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Evolutionary Naturalism by Michael Ruse

Roger Caldwell looks at science with Michael Ruse.

Science and philosophy haven’t always travelled happily in tandem, and there will be many who may wonder, looking at the title of this book, what intrinsic connection there may be between the theory of evolution and the traditional problems of philosophy. The yoking together of evolution and ethics that Michael Ruse proposes has an unfortunate pedigree. The notorious excesses of Social Darwinism in the nineteenth century were supposedly defeated at the beginning of the twentieth with a knockdown argument by G.E. Moore known as the Naturalistic Fallacy.

It was Herbert Spencer who started it all. With the aid of the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ (a phrase absent from Darwin’s work) he proposed that evolution was a good in itself, ever progressing upward. It had – latterly – produced mankind, and mankind had already evolved from the cave dweller to the frock-coated respectability of the Victorian sage. Who knew where in the end it would lead, except ever higher? If we are to evolve further we must on no account impede the mechanisms that have already led us so far.

Social Darwinism was used to justify a ruthless capitalism where in the interests of the higher individual the weak must necessarily go to the wall. On such a theory the welfare state, for example, is an abomination, impeding progress and leading only to decadence. We now see such a theory as being a travesty of science rather than in accordance with it. Logically, the theory of evolution leads to no such ethical conclusions. Social Darwinism was a scientistic ideology, an example of the subjective element in a scientific thinking which bears the marks of its origins in a particular society.

Now to G.E. Moore and his ‘knockdown argument’; in one form (more properly attributed to Hume) the argument depends upon making a logical distinction between values and facts. We cannot infer from what is the case to what should be the case. Even if it is a fact (possibly a tautology) that evolution ensures the survival of the fittest we can still ask whether it is good to act according to the dictates of evolution. There remains the unbridgeable gap between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’. G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica (1905) dealt a devastating attack on Spencer from which his reputation has never recovered.

Yet, in a way, Moore’s solution – that the good is an indefinable quality – leaves us very much up in the air. Certainly, we are unable to define it, for all that we would have a broad measure of agreement of what we would regard as the good. This is not to deny that disagreements at the margins may nonetheless be possible. Also, we certainly see the good as in some sense objective. We cannot simply choose our values, as the existentialists would have it, nor is it within our powers to opt out of morality. Indeed, some of us would willingly be more ruthless in pursuit of our goals – if only we could rid ourselves of our unchosen moral restraints. Our moral values, whether we like it or not, are presented to us as facts, even if we are unable to justify them as such.

Ruse in effect side-steps this well-worn philosophical path. Instead of asking, like Moore, like the emotivists, like the prescriptivists and, for that matter, nearly every philosophical school of ethics from Plato onwards: “What is the good?”, why not ask: “Why do we have a system of morality at all?” The obvious answer from a Darwinian point of view is that morality is a mechanism that evolution has devised to enable us to co-operate with our fellow human beings. It allows us to put our immediate personal interests aside in the interests of the long-term survival of our genes.

Such an approach explains many of the qualities we have observed of ethical feelings. Clearly, our genes cannot hardwire us to cope with every situation that is likely to arise. Genetic ethical programming can only give us propensities to act in a certain way. It cannot give us hard-and-fast rules, but it can be specific enough so that we all have, for example, an innate sense of fairness. (Even if, on occasion, we are liable to make exceptions in our own favour.) It explains, that is, why in ethics there is the appearance of objectivity without its substance. We are surely being tricked! We are programmed by our genes to believe in an illusion.

Once we have discovered this illusion, why can’t we just throw our ethics aside? If the Darwinian approach is correct, our ethical feelings are paramount, not our ethical reasoning. We may reason as we may, but in our heart of hearts we will still continue to feel that fairness is better than unfairness, and killing people is – for the most part – wrong.

There are further consequences of Ruse’s naturalistic approach to ethics. In general, people feel greater moral responsibility towards their kin than towards their neighbours, and more responsibility to their neighbours than to strangers. The greater the distance, the less likelihood of there being blood-ties, then the more we are likely to feel indifference – or hostility – to the other. This is what we would expect if we have read Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and indeed this is what we find in the world. However, one may surely ask: “Despite the fact that this is what we often find, should this be the case?”

It is perfectly possible that evolution could have come up with some entirely different ethical solution, so that our ethical values would be quite different from the ones we currently have. If so, is it not possible to argue that one such solution is better than the other? This would depend on what we meant by ‘better’. One might certainly be more successful than the other as a survival strategy, but there is no space in Ruse’s account for it, independent of this, to be morally better.

There will be those for whom such an account of ethics is an assault on human dignity and indeed, Kant’s reverence for the moral law within us hardly survives the discovery that it is programmed into our genes. Yet Ruse’s account offers an explanation both of how we come to have a system of ethics in the first place, and for many of its peculiar characteristics. No other theory of ethics is able to offer such a comprehensive account. It also has the advantage that it is in accordance with our scientific knowledge.

Ruse’s stance throughout these essays – which deal also with the theory of knowledge, the notion of progress, and subjectivity in science – is that the philosopher should work with an understanding of the methods and results of science. For Ruse,it is only through science that we have made genuine contributions towards understanding the world we live in, and philosophy should value, and build on, those contributions. It is difficult to quarrel with such a stance – unless, of course, one denies outright that science has brought us an increase of knowledge. However, Ruse offers for such doubters some pretty persuasive arguments that science is indeed adding to our understanding, and that there is in this sense progress.

© Roger Caldwell 1999

Evolutionary Naturalism by Michael Ruse 0-415-08997-2 £45hb 1995 Routledge

Roger Caldwell writes for the TLS, PN Review, London Magazine and Planet on philosophy and literature. His forthcoming collection of poetry This Being Eden (Peterloo Press) will be the first book of poetry to contain a poem from Philosophy Now (Issue 3)

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