Subject: "Real Calvinism": A Review of Michael Ruse's Can a Darwinian be a

Christian? The Relationship between Science and Religion


From: E. Maynard Moore Email: <>


This essay first appeared in Metanexus ( It appears here by permission of both the author and Metanexus.

If you think it is important to drink Pasteurized milk, then (if you are honest with yourself) you are a Darwinian. The author, Michael Ruse, does not make this claim directly, but it follows from the argument he outlines in this intriguing and persuasive book. Charles Darwin was writing and published On the Origin of Species at the same time that French scientist Louis Pasteur was driving the final nail into the coffin of the notion of "spontaneous generation," the belief that life comes in one leap from nonlife: worms out of mud and that sort of thing. This book helps us to see how it came to be.


Michael Ruse has written widely on matters of sociobiology, evolution, cloning, and scientific reductionism. His credentials are beyond dispute: He holds the Lucyle T. Werkmeister chair in Philosophy and Zoology at Florida State University; he has held visiting professorships at Indiana, Cambridge, and Harvard; he is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; he is the author of a half dozen books and more than 60 articles in refereed journals. Moreover, he has the perspective of having been called as an expert witness in the 1981 trial in Arkansas that challenged the requirement that "creationism" be taught in public schools (shortly after Governor Bill Clinton signed it into law).


But it is Ruse's personal perspective that makes his writings and his observations intriguing: Ruse was born in Birmingham in the British Midlands in 1940. His father was a conscientious objector in World War II, which brought the family into contact with the Religious Society of Friends. Thus having been raised among Quakers, Ruse says that "every day I am aware that the deepest influences on my life was that loving Christian atmosphere created by my parents and their coreligionists in the Warwickshire Monthly Meeting." Though not actively a participant in any religious group now, in recent years Ruse has come into contact, through intense dialogues, with Christians working on the broad themes of science and religion. People like Lutheran Philip Hefner, the Anglican scientist-theologian Arthur Peacocke, the Catholic Ernan McMullin, the Presbyterian Ursula Goodenough, are persons that Ruse acknowledges, with their zest for ideas and their love in community, have enabled him to "recapture something of what I had in my childhood and that I think is a genuinely precious part of being a human being."


So we get the sense at the outset that this book is going to be something special: a rigorous treatment of scientific ideas, but from a perspective that provides respect for the best thinking represented in the religious community as well.


The title of the book is not simply a rhetorical question. It is a very serious question, and one that Ruse tackles with systematic analysis. There is, in the early chapters, a very readable summary of the history of the debate between Darwinians and representatives of the religious establishment, both in Britain and in America. Every thinking Christian would do well to read carefully Chapter One which outlines in nontechnical terms the basic premise of the Darwinian theory of natural selection. In these pages Ruse points out the distinctions between evolution as fact, evolution as path for scientific analysis, and evolution as cause which Darwin himself admitted had very limited applicability. Ruse also helps us through the "post-Darwin" debates.


Ruse then takes us on a short trip through Christianity, quite competently, too. Ruse considers the theological affirmations of third-century theologian Origen, St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, and St. Thomas Aquinas (among others), who all read sacred scriptures with an eye for metaphor and historical context, not as literal fact. He brings us through the intellectual development of the Reformation, and even at one point (p. 44) shows how Methodists in the Armenian tradition contributed to the debate. Right through the Enlightenment, Soren Kierkegaard and Swiss "neo-orthodox" theologian Karl Barth, Ruse's treatment of the development of Christian thought is honest and insightful.


All of this prepares us for the essence of the book, the debate with science and specifically with the Darwinian notions of evolution. There is a fascinating section on "The Soul as a Darwinian Concept", a section on "Augustinian Science", and an entire chapter that addresses the "Teleological Argument" that the world is created by design. Ruse even tackles the most troublesome issues for many Christians: original sin, the existence of evil, pain and suffering as an apparently inherent component of existence.


The final chapters, however, may well contain the most lucid and penetrating of Ruse's observations. These are the pages where he deals with Sociobiology, Social Darwinism, and Christian Ethics. Analyzing the philosophical foundations of Immanuel Kant, Herbert Spencer, John Calvin, G.W.F. Hegel, Marx and Engels, Paul Ramsey and John Rawls, Ruse holds his own with any theologian we have read. He reaches the point at which he can talk about "the evolution of morality" as part of the natural order inherited by humans. Ruse then shows how a concept of "biological normative ethics" is quite compatible with "altruism" and the "supreme principles" which we all recognize as our highest moral aspirations.


Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote a book several years ago that has gained a wide readership among thinking Christians: Why Christianity Must Change or Die. It became a national bestseller, partly because Spong demolished the stifling dogmas of traditional Christianity in search of the inner core of truth, the essence of our faith. Michael Ruse has provided us here with the intellectual foundation that allows us to go the next step. If we are serious about building our core faith in terms worthy of the twenty-first century worldview, Ruse' book is an excellent place to start. As Ruse says elsewhere:


"I think evolutionary theory -- Darwinian evolutionary theory -- is one of the truly great discoveries of all time and surely shows that, whether or not we are made in the image of God, we sure as hell are a lot more than grubby little primates. We are beings with the power to peer into the mysteries of nature and to wrench from our surroundings answers and understanding of an almost transcendent kind. I think we should pass on to our children not just the knowledge but the methods.... that for me is a sacred obligation, and you can take that in any way you like. I am a real Calvinist when it comes to the inherent worth of scientific knowledge."