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An interview with Michael Ruse

Florida State University philosopher Michael Ruse has spent a career observing the ongoing cultural struggle between evolutionists and creationists. A prolific author and founder of the journal Biology and Philosophy, Ruse himself favors evolution but is quick to flag instances of hypocrisy and overzealousness in both positions.

In his latest book, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, Ruse calls for both sides to understand the assumptions underlying their arguments and to appreciate the intellectual history of their positions, to foster "a more informed and self-aware approach to the issues" in an increasingly fractious and impatient debate.

American Scientist Online managing editor Greg Ross interviewed Ruse by e-mail in August 2005.

You trace the worldviews connected with evolution and creationism to two different conceptions of the millennium in Christian eschatology. Can you sketch those briefly? Michael RuseClick to Enlarge Image

In my book, I trace the present conflict between evolutionists and creationists back to the Enlightenment. I argue that at the beginning of the 18th century there was something of a crisis of faith—could it be that God does not exist? (This is not my discovery, but a pretty standard position in history of Christianity studies.) There were two basic responses—back to God and faith, Providence, and forward with reason and human knowledge, Progress. Again, not my discovery. This explains on the one hand the rise of Methodism and Pietism, the First Great Awakening in America and so forth, and on the other hand the French philosophes like Voltaire and Diderot, as well as the British (often Scottish) thinkers like Adam Smith and David Hume. Evolution became part and parcel of the Progressivist movement, especially in people like Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin.

Both sides were obsessed about the future—the faith types about what God expects of us and what he promises (heaven or hell), the reason types with how much better we humans can make society and knowledge and so forth. Future obsessions like these are known as eschatological, especially when you put them in a theological/religious context. The point is—and, again, not my discovery—although the 18th-century debate was peculiar unto itself, the eschatology fit into already-existing categories. These revolve around the last book of the Bible, Revelation, where the talk is of a thousand-year period (the millennium)—a good period here on earth—followed by the Last Judgment.

Premillennialists think that Jesus is going to return before the millennium to lead his troops. At that point, the good are in luck and the bad are not. Hence, what we people now should do is prepare for this coming—get morally pure and so forth, and try to convert others. There is no human-driven future beyond this point, and, frankly, trying to put the world to rights now is impossible (due to original sin) and pointless. Postmillennialists think that Jesus will come only after the millennium, and hence we have the obligation now to try to prepare for the millennium—to make the ideal world a reality. Sitting around and waiting is not the way to go—rather, roll up your sleeves and use your God-given talents to make things better. When you have done this, then Jesus will come.

So evolution was in the thick of things from the beginning. Not so much because it went against the literal reading of the Bible, but because it was allied with one rather than another reading of the Bible. But then, as the years went by, and into the 19th century, ideas evolved and positions hardened. The premillennialists (especially in America) became more literalist. The postmillennialists (again, especially in America) became more metaphorical. Both sides continued as ardent eschatologists—that was not the issue. The question was about what the future was going to be like and what our obligations now are.

After the U.S. Civil War and the arrival of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, things really started to get set in stone, with evolution at some level at the center of things. But I argue that, in a way, evolution was more effect than cause—or, if you like, it is a litmus test. No one lies awake worrying about gaps in the fossil record. They do lie awake worrying whether "Jesus is going to choose me." And "What I should do to get on his right side?"

Also, an important part of my book is to distinguish between what I call evolution and what I call evolutionism. At one level, it is all kinds of evolution that are involved—today's creationists hate regular Darwinism as is done in the biology departments of the nation. But at another level, I distinguish the straight science from a kind of postmillennial world picture, where the supposed progressiveness of evolutionary change is put up front. Back in the 18th century I don't think there was too much difference between evolution and evolutionism, but later, thanks to Darwin, such a separation became possible. I argue that even today evolutionism flourishes, and a conclusion of my book is not that we should eschew evolutionism, but that we should distinguish it from straight evolutionary theorizing and not do the one when we claim to be doing the other.

Has this conflict turned evolutionary biology into a secular religion? You note that even Richard Dawkins calls himself a zealot now.

I don't think so. In a way, as you will have seen from my answer above, I think it has always been a secular religion, and one of the great achievements of professional evolutionists (like R. A. Fisher and Theodosius Dobzhansky) was to make it possible to have an evolutionary biology that was not a secular religion.

Actually, I want to be somewhat more nuanced than this. Someone like Diderot was an atheist, so for him evolution was always secular. Someone like Erasmus Darwin was a deist—God as unmoved mover—so for him evolution was part of this general picture. (It was not so much that evolution was a religion, but that evolution was part of his religion.) Then, as the 19th century grew older, we had people like Thomas Henry Huxley, keen agnostics, and for them evolutionary ideas gave a theoretical background to their world picture. But again, one often needs to separate individuals. Was evolution a secular religion for Huxley? Perhaps more so than not. Was evolution a secular religion for Herbert Spencer? I would say yes, definitely.

In the 20th century we have people like Julian Huxley and, today, Edward O. Wilson, who I would say treat evolution as a secular religion. Not just this—they were/are professional scientists—but at least in part they are secular humanists with evolution at the center of their theology. It gives a world picture, it gives moral directives, and so forth. Then we have Christians like Dobzhansky and Teilhard de Chardin, for whom evolution is part and parcel of their Christianity—today we have someone like Jack Haught, the theologian at Georgetown University.

Dawkins is an interesting case. If being deeply interested in and committed to these various issues counts as religious—as well as having strong moral feelings (especially about the wickedness of existing religion)—then I would say he is religious. He reminds me a bit of Calvin. More than this, he clearly thinks that his Darwinism is incompatible with Christianity, so it does have theological implications. On the other hand, he does not want to tie in the course of nature with morality—as did Julian Huxley and as does Ed Wilson—so I would be hesitant to call him a secular humanist or whatever, as I would them.

Don't forget that terms like religious are terms that can stretch and can support different usages. I grew up as a Quaker. I think of it as a religion, and I expect the IRS does too. But I am not sure what the Pope thinks of Quakerism—or the creationists, for that matter. No creed, no baptism, no Bible reading, no church buildings, no ministers, no communion. Can this really be Christianity?

Does this controversy arise in other major world religions? We hear a lot about Muslims, but what about Judaism or Hinduism?

I would say that the evolution-creation debate is fundamentally one of Science and Christianity. Evolution was developed in a Christian society and defines itself against Christianity—origins, place of humans, adaptation and so forth. The two systems ask the same questions, even though they give different answers (that is, different answers if you take a literalist position). So I don't really see this as an issue for Jews or others. Having said this, there is clearly overlap between Christianity and the other theistic religions—Judaism and Islam—so one expects there to find some of the same issues arising, and they do. Really orthodox Jews tend to be literalists and not to care for evolution. (I stress, many orthodox Jews happily accept evolution, as do many conservative Christians.)

Frankly, I am not an expert on world religions, so really cannot say too much about Hinduism or the other religions of the East. But my sense is that this is really not their fight. I suppose that to the extent that they make claims about history that they think cannot be modified, then they are going to be against evolution. But if (as I think) you can be a Darwinian and a Christian, I don't see why you could not be a Darwinian and a Buddhist. Transmigration of souls is really not a natural phenomenon at all.

Why are these divisions so starkly drawn in the United States? America is a world leader in scientific research, but nearly half its citizens believe that God created humans within the last 10,000 years.

Well, this is precisely one of the questions I try to speak to in the book, although again I stress that in major part I am synthesizing and drawing on the work of others. Really one goes back to the founding of the nation in the 17th century and the vital role that religion—the Protestant reformed religion—played in the country. In a way, after the Revolution, one might have thought that religion would decline. Most of the founding fathers were deists or less—Jefferson, Franklin, even Washington did not take communion. But this was not to be so—the new country needed norms and guides, and the Protestant preachers stepped up to the plate. They and their strongly Bible-based religion filled the gaps that were there because the old structures and norms had been rejected.

The Civil War now becomes absolutely crucial. Basically, afterward, the North became the home of postmillennialism, and the South (and increasingly the rural West—not the far West) became the home of premillennialism. This fit with general attitudes and statuses. The North had won; it was industrial and forward-looking—so the aim was to create heaven here on earth. Science was important, and given the central status of evolutionary speculations (remember, as a litmus test), this was the way that people went. The South had lost, and so turned to the Bible for consolation—why God afflicts his favorites and so forth—and, missing out on the progress of the North, turned more and more to issues like personal behavior and so forth.

I argue that we are still living with this divide—America so successful scientifically and yet America so religious, and literally so. It is the red-versus-blue-state syndrome. There are various reasons, of course, why the divide continued through the 20th century, stemming from the success of certain dedicated individuals, through to external issues. There is no doubt that the Cold War and the Bomb made many think that the end was nigh. If you look at Billy Graham's preaching in the 1950s, this is his repeated theme. Now, of course, we have 9/11 and the threat of terrorism. These are scary times, and people look for comfort—comfort in stark and simple messages. That, I think, accounts in major part for the success of all of those End Times novels.

You were a state witness in a landmark 1981 test case in which a federal judge struck down an Arkansas state law that permitted the teaching of "creation science." How do you view the recent campaigns against teaching evolution, in Kansas and elsewhere?

Basically, I think that there are two levels to this. One is the ground fights going on in Kansas and Pennsylvania and elsewhere, fueled by disputes at school board levels, over teaching Intelligent Design and so forth in schools. I think that this will be an ongoing seesaw, with success often depending on who gets out the votes at election time. I suspect that beneath the surface a lot of schools are simply teaching creationism, and no one reports it because no one is unhappy with the situation. (Eugenie Scott at the National Center for Science Education puts the figure of those teaching ID or something like it at quite a high level—more than 10 percent, certainly, and perhaps much higher. Many, perhaps most, schools simply leave origins out of the equation altogether.)

The other level is the Supreme Court—if this gets more conservative, and this looks probable these days, then by, say, 2010 I see a majority agreeing to the teaching at least of ID. Already there are three votes (Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas).

I am simply not sure what we can do explicitly about this, except elect a Democratic president and hope the damage has not yet become irreversible. (Note, incidentally, that the big issue over the present Supreme Court candidate [John Roberts] is where he stands on abortion. To my knowledge, no one has yet mentioned evolution. Again, this supports my hunch that evolution in a way is a bit of a side issue, except for those with real apocalyptic concerns—it is a litmus test for general attitudes. A Pew study I use in the book shows how one has a cluster of beliefs about one's religious position—rarely is it just one issue at a time.)

One thing that does worry me is the belief by many Darwinians, especially, that their position implies atheism. If it does, then I think the creationists have a good point—Darwinism is getting close to religion, or at least to implications about religion. In which case, does it not violate the constitutional separation of church and state? My personal response has been to write a book (Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?) arguing that Darwinism does not imply atheism—it does not imply God, either, but that is another matter.

I don't want people like Richard Dawkins to be banned from arguing that Darwinism implies atheism, but I do wish that people like him would bother to learn some Christian theology before they presume to pontificate. Dawkins would be rightly pissed off if someone criticized Darwinism without knowing anything about, say, selfish gene theory.

You've studied this controversy for years, and you openly side with the Darwinians. Why? Have you always held this view?

Well, first of all, I am English-born (lived most of my life in Canada), and I come from a Quaker background. For me, it was simply assumed that science and religion could coexist. The thought that Genesis might be true literally was—and is—nutty. I studied the physical sciences as a student—my undergraduate degree is in mathematics. So I really came somewhat late to biology and evolution, in my mid-20s—not that I was a creationist or anything, but I was not interested in or informed about biology. Then, when I did start looking at the issues—in main part because I was looking for a thesis topic—I found them conceptually fascinating. Also, this was the time (the 1960s) when Thomas Kuhn was telling philosophers of science that they must study the history of science. I loved looking into Darwin and all of that—I am a bit of a fanatic about Dickens and Anthony Trollope and so forth.

So I fit right into evolutionary thinking, and for me Darwinism was the only way to go. Is this because I am English? Perhaps. Certainly natural theology, which is very English, helped—I was used to looking at adaptations as marvels of organic engineering. Again in the 1970s, when the human sociobiology controversy blew up, I was inclined to go with the Darwinians like Ed Wilson. I had grown up with people like Julian Huxley on the telly, and it never occurred to them that one could not be a good socialist unless one repudiated the influence of the genes on human nature. So again, there I was, a hard-line Darwinian, and still am to this day. In 1981 I wrote a book called Darwinism Defended, and I have a new one to come out next year called Darwinism and Its Discontents. The discontents for me lie not in the theory but in its critics.

Does this make me a religious fanatic? I don't think so. I am not that keen on the notion of evolutionary progress, and I don't think you can get morality from the course of evolution. Also, I don't hate Christianity—I am a nonbeliever, but coming from a Christian background it is hard to hate Christianity.

In The Evolution-Creation Struggle I try to give the creationists' positions fairly and with historical sympathy. That, I think, is the obligation of the scholar. Also, I do suggest that my fellow evolutionists often exacerbate the problems and that they should be more careful in what they say and not so hostile to all those with whom they differ. I fully expect to be raked over the coals for this. Already, in this week's Science, there is a review that is less than favorable. My attitude is that I have earned the credit, and now I am spending it. What I have to say needs saying—I really am scared that ID will get legal endorsement for its teaching in schools—and I almost uniquely can say it. I have impeccable credentials as a creationism fighter and as a gung-ho Darwinian. So here I stand, I can do no other. (That is a nice quote—maybe I should patent it!)

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