Saturday, August 06, 2005

Little quibblings with a philosopher   posted by Razib @ 8/06/2005 12:17:00 AM

Michael Ruse has a new book coming out, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, and so he's giving interviews, and this one in Salon is pretty good. Ruse's point seems to be that atheism is not a necessary inference from acceptance of evolutionary theory, that evolutionary theory has become a religion-substitute for some (Richard Dawkins, W.D. Hamilton, etc.) and fundamentalist Christianity and Creationism are in some ways also an outgrowth of the Enlightenment milieu just like the sciences. I haven't read the book, but elements of this thesis seem plausible, but I do have a few bones to pick with the interview and some of the assumptions being made.

First, W.D. Hamilton is turned into something of a bogeyman. That's not hard to do really, the interviewer brought up Hamilton's positive attitude toward infanticide almost immediately. If you read either of Hamilton's two books though you will see there is a lot of stream-of-consciousness thinking. Frankly, I have been in the presence of many biologically oriented people who occassionally moot ghoulish ideas, smirk, shrug and disavow their utterance immediately. Hamilton surely is a little more far gone than most, but one reason it is so easy to caricature him is that his books seem incredibly naked and honest, and the second one in particular was published without the revisions that would have likely come if he hadn't died. He never got a chance to retract his utterances. But there is a bigger problem with the depictions of Hamilton in the book: he is fused with Dawkins and a chimera personality that is a composite of Hamilton and Dawkins, Hawkins/Damilton, a militant atheist who makes direct prescriptions from social evolutionary theory, emerges. While Richard Dawkins is a militant atheist by any measure, W.D. Hamilton never was. If you read Defenders of the Truth, The Darwin Wars or A Reason for Everything, you will note that 1) Hamilton is an avowed agnostic, 2) he accepts that most people are believers and thinks it is their business if it makes them happy and 3) he was probably George Price's closest friend during the years that Price had a religious conversion and devoted himself to Christian good works. At Price's funeral after his suicide when the minister declared that he 'took his Christianity too seriously,' Hamilton responded, 'Like Saint Paul?' Hamilton had some scary views, but a militant atheist like Dawkins he never was. In contrast, unlike Hamilton, Dawkins has been rather careful about offering explicit policy prescriptions based on his gene selectionist paradigm, though forceful, allusive and memorable, his prose style is also sly and indirect as to the possible range of implications of the hand of the Blind Watchmaker. Additionally, even the characterization of Hawkins/Damilton's view of evolution is a bit off. Ruse defends the Christian paleontologist Simon Conway Morris at one point in the interview, and later says "...It's not just Dawkins. The idea that life is driven basically by chance and necessity is a fairly popular refrain." But here is the issue, in his latest book, The Ancestor's Tales, Dawkins praises Morris' ideas about the constraints upon evolutionary pathways and dismisses Stephen Jay Gould's thesis of radical contigency, that is, if you rewound the clock and started evolution again it would result in radically different forms of life. A big exception for Dawkins though is intelligent life, which he doesn't see as inevitable due to its rarity, in contrast to the recurrent body forms of dolphins, ichthyosaurs and fish, to name one example.

Overall, I hope that the book doesn't make these particular errors, though I recall Ruse bad-mouthing Hamilton in an Evolution-Creation debate back in 1996 on PBS, so this might be an old hobby-horse of his.