I imagine most readers who are drawn to a book like this have asked themselves something similar while contending with issues that are important to them. Enter Michael Ruse who argues in this thought provoking book that such questions, although critically important, are ultimately futile; there's always going to be a dichotomy. The ongoing debate between the scientific worldview of objective reality on one hand, and the humanistic vision of subjective cultural values on the other hand, still remains unresolved. Ruse as both a philosopher and biologist has as good a chance as any of shedding some light on this MYSTERY OF MYSTERIES. Is there indeed something "real" underlying science or as the book's subtitle suggests "Is Evolution a Social Construction?"
Although evolution is the specific subject looked at, the book is excellent in putting all of science and it's practitioners into a useful historical and cultural setting. Ruse normally has a very low opinion of "popular science" but in recognition of the importance of the topic of "science vs culture", he has offered a book that will appeal to a general audience. It's well written with ideas carefully explained and he's humorous in parts. Ruse provides a good glossary to help with the evolotuionary biology and philosophy terminology. Let's start where he does by looking at one of those terms. Science is founded on "epistemic values" which Ruse defines as "those norms or rules that supposedly lead to objective knowledge". Ruse contrasts the "objectivist" view of science - illustrated by the work of Karl Popper - with the "subjectivist" approach of Thomas S Kuhn who saw science in terms of "cultural values". The whole notion of social constructions owes its existence to Kuhn's shifting paradigms. Ruse's first chapter is a short and brilliant explanation on the difference between Popper's and Kuhn's views.
Most of the following chapters are mini biographies of some of the better known evolutionary scientists, and case studies of their work to see where it stacks up along the Popper/Kuhn scale. Ruse says "I wanted to present a portrait of individual scientists and ultimately ask the question: Is science what scientists think, something about the real world? Or is it, as cultural studies thinks, a cultural constraint, a reflection of society?" He argues that if the subjectivist view is correct, social constructionism and all its attendant moral, religious, and political content, should be fairly constant features of science throughout history. The first individual he studies is Erasmus Darwin, and sure enough, his science was steeped in the culture of the day. Ruse believes that "science is special" so he expects that as science matured, a more objective nature would emerge - built on predictive capabilities, consistency, and explanative powers. In contrast to his grandfather Erasmus, Charles Darwin's thinking represented a major step forward in terms of epistemic values. Ruse still finds other influences at work, most noticeably religious values. Darwin was never an atheist and only became an agnostic late in life.
The other scientists looked at in order are: Julian Huxley, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Edward O Wilson, Geoffrey Parker, and Jack Sepkowski. The last two individuals are practitioners of "science of the first order" and Ruse is hard-pressed to find cultural values impinging as it did with the quasi-science of Erasmus Darwin. With regard to the "big names", Ruse explores what influences them. "I'm interested" he says "in Dawkins' violent atheism, Gould's New York Jewish background and connection to Marxism, and Wilson's Southern Baptist background and fascination with the military". Where Wilson is shown to make broad metaphysical statements, Lewontin is parsimonious with praise for the power of genes. Ruse saves some stick for one of his pet peeves - those "poularizers" of science. He does make a distinction between the books that Dawkins, Gould, and Wilson offer us and the work that is shared with professionals. However in Gould's case he's unimpressed either way. "The average working evolutionist is no better off with Gould than without him".
The criticisms of pet theories and ideas are all laid out here, and for those who have read widely about the "science wars", the level of vituperation and personal commentary will come as no surprise. That aside this is a brilliant exposition on the evolution of evolutionary thought and a good analysis of the nature of science. Ruse believes that "both Popper and Kuhn were right". His book offers a strong argument for scientists to acknowledge this and to recognize how this influences their work.