An Interview with Michael Ruse

It is clear that we all possess strong ethical beliefs and make firm moral assessments. We can agree that terrorists are wicked and that discrimination is incorrect.

But what is the origin of these convictions? One explanation could be that there are moral realities which exist outside of us and our rational minds are capable of unearthing them.

Alternatively, these moral values might be a product of a certain human psychology that has developed over evolutionary history.

This perspective implies that the desire to help our neighbors has come from the same evolutionary process that generated the need to mate with our neighbors’ spouses.

Both of these drives are evolutionary changes, much like the human eye and the opposable thumb, and have been successful in sustaining life because they have been passed down through generations.

Michael Ruse, a philosopher of over three decades, has been an advocate for the idea that Darwin’s theory of natural selection has an impact on our morality.

The professor at Florida State University, who has written a number of books and papers, published Taking Darwin Seriously in 1986, which is a comprehensive defense of this perspective.

His latest book, Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose?, further clarifies and expands on his naturalistic approach to morality, religion, and epistemology.

The works of Ruse and others of similar mindsets have sparked enthusiasm and much discussion. The scrutiny of evolutionary ethics is shared by both sides of the aisle.

From the left, there are many academics who are completely baffled and even annoyed by the concept that human nature is not fully socially constructed. E.O. Wilson,

A renowned evolutionary biologist and coauthor of a few articles with Ruse, was known as “the prophet of the right-wing patriarchy” to some university activists.

During one of Wilson’s speeches, a group known as “Science For the People” drenched him with a bucket of ice water and shouted “You’re all wet!”. On the opposite side, there are hard-line moral realists looking for moral certainty.

To them, Darwinism introduces a subjective element that could threaten the assurance they bring to ethical matters. Not to mention, there are religious fundamentalists who are not only against a Darwinian approach to ethics, but against the veracity of evolutionary theory itself.

Ruse encountered this type of anti-Darwinism during his involvement in the Arkansas creation trial. I began the interview–which was conducted via email and telephone–by inquiring about this episode.

— According to Tamler Sommers

In 1981, the state of Arkansas passed legislation mandating that science educators instructing on the theory of evolution should spend equal time teaching something referred to as “creation science”.

The ACLU commenced legal proceedings against the state and you acted as one of their expert witnesses. To begin with, could you explain to us precisely what is meant by creation science?

Michael Ruse discussed the American fundamentalist and biblical literalist view of creationism, which has been around since the 19th century. Creation science was developed in the 1960s and 70s as a way to adhere to the Constitution’s separation of church and state.

The core beliefs of this movement are that the world is 6,000 years old, and that there was a miraculous creation and universal flood. They want to back up these beliefs with scientific evidence and call it “creation science”.

BLVR: What part did the ACLU ask you to take in reversing the law?

In my capacity as an expert witness, I gave testimony against the law in question. The issue was whether or not creation science was, in fact, scientific.

As a philosopher, I was able to explain the characteristics of science and religion, and demonstrate that evolution fits the definition of science, whereas creation science does not.

BLVR concluded that the topic in question did not merit the same amount of attention in the classroom as other topics.

MR: One cannot consider what it deserves in this case, as the Constitution of the United States of America prohibits the teaching of any form of religion in public-funded educational institutions.

BLVR: In your book But Is It Science?, you describe the trial and your deposition to the assistant attorney general of Arkansas, David Williams. It sounded like a tough interrogation – one point being him asking you how you view morality.

Your answer was “I intuit moral values as objective realities”. Fortunately, you say, Williams didn’t ask for further explanation. Since this is relevant to the interview, can you expand on what you meant by that?

MR: It is hard for me to say. I would not say that my position is precisely represented by what I wrote in Sociobiology: Sense and Nonsense. I do not know if my views have changed, or I have gained a better understanding of the subject.

Nevertheless, I still think that morality is, in some sense, objective, even though it might not be so in reality. So, I believe that we intuit morality as objective, however, it does not follow from this that morality is actually objective.

BLVR: Your description of the “hospitality room” prior to the trial is something I appreciate. There was you, several religious witnesses, and an abundance of alcohol. However, I believe they were testifying for the ACLU, is that correct?

MR: It was clear from the testimonies that it isn’t traditional for one to accept a literal reading of the Bible. Bruce Vawter, a Catholic priest, mentioned that St. Augustine and those before him argued that one should interpret the Bible metaphorically if science and facts dictate otherwise.

The modern theological perspective was expressed by Langdon Gilkey, who noted that most theologians today do not accept a literal interpretation of the Bible.

George Marsden, a renowned historian, discussed the rise of the fundamentalist movement and how it is a distinct American Protestant Christianity.

BLVR: However, you indicated that the attorneys employed by the ACLU possibly erred in allowing a free-flow of alcoholic drinks prior to the rehearsal.

MR: In their minds, I guess they were concerned that we would be completely intoxicated or suffer from hangover symptoms prior to the trial commencing. I mean, an open bar… We may have indulged in a few gin drinks, but it wasn’t like a…

An event was held by a fraternity – a party.

The American Psychological Association might hold a get-together.

At the rehearsal, the proceedings did not go as planned; however, when it came to the actual court hearing, the testimony went off without a hitch.

The response was affirmative.

The judge adopted a few of BLAIR’s arguments in his ruling against Arkansas.

The judge in But Is It Science? based their five or six criteria for what would be categorized as science off of the testimony I gave. This is what had people like Larry Laudan so riled up. It’s not like I’m bragging or anything, I’m just stating the facts.

BLVR: Some highly-regarded experts testified as well, such as Francisco Ayala and Stephen Jay Gould. In your work, you wrote a nice section about them.

You stated that “listening to Ayala talking affectionately about his fruit flies and Gould discussing his fossils showed that it is those who refute evolution who are opposed to God, not those who accept it.” What was the intent of this quote?

MR: In traditional Christian theology, we are made in the image of God, which implies intelligence and self-awareness as well as moral ability. Therefore, to neglect one’s intelligence or to deny it is seen as a heretical denial of one’s divinely-given nature.

Consequently, in being a scientist, one is utilizing the very traits that make them God-like from a Christian perspective. Though faith is a crucial part of Christianity, believers can also recognize that intelligence is not merely a coincidental characteristic, but is what makes us similar to God.

BLVR: So, let’s discuss Darwinism and morality. It’s not only religious traditionalists who oppose an evolutionary perspective on this matter. A lot of people are uncomfortable with the concept that Darwinian science and ethics would be related. What are your thoughts on this?

MR: I agree that they should be. In the past, Darwinian selection has been used to support some extremely undesirable political and moral stances. For example, Hitler explicitly mentions his social Darwinism in Mein Kampf.

Even though people have done bad things in its name, that doesn’t mean we should disregard the possibility of a connection. It would be wrong to reject the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount just because some priests have committed indecent acts.

Have there been any advantages associated with the association that has been made?

MR: It can be argued that, historically, social Darwinism has had both positive and negative effects. For instance, Alfred Russel Wallace leveraged his evolutionary principles (which he developed alongside the theory of natural selection) to promote socialism and feminism.

Sarah Hrdy has argued that females are just as successful, if not more so, than males, and employ different tactics than brute force.

Edward Wilson has gone so far as to argue that preserving biodiversity is essential for the preservation of humanity, and is thus a moral imperative.

However, the traditional social Darwinian notion that evolution is something to be progressed and humans should be facilitated to stay at the “top” is a clear violation of the is/ought dichotomy.

BLVR: In your works, you refer to this as a breach of Hume’s Law. Could you explain what Hume’s Law is?

In my opinion, Hume’s Law states that it is not possible to move from factual statements – for example, “Eddy Nahmias attends Duke University” – to value-based statements – for instance, “Duke University is an outstanding school”.

There are some who argue that Hume was implying that people do make this transition from fact to obligation and that he was backing it – to me, this is a misinterpretation of Hume and it goes against his own beliefs.

BLVR inquired about Ed Wilson and his apparent violation of Hume’s Law, which states that you can’t derive a normative conclusion from facts about the way the world is. BLVR then asked how Wilson responds to this accusation, considering the two of them are friends.

MR: Ed’s actions contradict Hume’s Law, although I have attempted to explain why he is wrong, but he is still adamant. His position is based on the belief of the continuous development of evolution.

Generally, he would not approve of the transition from “is” to “ought”– for example, “I like that student” to “It is OK to have sex with her, even though I am married.” However, he allows it in this case.

If I remark, “But ‘ought’ statements are not like ‘is’ statements,” he counters by saying that in science, when reducing, this occurs all the time, going from one kind of statement to another.

We could start with talking about little balls buzzing in a container and finish with discussing temperature and pressure, which is not much different from transitioning from “is” to “ought.”

BLVR: Even though it is not possible to make a connection between ethics and Darwinism according to Hume, you still think that there is some sort of relationship between the two, is that correct?

MR: According to my viewpoint, the ethical sense can be accounted for by Darwinian progression–it is an adjustment to maintain us as a social species.

Furthermore, I suggest that when one gives an explanation of why something is the way it is, this is also a justification of its value. Once this idea is comprehended, that ethics is simply a modification, it is evident that it holds no justification.

It just is. Therefore, in metaethics4 I am a nonrealist. I believe ethics is a fabrication developed by our genes to keep us social.

BLVR: Is it to be understood then that the only reliable explanation for our perception that ethical principles exist is through Darwinism?

MR claimed that he distinguished normative ethics from metaethics, saying that evolution could explain why we feel obligated to be just and fair to others.

He expressed admiration for John Rawls, who in his book Theory of Justice suggested that the social contract had been put in place by evolution, not by a group of old men.

Additionally, MR agreed with the philosopher J.L Mackie that we need to “objectify” ethics, or else it would collapse under cheating.

BLVR: What do you imply when you say the ethical system requires us to assume that ethics is objective?

MR: If we believed that moral principles were only subjective and nothing more, then it would be very easy to start disregarding them.

If I didn’t think there was a valid reason to not be unfaithful to another’s spouse, then I would likely disregard the moral code, thinking it was just a set of beliefs put in place to stop me, and saying ‘to hell with it’ and do it anyway.

Therefore, there has to be some type of power that makes breaking the code wrong-not because you can’t get away with it, but because it is wrong in itself.

BLVR: But what of the behaviors of chimpanzees and other animals that could be seen as altruistic, or even moral? Despite the fact that they likely lack any understanding of objectivity, they still show these traits.

MR stated that when it comes to awareness of morality, he believes that dogs and cats, particularly dogs, have some sort of understanding. He shared an example of his dog exhibiting a guilty look when he found out the dog had peed on the carpet.

Furthermore, he argued that his ferrets don’t possess the same level of awareness when it comes to right and wrong. He went on to express his fondness for ferrets, but that they lack the same awareness.

In my opinion, dogs are more reliable companions than cats. Felines never seem to take responsibility for their actions.

MR: Indeed, canines are very social creatures, and this sociality could lead to a moral sense. As opposed to gorillas and orangutans, dogs have ventured down the path of sociality and it may be possible to find evidence of morality in them.

Despite the fact that humans are much more closely related to orangutans, the social aspect of dogs has enabled them to become a successful species, as they hunt and share food together.

It is not implausible to think that certain dogs might be excluded from groups if they do not comply with the rules. Moreover, chimpanzees have a great understanding of who can and who cannot be trusted and if someone is cheating or not.

BLVR: Do you consider this as a faith in objectivity?

In agreement, I do not require them to have a complete understanding of objectivity. However, my pooch does appear to have some guilt and it is not just a consequence of terror.

BLVR: I have never been violent towards my canine companion, but if she has done something wrong, her demeanor is one of guilt.

MR mentioned that ferrets do not have a concept of guilt, however, similar to dogs, humans are social animals and thus have a sense of morality. This morality is not subjective but appears to be objective.

BLVR: However, you have indicated that you believe that at the fundamental level there is not a morality that is objectively valid.

MR: Just because one has a theory on something doesn’t mean they can do it. Even if a therapist points out that your mother doesn’t really hate you, you may still feel like she does when out in the real world. This means that human nature can’t be changed just based on what two philosophers say.

David Hume makes the point that it is impossible to prove anything with philosophy. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. We still go on with our daily lives, making the philosophical concepts seem distant.

This is why I see ethics as subjective, even though it appears to be objective. Rawls denies this, believing instead that the social contract is a condition of rational people living and working together. However, I think that rational people could have another system.

This is why I am a Humean, seeing morality as a matter of psychology.

BLVR: Is it then not morality itself, but instead the concept of objectivity within it that is a misconception? Taking that into account, is it not true that for strict Darwinians, there is no such thing as an objective moral reality?

If so, does that not imply that it is not an objective fact that rape is wrong?

MR stated that, although they are a nonrealist who believes there is no objective right and wrong, they cannot escape being part of the system which holds that rape is wrong, similar to the rule that three strikes and you are out in baseball.

Despite this truth, they concluded, it does not necessarily bring freedom.

BLVR: There is no definitive right or wrong in this situation.

MR: Even though I understand that morality is subjective, I cannot embrace the idea of becoming a Nietzschean superman and disregarding it. I take Raskolnikov’s character in Crime and Punishment seriously.

Dostoyevsky points out that, despite these beliefs, it is not possible to act on them. Additionally, I find no reason to escape the system. Despite the consequences, if I committed a crime such as rape, I would still feel bad.

Furthermore, I wouldn’t want my wife and daughters to be raped either. This brings up the question of whether rape is a crime/sin relative to our biology.

For instance, if women had estrus, would rape be a crime/sin? I wrote about this concept in the context of extraterrestrials, asking if rape is wrong on Andromeda.

BLVR: Can you clarify what you mean by “within the system it is objectively true?” Are you implying that since there are rules and standards against rape, it is wrong?

Or are you suggesting that due to human biology, rape is wrong in an objective sense? If that is your statement, wouldn’t that be in opposition to Hume’s Law?

MR: It is a fact that in baseball, three strikes and you’re out. However, it is not a fact that George Steinbrenner should keep faith with Joe Torre as that is a judgment call. Baseball and morality are both inventions and so there is no ultimate truth for either.

Although within the system of morality it can be said that rape is wrong, if our females came into heat then it would not be wrong and there would not even be the concept of rape. So, I can explain why we have moral sentiments, but that doesn’t mean they are justified.

BLVR: If Darwinism is a valid comparison, then it can be said that the purpose behind moral convictions and ideas is understandable. Let’s look into this further. What was the benefit of having a moral perception? What caused our genes to create a moral code?

As an individual selectionist, I believe that natural selection has provided us with selfish/self-centered thoughts. If I were to encounter a beautiful woman and suggest that Bob Brandon go first, I would be at a disadvantage in the battle for survival.

Nevertheless, being social animals, we have obtained special adaptations that help us to cooperate with each other, such as the ability to fight off disease and communicate.

These adaptations are necessary for us to thrive, and this is where the concept of morality comes into play, as well as the fact that human females do not go into heat.

BLVR: Before I forget, could you explain how the lack of estrus in human females results in us being moral?

MR: The fact that women do not go into heat is a major part of our sociality that has to be taken into account when making moral judgments.

If women did enter heat, then even if the moral principles were the same–treat others fairly and so on–it would not be reasonable to chastise someone for having sex with the female if they got the chance.

As an analogy, needing to defecate is a physical adaptation and renders absurd the idea that one should never defecate, but it does not alter the notion that it is wrong to go to your boss’s house and defecate on their Persian carpet.

BLVR: That was what I was getting at–why would it be wrong to blame someone for sexually assaulting a human female, if human females were in a state of sexual arousal?

As a naturalist, I strongly believe that epistemology and ethics are both deeply connected to modern science.

Think about the work of philosophers like Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Kant. Now, if females did experience heat, then biology would take precedence, and our ability to make decisions freely would be hindered.

Have you ever felt sexually frustrated and, although you did not want to, ended up masturbating? Were you in full control of your decisions? What if you were starving and the only food in sight was a plate of French fries? Is it fair to blame the alcoholic for drinking?

I used to smoke, and I cannot say that I was in full control of my decisions. The point is, choosing to act morally requires a choice, and if women experienced heat, that choice would be removed.

Even though they do not have this physical phenomenon, humans still have the desire to make moral decisions.

BLVR: It is understandable why selection can cause us to think selfishly. When you repeatedly choose Brandon over the girl, that trait won’t be passed down to the next generation as a woman is necessary for that to happen.

However, it’s more challenging to pinpoint how selection encourages us to be moral, particularly since some of these behaviors may lower our chances of survival and reproduction. As an example, let’s consider how guilty we might feel if we were to cheat on a partner.

Why would selection advocate for that outcome?

I could assert that guilt is a factor that causes people to follow moral laws. However, I wouldn’t suggest that morality alone can stop someone from performing wrong deeds.

It is possible that guilt might prevent an individual from committing adultery; however, it is more likely that fear of being discovered is the true deterrent.

BLVR: Is it fair to say that morality has been created to suppress some of our most harmful and unsociable behaviors? Also, do we still have enough free will that, in certain cases, our sense of morality can win out?

MR declared that humans are a balance between selfishness and altruism, something even Saint Paul mentioned a long time ago. This does not mean everything he said is incorrect; rather, it is possible for autonomy to enter the picture.

In his view, people are causally determined yet like sophisticated rockets that can modify their goals in mid-flight as new data emerges.

At a colloquium on “intrinsic value,” the discussion was focused on rights, human dignity, and rational agents–all without any reference to science. BLVR asked if the concept that ethics should be biologicized, as suggested by Ed Wilson, was still unpopular among philosophers.

Do you agree that the time has come for ethics to be taken out of the hands of philosophers and biologicized?

MR stated that, even if Ed Wilson tends to be too verbose, the core of his opinion is accepted.

There is a far greater enthusiasm nowadays for evolution and ethics than there was two decades ago, a fact that is reflected in the work of renowned authors such as Brian Skyrms and Elliott Sober.

BLVR: These authors have proposed a naturalistic and Darwinian theoretical framework to explain the emergence of altruism and the social contract. Skyrms draws significantly on game theory to back up his argument.

However, game theory is accused of making overly simplistic assumptions about how traits are passed down.

How do you address the critique by Stephen Jay Gould and others that theories such as yours are merely “just so stories” and that there is not enough focus on the mechanisms of how complex behavior and morality are inherited?

MR commented that he was fed up with the criticism of “just so” stories, noting that the recently published volume on commitment edited by Randy Nesse referenced many psychologists and other professionals who are researching the issues empirically.

He also stated that game theory people commonly make assumptions to advance science, and that one cannot make progress by simply theorizing; rather, he argued that one should “get an idea, build a model, check it out, revise and redraw–etc., etc….” before coming to conclusions.

MR concluded that his words should be quoted, saying “you don’t make progress by sitting on your bum farting about spandrels8”.

BLVR: Alright. I often hear another objection that if evolution is the root of morality, then moral nihilism results, meaning life has no purpose.

The idea that, like Dostoyevsky’s characters, we all should kill ourselves or train ourselves to not have any altruistic inclinations and take advantage of others seems wrong to me. This concept is contrary to Hume’s Law.

However, some people find the Darwinian point of view to be quite dreary and dismal. What would you tell these individuals?

MEN’s opinion is that there is nothing–moral nihilism–at the end. Dostoyevsky’s work, Crime and Punishment, proves that, even if we can understand the whole story, it doesn’t mean we can act on it due to our nature.

Raskolnikov confessed out of his own will. Generally, it is not wise to try to go against our nature as it only causes distress. The only time it might be worth attempting to go against the moral game is if it would lead to detrimental effects in the future.

Hume had the best answer for this, which is to take pleasure in playing backgammon and having a good meal with friends. Philosophy leads to doubt, but psychology can help us move away from it.

BLVR: Consequently, one would not be concerned like certain individuals about society understanding morality as not having an objective truth?

MR: I am not at all stressed. I am much more worried about the lack of reason in the typical American politician, especially Bush–things right from religious faith including thousands of years and divine interventions and second comings and that kind of thing.

BLVR has a response to those who might assume that, if they were to believe that life is purely about genes trying to replicate themselves, they’d want to end their life.

And that response is: no, they won’t. People, being human, have the tendency to enjoy having fun, playing games and socializing with their peers over drinks.

MR: Indeed, there is more to it than that. I think one can say that having religious convictions can create a lot of mental tension. I’m not sure if… Oh, shoot, did they just- no, I apologize, I thought they had urinated on the rug.

BLVR posed the query: “Was it the canine or the ferret?”

MR: The ferret. But it didn’t turn out that way. To be honest, I’m relieved that I no longer have faith in God.

I can’t really explain why, but the God I believed in was of the Presbyterian kind. After creating heaven and hell and then us, he seemed to take pleasure in making life difficult for us. So it’s a great relief to not have that kind of God watching me.

BLVR: Has this been a recent development?

MR: To a degree. My dad, who explored a few different religions, eventually achieved a sense of tranquility by reaching the same conclusion as Voltaire. In essence, it’s best to simply get on with tending to our garden. That thought is comforting to me.

Do you believe the Darwinian perspective of the world offers an optimistic outlook?

I don’t think that Darwinism can be categorized as either optimistic or pessimistic; however, I can accept it and find it amazing that we have a scientific theory that can be explored on both a scientific and philosophical level. For me, these two aspects are closely related.

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