Michael Ruse is the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy and the Director of the History and Philosophy of Science Program at Florida State University. He is a philosopher and historian of science, mainly evolutionary theory, and has been deeply involved in the fight against Creationism. The author or editor of over fifty books, he is the founding editor of the journal “Biology and Philosophy.” A Guggenheim Fellow, Gifford Lecturer, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, he is the recipient of four honorary degrees. In this interview, he talks about his childhood, dealing with the death of his mother, an unsupportive father, and the crushing British class system, becoming an atheist, his struggle with depression as an undergrad and grad student, discovering Philosophy via Descartes, dropping out of Rochester, getting divorced, turning around his career at Guelph, how he got into Philosophy of Biology, fighting Creationists in the courts, finding love again, starting a journal, building a family, becoming an American citizen, his frustration with and deep respect for his colleagues (and philosophers generally), the way it appears the administration at Florida State University has handled the investigation of athletes accused of sexual assault, his beef with Thomas Nagel, spending a year in the South of France (and the steep cost), his favorite curse word…
You grew up in postwar Britain. As a young Quaker, were you bothered by the problem of evil? Besides religion, what else was on your mind as a kid?
I was born in 1940, so came to awareness during the Second World War. As I grew up, I cannot remember the problem of evil as a big issue although obviously the fight against the Nazis was big on everyone’s mind. As the years went by however, one realized more and more that it was the First World War that still figured large in people’s imaginations, at least in Europe. Way more people died in the trenches of France and Belgium than in the desert fighting Rommel or on the beaches at D Day. I started to realize this from reading the first part of the WWI trilogy by Siegfried Sassoon – Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man. I am incidentally not surprised that I began learning this way, from a book rather than from individuals, because always I read a lot and from early on. Non-stop: first, children’s books – Biggles, Just William and above all the Swallows and Amazons series – a lot of novels about boys at private schools. Then after Arthur Ransome came Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Nevil Shute and other popular novelists of the day – and so later to Dickens and Trollope and the great European novelists like Stendhal and Tolstoy. I like detective fiction (not science fiction). I read a lot of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh (less now). D.H. Lawrence as a teenager and never after. Poetry much less and now I rather regret that. I always knew I would write books but interestingly was never really drawn to writing fiction. I still have a couple of schoolboy short stories I wrote, but I knew I would write non-fiction books. I find writing non-fiction very creative – history much more so than philosophy, although really I am a historian of ideas who uses history to circle back to philosophical questions.
Did you have any other interests? Sports?
I was very fond of cricket but discovered when I went to secondary school at eleven that I was no good at games. That was a big disappointment at the Quaker public school I went to at 13 – “public school” here meaning in the English sense private school – because games were a very big thing and boys good at them were heroes both to the boys and to the masters. That was the kind of culture we had I am afraid and I very much do not approve of it. I am glad that this was never a big issue for my kids. I was always on the outside looking in. I think there are many factors behind my lifelong drive, but not having the natural popularity of a games player was one and realizing that I was going to have to work for things followed from this. I never felt that the masters were my friends. I think that explains a lot of my personality and especially my vulgarity – putting a barrier between me and the world – all a bit heavy Freudian perhaps but I think the outcome of insecurity.
Masters? What were they like?
Speaking of masters not being friends sounds Oedipal. I don’t think it was quite that. Unless you had been at an all-boys’ boarding school in the fifties you could not realize the extent to which good sports players were idolized by staff and students alike. I think it was Evelyn Waugh who said that the only true motivation to teach in such an institution had to be homoerotic. That is an exaggeration, but apart from the fact that all-too-typically we did have a couple of masters whose inclinations and behaviors now make my hair stand on end, I do think that there is something to the rather unhealthy closed atmosphere of such institutions. I am glad to say that the school I attended now is mainly for day kids and co-ed.
I will say that the greatest satisfaction some years later when I gave some Gifford Lectures in Scotland – they are very prestigious lectures on theology – was the reflection that I of all people gave them would have killed my Quaker headmaster. He was such a snob and that one of his pupils would have gone on to do this would have made his life complete – until he discovered which one of his pupils did this.
What did your parents do?
My father was a conscientious objector during the war and then continued working for the ministry of agriculture in England as a transport officer – kind of lower-middle class – my mother was a primarily school teacher and went back to teaching when I was about six and my sister four. With two incomes, that did mean we were never hard up and my parents were able to take out a mortgage and buy the house in which we lived. In 1953 out of the blue my father got a job as school bursar at a Quaker private school in Yorkshire and we moved there. I was shipped off to another Quaker school in York – all boys and considered more classy (the one I talk about in response to the last question) – and then my mother died suddenly – yellow jaundice, overnight, at the age of thirty three – in that fall semester about two months after we moved North. One of the factors behind my lifelong drive was my mother pushing me as a child and then her death. Only now, after fifty years as a college professor do I truly think I have lived up to her expectations. Were she alive, I am sure she would be shocked that I have imputed such expectations to her – although I have a feeling that she and I would have agreed secretly that the expectations were right and proper.
What was your mother like?
It is hard to say what my mother was like. I remember her as very loving but stern. Parents hit their kids in those days. You must remember that my father left school at 14 and my mother was an orphan living with an uncle who had a daughter less gifted than my mother, so she could not go to the top academic school or university. The Butler Act of 1944 made it possible for bright kids to pass the 11+ and go to grammar school and possibly on to university, so my parents, my mother particularly, was determined I would do this, as I did until my father got the job as bursar. Interestingly, many years later I met a woman who had my mother as a teacher, about grade 4, and she remembers my mother as very gentle. She probably was but my perception was that this was on the surface and she had real steel underneath and I was going to succeed because of this. I am sure I would have been pushed into medicine if my mother was alive. I want to stress that I don’t regret this at all. I love working hard.
Was that a temptation, going into medicine?
For some years, I regretted not going into medicine, as much because I liked the idea of helping people directly and also the drama associated. I would never have succeeded as a general practitioner, seeing one patient after another all day long. This longing went as I became more and more engaged in my teaching and also I found the Arkansas experience [discussed in detail below] supplied a lot of the drama I was seeking – and this has lasted ever since because I have been on the lecture circuit non-stop. For instance, I would say that in the last thirty years I have on average gone to Europe five to six times a year.
Was your father supportive?
Not really after my mother died and to be honest I never thought too much about my father’s views on me – although I do remember once saying that I was doing my best (probably over learning German) and his saying “the trouble with you Michael is that your best is never good enough.” I lost respect for my father when he and my stepmother collaborated to get me off to a redbrick university rather than trying for Oxford or Cambridge. I worked very hard as a teenager and did very well on pertinent exams, but got no support. Everyone wanted to shuffle me off. My father because he was building a new family, my stepmother, ditto (and she was German and replaying WWII), and my headmaster because he was simply not interested in me basically because I could not play sports well and had no important family connections.
Sounds odd. What was going on there?
I came from a lower-middle-class family. So I saw boys far less gifted than I given chances far greater than I was offered. You have to realize just how crushing the class system was in Britain in the 1950s. When I went to Canada in the early sixties, if you asked a Brit about what they liked most about their new home, the first reply was always – no class system. It was so true. I taught for thirty-five years at a new university based on the provincial agricultural college. I never, ever, felt put down or inferior to those at say Toronto or McGill because of this. We were judged by what we did. This said, my middle son who went to the University of British Columbia has as his motto – “UBC is better than FSU” – he may be right. Although FSU has the better football team, UBC has a nude beach all around the perimeter of the campus.
In a forthcoming book, you say that you didn't become an atheist because of philosophy, but because you felt like you were talking to yourself when you were praying. What were you praying for?
My generation was the first offered the opportunities, but working hard and being gifted were worth very little when push came to shove. I suspect my prayers were to get me to Oxbridge, and God in collaboration with my parents and my headmaster saw that this would not be so. What was so galling is that boys who had better social status than I simply went to Oxford or Cambridge as a matter of course. I remember my father once saying many years later that he and my stepmother thought I should have become a real doctor, for which they would have respect. That cut little ice with me. He was simultaneously proud of me and jealous that I had the opportunities that he did not have. Like a lot of men, including me, he was very much the person he was because of his wife. When I was a child he was one person. When I was a teenager he was another. This said, I liked him and admired him for what he did. I think in later life he found more peace of mind because he had worked hard and done much for other people. I respect that and although early days with my stepmother were very tense, over the years passions fade and now we are very good friends. She was born in Germany and was naturally as a child a member of the girl’s equivalent of the Hitler Youth. Interestingly now I am just about the only person she knows who can talk to her about that time of her life and who realizes that although young people like her were being manipulated by the Nazis, it could nevertheless be a time of which she still has fond memories – hiking and camping and so forth.
You ended up going to Bristol. What were you doing before you got into philosophy?
My undergrad and grad years were difficult. I was good at mathematics at school and so chose that for my university major. However, I was unhappy doing mathematics as an undergrad, realizing that university mathematics is a major step up – and also increasingly hating having mathematics and nothing else to study. This was the English system and going to N America where students study a range of subjects was tremendously important to me when I became a teacher (and a major reason why I never wanted to return to England to teach). I think also the family issues caught up, reinforcing the fact that I found doing just mathematics was increasingly boring. In my third and final year as an undergrad did I slip over into real depression and seek help, which did me little good back in those days. I was prescribed phenacetin which gave me horrendous headaches. It would be easy to say I was depressed because of a sense of failure, not getting into Oxford or Cambridge, but I am more inclined to say a sense of betrayal from my father (and step mother) and my headmaster.
Why did you feel betrayed?
I do want to emphasize that it was the betrayal that counted not the objective matter of where I went to university. At my Quaker boarding school, from day one Oxford and Cambridge were dangled before our eyes and it was stressed that only the best could get in. You had to jump through the hoops. I jumped through every hoop, but then because it would have taken longer and meant having me around for another year or so, the plug was pulled and I was told to forget even trying to get in. In fact, looking back, had I not gone into medicine, I think given the kind of person I was and the interests I had, I would have been better off going to somewhere like the London School of Economics – which would have been very happy to take me on the basis of my A level results. Although in respects I see that Karl Popper was intellectually limited and personally difficult – I could never have become a groupie – I have huge admiration for the way in which he stood for objectivity and science at a time when Europe desperately needed such voices. My youngest son Edward has just graduated from the University of Toronto in philosophy. I envy him his solid background in the teaching of philosophy. Canadian universities are much influenced by Scottish education and perhaps I would have been truly happy at a place like Edinburgh with its solid, perhaps old-fashioned, standards.
Was it all that bad?
When I see the suffering that goes on in the world, when I see the hardships that so many children have to endure, I feel ashamed of myself. But I do think having had an incredibly close and loving childhood, reinforced by a very caring and supportive religion (Quakerism), and then overnight literally when I was thirteen having it come to an end and being at the same time plunged into a strange and unkind world and no one on my side (with a father who remarried almost immediately on the bounce and a boarding school that was not harsh but indifferent) marked me and still does. When school holidays came, I would always get a job, partly to get out of the house and partly to pay for my clothes and the keep that I was charged for being at home.
How did you pay for school?
My school fees were paid by a foundation set up by the rich Quaker chocolate manufacturers, the Rowntrees. I passed the eleven plus with flying colors and was good enough to win those sorts of awards. My father had to pay some amount, which was not great but which was a constant topic of uneasy discussion during the school holidays.
Did you manage to find some happiness during your undergrad years?
I should say one positive thing about being at a redbrick university is that males and females mixed freely. No sex, because we were still pre-pill, but real friendships were possible. The university had a club called the “Vagabonds” club, which involved taking the ferry over to Ostend in Belgium, renting a VW van and driving all over Europe for a month. The first summer (in September having worked for the three previous months) I was in a party that went to Greece, and the second to Morocco. I have always looked back on those with real pleasure and a feeling that I could organize something (as I did) and make a success of it. There were four guys and four girls and we camped as we went along (separate tents) and – after all of those years at a single-sex school – it was for me a very important part of growing up and starting to relate normally to the other half of the human race.
So, how did you end up pursuing philosophy at McMaster?
At the age of 22 I set out for Canada on my own. By this time, I had discovered at Bristol that I could move out of straight mathematics and into a joint degree with philosophy. I should say that I took the option in desperation and not with any feeling about philosophy. On my first day in my first class we started in on Descartes’ Meditations. I was hooked. I was not the only person who wondered if they were awake or asleep. I have never ever wanted to be anything but a philosopher for the rest of my life. Although I was still working at a sub-par level it was enough. On the basis of my performance in philosophy, I was awarded a scholarship at McMaster, in Hamilton, Ontario, and was on the way to an entirely new life. From there, although my performance was far from stellar, I managed to get another award to go on to do a doctoral degree in philosophy at Rochester, in upstate New York.
How was the transition to Rochester?
It was not the most prestigious of places but thanks to Kodak it was very rich and building like mad. At Rochester, I was still not doing things really because I wanted to – mainly like a lot of people doing grad work for want of anything else. Rochester was pretty analytic and I was just not that interested but it was as much in me as anything else. I could have found enough to do if I had had any real desire. Looking back, the lack of money and motivation and girlfriends and so forth simply added up. At Rochester I was lonely I think and running out of steam. Lewis White Beck the eminent Kantian and then chair to his dying day could not understand how I was so inadequate at Rochester and then within twenty years won a Guggenheim. So many of his swans turned into ugly ducklings! I took no real satisfaction from this. I never thought of Beck as intentionally hostile and I wish now I had taken more that he had to offer.
Philosophy of Biology wasn’t big back then. How did you get into it?
None of my university teachers had any interest in my interests as such. That said, a number of professors were very kind to me and helped me on my way – John Thomas at McMaster, Stephan Körner, at Bristol, and then Keith Lehrer at Rochester – they all saw that I had merit but was underperforming. I was tense and sad and needed a boost and they gave it. The other philosopher to get a Guggenheim the year I got mine was Lehrer – I was so pleased that I could turn to him, as I would now turn to my mother, and say thanks for having faith in me.
I rather discovered the Philosophy of Biology by chance. I was looking for a dissertation topic that was not just formal—I did my masters on the problem of induction – but was not worked over and with a small literature – so the Philosophy of Biology was perfect. I had never taken a biology class in my life but the books were there and I plunged in. I guess I focused on evolutionary theory partly because it was more conceptual rather than areas like anatomy – I loved population genetics and my mathematical background made the equations and calculations relatively easy, so I grabbed it and kept moving.
Did you consider doing more hands-on work in biology?
I think if I knew then what I know now and had been at a more high-powered institution, I would have looked into hands-on training in molecular biology. But that is a bit unfair to our aggies who rapidly became very molecular and, in any case, I have always been an ideas person rather than a practical person. When my biology friends insist on hauling me out into nature at obscene times of the morning, I head for home and a detective story and a beer as quickly as I can. Because I was at an institution that had been an agricultural college, I found we had every genetics journal that had ever been published.
So where does the interest in history of science come from?
Thomas Kuhn turned my generation and me also to the history of science. With biology, Darwin came naturally. I spent my first sabbatical at Cambridge working on the Darwin manuscripts. This led to the Darwinian Revolution – I joke that this is the book I would liked to have had ten years before when I started into the field. For a while, I really thought I would change right over from philosophy of science to history of science, but then increasingly I realized that philosophy had its hold on me. When I did history of science – when I do history of science – it is because there is some philosophical question nagging away at the back of my mind. I like using archives – I will never forget the day I discovered the real reason why E. Ray Lankester broke off two engagements at the last moment – but ultimately I don’t do or much like archive-driven work. I am happiest writing an elegant essay of about 80 thousand words. Find a good point to make and tell a good story with an entertaining cast of characters. My book The Gaia Hypothesis: Science on a Pagan Planet is the kind of work I am talking about – a nice problem that can be solved, some good historical background, and a couple of surprises like the fact that Rachel Carson not to mention Jim Lovelock were indebted to the ideas of the Austrian clairvoyant and educator, Rudolf Steiner.
How did you land the job at Guelph?
I only went to Guelph serendipitously because in the summer of 1965 I basically just dropped out of Rochester, with no money or prospects and went back up to Canada and it turned out that Guelph – which was one of a number of new universities just founded in Ontario -- was looking desperately in the first week of term for someone to teach intro philosophy so I, with seven incompletes and one B, slotted in – and the rest was history. Once again I should say I met people who thought that I was better than I allowed myself to be and I am eternally grateful. I think my students in my HPS program realize above all else that I see that they have a couple of years, somewhat sheltered from the world, to grow and develop and bring out their strengths. That for me is what education is really about.
Did the gig change your point of view?
I think that for the whole of my university career (as a student) from 1959-1965 I was at some level depressed. As soon as I had a job and a feeling of worth, I changed back into my pre 1959 mode and started working again frenetically and still do. I did not have a conversion experience into something new – I reverted to what I had been. Then as the feedback started to come in, getting a bit of money, a girlfriend (who turned out to be a partner in a disastrous marriage), and an offer from Bristol to go back and do a PhD (which I could do and keep the job at Guelph because I had only to be in residence for one year) and very quickly starting to publish. I just kept going and was a full prof by 1974. I should say that I never found it difficult to publish articles, although my stuff was never really for journals that were heavily analytic – but as the years have gone by, more and more I like to write books partly because I am so interdisciplinary and that is where I find my audiences and partly because I think in broad themes rather than more narrow technical points.
Any other perks?
I might mention also that three times have I been a fellow or associate of Cambridge colleges for a year while I have been on sabbatical. Going there was not really living what I did not get earlier, but because I was working on Darwin and his archives are in Cambridge. I must say I enjoyed myself immensely without getting any feeling that I was in a mystically hallowed place. Another year I spent at Harvard and yet another in Montpellier in the South of France. This last was in many respects the best of all – the whole family just had a huge amount of fun, even though it was so expensive that when we got home I had to remortgage the house. (I am not kidding, that is true.)
How was the teaching at Guelph? What was the department like?
There were no teaching ratings back then but they would have been strong had there been (incidentally I have never allowed anyone to put me in for a teaching award – I don’t want to compete on my own campus). I was a founding member of the department in Canada and always involved. We were overall a very congenial group who both at the undergrad and the grad level took very seriously our obligation as educators and thought that a philosophy department should offer a comprehensive set of courses, no matter what the specializations. These courses would include a solid grounding in the history of philosophy and also breadth. This would include continental philosophy, medieval philosophy and American philosophy. No one had to be a super specialist, but everyone had to have some knowledge. It went without saying that every year there were courses on or including the biggies, like Plato and Aristotle, Hume and Kant. I am also interested to remember that back then we taught three courses a semester and did all of our own marking. In the first twenty years I published I think five books and at least a hundred articles. I worked in the office from nine to five every weekday and when not teaching or advising simply closed my door and people knew and respected this. I did my share of committee work – I was even on a presidential search committee and surprised (and I think rather pleased) all of the deans by insisting on having lunch with each one of them individually – but I never looked for jobs as a means of filling my day.
Did you think you would ever get married again?
Yes, I knew I would marry again and have more children. I never thought the trials of my first marriage were my fault and I still don’t. I nearly slipped into a bad marriage on the rebound but fortunately there was something in my head that stopped that. I should say that when my first wife and I split up, she got the stereo and dining room table, I got the washing machine and the kids. I never thought of leaving the kids. For a week, we had fun eating off the floor to prepare for the loss of the table. In the end, I bought it from her.
How'd you meet your current wife?
My wife was a first-year undergrad in my class, “Science and Society Since 1500,” in the fall of 1981. We hitched up the next year after I dumped my then live-in girlfriend, and we have been together ever since. Let me quote what I said in a recent book:
This is the big problem with the classical God. Once you have made Him necessary and given Him eternal existence, then it is hard to see how He can do anything at all or care about whether He has done anything at all. He just is, unchanging. For the moment, let’s just focus on God’s engagement with the world. Aquinas says we can think of all of this analogically, but can we? Anticipating the various attributes of God, let us take the all-important one of being loving. Now I know what it is to be loving, and I am sure you do and it is not very different from my idea. I love Lizzie my wife. We have been together for thirty years now and we have built and shared a life together. At first there was a lot of passion and physical activity. Then the kids came along and we had a job together. It wasn’t always easy and it was very hard work, but we were in it together and friendship and commitment were absolutely central – a sense of humor didn’t hurt either, together with a lot of other things like responsibility and pride and concern and the rest. Now the children are more or less grown up and leaving home – some days rather less than more – and we are lucky in finding that we do really like each other and have fun doing things together, trying out new recipes, traveling, and so forth. If our relationship has been anything it has been dynamical, it has been physical as well as emotional, it has been interactive. Our love has depended all of the time on the response of the other. It has been changing – thank goodness, because as Socrates says in the Phaedrus although first love may be terrific it is a kind of madness and no one wants to stay in that state forever. Can any of this apply to a being who is like a 3, 4, 5 triangle? Mathematical objects simply don’t come home at the end of the day at work, see your wife frazzled and driven to distraction by toddlers and say: “come on kids, let’s go out to the park and give your mum a break.” They don’t, incidentally have your wife both grateful and cheesed off that you can just walk in and the kids become instantly happy and agreeable to what you propose! I make this kind of point, not at all in an irreverent way, but to ask bluntly how the classical God can function. Analogy just doesn’t seem to do it.
I only wish I could have had the second family ten years before I did. It is hard work being 74 with three kids still dependent on you. I am supporting Edward entirely and Emily has to have help as she starts out as a lawyer. Oliver too gets handouts. I am not complaining. This is part of being a family, but I am very conscious of the difference in my life with no handouts from 18 on. True we had state support at universities, but I earned every penny for clothes and so forth. I don’t know that I am particularly proud of this but very much aware that I did it. My wife speaks to all of our kids every day – they are 28, 27, and 22 – it is a different world.
Given your long standing interest in sociobiology, I have to ask: in your estimation, what if anything makes human beings unique? In addition to writing extensively about Darwin and evolution, you've written a bit about topics that might have been considered controversial, including homosexuality. What was the motivation behind those projects?
In one sense, we are not unique; we are all part of the web or net or tree of life. Obviously we have gone a particular route, namely large brains with associated intelligence and sociality (overall, humans are a lot more social than most mammals) and we have developed culture and all of that. Frankly, I personally don’t feel a lot of tension here. I insist that we recognize our animal nature. I think for instance our moral sense is based on biology, but clearly then culture takes over and builds on this. I don’t think of the work on homosexuality as different: it is all part of the biology project as it were. It came straight out of sociobiology, although my Quaker heritage and its concern about social issues helped. I am interested in evolution because I love the Victorians – I have always read Dickens and the other great novelists, and also because of the religion aspect.
What did you love about the Victorians?
I grew up in England in the forties and fifties of the last century – it was just the time when people were far enough away from the Victorians to stop hating and laughing at them and to start appreciating them – the campaign to save St. Pancras Station for instance. I was very much part of that era and still am. Like many of my generation, I have ambiguous feelings about the Empire. I am glad it is over, I see many wrongs, but I cannot condemn my family completely. I had great grandparents and aunts and more who spent their time teaching in India and running stations in Africa. The first Ruse we know of was in Canada at the end of the eighteenth century. Oh dear – I love Rudyard Kipling and don’t much care for E. M. Forster. I think Kim is real and Passage to India precious. One of my sons has a middle name Redvers, which came into our family because my great grandfather was the soldier servant of General Sir Redvers Buller, one of the most hopeless generals in the history of the British Army who lost every battle he fought in the Boer War. Worst of all, I am a devotee of the thrillers – “shockers” – of John Buchan.
You testified in the McLean versus Arkansas Board of Education lawsuit. How were you approached? Do you feel good about the testimony in retrospect?
The Arkansas trial was something that I was simply preadapted to do – on the one hand I was a philosopher; on the other hand I was deeply immersed in Darwin studies and knew much about the sorts of issues that were being raised now. I was asked, and I was the only one with the personality to do that sort of thing – I really do like an audience. I never regretted it although I got a lot of flak from philosophers about it (who thought that technical issues of philosophy ought not to be aired in the courtroom) – if you want to learn more including my testimony go to But is it Science? (the first edition, not the second edition with Robert Pennock). I should say that the ACLU who were leading the charge against the law were not convinced that a philosopher was needed – they only agreed because the Creationists were making so much of philosophy going on about Popper and Kuhnian paradigms. In the event, my testimony proved crucial – first the state had me on the stand for four hours hoping to catch me and then the judge (as you can read in the judgment) quoted me verbatim on the nature of science. As I say, that cheesed off my fellow philosophers more than the Creationists, who by and large took things in good spirit. They knew that the real battle is in individual schools, not in federal courtrooms.
Tell me a little bit about the journal you founded, Biology and Philosophy.
Around the early eighties, although paradoxically I was by then moving to other areas, like science and religion, I was still feeling pretty proprietary about the field of philosophy of biology that I and a number of others, particularly my life-long, dear friend David Hull, had if not founded – after all, Aristotle and Kant were before us -- then certainly reinvigorated. A number of new people, like Elliott Sober and Philip Kitcher were moving in, and to a certain extent as Young Turks they were rather throwing their weight around. So I decided that I would take control and found a journal, which I did – Biology and Philosophy – that I ran single-handedly for fifteen years before passing it on when I came south, to the United States. I think I can say I did a pretty good job and certainly got a reputation for being even-handed and very supportive of young people. For every issue I wrote a “Booknotes” column, a kind of blog before its time. It was great fun, and I said a lot of rude (and true) things about a lot of pompous people. I have always rather regretted that the pieces never got collected in a book, but these things are ephemeral.
I’d love to read it! Was the motivation totally about territory?
I should say also that the eighties were a terrible time for people looking for jobs in philosophy, so I rather pulled back from graduate teaching (since the nineties I have had almost twenty doctoral students and huge numbers of MA students through my HPS program down here at FSU). I thought, I still think, my editorship of the journal was my way of making my contribution to the profession, especially to the young. I want to say that as had happened to me when I started out – Hugh Mellor may not look like an angel but he is – some very important and busy people spent a lot of time helping young people to improve their papers to publishable level. I should say that I have also edited two series of books on the Philosophy of Biology for Cambridge University Press. It has been a lot of work but very rewarding in serving others and the cause of scholarship generally. Once a Quaker – and told to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously – always a Quaker.
Do you think you would have stuck around in Canada if it weren't for the fact that retirement was mandatory at the time? Did you consider retiring? Do you miss Guelph?
I was only going to retire if I had been forced into it. I am now ten years past when I would have had to retire in Canada and cannot imagine that. I plan to go to 80, but if the kids start having children and Lizzie wanted to move, I would consider retirement. I certainly miss the farmer’s market! I don’t miss the winters but the summers are much nicer. I miss my friends and colleagues although now most of them are slowing down. I do miss having Toronto, a big city, only sixty miles away.
How did you and your family adapt to life in Florida?
Absolutely and quickly. There is nothing like having three kids in public schools for making you adapt quickly. In many respects I love America – big and tougher and all of that – but overall I think Canada is a much more healthy place socially and morally – universal health care for a start, no capital punishment, gays can marry and are considered equal, no restrictions on abortion – all of that. In Canada, universities and colleges are not ruined by sports, which I look upon as a cancer on American higher education. There are no athletics scholarships in Canada.
You recently became a citizen, correct? Do you think religious fundamentalism will always have a place in American politics?
Yes, I feel that if I am going to live here and teach students, I should make a commitment. Also by being a US citizen I can criticize without being a hypocrite. In my lifetime yes, I think these things will always be around so long as we are still fighting the Civil War – perhaps as the Hispanic vote and other immigrants get more sizable we shall see a shift – but not in a hurry.
Do you think creationism is ever going to go away? Where do you think the new atheists get things right?
Creationism isn’t going to go away in my lifetime! I don’t think a fondness for pseudoscience or irrational religion will ever go. Well, I think the New Atheists are right that Christianity is false! I think they are wrong to say that all religious believers are charlatans and fools.
You've worked a bit with the intelligent design guy, Bill Dembski. How did that come about?
Just meeting him at conferences or when we were on the same platform – if I were a scientist, I would hesitate about collaborating, but I think as a philosopher one ought to be open to debate – that is our job.
What are your political views?
Left wing – socialist but not Marxist – very much in the British Fabian tradition – Mill, the Webbs, that sort of thing. That said, there are days when I have a bit of a libertarian streak. I wish universities would stop being therapy units and get on with teaching and research.
Recently, in philosophy, discrimination and sexism have attracted a bunch of attention. How do you think we can tackle these issues?
I think we need to know what is involved and what we want in the end. I am, for instance, not at all convinced that there must necessarily be as many female engineers as males, or as many male nursery teachers as female. Reluctantly I do think that affirmative action may be needed. Since Jeb Bush stopped it in 2000 the percentage of blacks on the FSU campus has dropped from 9% to 6% and we know that many of these are clustered in sports. There was recently an article in the NY Times that said that engineering departments that made much of such issues as sustainable development had little trouble in recruiting females. I suspect the same is true of philosophy. The FSU department has a gender imbalance – we are now making more of bioethics and perhaps that will help but I would like to see more on such things as environmental questions. Somewhat smugly I should say that my little HPS program does pretty well in this regard, but I think it is precisely because of such factors that one of the faculty associated with the program (Fritz Davis in History) is a leading environmental historian and other colleagues have related interests.
What are some of the obstacles you’ve had to deal with?
I should say however that this last couple of years, recruiting students – particularly female students – has been made difficult by the perceived attitude of the university administration with respect to the sports program and the feeling that (whatever the truth may be) the administration is prepared to go to any lengths to protect favored players no matter the nature of their behavior, sexual or otherwise. I stress I am not making judgments – some of these matters are still before the courts – but the perception off campus, due no doubt in large extent to the extensive reporting in the NY Times, is that FSU is not a place that has full regard for the needs and rights of young people, particularly young women. I will say that if college sports did not have such a hold on the FSU community, beginning at the highest levels of administration, I doubt that people like me trying to run academic programs of integrity and caring, would have quite the uphill tasks that we often face.
How is FSU different from Guelph?
I was hired at FSU to start a department of HPS and promised administrative support. I did not get this at all. I am still astounded at the lies that were told to me at my job interview. No one cared or helped except a few knowledgeable faculty. I now realize how way too many administrators are not that really dedicated to education but rather to their own careers, and so they make these grandiose proposals that (if they are lucky) will only start to cost real money after they have left for a better job. Fortunately there were people on campus who thought that having an HPS program was a good idea and who helped me to get it running. In this, there was a real difference from Guelph, which was simply not run on the kind of business lines we have at FSU. Above all, I miss the congeniality of the department I was in at Guelph. FSU is very different. I have great respect for Al Mele and what he does – he is truly outstanding and very dedicated to his job and his students – and many of my colleagues are involved in the Templeton project, but it doesn’t lead to a balanced department. I think the range of courses we offer at the grad level is scandalously truncated. We have sacrificed too much to be so specialized.
What are the costs?
I think it reprehensible that our students can leave the program without proper training in Hume or Kant (except for some rather brief treatment of the ethics) – or Spinoza and Leibniz and Hegel and Nietzsche for that matter. I want to stress that I see this as a group issue and not the fault of one or two individuals. In particular, I blame myself in good part for not fighting these issues but in excuse I do have HPS and I run this single handedly so I am very bound up with that. I was proud to be at Guelph. Here, I have essentially retreated into my HPS program. That said, I am teaching a course on Kant in the fall, and I am supervising a student working on Continental philosophy. It is a failing of N American departments generally that they do not automatically have courses in American philosophy – can you imagine a department in Britain not covering Hume or in France not covering Descartes or in Germany not covering Kant? – but in America people like Peirce and James not to mention the Transcendentalists are luxury items. Teaching a grad course on American philosophy is on my schedule – not so strange really, because my work in the history of ideas leads me that way – a recent book covered Thoreau and a new book looks in detail at the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and a year or two back I published a book on Darwin’s influence on philosophy and that led at once to the Pragmatists.
We see philosophers taking Darwin and evolutionary theory more seriously than ever, especially in ethics, but many still seem to think the science is irrelevant. Why?
I think there are historical reasons why analytic philosophers have avoided Darwin and evolution. As I just pointed out, this was not true of the Pragmatists – or people whom I take as in the Pragmatic tradition like Quine. Thanks to the influence of Sidgwick, Russell associated evolution with Spencer, and given his Austrian background Wittgenstein associated it with the excesses of Social Darwinism – remember that Wittgenstein and Hitler were in the same primary school class, although I don’t think that Hitler was really a Social Darwinian – but a lot of the ignoring of evolution overall is a function of the fact that disciplines are inward looking. Interdisciplinarity is neither practiced nor approved of.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice when you were back in Rochester, what would it be?
Hang in there, it will be a brighter day tomorrow. To be honest, I wish of course that I had completed the degree and got on with my life. I learnt some important academic things at Rochester about publishing: don’t be discouraged by rejection, just send it out again. These have stayed with me all of my life. That said, that kind of analytic philosophy going on there was really not my sort of thing and so I have never regretted not fitting in with that. When I went back to Bristol I had much more intellectual freedom, which I have always needed. I have always been basically an autodidact even today.
Career highlights? Any exciting projects on the horizon?
In philosophy, I think Taking Darwin Seriously: A Naturalistic Approach to Philosophy (1986) showed how both epistemology and ethics must start with Charles Darwin. Of course, I am not the first to say this, but it was not a popular view when I wrote on the subject, and while there has hardly been a rush to my position since, it is increasingly being taken seriously. In ethics, for instance, the kind of “debunking” position I took – that Darwinian evolution corrodes beliefs in objective morality – is taken seriously even if still generally denied. In history, I think my Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology (1996) showed a pattern to the history of evolutionary theory – from pseudoscience to popular science, from popular science to professional science – that no one had truly seen hitherto. I made sense of three hundred years of evolution’s history. In religion, my Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science (2010) showed just why science cannot answer all of the questions and religion has at least the right to try. Many people agreed with the conclusion but no one had set out to give reasons.
With my new book on evolution and literature, I am giving a whole new vision of what the Darwinian Revolution meant and how it truly defines modern life. If you think this is minor, reflect that one of the most popular positions today is that there was no Darwinian Revolution! The book I am doing on evolution and literature right now is simply the most exciting thing I have ever done. I am very lucky at 74 and more enthusiastic about a project than ever before.
Impressive stuff. Do you think you’ve overcome some or all of your childhood insecurities?
I probably come across as more negative and dissatisfied than I really am. So let me try to set the record straight, because basically I am a happy person with much to be grateful for – my job, my wife, my kids, living in a country that makes me welcome. I am very satisfied with what I have done – fifty years of teaching and fifty books – that gives me satisfaction. In fifty years I never took a day off because of sickness. I still remember doing a class after I had had dental surgery and the painkillers started to wear off. Although I have talked quite a bit about my personal insecurities, it would give a false impression to think that I just feel myself a failure or even second-rate. I think perhaps because much of my life I have been (or have felt myself to be) on the outside looking in, I have equally felt a freedom to go my own way and to think my own thoughts. You may say that my attitude is one of self-delusion about my accomplishments – and I get enough letters on almost a daily basis from strangers who have discovered the meaning of life to realize that self-delusion is always close to the surface – but I feel pretty pleased. If I have any heroes in this world it is people like Karl Popper and James Lovelock (the Gaia hypothesis enthusiast) who in so many respects have been wrong, but who nevertheless have had deep insights and stood by them in the fact of extreme and contemptuous criticism. I should add that I don’t think of myself as a genius in any sense of the word, just fairly bright like most people in philosophy. My unique strength is that I am utterly and completely interdisciplinary.
Yeah, that level of interest in interdisciplinary work, where the disciplines are wildly disparate, is fairly rare. What’s the motive? Just curiosity? Or is it also necessary given the problems you are interested in tackling?
I started doing mathematics and philosophy; no sooner was I doing full-time philosophy seriously then I was off learning about evolutionary biology; after that came taking history of science very seriously to the extent of spending my first sabbatical in Cambridge, learning from the historians; religion followed and while not everyone liked Can a Darwinian be a Christian? to a person they acknowledged that I had gone out of my way to learn the theology; and now in English literature I am have boned up on it non-stop. It pays off and gives you insights across the fields not otherwise there. Getting into evolutionary epistemology and ethics took philosophy going to biology; getting the three-fold nature of evolution’s history took going from philosophy to history and back again; getting the science-religion relationship right took going from history and philosophy of science to theology; and now doing the Darwinian Revolution through literature takes getting the history to focus on the literature, and given that I have a thesis (long expressed) about how Darwinism has functioned as a secular religion, getting from there to theology.
Any disadvantages to this interdisciplinary research program?
I love doing this, but I don’t think most people are interested. I fully remember around 1970, fired on by Kuhn many of us wanted to move from philosophy to history. By 1980 the enthusiasm had gone completely. I stayed on and it has paid dividends. The cost has been that I have not been a full-time philosopher and I think often there is not much respect from my home discipline. That is one thing about which I am totally secure…a bit like Obama the day after he licked Romney!
How do you see the future of philosophy? Do you find any trends disconcerting?
Unless and until it makes itself more publicly relevant I see philosophy as shrinking, especially in this age when there is so much pressure to go for STEM subjects. Already the humanities are under fire and philosophy generally shoots itself in the foot. I think it should be much more in the public domain. I respect people like Peter Singer for this reason. Inwardly turned analytic philosophy seems to me to be ridiculous and somehow slightly immoral or if not immoral then shabby and not something fully mature people do, like having sex with a blow-up doll. Parenthetically I might say that I think that a lot of philosophers, apart from those openly Christian like Alvin Plantinga and even more openly hostile to evolution in general and Darwin in particular, are what one might call faux Christian, meaning that they don’t believe in the existence of God but they sure are convinced that we humans are made in his image! We are special. Thomas Nagel strikes me as being a paradigm instance of such a person. He sounds like the Bishop of Oxford when it comes to Darwin.
What do you think the goal of philosophy is or should be?
Philosophy as Plato saw is concerned with attaining the good life, not in the sense of having more money or sex or whatever, but in the sense of having the parts of the soul in harmony and balance. Philosophy, as Kant saw it, is concerned with the physical world outside our skins and with the moral world, that starts within our skins. As Mill said, it is a matter of being happy, not as the fool or pig are happy, but as the truly contented and fulfilled people are happy. For me, the starting point of this quest is that we are not the favored creation of a good god on the sixth day, but the end product of a long, slow, natural process of evolution.
So, how would you sum up your career so far?
In a way, I think my whole intellectual career has been grappling with the death of God – just as my whole emotional career has been grappling with the death of my mother. Working on the Darwinian Revolution through many books and articles has been a matter of working on the event that truly put the nails into God’s coffin. The evolution and literature book has brought this home more than any other book I have written, although it is very much out of the other books I have written. At the same time, I have worked philosophically on problems of religion particularly as they relate to science, and this too has meant wrestling with a world without God. Now with this book on literature and the book I have just published, Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know, the circle is complete. Most importantly I see that one does not need God for a full life nor does one need the promise of eternal salvation to ward off the fear of death. It is a matter of using your talents down here on Earth to the full. (Ok, Ok, I know that a certain preacher also said this – I never deny my deep personal indebtedness to Christianity.) I feel, particularly with the teaching but with the research also I have done this – not always perhaps as well as could be done, but as well as I could do. That in itself is all of the meaning I need to my life and that is all the life I need. (That said, if Mozart is still writing operas up there, can I please get a season ticket!)
Shane – the ultimate existential movie. The mother is in love with Shane, the kid adores him, the baddy really is not so bad and would hire Shane in a moment. Why then does Shane prevent the father – who would undoubtedly be killed in a shootout – from going to town and go himself? Christianity doesn’t enter into it, but a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. Incidentally I teach philosophy and film in the FSU honors program to (mainly) first year undergraduates and find it eternally rewarding.
What's your favorite curse word?
Fuck me, I don’t know!
Fish and chips with mushy peas – no contest there. Along with endless cups of strong tea made with milk, not cream.