By Michael Ruse

Book Symposium
Michael Ruse, Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose? (Harvard UP, 2003)

Dan White,
Florida International University

This promises to be an interesting session based on the book by Professor Ruse. Professor Ruse has published numerous books and articles on Darwinian biology: The Evolution Wars, The Philosophy of Biology, Can a Darwinian be a Christian?, Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology, Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction? and Darwin and Design: Does Evolution have a Purpose? The focus of today is the third work in a trilogy. It began with Monad to Man, continued with Mystery of Mysteries, and is completed with this book, Darwin and Design: Does Evolution have a Purpose? Michael Ruse is the founder and original editor of the Biology and Philosophy journal.

Author’s Opening Remarks

Michael Ruse, Florida State University

It is interesting that you mention a trilogy. I thought of it as Lord of the Rings. I must apologize for my appearance–lots of Brits and Aussies have a dress code, but David and I are making a protest. Inside we are wearing blazers and grey slacks. Thanks for inviting me, and I can’t believe I’m ending my life. All Canadians turn 60 and retire and go to Florida. I hope to get some shuffleboard in today. This is part of an overall trilogy and in a way the book was slightly accidental. What I decided twenty years ago—during the generation when Kuhn was the big name in philosophy of science—was that we had to take history of science seriously to do good philosophy of science. I didn’t want to end on my deathbed without being a contender. Why didn’t I take on a big project? I could have been a contender. I tried to work on the big project of the question of science and values. I would work on evolutionary theory. I look upon Darwin and Design very much as a final part of the project. I try to understand whether or not science is value impregnated, not with epistemic values, but with the sorts of things that historians or social constructivists take seriously. So the first book, the big book, is very much on the whole idea of progress from monads to humans and humans up to Englishmen. This was part of evolutionary theory, and the extent to which it gets expelled over time. Then I wrote Mystery of Mysteries, which was a quickie cadet version of that for the scientists, looking at the question of whether science is subjective or objective, and I thought I finished that. And then the John Templeton Foundation offered a $100,000 award for books on the following topics, and I thought, “Oh, Shit” and cancelled it and then ten minutes later with my desperate computer inadequacy was trying to find where I cancelled it, and I looked at it and it said one of the topics is teleology and purpose, and I said that award has my name on it, and to make a long story short, I did get the money, and that’s why I wrote this book. And if there is a god—he, she, it— was designing me to write that particular book. I do feel that it is one that I enjoyed writing, and I felt I had to write. I’ve written others and haven’t felt that way at all, and certainly others don’t have to read them, but I just want you to buy them.

What is Darwin and Design? It is on the whole question of teleology and it does have some of the stuff that philosophers have worried about—for example, whether or not you can cash out teleological language in non-teleological language—but if there is a theme to it, it is captured in the phrase from Richard Dawkins at the beginning of the Blind Watchmaker. There Dawkins says that before Darwin it was impossible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Basically, that is what the book is about. Is that true? Did Darwin do something to the argument from design that Hume didn’t? Then what did he do to it? Did Darwin make it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist? Did Darwin make it necessary to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist? Basically, that’s what the book is all about, that is the crux of the book.

The book leads historically. I show that the argument from design is more interesting than what I have been teaching in philosophy classes for 35-38 years now, and I try to show that there are all sorts of social and other sorts of aspects about it. For instance, the argument from design in England: one of the reasons why Hume’s criticism of it didn’t work was that the argument from design had a very strong social function to prop up the kind of Protestantism that was very important to England that was being threatened by the Continent. It sounds awfully constructivist but it is true. But then I do think that Darwin does do something to the argument from design, and Dawkins is right, it is possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Darwin gives us a non- teleological way of explaining what goes back to the Greeks, and that I think needs explaining, namely, what Dawkins calls organized or apparently organized complexity. An interesting question is whether there is any place for teleological language and thought after Darwin, and what I want to argue is yes, I think there is. In this sense, I am a non-reductionist. Although a complete reductionist when it comes to molecules and souls and all those sorts of things, I am a non- reductionist in the sense that I think there is something distinct about biology not to be found in the physical sciences, namely this metaphor of design or artifact, because I think that organisms are design like and I think that biologists, as Kant rightly pointed out, not only use the design metaphor but they cannot not use it—it is not just a theoretical luxury, where one can say “ok we’ll use it now but we can really get rid of it when we write our papers for Nature and Science; we’ll just use it as a heuristic.” It is deeply in the fabric of our thinking, and our thinking about organisms. And what I argue in the second half of the book is that it is right there in biological thinking and very important and philosophers should recognize this.

Philosophers have faced a problem as logical empiricists—we feel that somehow science shouldn’t have values, and so what we are trying to do is offer analyses, science without values. What I want to argue, going back to a distinction that Nagel makes, is that it is ok to have evaluation, it is values that we worry about. I think that teleology involves certain kinds of notions of what is good for things, not necessarily what is good in the sense of the City of God, or something like that, but what is good within a certain sort of context. We shouldn’t eliminate that. I think it is absolutely crucial to the doing of science.

Right at the end of the book, I talk about what is apparently not for philosophers but more for people out in the real world, namely, what does all this add up to in the context of religion? Those of you who know about me know that I spent a lot of time fighting creationists. So I don’t think that it gives warrant for so called intelligent design—which is the big thing these days. But I think that Dawkins, who says it is necessary to be an atheist, is wrong. Although I am not religious myself, I think that there is lots of opportunity for people who are religious to have a teleological perspective on the world, but it is going to be as the theologians say; it’s not going to be a natural theology where you prove god, but rather what Tannenberg calls a theology of nature, as somebody who believes that nature can make meaningful to you your religious experiences. With that I’ll shut up and sit down.


Michael Ruse

Michael Ruse is Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science at Florida State University. He is the author of over twenty books, most recently Darwin and Design: Does Evolution have a Purpose?