Keeping the Darwinian Faith

By Charles LaPorte, Joseph LaPorteJanuary 30, 2018

Keeping the Darwinian Faith

Darwinism as Religion by Michael Ruse

DARWINISM IS A RELIGION and has always been one. So says distinguished philosopher Michael Ruse, whose 2016 book Darwinism as Religion proposes that evolutionary theory is no mere explanation for our planet’s biology but a worldview that exceeds the warrant of science. For the past 150 years, Ruse claims, “evolutionary thinking generally […] and Darwinian thinking in particular […] has taken on the form and role of a religion.” In other work, Ruse has argued that religious and anti-religious controversialists have much in common: a cultivation of orthodoxies, a tendency to dogmatism, and a telling zeal for persecuting heretics. In this book, he makes the case that atheists such as himself ought to grant the religious orientation behind Darwinian culture.

Ruse does not mean to cast aspersions on the science of biology. Rather, he seeks to show how Darwinian theory has served as a rival to the Christian worldview since the mid-Victorian period. We admire his treatment of the religious flavor of much literary and scientific culture, but we have reservations about the tightness of his theoretical categories. For Ruse, what makes Darwinism a religion is the way it emerges in dialogue and competition with Christianity. To us, it seems a stretch to call Darwinism a religion. Sometimes Ruse suggests as much himself:

[I]n the way that evolution tries to speak of the nature of humans and their place in the scheme of things, we have a religion, or if you want to speak a little more cautiously a “secular religious perspective.”

Claiming that Darwinism amounts to a “secular religious perspective” is not quite the same thing as saying it is a religion, as the book’s title trumpets. Yet rather than being guilty of hyperbole, Ruse seems genuinely indecisive.

In his more robust moods, Ruse treats Darwinism as a younger brother — or, as he wryly puts it, “bastard offspring” — to Christianity. Still, the lion’s share of his book has nothing to do with the philosophical categorizing of Darwinism as a religion. Instead, it addresses the idea of evolution in literature, chiefly by Victorian authors. Darwinism as Religion offers something like a terrific upper-level literary survey course, rolling pell-mell through writers both famous (Tennyson, Dickens, Christina Rossetti, George Eliot) and obscure (Charles Kingsley, Mary Augusta Ward, Constance Naden). Ruse’s textual readings show how evolutionary thought informed every significant mind — perhaps every engaged mind — during the age of Darwin and after. He does not add much to our collective knowledge of the subject, however; literary scholars have canvassed this topic since Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1983). But Ruse understands Darwin more thoroughly than most literary scholars, and his range is truly impressive. The pleasure of his book is in seeing so very many authors brought together in this way.

Darwinism as Religion is broadly chronological but not linear; favorites like Eliot and Thomas Hardy frequently recur. More recent authors appear somewhat arbitrarily chosen, especially in poetry, but Ruse does treat important figures like Marilynne Robinson and Ian McEwan, who serve as representatives of Christian and Darwinian orthodoxies, respectively. Ruse’s overall point is that evolutionary theory springs from the Christian legacy and subsequently inspires its own social and cultural values, sometimes in opposition to that legacy.

Ruse gets into deeper waters when he depicts the Darwinian convictions of someone like Hardy as effectively religious in nature, while minimizing the same convictions in a Christian such as Tennyson. Both embrace Darwinism, but for believers like Tennyson, this commitment is no more religious than an endorsement of the periodic table or the germ theory of disease. (For that matter, pre-modern Christians like St. Augustine were perfectly satisfied to integrate the Scriptures with a dynamic scientific model of species.) Ruse points out that there have been Darwinists like the Huxleys who have tried to set up something like a Church of Darwin, but he relies on an overly broad and attenuated conception of religion. American philosopher William Alston once listed some nine characteristics typical of religion, including belief in supernatural beings, moral codes sanctioned by gods, prayer, rituals, sacred objects, and so forth; one or another feature is not enough. More recently, British philosopher Tim Crane has argued that religion is best understood as an apprehension of the transcendent paired with communally shared narratives and rituals that make sense of the world. Like Ruse, Crane sympathizes with religion as a reasonable response to an ultimately mysterious universe; unlike Ruse, he does not see his own materialism as a form of it.

Since religious practice today tends to be less institutional and denominational than it was even a few generations ago, it has become common to apply the label “religion” to everything from professional spectator sports and celebrity culture to partisan politics, philosophical trends, dietary fads, and Pokémon Go. All of these things resemble religion in important ways (tribalism, orthodoxies, et cetera), but they clearly serve different cultural functions. Ruse wants rather to get at what Beer called “Darwinian myths”: thus, he distinguishes between “Darwinism” as a worldview and Darwinian science per se, since the scientific theory of natural selection is not a myth but rather an explanation of the means by which the marvelous life forms around us have evolved. That scientific position was also available to Victorian clergymen like John Henry Newman and Aubrey Moore, who wrote that “Darwinism appeared, and, under the guise of a foe, did the work of a friend.” They rejected the Darwinian myth but accepted the science.

The specific myth Ruse has in mind, or perhaps the most salient of a family of myths, is a version of metaphysical naturalism — that is, scientism. This is the idea that only science can tell us reliable or useful things about the world. If we accept that the marvelous life forms around us did not spring into being spontaneously, Darwin’s theory “show[s] how there could be design without a Designer” (as Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor succinctly put it). Darwinian thought thus put an end to a commonly held 18th-century presumption for God. But deflating a good argument for something is not the same as providing a good argument against it. So natural selection can supply an explanatory need of atheism (as in Richard Dawkins’s remark that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually satisfied atheist) without actually promoting any worldview. Ruse maintains that one might reasonably accept Darwinian theory as an explanation for the means by which it pleased God to bring about our present world. Probably most Christians do if they give the matter much thought.

Ruse’s emphasis on categories risks obscuring the real contribution of his book, which lies in tracing the interplay among scientific, literary, and religious cultures. Take the claim that Darwin ushers Western culture from the 18th-century hymnody of Isaac Watts into the purely material world invoked by Thomas Hardy’s 1899 “The Darkling Thrush.” This is a conventional position, but it is not borne out by most of the authors Ruse cites, nor perhaps is it felt by most people still reading this literature. Hardy’s contemporary Gerard Manley Hopkins did not worry in the least about philosophical proofs for God being nullified by the theory of natural selection when he wrote in a famous sonnet that “[t]he world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Poetry like Hopkins’s strives for rapture, not proof. Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush” also traverses this ground, albeit at second hand:

So little cause for carolings
    Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
    Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
    His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    ‎And I was unaware.

Here we see the atheist speaker’s hope against hope that the titular thrush’s ecstatic song suggests some blessed reality beyond the material one. Tellingly, Hardy writes in hymn measure: his lines can be sung to the tune of “Joy to the World,” or “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The bird is caroling, but so is Hardy, almost despite himself. His hymn thus presents less an existential alternative to Watts’s hymnody than a hopeful appeal to it. In this, Hardy resembles (or wants to resemble) Hopkins, who grants the science of Darwinism without experiencing any diminution of his Christian belief.

The contribution of Ruse’s book lies in the breadth and accessibility of its account of the intersection of Darwinism and imaginative literature. Literature from the age of Darwin turns to religious paradigms so often because the 19th century was deeply religious and because of Romantic associations between poetry, beauty, and religion. Even in our more secular day, the poet Rae Armantrout maintains that “[p]oetry is like prayer for agnostics.” Alice Walker’s “I Said to Poetry” compares her writing of verse to joining the church. The classicist Emily Wilson says something similar: “there is a sort of religious practice that goes along with translation. I’m trying to serve something.” Simone Weil once put the case still more strongly, albeit from a believer’s perspective: “Extreme attention is what constitutes the creative faculty in [hu]man[s] and the only extreme attention is religious.” One need not go so far as Weil to appreciate how creative art can nurture our inner lives. Darwin himself wrote at the end of his autobiography: “[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.”

Art can rouse us to behold the meaning of religion and Darwinism alike. Ultimately, this is the gospel that Ruse finds himself preaching and the real achievement of his book, as he himself seems to recognize in an ardent testimonial:

I have never, ever, had such an exciting project and if I can infect you with some of my enthusiasm that will be justification enough and more. If you do not sense that this has been a labor of great love, paying respect and thanks to writings that have filled my life with joy and inspiration since I was a small child, then I have failed both the topic and you, the reader.

We share and echo Ruse’s literary enthusiasms, his respect, his love. We would suggest, however, that much of the truly religious spirit he traces derives less from Darwinism than from art. It is true that Darwin’s revolution extended the range of a numinous element in literature, but that element has a much richer history than Ruse details. As this book amply shows, literature can elevate the mind to find or create meaning in our human situation, however dire it may appear to be.


Charles LaPorte is associate professor of English at the University of Washington.

Joseph LaPorte is professor of philosophy at Hope College in Holland Michigan.

LARB Contributors

Charles LaPorte is associate professor of English at the University of Washington and author of Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible (2011). He writes often on the relationship between Victorian literature and religion.
Joseph LaPorte is professor of philosophy at Hope College in Holland Michigan and the author of Natural Kinds and Conceptual Change (2003) and Rigid Designation and Theoretical Identities (2012). He publishes extensively in the philosophy of science and in a range of other philosophical subdisciplines.


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