Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction? Hardcover – 5 May 1999
Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed
Enter your mobile number below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
Getting the download link through email is temporarily not available. Please check back later.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
Ruse sets out to answer [questions in the science wars], to salvage what is reasonable from the claims of both constructivists and realists, and to find a "via media" between the two. His methodology consists of examining the role of cultural versus epistemic values in the work of ten prominent evolutionists to discover what role cultural values play for each, and whether there is a set or body of norms, values or constraints that guide scientists in their theorizing and observing...Ruse's trek through 250 years of evolutionary biology yields another interesting finding: as a science matures and becomes more professionalized, epistemic values internal to the discipline become more explicit, more important and more thoroughly satisfied, whereas cultural values, although never completely absent, become relatively less significant.--Timothy Shanahan "Tree "
About the Author
Michael Ruse is Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy, Florida State University. He has appeared on "Quirks and Quarks" and the Discovery Channel. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
Top Customer Reviews
In 1996 Alan Skodal, a physics professor from New York, sent an article to Social Text a journal specialising in postmodern cultural studies. The article was full of nonsensical jargon and proposed that quantum gravity was a social and linguistic construct rather than a scientific theory. When the article was published Sokal announced it was "a pastiche of Left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations and outright nonsense.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Ruse, who is a philosopher, has written an engaging book and though is not an easy read. He won't choke you on philosophical jargon. Though it is not a beginner's book on evolutionary thinking, it is easy to digest for someone with some modest knowledge of the field.
Mystery of Mysteries begins by showing the two polar philosophers of modern scientific thought: Thomas Kuhn who is best known for "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" and Karl Popper who wrote many books on science but a good example would be "Logic of Scientific Discovery." Kuhn comes down on the side that scientific reality is based in culture. Popper says science is independent of culture. Ruse then goes on to use a number of evolutionary scientists and their works to show the push and pull between these two poles. Gould, Lewontin, Wilson, and others, share the spotlight for a chapter.
It's a great book on contemporary evolutionary biology and philosophy. Ruse also gives us a grand tour of the movers and shakers, and their thinking and personalities. We also get some glimpses of the vicious infighting going on between the camps. But it is much more than this. The biologists and their ideas are only a foil for Ruse to discuss the issues that confront science today. I found it to be a worthy guide to scientific thinking. There is a wealth of ammunition here to be used when one is confronted by much of the irrational garbage that passes for logical thinking today.
Though Ruse does not bash Kuhn directly one can see his star gradually fade as the book progresses. Taking Kuhn to its ultimate conclusion, one would have to declare that scientific truth is a consensus of opinion and not fact. Kuhn has become the darling of Post Modernists for this very reason. Karl popper comes of as a breath of fresh air.
Anyone who calls himself or herself a Skeptic should consider this required reading. If evolutionary biology is your thing, or if you are at all interested in how science works, or if you are interested in the philosophy of science, order it now.
It is when coming from the philosophy angle that the book fails to hold up. After all, from its title, we expect to be treated to a query on whether evolutionary biology has made it over the hurdle from metaphysical philosophy to bonafide science (and many readers will not even have been aware that this was even a question). The first chapter is an introductory overview of the dilemma. There are two views of science: one objective and descriptive of the world out there (a la Karl Popper) and one more subject dependent, influenced by cultural factors enough not to yield true description of reality (a la Thomas Kuhn). Ruse discusses the difference in these two thinkers writings. Coming from a reader whose read both authors, his description of Kuhnian 'subjectivism' is well off the mark and his synopsis of Popperian objectivism also could use a fair amount of tweaking. Instead of Kuhn, maybe Dewey would've been a better choice.
It is after the first chapter that the chapters become short summaries of key thinkers: the first half devoted to history and biography and the second, a review of each thinkers scientific achievements and whether they represent sceince or metaphysical philosophy. The chapters on the two Darwins, Dawkins, E.O. Wilson and Lewonton are incredible and penetrating. The others are adequate. All of these are followed by a brief conclusion chapter to tie up loose ends, too brief for the books purposes
In the end, maybe Ruse got so caught up in how much fun he was having with the individual histories that he forgot to focus on the question. The nature of science was to be our topic and sometimes we get a glimpse of analysis on the question but not enough to warrant the books subtitle. For those concerned with the history of the field of evolutionary science - from its days as natural philosophy to the present - this book will no doubt satisfy. As an examination of where evolutionary sciecne does and does not hold up as an objective (or subjective) discipline, Ruse leaves us dissapointed.
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.
I attempted to begin with chapter one, only to find that it started out as though the author was "mid-conversation." That propelled me to the prologue, only to be confronted with a similar sense of "something is missing." Although I don't generally read what I usually find are just an author's favorite quotes--for which read, "I liked this when I read it, and this is the only way I've found to make use of it." With Ruse, however, the quote that opened the volume, though gobblety gook itself, was absolutely essential to understanding his thesis. Taken as a whole, I thought his style was a very cleaver device. One worthy of a good novelist. It certainly pulled me through the work from start to finish. As I read the prologue, I had to admit that there was certainly meat to the subject: how objective is science?
Though I had been aware of the skirmish between the social and the "hard" sciences--finding myself on the former team by natural ability and wistfully a "wanna be" on the latter by a lack of it--I had not given the matter great attention. Ruse does. He makes it abundantly clear that the two have been in a struggle for society's respect and financial support for decades, sort of an academic survival of the fittest, and that the rancor on both sides is both intense and legitimate.
Probably the most important theme he posits in this introduction and develops throughout the book is that society has certain preconceived ideas about science and those that practice the discipline, namely that there are no other motives than the pursuit of knowledge and the betterment of society. This is not always the case. As any of you who've read Iceman : Uncovering the Life and Times of a Prehistoric Man Found in an Alpine Glacier by Brenda Fowler (see my review) are aware, cultural biases, personal quirks, and professional jealousies can all distort what passes for objective research. The lack of accountability for the spill-over costs to society of research gone bad and the priority of financial interests in directing the goals of science were the basis for the now very famous novel Jurassic Park. Ruse's contention, then, that the distrust by the social sciences of the physical sciences is not altogether a matter of self interest is a valid one, and one we need to seriously consider. Just what agenda might a person have whose research indicates that black people aren't as bright as white people or women as mathematically inclined as men. How might their personal biases direct his/her research and his/her interpretation of results? The recent book Bell Curve, is a case in point.
As a means of demonstrating what is expected of "good science" and of its practitioners, Ruse has chosen to discuss the development of the theory of evolution, its own evolution as a "hard" science, and the personal history of some of the more famous of its researchers from Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, to Dobzhansky, Dawkins, Gould, Lewontin, Wilson and others. It was very interesting to see how cultural values permeated research from the choice of a topic to the selection of data and interpretation of results. While Ruse does not outright accuse individuals of bias, he definitely makes it clear that scientific research is not as value free as society and even the researchers themselves may believe.
This said, I have several points of my own to make. I feel that at times Ruse makes almost personal attacks, and only thinly disguised ones at that, on some of the individuals reviewed, particularly the popular writer Stephen J. Gould. Furthermore he, or more correctly "scientists," seem to hold such popular writers in at least mild disgust. (I was made aware of the animosity directed toward Carl Sagan for his popularization of cosmology when I was taking an astronomy class and the professor, a well known researcher himself, made disparaging remarks.) It would almost appear that anyone with a gift for putting hard science across to the rest of us--who are after all paying the bills for most of it--is considered to be betraying the inner sanctum. Science is apparently supposed to be "hard" and "mysterious," otherwise why would we be obliged to pay so much for it!
Secondly, why Evolution? Certainly it is a very contentious subject and at the center of a societal debate in almost every decade, but if one wants to pick on "science" why not one of the heavy duty ones like physics? It's not that there aren't eccentric personalities in abundance, as Ruse himself points out when he discuses Newton. Perhaps its because there would be less of a need to discuss bias and the existence of objective reality as he does in the final chapter. With physics, the existence of objective reality is irrelevant or nearly so. It's what "works" and an effective explanation of "what works" that's important, as quantum mechanics makes abundantly clear. Newton may have been a complete lunitic, but the theory of gravitation was a major break through in thinking and has contributed to further scientific and technological break throughs. Furthermore, gravitation is just that, "a discovery." If not made by the lunatic Newton, then sooner or later by someone else with some other foible.
What I think that the author fails to make clear, or perhaps even understand himself, is that science is responsible for the discoveries while technology puts them to use. It is then society itself that dictates what is "wanted" and what is "good." And that is the domain of the social sciences: philosophy, ethics, sociology, psychology, anthropology, etc. If scientists are motivated by cultural standards and beliefs and produce technological and social effects with which we are displeased, then it behooves us to make changes in our values, the way we motivate people, the way we use technology, they kinds of technology we chose to employ, and the way we think of and treat others. For this reason I believe we need both the social and physical sciences. They keep us in balance.
I gave this book a very high rating because of the thinking it made me do!
He notes, "[Theodosius] Dobzhansky, though he hated war, nevertheless thought that the West must maintain its nuclear superiority and that if this means testing, then so be it. He and his students were therefore keen to show that the radiation artifically introduced into the atmosphere has little or no bad effect---possibly a good effect even!... I have little doubt that cultural factors lying behind the formal science ... helped significantly to flesh out the gaps between the proven and the presumed. The fact that the Atomic Energy Commission was delighted with these results and happy to support the work ... was a nice bonus. Everybody's ends were being served." (Pg. 110-111)
He observes, "when it comes to saltationism---the claim that evolution would have come about ... only through large new variations... [Richard Dawkins says], 'By what mysterious, built-in wisdom does the body choose to mutate in the direction of getting better, rather than getting worse'? Normally, variations are deleterious, and large variations are very deleterious. This is an empirical fact, yet one entirely ignored or minimized by saltationism." (Pg. 127)
He suggests, "A huge amount of hostility to religion is also characteristic of Dawkins's writings... Recently, this hostility has become so obsessional and so overt that one might truly say that today this value---blasting religious beliefs---is a major reason why Dawkins does what he does... It is precisely because Darwinism can so substitute for Christianity that Dawkins finds the theory attractive." (Pg. 130)
He admits, "Charles Darwin took magnificent leaps forward. At the same time he had epistemic weaknesses: there was certainly nothing much by way of exact prediction, and there were perceived epistemic failures as well---the inconsistency of his theory with the earth-dating findings from physics, for example." (Pg. 237)
This book will interest those interested in the Creation/Evolution debate.