Salon Interview: Michael Ruse

Interesting fellow, author of several books the latest being The Creation-Evolution Struggle but I hadn’t heard of him before. He’s a professor with a strong grounding in science and I’d tend to describe him as an strong advocate for evolution based on the biographical material presented in the article. That said, he points out some interesting things.

Is the battle between evolution and creation really about a battle between truth and myth? Or do the creationists have a point that evolutionists, as opposed to scientists that embrace the notion of evolution without using it as a bludgeon against religion, are teaching a kind of faith in our schools?

Frankly, I like this guy and he sounds very reasonable even while he’s upsetting me by seeming to concede ground on this very important fight. What I don’t know is whether there are enough Christians, of the politically active variety, who’d back off insisting that creation be taught in schools if evolutionists (as described by Ruse) would try to be less shrill imposing theological implications (there is no god) from their scientific studies. I also certainly don’t remember atheism or God even mentioned in science classes. That wasn’t the point. Could it be that Ruse is transposing the views of ardent atheistic Darwinists onto less ideologically driven everyday science teachers simply because that’s the line creationists are taking when they attack evolution?

This is a guy I’d like to hear more from. His heart’s in the right place but I don’t know how practical his thinking really is. Anyhow, read and make up your own minds. Forgive him for the Nazi reference. He doesn’t know netiquette I reckon.

That distinction, between premillennial and postmillennial thinking, is very important in your book. Can you break that down a little?

It’s a question of how you read Revelation, the last book of the Christian Bible. It says there’s going to be a millennium, a thousand-year period, and then the Last Judgment will happen. From way back when, there have been three readings of this. The Augustinian position is to say, “I don’t want to get into any of this speculation.” You’re eschewing eschatology. You’re not too worried about the question of where we’re going, you deal with where we are now. Generally that has been the Catholic position.

You’ve got two other positions. One is premillennial, which says Jesus is going to come before the millennium. This was tarted up in the 19th century by people who argued we were going to have the Rapture and all that; that’s where you find the roots of today’s fundamentalism. The premillennialist believes that Jesus is coming in the not too distant future, and he’s going to make a heavy-duty judgment between those who are saved and those who are not. We should focus on personal purity and evangelical work, bringing in as many souls as possible. You do not get involved in grand plans for the future. Apart from the fact that these are probably seductions of the Antichrist, they’re pointless.

The more liberal interpretation is the postmillennialist position: We don’t want to get into this whole business of a thousand years, a thousand days, whatever it is. Yes, Jesus is coming – we’re Christians. But that’s not the point. What we’ve got to do is, as in William Blake’s poem, we’ve got to build Jerusalem “among these dark Satanic mills.” Does that mean that Blake thought, and the British Labor Party thinks, that you’ve got to build a model of Jerusalem near Huddersfield or something? Of course not. What they mean is, we’ve got to strive to make a better world now.

What I’ve found is that your evolutionists, whether secular or spiritual, are to a person postmillennialist. From Holmes Rolston to Conway Morris to Ed Wilson – nobody could be more of a postmillennialist than Ed. He says, “No, I’m not into that,” but what he means is that he’s not into the whole Jesus Christ thing. But I also know that he grew up in an Alabama Baptist family, where eschatology and end things are absolutely vital. What one must do throughout life is say, not “What am I doing here and now?” but “What does this presage for the future?”

That brings us back to where we came in. These two sides distort each other like bendy mirrors at the fairground. They’re both worried about the future. The question is, what should we do to prepare for the future? This is the whole thesis of my book: Evolutionism and creationism really are siblings.

So what’s the most compelling aspect of the creationist case? If they take their best shot at you, what is it?

Look, I want to make it absolutely clear that I want to understand creationism, not endorse it. It’s important for us evolutionists to understand what is motivating creationists. Why do people hold these prima facie lunatic views? Which I think they are. I’m a university professor; my job is to influence people. I’m certainly not going to influence any of my students if I just go in there and laugh at them for being Genesis freaks. I might get somewhere if I can talk to them a little bit about eschatology. I’m not going to convince everybody, but I might get one or two of them to think, “Oh, there’s more to it than I thought.”

But you’ve already put your finger on it: The most interesting thing that the creationists are doing is pointing, as Matthew says, at the beams in the eyes of the evolutionists. Meaning that we all too often get into evolutionism and link up our evolutionary positions with social prescriptions and with atheism.

I’m all in favor of social prescriptions, and I’m not knocking anybody for being an atheist. I call myself a skeptic, but that’s a hell of a lot closer to atheism than it is to Christianity. But I want to see what grounds you have for saying that, and whether or not your positions follow from one another. If they do, maybe you should ask yourself, “Am I not being a hypocrite in teaching evolutionary biology in American schools?” Given the fact that it’s clearly illegal. You’re not allowed to teach religion in biology class.

I can’t understand why I can’t get through people’s thick skulls on this one. If in fact Darwinian evolutionary theory implies atheism, then you ought not to be teaching it in schools! It’s not good enough to say, “Well, I’m a National Socialist. But the fact that that meant a lot of Jews were hauled off to Auschwitz, that’s not my worry!” It bloody is! If your theory leads to 6 million Jews being made into soap, not only is there something deeply troubling about your theory, but you’ve got a moral obligation to face up to its implications. If this theory leads to atheism, then it’s got religious implications.

I really can’t agree with this. Suppose the basis for some religion is the ‘world on the back of a turtle’ thing and the stars are campfires of warriors past or whatever. Should we not then teach astronomy?

As we learn more about how the world actually works, it puts constraints on religious explanations if they want to be consistent with empirical observation. If we discover that the sun is not in fact a golden chariot that goes below the earth to do battle with the demons of the underworld each night, well, that weighs in favour of some religious worldviews over others. Tough beans?

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Evolutionary theory doesn’t imply atheism. Pretty much every modern religion has adjusted for it, with there being sects that hold out. Tough titty for those sects.

Exactly. Teaching evolution isn’t the equivalent of teaching atheism. You can be both a Christian and accept evolution. It might make people more likely to be atheistic, because it shows how crazy some of the literal bible teaching sounds, but that’s not a fault of evolution. Just teaching people how to read can help them to see the same, and I don’t think we are going to claim that teaching English is the equivalent of teaching people to become atheists.

The first statement would be true even if the second statement were not. In fact, as Angie said, religions have had to change to accomodate evolution (and scientific discoveries in general). In some cases, a discovery might be close enough to the core of a belief system that it can’t adapt.

In my mind, even in that case, even if the religion in question is extremely popular, traching the discovery does not amount to teaching atheism or any religion. For that matter, the discovery could be strong evidence that there is a God.

Can anyone link to an internet resource (or book) which contains a good sized general overview of evolution and which does not attack creationism? Even big bang books don’t sit there and wail away at creationism, and that’s another pretty hot topic with science and religious fanatics. I think that’s this guy’s point: you shouldn’t spend energy tying science (evolution) with belief (atheism, christianity, what-fucking-everism), no matter what the belief, when presenting it to others.

I can’t think of one off the top of my head, but i found this confusing review of a book on evolution on Amazon, which uses lots of big words and which might amuse you.

On p. ix, the author says that we cannot establish absolute truth, thus, our conclusions must always remain tentative.' This statement is false. Two forms of truth exist, absolute and relative. Relative truths are contingent, do change, and rise to higher truths as Plato says. On the other hand, absolute truths are necessary and do not change. Many absolute truths have been found by physical scientists. These truths are proven with the scientific method. They form what is called Laws of Nature, as expresed in the US Declaration of Independence. Laws of Nature do not change. An example is force is equal to mass times acceleration.’

With the development of a modern creation theory by Nicholas of Cusa in the 15th century, absolute truths are now found also in the field of theology. Interestingly, these absolute truths are also proven with the scientific method. They form what is called Laws of God, as expressed in the US Declaration of Independence. Laws of God also do not change. An example is an infinite thing is the cause of all finite things.' All Laws of God are found with dipolar concepts. For instance, the Law of God, all men are created equal and unequal,’ identifies all humans, since all humans have necessary (equal) and contingent (unequal) attributes.

A supernatural force is not beyond science because a single symbolic language is able to serve all sciences and theology. A single symbolic language is necessary because God and Nature are one. Thus, panentheism and polar concepts guide this single symbolic language.

Evolutionary theory is not true. Evolution is observed because Intelligent Design is necessary being that governs Nature’s things with necessary laws and contingent laws. The contingent laws explain the independence (freedom)that Intelligence Design includes in all living things.

On p. 330, the author says, `Once Intelligent design is shorn of its distracting attacks on evolution, there is very little science left to consider.’ This false statement is an attack on God. So, this book is for ‘adults only’ – those people who can compare evolution theory with Intelligent Design. There is no end to science and theology since God and Nature are eternal partners.

On p. 331, the author asks, Where does evolution stop and design’ begin? Evolution can never be more than a history book. Evolution cannot predict the future because contingent truths depend on many social and spiritual factors. On the other hand, Intelligent Design can predict the future with precision.

Evolution seems to be limited to animal breeding and plant seed selection.

I don’t disagree with this at all, though i think many evolutionists feel like they’re swimming upstream in a river of indifference and ignorance among society, and they all feel compelled to defend it. Whether this makes things better or worse is i think debatable, since Creationists would be i think opposing the idea of evolution whether it were taught widely or no.

Of course aggressively attacking other’s beliefs is going to bring up the ire. Also i think there is a bit of ‘youthfulness’ at times in evolutionists’ writings like Steven Gould, a sort of ‘discovery of scientifically founded atheism’ or something similar. I got past god around age 10, but i guess everyone has to take their own pace. I also thought Gould relied too much on Darwin, making him not just the father but the prophet of evolution, which eases the comparisons Creationists so desperately want to make with Evolutionists as being something falsifiable and equally based of “faith”.

In my life i was never taught evolution in High School -ostensibly i was, but the teacher apologized that she was forced to by the curiculum and ran past it as quickly as the standarized tests would allow - and only as a class in college, although i had of course plenty of general knowledge about it way before then. So this conspiracy of Darwiniviks hasn’t conquered secondary education yet.

You might theoretically get into constitutional issues; if scientific findings are discovered to seriously undermine certain religious doctrines, does it then violate the 1st amendment to teach these findings on the taxpayer dollar? Not all forms of Christianity require biblical literalism and a strict reading of Genesis, but some do; so are those persons’ religious rights being infringed when public schools teach contrary information?

I don’t think that evolution necessarily implies atheism (though according to Richard Dawkins it did allow atheists to be “philosophically fulfilled” re the problem of explaining complex “design” apparent in nature). In a larger sense, however, science does operate based on certain epistemological foundations – such as the validity of empiricism, induction, and so forth. It also (at least in modern times) tends to investigate the world without allowing itself recourse to the concept of a divine force/personality causing things to happen; in the eyes of some theists this makes it an inherently flawed way of investigating the universe, since (in their eyes) God is an absolutely fundamental aspect of that universe. If someone asserts that their faith values “revelation” over empiricism as a form of knowledge-acquisition, or that the philosophical assumptions of the scientific method are incompatible with their view of the universe, could they then argue (based on the 1st amendment again) that public-school science classes are undermining the free practice of their religion?

These are pretty far fetched arguments and I doubt even most creationists would make them. But it seems to me there is some fluidity in how we define “freedom of religion” and what would constitute undermining it. Best to apply a moderate & common sense standard I should think.

The problem is that I could come up with any cockamamie “religious belief” and then claim that public schools are undermining it. “It is one of the central tenets of my faith that the world was created by the God Zog 42 hours ago and all history prior to that is a fiction. Therefore, history classes violate my constitutional right to free exercise of religion, by teaching a contrary view on my taxpayer dime” and so on. If I can find enough people who share my belief in Zog, though, maybe I can make some noise about it.

I’m on board with you, there. As previous threads have well established, I’m firmly an old earth creationist but oppose teaching anything except big bang/evolution theory in schools. I suppose it would be easy to make the argument that 150 years ago, there was a ton of religious influence on science and such, and it was certainly an uphill battle then. Move to 80 years later and you have unfortunate events like the Scopes trial which, at the end of the day, was only about making a scene about religion just to prove a point, even when they (the evolutionists) knew they were going to lose. It doesn’t help when those come, as they do many times, from people who entitle themselves as “ardent atheists” or some such. If faith (atheism, christiantiy, etc) has nothing to do with evolution (and I agree that it doesn’t), then why continually mention it so prominently?

Believe me, modern Christian activists have a total martyr mentality and are using complete BS to press their agenda in politics, etc. But even if half of their claims to being attacked are blustering and screaming loudly in front of the media, the other half may be objectively viewed a legitimate attack. Read some of the more accessible (ie. readable by the vulgar crowd) evolution books from B&N and you will see what I mean.

We (society in the aggregate) don’t seem to have one problem with teaching it in college. Most of the news articles I see and read, usually here on QT3, have to do with primary and secondary ed. I don’t know why this is.

We can only hope that “freedom of religion” will continue to be interpreted as freedom to exercise without interference or preference, rather than “freedom from religion” which I think some people want. This goes both ways of course: the zealot nutjob in Kansas needs to stay the fuck out of textbooks, but the activist wacko from Elk Grove should realize that some people want to say “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance

Any, and I mean this factually not assholerery, college textbook on Evolution. I have next to me Evolution, 3rd Ed., by Mark Ridley. I went back to school strictly to study Evolutionary Biology, and among the actual books by actual scientists, Creationism is not discussed whatsoever. They simply present the scientific idea, and about a zillion examples of the various flavors of evolution. Creationism is not a factor, because it is not science, nor scientifically sound. About the only mention I recall was in the first-year biology class, where the professor said, “I’m a deacon at my local church, and I believe in god. However, there is absolutely no question whatsoever that evolution is a fact, and that all creatures living today are a direct product of evolution.” And then we moved on to “teh science”.

If you want, and I hope you do, to simply learn about the science of evolution without any political motivation, pick up a textbook.

More importantly, even if you don’t want to put in the hours, realize this: Evolution has absolutely nothing to do with Abiogenesis, the movement of non-life to life. Any religious person should take about two minutes to reconcile their beliefs with evolution, and come away the better. The only exception would be young-earth creationists, but that’s just too dumb to discuss.


Right. Sorry, I should have more strongly emphasized the “general overview” part. I was trying to focus on the types of books that a religious activist would pick up at B&N and read to get their daily dose of martyrdom. They aren’t going to read biology textbooks, they’re going to read Gould and Dawkins books, the same way that someone might read a Stephen Hawking coffee-table book instead of a quantum physics or cosmology college text.

Speaking of abiogenesis, lookiee at Harvard’s new project:

Harvard University is launching a broad initiative to discover how life began, joining an ambitious scientific assault on age-old questions that are central to the debate over the theory of evolution.

The Harvard project, which is likely to start with about $1 million annually from the university, will bring together scientists from fields as disparate as astronomy and biology, to understand how life emerged from the chemical soup of early Earth, and how this might have happened on distant planets.

Known as the ''Origins of Life in the Universe Initiative," the project is still in its early stages, and fund-raising has not begun, the scientists said.

But the university has promised the researchers several years of seed money, and has asked the team to make much grander plans, including new faculty and a collection of multimillion-dollar facilities.

The initiative begins amid increasing controversy over the teaching of evolution, prompted by proponents of ''intelligent design," who argue that even the most modest cell is too complex, too finely tuned, to have come about without unseen intelligence.

President Bush recently said intelligent design should be discussed in schools, along with evolution. Like intelligent design, the Harvard project begins with awe at the nature of life, and with an admission that, almost 150 years after Charles Darwin outlined his theory of evolution in the Origin of Species, scientists cannot explain how the process began.

Now, encouraged by a confluence of scientific advances – such as the discovery of water on Mars and an increased understanding of the chemistry of early Earth – the Harvard scientists hope to help change that.

''We start with a mutual acknowledgment of the profound complexity of living systems," said David R. Liu, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard. But ''my expectation is that we will be able to reduce this to a very simple series of logical events that could have taken place with no divine intervention."

And the IDers are responding to this with all the public enthusiasm Bush would to an investigation launched by a man named Fitzgerald. Oh, they fully support it. But wait until they see the results, says I.

There is a deep philosophical divide between this scientific community and the advocates of intelligent design.

Szostak recalled that he had been surprised to see his own research, which he interprets as progress in understanding life’s origins, on religious websites, which cite the work as evidence of how difficult it would be to create life without a designer – because, Szostak said, ''not even Harvard scientists can do it."

Michael Behe, a biologist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and one of the leading proponents of intelligent design, said he was glad that Harvard was going to try to address the issue.

''If, as I suspect will happen," Behe said, ''they fail to find a plausible answer without invoking intelligence, then maybe science will be less hostile to folks who see intelligent direction in the history of life," he said.

Hopefully there are some results to see. Consider this: if some kind of life is found on, say, one of the moons in our galaxy like Titan or Europa, then a significant monkey wrench will be thrown into the machine of creationism. However, if it isn’t, the response is trivial to guess: creatoinists will say “see, we told you so” and scientists will say “not finding evidence here doesn’t mean it isn’t out there”. Same reasoning as the debate about SETI. And the same will happen with an abiogenesis project like this at Harvard if there are no conclusive results (i.e. no life is created).

I want them to crack the ice on Europa and see what the hell is down there. If it’s a huge liquid ocean, and there are some thermal vents down there, it would be totally possible that some life could be sticking to the crud.

You guys read too much sci fi.