Skip to content

An Interview with Professor Michael Ruse, FRSC on Biology and Philosophy, Teaching, Accolades, Mentors, and Modern American Science (Part Three)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/12/01


Professor Michael Ruse, FRSC is a British-born philosopher of science who lived and worked for a significant period of time in Canada, as a Canadian. He works on the lines and overlaps between religion and science, on the socio-political controversy between creationism and evolution (not intellectual or scientific controversy), and the line between science and non-science. He is the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. He discusses: analysis of developments in biology and philosophy; the favourite moment in teaching; smartest person ever met; intriguing ideas in the philosophy of science; accolades; mentors; impactful books; current scientific state of the United States; the importance of secular alliances; and astonishing evolutionary research in the 20th century.

Keywords: evolution, Florida State University, Michael Ruse, philosophy of science, religion, science.

An Interview with Professor Michael Ruse, FRSC on Biology and Philosophy, Teaching, Accolades, Mentors, and Modern American Science: Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy, Florida State University (Part Three)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: I was asking a different question. But it also a good answer to a good question. We’re not divided on that particular issue.

However, given that you are a historian of science and a historian of ideas, I would be curious as to your analysis of some developments that may be coming down the pike or that are probable into the future as important developments in biology, in philosophy, and so on.

Professor Michael Ruse: Let’s try that one. At the obvious level, I don’t think there is any question that work being done on development is going to be hugely important. All this stuff about homologous genes between humans and fruit flies share the same genes working in the same way is absolutely gobsmacking.

It is incredibly important. It gives huge amounts of insight. But I don’t think that anybody would say, “Oh my God, my world has fallen apart.”

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ruse: That’s why epigenetics or epigenesis not only doesn’t worry me. It excites me. But it doesn’t excite me in the sense of saying, “Ah! You are going to get meaning in the world after all. I do not think that you are.”

However, I do think that there are issues where we have not scratched the surface. I think the consciousness is the big one. I think we can give all sorts of analogies for the states of the brain an can get certain thoughts by doing certain things to the brain.

I am not sure, at all, if anyone has gotten anywhere on saying what is consciousness or consciousness and the physical body. Dan Dennett wants to say, “If you give a fully materialistic account of the brain, then that does it.” That’s just not true.

Thinking is not the brain working, Leibniz told us that. Of course, these things, which are, as I say, staggering like quantum entanglement. How can something happening on one side of the universe have simultaneous effects on the other side?

This is not something violating the speed of light or anything. In some way, this is the transfer of information from one end of the universe to the other. I think there are some fantastic things out there.

Whether we will solve them or not, I do not know. It is as Haldane says the world is queerer than we think it is, but it queerer than we could think it is. Clearly, the world is queerer than we think it is. The question is whether or not we will be able to tackle the queerness.

At the moment, I am not particularly optimistic about finding the ultimate nature of consciousness. It does not mean that there is meaning in the world. I am happy to say that consciousness is not material. It is entirely natural. It is entirely a natural phenomenon.

So, maybe, consciousness does mean that it is all there. Maybe, it would mean reincarnation is possible. I do not think it would lead to Nirvana. I see no reason, even if there is reincarnation, that it will lead to Nirvana.

It is absurd as Camus was saying. There are some issues that we have scratched at. I think consciousness is one. One philosopher called himself a “New Mysterian” because he said, “I didn’t think that we will solve consciousness.” I am inclined to agree with him.

Because something is insoluble, it doesn’t mean that it will be religious. I am careful to say consciousness is material. I see no reason to invoke the supernatural for consciousness. As I say, maybe, there is, but it is something that neither turns me on or off.

I see nothing in consciousness that says to me, “Michael, meaning is out there in the world. You’ve just got to work harder at it, to find out.” I think if we could figure out the problem of consciousness, then we would be no closer to the problem of ultimate meaning than we are now.

Why would quantum entanglement prove God or prove that things are getting better? It doesn’t have anything to do with that.

I wrote a book called Taking Darwin Seriously: A Naturalistic Approach to Philosophy. I would say, “I am a naturalist.” I am certainly not a supernaturalist. I am not a materialist [Ed. Previous mentions to materialism within the context of being a naturalist and non-supernaturalist.].

I don’t think most people today, or anybody today who thinks about it, would think about themselves as materialists. A Lucretian-type atomist or something like this; everybody would agree that the physics of the last century, the quantum, show that electrons are sometimes particles and sometimes waves.

The idea of the universe as some type of massy stuff is just not true. It doesn’t stop you being a naturalist. For me, a naturalist is not finding meaning in the world.

2. Jacobsen: What has been your favourite moment in teaching?

Ruse: What is my favourite moment? I don’t know. It is like being married. There are a lot of favourite moments. There are a lot of tedious moments. I find marking papers tedious. When you see a student have a glimpse when they understood something that they did not understand before, or when a student gets onto something before that they didn’t, that is the favourite moment.

Teaching is a two-way thing. It is not just you teaching on your own. Teaching is working with other human beings. Favourite moments are going to be at some level shared or will occur in a social situation. Obviously, if you can get an idea across, sometimes, or a good analogy or something like that, you feel good about that.

Sometimes, you leave the class and say, “Oh, fuck it! I don’t know what went wrong today. Maybe, I’m bored. Maybe, they’re bored. It is the end of the semester of Thanksgiving is coming or something like that.” We all have those sorts of days.

But suddenly, you have an idea. Then a kid gets it. It is just wonderful. It works both ways. My own favourite moment, if you like. I don’t like marking. And that is related to the most non-favourite moment.  When I have worked with the student and then it becomes clear. All they wanted was the mark.

That is a really bad thing. You’re working with the student. All they wanted was an A to get into medical school. They don’t care about the subject. All they wanted was the mark. That is a pretty deadening experience [Laughing].

3. Jacobsen: [Laughing] who is the smartest person you have ever met?

Ruse: Oh! Oh goodness, I don’t know. I will tell you something. That’s not a good question for me.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ruse: Seriously, maybe, I’ve got to much of an Oedipus Complex. I often thought one of the main reasons that I couldn’t be a Christian is that I couldn’t follow another human being. Of course, Jesus said that he is not another human being.

I may admire someone like Karl Popper.  But I recoil with horror at becoming a Karl Popper groupie or something like that.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ruse: Of course, I have met people like Jim Watson. Clearly, Watson is a very clever guy. Some of the mathematicians that you read. They are very, very clever people. At that level, clearly, I have met some eminent people, historians, and that sort of thing.

As I say, I am never looking for that sort of thing. I am always looking for people who have interesting things to say and who want to share them. I am not looking for people who say, “I am a Nobel Prize Winner. Bow down before me, my name is Ozymandias, King of Kings.”

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ruse: “Look on my works and despair,” sort of thing; that’s never been my thing. As I say, I got along well with my father. I have a bit of an Oedipal thing. My headmaster, I am joking about him. At least, the tensions that I had with my headmaster came, at least, as much from me as much from him. Do you know what I mean?

Maybe, the most brilliant person who I have ever met has never, at some level, turned me on – the thought of it. Not that I am being cocky, not that I am saying, “I am the brightest person that I have met.”

Certainly, I am not. Some people have mathematical abilities way beyond mine. Obviously, if you were talking about the ability to write, I would point to Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. I think The Selfish Gene is a work of genius. In other ways, I think The God Delusion is full of shit.

Jacobsen: [Laughing]

Ruse: It cuts both ways.

4. Jacobsen: What has been one of the more intriguing ideas that you have come across in the philosophy of science?

Ruse: As I say, thinking more and more about the mind-body problem, maybe, the mind is part of the world as much as material is. Some kind of panpsychism. I am not a philosopher of mind. I have not thought this through in any real way. I have not done any real work on it.

It does seem to me to make sense in certain sorts of ways. Certainly, it is something that I found very interesting. If you were thinking about what I have found as one of the most interesting projects in recent years, I was in South Africa about 5 years ago. I wanted to work on a project.

I was at Stellenbosch University. It is the Afrikaans university. The required library materials were just not there. I retooled things as it were. I wrote a book on Darwin and literature.

If I wanted to read a book on Emily Dickinson, I could do it in 10 seconds, and so on. I found it incredibly exciting working on Victorian and later things, and seeing what creative artists had done with Darwin.

One thing that was exciting were that there were so many women involved in it, like George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and Edith Wharton and Mrs. Gaskell. So, I found that was probably the most exciting experience that I’ve had, certainly, in the last 10 years if not long before that.

I found that really was, almost, turning a corner and finding a whole new world, which I didn’t realize existed. Quite frankly, I don’t think that any of my fellow historians of science realized it existed. Obviously, some of the literary people knew about it.

They weren’t relating this back to the history of science. It was tremendously exciting coming in as a historian of philosophy and science and finding this whole dimension that was there. I felt like the soldier in the tinderbox. Every time, I went into a room.

I wanted to empty my pockets and then fill them up with what was there.

5. Jacobsen: [Laughing] people with long successful careers get awards. What accolade are you most proud of?

Ruse: I have four honorary degrees. I am not bragging about it. I have done pretty well. I have not won a Nobel Prize. I do not expect to. I have been acknowledged for what I have done. But in some sort of way, what I do, I do for myself.

I really do. I do this because it is important to me. Of course, one likes to have some acknowledgement of what one is doing. Particularly when people disagree with you, it is terrific. I don’t want to pretend that I am perfect on this.

But by and large, I don’t spend my time doing that. I have never asked any of my publishers to hook me up to book awards. Some want to do that and get some awards. I have never, ever said to one of my publishers, “I think we should hook me up to that.”

It is not where I am at.

6. Jacobsen: Did you have any mentors?

Ruse: When I was younger, some of my professors were very helpful and said, “Ruse, you’re better than you let yourself be.” I think that they weren’t necessarily important. Perhaps some.  Stephan Körner who was a Kantian at Bristol.  He was, certainly, a very kind man in my life. I wouldn’t say that he was a mentor in teaching.

As I say, I am a bit of an autodidact. My oedipal issues, I am not that good at doing that sort of thing. John Thomas at McMaster, he’s the father of Dave Thomas, the comedian.  He was awfully supportive of me. Coming to Canada on my own, it was a very lonely experience. It was very rough at times. John Thomas, I found tremendously supportive. I had mentors in that way. But never had someone who I feel I could be a disciple of, or who pushed me in certain directions.

I’ve always been, to a great extent, my own person. Coming to Canada when you’re 22 on your own, it rather inclines you that way [Laughing].

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ruse: It really does. It really, truly does. Leaving England and everything like that, and striking out on my own, everything that I do; I have to do with my own bare hands. I did.

7. Jacobsen: What books have been most impactful on you?

Ruse: Obviously, The Origin of Species, I would not necessarily say The Critique of Pure Reason as such. Although I do love the Prolegomena.  Shorter and simpler! However, I would say Kant’s philosophy, as a whole, particularly the third critique. For many years, I taught Plato’s Republic. I would say that has been important for me and as a teacher.

Another one, I did, very early in my philosophical career, Descartes’s Meditations. I found that I wasn’t the only person thinking if they were sleeping or awake. My wife tells me, ‘Everybody does that when they’re 9. Then they grew out of it.” Neither Descartes nor I did.

You asked me about other things. I found that very eye-opening if you like. I get such pleasure of reading Bleak House by Dickens or The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope.

8. Jacobsen: What do you make of the current scientific state of America?

Ruse: It is up and down. With the charter schools, I suspect that there is more creationism being taught now than at any other time in the country. I think there is an awful lot of creationism going on in these charter schools.

By and large, my experience of public-school education in America has not been glowing. My kids, to a certain extent, had to overcome their high-school educations. My youngest son did his high school at Tallahassee and went university at Toronto to read physics.  He realized in the first week that he did not have the background and then switched to philosophy and did very well in Philosophy.

Without being a Jeremiah, I am not overly impressed by the quality of public education in America at the moment. It is difficult. Isn’t it?  If we send our kids to private schools, it means that so many of the parents who really care are no longer around and supporting the public schools.

When I grew up in England, we had the grammar schools. They gave a terrific education. We know that they gave it through a certain or great extent at the cost of everyone else. It went into the 20%. If you went into a secondary mod., they lost it by the time they were 12.

It does not mean that it is necessarily a good thing. I remember state education as very good. I’m sure the same in New England. I’m sure a lot of good public schools in and around Boston. But if you look at Tallahassee or Florida, you don’t expect to find excellence – and you don’t.

9. Jacobsen: How important are secular alliances for keeping a secular place on campuses?

Ruse: It is difficult to say. My campus is probably way more religious than Simon Fraser University or others, or UBC. But there’s no question about that. I think they’re important. But quite frankly, we have this secular society, which I am the mentor of. I try to help.

I don’t get the feeling that an awful lot occurs through it. I think that we do better in trying to direct students to certain courses or programs, or things of that nature, than anything else. It is difficult to say. If I was probably younger, I would be more enthusiastic about these things.

I’ve done the job for 50-odd years now. I never found these things tremendously helpful. But to a certain extent, that is probably me. I am not much of a joiner. I am not social. I do not feel an inclination to join a church group or the Unitarians.

I just don’t seem to work that way.

10. Jacobsen: What piece of evolutionary research most astonished you, in the 20th century?

Ruse: The implications of the double helix. I think this opened up huge insights into the ways evolution works. I think of the work of people like Dick Lewontin in the 1960s and 70s. I am quite happy to say, going on to do the Human Genome Project.

Things like that. As I say, this whole question about homologies between insects and humans opens up things and surprised the hell out of me. It doesn’t surprise me like an explanation of consciousness would. But I think it has been tremendously exciting that way.

Again, I think that’s the way it goes. I think most people would want to say that. Biology gained a whole lot more status in the second half of the 20th century than the first. When I went to school in the 50s, by and large, biology was not a very high-status science.

Whereas, I think, any student today who says, “I want to be a molecular biology student,” or have an interest in ecology in nature, is onto a good thing. I think it is a lot more exciting, generally, as it were, without necessarily picking on one particular thing.

But if you’re going to talk about one discovery, then the double helix would be it.  If you are going to broaden the question out to the history of science, I discovered that E. Ray Lankester, an eminent evolutionist at the end of the nineteenth-century could not get erections with women of his own class and had to go to Paris to find sexual relief in the brothels?   I discovered this from some very private letters he wrote to a friend in Naples, Italy.  Of course, I introduced it immediately into the book I was writing and made a big thing about it all being a metaphor for general feelings of decay – H. G. Wells, and the Time Machine, sort of thing.  I wonder what posterity will make of me?  I can assure you that there are no letters in Naples and I never had trouble with erections!  That time between wives might bear closer examination!!

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor, Philosophy, Florida State University; Director, HPS Program, Florida State University.

[2] Individual Publication Date: December 1, 2019:; Full Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2020:


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: