International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology

by Michael Ruse

Introductory Essay by Makarand Paranjape

Michael Ruse was a key witness in the landmark American court case ‘Mclean v. Arkansas’ in which a federal judge ruled in 1982 that the law requiring the teaching of “creation science” in Arkansas schools was unconstitutional. Like many observers both within and outside the United States, I was taken aback by the vehemence of the creationists in pushing their agenda in school curricula.

Ruse, along with other committed biologists, did much not only to promote the cause of evolutionary biology, but also to guard against irrational doctrines being forced upon young, impressionable minds. Yet, in this rather long book—and Ruse acknowledges that it is a “really big book” [ix] – he takes a hard and critical look at evolutionary biology to claim that for much of its 150 year history, it has been, in fact, an “immature science” [7]. That is because it has been allied to, if not a product of the idea of progress that has dominated much of European thought since the Enlightenment.

In a sense, then, this book is as much about the idea of progress as it is about evolution. Ruse uses the word “Progress” with a capital “P” to denote non-scientific, culturist notions of progress, while he saves uncapitalized “progress” for biological ideas. According to Ruse, it is only recently that some evolutionary biologists have managed to free themselves of this idea and have raised their work to more established norms derived from fields such as mathematics.

It was Darwin’s hugely influential work which gave evolution its first scientific credentials. Yet Darwin did not engage much in discipline-building, let alone in training scientists who would carry on his work after him. No wonder that, in the second half of the 19th century, progressivism still dogged evolutionary biology, sometimes even leading to racist and false claims by some of its practitioners.

While Ruse surveys nearly all the major proponents of progress or evolution, his approach is unapologetically, even unreflexively Euro-centric. He thus entirely leaves out all non-Western thinkers, including Sri Aurobindo, who came up with a new, spiritualist version of evolution.

After critiquing the idea of Progress, especially the long shadow it casts on science, at the end of his book Ruse still concludes that Progress will continue to dog evolutionary theory because “evolutionists take their belief in scientific Progress and transfer it into a belief in organic progress” [538]: in other words “Progress” so easily slides into to “progress”.

Popular science can scarcely be expected to resist the lure of setting itself up as a sort of secular creed. Progress, then, is as good a salvation-substitute as you can find. Put rather bluntly, some lose their religious faith but embrace Darwinism instead. That is why even the most “professional or mature” evolutionist thinking is still dominated by progressivist metaphors [539]. Somehow, we cannot help but feel a trifle disappointed when we are left stranded right where we started, in the grand exhibition hall of the museum of natural history in Le Jardin des Plantes in Paris, with all life forms ranged neatly in the galleries, higher and higher till man emerges at the apogee, quite a celebration of the idea of Progress that the book has tried to document, describe, and, deconstruct.