To send content items to your account,
please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies.
If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account.
Find out more about sending content to .
To send content items to your Kindle, first ensure email@example.com
is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings
on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part
of your Kindle email address below.
Find out more about sending to your Kindle.
Note you can select to send to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations.
‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi.
‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.
The two-volume Cambridge History of Atheism offers an authoritative and up to date account of a subject of contemporary interest. Comprised of sixty essays by an international team of scholars, this History is comprehensive in scope. The essays are written from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, including religious studies, philosophy, sociology, and classics. Offering a global overview of the subject, from antiquity to the present, the volumes examine the phenomenon of unbelief in the context of Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish societies. They explore atheism and the early modern Scientific Revolution, as well as the development of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and its continuing implications. The History also includes general survey essays on the impact of scepticism, agnosticism and atheism, as well as contemporary assessments of thinking. Providing essential information on the nature and history of atheism, The Cambridge History of Atheism will be indispensable for both scholarship and teaching, at all levels.
Are humans superior to all other animals? People of religion – Christianity and Buddhism – say yes. People of science – those for and those against Darwinian evolutionary theory – say yes. People of philosophy – the existentialists in particular –say yes. Why? People of religion think it is God’s intention (Christians) or simply the way the world is (Buddhists). People of science, both those for and those against Darwin, think it is simply a fact of nature. People of philosophy, existentialists, argue that meaning must come from within. Are humans superior? That is for us to decide and demonstrate. Natural (science) and unnatural (religion) facts tell us nothing.
What does Darwin’s theory have to say about human evolution? To answer this question, we turn first to philosophical discussions on the nature of rationality, specifically those of David Hume and Immanuel Kant. They both argue that the mind is preformed for thinking, with certain norms about mathematics and causality a priori for the individual human. Darwin argues that this is all a product of selection. Those proto-humans who took mathematics and causality seriously survived and reproduced, and those that did not, did not. This is Pragmatism, as we see from a brief consideration of the thinking of C. S. Peirce in the nineteenth century and Richard Rorty in the twentieth. We are not stuck in relativism, because the scientific evidence is that there is little genetic variation between humans. What we do not have, because Darwinism is within the mechanism paradigm, is any way of extracting absolute value from science and hence the natural world. Darwinian science cannot prove human superiority. This is preparing the way for existentialism.
How does the organicist tackle the nature and justification of moral claims? Through the upward rise of the evolutionary process. Morality is helping it on its way to produce ever-better humans. This has been known in the past as “Social Darwinism,” and has a dreadful reputation. Supposedly, it leads straight to Hitler and the gas ovens. It cannot be denied that dreadful things have been said in the name of Darwin. Spencer wanted to drive widows and children to the wall. Andrew Carnegie was one of the worst robber barons of the late nineteenth century. Friedrich von Berhardi epitomized the worst kind of rapacious German general. But there is another side too. Spencer was in favor of free trade and virtually a pacifist. Carnegie used his fortune to found public libraries. Von Bernhardi got more from the Prussian militaristic ethic than from the Origin of Species. Hitler didn’t believe in evolution! Today, too, the story is more complex. Julian Huxley was into large-scale public works. E. O. Wilson is an ardent conservationist. The naturalistic fallacy, you cannot get ought from is, is no deterrent. Organicists do not accept that the world is value-free. Organicists and mechanist/Darwinians are in different paradigms.
Dividing moral questions into those of substantive ethics, what should I do, and those of metaethics, why should I do what I should do, the mechanistic/Darwinian approach has little novel to say at the level of substantive ethics. One possible exception is that it is doubted we have equal moral obligations to all humans indifferently. We have special obligations to our children and other family members, and more to our friends and our countrymen than to others. We have obligations to the starving poor in Africa, but charity begins at home. Metaethically, the Darwinian can offer no justification. That would be to violate the naturalistic fallacy, going from claims about matters to claims about values. For the Darwinian the world has not intrinsic value. This means that the Darwinian is a moral non-realist. It does not mean they have no substantive ethics, but that these are psychological not grounded in external supports, natural or non-natural (like Platonic forms or the will of God). We objectify morality, thinking substantive claims do have support, are objective, otherwise we would all begin to cheat and the whole system breaks down. Ultimately, however, face to face, Darwinism demands a dramatic rethinking of common sense and the assumption of the ages, at least in western civilization.
I am a human being. What do I, as a philosopher, have to say about this? If I were a physiologist, I would be interested in what makes us tick – how the various parts of the body interact and work together. If I were a sociologist, I would be interested in humans in groups – why are there churches and priests and imams and that sort of thing? I am a philosopher, so what am I interested in and why do I have special authority or knowledge to speak about such things? We’ll pick up on the second part of the question as we go along – the proof of the pudding is in the eating – but I’ll tell you what I am interested in. Why do we humans think we are so special? Do we have good reason for this, or is it just self-deception based on ignorance and arrogance or (perhaps) a fear that we are not so very special?
What’s the conclusion? Do we have an edge on warthogs? The Christian thinks our superior status is God-given. The Buddhist thinks is all a way the world is. The Darwinian, like Richard Dawkins, too often opts for natural-selection-driven progress. The non-Darwinian thinks it is all in nature’s developmental process. Not much evidence to support this conclusion. Existentialism is terrifying. We are on our own. “Condemned to freedom.” It is the grown-up approach, and considered dispassionately is the only way to true life contentment and happiness. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves.” The way forward too.
Humans are the end point of almost four billion years of evolution. The generally accepted explanatory theory is Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection, brought on by a struggle for existence. Darwin bolstered his case through a “consilience of inductions,” showing how evolution through selection explained in many areas right across the life sciences – behavior, fossil record, geographical distributions, morphology, taxonomy, and embryology. The missing element was an adequate theory of heredity, supplied by the Moravian monk Gregor Mendel. A major problem was why random change in the units of heredity, mutations of the genes, should provide enough suitable material for selection to work on. Theodosius Dobzhansky solved this problem by hypothesizing that all populations contain much variation, quite enough for selection to work on. His student, Richard Lewontin, using molecular techniques – gel electrophoresis – showed that Dobzhansky’s hypothesis was right.
Is there progress in evolution? Many, including Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), Herbert Spencer, Julian Huxley, and Richard Dawkins think there is. Others are not so sure. Some, like Charles Darwin himself, sit on the fence. It is hard enough getting progress, let alone putting up barriers like the non-directedness of the Darwinian evolutionary process. One problem is that of defining evolutionary progress. Often it is done in the name of complexity, but as paleontologist Dan McShea points out, to define complexity is a far from easy process and it is not always the case that complex means desirable. The backbone of the whale is simply but highly adapted for life in the deep. A number of possible progress-supported mechanisms are introduced and discussed – arms races, morphological convergence, and even some natural unguided processes simply emerging. The drunkard is going to fall off the sidewalk eventually, even though he doesn’t plan it. All are found lacking, as one might have predicted. Darwinian theory is drained of absolute value judgements. Progress is of absolute value. Hence, it cannot be derived from Darwinian theory.
Why do we think ourselves superior to all other animals? Are we right to think so? In this book, Michael Ruse explores these questions in religion, science and philosophy. Some people think that the world is an organism - and that humans, as its highest part, have a natural value (this view appeals particularly to people of religion). Others think that the world is a machine - and that we therefore have responsibility for making our own value judgements (including judgements about ourselves). Ruse provides a compelling analysis of these two rival views and the age-old conflict between them. In a wide-ranging and fascinating discussion, he draws on Darwinism and existentialism to argue that only the view that the world is a machine does justice to our humanity. This new series offers short and personal perspectives by expert thinkers on topics that we all encounter in our everyday lives.
Several high-profile evolutionary biologists in the twentieth century were committed organicists. Conrad H. Waddington, the British geneticist was one, trying to simulate Lamarckian processes through orthodox genetical approaches. Another was the well-known American paleontologist and scientific popularizer Stephen Jay Gould, who promoted morphology over adaptation. And a third was the founding populational geneticist, American Sewall Wright. He argued that random processes, genetic drift, could and would lead to major adaptive breakthroughs. Philosophers likewise embrace organicism, including the British John Dupré and the American philosophers Jerry Fodor and Thomas Nagel. Nagel in particular has been highly critical of Darwinian theory, thinking it to be crude materialism masquerading as science. Expectedly, the Darwinian mechanists have struck back, confirming the suspicion that we have paradigm differences at stake. The two sides, mechanism and organicism, defend their positions with alternative reasons. For the mechanists, the triumphs of their approach trumps all. The double helix is a popular example in support of mechanism. For the organicists, the special place of humans trumps all. We are superior and no further argument is needed.
Two root metaphors help us to interpret the world. The older, going back to the Greeks, sees the world as an organism, organicism. The younger, which came into play during the Scientific Revolution, sees the world as a machine, mechanism. The former sees the superiority of humans as part of the natural development of an organic world. The latter thinks that if science is to show humans superior, then it must show how and why. Prominent mechanists include Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory through natural selection. Prominent organicists, all owing a debt to the German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling, include Herbert Spencer, Henri Bergson, and Alfred North Whitehead.
This Element is a philosophical history of Social Darwinism. It begins by discussing the meaning of the term, moving then to its origins, paying particular attention to whether it is Charles Darwin or Herbert Spencer who is the true father of the idea. It gives an exposition of early thinking on the subject, covering Darwin and Spencer themselves and then on to Social Darwinism as found in American thought, with special emphasis on Andrew Carnegie, and Germany with special emphasis on Friedrich von Bernhardi. Attention is also paid to outliers, notably the Englishman Alfred Russel Wallace, the Russian Peter Kropotkin, and the German Friedrich Nietzsche. From here we move into the twentieth century looking at Adolf Hitler - hardly a regular Social Darwinian given he did not believe in evolution - and in the Anglophone world, Julian Huxley and Edward O. Wilson, who reflected the concerns of their society.