The first-rate "Blackwell Great Minds" series is fairly new, but already offers a number of noteworthy volumes, such as Kant, by Allen Wood. The series follows outstandingly with the present publication of Charles Darwin, by Michael Ruse, well known for his important text, "Philosophy of Biology". Ruse is an important figure in evolutionary biology and evolutionary thought. Being "Lucyle T. Werkmeister" Professor of Philosophy at the Florida State University, he has published relevant studies about Darwin and his legacy and has also founded an important Journal: "Biology and Philosophy". Perhaps this book about the life, work, thought and influence of Charles Darwin can be seen as an accumulation of Ruse's enthralling and especially steadfast research.
We may talk at present of the "hour" of Charles Darwin, at the same time a great scientist as well as thinker, owing to varied and multiple reasons. It is adequate here to point out a few of them, for instance: the importance of evolutionary thought applied to the sciences, from psychology, biology, and the natural sciences in general, but also the by the traditions of "humanistic sciences" like philosophy and, last but not least, religion and theology. Together with the outstanding elucidation of Darwin's thought (in this regard the articles of Olivia Judson in "The New York Times "and the free open access" to Darwin's Works in the Web sponsored by Cambridge University are relevant), the book can doubtless be greeted as an outstanding work on the study and reading of Darwin in the aforementioned enriching frameworks.
Ruse stresses how philosophy has an important place in the personal thought and systematic researches of Darwin, from the readings of his youth (Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hume, etc.) to his great and avant-garde ideas. Ruse argues that Darwin's insights have a great relevance in the fields of epistemology and ethics. He focuses on On the Origin of Species and to some degree on The Descent of Man, works with plenty of philosophical and theological presuppositions, frames and conclusions.
In twelve chapters Ruse deals, with a very fine and witty style, with the scientific significance of Darwin himself as well as with his philosophical profile, but without trying to present Darwin as an infallible scientist, instead introducing his work and thought within the chronological context of his era and taking seriously the subsequent advancement of the science initiated by Darwin's work.
Darwin was at all times, from his early days as child, fascinated and concerned with science. As a child he, together with his brother Erasmus, did interesting experiments in chemistry. Later (1828), at Cambridge University, he happily found brilliant professors and tutors who were also passionate for botany, geology, and mineralogy. The religious atmosphere of Cambridge, the "Beagle" and its meaning in the progress of Darwin as scientist, etc. are familiar details but Ruse explains them with a readable and elegant style, and without neglecting the addition of new details.
On the Origin of Species (1859) is contextualized within the history of the agricultural trends leading up to the industrial revolution. The examination of the life of pigeons is very important to show how Darwin elaborated his theory and how he gradually developed a key element of its content: artificial and natural selection. Natural selection--a key concept and methodological tool--sets out the "principle of divergence" (why the widespread dispersion of the species?). Still, at a certain level, Darwin didn't want to put together an ultimate theory . But the famous "Naturphilosophie", with its assumption of the nature of the inorganic and organic world based essentially on archetypical ideas and the feature of self-repetition was Darwin's background. It was a physical and evolutionary World/Nature, and the individual life only reflects the most general archetype or, as Hegel points out it, Idea or "Geist'. Between the founders of "Naturphilosophie" there were scientists like the morphologist Lorenz Oken and renowned philosophers and poets like Schelling, Hegel and Goethe. In accordance with these views, Darwin asserts that life, individual and general, is shaped with a necessary inevitability and, developing his own original view different from the standard pattern of the German scientist of "Naturphilosophie, Darwin states that interconnection and adaptedness are important but secondary in Evolution. In the "Naturphilosophie" group they were, contrariwise, indispensable and primary traits.
Ruse moves on to study the influence of Darwin, neo-Darwinism, from Gregor Mendel through a broad group of scientists dealing with evolutionary issues, like Dawkins, Gould, and E. O. Wilson (to whom Ruse dedicated his book), etc. In this sense the book is an outstanding introduction to sociobiology, biogeography, embryology, and particularly, in my opinion, on the trans-scientific "concept" of nature (and therefore cosmos). Darwin received the discoveries of his time critically and scientifically, and he integrated new facts into a further systematic conception. Darwinian theory is a part or chain in the vast field of the research of his time. Ruse calls this aspect the dynamic peculiarity of Darwinism.
The last two chapters are dedicated to morality and to the origins of religion. Darwin was unquestionably not a metaphysician but a scientist searching how or in which way morality appears as observable fact. Otherwise, Darwin agreed with an essential, common ground and normative morality: an average right rule of human rational/natural/cosmic dealings. The motivation of our scientist was not as such the classical ethical/moral outlines of Kant but rather the philosophical approach of David Hume and for that reason in the better empirical British tradition pertaining to ethics.
In relation to "social Darwinism", Ruse avows the correlation between evolution and ethics as having great importance for the future of the human race. But, quoting a famous reference of the philosopher G.E. Moore (1903) about the "naturalistic fallacy", Ruse states also that we cannot derive ethical statements from factual ones.
Ruse thinks "that what Darwin did was produce one of the most important works in human history". Doubtless!