive or negative judgment on the theory, except insofar as there are philosophical commitments embodied in it. However, I do regard myself as having made some progress in understanding human morality. In particular, I have been interested in and have written about the gap between the demands of morality on us and our natural capacities to meet those demands. This gap presents the problem of how we can be held accountable or responsible for a standard we are not equipped to meet either by innate capacity or natural development. So I want to ask the conditional question: if we assume that the theory of evolution as it applies to human beings is correct, does this help us answer the questions of whether we can be morally good and why we should be morally good? The first question, whether we can be morally good, is the question raised by the moral gap between the demands of morality and our natural capacities. It is only after answering this first question, “yes, we can be morally good,” that the second question arises of why we should be morally good, for we can only be held accountable or responsible for standards that we are able to reach. The burden of my presentation will be that we do not get an answer to these two questions from the theory of evolution. I am not arguing here that the theory is false, but that even if it is true, it doesn’t give us an answer. I will be looking at a number of recent attempts to provide such an answer from the theory, but I will claim that all of them fail.
On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection Or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life
Charles Darwin (1859), 496 pages.
Published amid a firestorm of controversy in 1859, this is a book that changed the world. Reasoned and well-documented in its arguments, it offers coherent views of natural selection, adaptation, the struggle for existence, survival of the fittest, and other concepts that form the foundation of evolutionary theory. Read the full version at Google Books.
Steven Pinker (Penguin Group: August 2003), 528 pages.
In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker, one of the world's leading experts on language and the mind, explores the idea of human nature and its moral, emotional, and political colorings. With characteristic wit, lucidity, and insight, Pinker argues that the dogma that the mind has no innate traits-a doctrine held by many intellectuals during the past century-denies our common humanity and our individual preferences, replaces objective analyses of social problems with feel-good slogans, and distorts our understanding of politics, violence, parenting, and the arts. Injecting calm and rationality into debates that are notorious for ax-grinding and mud-slinging, Pinker shows the importance of an honest acknowledgment of human nature based on science and common sense. ~ Product Description
Ernst Mayr (Basic Books: Oct. 15, 2002), 336 pages.
At age 97, Ernst Mayr is one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century, and here he delivers yet another valuable addition to the field of evolutionary theory. Mayr, who was also a curator at the American Museum of Natural History for two decades, guides lay readers through evolutionary thought from the book of Genesis and creationist theory through Darwin's theories and "soft" evolution and on to more contemporary, inclusive concepts. He takes readers on a whirlwind voyage from the scala naturae (the Great Chain of Being, in which everything in the world was accorded a position in a developmental hierarchy) to Mayr's own work, which builds on Darwinian theory and environmental factors. No one but Mayr could explain evolution so well, and though the text is peppered with many scientific terms, overall the author is triumphant in his goal to teach "first and foremost... biologist or not, [anyone] who simply wants to know more about evolution." While many authors suggest their tomes are the authoritative source, Mayr remains humble, reminding readers that "many details remain controversial." And the combination of his expertise, his elegant prose and the sheer pleasure of so many enthralling facts (the 145-million-year-old Archaeopteryx is a near perfect link between reptiles and birds, for example) means that studying the fossil record has rarely been so absorbing. Appendixes answer FAQs and respond to various objections to evolutionary theory, while a glossary offers entries from acoelomate to zygote. ~ Publishers Weekly
Stephen Jay Gould (Belknap Press: Mar. 21, 2002)
The culmination of about 25 years of research and study, this book traces the history of evolutionary thought and charts a path for its future. After Darwin wrote The Origin of Species in 1859, scientists created a synthesis of genetics, ecology and paleontology to explain how natural selection could produce change and form new species. Gould thinks that this "modern synthesis" has hardened into a dogma stifling the science. Gould claims that an obsession with "selfish genes" and simplistic versions of natural selection blinds researchers to the significance of new discoveries about how evolution really works. The rules by which embryos develop, for example, create constraints that channel the flow of evolution. Asteroid impacts and other catastrophes can send evolution off on unpredictable trajectories. And selection, Gould contends, may act not just on individuals or their genes, but on entire species or groups of species, and in ways we've only begun to understand. This book presents Gould in all his incarnations: as a digressive historian, original thinker and cunning polemicist. It is certainly not a perfect work. Gould gives short shrift to the tremendous discoveries spurred by "Darwinian fundamentalism," while he sometimes overplays the importance of hazy theoretical arguments that support his own claims. But even Gould's opponents will recognize this as the magnum opus of one of the world's leading evolutionary thinkers. ~ Publishers Weekly
Jonathan Wells (Regnery: Jan, 2002), 338 pages.
The author retraces the reasoning of proponents of evolution from Darwin to the present to show what he sees as their empirically false, and frequently faked conclusions. He contends that these conclusions are presented to the public so many times and in so many ways that they become irrefutable "icons." The information conveyed by these icons is never questioned and is in fact promoted with tax dollars in many contexts. Wells is a postdoctoral biologist (with Ph.D.s from both Yale and the U. of California at Berkeley) who is currently affiliated with the Discovery Institute, Seattle, Washington) ~ Book News, Inc.