Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press



Michael Ruse

Thomas Hardy, author of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and other great novels, was also a poet.  Born and raised a member of the Church of England, his faith was shattered on reading Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1859.  Above all, Hardy was troubled by the implication of Darwin’s chief mechanism of natural selection.  More organisms are born than can survive and reproduce, those that are successful in the “struggle for existence” will tend to be different from the unsuccessful, and it these helpful variations or characteristics that will be “naturally selected” and, over time, lead to organic change: evolution. It was this cause or force that spurred Hardy to write (in 1865) his famous sonnet, “Hap.”

“If but some vengeful god would call to me

From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,

Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,

That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!” 

Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,

Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;

Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I

Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so.   How arrives it joy lies slain,

And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?

—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,

And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .

These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown

Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.”

‘Hap’, Thomas Hardy, 1865

Hardy goes right to the heart of things.  Natural selection is not just a scientific cause; it is much more – which, expectedly, makes it of interest to me, one who is a philosopher not a scientist.  Organisms are not just thrown together.  They work.  They function.  They have “adaptations,” like the hand and the eye, features that enable organisms to survive and conquer in the struggle for existence.  Before Darwin, the assumption was that adaptations – things that can be understood in terms of what they will do, grasp or see, things that exhibit what Aristotle called “final cause” – have to be produced by a conscious intelligence, God. To the contrary, Darwin showed that it is all a product of blind, undirected laws.  More than this, there was always the assumption that we humans are special, at the top of the tree of life – “made in the image of God.”  Now, as Hardy picks up so strongly in his poem, any progress, any claim to superiority, is bogus.  What works is what works, no more or less.  As the paleontologist Jack Sepkoski put it, somewhat graphically: ““I see intelligence as just one of a variety of adaptations among tetrapods for survival. Running fast in a herd while being as dumb as shit, I think, is a very good adaptation for survival.”   As Hardy saw, if God were hateful and vengeful – somewhat along the lines of the Calvinist deity, squared – then life would be unpleasant; but, it would make sense and we could live with it, if only in fighting back.  After Darwin, God is neither good nor bad, He is totally indifferent. “Crass Casualty” is all we have.

These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown / Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain. / We are on our own

My short book, Understanding Natural Selection, goes back to the beginning, showing how Darwin became an evolutionist and why then he set out to find a cause.  When he had discovered a cause, natural selection, I show how Darwin embedded it in a full-blown theory, explaining a wide range of biological phenomena – social behavior (as in the ants), paleontology and the fossil record (why ancient fossils exhibit features found functioning separately today in different forms of life), geographical distribution (why the birds of the Galapagos are like the birds of South American not like those of Africa), morphology, systematics, embryology, and more.  Then, when this theory was published, in the Origin, why, from the first, natural selection was controversial as science, quite apart from the philosophical/theological worries of many, like Hardy.

Although, in respects, natural selection has overcome its opponents — professional evolutionists today use it as their main cause of biological change, evolution — there are still arguments, among scientists and among others, especially historians and philosophers.  The leading population geneticist Sewall Wright introduced an alternative mechanism of change, genetic drift, where random factors in small populations do the heavy creative lifting, leaving selection to the task of mopping up after the excitement is over.  The eminent historian of science, Peter Bowler has written many books denying that there was any such thing as a Darwinian Revolution.  Typical is his The Non-Darwinian Revolution: Reinterpreting a Historical Myth. Leading philosopher of science, the Englishman John Dupré, writes: “Selection cannot occur unless some other process provides alternatives to select from. It follows that any thesis about the power of natural selection to generate change implicitly presupposes a thesis about a process or processes that generate selectable change”. The equally leading thinker, American Thomas Nagel, has even written and published a book with the title: Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.

Understanding Natural Selection deals with all these objections, showing they are not well taken.  However, haunting us, throughout the book is the unspoken fear expressed by Thomas Hardy, that in a world of natural selection, as the French existentialist author Albert Camus put it, life is “absurd.”  My book ends with my response, that there may be no God to give life meaning, but it is within our grasp to create meaning for ourselves.

I can only reiterate what I said in my preface that, after more than fifty years as a scholar and teacher, I am still overwhelmed by what our reason and senses tell us about how our world works, and I can think of no greater meaning to life than, as I have done here, sharing that knowledge with others.

Understanding Natural Selection by Michael Ruse

Author: Michael Ruse

Title: Understanding Natural Selection

ISBN: 9781009088329

About The Author

Michael Ruse

Michael Ruse is Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. His publications include Can a Darwinian be a Christian? The Relationship between Science and Religion (Cambrid...

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