Interview with Tim Lewens

In March 2007, Paul White of the Darwin Correspondence Project interviewed Tim Lewens of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. Dr Lewens is the author of Organisms and Artifacts (2004), which examines the language and arguments for design in biology and philosophy. He has also just completed a book on the role of Darwin and Darwinism in modern philosophy: Darwin (2007). In this interview, Dr Lewens discusses the role of Darwin in modern science, the arguments for intelligent design in nature, the implications of evolution for religious belief, and the importance of a historical understanding of Darwin’s work.


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Dr Tim Lewens is a Lecturer in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science
at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Organisms and
artifacts
(2004), which examines the language and arguments for design in
biology and philosophy, and of Darwin (2007), which considers the role
of Darwin and Darwinism in modern philosophy. In this interview, Dr Lewens discusses
the role of Darwin in modern science, the arguments for intelligent design in
nature, the implications of evolution for religious belief, and the importance of a
historical understanding of Darwin’s work.

Contents:

  1. 1.
    Introduction

    Dr White:
    This is part of a series of interviews that the Darwin Correspondence
    Project at the University of Cambridge is holding with leading
    scientists and scholars in a wide range of fields, and our aim is to
    discuss the importance of Darwin, historically and today, and to focus
    on some of the conversations that he had with his correspondents about
    the nature of religious belief and the moral and theological
    implications of evolution. We’re joined today by Tim Lewens. Tim is a
    philosopher of biology. He teaches in the Department of History and
    Philosophy of Science at Cambridge, and he’s written two books that are
    directly relevant to our concerns: Organisms and artifacts,
    which examines the language and arguments for design in biology, and -
    just out – a wonderful book on Darwin and philosophy. Thanks very much,
    Tim.

    Dr Lewens:
    Well, thank you for the flattering introduction.

  2. 2. The
    unusual role Darwin plays today

    Dr White:
    In your most recent book, you remark on the extremely unusual role
    Darwin plays today. Darwin’s works, though written a hundred and fifty
    years ago, continue to be read, not just by historians of science but by
    modern scientists. Why do you think this is the case?

    Dr Lewens:
    It’s a good question. Part of the reason, I think, is just that the
    works, by and large, are extraordinarily accessible. Or at least, the
    ones that we know best now, one of the things they probably have in
    common is precisely their accessibility. The origin of
    species
    is an extremely easy read, certainly by the standards of
    most scientific books; the same’s true of The descent of
    man
    ; the same’s true of The expression of the emotions in
    man and animals
    . The books which aren’t read so much these
    days are probably the books which, frankly, are a bit of a harder read.
    So, Darwin’s study of variation, for example, in plants and animals
    [The variation of animals and plants under
    domestication
    ], is, I guess, not one that’s widely read. So, part
    of the reason is the accessibility of the books.

    Another reason, I
    suppose, is basically the thought that, basically, Darwin got it right:
    in some sense or another, Darwin’s view of evolution is, at least many
    scientists think, basically the same view we have now. And I think,
    again, in broad terms, that’s about right, although I have a few little
    adjustments I’d like to make.

    And another reason is that Darwin puzzles over so many of the conceptual issues that face modern evolutionary biologists now: issues about progress, issues about ethics, issues about morality, the mind, knowledge, and so forth. So, he’s a repository for debate about debates that we have right
    now.

  3. 3.
    Darwin’s reputation among scientists

    Dr White:
    Let me just take this one step further. Modern scientists not only read
    his work, but some identify with him to an exceptional degree, to the
    point of calling themselves Darwinians or proponents of
    Darwinism. We don’t find this strong identification of a
    particular theory with a person anywhere else in science. Do you think
    this has something to do with how Darwin’s reputation was forged in the
    19th century: the ways in which both his name and work were linked to
    the progress of knowledge?

    Dr Lewens:
    Yes.

    I think it’s an
    interesting question about why it is that people call themselves
    Darwinians now. One thing I’ve remarked on in the book is that you don’t
    find this kind of analagous phrase Einsteinians bandied around,
    even though, certainly, Einstein is as important for physics, I would
    say, as Darwin is for biology.

    There’s a
    perception which I think probably started towards the end of the 19th
    century but which has in some ways taken over again at perhaps an even
    stronger level than before, and that’s the idea that Darwinism is a
    theory that has massive implications for all kinds of different areas:
    areas that range, as I’ve said, from not just the origin of plant
    species and animal species but issues about the nature of morality,
    issues about God, issues that go to the very heart of what people have
    tended to think of as deep philosophical questions. And so, if you think
    that Darwin’s basic views really do have implications in such a broad
    array of areas then it’s hardly surprising, I think, that some people
    are going to want to call themselves Darwinians: they’re going to want
    to make a philosophical ism – a philosophical position – out of
    this view, in a way that may not happen for other influential scientists
    whose views, to be sure, are very important for physics but maybe don’t
    have that kind of all-encompassing aspect that, as I say, some people
    have viewed as certainly inherent in Darwin’s work.

  4. 4. The
    expanding scope of biology

    Dr White:
    So this has something to do with the current status of biology, which
    has expanded into the other domains, like psychology, like even
    religion, and also the kinds of claims and promises that are often made
    with regard to genetics, so that Darwinism, for some, has become a kind
    of total world view: a vision of how the future ought to be and, for
    some, a weapon in a battle that’s ongoing?

    Dr Lewens:
    I think that’s right. One other thing I’d add to that, if I can, is:
    what’s usually stripped out from Darwin’s own work now as in some ways
    being the most important idea, is the idea of natural
    selection. One of the things that many people claim for the idea of
    natural selection is that it’s a very simple idea, and a very simple
    idea with extremely general application. And many people think that
    natural selection is nothing more than differential survival of one kind
    of thing over another kind of thing. If you characterise natural
    selection in such a general way, then people begin to apply it to all
    kinds of areas. They don’t just apply it to plants and animals, they
    apply it to changing ideas; they apply it to changing neural patterns;
    they apply it in economics’; they apply it all over the place – and
    that’s another reason, I think, why Darwinism has been viewed to have
    such an enormous significance and why, for some people, it is a kind of
    world view. It’s because what, for many people these days, is certainly
    the essence of Darwinism, is also an extremely simple and extremely
    abstract idea which in turn allows it to be applied and reapplied in
    slightly different ways in all kinds of domains: not just, even, within
    biology.

  5. 5. Does
    historical accuracy about Darwin matter?

    Dr White:
    Part of what we’re seeing today is a struggle over Darwin’s name and
    legacy. You’re careful, in your book, to distinguish between Darwin and
    Darwinism: between what Darwin himself wrote and what others have
    claimed in his name. Given how much has changed in the natural sciences
    - and in biology in particular – why should the historical Darwin matter
    at all?

    Dr Lewens:
    Well, in a funny way, I think your preamble to that question contains
    the answer within it. I mean, the very fact that Darwin himself is used
    today by prominent biologists, the very fact that there are disputes
    over what the real nature of Darwinism is, and the fact that Darwin is
    always invoked to try to boost one kind of reading of a good Darwinism
    compared with a bad Darwinism, partly shows the importance of looking at
    what Darwin himself really said. You need to look at whether or not
    these invocations of Darwin for one side or another really are
    legitimate. And I think you might add to that that as well as simply
    seeing whether or not the invocations of Darwin which real biologists
    these days make quite regularly are historically accurate.

    There are also, I
    think, some interesting things to learn about how one might go about
    constructing a view of the world – a general view of life; a general
    philosophy – by looking at Darwin’s own claims more directly, as
    well.