Michael Ruse is Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science in the Department of Philosophy at Florida State University, Tallahassee. He kindly agreed to be interviewed on the subject of the philosophy of biology and its part in the creationism debate, as well as on some wider, related issues. He is the author of many works, including the recent Can a Darwinian be a Christian?, looking at the relationship between science and religion.
- Interviewed by Paul Newall (2005)
PN: You recently worked with William Dembski on the volume Debating Design. Some commentators have complained that in so doing you have afforded Intelligent Design credibility it does not deserve. Why do you think engaging ID is a better option than ignoring it, as other academics like Gould or Dawkins have done?
MR: Well, let us face up to it, I am neither Gould nor Dawkins, so what I have to say or to do has nothing like the effect that surrounds them. In one sense, I think I might be giving ID credibility, but in another sense not. I am very critical of ID and never conceal this fact. I put together a volume that has others very critical of ID. I am convinced of the power of reason - it is what I stand for - and by putting the stuff together I hope that some people might read and make the right decisions. Also, I am very much aware that before the Arkansas trial, we evolutionists did nothing, and then things happened. So this time, I try to do something! I did ask Dawkins to participate, and he refused and I respected that decision - I still do.
PN: You have said with regard to Creationists that you "think our arguments are better than theirs and hence I am willing to be judged alongside them". One objection to debating creationists, however, is that skilful rhetoric and well-directed sound bites may win the day over reasoned argument, especially given the limited time allotted to most such encounters. How do you answer this criticism?
MR: True, sound bites do succeed too well. The last presidential election showed this. But I would like to think that there might also be a place for reason and this is where I try to come in. If reason does not count, then close down the universities, especially the philosophy departments.
PN: One of your own complaints against evolutionists is that some of them have been "too damn busy doing their research while Rome burns around them". What are the issues surrounding Creationism that have you so concerned and why are they important enough that academics should put aside their work to address them?
MR: I think that creationism is fundamentalist religion of a particularly silly kind - rapture and Armageddon and all of that. It is also dangerous, as we see in the blind support of Israel by creationists. (Don't read me as being anti-Israel, I am not. I am anti-anti- any kind of critical discussion of the Israel-Palestinian problems, and I think the settlements are just dreadful and wrong. I also feel shame as a European that we made Europe so awful for the Jews that they felt they had to leave.) I see the Iraq invasion as part and parcel of the simplistic Christian attitude that other religions are bad and that we can distinguish black from white and clean things up readily. Saddam Hussein was an evil man, but sometimes in this world one has to be more subtle about dealing with evil.
PN: What role does the philosophy of science (and in particular the philosophy of biology) have to play in the Creationism debate and the wider issues surrounding it?
PN: Following your experiences in Arkansas in 1981, Larry Laudan was critical of the approach that sought to define science, thereby leading to Creationism being judged non-science and hence not suitable for the classroom. Why did you feel this was the best course to take and do you still think the same in hindsight?
MR: We were fighting a court case. The US constitution bars the teaching of religion in science classes; it does not bar the teaching of bad science! We here at FSU are debating the possible existence of a school of chiropractic that the legislature has pushed on us. Many of us are arguing against it, but not on constitutional grounds. Larry Laudan is a Monday morning quarterback.
PN: Other than Creationism, what are the major issues concerning the philosophy of biology today in your opinion?
MR: The usual - species, reduction, the nature of evolutionary theory, teleology, and so forth. Evo-devo (evolutionary development) is the big topic in evolutionary biology at the moment and rightly attracting the attention of the philosophers.
PN: How would you explain the relevance of the philosophy of biology to laymen and, more specifically, those who are hostile to philosophy in general?
MR: Don't bother - I have other things to do. I defend my job as a teacher by showing that I am educating my students about important issues and teaching them how to write and so forth. For the rest, I simply say that man does not live by bread alone and leave it at that. (That is not quite true, because obviously I am interested in social issues - but I don't justify the doing of philosophy of biology as such in pragmatic terms)
PN: What would you say the representative opinion of the philosophy of biology is among biologists? In general, do scientists appreciate the input of philosophers of science?
MR: I could not care less, and that does not bother me at all. I think the biggest mistake a philosopher can make is to try to be a handmaiden for others. I have my problems and biologists have their problems. Leave it at that.
PN: What projects are you currently working on?
MR: I am trying to understand the natures of science and religion compared to each other. I am working now on a book about change and innovation in science and religion and whether they have similarities. We face in America today a big divide between science and religion, and I want to see if this is just contingent or necessary. I will not solve all of the problems in my lifetime, but I can try! I have another book coming out, Darwinism and its Discontents, that takes on the anti Darwinians - religious and otherwise.