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Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction? [Paperback]

Michael Ruse
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 2 2001

With the recent Sokal hoax--the publication of a prominent physicist's pseudo-article in a leading journal of cultural studies--the status of science moved sharply from debate to dispute. Is science objective, a disinterested reflection of reality, as Karl Popper and his followers believed? Or is it subjective, a social construction, as Thomas Kuhn and his students maintained? Into the fray comes Mystery of Mysteries, an enlightening inquiry into the nature of science, using evolutionary theory as a case study.

Michael Ruse begins with such colorful luminaries as Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) and Julian Huxley (brother of novelist Aldous and grandson of T. H. Huxley, "Darwin's bulldog" ) and ends with the work of the English game theorist Geoffrey Parker--a microevolutionist who made his mark studying the mating strategies of dung flies--and the American paleontologist Jack Sepkoski, whose computer-generated models reconstruct mass extinctions and other macro events in life's history. Along the way Ruse considers two great popularizers of evolution, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, as well as two leaders in the field of evolutionary studies, Richard Lewontin and Edward O. Wilson, paying close attention to these figures' cultural commitments: Gould's transplanted Germanic idealism, Dawkins's male-dominated Oxbridge circle, Lewontin's Jewish background, and Wilson's southern childhood. Ruse explicates the role of metaphor and metavalues in evolutionary thought and draws significant conclusions about the cultural impregnation of science. Identifying strengths and weaknesses on both sides of the "science wars," he demonstrates that a resolution of the objective and subjective debate is nonetheless possible.

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From Publishers Weekly

In a signal contribution to the debate about the nature of science, Ruse, a professor of philosophy and zoology at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, tackles a central question: Is science a report on objective reality with special standards of truth finding, as Austrian-born philosopher Karl Popper maintains, or is it a culturally bound enterprise, a sequence of paradigms that subjectively mirror our ever-shifting view of the world, as American physicist Thomas Kuhn insists? Ruse's intriguing answer, likely to satisfy no one fully, is that both Popper and Kuhn are correct. He uses evolutionary biology as a case study, starting with physician-poet Erasmus Darwin, a deist who regarded evolution as set in motion by a remote, nonintervening God, then moves on to grandson Charles Darwin, whose theories, according to Ruse, strongly reflected Victorian attitudes about progress, gender, race and capitalism, as well as Malthus's notion of the "struggle for existence." In a handsome, scholarly probe, Ruse argues that Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) advances a "secular theology" rooted in 18th-century laissez-faire capitalism's belief that things work best when everybody is following his or her self-interest. Harvard sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, in Ruse's view, replaced the religious fundamentalism of a Southern Baptist childhood with an ardent faith in what Wilson calls "the evolutionary epic," neo-Darwinism as a fertile "myth." And paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould's hotly contested theory of "punctuated equilibrium" owes a debt to Marxism (Gould's father was a Marxist) and to German idealism, in Ruse's analysis. Ruse's ultimate verdict: science remains embedded in cultural values, even as it improves its quest for objective knowledge.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

As its subtitle indicates, this book was prompted in part by the debate between the physicist Alan Sokal (Fashionable Nonsense, LJ 11/1/98) and post-modernist sociologists over whether science is mainly discovered or invented (constructed). Rather than another frontal attack on the post-modernists (although the Sokal debate is discussed at length in the prolog), this book is, instead, a thoughtful and fascinating survey of the many ways in which social concepts have affected evolutionary theory. Beginning with Erasmus Darwin, Darwin's grandfather, Ruse (Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology, LJ 11/15/96) provides a brilliant analysis of how ideas like progress and metaphors based on political and cultural theories and values have both helped and hindered the maturation of evolutionary theory into a true science. Most of the middle to late 20th-century scientists Russ deals with (including Stephen Jay Gould and E.O. Wilson) seem to have overcome their cultural biases and have produced relatively culture-free, or at least culture-independent, science. Nevertheless, the ways in which cultural metaphors continue to enrich their writings provides a fascinating study in the difficulty of producing truly epistemic (Ruse's term) evolutionary theory, free of any significant contamination by the value systems in which its developers are immersed. This is a thoroughly absorbing and important overview by an interesting and controversial philosopher. For academic and larger public libraries.ALloyd Davidson, Seeley G. Mudd Lib. for Science & Engineering, Northwestern Univ., Evanston, IL
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars promises much, delivers little Feb. 17 2004
By J. Tate
Michael R's book starts out well, providing a lively introduction with the now famous Sokal incident, reviews Popper and Kuhn (sorta) on Provability or Falsifiability, and then promises to address this question ( is science provable objective truth or subjective cultural currency) using evolution and biology as the plow horse. As one of the other reviewers observed, he is obviously having a lot of fun. He seems to have either consumed his energies in the interesting mini-bios, or lost his thread, but after the introduction, he never seriously returns to the question at hand. He does the obligatory savaging of Teilhard, treats Gould as a cartoonist, gives some interesting biographical bits on former famous fat people, but never steps up seriously to his main question, waffling the question ata the end. Of course there are elements of truth in two competing points of view. Of course there are serious and honest scientists on both sides. But where do you stand, Prof. R?
Frankly, I was expecting an answer. I did not get one.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Didn't do what I thought this would do. May 16 2003
People will likely come at this book from one of two directions; philosophy or biology. The book is certainly not dissapointing at all coming from the latter angle. It is a great history and analysis of some great evolutionary thinkers: Dawrin (both of them), Huxley, Dobzhansky, Dawkins, Gould, Lewonton and a handful more. Ruse focuses on how they came about their ideas, how others recieved them at the time and whether their ideas and writings hold up to certain epistemic and non-epistemic metavalues of sciecne: predictability, objectivity, conscilience.
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.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Calming the storm Sept. 20 2002
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Michael Ruse may be the gentlest man in the world. Here, he certainly has no peer in providing a comprehensive history of evolutionary biology without descending into the acrimony and vituperation that has plagued the field. He opens with a review of "the science wars," particularly the humanities' assault on science over the past generation. He chooses evolutionary thought for his focus, because he's familiar with the topic, having addressed several books to the field. In this book, he evokes the work of twelve scholars in assessing the impact of "culture" on evolutionary research.
As Ruse sees it, "the debate is between objectivity and subjectivity." These "scientific values" are used in reviewing the work of his chosen personalities. They are assessed in light of his overview of Karl Popper's "objectivism" versus Thomas Kuhn's "paradigms of thought." Ruse follows the tortured path of this debate with compelling skill. His guidance is sure-footed, keeping our attention and maintaining a balanced course along the way. It's a perilous journey, since many of the personalities are current and none hesitant about making known their displeasure. Stephen Gould, Richard Dawkins, Richard Lewontin and Edward Wilson have all tilted at the academic lists. Ruse negotiates this hazardous milieu effectively.
Ruse synthesizes many works in assessing the cultural milieu of each of his subjects. Darwin's comfortable upper-middle class lifestyle, Gould's rampant Marxism, Wilson's Southern fundamentalist upbringing have been examined by many others over the years. Ruse adds a fresh level of organization to these accounts, giving each of his subjects a "level playing field" position as he relates them to the larger issue.
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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.
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