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An Interview with Michael Ruse

Posted By Paul Comstock On April 3, 2007 @ 9:16 pm In Non-Fiction Reviews,Religion,Science | 20 Comments

“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

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