An Interview with Michael Ruse
We all have strong moral beliefs and make confident moral judgments. Terrorists are evil; discrimination is wrong. But where do these beliefs come from? One answer is that there are moral facts out there in the world waiting to be discovered, and rational creatures like us are capable of discovering them. Another is that these moral beliefs are part of a specific human psychology that has developed during the course of evolutionary history. According to this view, the urge to help thy neighbor is a result of the same evolutionary process that produced the urge to sleep with thy neighbor’s wife. Both urges are adaptations, like the human eye or the opposable thumb, and have evolved because they conferred higher fitness on the organisms that possessed them.
For more than thirty years, the philosopher Michael Ruse has championed this latter view. His 1986 book Taking Darwin Seriously is a full-length defense of the position that the theory of natural selection has a lot to tell us about our moral lives. Since then, Dr. Ruse—professor of philosophy at Florida State University and an absurdly prolific author—has written numerous books and articles clarifying and expanding his purely naturalistic approach to morality, religion, and epistemology. His most recent book is called Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose?
Ruse and other like-minded theorists have generated excitement with their views and a fair amount of controversy as well. Criticism of evolutionary ethics is a bipartisan affair. From the left come attacks from a large and vocal contingent of academics, who range from being baffled to being appalled by the claim that human nature is not entirely a social construction. (The great evolutionary biologist and entomologist E.O. Wilson—coauthor of a number of articles with Ruse—was known to certain university activists as “the prophet of the right-wing patriarchy.” During the course of one of Wilson’s lectures, a group that called itself “Science For the People” dumped a bucket of ice water on his head and then chanted “You’re all wet.”) On the right, there are the hard-line moral realists engaged in their search for “moral clarity.” To them, Darwinism introduces an element of subjectivity that threatens to undermine the certainty they bring to ethical affairs. And of course there are the religious fundamentalists, who object not only to a Darwinian approach to ethics but to the truth of evolutionary theory itself. Ruse got a taste of this brand of anti-Darwinian sentiment during his involvement in the infamous Arkansas creation trial. I began our interview—which took place over email and over the phone—by asking about this experience.
THE BELIEVER: In 1981 the state of Arkansas passed a law requiring science teachers who taught evolution to give equal time to something called “creation science.” The ACLU sued the state, and you served as one of their expert witnesses. First of all, what exactly is creation science?
MICHAEL RUSE: Well, it’s a form of American fundamentalism and biblical literalism. It’s the belief that the Bible, particularly the early chapters of Genesis, are a reliable guide to history, including life history. Creationism itself is not a new phenomenon—it goes back certainly to the nineteenth century. The basic tenets are: the world is 6,000 years old, there was a miraculous creation, a universal flood, that sort of thing. Creation science as such is a phenomenon of the 1960s and seventies; it was polished up in order to get around the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state. And that’s why they call it creation science. Because they want to claim scientifically that Genesis can be proven.
BLVR: What role did the ACLU want you to play in overturning the law?
MR: I was one of the expert witnesses called to testify against the law.Technically speaking, they were just trying to show that creation science is not science. So my job as a philosopher was to testify as to the nature of science and the nature of religion, and show that evolution is science, and creation science is religion.
BLVR: And so because of that, it did not deserve equal time in the classroom.
MR: It’s not a question of what it deserves. The Constitution forbids the teaching of religion in publicly funded schools in America.
BLVR: In your book But Is It Science?, you describe the trial, and you talk about the deposition you gave to the assistant attorney general of Arkansas, David Williams— it sounded like quite a grilling. At one point he asks you how you regard morality. You respond, “I intuit moral values as objective realities.” Fortunately, you say, Williams didn’t ask what you meant by that. But since it’s relevant to the topic of this interview, what did you mean exactly?
MR: I’m not sure, really. I don’t think of that as accurate, exactly, as to what my position really is. I think if you look at books that I wrote, like Sociobiology: Sense and Nonsense, I certainly didn’t think that morality could be reduced to evolutionary biology, in those days. I’m not sure if I’ve changed my mind, or come to a fuller understanding of the issue. I think I would still say—part of my position on morality is very much that we regard morality in some sense as being objective, even if it isn’t. So the claim that we intuit morality as objective reality—I would still say that. Of course, what I would want to add is that from the fact that we do this, it doesn’t follow that morality really is objective.
BLVR: I like your account of the “hospitality room” the afternoon before the trial. It was you, a bunch of religion witnesses, and an open bar. But they were witnesses for the ACLU, right?
MR:Yes, they were there to testify that it certainly isn’t traditional religion to be forced to accept a literal reading of the Bible. Bruce Vawter, a Catholic priest, pointed out that if you go back to St. Augustine and earlier, they’ve all argued that one should be able to interpret the Bible metaphorically if science and the facts dictate otherwise, and so it follows that the Bible taken literally isn’t necessarily true.The theologian Langdon Gilky was arguing this, too, but from a contemporary theological perspective. Most theologians today, he said, do not believe in an absolutely literal interpretation of the Bible. And there was also George Marsden, an eminent historian who talked about the development of the fundamentalist movement and how it came into being.And again, trying to show very much that this is not traditional Christianity, but rather an indigenous form of American Protestant Christianity.
BLVR: But you say that the lawyers for the ACLU may have made a mistake in having an open bar right before the rehearsal.
MR: Well, I think they were worried that we’d all be sloshed or hung over before the actual trial. I mean, open bar… Well, we may have had a few gins, but it wasn’t like a…
BLVR: Fraternity party.
MR: Or even a meeting of the APA.
BLVR: So the rehearsal suffered a little, but then in court the testimony went quite smoothly.
MR: It did.
BLVR: And the judge used a couple of your points in his decision against the state of Arkansas.
MR: Not just a couple of my points. If you look at the judge’s decision in But Is It Science?, his five or six criteria for what counts as science are taken precisely from my testimony.And you know, I’m not showing off—but that’s what he did. And in fact, this is what got people like Larry Laudan hot under the collar.
BLVR: There were some other well-known expert witnesses, too. Francisco Ayala, Stephen Jay Gould. In your book, you write a nice passage about them.You say “to hear Ayala talking lovingly of his fruit flies and Gould of his fossils was to realize so vividly that it is those who deny evolution who are anti-God, not those who affirm it.”What exactly are you saying here?
MR: I’m saying that if in fact you’re Christian then you believe you were made in the image of God. And that means—and this is traditional Christian theology—that means that you have intelligence and self-awareness and moral ability. So what I would say then, that not to use one’s intelligence, or to deny it or not to follow it, is at one level a heretical denial of one’s God-given nature. And so this is the point I made—that in being a scientist, far from being anti-Christian or anti-God, you are utilizing the very things that make one God-like, in the Christian perspective. Of course, on the other hand, Christians are always caught up in this business of faith versus reason. And they love to argue that the most childlike among us can achieve understanding of God, true faith. So faith is very important for Christians. Nevertheless, it’s a very important part of Christianity that our intelligence is not just a contingent thing, but is in fact that which makes us in the image of God.
BLVR: OK, let’s talk about Darwinism and morality. Because on this topic, it’s not just religious fundamentalists who object to an evolutionary approach. A wide range of people are disturbed by the idea that there could be any connection between Darwinian theory and ethics. Should they be?
MR:Yes, I certainly think they should be. In the past, evolution—Darwinian selection—has been used to legitimize some dreadful political and moral (for want of a better word) views. Hitler is open about his social Darwinism in his Mein Kampf. Others have done the same. However, being disturbed is not to say that one should not take seriously the possible connection, because people have done bad things in its name. I would not reject the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount because priests have put their hands on little boys’ willies.
BLVR: Do you think the connection has had some positive effects as well?
MR:Yes, in fact, historically one can make the case that social Darwinism has been a force for good as much as for bad. Alfred Russel Wallace used his evolutionism (and he was a codiscoverer of the theory of natural selection) to argue for socialism and feminism. People today also argue for things I find attractive. Sarah Hrdy argues that females are at least as successful as males and as dominant in their way, even though they use strategies that do not involve brute force. Ed Wilson argues for biodiversity in the name of evolution—he thinks if we destroy the rain forests, then we destroy humankind, and this is a bad thing. Of course what I would argue is that the connection between Darwinism and ethics is not what the traditional social Darwinian argues. He or she argues that evolution is progressive, humans came out on top and therefore are a good thing, hence we should promote evolution to keep humans up there and to prevent decline.I think that is a straight violation of the is/ought dichotomy.
BLVR: In your books you refer to this as a violation of “Hume’s Law.” Can you explain exactly what Hume’s Law is?
MR: I take Hume’s Law to be the claim that you cannot go from statements of fact—“Duke University is the school attended by Eddy Nahmias”—to statements of value—“Duke University is an excellent school.” Some say Hume was simply pointing to the fact that people do go from fact to obligation and was himself endorsing this move—but I think this is a misreading of Hume and certainly goes against his own philosophy.
BLVR: So then it seems that Ed Wilson, much as we support his cause, is guilty of violating Hume’s Law, too. He’s getting a normative conclusion—we should promote biodiversity—from facts about the way the world is. I know you two are friends—how does he respond to that charge?
MR: Ed does violate Hume’s Law, and no matter what I say he cannot see that there is anything wrong in doing this. It comes from his commitment to the progressive nature of evolution. No doubt he would normally say that one should not go from “is” to “ought”— for example from “I like that student” to “It is OK to have sex with her, even though I am married.” But in this case of evolution he allows it. If you say to him, “But ‘ought’ statements are not like ‘is’ statements,” he replies that in science, when we have reduction, we do this all the time, going from one kind of statement to another kind of statement. We start talking about little balls buzzing in a container and end talking about temperature and pressure. No less a jump than going from “is” to “ought.”
BLVR: But you agree with Hume that the jump can’t be made. Still, you want to say that there is some relationship between ethics and Darwinism, right?
MR: My position is that the ethical sense can be explained by Darwinian evolution—the ethical sense is an adaptation to keep us social. More than this, I argue that sometimes (and this is one of those times), when you give an account of the way something occurs and is as it is, this is also to give an explanation of its status. I think that once you see that ethics is simply an adaptation, you see that it has no justification. It just is. So in metaethics4 I am a nonrealist. I think ethics is an illusion put into place by our genes to keep us social.
BLVR: An illusion—so then are you saying that the only true connection is that Darwinism can account for why we (falsely) believe that ethics is real?
MR: No, I distinguish normative ethics from metaethics. In normative ethics I think evolution can go a long way to explain our feelings of obligation: be just, be fair, treat others like yourself. We humans are social animals and we need these sentiments to get on. I like John Rawls’s5 thinking on this. On about page 500 of his Theory of Justice book, Rawls says he thinks the social contract was put in place by evolution rather than by a group of old men many years ago. Then in metaethics, I think we see that morality is an adaptation merely and hence has no justification. Having said this, I agree with the philosopher J.L Mackie6 (who influenced me a lot) that we feel the need to “objectify” ethics. If we did not think ethics was objective, it would collapse under cheating.
BLVR: What do you mean by that? The moral system needs us to think that ethics is objective?
MR: If we knew that it was all just subjective, and we felt that, then of course we’d start to cheat. If I thought there was no real reason not to sleep with someone else’s wife and that it was just a belief system put in place to keep me from doing it, then I think the system would start to break down. And if I didn’t share these beliefs, I’d say to hell with it, I’m going to do it. So I think at some level, morality has to have some sort of, what should I say, some sort of force. Put it this way, I shouldn’t cheat, not because I can’t get away with it, or maybe I can get away with it, but because it is fundamentally wrong.
BLVR: But what about chimpanzees and other species that engage in altruistic, and some would even say moral, behavior? They probably don’t have any notions of objectivity and yet they still do it.
MR: I don’t know that they don’t. I would say that as soon as one starts to have some sort of awareness, then I would be prepared to say—obviously much less than us—that there is some sense of objective morality. When I come in and my dog looks guilty and I find it’s because he peed on the carpet… I mean, sure, part of it is that he’s afraid I’ll beat the hell out of him, but by and large I don’t beat the hell out of my dog any more than I do my kids. So I’d be prepared to say that the dog knows he’s done wrong. Now, on the other hand, my ferrets, which are around, and you know, they’ll shit anywhere. I mean, I like ferrets, I love ferrets, but I don’t think they have any awareness of right and wrong when it comes to these things. Whereas I really think that dogs and cats do, particularly dogs.
BLVR: I would definitely say dogs more than cats. Cats don’t seem to ever think they’re in the wrong.
MR: Right. And you know, I’ve talked to ethologists about this. Dogs are very social animals. And morality is a social phenomenon. And so in certain respects, dogs might be closer to humans even than, say, gorillas. And certainly orangutans. Orangutans are not particularly social beings at all. And so even though we’re much closer phylogenetically to orangutans than we are to dogs, dogs have gone the route of sociality in a way that we have. So you might well find that something like a moral sense appears in dogs more than orangutans. I mean, that all sounds terribly anthropomorphic but it’s not entirely stupid. Dogs work in groups, and that is what has made them the successful species that they are. They hunt together, share food. I mean, I’m not a dogologist. But I think it would be interesting to note, do you find cheating? Are certain dogs excluded at some level because they don’t play the game? I wouldn’t be surprised if something like that happens. And you know, particularly at the chimpanzee level, there seems to be an awful lot of sophistication on who can be trusted and who can’t be trusted, and who’s cheating and so forth.
BLVR: And you would regard that as a belief in objectivity?
MR: Yes, I would. But I don’t feel the need to insist that they have a full awareness of objectivity, but it certainly seems to me that my dog shows a level of guilt and it’s not just a matter of fear.
BLVR: It’s true—I’ve never hit my dog in my life, but if she’s ever done anything wrong, she looks guilty.
MR: Right, and you know exactly what she’s done. But believe me, with ferrets, guilt is not a word in their vocabulary. But we’re like dogs, social animals, and so we have morality and this part of the phenomenology of morality, how it appears to us, that it is not subjective, that we think it is objective.
BLVR: But you’ve said that you think that at bottom there is no objective morality.
MR: The fact that you have a theory about something doesn’t follow that you can do it. I mean, you can lie on the couch for years and the therapist can point out that your mother doesn’t really hate you, but then you go out into the light of day, and then you know that your mother hates you. What I’m saying is that human nature can’t be turned over because of what a couple of philosophers are doing. I mean, David Hume makes this point. If you do philosophy, it all leads to skepticism.Y ou can’t prove a damn thing. But does it matter? No! We go on. I take Hume very seriously on this point. Our psychology prevents our philosophy from getting us down. We go on. We play a game of backgammon, we have a meal. And then when we come back to think about philosophy it seems cold and strange. So I think ethics is essentially subjective but it appears to us as objective and this appearance, too, is an adaptation. It is not just that I dislike rape. I think it is really and truly wrong. Rawls of course denies that ethics is subjective and as a Kantian thinks the answer is that the social contract is a condition of rational people living and working together. But I am inclined to think that rational people might have another social system different from ours. So, in a way, I am a Humean seeing morality as a matter of psychology.
BLVR: So it’s not morality itself, but this feeling of objectivity in morality that is the illusion—right? But doesn’t that mean that as clearheaded Darwinians, we have to say that there are no objective moral facts? And therefore that it is not an objective fact that rape is wrong?
MR: Within the system, of course, rape is objectively wrong—just like three strikes and you are out in baseball. But I’m a nonrealist, so ultimately there is no objective right and wrong for me. Having said that, I am part of the system and cannot escape.T he truth does not necessarily make you free.
BLVR: The truth here being that there is no real right and wrong.
MR: Yes, but knowing that it is all subjective doesn’t necessarily mean that I can become Nietzschean superman and ignore it. I take very seriously Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Dostoyevsky points out that, even if we have these beliefs, that there is no right and wrong, we can’t necessarily act on them. And, you know, I see no real reason to get out of the system, either. If I rape, I am going to feel badly, apart from the consequences if I am caught. And the reciprocation—I don’t want my wife and daughters raped, but even rape is relative in a sense to our biology. If women came into heat, would rape be a crime/sin? I wrote about this once in the context of extraterrestrials—is rape wrong on Andromeda?
BLVR: I’m not sure what you mean by “within the system it is objectively true.” Do you mean that because we have laws and norms against rape, then rape is wrong? Or do you mean that for our species, given our biology, rape is objectively wrong? If it’s the latter, aren’t you violating Hume’s Law, too?
MR: I would say that within the baseball system, it is objectively true that three strikes and you’re out. It is true, but I would not say it’s objectively true that George Steinbrenner should keep faith with Joe Torre. This latter is a Michael Ruse judgment call. There is no ultimate, God-given objective truth about baseball. It is an invention. There is no ultimate truth about morality. It is an invention—an invention of the genes rather than of humans, and we cannot change games at will, as one might baseball if one went to England and played cricket. Within the system, the human moral system, it is objectively true that rape is wrong. That follows from the principles of morality and from human nature. If our females came into heat, it would not necessarily be objectively wrong to rape—in fact, I doubt we would have the concept of rape at all. So, within the system, I can justify. But I deny that human morality at the highest level—love your neighbor as yourself, etc.—is justifiable. That is why I am not deriving “is” from “ought,” in the illicit sense of justification. I am deriving it in the sense of explaining why we have moral sentiments, but that is a different matter. As an analyst I can explain why you hate your father, but that doesn’t mean your hatred is justified.
BLVR: So then by analogy, Darwinian theory can explain why we have moral sentiments and beliefs, right? So let’s get into the details. Why was it adaptive to have this moral sense? Why did our genes invent morality?
MR: I am an individual selectionist all the way. Natural selection has given us selfish/self-centered thoughts. It had to. If I meet a pretty girl and at once say to Bob Brandon,7 “You go first,” I am going to lose in the struggle for existence. But at the same time we are social animals. It’s a good thing to be, we can work together. But being social demands special adaptations, like being able to fight off disease and to communicate. We need adaptations to get on, and this I think is where morality comes in—or the moral sense—and other things like human females not coming into heat.
BLVR: I wanted to ask this before—what is it about human females not coming into heat that leads to us being moral?
MR: Human females not coming into heat does not make us moral or immoral—but it is an important fact of our sociality and it is an important fact when we are making moral judgments (which are always matters of fact plus moral principles). I am simply saying that if women did come into heat, then even if we had the same moral principles—treat others fairly, etc.—it would simply not make sense to condemn someone for fucking the female if he got the chance. Having to take a shit is a physical adaptation and it makes silly the moral claim that you ought never shit—although it does not affect the claim that it is wrong to go to your supervisor’s for supper and end by crapping on his Persian rug.
BLVR: That’s what I meant—why would it not make sense to condemn someone for raping a human female, if human females went into heat?
MR: Look, in my view, as a naturalist, I think epistemology and ethics are dependent on the best modern science. Look at Descartes and Locke and Hume and Kant.The point is that if women went into heat, then biology really would take over and we would lose our freedom. Have you ever been in a situation where you were sexually frustrated and didn’t particularly want to jerk off but ended by doing so? Were you really a free agent? Or you are really hungry and there is a plate of French fries in front of you? Does one blame the alcoholic for drinking? I used to smoke and I would not say that I was free. The point is that “ought” implies a choice, and if women came into heat then there would be no choice. I don’t have a hell of a lot of choice even though they don’t. So it’s not that we are always moral—we certainly aren’t—but we have the urge to be moral as one of the package of human adaptations.
BLVR: OK, I can see why selection has given us selfish thoughts. A trait that leads you to give up the girl to Brandon every time is not going to get passed onto the next generation. Because you need a woman to pass on traits of any kind. At least for now, with the cloning ban. But adaptations that lead us to be moral seem trickier—especially those that on the surface would seem to decrease chances for survival and reproduction. Take for example the sense of guilt that we might feel when cheating on a spouse. Why would selection encourage a trait like that?
MR: I would be inclined to see guilt as part of the package of emotions that enforce morality. But I would never say that morality stops actions that are bad. Sometimes the guilt does stop adultery, but I suspect more often it is the fear of being caught.
BLVR: So then is the gist of this that morality has developed as a way of curbing some of our most antisocial or destructive tendencies? And that we have enough natural autonomy so that, sometimes at least, our moral sense wins out?
MR: That is right. We are a balance, or, if you like, a conflict, between selfishness and altruism. This is something that Saint Paul said a long time ago—but not everything that Saint Paul said is wrong.That is, whether the autonomy comes in. I think we are causally determined but rather like sophisticated rockets that have the ability to redefine their targets in mid-flight as the new information comes in.
BLVR: This idea that ethics depends on the best modern science is still fairly unpopular among philosophers, isn’t it? I was just at a weekend colloquium on “intrinsic value” and all the talk was about rights, human dignity, and rationial agents—concepts that don’t have much to do with science. Do you agree with your friend Ed Wilson’s remark that the time has come for ethics to be removed from the hands of philosophers, and biologicized?
MR: Ed Wilson is given to too much rhetoric, but essentially I agree. Although there is a lot more interest in evolution and ethics than there was twenty years ago, and respectable people like Brian Skyrms and Elliott Sober have written on the topic.
BLVR: Both of these authors have developed naturalistic and Darwinian explanations for the evolution of altruism, or of the social contract. And both rely (in Skyrms’s case, heavily) on game theory to support their claims. But game theory makes a lot of assumptions, some say unjustified assumptions, about inheritance mechanisms. How do you respond to the charge raised by Stephen Jay Gould and others that theories like theirs, and yours, are really “just so stories”? That there is too little attention paid to the mechanisms through which complex behaviors, and something like a moral sense, could be passed along?
MR: I am sick of the criticism of “just so” stories. Look at the volume on commitment just edited by Randy Nesse. There are lots of references to psychologists and others who are working on these issues empirically. Of course the game theory people make assumptions. That’s how you do science. Get an idea, build a model, check it out, revise and redraw—etc., etc…. You don’t make progress by sitting on your bum farting on about spandrels8 .And you can quote me on that one.
BLVR: Done. Another objection I hear often is that if evolution can entirely explain morality, then moral nihilism is a consequence. Life has no meaning. We should all become like raving Dostoyevsky characters, or kill ourselves, or at least train ourselves out of any altruistic tendencies we might have and take advantage of everyone else. Now I can’t see any reason why we should train ourselves out of anything, even if moral nihilism is true. Actually, the whole idea seems to violate Hume’s Law. But it’s undeniable that many people find the Darwinian worldview almost unbearably bleak. What would you say to some of these people?
MR: I think ultimately there is nothing—moral nihilism, if you wish. But I think Dostoyevsky was spot on in Crime and Punishment to see that even if we see the full story, it does not mean that we can act on it, given our natures. Raskolnikov of his own will confesses, remember. But generally why should we try to go against our nature? It only makes us miserable. The only time I think it might make sense to try to step out of the moral game is if we saw that it was leading to worse things down the road. Again, Hume as always had the best response—backgammon and a good meal with your friends. Philosophy leads to skepticism, psychology lifts you out of it.
BLVR: So you wouldn’t worry like some do about the cat being let out of the bag—about society at large coming to believe that morality was nonobjective?
MR: I certainly don’t worry. I am far, far more concerned about the irrationality of the average American politician, especially Bush—stuff right out of fundamentalist religion about millennia and dispensations and raptures and that sort of thing.
BLVR: And to those who say something like, “If I thought that all there was at bottom were genes trying to replicate themselves, I’d kill myself,” we can say, No, you won’t. You may think you would kill yourself, but you won’t. Because you’re a human being, and human beings like to have fun, play games, and drink with friends.
MR: Yes, but there’s more than just that. I would also say that having Christian beliefs produces a fair number of heavy-duty psychological stresses and strains. I mean, I’m not quite sure that… Christ, the little fuckers, have they— no, I’m sorry, I thought they’d pissed on the carpet.
BLVR: Was that the dog or the ferret?
MR: The ferret. But they didn’t. I mean, frankly, I find it a great relief no longer to believe in God. I don’t know why it is but my God was always a bit of a Presbyterian. After creating heaven and hell and then humans, he spends the rest of creation, you know, hating them and making life miserable for them. I find it a great relief not to have that kind of God hovering over me.
BLVR: Is this a new development?
MR: To a certain extent. My father, who went from one religion to another, finally found peace of mind by arriving at a kind of Voltaire situation. You know, the best we can do is dig our garden, so let’s get on with it. And so to a certain extent I find that very consoling.
BLVR: Overall, then, do you find the Darwinian view of the world to be an optimistic one?
MR: I don’t find Darwinism optimistic or pessimistic— that is getting close to reading values out of a scientific theory—but I can live with it OK, and I find it exciting that we have the theory and can explore its full implications, scientific and philosophical, which for me are more or less continuous.