Michael Ruse — Lewontin “Tragic Figure” AND “Greatest [Scientist] of the Twentieth Century”


RELATED STORYRichard Lewontin Remembered for Decommissioning Darwinian Natural Selection

The death of Richard Lewontin, one of evolutionary biology’s most valued leaders, makes the politics of the science even more chaotic than it already is. Evolutionary scientists are morphing into tweeters, zoomers, and even trolls romping in blog landfill, apparently preferring those platforms to the laboratory. The public is thus increasingly deprived of real scholarship, where once we were enlightened and nourished by 5,000-word masterpieces signed by Richard Lewontin, Steve Gould, and Jerry Fodor.

To put some of the current chaos in perspective—I received an email from science historian and philosopher, Michael Ruse (ccd to a handful of other prominent thinkers: Elliot Sober, Robert Richards et al.) commenting on my recent article remembering Richard Lewontin, who died July 4.

Since Michael Ruse is a highly visible public intellectual, I thought it appropriate to share some of his thoughts about Richard Lewontin.  But first, some thoughts about Michael Ruse, who is currently director of Florida State University’s Program in History and Philosophy of Science as well as a philosophy professor at FSU.

Michael Ruse’s position all along has been that natural selection is “the chief causal process behind all organisms”. Ruse led the counterattack in the now-famous email chain that zoologist Stan Salthe circulated to the scientific community in October 2007 following publication of Jerry Fodor’s pivotal London Review of Books evolution article, “Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings.”

The London Review article did have wings and resulted in a book a few years later—What Darwin Got Wrong—which Fodor, recognized by many as the most brilliant philosopher of his time, co-authored with cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini. Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin critiqued the book in a 2010 New York Review of Books cover story: “Not So Natural Selection” in which Lewontin decommissioned natural selection calling it mere metaphor, not intended by Darwin to be taken literally by generations of scientists after Darwin.

Excerpts from Stan Salthe’s 2007 email chain can be found in my book:  The Altenberg 16: An Expose’ of the Evolution Industry. Here are Ruse’s comments from that chain:

“In my opinion Fodor’s piece is grotesquely and immorally irresponsible – he has done no homework on evolutionary theory – to say that natural selection did not shape the guppy and the fruitfly is ludicrous.  Of course, every creationist in north america is salivating today – even though, they are the people who push adaptation more than even me!  think that this one won’t be used in the argument over what should be taught in schools?

Today, I am deeply ashamed to be a philosopher.”

Ruse said further:

“the point of course is that fodor did not simply write a technical piece on adaptation – he wrote a piece flamboyantly denying selection.  In today’s climate, where we have just had two ultra right supreme court justices appointed, I think his behavior is somewhere between stupid and wicked.”

Michael Ruse sees Richard Lewontin as a “brilliant scientist,” albeit “tragic figure.”  Tragic because Lewontin pulled the plug on natural selection after, as Ruse tells it, “he did more to establish the plausibility of evolution through natural selection than anyone.” Ruse’s July 8, 2021 email to me about Lewontin follows:

“I always thought Dick was a tragic figure – he was a brilliant scientist, if not the greatest of the twentieth century – Fisher, Dobzhansky, Hamilton? – but think of what he did to merit such praise – ultra-reductionistic mechanistic molecular biology, using gel electrophoresis to show that natural populations always have variation – to what end?  To confirm the belief of his teacher Dobzhansky that there is always variation for natural selection to draw on at times of need – one does not have to wait for the right mutation – a new predator? If not camouflage, then perhaps tasting nasty, or being nocturnal, or getting the hell out of here – in other words, Dick did more to establish the plausibility of evolution through natural selection than anyone – I will give you that – in the twentieth century!!  And then he spent the second half of his career being a guru to philosophers of biology. . . .

As a person, I really liked Dick – that goes back to when I first met him, in 1964, when he was a very successful junior professor at the U of Rochester and I was a very unsuccessful graduate student   Michael”

As I see it, Richard Lewontin had no choice. Lewontin was responding to overwhelming evidence made possible through a huge advancement in microscopy and other scientific instrumentation, which continues to ramp up.  This coupled with the emergence of mechanobiology/ atomic biology—neutron scattering science transforming biology, making it possible to probe and precisely measure the structure and motion of living matter at nanoscale.

Ruse’s sour grapes about Lewontin aside—his alarm regarding the push to blur science and religion is one that is widely shared, although Ruse, an atheist, thinks somehow there could be a reconciliation between science and religion. Per his CV—he was the recipient of a John Templeton Book Award (1999) and JTF grant of £650,000.

Consider the following events:

–The June 2021 Linnean Society teleology in evolution meeting featured a half dozen or so speakers affiliated with/supported by the John Templeton Foundation, which likes to link science and religion.

–About half the speakers at the Royal Society evolution summit in 2016 were also JTF-affiliated, part of the Templeton-funded $11M Extended Evolution Synthesis project. Templeton’s longtime science/religion chief, Paul Wason was an “audience-participant.”

–NASA awarded more than $1M to a 2015-2017 project via a religious think tank in Princeton to determine how the religious community would respond to the discovery of life in outer space. Templeton co-funded the research.

–The October 2021 evolution meeting in Jerusalem, which organizers are billing as a followup to the Royal Society evolution summit, features not only big name scientists Eugene Koonin, Dave Deamer, Steve Benner,  and Nobel laureate Ada Yonath, but Intelligent Design stars Michael Behe, Paul Nelson, and Casey Luskin, as well as Christian mathematician John Lennox (partial list). 

[Note:  Physicist Paul Davies has emailed saying he has “pulled out” of the October Jerusalem conference.]

So why are scientists whose careers have been bound up in Darwinian science and who are apparently now in denial about a new evolutionary science—namely mechanobiology/atomic biology—seemingly embracing the mystical?

Apart from the Templeton funds, perhaps, as Kalevi Kull put it bluntly,Nobody wants to belong to the party of losers.”

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