Interview: Michael Ruse on Evolution, Creationism, and Religion

Daniel Ansted

Creationism vs Evolution

Michael Ruse is a professor of philosophy at Florida State University and a worldwide expert on the relationship between religion and science. His work has focused especially on the convoluted relationship between the American public and Darwinian evolution; he famously testified in McLean vs. Arkansas in 1981 that creation science – a form of Christian creationism that claims to be scientifically valid – should not be allowed in public science classes, because it features virtually none of the characteristics of true science. Contributor Daniel Ansted studied under Ruse during his time at FSU, and recently asked his former mentor for an interview. Here is their (slightly abridged, and still fascinating) conversation.

Daniel Ansted: According to the 2012 Gallup poll, belief that God created humans in their present form is near an all-time high, rising from 40% to 46% in the last two years. What do you make of this? Do you think this trend is going to continue?

Michael Ruse: My gut feeling is that the figures are not going to grow a great deal higher. I would’ve thought the 50% or so of Americans who are creationists are about as high as you’re going to go. The 50% or so who do not believe in creationism include scientists and liberal Christians and others. I would not have thought them very fertile ground for conversion.

The interesting question, it seems to me, is whether the 50% of Americans who are creationists will shrink at all. One would like to think that perhaps this might happen, but my sense is that the shrinkage is not going to be very great unless there are significant changes in society, including education. So I doubt that we are going to see a figure much lower than 40% for a long time.

DA: You have stated that ethics is just a biological adaptation, like feet, hands, and eyes. Thus, ethics have no objective referent. What are the implications for the study of religion, insofar as religions typically have moral components?

MR: I have certainly argued that ethics is just a biological adaptation, and have gone even further than that to argue that the notion of an objective ethics is either unnecessary or incoherent or both. (Just) because something is an adaptation, it does not follow what the adaptation senses is unreal. My eyes are adaptations, and yet I am fully convinced that the train speeding towards me is perfectly real. What I argue, however, is that ethics is somewhat different, and that the notion of an objective ethics is incoherent and unneeded. I don’t see why a Christian would necessarily disagree with me. My position is very much that of a nominalist in mathematics. That sort of person does not say that there is no mathematics; it is just that they deny Platonism, that is to say the idea of an independently existing mathematics. My position lends itself very readily to a natural law interpretation of ethics, that is to say the kind of position accepted and promoted by St. Thomas Aquinas. I would say that inasmuch as we are humans with human nature, we necessarily have some kind of ethical sense and that this is part of our nature.

DA: It seems that you are in an odd position. You state that you are a non-believer who nevertheless argues that Darwinism and Christianity are compatible. Because of this you have made enemies of atheists and creationists alike. Could you explain why you think that Darwinism and Christianity are compatible, and where the tensions might lie?

MR: I see nothing in Darwinism that should upset the Christian, although I fully admit that the Christian is going to have to work hard on some issues. Obviously you cannot be a Darwinian and believe in a totally literal interpretation of Genesis. However, at least since the time of St. Augustine around 400 A.D. it has been the Christian position that one can and indeed must interpret the Bible metaphorically at times. So I don’t think that literal readings are necessarily part of traditional Christianity, even though they are certainly part of American evangelical Christianity.

Of course, there are certain issues which come up from Darwinism which seem to give great worries for the Christian. Most obviously, there is the problem of evil. I myself am inclined to think that the problem of evil in itself is a fatal barrier for Christian belief. The question rather is whether or not Darwinism exacerbates the problem. I would argue that it does not. For instance, I am inclined take Leibniz’s position on the problem of natural evil. If God created through law – and I think there are good theological reasons why God would create through law – then probably the only way in which he could have created humans naturally is through the Darwinian process of natural selection brought on by a struggle for existence. The struggle for existence necessarily involves pain and suffering. So my position here would be that pain and suffering are a necessary condition of getting a greater good, namely humankind.

My personal feeling is that probably the biggest problem of all is that of the randomness of Darwinian evolution, and yet of the necessity of the appearance of humans in the Christian schema. My most recent thinking on this issue is to invoke the notion of multiverses. Since humans have evolved, it’s all a question of enough time and space to do this. Of course one might wonder about God having to wait so long for humans to evolve, since planet after planet might prove to be unsuitable. But in the Christian position this is no real problem because, as Saint Augustine argued, God stands outside time. He is not sitting around waiting for things to happen. So I do think that this is a problem that can be solved.

More positively, I would argue that this is a wonderful world brought about by natural law. It is a world of mystery and excitement. This, it seems to me, fits far more with a creator God of Christianity than the god who simply did it all by fiat in an instantaneous miracle. In many respects, therefore, I want to argue that, far from being a difficulty, Christianity finds Darwinism to be a challenge and a triumph. The Christian should welcome Darwinism just as he or she welcomes the Copernican revolution. Science is not the enemy of religion, but its complement.

DA: You often contrast professional evolution with popular evolution. Popular evolution, you argue, can be an alternative for religion. Can you describe the differences between these two concepts? What implications does this distinction have for a relationship between evolution and particular religious traditions, especially Christianity?

MR: By professional evolution I mean the kind of work done in biology departments at Boston University or Florida State University, using Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. By popular evolution, I mean a kind of world picture which tries to give an overall explanation of things. The way I see popular evolution functioning in our society today is often as something inherently progressive, where human beings have a major role to play in the story. I’m not criticizing popular evolution in itself. What I am saying is that it is not the same as professional evolution, and that people should recognize this fact.

DA: You are very critical of the New Atheists. In particular, you once said that Dawkins’s God Delusion makes you ashamed to be an atheist. Could you explain where you think Dawkins went wrong?

My objection to the New Atheists is not to atheism as such. My objection is to the rather crude arguments that they put forward in favor of their position. In the God Delusion Dawkins shows appalling ignorance of both philosophy and theology. He seems to think that he is the first person ever to ask the question “who caused God?” And with this, he seems to think he has an irrefutable objection to the cosmological argument for the existence of God. He is fully unaware of the fact that people like Thomas Aquinas have wrestled with this and proposed the notion of a necessary being, that is to say a being with aseity. I suppose, in a sense, this is partly a turf war, because I am a philosopher and I expect my subject to be taken seriously. But I think that the New Atheists do a disservice, whatever my personal feelings.

DA: In Mclean vs. Arkansas you testified against including creation science in a science curriculum. What were your arguments, and do you still maintain your position?

MR: My argument in Arkansas in 1981 was that creation science simply doesn’t have exhibit any of the major epistemic virtues that we associate with science. It is not particularly predictive, makes little or no effort to be consistent with other parts of science, and is certainly not enamored with the notion of simplicity. And I don’t see that it is fertile in the sense of leading to new problems calling for solutions. All of these are characteristics of good science, like Newtonian mechanics and Darwinian evolution. At the same time, creation science is clearly motivated by religious considerations.

It is not a matter of excluding one set of ideas rather than another. In medical schools, for instance, we do not teach alternative forms of medicine as equal to conventional medicine. Of course, just as I could imagine that medical education might involve learning something of alternative medicines, because you are certainly going to encounter them in real life, so also I could see a place for discussing creationism in schools in classes on contemporary affairs. In fact, I would welcome such discussions. But not in science classrooms!

DA: You have spent a lot of time defending Darwin in the public sphere. Could you briefly comment on why you feel Darwin is important?

MR: Basically, I defend Darwin’s theory because I think it’s true! It is a wonderful theory which explains a great deal about the world in which we live and also about human nature. It really matters that we are the end products of a long process of evolution through natural selection. Everybody, including philosophers, should start there and get on with the job.

DA: Do you also feel that knowing the history of Darwinism and evolutionary science is important for the general populace? If so, how much do you think they should know?

MR: Do I think knowing the history of Darwinism is important? I think some history is important for everything. I don’t see how you could be a responsible American without knowing something of the founding of the country, about the American Revolution, about the Civil War. I feel the same about the history of science, including the history of Darwin’s science. Having said that, I don’t think that one necessarily has to be an expert on the Civil War to be a good American, nor do I think one has to be an expert on Darwinian history to be a good scientist.

DA: How, if at all, do you think that other types of science denial (i.e., denial of climate change) are connected to a denial of evolution?

MR: I don’t think there’s any question that denial of things like global warming is part and parcel of the same things which lead to denial of evolutionary theory. I would want to include a great deal about the social sciences. We know that global warming is denied because people think that God has given the Earth to humans and, whatever happens, God will protect us. This is similar to the Genesis-based argument against evolution. I suspect that some of the same factors enter into the denial of social science, particularly when it comes to things like human nature. It is clear today that something like homosexuality is not a sin, or something that one deliberately chooses, but is due to a number of social and probably biological factors. Those who deny this or who want to argue that humans could be straight if they really wanted to are often using the same background foundations of those who deny evolution and global warming. So, yes, I do see this as a package deal.

DA: You often stress the importance of evolution for what we know and how we can know. In short, you support a specific type of evolutionary epistemology. Could you describe this position and explain its overall significance?

MR: I believe that knowledge is a combination of culture and biology. For instance, we think causally because those of our ancestors who did think causally survived and reproduced. We believe in circumstantial evidence because of biology. A proto-human who went down to the pond late at night and saw signs of violence and drops of blood, and heard growling in the undergrowth, and said “Lions! Run away!” was more likely to survive and reproduce them one who simply said “Lions! Just a hypothesis, not a fact!” and went on drinking.

Then, obviously, culture comes into play as we grow up in one society rather than another and learn different ideas and habits and so forth. I think metaphors are very important in understanding, and obviously different societies have different metaphors. Somebody who lives on plains is unlikely to have metaphors about mountains.

DA: Readers might be surprised to find out that you have edited a book with noted Intelligent Design theorist William Dembski. Do you still maintain a friendly relationship with him and/or other ID theorists? Are they pleasant to work with? 

MR: I try never to let professional differences get in the way of personal relationships. It is not always easy. I have a very tense relationship with Richard Dawkins at the moment, because we differ so strongly over issues to do with the spread of atheism and how one should combat creationism. But I’ve always been of the opinion that we are all humans here on Earth trying to work things out, and we should try to get along as best we can. Obviously there would be some limits to this – I don’t think I would ever want to have a personal relationship with a Nazi, for instance. But although I think creationism is false and dangerous, I’m more inclined to think that the proponents of creationism are caught in a cultural timewarp, and that they are deluded rather than evil.

DA: Some scholars have called ID ‘Creationism’s Trojan Horse’ or have stated that ID is nothing but creationism reframed. Do you see a significant difference between creationism and Intelligent Design? Why or why not?

MR: Obviously, there are differences between intelligent design theory and scientific creationism. Although some intelligent design theorists do subscribe to a fairly literal reading of the Bible, it is certainly not part of the intelligent design program. Michael Behe, one of the most important intelligent design theorists, is something of a theistic evolutionist. So clearly there are differences. Having said this, I see very significant similarities. I see underlying both scientific creationism and intelligent design theory a socio-cultural program with very strong views on the morality of certain behaviors and beliefs. In particular I see the intelligent designers and scientific creationists taking a very conservative position on such issues as gay marriage, abortion, feminism, capital punishment, and many other related issues. If you look at the work of people like Henry Morris, the leading creation scientist, you see the same conservative moral agenda.

DA: In Science and Spirituality you describe science as an exercise in metaphorical explanation. Could you describe this position in more detail, and explain what this means for the authority of science and its relationship to religion?

MR: In Science and Spirituality I argue strongly that science is not just an exploration of the world, but an explanation through the use of metaphor. The scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries was essentially a change in metaphors. One went from the Aristotelian metaphor of the world as organic to the Cartesian metaphor of the world as a machine. I argue therefore that today’s science is one infused by the root metaphor of the machine. In Science and Spirituality I tried to show that this is the case in physics, and then in biology, and finally in cognitive science. Having made this point, I then go on to argue that, although metaphors are very powerful, they work in part by excluding some questions from their domain. Again this is not a particularly controversial view and it is one that was promoted strongly by Thomas Kuhn, who argued that his notion of paradigms should be linked to the notion of metaphor. The world-as-a-machine metaphor excludes certain questions – for instance the question of why there is something rather than nothing, what is the basis what is consciousness, and what is the meaning of it all.

Here I think the religious person has the scope for work and for offering answers. And obviously this is what religions do. For instance, the Christian argues that there is something rather than nothing because God created the world, that God stands behind morality, that consciousness is in some sense being made in the image of God, and that the purpose of the world is for us to find ultimate happiness with God our creator. I don’t say that these answers are beyond criticism. As I pointed out earlier, I think that the problem of evil poses a grave challenge to the Christian position. But I don’t think that the believer, specifically the Christian, can be criticized on the grounds of science for offering solutions. I should say that I’m not sure my position found much favor either with believers or nonbelievers. But perhaps this is a mark in its favor, because if everybody disagrees with what you say, you may just possibly be saying something worth saying!

  • Paul Bruggink

    Michael Ruse has always been and continues to be my favorite atheist. Unlike certain other atheists, he is knowledgeable about Christianity and is able to intelligently discuss the Christian perspective on creation-evolution issues and to make positive contributions to the debate. His answer to your third question (“Could you explain why you think that Darwinism and Christianity are compatible, and where the tensions might lie? “) is a perfect example of what I mean. I wish more Christians would seriously consider some of his views.
    Thank you for providing this transcript of the interview.

  • kenneth

    It’s a complete waste of oxygen, time and ATP to argue to Christians that creationism and evolution are compatible. The civilized ones have accepted that for a long time. The rest are not going to be persuaded by any argument or logic.

  • Jeff

    Why, Kenneth, should Christians accept Darwinian evolution as compatible with Biblical orthodoxy?