Philosophy Phriday: All About Ants

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the twenty-third contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Michael Ruse.

All About Ants:
What Darwin the Scientist Learnt From Darwin the Christian and What That Tells Us About Darwinism Today

Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:
Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler,
Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.
(Proverbs 6: 6-8)

Many people in American society today loathe and detest evolutionary thinking and have a special animus against the theory held by virtually all professional biologists, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection (Numbers 2006). This opposition by evangelical Christians and fellow travelers is understandable. You simply cannot accept Genesis taken literally – Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and their irresistible desire for forbidden fruit – and hold to modern thinking on paleoanthropology – the study of human origins. What is truly surprising is the extent to which Darwinism – by some, evolution even – is opposed by today’s leading professional philosophers. In recent works, noted thinkers Thomas Nagel (2012) and Jerry Fodor (Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini 2010) have both written strongly against Darwinism. Alvin Plantinga (1991, 2011) doubts evolution itself and thinks Darwinism collapses in on itself.

There are various reasons for this opposition. Frankly, one does not get the feeling that these include detailed study of Darwin’s work or of modern evolutionary biology. In Plantinga’s case, the hostile rejection is religious. He is a hard-line Calvinist. For others – perhaps for all, including the evangelicals – the opposition stems from seeing Darwinism as a secular religious rival to Christianity. A rival that they don’t much like. This would explain not just the opposition, but the intense hostility tinged with fear. Think of American evangelicals when they get on the subject of Muslims.

There is some prima facie evidence that this supposition may be right. It is surely no coincidence that the world’s best-known Darwinian evolutionist – the author of The Selfish Gene (Dawkins 1976) – is also the world’s best-known atheist – the author of The God Delusion (Dawkins 2006). Members of the University of Chicago need only look to their own. Jerry Coyne, brilliant biologist and gifted expositor, runs a blog – a term he doesn’t much care for and I can sympathize – “Why evolution is true”. A combination of detailed and fascinating exposition and discussion of important evolutionary topics, together with ranting at Christians and those considered fellow travelers (including, I am proud to say, me), it reads like something that comes out of that bastion of Intelligent Design Theory, the Discovery Institute. Consider Coyne’s ongoing denial of free will. About as anti-Christian as you can get. Whatever else it may be, this denial is not something forced by the science. I know religion-supporting metaphysics when I smell it. I won’t even get into the humanist revivalist meetings that he and Richard Dawkins attend, with the adoring audiences, that he so faithfully records. One is reminded of Billy Graham and Wembley stadium. Of course, there is the science, and some wonderful wildlife pictures by readers, not to mention Jerry’s loving photos of the foods he has eaten. Given how the latter is so bound up with friendship and sharing, there is something touchingly biblical about it. Think Leviticus 23. Think Luke 14.

Richard and Jerry, together

In a number of recent publications, I have been exploring this hypothesis of Darwinism as a religion, or at least as a secular religious perspective (Ruse 2005, 2017a, 2018). Let me stress that I am not saying that regular Darwinian theory – the kind of work that goes on in the labs of the members of the Committee on Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago – is anything but regular, Popperian – objective – science. I, after all, am the guy who stood up in court in Arkansas in 1981, as an expert witness for the ACLU – alongside Stephen Jay Gould and Francisco J Ayala (and Chicago Divinity School theologian Langdon Gilkey) – and testified that Darwin’s theory is science and that Genesis is religion (Ruse 1988). I am saying that from the moment of the publication of the Origin we have had a parallel enterprise using Darwinism to speak to the Big Questions, as the Templeton Foundation would put it – origins, God, meaning, morality, race and class, sin and salvation, the future. Not everyone believes the same things, but then not all Christians believe the same things.

Part of my case rests on the deep roots of Darwinian thinking in the Christian religion. (See Richards and Ruse 2016, a point on which remarkably the authors agree.) Let me make clear what this means. Having roots in Christianity does not make Darwinian theory at once into a religion. I am my mother’s son but I am not female. It does tend to make it something of the same logical type and it does open up the possibility of asking the same sorts of question and of giving answers which, while they are different, are of the same logical type. Answers couched in shared assumptions, analogies and metaphors. Because I am my mother’s son, I speak English not French and I cannot imagine that there is such a thing as a German with a sense of humor. Die Meistersinger? I rest my case.

Consider the question of origins. There is no logical reason for a science to think of origins or think that there were origins (Ruse 2010; 2017b). Neither Plato nor Aristotle thought of a time-limited universe, and it is a notable aspect of their thinking that it just isn’t developmental. The Greeks thought humans are important, but they didn’t see us as the apotheosis of the developmental creative scheme. Christians do think in terms of origins and do privilege humans as the highest end point of the creative process. So do Darwinians. If you doubt what I say then read Genesis 1 and 2 and then go on to read the final paragraph of the Origin of Species. Note that this is something true of Darwinian thinking in a religious or quasi-religious mode. Darwinian theory as science eschews thoughts of progress (Ruse 2006). Warthogs are as good as humans. It is the fact that so many Darwinians, starting with Darwin himself (Darwin 1861), do so firmly believe in progress up to humans – think Richard Dawkins (1986), think John Maynard Smith (1988), think Edward O. Wilson (1992) — that one starts to suspect that the trout in the milk is telling us something (Ruse 1996).

A trout in milk, telling us something

There are many places where Darwin draws on Christianity in his theorizing. The struggle for existence is taken straight out of Thomas Robert Malthus’s (1826) essay on population. What scholars now realize is that Malthus is not offering a harsh view of human society – somewhere to the right of Donald Trump (if that be possible) – but an exercise in natural theology (Mayhew 2014). God put the struggle in place to get us off our backsides and to set to work. If the struggle did not exist, we would all be like philosophy graduate students – sitting around in our parents’ basements, in dirty underwear, playing video games all day long. Then there is the division of labor. Straight out of Adam Smith (1776), but all in a theological context. The Invisible Hand is ruling human society and industry for the best. And what about the overall pattern of evolution. The tree of life! Where does that come from?

And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2: 9)

Which brings me to ants. Darwin’s fascination with insects was life-long.  As a student at Cambridge, he had been an avid collector of beetles, so much so that on one memorable occasion he had popped one specimen in his mouth in order to free his hands to go on collecting.  To his chagrin and to the great amusement of others, the beetle had promptly discharged some noxious substance, causing the young Darwin to drop everything as he dealt with his aggressive captive. In the Origin, there is much about insects, and specifically much about ants. They raise problems. They are used for solutions.

Again as in the case of corporeal structure, and conformably with my theory, the instinct of each species is good for itself, but has never, as far as we can judge, been produced for the exclusive good of others. One of the strongest instances of an animal apparently performing an action for the sole good of another, with which I am acquainted, is that of aphides voluntarily yielding their sweet excretion to ants: that they do so voluntarily, the following facts show. I removed all the ants from a group of about a dozen aphides on a dock-plant, and prevented their attendance during several hours. After this interval, I felt sure that the aphides would want to excrete. I watched them for some time through a lens, but not one excreted; I then tickled and stroked them with a hair in the same manner, as well as I could, as the ants do with their antennæ; but not one excreted. Afterwards I allowed an ant to visit them, and it immediately seemed, by its eager way of running about, to be well aware what a rich flock it had discovered; it then began to play with its antennæ on the abdomen first of one aphis and then of another; and each aphis, as soon as it felt the antennæ, immediately lifted up its abdomen and excreted a limpid drop of sweet juice, which was eagerly devoured by the ant. Even the quite young aphides behaved in this manner, showing that the action was instinctive, and not the result of experience. But as the excretion is extremely viscid, it is probably a convenience to the aphides to have it removed; and therefore probably the aphides do not instinctively excrete for the sole good of the ants. Although I do not believe that any animal in the world performs an action for the exclusive good of another of a distinct species, yet each species tries to take advantage of the instincts of others, as each takes advantage of the weaker bodily structure of others. So again, in some few cases, certain instincts cannot be considered as absolutely perfect; but as details on this and other such points are not indispensable, they may be here passed over. (Darwin 1859, 210-211)

It is in the Descent, the book Darwin wrote about our own species, that ants really come into their own and make my point. We know that Darwin was raised a Christian – to the extent that he was intending to become an Anglican minister – became a deist at some point on the Beagle voyage, and then in the years after the Origin turned to agnosticism. From our perspective, it is those early years that count. Recent research emphasizes the extent to which Darwin’s background both at home and then at Cambridge was one of evangelical Anglican Christianity (Desmond and Moore 2009). This was all very much bound up with both the family and university opposition to slavery. You can be pretty sure that Darwin knew his Proverbs. What more natural then than to take the biblical message and read it into the evolutionary picture? Proverbs draws the analogy between ants and humans. So does the author of the Descent of Man. Entirely naturally, without felt need of justification.

To return to our immediate subject: the lower animals, like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery. Happiness is never better exhibited than by young animals, such as puppies, kittens, lambs, &c., when playing together, like our own children. Even insects play together, as has been described by that excellent observer, P. Huber, who saw ants chasing and pretending to bite each other, like so many puppies. (Darwin 1871, 1, 39)

Hardly any faculty is more important for the intellectual progress of man than the power of Attention. Animals clearly manifest this power, as when a cat watches by a hole and prepares to spring on its prey…. Even ants, as P. Huber has clearly shewn, recognised their fellow-ants belonging to the same community after a separation of four months. (1, 45)

Why the organs now used for speech should have been originally perfected for this purpose, rather than any other organs, it is not difficult to see. Ants have considerable powers of intercommunication by means of their antennæ, as shewn by Huber, who devotes a whole chapter to their language. (1, 58)

No one, I presume, doubts that the large size of the brain in man, relatively to his body, in comparison with that of the gorilla or orang, is closely connected with his higher mental powers. We meet with closely analogous facts with insects, in which the cerebral ganglia are of extraordinary dimensions in ants; these ganglia in all the Hymenoptera being many times larger than in the less intelligent orders, such as beetles. (1, 145)

When you think about it, this is remarkable stuff. Ants playing like children and puppies. Ants on the way to language. Where is Noam Chomsky when you need him? (Actually, he was right there in the sixties except his name was Edward O. Wilson (1971) – who did amazing work on ant communication.[1]) And what about those big brains? It is like something out of Planet of the Apes, except instead of having the gorilla thugs at the bottom, you have the beetles! These truly are the words of a man who simply takes the human-ant analogy as a given, as a truism. In other words, a chap who had the message of Proverbs drummed into him – as I might add, I had in my Christian childhood a hundred years later.

Charles riding a beetle, catching butterflies, pondering ants

I rest my case – but do remember what is my case. I am not claiming that Darwinian evolutionary biology is a religion. It is not. It is good, strong, objective science. It is, to use a term, a paradigm of paradigms. I do claim that there is another side to Darwinian thought that is religion-like, whether you want to call it a formal religion or just a secular religious perspective. I also claim that a key piece of evidence is the extent to which Darwinian theory has its roots in Anglican Christianity, meaning that Darwin lifted parts of the theology and incorporated them into his science. Again, this alone does not make Darwinism a religion. It does prepare the way for the case being made. It is no longer a big surprise that such a case might and is made. Darwin’s attitude towards ants in the Descent of Man is strong evidence for this claim.

[[1] Editorial Update: The Daily Ant contacted Noam Chomsky for comment. Chomsky notes the following: “The topic of ant communication is fascinating, and Ed Wilson has done wonderful work on it.  Same with communication among other species, even trees.  It’s common to confuse communication with language, but there’s good reason to suppose that the distinction is very sharp, and that, contrary to much doctrine, language did not evolve as yet another means of communication.”]

Reference List

Darwin, C. 1859. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray.
———. 1861. Origin of Species (Third Edition). London: John Murray.
———. 1871. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray.

Dawkins, R. 1976. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
———. 1986. The Blind Watchmaker. New York, N.Y.: Norton.
———. 2006. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt.

Desmond, A., and J. Moore. 2009. Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Fodor, J., and M. Piattelli-Palmarini. 2010. What Darwin Got Wrong. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Malthus, T. R. [1826] 1914. An Essay on the Principle of Population (Sixth Edition). London: Everyman.

Mayhew, R. J. 2014. Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Maynard Smith, J. 1988. Evolutionary progress and levels of selection. Evolutionary Progress, 219-30. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nagel, T. 2012. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. New York: Oxford University Press.

Numbers, R. L. 2006. The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design. Standard ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Plantinga, A. 1991. When faith and reason clash: evolution and the Bible. Christian Scholar’s Review 21, no. 1: 8-32 [Reprinted in D. Hull and M. Ruse, eds., The Philosophy of Biology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998; 674-697].
———. 2011. Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Richards, R.J. and M. Ruse. 2016. Debating Darwin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ruse, M, Editor. 1988. But is it Science? The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus.
———. 1996. Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
———. 2005. The Evolution-Creation Struggle. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
———. 2006. Darwinism and its Discontents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
———. 2010. Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
———. 2017a. Darwinism as Religion: What Literature Tells Us About Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
———. 2017b. On Purpose. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press.
———. 2018. Darwinism and War: From Science to Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, A. [1776] 1937. The Wealth of Nations. New York: Modern Library.

Wilson, E O. 1971. The Insect Societies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
———. 1992. The Diversity of Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

MichaelRuseDr. Michael Ruse is the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science at Florida State University. He is the author or editor of over fifty books. Trained as a philosopher, he was one of the pioneers of contemporary philosophy of biology and the founding editor of the journal Biology and Philosophy, which he ran from 1985 to 2000. From 1992 to 2005 he edited the Cambridge Series in the Philosophy of Biology, and from 2005 to 2014 another series on the philosophy of biology with Cambridge University Press, aimed more at the student reader. He has also co-edited the Cambridge Companion to the Philosophy of Biology, and has the Cambridge Handbook of Evolutionary Ethics forthcoming. He has co-edited two volumes with Oxford University Press on the philosophy of biology. Retooled as a historian of science, Ruse has written extensively on the history of evolutionary theory, with special emphasis on the work and influence of Charles Darwin. He has co-edited the Cambridge Companion to the Origin of Species and recently edited The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Charles Darwin and Evolutionary Thought, which won a PROSE award. He has also co-edited a volume on evolutionary theory with Harvard University Press, a volume on paleobiology with the University of Chicago Press and another on twentieth-century evolutionary biology with the American Philosophical Society. Ruse has broader interests, having written extensively on the interface between science and religion and having appeared as an expert witness in a case in Arkansas against the teaching of biblical literalism (Creationism) in state-supported science classes. He has co-edited the Oxford Handbook of Atheism. He has written on human evolution looking at the importance not only of biology for understanding but also the social sciences including the ideas of such influential figures as Emile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud. He is also deeply interested in the connections between science and philosophy on the one hand and literature and creative thinking generally on the other hand, having for many years offered undergraduate courses on the significance of film for understanding both science and philosophy, and also increasingly has been writing on such topics. His most recent book, Darwinism as Religion, is on the history of evolutionary theory as seen through creative writing, particularly as seen through fiction and poetry. He is now writing a book comparing Christians and Darwinians on the topic of war.