Letters to the Editor

Evolution, Shibboleths, and Philosophers

April 11, 2010

To the Editor:

Michael Ruse claims that Jerry A. Fodor, Thomas Nagel, and I all question "the veracity of evolutionary theory," and then goes on to various misrepresentations, coupled with speculations as to why these philosophers would carry on as they do ("What Darwin's Doubters Get Wrong," The Chronicle Review, March 12). Fodor and Nagel are more than capable of taking care of themselves; I want to correct a few of his misrepresentations about me.

First, Ruse claims that I have "long harbored a distrust, even an ardent dislike, of evolutionary theorizing in general and of Darwinian thinking in particular" and offers as evidence a passage in which I once said that evolution is a modern idol of the tribe. Here as elsewhere Ruse displays a distressing inability to make relevant distinctions. I do indeed think that evolution functions as a contemporary shibboleth by which to distinguish the ignorant fundamentalist goats from the informed and scientifically literate sheep.

According to Richard Dawkins, "It is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid, or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)." Daniel Dennett goes Dawkins one (or two) further: "Anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant—inexcusably ignorant." You wake up in the middle of the night; you think, can that whole Darwinian story really be true? Wham! You are inexcusably ignorant.

I do think that evolution has become a modern idol of the tribe. But of course it doesn't even begin to follow that I think the scientific theory of evolution is false. And I don't.

Ruse claims I am an "open enthusiast of intelligent design." ("Open" enthusiast? Is enthusiasm for intelligent design supposed to be something you should shamefacedly conceal, like addiction to watching soap operas?) Another missed distinction. Like any Christian (and indeed any theist), I believe that the world has been created by God, and hence "intelligently designed." The hallmark of intelligent design, however, is the claim that this can be shown scientifically; I'm dubious about that.

"Why," asks Ruse, "does Plantinga feel this way?" Because, he says, "In his view, Darwinism implies that there is and can be no direction in life's history." Still another missed distinction. As far as I can see, God certainly could have used Darwinian processes to create the living world and direct it as he wanted to go; hence evolution as such does not imply that there is no direction in the history of life. What does have that implication is not evolutionary theory itself, but unguided evolution, the idea that neither God nor any other person has taken a hand in guiding, directing or orchestrating the course of evolution. But the scientific theory of evolution, sensibly enough, says nothing one way or the other about divine guidance. It doesn't say that evolution is divinely guided; it also doesn't say that it isn't. Like almost any theist, I reject unguided evolution; but the contemporary scientific theory of evolution just as such—apart from philosophical or theological add-ons—doesn't say that evolution is unguided. Like science in general, it makes no pronouncements on the existence or activity of God.

According to Ruse, "Plantinga is open in his fear that Darwinism makes impossible the guaranteed existence of our species." Not so. First, I am not hostile to evolution as such, but to unguided evolution. Second, while indeed there are some things I fear (knee-replacement surgery, for example) I have never lost sleep over the thought that Darwinism might make impossible the guaranteed existence of our species. What would guarantee the existence of our species (if in fact its existence was guaranteed) would be God's intentions. And if God employed Darwinian means to achieve his ends, those means could hardly thwart his intentions.

Finally, Ruse suggests Nagel, Fodor, and I don't take science seriously and have no interest in it. Nonsense. Modern science—say, physics, from the 17th century to the present—is widely and justly celebrated as a magnificent and unparalleled intellectual achievement: perhaps mankind's most splendid effort along these lines. The fact is, I like science better than Ruse does.

Alvin Plantinga
Professor of Philosophy
University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, Ind.


I read with great interest Michael Ruse's essay on Darwin. I've been a big fan of his writing in the past but I found that this article confirmed Alvin Plantinga's suspicions: Evolutionary theory cannot be criticized. It's the new shibboleth.

Let me state at the outset that I believe in evolutionary theory and that I'm a Christian philosopher. I have just completed a monograph with a biologist that defends evolutionary theory but responds to some of the many excesses of Richard Dawkins and the so-called New Atheists. And I profited from Ruse's books as I prepared to write my own book. But his essay moves him more in the Dawkins direction—uncharitable interpretations, quoting out of context, failing to take full account of a view, and then making facile criticisms—than his previous work. Plantinga's put his brain "in cold storage." Really? This plays well in the popular press but is not careful scholarship.

He quotes Plantinga: "Evolution is a modern idol of the tribe. ... Doubts about it may lose you your job. It is loudly declared to be absolutely certain, as certain as that the earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun—when it is no such thing at all." And then Ruse tars him with the brush of intelligent design and even maybe creationism. But Plantinga's quotation has nothing to do with ID or creationism—it's about the ideological role that evolution plays in the academy. And it undeniably plays that role. And Ruse's essay shows that it plays such a role.

The same type of reasoning that's used for, say, quantum mechanics (a consilience of inductions) is used for evolution. Yet Bas C. van Fraassen, for example, is not publicly vilified for rejecting rational belief in electrons or for conceding how notoriously difficult is abductive reasoning. This sort of vilification is reserved for critics of evolution only. Criticism of evolution simply cannot be tolerated. And so Ruse proves this point by publicly vilifying Plantinga, Nagel, and Fodor.

Again, I believe in evolution by natural selection. I also believe that the evidence currently supporting evolutionary theory may come to be explained by a better, quite different theory. And I believe that philosophers should concede that (as they do with nearly every other scientific theory) and should be probing the sort of reasoning that scientists do. And, if philosophers find limits to scientific reasoning, they should note them. Even if they concern evolution. And I suspect Ruse believes this, too. But God forbid he or any other philosopher should say it.

Since Plantinga's recent work on this topic embraces evolution by natural selection and then seeks to understand how God might have created through evolution, Ruse's essay is doubly grievous. He has not presented Plantinga at his best or most recent.

Ruse has painted in tar with a wide and very public brush. He has done damage to Plantinga (and maybe, for all I know, to Nagel and Fodor). Of course, that was his intent. But his criticisms were unfair, unmeasured, and, in some cases, just plain wrong. And thus he confirmed Plantinga's claim about the ideological function of evolutionary theory in the contemporary academy.

Kelly James Clark
Professor of Philosophy
Calvin College
Grand Rapids, Mich.


Michael Ruse responds: Alvin Plantinga claims that I am unfair to him in my recent piece on philosophers and evolutionary theorizing. He does not even pretend to respond to my main complaint that he and the others I name (Thomas Nagel and Jerry Fodor) launch into their criticisms without giving any evidence that they have made a serious effort to look at the work of today's evolutionists. That surely makes a mockery of his final comment: "I like science better than Ruse does."

He objects to my saying that there is reason to think that he might have doubts about the fact of evolution. I am glad to hear that he accepts evolution, and rest assured that I will never again suggest otherwise. However, he did say that he did not think evolution as well established a fact as the heliocentric nature of the universe. That seems to me just plain wrong. Evolution is, as they say in a court of law, true "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Plantinga denies that he is worried about the emergence of humans from the evolutionary process. I think he should be, at least if he takes the modern Darwinian theory of evolution seriously. Natural selection working on unguided mutations cannot guarantee the emergence of anything. It has no direction. In that sense, it is all a matter of chance, and this is a scientific not a metaphysical claim. As Stephen Jay Gould used to say, if the dinosaurs had not gone extinct thanks to that comet hitting the earth, we almost certainly would not be here. We should literally thank "our lucky stars" for our existence.

If Plantinga is so sure that God guarantees our arrival here on this planet, how then in the face of Darwinism does he think that can happen? The obvious suggestion is through guiding the mutations, and that gets pretty close to intelligent-design theory, at least of the theistic evolutionary form endorsed by the biochemist Michael Behe in The Edge of Evolution.

And to answer a related point raised by Plantinga: Yes, I do think you should be ashamed of harboring a liking for intelligent-design theory, at least if you claim to like science. Putting God or anything similar into the equation in that way is simply unacceptable.

Finally, in response to Kelly James Clark, let me note that the putting of Plantinga's brain into "cold storage" was the metaphor of Philip Kitcher, not mine. I mentioned it to show that although I thought Plantinga's stance was disappointing, especially given that he is a Calvinist, in the face of such nastiness, I could understand his hurt reaction. Let me simply say that although I am sure that at the moment he does not believe this, I respect Alvin Plantinga immensely. I still think he is wrong or at least confused about modern evolutionary theory. But I would never sneer at him for convictions that I do not share.

Michael Ruse, a self-declared "philosopher," criticizes several recent "doubters of Darwin": Alvin Plantinga, Thomas Nagel, Jerry Fodor. Rather than responding to their specific doubts, he essentially dismisses them on the grounds that the real reason for their questions is their fear that Darwinism makes humans no different from all the other species of nature. The doubters, he says, are not willing to accept what all good scientists are willing to accept, namely, that humans are entirely matter and thus determined by natural forces beyond their control.

Now perhaps that is the real reason why Plantinga, Nagel, and Fodor have questioned Darwin. If so, what is Ruse's reply? He has none. He apparently assumes that such a reason for questioning Darwinism is self-evidently "silly," for he compares the doubters to Pat Robertson and the wife of the Bishop of Worcester. Ruse simply urges his "fellow philosophers to start taking science seriously," i.e., to accept a materialistic and deterministic view of everything, including human life.

Obviously, Ruse does not seem to understand that humans are (by nature?) "philosophers," creatures who want to make sense of the world and to understand that science alone can teach us nothing about how to live. Indeed, if Ruse is right that humans are entirely matter and their lives determined, then life has no meaning and the search for it is simply a waste of time.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Ruse spends so much of his time fighting creationists. One cannot help but wonder why he wastes his time on such a meaningless and fruitless endeavor. Why doesn't he just let nature run its course?

Ellis M. West
Professor of Political Science
University of Richmond
Richmond, Va.


Thank you, thank you, Michael Ruse, and not just for your incisive arguments—although for them, too. Rather, thank you for helping me retain confidence that at least some philosophy professors are also genuine philosophers as well; that is, lovers of knowledge, who, unlike Professors Plantinga, Fodor, and Nagel, actually bother to learn something of the science about which they profess!

David P. Barash
Professor of Psychology
University of Washington