Stymied, Michael Ruse criticizes me for liking boots and cats

March 19, 2012 • 5:14 am

Thomas Wolfe is one of my favorite American authors (see here), though most cognoscenti of literature find him tiresome because of his tendency to overwrite.  In 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote Wolfe an epistolary admonishment about this tendency, saying, among other things:

Hasn’t it occurred to you that such qualities as pleasantness or grief, exuberance or cynicism can become a plague in others?  That often people who live at a high pitch often don’t get their way emotionally at the important moment because it doesn’t stand out in relief? . . .

To a talent like mine of narrow scope there is not that problem.  I must put everything in to have enough + even then I often havn’t [sic; Fitz couldn’t spell] got enough.

That in brief is my case against you, if it can be called that when I admire you so much and think your talent is unmatchable in this or any other country.

Ever your friend,

Scott Fitzgerald

Wolfe was having none of this, and responded in a letter that started like this (read the whole correspondence here):

The unexpected loquaciousness of your letter struck me all of a heap.  I was surprised to hear from you but I don’t know that I can say I was delighted.  Your bouquet arrived smelling sweetly of roses but cunningly concealing several large-sized brickbats.

I recalled this exchange when reading a new piece by Michael Ruse on his Brainstorm site at the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Armageddon time for Jerry Coyne.” He starts off with a lot of praise for my prowess as an evolutionary geneticist and my trenchant criticisms of religion on this website.  But those are the roses—the brickbats come quickly. I have a “tin ear for philosophy” and, especially, I am fond of criticizing one Michael Ruse: I “sneer at him frequently.”  Re my philosophical blindness, Ruse says this:

Although I have little time for most religion, qua philosophy I still argue that science does not have all of the answers and it is at least legitimate for believers to try to offer their answers. I don’t think the answers are necessarily beyond criticism, but at the same time I do not think that because they are not scientific answers this thereby makes them wrong or pernicious.

Yes, believers can try to offer their answers, and I will criticize them.  I criticize them not because they’re not all inherently unscientific (after all, we could get evidence for a God, prayers could work, and so on), but because some of them are untestable and on those grounds unscientific, others are empirical propositions lacking any evidence, while still other “questions” have answers that are contested by members of different faiths, and so there is no way to resolve them.

Really, Michael, if you think the answer to “What is our purpose?” is “To accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior,” is that a good answer?  And it is pernicious, because that belief has led Christians to unbelievable lengths of cruelty over history.  What about “Who is the true prophet of God: Jesus or Mohamed?” Is that a good question.  What about “God answers prayers.”  That statement is probably wrong, or at least has failed every test.

Yes, it’s legitimate for the faithful to offer questions. But I challenge Michael to tell me one question raised by the faithful that has ever been truly answered by religion to everyone’s satisfaction.  Just one, Michael.  Let’s start with this one:  does God exist?  The faithful say “yes,” but Ruse says “no” (he’s an atheist). The reason I criticize religious “ways of knowing” is because they are not “ways of knowing” at all, but “ways of making things up”; and because the answers, which the faithful often see as absolute truths, lead them to impose those “truths” on society in pernicious ways.  If people kept their silly religious answers to themselves, then we wouldn’t have a problem. But it’s in the nature of faith that many believers can’t keep their “answers” to themselves.  Ergo the kerfuffles about abortion this month.

But what really bothers Ruse, apparently, is my penchant for cats and cowboy boots, which he goes on about at unseemly length:

However Coyne does have (let us say) some quirks, that are nigh obsessions. One is a passion for cowboy boots. Rick Perry and Roy Rogers have nothing on him. Frankly, I am rather reminded of a French movie I once saw, starring Jeanne Moreau, about a chap with a foot obsession. As I remember, things did not work out well for him.

And then there are cats. Jerry, if I might now presume to call him – after all, he is an employee – is nuts about cats. Day after day, there are hymns of praise and love for cats. Day after day there are pictures of white cats, black cats, happy cats, sad cats, naked cats, clothed cats – cats, cats, cats, cats, cats. Dogs don’t cut the mustard. Ferrets (my favorites) are nowhere. Horses are, well, horses. But cats! If ever there were a proof of the existence of a good god, it is cats. Indeed, I suspect that Jerry’s non-existent deity has whiskers.


LOL! This is sort of funny except that there are no whiskers on a nonexistent deity. (Perhaps he’s thinking of the Catological Argument proving the existence of a feline deity since the greatest possible being of which we can conceive has whiskers.)

I know they say that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but I don’t give a rat’s patootie about this column.  It’s embarrassing for Ruse, for he goes on and on about me with no apparent point.  What, exactly, is my “Armageddon”? That’s the battle between good and evil accompanying the End Times, but how is it relevant to his piece?  He winds up claiming that perhaps my brain has been addled by toxoplasmosis, which, as I wrote about previously, can be transmitted to humans via their cats, and might affect our behavior.  He claims it’s affected mine.

In typical Ruse-ian fashion, he gets it all wrong.

First his characterization of the effect of the parasite on human behavior:

You do all sorts of daft things because it is in the interests of the parasite that you do them. You think you are being clever and rational but it is the bug that is driving you.

Nope, for we are not the primary hosts of the protozoan parasite, which are cats and rodents.  The parasite makes the rodent behave in strange ways (like being attracted to cat urine, and showing less fear of cats) as a way of getting to the next host, a cat. The effects of the parasite on human behavior are not effects that have evolved by selection to facilitate the parasite’s transmission, but only side effects of being infected.  Our “daft behavior” when infected is not in the interests of the parasite, because living in humans is not part of the parasite’s life cycle. It’s a dead end, for we’re not eaten by cats (well, maybe Ben Goren is).

Ruse’s second mistake:

In a way, Jerry should find all of this rather satisfying. One of his big bugaboos about philosophy is our belief in free will. He will have none of it. We are all robots. This cat finding is grist for his mill. When we think we are acting freely, it is the parasite that is in charge.

But in another sense, even if he does not find it depressing – and the article rather suggests that the parasite is pretty good at keeping us happy as clams – I confess I rather do. It suggests that Jerry’s most outlandish behavior, namely criticizing me, is not based on sound logic and evidence but on his being too much in feline company. There I thought I had attracted the attention of one of the best minds of our generation, and it is all a matter of infrequently changed litter boxes.

Oh, dear Michael, let me falsify that hypothesis right off the bat: I do not own a cat. I just like them.

And really, what’s the point of this piece?

82 thoughts on “Stymied, Michael Ruse criticizes me for liking boots and cats

    1. Well, where I live, they have a life expectancy of about 1 month if not sheltered by humans. Too many: cars, coyotes, foxes, and mink.

      1. So they can be attacked by minks (is that the correct plural of a mink?). Because, if that’s true, I don’t feel to bad about my wife having a couple of mink coats. Two cats allow us the privilege of providing food and shelter…..

        1. All those weaselly-critters attack things significantly larger than themselves. We used to (up until about 5 years ago) have heaps of American opossums. When the mink roared back, they all disappeared. An adult opossum must outweigh a mink by at least a factor of two.

          We are crawling with mink now: Beautiful, watery, wiggling beasts.

          The beavers have come roaring back too (we are quite close to the city, though surrounded by ponds, wetlands, and small woods and meadows) and they are sure to soon be causing troubles for our drainage people. Two lodges appeared on the lake near us in the last three years. No dams yet …

          1. Just curious–what city?

            And any idea what caused the mink to “roar back?”

            Beavers have made a stand in my neck-o’-the-woods…

          2. Beautiful, watery, wiggling beasts.

            Nice! I love the mustelids, but catch very, very few glimpses of them. (Except for skunks.) You are lucky indeed.

            But I’d hate to see my possums threatened…BTW, as to weight, my “Mammals of Michigan” lists minks as weighing 1.5 – 3.5 lbs; possums as 4 – 14 lbs.

        2. Isn’t that backward? Mink farming is what causes them “roaring back” at times, or in this neck of the woods invade new territory.

      2. That doesn’t mean they’re owned. My existence is defined as a means of paying the rent on the shelter for two cats who own me.

        I don’t remember who wrote this, but somewhere I remember reading the line, “…’his cat’ he calls her, though he owns her not…”. Maybe someone here can identify the author.

        1. “two cats who own me”

          There is much in that, I agree! We accommodate two as well and fine beasts they are.

          1. Eighteen months ago, my wife and I had three cats and two very large dogs. Now we have one cat and one very large dog, both rapidly approaching their “best before” date, but still very dear to us. We also have a plaque hanging in our entrance hall, which reads:

            1. Kveldulf, my elder cat, just turned seventeen, and I’m pretty sure he won’t see eighteen, so I’m trying to prepare myself for it.Dogs look at their humans and think, “They feed me, they pet me, they give me a warm place to sleep, they take me for walks; they must be gods.” Cats look at their humans and think, “They feed me, they pet me, they give me a warm place to sleep, they clean out my box; I must be a god.”

        2. Tolkien, referring to Shelob. “He” is Sauron.

          Knowing this stuff on a whim was cool until the movies came out.

  1. To be fair, the piece seems fairly light-hearted.

    Though there may be elements of disguising seriousness via superficial light-heartedness.

    1. Oh yeah, like my mother-in-law-to-be informing me with a laugh that she expected my marriage to last 18 months, oh ho ho ho, NOT! That was 30 years ago, still married, I win. 😉

  2. Do you think he engages in such silly and self destructive behaviour because he knows Philosophy is redundant?

  3. Although I have little time for most religion, qua philosophy I still argue that science does not have all of the answers and it is at least legitimate for believers to try to offer their answers. I don’t think the answers are necessarily beyond criticism, but at the same time I do not think that because they are not scientific answers this thereby makes them wrong or pernicious.

    This whole trope about “science does not have all the answers” and “other ways of knowing” only causes trouble because the religious mix up fact claims — which need to be inter-objectively assessed if we want to help eliminate subjective bias — with meaning claims — which often require subjective bias to assess.

    The question “does God exist?” OUGHT to be approached scientifically. It’s not like saying “I love my mother” or “I’m afraid of death” or “people matter” or “we need to eliminate war and live together in harmony.” It’s more like claiming that ESP works, or evolution happened, or angels exist. Though he is an atheist, Ruse doesn’t seem to get this.

    Religion is rife with immunizing strategies, for faith is one giant immunizing strategy. But you can’t get away from epistemic responsibility by blithely sliding from one category of thing to another category of thing, as if deciding whether there was a monster in Loch Ness was intricately involved in the choice to respect endangered species.

    1. Dr. Coyne often advocates a broad definition of science in his posts.

      My 2-part question is: inasmuch as you have a question that admits of being answered in the first place, and inasmuch as you take certain precautions to ensure, as far as possible, the reliability of the answer at which you arrive, are you not doing science? And part 2: doesn’t this mean that, in fact, science does have all the answers?

  4. The only point seems to be to score points with his audience by dissing you. I see this all the time, particularly between my two 7 year old children.

    Though this behaviour is not uncommon amongst adults it is, nevertheless, often quite pathetic to behold. As in this case.

    1. Several years ago I watched video of a seminar or debate in which Professor Ruse participated. He called another participant (an Ivy League type, I think) a – oh, my delicate sensibilities – what synonym, what euphemism, shall I use?! – the circular opening which manifests itself as a result of sphincter muscle action. It seemed totally gratuitous and egregious to me; I didn’t hear any other participant possibly direct any word or action toward the honorable professor to warrant that oracular rejoinder. But, perhaps that’s a compliment coming from Professor Ruse.

    1. Nope. I see it as his attempt to criticize me by using humor. I’m absolutely sure he meant what he said about my views on philosophy and my failure to give credence to the faithful. The cats and boots stuff attempts to be funny, but fails, and is sort of insulting for a post at the Chronicle, which, after all, has some gravitas.

      I am not insensible of Ruse’s “humor”, but this piece has a serious vein.

        1. Intentional or not, the result was malicious.

          Sarcasm is the most difficult form of literature to create, and humorous complimentary sarcasm is the hardest type of sarcasm there is. Even in a setting such as a celebrity roast or the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, feathers are still likely to get ruffled.

          To attempt a piece such as Ruse’s out of the blue, in a setting where it’s not expected for suited, and in such an unskilled manner…

          …well, I’ll invoke Hanlon’s Razor here and give Ruse the benefit of the doubt. But, even still, he should have known better, and Jerry’s response is spot-on. Ruse may have thought he was going for funny, but, if so, it suggests that he’s nowhere near as funny nor nice as he thinks he is.

          But there is hope for him. I wouldn’t write him off just yet.


    1. He’s referring to this previous comment in his article:

      Coyne has no time for this and sneers at me frequently – although, recently there has been a bit of a lull in the invective and so … I sent him 50 bucks as a retainer to keep up the good work.

      This is pretty good evidence that this is a tongue-in-cheek piece. He’s definitely using humor to poke fun at Dr. Coyne.

  5. Mr. Ruse (hey, wait a minute! Might he be a Poe. Named ruse … Think about it!), You are failing Phil 100: Ad hominem anyone?

    Goodness, name-calling! And he’s trying to stand tall and pristine and look down his nose at you?! What a prat.

  6. “Day after day, there are hymns of praise and love for cats”.


    “Day after day there are pictures of white cats”


    BTW, Boots – it’s been a while.


  7. I am rather reminded of a French movie I once saw, starring Jeanne Moreau, about a chap with a foot obsession. As I remember, things did not work out well for him.

    French movie!? That’s a Buñuel film, set in France. The two scenes with the greatest impact in Diary of a Chambermaid, which have nothing to do with Monteil’s fetish, are the snails crawling down a young girl’s leg showing Joseph’s unspeakable crime without showing it all, and the final scene in which a free, prosperous Joseph is shown cheering on a fascist march with the cry “Vive Chiappe!

    After French fascists destroyed the Parisian theater in which Buñuel and Dalí’s blasphemous film L’Âge d’Or was premiered, Paris police chief Jean Chiappe closed down the film entirely. Buñuel repaid the favor in Diary by having Chiappe being praised by a fascist, child-molesting and murdering throng.

    Buñuel and Dalí’s L’Âge d’Or is one of the most blasphemous films ever made. The final scene depicts Jesus scalping women and hanging his trophies on the cross. After Buñuel and Dalí both fled from fascist Spain, a repugnant Dalí denounced Buñuel as an atheist to New York’s Cardinal Spellman, who worked to arrange Buñuel’s dismissal from his small job at MOMA and necessitated Buñuel’s emigration to Mexico because he could not return to fascist Europe and could not work in the U.S. Buñuel only returned to making films again in France decades later, with Diary being the first of four.

    Buñuel was given the opportunity to direct his greatest blasphemous film by none other than Spanish fascist leader Franco, who invited Buñuel back to Spain to show off Spanish filmmaking. Buñuel made Viridiana, featuring scenes showcasing a hilarious spoof of the Last Supper, burning Jesus’ Crown of Thorns on the ground, a ménage à trois slipped past the fascist censors, and of course Buñuel’s signature foot fetish starring Silvia Pinal’s beautiful feet.

  8. Honestly, I think you’re overestimating the degree of rancor in Ruse’s post, Jerry. It seems to me that he was attempting some light-hearted joshing, and while his attempt at humor is pretty weak, it doesn’t come across as malicious. The claim that your “most outlandish behavior” is criticizing Michael Ruse gives it away, I think.

    The bouquets in the post outweigh the brickbats. Ruse thinks you’re the most interesting geneticist of your generation, that you are often more incisive than the more prominent gnu atheists, and that he agrees with practically everything you say. Why read the post as an attack just because he also says that you have no knack for philosophy and makes some intentionally ridiculous comments about your mental health?

    1. Have to agree with this.

      I can’t figure out why Ruse wrote the piece in the first place, seemingly apropos of, well, nothing, but it seemed to me to be affectionate, and more laudatory than critical.

      1. If it’s going to be good satire, it has to be accurate. The part about the parasites isn’t so (to me at least), it falls flat.

        At least I got fifty bucks and had a good meal on the dude.

        1. You know I’m nuts about you.

          I thought Ruse’s article was not satirical at all, and of course, it contained the usual statements that make me want to scratch something in irritation. But god help you if you start writing about ferrets.

          What was the $50 for again?

        2. Yes, accuracy is key. Anybody can make up silly garbage out of thin air. The skill is in finding and delivering the humor implicit in the facts.

          And, a propos of accuracy, is it really accurate to say you’re such a philosophical know-nothing? Of course I’ve no idea how well-versed you are in this discipline, but I’m sure I’ve read plenty of posts here that demonstrate you’re certainly not a know-nothing.

          Besides, isn’t the important thing that one think clearly and rationally about a given topic as one pursues the truth? That kind of thinking is demonstrated in spades on this site (not that you need an anonymous nobody’s validation). I don’t think the philosophy jab is quite the damning accusation Ruse supposes it is.

    2. I disagree. It was an article bagging Prof. Coyne in a very public forum. It may have included a few compliments and a few weak jokes but ultimately the whole thing had this undercurrent of “Jerry Coyne is a silly person and I don’t have to take his criticism seriously.”

      I suspect this is actually more turf war by philosophers. Those guys are on a rampage.

  9. In a recent study of 13,423 non-existant deities, 73.7% of them indeed had whiskers (albeit non-existant ones). So the ferret is in the majority.

  10. It’s a dead end, for we’re not eaten by cats (well, maybe Ben Goren is).

    Hey! He mostly just nibbles — and I give as good as I get!

    Besides, it’s not like he’s gnawing on me all that much…no more than a few times a week, mostly. I still haven’t lost any major limbs or organs, and the doctor says my hematocrit levels only warrant monthly transfusions.


  11. To the Ruse defenders: Admittedly humour is a personal taste, so I will concede my own tin ear to Dr. Ruse’s humour. However, to my eyes, what demotes the piece in question from light-hearted fun-poking to a sad and rather peurile attempt at one-upmanship is not the references to cat-fetish, pre=occupation with boots, or even reference to the possibility of Dr. Coyne’s having cognitive deficits due to toxoplasmosis.

    It is the embedding of snide accusations such the “tin ear for philosophy” crack in the supposedly light-hearted fun. Frankly, just like the blustering protestations by theologians against Richard Dawkins and also againt Jerry Coyne –like those that oozed up during the Feser Affair– self-proclaimed intellectuals hide behind assertions of the exquisite subtlety of argument or, the “I kid because I love!” dodge to avoid revealing the truth.

    The truth being, of course, that without the sobering effects of empirical accountability, most philosophers and theologians can say just about any silly thing that pops intio their heads and call it scholarship, and they resent those who are not blinded to their derivative and pedestrian little thoguhts by pompous or opaque writing.

    That’s what strikes me upon reading Dr. Ruse’s article and why, although I love all things evolutiony, I would give his books a first glance, but I’d read anything that came from the pen of Daniel Dennett.

  12. I do not own a cat. I just like them.

    You know, it occurs to me that this is something that we, the readership of WEIT, could actually do something about.

    Is there anybody within shouting distance of Chicago who knows of a pregnant or nursing cat?


    1. Jerry travels a lot in order to take pictures of food for us. That doesn’t make for an ideal home for a cat.

      1. Who would ever buy a cat?

        No, I’m suggesting that somebody nearby anticipating a surplus of kittens should invite Jerry to lunch, and encourage him to, of his own free will, leave the premises with one or two of the furballs in his company.


        1. Love of cats + adorable kitten: What “free will” would actually be involved here. The deterministic outcome of such an encounter should be self-evident. Or is that the point?

  13. The worst insult in Ruse’s piece seems to ahve been overlooked:
    Now he writes a blog of the same name…

    A blog?!!

  14. Did anybody else suddenly get the line “It’s Armageddon Time” going through their heads to the tune of “It’s Howdy Doody Time”?


    Just me?


  15. The reason Ruse failed to be funny is that he doesn’t feel lighthearted about Jerry. His true wounded feelings shine through the whole thing and make it sad and defensive rather than funny.

  16. ” . . . the “I kid because I love!” dodge to avoid revealing the truth.

    Has anyone ever had the “It was just a statement (comment)!” dodge (masking a personal dig) used on them?

    What sort of shoes does Professor Ruse sport? Wing-tipped, tassled loafers? Did Professor Coyne sport only 2-3 pairs total, would Professor Ruse still hurl his darts about boots?

    One thing about it, by wearing boots one can wear the rattiest, mismatched socks, if necessary, and others are not one wit the wiser and worse off for it.

  17. You don’t own a cat Dr. Coyne!? Why not, if you love them so much? I don’t just because I am a student and move too frequently and am not home consistently. As soon as I finish graduate school and obtain a more permanent residence, I am getting cats ASAP!

  18. Jeebus Jerry – get a damn cat already! Why deny yourself the feline love you know you want? Nobody here will judge you if you remain married to your wife.

      1. You know…I’ve been taking Baihu for walks around the neighborhood of late. And he usually doesn’t freak out when we pass other people, and his freak-outs are pretty tame. I’m hoping to get him to the point that I can simply park him on my shoulders (still in harness and leash, of course!) and go about my business.

        And if I can do that with Baihu, a formerly feral feline, then, Shirley, you should be able to do the same with a kitten you’ve been with since weaning.

        Plus, I happen to know that there’re WEIT readers in Chicago who’re cat people, and I’m sure one or two could be persuaded to cat-sit for you when you go places with customs (etc.) restrictions.



        P.S. Totally off-topic…but Baihu had dessert while I was typing…a moth that somehow got inside. I’ve wondered: isn’t a myth a female moth? b&

  19. Sister’s Oregon

    Three young Cougars were hunted down Sunday and killed. Someone let their pet dogs run loose and the cats were hungry. The mother is still being sought because people here hate these cats.

    I live next to Sisters, in Terrebonne, OR. I’ve seen Cougar from time to time over the years.

    Please explain to me why we have to kill these beautiful animals.

    I’m sick about this. All three were shown on News Channel 21 in Bend.

  20. How come Ruse missed the gustatory interest of this here b… website?

    But the really damning problem for his story of presumed wit is the mentioning of feline derived mind-infesting parasites potentially affecting human behavior but not religious mind-infesting parasites observably affecting behavior. That would be much more closer to his interests, still he missed that wrinkle.

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