Michael Ruse on On Purpose

Can we live without the idea of purpose? Should we even try to? Kant thought we were stuck with purpose, and even Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which profoundly shook the idea, was unable to kill it. Indeed, teleological explanation—what Aristotle called understanding in terms of “final causes”—seems to be making a comeback today, as both religious proponents of intelligent design and some prominent secular philosophers argue that any explanation of life without the idea of purpose is missing something essential. In On Purpose, Michael Ruse explores the history of the idea of purpose in philosophical, religious, scientific, and historical thought, from ancient Greece to the present. Read on to learn more about the idea of “purpose,” the long philosophical tradition around it, and how Charles Darwin fits in.

On Purpose?  So what’s with the smart-alecky title?

It was a friend of Dr. Johnson who said that he had tried to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness always kept breaking in.  Actually, that is a little bit unfair to philosophers.  Overall, we are quite a cheerful group, especially when we think that we might have been born sociologists or geographers.  However, our sense of humor is a bit strained, usually—as in this case—involving weak puns and the like.  My book is about a very distinctive form of understanding, when we do things in terms of the future and not the past.

In terms of the future?  Why not call your book On Prediction?

I am not talking about prediction, forecasting what you think will happen, although that is involved.  I am talking about when the future is brought in to explain things that are happening right now.  Purposeful thinking is distinctive and interesting because normally when we try to explain things we do so in terms of the past or present.  Why do you have a bandage on your thumb?  Because I tried to hang the picture myself, instead of getting a grad student to do it.  Purposeful thinking—involving what Aristotle called “final causes” and what since the eighteenth century has often been labeled “teleological” thinking—explains in terms of future events.  Why are you studying rather than going to the ball game?  Because I want to do well on the GRE exam and go to a good grad school.

Why is this interesting?

In the case of the bandaged thumb, you know that the hammer hit you rather than the nail.  In the case of studying, you may decide that five to ten years of poverty and peonage followed by no job is not worth it, and you should decide to do something worthwhile like becoming a stockbroker or university administrator.  We call this “the problem of the missing goal object.”  Going to grad school never occurred, but it still makes sense to say that you are studying now in order to go to grad school.

Is this something that you thought up, or is it something with a history?

Oh my, does it ever have a history.  One of the great things about my book, if I might show my usual level of modesty, is that I show the whole problem of purpose is one with deep roots in the history of philosophy, starting with Plato and Aristotle, and coming right up to the modern era, particularly the thinking of Immanuel Kant.  In fact, I argue that it is these three very great philosophers who set the terms of the discussion—Plato analyses things in terms of consciousness, Aristotle in terms of principles of ordering whatever that might mean, and Kant opts for some kind of heuristic approach.

If these thinkers have done the spadework, what’s left for you?

I argue that the truth about purposeful thinking could not be truly discovered until Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species (1859) had proposed his theory of evolution through natural selection.  With that, we could start to understand forward-looking thinking about humans—why is he studying on such a beautiful day?  He wants to go to grad school.  About plants and animals—why does the stegosaurus have those funny-looking plates down its back?  To control its temperature.  And why we don’t use such thinking about inanimate objects?  Why don’t we worry about the purpose of the moon?  Perhaps we should.  It really does exist in order to light the way home for drunken philosophers.

Why is it such a big deal to bring up Darwin and his theory of evolution?  Surely, the kind of people who will read your book will have accepted the theory long ago?

Interestingly, no!  The main opposition to evolutionary thinking comes from the extreme ends of the spectrum: evangelical Christians known as Creationists—biblical literalists—and from professional philosophers.  There are days when it seems that the higher up the greasy pole you have climbed, the more likely you are to deny Darwinism and be a bit iffy about evolution generally.  This started just about as soon as the Origin appeared, and the sinister anti-evolutionary effect of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore and above all Ludwig Wittgenstein is felt to this day.  A major reason for writing my book was to take seriously Thomas Henry Huxley’s quip that we are modified monkeys rather than modified mud, and that matters.

Given that you are a recent recipient of the Bertrand Russell Society’s “Man of the Year” Award, aren’t you being a bit ungracious?

I have huge respect for Russell.  He was a god in my family when, in the 1940s and 50s, I was growing up in England.  One of my greatest thrills was to have been part of the crowd in 1961 in Trafalgar Square listening to him declaim against nuclear weapons.  But I think he was wrong about the significance of Darwin for philosophy and I think I am showing him great respect in arguing against him.  I feel the same way about those who argue against me.  My proudest boast is that I am now being refuted in journals that would never accept anything by me.

One of the big problems normal people today have about philosophy is that it seems so irrelevant. Initiates arguing about angels on the heads of pins?  Why shouldn’t we say the same about your book?

Three reasons.  First, my style and approach.  It is true that most philosophy produced by Anglophone philosophers today is narrow and boring.  Reading analytic philosophy is like watching paint dry and proudly so.  Against this, on the one hand I am more a historian of ideas using the past to illuminate the present.  That is what being an evolutionist is all about.  Spending time with mega-minds like Plato and Aristotle and Kant is in itself tremendously exciting.  On the other hand, I have over fifty years of teaching experience, at the undergraduate level almost always at the first- and second-year level.  I know that if you are not interesting, you are going to lose your audience.  The trick is to be interesting and non-trivial.

Second, I don’t say that my book is the most important of the past hundred-plus years, but my topic is the most important.  Evolution matters, folks, it really does.  It is indeed scary to think that we are just the product of a random process of change and not the favored product of a Good God—made in His image.  Even atheists get the collywobbles, or at least they should.  It is true all the same.  Fifty years ago, the geneticist and Nobel laureate Hermann J. Muller said that a hundred years without Darwin is enough.  That is still true.  Amen.

Third, deliberately, I have made this book very personal.  At the end, I talk about purpose in my own life.  Why, even though I am a non-believer, I have been able to find meaning in what I think and do.  This ranges from my love of my wife Lizzie and how with dedication and humor we share the challenges of having children—not to mention our love of dogs, most recent addition to the family, Nutmeg a whippet—through cooking on Saturday afternoons while listening to radio broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera matinees, to reading Pickwick Papers yet one more time.  I suspect that many of my fellow philosophers will find this all rather embarrassing.  I mean it to be.  Philosophy matters.  My first-ever class on the subject started with Descartes’ Meditations.  Fifteen minutes into the class, I knew that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.  Nearly sixty years later I am still at it and surely this interview tells you that I love it, every moment.

So, why should we read your book?

Because it really does square the circle.  It is cheerful and philosophical.  It is on a hugely important topic and there are some good jokes.  I am particularly proud of one I make about Darwin Day, the celebration by New Atheists, and their groupies of the birthday of Charles Darwin.

Which is?

Oh, hell no.  I am not going to tell you.  Go out and buy the book.  And while you are at it, buy one for your mum and dad and one each for your siblings and multi-copies for your students and….  I am seventy-seven years old.  I need a bestseller so I can retire.  You need a bestseller so I can retire.

RuseMichael 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 has written or edited more than fifty books, including Darwinism as Religion, The Philosophy of Human Evolution, and The Darwinian Revolution.

Bird Fact Friday – Birds of the Galápagos

From page 21 of Wildlife of the Galápagos:

Darwin’s finches have become a distinguishing characteristic of the Galápagos Islands, and it’s no wonder! There are only about 60 resident species of birds on the Galápagos Islands, and 13 of them are finches. This makes identification a fun challenge for the amateur birder.

Wildlife of the Galápagos
Second Edition
Julian Fitter, Daniel Fitter, and David Hosking
Introduction

GalapagosSince its first publication more than a decade ago, Wildlife of the Galápagos has become the definitive, classic field guide to the natural splendors of this amazing part of the world. Now fully updated, this essential and comprehensive guide has been expanded to include the more than 400 commonly seen birds, mammals, reptiles, invertebrates, and plants, and other coastal and marine life of this wondrous archipelago. Over 650 stunning color photographs, maps, and drawings are accompanied by accessible, descriptive text. This new edition includes information about all the common fish of the region and Spanish names are featured for the first time. There is also a revised section that discusses the islands’ history, climate, geology, and conservation, with the most current details on visitor sites.

This is the perfect portable companion for all nature enthusiasts interested in the astounding Galápagos.

• Covers 400+ commonly seen species, including birds, mammals, reptiles, invertebrates, and plants, and other coastal and marine life
• Illustrated with over 650 color photographs, maps, and drawings
• Includes maps of visitor sites
• Written by wildlife experts with extensive knowledge of the area
• Includes information on the history, climate, geology, and conservation of the islands

Princeton University Press’s best-selling books for the past week

 

These are the best-selling books for the past week.

1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline
 Carlson_Tesla jacket Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson
DarwinFinches
40 Years of Evolution: Darwin’s Finches on Daphne Major Island by Peter R. Grant and B. Rosemary Grant
Fernandez_Everyday cover Everyday Calculus: Discovering the Hidden Math All around Us by Oscar E. Fernandez
Fawcett_Liberalism_S14 Liberalism: The Life of an Idea by Edmund Fawcett
The Five Elements of Effective Thinking
The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird
I Ching The I Ching or Book of Changes, edited by Hellmut Wilhelm, translated by Cary F. Baynes
thebox The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson
OnBullshit On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt
shtetl
The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern

 

 

Quick Questions for Peter and Rosemary Grant

Grant and Grant_ In Search ofPeter R. Grant and B. Rosemary Grant are both emeritus professors in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. They are the co-authors of How and Why Species Multiply: The Radiation of Darwin’s Finches and co-editors of In Search of the Causes of Evolution: From Field Observations to Mechanisms (both Princeton).

B. Rosemary Grant received her B.Sc. (with Honors) from Edinburgh University in Scotland, and completed her Ph.D. at Uppsala University, in Sweden. Peter Grant received his B.A. (with Honors) from Cambridge University, England, completed his Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia, Canada, and completed his Post-doctoral Fellowship at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Their combined research efforts continue to offer “unparalleled insights into ecological and evolutionary changes in natural environments,” and in 2013, the couple was awarded the Margaret Morse Nice Prize by the Wilson Ornithological Society.

Now, on to the questions!

PUP: What inspired you to get into your field?
Peter and Rosemary Grant: Early experience followed by stimulating teachers. Before the age of five, we had each enjoyed the English countryside: the lake district of the north in Rosemary’s case and south of London in mine. Some of our earliest memories are similar, such as the thrill of finding a fossil, catching a butterfly, and smelling a flower. Much later as undergraduates we had inspiring teachers, and many of them. Foremost among them were the Edinburgh geneticists C.H. Waddington and D.G. Facloner (for Rosemary) and Yale ecologist G.E. Hutchinson (for me).


There is widespread misunderstanding about evolution; that it occurs extremely slowly….The idea that animals as large as birds might evolve before our eyes is not so well known.


What was the most influential book you’ve read?
Each of us read Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species at an important stage in our lives. This magisterial book opened our eyes to an understanding of the natural world that is within reach with careful observation, experiment, and logical reasoning, It is extraordinarily rich in insights, and repays re-reading, even with people like us who are older than Darwin when he died!

Why did you write this book?
Having written numerous papers in the specialized scientific literature, as well as three books on our research, we believed the time had come to synthesize all we had done and learned by following the fates of finches on Daphne for 40 years. We also wanted to explain and illustrate the excitement of scientific discovery to a broader audience than the professional biologists who might have read our more technical papers. Finally, we wanted to inspire and encourage students who might wish to study the workings of nature in remote places unaffected by humans, but who are not sure if and whether this can be done.

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing this book?
Perhaps many scientists make the last observation and then start writing a book without returning to their scientific material. This is not what happened in our case. As we developed the main argument in the book about how new species are formed we were stimulated to improve the way we expressed the main ideas, to think along new lines, and to ask new questions. In a few instances those questions led us back to the files of data, to new analyses, and to a greater appreciation of the role of hybridization in evolution.


We are collaborating with no less than five different groups in pursuing evolutionary questions with the data we have collected.


What do you think is book’s most important contribution?
There is widespread misunderstanding about evolution; that it occurs extremely slowly and therefore cannot be studied in a person’s lifetime. This was the view of Charles Darwin. Many biologists and others now know that this is not correct. For example, evolution occurs in the bacteria that cause illness in us, such as streptococcus bacteria in hospitals, and in insects and weedy plants that are agricultural pests. We do our best to control our biological enemies and persecutors, and they evolve in ways that repeatedly thwart us. The idea that animals as large as birds might evolve before our eyes is not so well known, yet our study in the entirely natural world of Daphne Major island has revealed this does in fact happen when there is a change in the environment, and it takes place over a period as short as a year, and repeatedly.

PUP: How did you come up with the title or jacket?
The title is the essence of the book. That was an easy choice. The jacket was the brain-child of a designer employed by Princeton University Press. We already had a strong image for the cover with a picture of Daphne taken at sea level. However, the designer improved on this by picking one of our photographs taken from the land and cropped it creatively to present of visualization of what it is like to actually be on the island.

What is your next project?
Not sure. Our involvement in finch research has not ended with the publication of the book. We are collaborating with no less than five different groups in pursuing evolutionary questions with the data we have collected. We are also thinking about returning to the island to check on the birds, to see who has survived and who has not, and to find out what has happened to the new lineage of finches whose ups and downs we followed for thirty years.

 

 

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Peter R. Grant and B. Rosemary Grant are the authors of:

5-23 Grant 40 Years of Evolution: Darwin’s Finches on Daphne Major Island by Peter. R. Grant and B. Rosemary Grant
Hardcover | 2014 | $49.50 / £34.95 | ISBN: 9780691160467
432 pp. | 6 x 9 | 44 color illus. 129 line illus. 21 tables. |
eBook | ISBN: 9781400851300 | Reviews  Table of Contents[PDF]  Chapter 1[PDF]

David Reznick discusses Darwin’s “big ambition” with Leonard Lopate

At long last, the podcast for David Reznick’s April 27th interview on WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show is available here! 

(Three cheers for technological evolution and embedding codes.)

Reznick, a biology professor at UC Riverside, has managed to break through the glut of Darwinniversary coverage with his fresh reading of the Origin for a 21st century audience.    150 years later, we’re still talking about his book so Charles Darwin must have made good on those early ambitions to be, as Reznick tells Lopate, “the Isaac Newton of Social Science.” Here’s hoping David Reznick enjoys such lasting readership with ON THE ORIGIN THEN AND NOW.

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