His testimony as an expert witness was being sought in the case of McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education. The lawsuit sought to overturn a law passed by state lawmakers the year before, requiring the teaching of evolution and creation science be given "balanced treatment" in public schools.
Ruse matter-of-factly told federal district court judge William Ray Overton that so-called "creation science"—the faith-based, Judeo-Christian explanation for life as we know it—wasn't science at all. "Creation science is neither testable nor tentative," Ruse told the court. "In my opinion," he said, "creation science is religion."
No one knows the extent to which Ruse's opinion registered with Judge Overton, who listened to dozens of witnesses on both sides of the heated argument. But on Jan. 5, 1982, Overton handed down a stinging, 38-page decision that dealt the creation science movement a setback from which it has never recovered. Arkansas thus became the first state to have a federal judge rule unconstitutional a state-mandated endorsement of the teaching of creation science. Since then, this remarkable, precedent-setting case has helped derail similar legislation in at least three states—Louisiana, Maryland and Arizona.
Ruse, meanwhile, built on his reputation as an outspoken champion of Darwinian evolution through natural selection. Well before he joined the FSU faculty last year as the Lucyle T. Werkmeister professor of philosophy, Ruse was generally ranked as one of the top philosophers of science in the world. His standing as a seasoned, outspoken writer and critic on science in public affairs is based on a long career of teaching and research at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. While there he published 16 books on subjects ranging from sexism in science to cloning. Most of the books, however, deal directly with his favorite subject, the legacy of a long-dead British naturalist—and seminary dropout.
Ruse's latest work, Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? The Relationship Between Science and Religion (Cambridge University Press, 2001) is a decidedly valiant attempt to bridge the great intellectual divide that still keeps many in the scientific community from harboring religious thoughts—and Christians from believing in a God who just might choose to do his or her divine work through a process not described in the Bible. The book's key argument for conciliation lies in the still-young field of sociobiology, in which such traditionally religious notions as human morality, ethics, free will and even original sin are traced to biological imperatives.
Called "racy, readable and challenging" by one reviewer, Ruse's book contends that while it might be difficult for a Darwinian to swallow Christianity whole hog, it's by no means out of the question. As for some Christians–particularly strict-construction Creationists–to embrace evolution might be more than a stretch. It might be impossible.
"I can speak to a fairly conservative Catholic or Episcopalian," he said during a recent conversation. "But anyone who insists on miracles from above as the sole explanation for this world probably doesn't want to hear what I have to say." That doesn't mean a Darwinian can't also accept the basic concepts of Christianity, Ruse contends. As is true with so many apparently polar positions, a closer examination of the two sides might reveal more in common than hardcore advocates of either camp are willing to concede, he says.
But given the popular notions of Americans these days on this and other matters of science, it's a fair question whether any thoughtful examination of Christianity vs. Darwinism stands much hope for influencing the debate.
Recent Gallup Polls consistently report that almost half of all Americans continue to believe in a God who created humans pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years. A far greater percentage refuses to accept our common ancestry with apes. Even among scientists, the polls find that only 56 per cent rule out divine intervention in its entirety. Well over four in 10 are willing at least to leave open the possibility of a greater power's hand in the affairs of men.
Faith in the Bible as God's literal word runs five times higher in this country than in Great Britain, those same polls show. So-called creation research groups in California and Missouri have their own web pages, peer-reviewed journals and weekly radio programs. A Creation Museum and Family Discovery Center with a sculpted, 10-foot stegosaurus out front is scheduled to open in Cincinnati late next year.
Long before his appearance in an Arkansas courtroom in 1981, Ruse was well versed in the dogma of the Religious Right, and in particular, the claims of creationists. Through dozens of humor-laced essays and books, he's taken professional delight in lambasting what he calls "sleazy Creation-scientists." In public debate, he's tilted lances with some of creationism's most famous foot soldiers.
"I find it a lot easier to hate them in print than I do in person," he said. "And, in fact, I found (creationist author and lawyer) 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."
Only in America, Ruse said, does evolution draw such condemnation from those who hold to a rock-solid confidence in a biblically correct Adam and Eve and in Noah's worldwide flood. Conceding that creationist groups also are highly active elsewhere, even in his beloved Canada, he said that the movement had its roots and most ardent champions in the fundamentalism of 19th-Century evangelical Protestant Christianity, a distinctly American phenomenon.
"But I don't have any problems with the Bible as such," he said. "It may be the word of God, but it certainly is not the simple, straightforward word of God.
"Fundamentalists who insist on a literal interpretation, that's something else. I look on them as I do Hindus for not eating cows. If they want to believe it, that's their right. The difference is, they want it taught as part of our school curriculum."
"Flabbiness of Intellect"
Darwinian evolution, particularly as it relates to man's millions-of-years descent from an apelike ancestor, has been the bane of Scriptural literalists in this country long past its tacit acceptance elsewhere, Ruse noted. At the same time, his bid to overlay a biological template on traditional Christian beliefs has won him the wrath of staunch Darwinians and others who think he's gone too far. Like many before him who have tried to arbitrate reasoned compromise in public debate, Ruse has suffered the proverbial slings and arrows of both camps.
Oxford biologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene, e.g.), well-known for his passionate defense of Darwinian concepts and concomitant hostility toward Christianity, sneered at what he called "a cowardly flabbiness of the intellect" that afflicts anyone who tries to bring God into the evolutionary picture. Creationist Phillip Johnson has chimed in, calling "makeshift" Ruse's ideas on bridging science and Christianity and arguing that any close association with evolution leads inevitably to atheism.
Former religion editor Michael McAteer, who reviewed Ruse's latest book for the Toronto Star, calls his ambivalence in taking a more rigid stand "part of his Christian obsession, a reflection of his own Quaker background he couldn't shake off completely." Even Arthur Shapiro, a zoologist at the University of California-Davis, claimed that Ruse "gave away the store" when he admitted in a 1992 symposium that evolution might be considered as "something akin to a secular religion."
Chuckling at Shapiro's remark, Ruse said that he was comparing the no-compromise zeal of Darwinian extremists to that of their religious counterparts. Both sides are operating with closed minds when they argue in support of a moral message.
With creationists, of course, the unequivocable message is that God is the source and foundation for ethical thinking and action. Social Darwinists' evolutionary "preaching" can reach that same level of unquestioned certainty, Ruse said, and thus becomes equally suspect.
"The fact is, we know certain things now that we might not have known in the past," he said. "We're finding new things all the time—so much about early man, in fact, that we don't know what to do with it all."
At the same time, he continued, we obviously don't know it all. And that ignorance—hardly a fault of science—is what largely fuels the creationist movement, where the lack of complete details on how life came to be is fodder for critics of the scientific method, says Ruse. In their defense, biologists and other life scientists who give no credence whatsoever to so-called creation science (and in the U.S., polls show that only about two percent do) argue that even though they don't hold all the evidence, they at least use a venerable method of inquiry designed to separate empirical fact from fiction.
Creationists not only have no such system, but also no interest in developing one, says Ruse. And he's convinced that if given the political power, they would gladly restrict the limits to which modern scientific methods could be applied in studying life's make-up and origins.
"With all the new techniques for inquiry now available to us, what a time not to do it anymore!" he said. "My job as a teacher is not to turn people into atheists. At the least, I want to have some of my students say, 'you know, it's more complicated than I thought it was.' That said, I've done my job."
Born into a Quaker family in Birmingham, England, some 60 years ago, began his life's work by taking a degree in mathematics from nearby Bristol College. After moving to Canada at 22, he returned to Bristol for a doctorate in the philosophy of science. Neither a theologian nor a scientist, he concedes that he never took even a single course in biology. In the 1950s, he explained, "biology, regretfully, like Spanish and geography, was for those who could not really handle the 'hard' subjects."
But Ruse has displayed a tenacity for acquiring an intimate understanding of the principles of evolutionary biology that surprises even his most determined detractors. His 1979 book, The Darwinian Revolution: Science Red in Tooth and Claw (University of Chicago Press, 1979, 1999), described as a "masterpiece" by one critic and as "the first comprehensive and readable synthesis of the history of evolutionary thought," is now enjoying a second printing.
Ruse's 630-page Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology (Harvard Press, 1996) assays 250 years of evolutionary thought. The book, which has become something of a standard text for students of the social history of evolution, attacks the notion of unrelenting progress through evolution, a concept Ruse flatly rejects as non-scientific.
While he never hides his own basic position that evolutionary biology can answer most of the important questions, in his latest book Ruse tries to build a new common ground between science and religion over the issue of the origin of mankind. Declaring that he's "not an atheist," Ruse said he finds "militant atheists as boring as militant Christians." He considers himself something of an agnostic, a skeptic of what he calls "anyone with answers," who finds the search far more stimulating than any premature solution.
"People rush to answers too quickly," he said. "What we need is less emotion and more tolerance. I like the Church of England type, someone who recognizes that there are many ways to the truth. So far, when it comes to who we are and where we come from, we've got only a partial picture."
Sociobiology: All the Buzz
Digging for the roots of a church/science symbiosis, Ruse in his latest book visits the thoughts of numerous apologists from both sides of the issue. He outlines a brief history of biology that shows how the remarkable principles in Darwin's Origin of Species have since insinuated themselves into the modern debate over human origins.
Darwinian selection first won scientific validation in Mendel's genetics thanks to the work of Julian Huxley and others in the 1940s. Molecular biology came of age in 1953 with the discovery by James Watson and Francis Crick of the double helix shape of the DNA molecule. Philosophically speaking, by the mid-1970s sociobiology—the study of how social behavior evolved—put the human predicament into its finest biological perspective, thanks mainly to discoveries about the social lives of insects by William Hamilton and later, renowned Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson. Ruse holds that no field of thought better addresses the riddles of life and human behavior than does sociobiology.
In fact, Ruse's Darwinian imperative not only embraces sociobiology, it is wholly defined by it. Wilson's exhaustive study of social insects—mainly ants, bees and wasps—presents findings which Ruse says collectively represent a biological model that fits to a T human behavior and all of its curious manifestations—even mainstream Christian ethics.
Homicides, for example, are most likely committed by young males with little or no stake in society. Stepfathers are 100 times more likely to kill a stepchild than their biological child. Even the concept of original sin–that very human guilt trip we all must bear (and that Christians say only God's grace can erase) weighs down on us because, on the one hand, we're a self-centered, greedy lot struggling for existence and reproduction while, at the same time, we're also efficient biological "altruists" who see the social advantages of keeping a lid on our basest desires.
As an example, Ruse said, morality can be traced as easily to ant altruism as to a Mother Theresa-like love for the poor and suffering. That is, we humans long ago learned that our survival depends on our ability to cooperate. As social animals, humans need social adaptations such as language and the collective ability to fight disease.
On another level, we practice so-called "super-brain altruism" in the sense of doing things for others for our own ends just as a customer and a storekeeper exchange money for goods. Finally, Ruse argues that even selfish people might agree to something like the Ten Commandments if it serves a biological end such as not killing in order not to get killed.
But Ruse sees problems with Wilson and others including evolutionist and popular-science writer Stephen Jay Gould. He's convinced that both scientists go too far by substituting Darwinism for Christianity as a secular religion for a new age. Ruse says Wilson's claim that evolution's upward-spiraling progress from microbes to man rises beyond mere science to become a source of meaning and optimism and renewal that "would fit comfortably into a preacher's sermon."
That's hardly being fair to science, he says, which should forever be "simple, direct and value-free.
"The question should be, what is evolution," he said. "Not, what it ought to be."
Faith in Thought
So what is Darwinism today? Most assuredly, it's something the average professing creationist has little grasp of, Ruse says. Metaphorically, it can be viewed as a tree of life of some sort but with a lot of branches, some of them probably diseased, others quite dead, Ruse said. For example, the old Lamarckian idea that acquired characteristics are inherited died out long ago. In general, though, modern Darwinism remains a robust animal, with vigorous lines of thought about how life as we know it came to be.
Spirited debate among evolutionists these days is punctuated by talk of such things as differential growth, the idea that one part of an organism can grow more rapidly than other parts; constraints on development, where selection simply has to work with the materials at hand; pleiotropy, which holds that a single gene might have multiple effects, and genetic drift, the idea that in small populations the effects of random sampling might outweigh those of selection.
None of these ideas has been proven out, of course. But Ruse says they do give a certain amount of flexibility for further investigation without abandoning the basic concept. In other words, they allow non-traditional Darwinians to wade in many pools while retaining membership in the evolutionary club. And conversely, they offer intellectually curious Christians insight into what a God of infinite wisdom is infinitely capable of.
In the end, such insight is all too rare these days, where bickering among opposing camps has taken on the air of class warfare. At least a couple of Ruse's faculty colleagues at Florida State welcome the chance for fresh dialogue on the subject. Joseph Travis, an evolutionary biologist, looks forward to team-teaching a course on evolutionary theory with Ruse in the fall. A Robert O. Lawton Professor of Biological Science, Travis also is an active Episcopalian. He manages to keep science and religion in separate pockets.
"You cannot reconcile the scientific process with something outside the realm of science," he said. "Any attempt at some shaky, artificial linkage between the two areas is an unacceptable dichotomy that (leads to) being intellectually dishonest."
Religion Professor Leo Sandon agrees. A Darwinist and a former Presbyterian minister, Sandon has taught courses in Darwinism with Travis and others for years. Religion's answer—whatever it may be—ultimately has nothing to do with the scientific method, he said.
"One doesn't believe in God on the basis of Darwin," he said. "But it's silly to say that you can't be a Darwinian and believe in God."
Travis summed up his views this way: "It's not about what you know, but what you can believe without knowing. You have to take different approaches to the knowledge of the spiritual than the knowledge of the tangible. That's why they call it faith."
But if that's true, Ruse finds little comfort in it.
"Faith is a tempting option that I'm not ready to accept," he says, at least in the sense meant by his colleague Travis. His faith is in the often cryptic "scripture" of sociobiology, a synthesis of vibrant thought where so many truths still lie buried, yet where so many others are to him self-evident.
"Our existence is amazing, a mystery," he said. "There has to be a cause. But I have no idea what it is. I only know that biology explains how we came to be.
"And I do see remarkable parallels between the Darwinian human and the Christian human. The fact is, we humans do have real moral feelings for others. Sometimes these sentiments move us to action. Sometimes they don't.
"But they are there, and that's a shared conviction of science and religion. Our limitations do not make Christianity mandatory, or even plausible, but (they do) necessitate a tolerance and appreciation of those who would go beyond science. Even if we ourselves cannot follow."