Speech by Professor Michael Ruse

Saturday, February 13, 1993
1993 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, at the symposium "The New Antievolutionism"

Eugenie Scott: Our next speaker is Dr. Michael Ruse, from the Department of Philosophy at the University of Guelph in Ontario. I thought I saw him a little earlier today. Michael, hello. Michael is actually doing a couple of sessions today, he's been a very busy fellow. And we're very pleased that he was able to make ours as well.

Michael Ruse is a philosopher of science, particularly of the evolutionary sciences. He's almost a person who need no introduction in this context. He's the author of several books on Darwinism and evolutionary theory, including an analysis of scientific creationism entitled But Is It Science? No. I don't think I've spoiled the plot. I mean, I would recommend that you read this book, it's really quite good. But that is his conclusion. He'll be speaking today about "Nonliteralist Antievolution." Michael? Would you like some more light?

[The speaker's podium is dark.]

Ruse: It's the first time I've actually sort of given a lecture literally in the dark, as opposed to just metaphorically. Actually, the title of my book But Is It Science?, the Evolution - Creation Controversy, is intended very much to raise the question about both evolution and creationism, and, in a way, that's the theme of what I want to say today. I've noticed that we're moving right along, so I'm not going to say very much at all, but I am going to throw out one or two ideas, which, in the words of Father Huddleston, who of course got them from somewhere else, "I trust they're not to your comfort."

[The microphone is moved closer to Ruse.]

God, not only am I in the dark, I've got this bloody great thing sticking in my face too! Even if you can see me, I can't see you anymore. Talk about non-intelligent design going on here. I was intending to come along, when I was asked to participate in this colloquium, I was intending to come along and talk about the book by the California lawyer Phillip Johnson, the title of the book I'm glad to say has thankfully escaped me just at the moment. Darwin on Trial, okay. What happened was I was asked to review Phillip Johnson's book a couple of years ago, and it was an exercise in what not to do, from my point of view, what not to do if you're a book reviewer. Namely, if you write such a critical review of a book, the editor who has commissioned the review might look at your review and say, obviously that book is so lousy I don't think it's worth talking about in our journal. And that's what happened to my review of Phillip Johnson. It became a non-review, not I think in any sense because it was being censored, but simply because the editor, the book review editor, said, well frankly, I've got a lot more interesting books that we could talk about, so we'll just drop it.

In fact, when I read Phillip Johnson's book, I mean, at one level, it's a very impressively put together piece of work. Phillip Johnson is certainly I think a very good lawyer, he's got a good legal mind, and he does a good slick job of packaging. I think that when you look, when you dig down underneath, you do start to see many of the same sorts of themes and the ideas coming across which have been expressed -- perhaps more crudely, let's put it -- by some of the friends who have been mentioned earlier, people like Duane Gish and Henry Morris. Like everybody who reads a book who's written anything themselves, I looked up my own name in the index first, and then went to the passages which refer to me, and thank God, I am -- it's not just Stephen Jay Gould who's being referred to these days -- but there were a couple of comments about me -- regretfully in footnotes. And I was able to satisfy myself quite readily that in fact Phillip Johnson was playing much the same trick that everybody else was. I was quoted as putting forward some fairly hard-line social Darwinian views, in East Germany, of all places, a country which as you know no longer exists. And, in fact, fortunately the comments I had in fact made in what was East Germany in those days were taken down and in fact are printed. And I went and I checked, and, I must say, not to my -- to my great relief, anyway -- I was saying the exact opposite of what Phillip Johnson was saying. I mean, I'm much given to contradiction, but, thank God, this was one of those -- thank God, well, thank Darwin, anyhow, as we've just heard -- this wasn't one of those occasions.

So, I was intending, as I say, to come along and talk about Phillip Johnson. What happened between then and now, on the way, was that a few months ago I was invited to participate by some evangelicals in what was a sort of weekend session that they'd got, and Phillip Johnson and I were put face to face. And as I always find when I meet creationists or non-evolutionists or critics or whatever, I find it a lot easier to hate them in print than I do in person. And in fact I found -- I must confess -- I found Phillip Johnson to be a very congenial person, with a fund of very funny stories about Supreme Court justices, some of which may even be true, unlike his scientific claims. We did debate, and in fact I thought that we had, as others said afterwards, both evolutionists and non-evolutionists, I thought that we had what was really quite, and I want to be quite fair about this, I thought we had a really quite constructive interchange. Because basically we didn't talk so much about creationism. We certainly didn't so much talk about his particular arguments in his book, or arguments that I've put forward in Darwinism Defended, or these sorts of things.

But we did talk much more about the whole question of metaphysics, the whole question of philosophical bases. And what Johnson was arguing was that, at a certain level, the kind of position of a person like myself, an evolutionist, is metaphysically based at some level, just as much as the kind of position of let us say somebody, some creationist, someone like Gish or somebody like that. And to a certain extent, I must confess, in the ten years since I performed, or I appeared, in the creationism trial in Arkansas, I must say that I've been coming to this kind of position myself. And, in fact, when I first thought of putting together my collection But Is It Science?, I think Eugenie was right, I was inclined to say, well, yes, creationism is not science and evolution is, and that's the end of it, and you know just trying to prove that.

Now I'm starting to feel -- I'm no more of a creationist now than I ever was, and I'm no less of an evolutionist now that I ever was -- but I'm inclined to think that we should move our debate now onto another level, or move on. And instead of just sort of, just -- I mean I realize that when one is dealing with people, say, at the school level, or these sorts of things, certain sorts of arguments are appropriate. But those of us who are academics, or for other reasons pulling back and trying to think about these things, I think that we should recognize, both historically and perhaps philosophically, certainly that the science side has certain metaphysical assumptions built into doing science, which -- it may not be a good thing to admit in a court of law -- but I think that in honesty that we should recognize, and that we should be thinking about some of these sorts of things.

Certainly, I think that philosophers like myself have been much more sensitized to these things, over the last ten years, by trends and winds and whatever the right metaphor is, in the philosophy of science. That we've become aware, thanks to Marxists and to feminists, criticisms -- the criticisms of historians and sociologists and others -- that science is a much more idealistic, in the a priori sense, enterprise, than one would have got from reading the logical positivists, or even the great philosophers. The people like Popper and Hempel and Nagel, of the 1950s and 1960s, which was when my generation entered the field and started to grow up.

Certainly, historically, that if you look at, say, evolutionary theory, and of course this was brought out I think rather nicely by the talk just before me, it's certainly been the case that evolution has functioned, if not as a religion as such, certainly with elements akin to a secular religion. Those of us who teach philosophy of religion always say there's no way of defining religion by a neat, necessary and sufficient condition. The best that you can do is list a number of characteristics, some of which all religions have, and none of which any religion, whatever or however you sort of put it. And certainly, there's no doubt about it, that in the past, and I think also in the present, for many evolutionists, evolution has functioned as something with elements which are, let us say, akin to being a secular religion.

I think, for instance, of the most famous family in the history of evolution, namely, the Huxleys. I think of Thomas Henry Huxley, the grandfather, and of Julian Huxley, the grandson. Certainly, if you read Thomas Henry Huxley, when he's in full flight, there's no question but that for Huxley at some very important level, evolution and science generally, but certainly evolution in particular, is functioning a bit as a kind of secular religion. Interestingly, Huxley -- and I've gone through his own lectures, I've gone through two complete sets of lecture notes that Huxley gave to his students -- Huxley never talked about evolution when he was actually teaching. He kept evolution for affairs like this, and when he was talking at a much more popular sort of level. Certainly, though, as I say, for Thomas Henry Huxley, I don't think there's any question but that evolution functioned, at a level, as a kind of secular religion.

And there's no question whatsoever that for Julian Huxley, when you read Evolution, the Modern Synthesis, that Julian Huxley saw evolution as a kind of progressive thing upwards. I think Julian Huxley was certainly an atheist, but he was at the same time a kind of neo-vitalist, and he bound this up with his science. If you look both at his printed stuff, and if you go down to Rice University which has got all his private papers, again and again in the letters, it comes through very strongly that for Julian Huxley evolution was functioning as a kind of secular religion.

I think that this -- and I'm not saying this now particularly in a critical sense, I'm just saying this in a matter-of-fact sense -- I think that today also, for more than one eminent evolutionist, evolution in a way functions as a kind of secular religion. And let me just mention my friend Edward O. Wilson. Certainly, I think that if you look at some of the stuff which caused some much controversy in the 1970s, what is interesting is not so much the fact that Wilson was talking about trying to include humans in the evolutionary scenario. Everybody was doing that. It was not so much even the fact that he was using what is now called sexist language, like "Man," because I went to look at Richard Lewontin's book, which he published the year before Wilson, and in the index it says "Homo sapiens, see 'Man'" -- so, I mean, we were all committing that sort of mistake, as it is now judged. But certainly, if you look for instance in On Human Nature, Wilson is quite categorical about wanting to see evolution as the new myth, and all sorts of language like this. That for him, at some level, it's functioning as a kind of metaphysical system.

So, as I say, historically I think, however we're going to deal with creationism, or new creationism, or these sorts of things, whether you think that this is -- that what I've just been saying means that we'd better put our house in order, or whatever -- I think at least we must recognize the historical facts. I think also, and I am going to speak very, very briefly, because time is so short, is I think that we should also look at evolution and science, in particular, biology, generally philosophically I think a lot more critically -- and I don't say negatively, please understand that -- I think a lot more critically than we were doing ten years ago. Sensitized, I say, by the work of the social constructivists and others, historians, sociologists, and these sorts of people.
And it seems to me very clear that at some very basic level, evolution as a scientific theory makes a commitment to a kind of naturalism, namely, that at some level one is going to exclude miracles and these sorts of things, come what may. Now, you might say, does this mean it's just a religious assumption, does this mean it's irrational to do something like this. I would argue very strongly that it's not. At a certain pragmatic level, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And that if certain things do work, you keep going with this, and that you don't change in midstream, and so on and so forth. I think that one can in fact defend a scientific and naturalistic approach, even if one recognizes that this does include a metaphysical assumption to the regularity of nature, or something of this nature.

So as I say, I think that one can defend it as reasonable, but I don't think it helps matter by denying that one is making it. And I think that once one has made such an assumption, one has perfect powers to turn to, say, creation science, which claims to be naturalistic also, and point out that it's wrong. I think one has every right to show that evolutionary theory in various forms certainly seems to be the most reasonable position, once one has taken a naturalistic position. So I'm not coming here and saying, give up evolution, or anything like that.

But I am coming here and saying, I think that philosophically that one should be sensitive to what I think history shows, namely, that evolution, just as much as religion -- or at least, leave "just as much," let me leave that phrase -- evolution, akin to religion, involves making certain a priori or metaphysical assumptions, which at some level cannot be proven empirically. I guess we all knew that, but I think that we're all much more sensitive to these facts now. And I think that the way to deal with creationism, but the way to deal with evolution also, is not to deny these facts, but to recognize them, and to see where we can go, as we move on from there.

Well, I've been very short, but that was my message, and I think it's an important one.

Scott: Any questions?

[There is a momentary silence.]

Ruse: State of shock! Yes, Ed Manier. [Manier is on the faculty of Notre Dame University, in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science.]

Manier: Well, congratulations. I mean, you took less time than Bill Clinton. I think -- maybe not quite. But you made a remark about Stephen Gould. I earlier made a remark about Stephen Gould. I think there is perhaps some sense in which you and Stephen disagree, either scientifically or metaphysically. I wonder if you could comment on that.

Ruse: That we agree or disagree?

Manier: That you disagree. I'm always more interested in disagreement.

Ruse: Certainly I think that Steve Gould and I, we certainly disagree about the nature of evolution, there's no question about that. At some level, I'm a hard-line Darwinian. That means, you know, I'm somewhere to the right of Archdeacon Paley when it comes to design. I mean, when I look, even at you, Ed, when I look even at you, I'm already speculating why you've got a bald head, and, you know, why this makes you sexually attractive, and so on. So, I mean, yeah -- whereas I think that Gould falls very much into the other, much more Germanic Naturphilosophie tradition, which stresses form over function. I don't think there's any question about that. And at a certain level, I'd be inclined to say that these are, if you like, metaphysical assumptions, paradigms, or something like that, a priori constraints that we're putting on the ways that we're looking at the world and all those sorts of things. Certainly, at that level, we do differ.

Where else do we differ? Gould says that he thinks that science is simply, you know, disinterested reflection of reality, then again we differ also. But of course the thing is that Gould, although he denies being a Marxist or anything like this, certainly if you look at Gould's work, for instance, when he's praising stuff, even apart from when he's criticizing stuff, I think that Gould -- as much as anybody, more than most -- has long been sensitive to the fact that science involves a kind of metaphysical assumption. I use the word "metaphysical" because I don't look on the word "metaphysical" as a dirty word. Like I don't look upon "teleology" as a dirty word. He may, you know, he may very ardently say don't call me a metaphysician, but I suspect that we agree, whatever we call the terms. I mean, the trouble is, metaphysics, you know, people think of metaphysics and Scottish idealists and Hegelians and all those sorts of things. So he may not want to use my language. But I suspect that about the nature of science -- I suspect, but ask him -- I suspect that we don't differ there. But we do differ about how we want to cash it out in the actual evolutionary realm.

Manier: Well, if I could just pursue that, for just a minute, he may very well be more of a Naturphilosoph than you. And perhaps, although I suspect that you deny this in almost every context, more of a Romantic than you. But I'm wondering --

Ruse: How can you say that about me? After the things you said last night over drinks, but go on --

Manier: You made reference to my baldness, and I'm sensitive about that.

Ruse: I was trying to give it an adaptive function. It's okay, I don't think it's a mistake. I mean, you know, I think God designed it that way. Go on.

Manier: But you say that about everything.

Ruse: That's right. I'm somewhere to the right of Archdeacon Paley on this, I really am.

Manier: Well, pardon me if I'm not flattered. What I'm curious about is the extent to which your talk suggests a strategy to the National Society of Science Teachers to have something like a pluralistic approach to these issues. That is, it's one thing to be snide about them --

Ruse: Yes, I think that's a point well taken. The trouble is, you know, Ed, I mean, everybody, I mean, the trouble is, we're balancing, we're trying to juggle so many balls in the air.

On the one hand, we're trying to do some philosophy. Another ball is trying to be science educators, both at the university level, but more particularly, at the schools level. At another level, we've got the actual political facts, of how do you fight school boards, and that sort of thing. At another level you've got the legal questions of, you know, your laws are different from my laws, for instance. Up in Canada we don't have a Constitution in that sort of way. Or at least, we've got a Constitution which has a weasel clause, you know, "in a democratic and fair society" which means that it can all be altered, if they want to, and it often is.

So, I mean you've got all of these sorts of issues, and I'm very sensitive to the fact that if a philosopher tries out, say, ideas and thinks those sorts of things, people might well say, well I hope to God you don't say this outside in public, because we're going to run into problems with the third or fourth ball, and I'm very sensitive to that.

And, to a certain extent, I think I personally have for many years used, to a certain extent, self-censorship, you know just basically not talking too much on these sorts of lines. But at the same time, I'm not sure that the way forward is by simply not thinking about things philosophically or responding to ideas, or saying, well gosh, I find what the social constructivists are saying very interesting, but, by God, I'd better not believe or accept any of this -- because it's going to get us into trouble at the school board level. I mean, that's a tension. But I think that somehow, it seems to me, well, maybe two wrongs don't make a right, or do make a right. But I just don't want to do that.

As I hope I said right at the end, I don't come here preaching creationism or preaching, you know, some message of negativism: folks give up, modern philosophy of science is now showing that science is just as much a religion as creation science, so frankly folks there's nothing that you could do, and if I could go back ten years to Arkansas I'd just reverse everything. I think that you can do it. I mean I think you can't do it in just a gung-ho, straightforward, neo-Popperian way: here we've got science on the one side, here we've got religion on the other side, evolution falls on the science side, creationism falls on the other side, and, you know, never the twain shall meet. I think you've got to go at different ways, things like, as I mentioned, pragmatism, for instance. Taking some sort of coherence theory of truth, or something like that. I still think that one can certainly exclude creation science on those grounds. Now, whether or not -- how that fits in with your laws -- one has to ask the lawyers, those sorts of things. I certainly think that's something that you can do.


Scott: Wait a minute, just --

Ruse: Before you start applauding, she's going to cut off all of my buttons, and drum me out of the society.

Scott: Not a bit, but he's not done yet. I'm going to take my chairman's prerogative, to ask a question, if I may. I wonder whether it might be useful to distinguish between the naturalism or materialism that is necessary to perform science as we do it in the twentieth century, as opposed to the Baconian approach, etc., and distinguish that from philosophical attitudes that we as individuals may or may not have regarding materialism or naturalism. And perhaps some of this confusion that we find at the practical level, at the school board level, and in dealing with people with Johnson, is that Johnson, for example, does confuse these two things. He assumes that if you are a scientist then you therefore are a philosophical materialist, in addition to being a practical materialist, in the operation of your work.

Ruse: Oh yes, I think that point is well taken. I think to sort of redress some of the rather flip comments I made, I think that's absolutely true. Let me end certainly by saying that although I got on quite well with Johnson at the personal level, I still think that his book is a slippery piece of work. And you're absolutely right that he, like any lawyer, is out to win. That's the name of the game in law. And certainly he can get points by shifting back and forth on meanings of naturalism, or if he can get a report on what Ed Manier and I were doing, and then sort of take it out of context, I've no reason to think that he wouldn't do that sort of thing. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying, I'm not denying the power or the importance of the sort of thing he's doing, or the importance of combating that sort of thing.

What I am saying, nevertheless, and I will sit down now, is I don't think that we're going -- well, I don't know whether we're going to serve -- I mean, the easy thing is we're not going to serve our purpose by -- let me just simply say that I as a philosopher of science am worried about what I think were fairly crude neo-positivistic attitudes that I had about science, even as much as ten years ago, when I was fighting in Arkansas. This doesn't mean to say that I don't want to stand up for evolution, I certainly do. But I do think that philosophy of science, history of science, moves on, and I think it's incumbent upon us who take this particular creationism - evolution debate seriously, to be sensitive to these facts, and not simply put our heads in the sand, and say, well, if we take this sort of stuff seriously, we're in deep trouble. Perhaps we are. But I don't think that the solution is just by simply ignoring them.

Scott: Now you can applaud, he's done.


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File Date: 5.6.98