Florida State University philosophy professor Michael Ruse has been one of the most passionate and eloquent defenders of evolution against creationism since the nineteen seventies. His testimony in the 1981 creationism trial in Arkansas was instrumental in persuading the judge to rule that laws requiring that equal time be given to creationism in any classroom where evolution was presented were unconstitutional. He was the founding editor of the academic journal Biology and Philosophy, which remains one of the few non mathematics journals I make a point of looking at regularly. I have read several of his books over the years and have always found them interesting and insightful. His recent book Darwin and Design is probably the best in existence on that subject, and the short section it contains about ID achieves the proper balance of strong argumentation and obvious disdain.
Over at The Panda's Thumb, Matt Young recently offered this brief essay critical of Ruse for coediting the recent Cambridge University Press anthology Debating Design with ID proponent William Dembski.
Sadly, I'm afraid I must agree with Matt on this one.
I have previously argued that debating creationists in public venues is a good idea as long as (a) It is some nonscientific, preferably religious organization that is sponsoring the debate and (b) The evolution defender knows what he is doing. Cambridge University Press (CUP) may not be a scientific organization, but they are certainly one of the most prestigious university presses in the world. I doubt that CUP would have published the anthology without Ruse's participation. By collaborating with Dembski in this way Ruse has given ID proponents the opportunity to claim that a highly respected university press agrees that there is a serious and important debate going on here. As Matt pointed out in his article, they have already taken advantage of that opportunity.
Engaging creationists is a balancing act. You have to weigh the harm done by allowing nonsense to go unchallenged with the possible propaganda victory you give them by engaging them at all. In my previous post on this subject I pointed out that people like Stephen Jay Gould were, and Richard Dawkins is, quite right not to debate creationists. As I said before, they are such big fish that the propaganda victory would simply be too great. CUP is also a big fish, and with Ruse's blessing they have now certified that ID folks are saying something worth listening to.
Sadly, I count two other similar examples of poor judgment on Ruse's part in recent years. First, he contributed the following endorsement to the jacket of William Dembski's book No Free Lunch:
I disagree strongly with the position taken by William Dembski. But I do think that he argues strongly and that those of us who do not accept his conclusions should read his book and form our opinions and counterarguments. He should not be ignored.
The problem here is that, actually, William Dembski should be ignored, and in a better world he would be ignored. No Free Lunch contributed two main arguments to the ID literature. First, there was Dembski's claim that the No Free Lunch theorems of optimization theory provide reason to be suspicious of a fully naturalistic account of evolution. Second, he claimed to have calculated the probability of a flagellum evolving by natural means. Both of these claims were preposterous. Spend five minutes with the original Wolpert and Macready papers on the NFL theorems and you realize that they do not have the consequences for evolution Dembski says they have (as explained in some detail by Mark Perakh here). And his calculation was based on a mountain of blatantly false assumptions. So why is Ruse telling everyone to read and take seriously Dembski's book?
Another lapse was this editorial about the decision to pass over Dr. Raymond Damadian for a Nobel Prize for his work on MRI machines. Without rehashing the details of the case, Ruse suggested that the decision was based at least in part on the fact that Damadian is a young-Earth creationist. Sadly, he did not have a shred of evidence on which to base that charge. And as I argued in this blog entry at the time, there were plausible alternative, non-sinister reasons for denying him the prize.
But imagine the impact this editorial had among creationists! I learned of the article because it was cited favorably by the creationist website Access Research Network. For years they have been claiming that elite scientific organizations are dogmaticlly opposed to anything they have to say, and here comes Ruse to tell them they're right.
In each of these cases I believe Ruse crossed the line between fruitful engagement and undue legitimization.
Michael Sprague recently wrote this essay agreeing with my comments about debates. In the comments section to that post Ruse offered the following defense of the anthology he edited with Dembski:
Let me simply say this: In 1981 we evolutionists had to go south to Arkansas to fight the creationists in court -- I think the trouble was that we had not made the effort to take on the Creationists, and I vowed that I would not let that happen again -- hence, the things that I do including co-editing books with the opposition -- I realize that this can be seen as giving them legitimacy -- I think we live in a democracy and we should try to work things out, and as an academic I am committed to reason -- I think our arguments are better than theirs and hence I am willing to be judged alongside them
Ruse understands better than anyone the balancing act I described earlier. He understands that creationism has far more to do with politics than with science, and he understands that the actual arguments made in the back and forth between evolutionists and ID folks play only a small role in the way the public perceives the debate. Sadly, he seems to have forgotten all of that here.
I have written before about my experiences at the ID conference Darwin, Design and Democracy III in Kansas City in 2002. One of the speakers at that conference was Biola University philosophy professor J.P. Moreland. In the course of his presentation, Moreland unleashed the following:
Ruse testified in that trial by claiming that creation science, which is what he called it at that time, failed to come up to the necessary and sufficient conditions for science, it was religion masquerading as science, and it shouldn't be allowed in school classes. About eight or nine years later, he gave a lecture and it was taped, to a group of science educators. He admitted he had lied at that trial and that he knew darn well that ID theory was a perfectly scientific theory, he knew it, but he lied because there weren't any other experts there that could check him. The reason he ended up having to fess up is that in the literature after the Little Rock trial he was hammered to death by other philosophers of science.
Not a word of this is true, of course.
After the conference I brought this quote to Ruse's attention. He was kind enough to reply with the following remark (since he allowed me to include this quote in an article I was writing about the conference, I don't think he will object to me repeating it here):
The sad thing is that I am the one dyed-in-the-wool Darwinian who tries to relate in a serious and non-hostile fashion with the ID people, and they return the favor with sneers and stories.
Indeed. So much for settling things by reason. So much for putting our arguments next to theirs. High-mindedness is all fine and well, but when it is not reciprocated it does more harm than good.
So Ruse knows what some ID proponents are saying about him when they are preaching to the choir. Despite this, when Biola University subsequently hosted an ID conference, Ruse was perfectly happy to attend and be gracious. I don't understand it.
I continue to be a great admirer of Ruse, and I will look forward to any books he chooses to write in the future. I do wish he'd reconsider some of his recent activities, however.