Review of Holmes Rolston’s “Genes, Genesis, and God”

Review of Holmes Rolston’s “Genes, Genesis, and God”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Holmes Rolston, III is a well-known philosopher who has written extensively on both the philosophy of religion and on philosophical issues to do with the environment.  The book under review, Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History, started life as the Gifford Lectures given at the University of Edinburgh in November 1997.  According to Lord Gifford’s will which endowed the Lectures, the topic is supposed to be some aspect of natural theology.  In recent years, one has seen a great deal of squirming as successive lecturers try, not always successfully, to bring their topics within the intended boundaries.  Rolston, however, has no trouble at all.  His work is a full and fair natural theological attempt to understand modern biology and its relevance for social, ethical, and religious thought.  Although, in the course of my review, I shall have things critical to say about this book, let me start by saying that the author came through as a learned and humane man who has taken seriously his project, and who exhibits intelligence and sensitivity in everything that he writes.  After reading this book my feeling is that Holmes Rolston, III is a person I would be glad to call a “friend”, and I mean this in the highest possible complimentary sense.  I should say moreover that the lectures must have been fun to attend and that I for one would have joined Rolston after each lecture, going to the pub and arguing deep into the night over pints of Scotch ale.

There are six chapters to the work, and it is convenient to start this review by running through each chapter each in turn.

Chapter 1

“Genetic Values: Diversity and Complexity in Natural History” deals with the whole question of whether or not there is some kind of value inherent in nature, and in particular in biological nature.  The crucial part of the argumentation here is the claim that, in some sense, evolution is progressive and therefore produces entities which are of increasing value, moving as one does up from the most simple to the most complex, from the blob up to the super organism, from “monad to man”, as they used to say in the nineteenth century.  While appreciating that I myself am a object of criticism in this lecture [Ruse 1996] — something always deeply satisfying to a person with an ego such as mine — in respects I found this the least satisfactory of all of Rolston’s chapters.  I do not judge thus because of the content of the chapter.  Although I do not myself subscribe to the view that evolution is in some sense progressive, it seems to me at least a defensible position to take.  Rather, my disquiet comes because of the position of the chapter in the context of the whole book.  Here, Rolston is rehearsing and repeating arguments which he has given in other of his writings.  No doubt, he felt it necessary to start a whole work on values by covering some of this material.  But, in fact, it seems to me that Rolston has a whole new perspective to offer us in his book Genes, Genesis and God. Hence, somewhat paradoxically given that Rolston is on very familiar territory, the first chapter sits a little bit uneasily with what is to come.

Chapter 2

“Genetic Identity: Conserved and Integrated Values” is in many respects far more satisfactory than its predecessor.  In this chapter, Rolston offers us some of the latest thinking about the evolution of social behaviour, in particular about so-called “sociobiology.”  He covers important topics such as the nature of natural selection, and he is careful to show the reader the way in which today’s evolutionists think that selection focuses itself on the individual as opposed to the group.  Even if one does not always agree with what Rolston has to say, he gives a fair and full exposition.  One thing which especially pleased me was the writer’s sensitivity to metaphor.   Although it is clear that in respects Rolston is extremely uncomfortable about talk of organisms always working for their own “self-interest” or — to use the flamboyant metaphor of Richard Dawkins (1989) — to speak of the genes as being “selfish”, he is far from condemning such language outright.  Some commentators, notoriously Mary Midgley (1979), argue that one should not in any circumstances speak of things like “selfish” genes.  Rolston is fully aware that metaphors have an important place to play in science, and in particular in evolutionary biology.  Unless one is prepared to use metaphors, one is never going to be able to stretch one’s thinking out from the known to the unknown.  Rolston has much to say which is critical about the ways in which some metaphors (including the selfish gene metaphor) are sometimes extended.  But, to his great credit, he appreciates the strength, as well as the weaknesses, of thinking of this ilk.

Chapter 3

“Culture: Genes and the Genesis of Human Culture” is a good overview of recent thought on this subject.  In the past ten to fifteen years, several people have put forward models of “gene-culture co-evolution”, as it is generally called (Durham 1991; Boyd and Richerson 1985).  Rolston deals fairly, and impartially, with all of these positions.  I doubt he is as strongly in favour of a biological underpinning to human culture, as are some enthusiasts (myself included).  But, whether his stance is one based strictly on the evidence or more on prior convictions, Rolston is surely right in thinking that thus far no one has put forward a fully adequate picture of gene-culture co-evolution.  Indeed, he is right in thinking that some of those who do lean towards the biological away from the cultural, notably Charles Lumsden and Edward O. Wilson (1981, 1983), have with reason been severely criticized for their efforts in this direction.  My own feeling is that the failures thus far are only to be expected from people who are trying slowly to come to grips with some incredibly difficult issues.  But I cannot say that Rolston is unfair in his rather negative assessment of the present state of the art.

Chapter 4

“Science: Naturalized, Socialized, Evaluated” takes us right into the heart of the book.  Now, Rolston is interested in the whole question of whether or not one can give a naturalistic explanation of human knowledge: in particular, of human scientific knowledge.  The possibility of such an explanation has been claimed by a number of people, including myself [Ruse 1998].  It is Rolston’s blunt response that this is a futile endeavour.  Undoubtedly, giving an edge to his sharp opposition is the fact that, for Rolston as indeed for those whom he criticizes (me!), science is a prolegomenon for what we consider to be truly important, namely ethics and religion.  The point is that if we can offer a naturalized account of science, then we can look forward confidently to trying to provide a naturalized account of ethics, and perhaps also of religion.  If we fail at this first post however, then our overall programme looks a lot more dubious.  Rolston and his opponents see that much is at stake here.

I should say that Rolston’s critical argument is straight forward — and, without detracting from its force, familiar.  Rolston concedes that elementary pieces of science (including arithmetic) may well have survival value.  But, he denies absolutely that — as science matures and gets more interesting — those key biological factors of survival and reproduction can play any significant role at all.  Hence, science transcends or moves us beyond the purely naturalistic, particularly the naturalistic-rooted-in-evolutionary-biology.  Rolston writes:

“Meanwhile, the successes of science are impressive.  They are quite valuable, and today no one is able to evaluate the world, to form a worldview, adequately without scientific knowledge.  A significant part of what must be evaluated is the human mind, capable of such science.  The operations of the mind, indeed useful in the jungle, on the savanna, and in the pragmatic world of culture, carry us much further.  Rationality works not simply for middle-world, native-range living, in country and town; it works for building microscopes and studying Stentor, for decoding atoms and quarks, for doing calculus and statistical regression analysis, for solving equations that run time backward to the big bang and then philosophizing about cosmology, for postulating and trying to simulate the chemical origin of life in ancient seas.  These activities were no part of the survival routines in the hunter-gatherer cultures in which the mind was formed; skills here are not complex mechanisms of an adapted mind, and so how did humans obtain these capacities that transcend any relevance to the environments in which they evolved [205-6]?”

Clearly, to answer his question Rolston has to move himself and us beyond the scientific to the intellectual, and even to the spiritual.  It is these areas that start to predominate, as we move to the final chapters of Genes, Genesis and God.

Chapter 5

“Ethics: Naturalized, Socialized, Evaluated” is a full frontal attack on modern attempts at an “evolutionary ethics”, that is a moral system based in some sense on modern evolutionary thinking.  I should say that, until twenty-five years ago, no one would have thought it necessary to write such a chapter as Rolston provides here [Bradie 1994].  Until then, the very thought that one might derive ethics in some sense from the processes and results of evolution was considered at best absurd, and at worst a revealing of one’s total ignorance of important philosophical conclusions.  However, in the past quarter century or so, evolutionary ethics has made a really quite stunning come back.  Now one finds many biologists, and not a few philosophers — including, dare I say it once again, myself — who argue that, far from biology being irrelevant to ethics, it leads to the crucial insights [Ruse 1994].  Evolution provides us with the key to the understanding both of questions about what we ought to do (traditionally known as “substantive or normative ethics”) and of questions about the foundations (or lack thereof) of morality: why we should do what we ought to do (the area of study traditionally known as “foundational ethics” or “metaethics”).  Rolston, however, will have none of our evolutionary ethicizing.  He thinks that, at the substantival level, the best that we evolutionary ethicists can produce is thin and unconvincing.  Moreover, at the foundational level, he thinks that we evolutionary ethicists have either failed entirely to provide any justification for substantival ethics, or that such justifications as we offer are riddled with fallacies. I will return to these arguments in just a moment.

Chapter 6

“Religion: Naturalized, Socialized, Evaluated”, dealing with God and religion generally, concludes the book.  In many respects, the general reader will find this to be the chapter of greatest interest.  First, Rolston offers in a clear and succinct manner some of the latest biological thinking about the nature of religion.  He pays particular attention to the stimulating hypotheses of Vernon Reynolds (a primatologist) and Ralph Tanner (a student of religion), who apply biological principles to understand the differences between religions.  (Briefly, Reynolds and Tanner (1983) argue that some religions like Islam promote fertility and reproduction, whereas other religions like Protestant Christianity promote abstinence and small families.  The authors relate these differences to alternative reproductive strategies.  If one lives in climates of fluctuating famine and plenty, then large families make sense.  But if one lives in fairly stable climates of predictable resources, then smaller families make more sense).

Then second, offering more than mere exposition of sociobiological accounts of religion, Rolston moves to critique.  At the centre of his remarks are those who would go beyond science, those who argue that in some sense sociobiology can explain and perhaps even replace religion.  The particular focus of attention here is Edward O. Wilson, who in a number of books — notoriously in On Human Nature and more recently (although too late for Rolston to consider) in his Consilience — argues that evolution is a “myth” (Wilson’s terminology) which can replace the myth of Christianity.  Thus evolutionary science provides us with an adequate secular religion for our day, replacing the outmoded spiritual religions of Christianity and the like.  It would not be fair to say that Rolston scathing about these views — he has always too much respect for his opponents to show contempt — but as he comes to the end of his long and detailed book, he makes it very clear that he feels that here, as with ethics, a naturalized approach (particularly a naturalized approach relying on modern evolutionary biology) simply is not ad quate to the task.

My exposition now finished, let me make three critical comments about Genes, Genesis and God.  I trust I will be forgiven if I start with a defense of some of my own positions.  In particular, let me defend my oft-stated claim that one can find no objective foundation for ethics.  That thus, in some sense, ethics (sensu substantive ethics) has to be considered an “illusion” put in place by natural selection working through the genes in order to promote reproductive success [Ruse 1994, 1998].  Now, whether or not I am correct in saying this is one matter.  But, in fairness to myself, I must say that I have provided arguments to this end, trying especially to show that the position I take is not some strange aberration of a late twentieth-century English-born Canadian, but has a long tradition in philosophical thought [Ruse 1990].  Rolston, however, altogether misses or downplays this.  He lumps me together with others who would provide a biological account of ethics, including people like Richard Dawkins — people who are almost arrogant in their happy ignorance of all philosophy, arguing indeed that as a subject it is totally worthless or unnecessary.  Rolston picks on this point — the arrogance and philosophical ignorance of Dawkins and company — using it to tar all evolutionary ethicists.  He suggests therefore that people like myself, who would provide a biological account of ethics, necessarily show an ignorance of the nature of philosophy, perhaps even concealing the sources of our inspirations.

I protest that, whatever may be the case with Dawkins — frankly, I doubt he has ever read a philosophical work all the way through — this is not true generally of evolutionary ethicists and not true specifically of me.  If you look at my own writings, you will see that in arguing against foundations I put myself very firmly in a well-established philosophical tradition: a tradition which includes both Immanuel Kant and (slightly earlier than he) David Hume.  As it happens, for reasons which I give, I myself prefer a Humean analysis to ethics to a Kantian analysis.  This is mainly because I see ethics as being more of a natural phenomenon than a Kantian could ever allow — a vision which a Humean nevertheless readily welcomes.  But, the point I do stress (and have done so in many writings) is that, foundations or not, neither Hume nor Kant think that (substantive) ethics is something which is purely a subjective phenomenon which we can choose to accept or not.  In describing ethics as an “illusion”, I am talking about foundations, agreeing with both Hume and Kant in their denial that there is some external thing like a Platonic Form which justifies substantive ethics.  I am not saying that rules of right and wrong do not exist, nor am I saying that adopting them is a matter of personal preference.  (Hume and Kant believe that external foundations for ethics are non-existent, even if indeed there is a God, which one presumes Kant did believe in and about which David Hume is altogether more skeptical.)

My position, shared by many philosophers (most of whom are not evolutionary ethicists), is known technically as “ethical skepticism” [Mackie 1977].  It is skeptical about foundations, not about substantive ethics.  And in being skeptical about foundations, the skepticism is about external entities which are substance-like, thus supposedly conferring validity on ethics.  Hence, in refusing to “justify” ethics, we skeptics avoid all of the supposed fallacies (like the notorious “naturalistic fallacy”) which tradition claims bedevils any naturalistic approach to morality.  We are not justifying illicitly, because we are not justifying at all!  What we are happy with is the conclusion that ethics has to be considered a human phenomenon.  In this sense, we are part of a longer tradition than just Hume and Kant.  Ultimately, we go back to Aristotle.  I do not want to sound complaining, nor do I want to whine about this, but if Rolston is to write a work of great length criticizing people like myself, then I would beg only that he would try to understand our premises as well as our conclusions.  And whatever he will do, please do not lump us with the philosophical philistines on the other side of the campus.

Secondly, turning now less egocentrically to defense of others, let me say that Rolston is rather less than fully fair towards Edward O. Wilson.  I refer especially to his final chapter, where Rolston criticizes Wilson’s (1978) views on religion.  Now I do not myself want to defend Wilson as such, but it does seem to me that when Wilson offers a critique of religion — arguing that one must substitute an evolutionary account — he is doing more than simply saying that since evolution accounts for the way that we think, evolution must be the foundation of everything including religion.  This, as Rolston and many others have pointed out, is clearly a fallacious argument.  If indeed this is all thatWilson is saying then he is not really furthering our understanding of religion, whether or not he appeals to biology.

But surely Wilsonis doing more than this.  Wilson is appealing in the first place to the great differences between modern religions — an indisputable point which, in my opinion, Rolston altogether glosses over.  Wilson’s basic argument is that there are such contradictory things claimed in the name of religion, that the only way that we can explain people’s adherence to these religions is in non-rational terms.  Here, reason or appeal to objective fact fails us.  Consider for instance the differences between Christianity (which posits a personal God, which denies the transmigration of souls, and which offers us hope of eternal salvation) and various forms of Buddhism (which at best can be considered atheistic, which make central the transmigrations of souls, which offer no salvation but an eventual release from consciousness of any kind).  Prima facie it is not at all obvious that these two religions share any common themes.  Wilson’s point is that, nevertheless, different peoples believe passionately in these two religions.  Since they cannot both be true, one at least must be false, and so one must find some argument for this passionate commitment.  And it is at this point thatWilson puts forward a sociobiological argument, in terms of group identity and so forth.

Following this comes the secondary argument, one which does not seem to me to be entirely unreasonable, namely that sauce for the Buddhist goose is also sauce for the Christian gander.  If one has to offer a sociobiological argument for Buddhist belief, why then should one hesitate at offering such an argument for Christianity?  My feeling is not that Wilson is necessarily right in his whole line of argument.  I for one am not convinced by his biological speculations.  But, I think his line of argument is at least plausible.  If one wants to deny it — arguing for instance that Christianity shows itself the superior religion to all others, and therefore a potential candidate for objective truth — one must at least provide these arguments.  One must show that Wilson’s position is therefore lacking.  This, for all his opposition, I do not find Rolston having done.

My third objection is the most fundamental of all.  It is not based on simple opposition between Rolston on the one side and me and my co-travelers on the other.  “I am right” and “You are wrong” and conversely.  This objection captures my main worry about the whole book that Rolston has offered us.  It focuses on Rolston’s appeal to science.  Now, at one level, this may seem very strange.  To be perfectly fair and open, Rolston has done his homework and has looked very carefully at much which has been written about modern evolutionary biology, particularly that pertaining about social behaviour (sociobiology).  However, what I find singularly missing in Rolston’s work, and indeed in his consciousness generally, is an appreciation of the extent to which this very significant empirical theory has taken evolutionary biologists by storm in the past thirty or forty years.  Rolston offers us but a bare minimum of empirical studies showing us how things like kin selection (selfish gene theory) work in practice.  He shows us nothing, for instance, of the work done by people like Geoff Parker (1978) on the mating behaviour of dung flies, or Nicholas Davies (1992) on the sexual patterns to found in the dunnocks (hedge sparrows), or of Tim Clutton-Brock (1982) on the harem-building strategies of red deer on Scottish Islands — or any of these sorts of things.  Now I am not saying that Rolston should spend all his time in this book just discussing these studies — he is a philosopher rather than a scientist — but the point is that this is the empirical work on which everything else stands.  The base from which stem all the kinds of claims that people like myself and Edward O. Wilson and others want to make.  They cannot and should not be ignored.   

I am cautious to the point of being uncomfortable in making this claim.  I do want to stress that Rolston goes far beyond just looking at popularizers, or even those who sit on the boundary between the popular and the professional – people like Richard Dawkins (1986) and Stephen Jay Gould (1989, 1996).  And I realize that it is all too easy simply to try to pull rank or to win an argument by claiming that people have not read that which you think significant.  There is always one more study to be read and digested.  But my sense of unease remains nevertheless.  Rolston never truly gets to grips with the actual physical hands-on science.  Again, you might repeat in Rolston’s defense that he is hardly a scientist and so it is not his job to look at the science as such.  But whilst I would agree in part with this defense, I do argue that it is Rolston’s job (and mine, when I am presenting my views) to offer more than theoretical discussions.  Unless one has a really strong feeling about the science itself — an overwhelming sensation of how new and exciting sociobiology truly is (something which has made absolutely cutting edge science out of something which stagnated for the hundred years after the Origin of Species) — one is going to miss a huge amount.  And this I fear is what has happened to Rolston.  Hence, he does not and cannot sense (let alone share) the very strong conviction of people like myself and Wilson, that one simply must apply this science to human nature and human understanding.  We ourselves may not be right, but we are convinced that the right answers are out there.

An example of what I am about is yielded by the lack of an explicit discussion of hymenopteran sterility.  The ideas of William Hamilton (1964a, b) are given (and fairly), but no attempt is made to link this with the real breakthrough that Hamilton’s work represented – the solving of the conundrum of the non-reproductive nature of the workers in the ants, the bees, and the wasps.  This was a staggering achievement and it truly revolutionized the thinking about social behaviour – not theory but empirical practice.  And there has been a torrent of work since, as the massive Pulitzer Prize winning work by Bert Holldobler and Ed Wilson (the Ants) shows in full detail.  But all of this is simply not there in Rolston, and this is the pity.  A pity not because we think that humans are ants, but because we see how powerful are the tools of sociobiology in explaining the real world, and we simply cannot think that these tools fail to apply to us.

Let me restate my point.  The crucial question is not whether or not one should use a metaphor like the selfish gene — although as you know, I applaud Rolston on this — but that by taking the selfish gene approach, that is to say, taking the kind of approach being promoted by people like William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith (1978), one can produce tough, predictive science which is highly fertile and which leads to hard results.  Not just results that we knew already, but results that we can infer and confirm.  Our conviction is that finally evolutionary biology is moving forward.  As shown by people Nicholas Davies with his dunnocks or Geoff Parker with his dung flies, one now has a science which really works.  It is our conviction that this science simply must be applied to an understanding of human nature.  It is this which we whom Rolston critiques have tried to do in our thinking about ethics and religion and other basic questions.

I repeat.  I am not now saying that Edward O. Wilson or Michael Ruse or any of the others who are trying to provide a sociobiological account of humankind are right.  It may well be that every one of Rolston’s c iticisms made against