The Dennett-Ruse Affair
Michael Ruse and Daniel Dennett are two of the most prominent philosophers writing about issues related to evolution. It seems they have been engaging in a bit of e-mail correspondence on the side.
How do I know this? Because Ruse inexplicably sent the entire correspondence to William Dembski. I say this is inexplicable because there is no indication that Dennett consented to have his private e-mails made public. For Ruse to make public e-mails that were intended as part of a private correpsondence is an incredible breach of professional ethics.
Of course, it was also shameless of Dembski to publish the e-mails without asking Dennett first, but we already knew he lacks both scruples and conscience.
I have written before about the problems with Ruse's latest assertions and arguments. I have also written about my disagreements with some of his recent behavior, such as his decision to edit a book with William Dembski. But until this I had viewed him as someone I was happy to have on my side despite my differences with him.
But this crosses a line. Handing over private e-mails to someone Dennett surely would not have wanted to have them is obnoxious and petty. Not that Dennett comes off looking especially bad in the exchange. Compared to Ruse's profanity laden and semi-coherent rant in reply Dennett comes off looking quite good, actually. Still, I can't imagine why Ruse would do such a thing.
Let's consider some excerpts. Dennett writes:
I’m afraid you are being enlisted on the side of the forces of darkness. You may want to try to extricate yourself, since you are certainly losing ground fast in the evolutionary community that I am in touch with. As you will see, I do lump your coinage in with “reductionism” and “scientism” etc. and think you are doing a disservice to the cause of taking science seriously. Are you among the Wieseltiers? I’d like to think not, but you are certainly being pulled in by them.
The reference in the question near the end is to New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, who wrote a nasty, and mostly inaccurate, review of Dennett's new book for the New York Times. I will probably blog about that review at a later date.
The fears about Ruse that Dennett is expressing here are hardly original to him. Over the past few years it has become obvious that Ruse is motivated by rather more than a desire to make good arguments about important subjects. Instead he seems more interested in self-promotion, which he achieves by tweaking the noses of both scientists and the ID folks. Dennett is quite right to worry that Ruse is becoming a tool of the ID folks he claims to be fighting against.
Meanwhile, the most interesting part of Ruse's reply is this:
Fifth, I think that you and Richard [Dawkins] are absolute disasters in the fight against intelligent design – we are losing this battle, not the least of which is the two new supreme court justices who are certainly going to vote to let it into classrooms – what we need is not knee-jerk atheism but serious grappling with the issues – neither of you are willing to study Christianity seriously and to engage with the ideas – it is just plain silly and grotesquely immoral to claim that Christianity is simply a force for evil, as Richard claims – more than this, we are in a fight, and we need to make allies in the fight, not simply alienate everyone of good will.
Now, I happen to share Dennett's and Dawkins' contemptuos attitude towards Christianity, but that's not the part I want to comment on. Rather, I want to challenge this idea that the atheism of Dawkins and Dennett hurts the cause of promoting quality science education.
This assertion is frequently made but it is never backed up with anything. Is it really true that the strident atheism of people like Dennett and Dawkins negatively influences the way people look at evolution? If that's true, it certainly paints a bleak picture of many religious people. If I argued that I would be symapthetic to evolution, except that I see people like Ken Miller, John Haught and Simon Conway Morris drawing theistic conclusions from it, I don't think Ruse would show me much respect. After all, evolution should sink or swim on the basis of the relevant evidence. If that evidence is strong, it should not matter what Dawkins or Dennett (or Haught or Miller or Conway Morris) thinks.
Arguing that strident atheism hurts the cause is remarkably condescending towards religious people. It's saying that they are too emotional to understand and think seriously about the evidence. It's saying that those people can't be expected to provide an honest assessment of the evidence because mean old Richard Dawkins made a snide remark about their religious views.
When I encounter people like Ken Miller or Simon Conway Morris I say simply that they are right about the science but wrong about the metaphysical stuff. Why can't religious people be expected to have the same reaction towards Dawkins and Dennett?
And when it comes to hurting the cause, I can't think of anything more harmful than Ruse running around trying to legitimize ID folks by editing books with them published by prestigious publishers. Why shouldn't a lay person conclude that there is a serious debate going on when a noted philosopher says that there is, and gets Cambridge University Press to back up the assertion. That's harmful.
Anyway, I hope Ruse comes to his senses soon. I have benefitted greatly from his writing in the past and every evolutionist will be grateful to him for his hard work as an expert witness in the 1982 Arkansas creationism trial.
At the end of his e-mail Ruse writes:
Ok, enough preaching for a Sunday – I really like you and Richard, but my liking for you and respect for what you two have done matters not a bit with respect to what I think that I, Michael Ruse, should do – I would be ashamed of myself if I thought and acted otherwise.
Indeed. I have never met Michael Ruse, but I suspect I would like him. But the fact remains that this sentiment leaves unchanged the fact that he has embarrassed himself repeatedly in the last few years. Hopefully he will, as Dennett suggests, be able to extricate himself shortly.