Cover image for Mystery of mysteries : is evolution a social construction?
Mystery of mysteries : is evolution a social construction?
Ruse, Michael.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
viii, 296 pages, 12 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
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Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library QH360.5 .R874 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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With the 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? This text adds to the argument, using evolutionary theory as a case study.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

In libraries where science and history of science circulate, this challenging but readable study of the nature of the scientific endeavor should have appeal. Ruse, a professor of philosophy and zoology, first sketches the visions of science of Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn and then takes evolution as a case study, examining the careers and theories of Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin, Julian Huxley, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Edward O. Wilson, Geoffrey Park, and Jack Sepkoski for indications of, on the one hand, scientific objectivity and, on the other, the influence of culture on the theories those scientists have championed. In addition to criticism of several generations of leading evolutionary scientists, Ruse offers a vital clarification of what is at issue in the "science wars," noting that the "reality" Popperian (and perhaps most) scientists seek to understand is reality versus illusion, rather than a definitive answer to the ancient philosophical question of realism versus nonrealism. --Mary Carroll

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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.Ă„Lloyd Davidson, Seeley G. Mudd Lib. for Science & Engineering, Northwestern Univ., Evanston, IL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

For many years, Ruse has been a prolific writer on the history and philosophy of evolution (cf. Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology, 1996). His writing style stands midway between highly accessible science journalism and erudite, closely argued philosophy. Here he explores the question of whether evolutionary biology is socially constructed (Thomas Kuhn) or an approximation of reality (Karl Popper). He answers "yes" on both counts by delving into the biographies of the main spokesmen for evolutionary biology: Darwin, Huxley, Dobzhansky, Dawkins, Gould, Lewontin, Wilson, Parker, and Sepkoski. First of all, the book is valuable for its biographical content alone, as historical works of this magnitude are rare within the genre. Moreover, the constructivist-realist debate in the philosophy of science is often overly simplified by science journalists and overly complicated by erudite philosophers. Ruse, however, has written an important historical and philosophical book equally accessible to scholars, college students, and popular audiences. An outstanding contribution to the history and philosophy of evolution and highly recommended reading for scholars, college students, popular audiences, and local school boards interested in learning how science really works. General readers; undergraduates through professionals. R. F. White; College of Mount St. Joseph

Table of Contents

Karl Popper and Thomas KuhnErasmus DarwinCharles DarwinJulian HuxleyTheodosius DobzhanskyRichard DawkinsStephen Jay GouldRichard LewontinEdward O. WilsonGeoffrey ParkerJack Sepkoski
Prologue: Science Warsp. 1
1 Two Theories of Sciencep. 13
2 From Fish to Philosopherp. 37
3 On the Origin of Speciesp. 54
4 Religion without Revelationp. 81
5 Evolution Comes of Agep. 100
6 Burying the Watchmakerp. 122
7 Speaking Out for Paleontologyp. 135
8 Adaptation and Its Discontentsp. 153
9 Southern Baptist Meets Charles Darwinp. 172
10 The Professional's Professionalp. 194
11 Crunching the Fossilsp. 214
12 Metaphors and Metavalues: Can Evolution Cut the Mustard?p. 236
Epilogue: Terms of Engagementp. 256
Referencesp. 259
Glossaryp. 276
Indexp. 287

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