Michael Ruse


Things that we do, despite the possibility
of Darwin-inspired moral nihilism:
Play backgammon
Eat good meals
Drink with friends
Commit adultery (maybe)
Dig our gardens

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.

—Tamler Sommers

THE BELIEVER: 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?

MICHAEL RUSE: 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.[1]

  1. Ruse is referring to one of the most talked-about problems in ethics—the move from “is” to “ought.” The eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume was the first to point out that moralists tended to derive statements about what we ought to do from statements about the way the world is. But according to Hume, no one had ever provided the justification for such a move.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Tamler Sommers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston. His collection of interviews, A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain, is available from Believer Books. He is currently writing a book about cross-cultural perspectives on moral responsibility entitled Relative Justice (Princeton University Press).

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