California Literary Review

An Interview with Michael Ruse

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April 3rd, 2007 at 9:16 pm

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“For the First World, America is the only country that has not taken the Enlightenment seriously.”

Michael Ruse

Michael Ruse is a professor of Philosophy at Florida State University and an expert on the social and philosophical consequences of Darwin’s theories. His latest book is The Evolution-Creation Struggle which recounts the historical conflict between evolutionist and creationist thinking.

Is it appropriate to teach Intelligent Design (ID) in biology class? Is ID a legitimate scientific theory?
To answer the second question first, I don’t think that it is. I think that any supposed science that appeals to causes that are non-natural is not a science as we understand the concept today – and incidentally as people understood it in the past. Of course, one might say that the intelligent designer is not necessarily non-natural, but then what or who is he/her? An extra-terrestrial? Obviously it is God or a god, and hence is non-natural.Now to answer the first question, I do not think it appropriate to teach non-science in a biology class – especially non-science that is really a form of literalist Christianity in disguise. Even if it were appropriate, I would not want the kind of conservative evangelical religion taught, that I think ID represents. But it is not appropriate and in the US is illegal.
Having said this, I would like to see comparative religion classes in US high schools and would be happy to see ID and Creationism generally taught as topics here – along with other forms of Christianity, and Islam (in this day, I think this is very important), and other world religions. But they would be taught as topics and not as the truth.

Following Darwin there were still weaknesses in the theory of natural selection that prevented it from rising to the level of an accepted scientific field. What scientific breakthroughs occurred to help it achieve validity?
The two major perceived scientific weaknesses in Darwin’s theory were the need for a much older earth than the physicists allowed (they thought the earth about 100 million years, max, and in the first edition of the Origin Darwin had supposed that the age of the mammals alone was 300 million years.) As we now know, Darwin was not at fault here – the physicists were unaware of the warming effects of radioactive decay, which gives natural selection quite enough time to do its work. The second perceived weakness was genuine, namely that Darwin had no real explanation of heredity – that had to wait until Mendel’s work was rediscovered.But I would want to say that the delay in acceptance of Darwin was not really something to do essentially with the scientific issues, but rather that Huxley and Spencer and company wanted to have a theory that they could use as a religion substitute – they were not really interested in using Darwin’s ideas as a full scientific theory – a professional theory.

Where are the current weaknesses in the theory of natural selection? Is it a matter of filling in some of the details, or are there unanswered questions that threaten it as an all encompassing explanation of evolution?
My position would be that there are no glaring weaknesses – something definitely rotten in the system. However I would say that there is still much work to be done that will fill out and no doubt transform our thinking as time goes by. In particular, in the past twenty years we have seen the rise of evo devo (evolutionary development) – which in a way is still scratching the surface of issues. I am sure that this will lead to new thoughts and ideas – not in competition with natural selection but complementing it and so forth. I am not one like the late Steve Gould who thinks that we must throw much out and start again. The fact is that problems are difficult, but that is no reason in the day of DNA and computers and so forth to give up.
What does the term “irreducibly complex” mean, and how is it being used to challenge Darwin? How do Darwinians respond?
These are supposed phenomena that are too complex to have been produced slowly and piecemeal by a process like natural selection – therefore they must have been put in place by an intelligence. A mousetrap is Behe’s example and then he moves on to micro motors in cells. Basically this is the argument from design as given by Paley and others, brought up to date with new examples. Darwinians like me reply that these phenomena do not do what Behe claims. That complex things tend to be put together from other parts of the body/cell, and that these parts have functions – it may also be that after a complex entity is put together, natural selection then removes unneeded parts and now the entity could not function if one or more parts were removed. A dry stone bridge would collapse if the keystone were removed, but it was built using an earth or wood foundation, and when the bridge was in place, the support or foundation was removed.
Alfred Russel Wallace is an interesting character in your book. Not only was he the co-discoverer of natural selection, but he took an almost 21st Century politically correct view of its repercussions. Can you tell us about him?
Alfred Russel Wallace is an interesting character. He was part brilliant scientist and part visionary/crackpot. He was always endorsing new and controversial ideas – evolution, feminism, socialism, and so forth. His later great passion was spiritualism. The scientific community did not know quite what to make of him, so in the end they refused him jobs but got him a state pension! I see him as the kind of man who always wanted to take the radical, unpopular position – and that his early evolutionism was part of this. Of course, there were others in his day into feminism and so forth – it was just that he uniquely had scientific genius (he did some excellent work in the 1870s into biogeography).
You argue that the Darwin vs. Creation argument is often a battle of two religions. Can you explain that?
Well, of course, this is what my new book is about. I am not saying that Darwinian theory is always religious – it is not. I am saying that often evolutionists use their science to do more than science and to give a world picture – origins, special place for humans at the top, moral directives – that we associate with religion. Creationism I argue flatly is a religion – the religion of biblical literalist, American protestant evangelicals of a right wing persuasion. Creationists deny that their position is purely religious, but I think that they do this to avoid the separation of church and state embedded in the US constitution. I suspect that many Darwinians will take issue with my claim that any part of their theorizing is religious – but I have made my case and rest it.
What is your personal view on the origin of life and its evolution?
Well, we have not solved it yet, but we have made major progress – both in working out when it came and what directions it took – following the path up to the Cambrian. Also molecular biology is working hard to see how life might have started in the first place. The latest hypothesis is that RNA might have been the first key molecule. People say that the problem is too complex to solve. I say, the problem is complex but for the first time we have the tools to give the solution are real try and we should be optimistic rather than pessimistic.Note that I do not talk about the origin of life much in this book (or human evolution) – mainly because these are not issues absolutely central to my main theme about the evolution-creation dispute being essentially a debate between two world views or religions.

Are there other countries in the world where the Evolution-Creation debate is as intense as America’s? If not, what do you think accounts for our unique struggle with this issue?
America is certainly unique in this sense – of course, many fundamentalist Muslims are not keen on evolution, but I do not sense that there is major conflict in the mid and far East. Science is simply not an issue in these countries. For the First World, America is the only country that has not taken the Enlightenment seriously. Where you find creationism in other countries – there is a bit in Canada, for instance – you find that has been imported from the US. After all, American Protestants have been in business for a long time. Why is America unique? Well, this is the subject of my new book, The Evolution-Creation Struggle. I argue that after the Revolution, America became a uniquely Protestant religious country, where the Bible plays a crucial role, and that this has persisted to this day. We are not living with a situation that simply appeared in the past decade, but that must be followed right back into the past for full understanding. But then, you would expect an evolutionist like me to say th
  • anonymous

    Ah, were that there were some real heavyweight englightenment apologists around, like Mencken or Huxley. Then we might really see some fireworks in this whole ID debate. But all we got is the flaccid prose of Michael Ruse and the cartoonish Brit snobbery and over-protested fit throwing of Richard Dawkins. (sigh). The Enlightenment ain’t what it used to be.

  • Kevin Holtsberry

    I am late to this conversation, but I just have to say that I simply can’t take seriously a man who would say that “For the First World, America is the only country that has not taken the Enlightenment seriously.” That is a laughable statement.

  • EmmaPeel

    I enjoy Ruse’s writing, & I guess I’ll have to go & get this book.

    This quote is almost heartbreaking: “For the First World, America is the only country that has not taken the Enlightenment seriously.” Please tell me it isn’t true!

  • Cliff Mather

    Wow, at least the guy is honest. Many evolutionists have an agenda and push their worldview just as hard as the most fanatic creationists.

    That’s the problem I have with the teaching of evolution: teachers (like my high school biology teacher) who support evolution because “the Bible is 2000 years old and so in all probability inaccurate.” It didn’t dawn on me at the time, but his training was in biology, not history or archaeology or textual criticism/analysis.

  • Steve

    I would just like to say that I agree with Mr. Ruse on the subject of ID being taught as a science class. I also do not believe that it is something that we today would see as a “science”. And also agree with him on the fact that it should be taught along with other religions, to give students a better concept of what is out there

  • charlie

    Dr Ruse’s comments on US law and constitution are the ones that really throw me. He says it is illegal to teach ID in a biology class. Since when? Where is that law? Dr Ruse also says that the idea of separation of church and state is in our constitution. First off, why is the state involved with education? Where is that in the constitution? I do not believe ID should be in a biology class room but there is no issue with the first amendment. The first amendment does not prohibit the idea of a creator. It does not prohibit the idea of God in all areas of government. It only was given to maintain respect for all views and avoid the pitfalls of one denomination or religion being prefered by govenment. I ask again, why is the govenment (especially the federal gov) doing the educating? Maybe there is a constitutional problem there since the federal gov was never given that reponsibility by the constitution. We should worry more about the over reaching power of the government and less about what a particular local school teaches. Charles schwartz

  • Jennifer

    In response to the comment:

    “Dr Ruse’s comments on US law and constitution are the ones that really throw me. He says it is illegal to teach ID in a biology class. Since when?”

    Well your answer to that is when US courts decided that last year in december in the Dover Trial, hello! “Dover Trial: Intelligent Design Violates Establishment Clause”

    Here you go:

    “Science, rationality, and the Constitution prevailed in Dover, where the school board tried to undermine the science underlying evolution by promoting a religious alternative, intelligent design. Judge John Jones III decided that the board’s policy violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by endorsing a religious belief.”

    “In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science,” Jones wrote. “We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.”

    The school board’s policy required teachers to inform biology students of “gaps” in Darwin’s theory of evolution while directing their attention to a book on intelligent design in the school library. Judge Jones was scathing in his criticism of the board members, who have since been voted off the school board.

    “The breathtaking inanity of the board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial,” Jones said in a 139-page decision. “The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.”

    Judge Jones (appointed by the current President Bush) recognized that religious extremists will brand him an activist judge. He answered those critics in advance: “this is manifestly not an activist Court.” Defending the Constitution is part of a judge’s job description. Judge Jones should be commended for doing his job fearlessly.

    More information (including a link to the opinion) is available at the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s website.

  • Harvey White

    Two comments:
    First, I find it strange that the intelligent design and/or creationists don’t challenge the teaching of Physics, Chemistry, etc. in the schools. Surely Physics is every bit as “uncreationist” as Biology, and in a more fundamental way.
    Second, re. Dr. Russe’s comment that the U.S. “is the only country that has not taken the enlightenment seriously. I would disagree. Fundamentalism takes the enlightenment and modernity very seriously (though naively), and, in fact, bases its basic suppositions on those of enlightenment modernity — e.g., the argument from design, the notion that knowledge is limited to scientific and historical description and understanding (an object “out there” — God or some galaxy — standing apart from the subject who is an observer or reader. They treat the Bible as though it was a scientific and historical conveyer of objective information. Their disagreement is simply over which of those texts to accept, in that respect not unlike a debate over whether to accept a Newtonian text book or one written by a quantum Physicist.

  • the other son of god

    For the First World, America is the only country that has not taken the Enlightenment seriously.?

    Religion has made this war-hungry nation great, and it keeps on feeding this hunger even today. Luckely Western-Europe has learned the real deal about religion and strifes for a free-thinking, critical society. Evolution is a fact, religion is a product of mass psychology: God did not creat Man, Man created God.

    Ps: For those people who do need the pressence of a creator: What makes you certain that your religion is right & other religions wrong?

  • Jeff

    Logically, if you assert something to be true based upon premises, the validity of the structure of the logic, and the validity of the premises must be examined to assess the validity of the conclusions.

    The problem with saying that ID should not be taught in the classroom is a bit like saying we can’t examine the premises evolution uses, period. (Evolution requires physical determinism for example) This rather arbitrary prohibition declares ‘truth’. I agree with Michael Ruse that science has a bit of a religious component to it.

    The issue, I believe, is that increasingly science is asking metaphysical questions. For example, reading literature on Magnetic Resonance Imaging, one increasingly sees references to the mind as an entity separate from the brain. The question is not should religion be asking scientific questions (we’ve seen what happens when it doesn’t), but rather should science be asking metaphysical ones?

    If we are willing impose this restriction on science, than it is science that must pull back not religion. Otherwise it is perfectly acceptable to allow proponents of ID to engage in the evolution debate.

  • Nathan

    His book is fascinating and truly fair. He makes a strong arguments.

  • steve

    Science has ushered in an age of peace and prosperity like no other religion before it. Europeans think they are smarter than the rest of the world. The racism that exists in America was inherited from our European forefathers. Their scientific minds seem to be growing in anti-semitism and islamophobia. Most of the world’s political problems can be traced to European arrogance.

  • anonymous

    Science has ushered in an age of peace and prosperity like no other religion before it? Peace and prosperity for who? For the nations
    of the Western world, yes, but 2
    billion people live in poverty in
    this “Englightened” world of yours.
    Of course, science has an important
    role to play in ending world poverty,
    but the problem also requires repentant people with changed hearts and minds, and for many religion is where this is found, whether it be Christianity, Islam or Buddhism.
    The Peace thing I also must question, because science was a significant element in the rise of the British Empire, the U.S Civil War, 1st and 2nd World Wars, and of course the cold war, with its nuclear arms race. And why do the
    supposedly humane and enlightened
    scientists today continue to develop
    laser guided and cluster bombs for the U.S military, and stealth bombers to deliver them? not to mention the trident submarines the U.K is planning on replacing with new advanced models?

  • Paul Richard Strange, Sr.

    Fascinating read!

    I am intrigued by not only the debate between nature as its own cause vs nature deliberately caused, but I am happy to read one who is obviously not favorable to Conservative Protestant Christians admit that many, many evolutionists have made a religion out of Darwinism. Still, Dr. Ruse seems to be saying that if liberals or unitarians, etc., were to be the perceived advocates, then it might not be so bad, because he doesn’t dislike them as much. Frankness is appreciated, in spite of this bias.

    I’ve been fascinated, too, by the utter dogma by which Dawkins can admit that there is an overwhelming appearance of design in the structure, function, and movement of our universe, and then, just as dogmatically, declare these appearances to be “illusions”.

    Here’s what I find interesting in the evolutionist critique of intelligent design: the simple fact that the word “design” unavoidably implies a designer is enough to deny, and or belittle, any observable evidence of design!

    Interesting.

    Paul Richard Strange, Sr.
    119 Marvin Gardens
    Waxahachie Texas 75165

  • http://genetips.com/2007/08/19/is-life-created/archive.htm Jim Thio

    Square water melons and genetically engineered food are samples that once in a while, life is created. Not a proof, but a plausibility.

  • Randy

    I enjoyed your book, The Evolution-Creation Struggle. I’d like to see more from you. My concern is, how can people act moral without the fear of punishment from a supernatural being?

  • Grampa Moses

    The funniest thing here is the indignant comments from the Americans. “How dare you call us illiterate and superstitious”. There are plenty of Americans who reject the brainwashing of the religious right. That there are even more who enthusiastically embrace it, is UNDENIABLE. Just look at the tone of these responses. How’s about this gem :

    “how can people act moral without the fear of punishment from a supernatural being”
    How conceited and self-absorbed can you get?

  • http://www.greenpeace.org Mat

    America is not as enlightened as other western countries in that it differs greatly in terms of being the only western country to have the death penalty; fundamentalism is more rampant in the US than any other western country and its medicare system is one of the worst.

  • Pingback: Is your religion up to it? « Lambda Delta

  • John Heininger

    The very foundation of science is founded on realities that “cannot” by explained by “naturalistic” causes. The whole empirical and scientific method operates on the reality that regulatity, order, predictable mathematical relationationships and natural laws exist, and that these can be discovered and harnessed for human benefit. The reality is that there is no “naturalistic” basis for the origin or nature of any of these phenomena. Thus all of science is ultimately dependent on phenomena that have no natural explanation.

    While the definition of science demands it be explained by “natural law”, the origin of natural law itself has no naturalistic answer. Thus we have an unexplainable reality, natural law, being used as the gate keeper to exclude all other unexplainable phenomena (particlly God).

    Ruse and company need to understand that all of science ultimately rests on phenomena that have no naturalistic explanation. This is true of the fine tuning of the cosmological constants, the solar system, our life supporting terrestrial earth, the orign of life itself, the origin of consciousness, our finely tuned interdependent eco systems, and a multitude of other factors, includng mind, music and language.

    In short, a cosmic designer is not only a philosophical option and necessity within science, but the foundational principle underlying all of science. Where there is no purely naturalistic explanation within our “dependent dying” universe, it is reasonable and rational to discuss he non-natural scientific options, considering science itself ultimately necessitates such realities, including the origin of the universe itself.

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