Mystery of Mysteries:
Is Evolution a Social Construct?

by Michael Ruse,
ISBN: 067446706X

Post Your Opinion
Very Victorian Notions of Progress
by Tim Tokaryk

Rodney Dangerfield's comedic quip, "I get no respect", can be uttered by many people in many fields of endeavour-evolution for one. Unlike physics, which is regimented into numbers and formulas, evolution, it has been claimed, is more of an idea than a science. However, the science has matured since the days of Charles Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus, who coughed up a progressionist view of evolution; and the mechanisms of how species evolve as well as succumb to extinction are, arguably, more difficult to grasp than those of physics. While evolution has been defined in various ways, it is more of an umbrella under which chemistry, biology, geology, paleontology, and, yes, even physics, grudgingly huddle together.

Yet, evolution is a relatively recent phenomenon compared to physics. And possibly as a result, there has been no philosophical treatment of it amongst the dusty stacks of twentieth-century retrospectives. A few voices can be heard over the static of the norm, however-none louder than Michael Ruse of the University of Guelph in Ontario: he defended evolution from a philosopher's pulpit in the 1982 "scientific creationists'" case in Arkansas; he edited the journal, Biology and Philosophy; and in several books, he has examined the role and reception of the Darwinian cause in science. Mystery of Mysteries is his latest dissection of evolution. Its mandate is to decide whether evolution is best understood in terms of Karl Popper's view-namely, that the residue of knowledge left by scientists is objective, a disinterested reflection of reality (epistemic)-or of Thomas Kuhn's subjective view-namely, that the results of science reflect the cultural bias and are a social construction (non-epistemic).

Such examination is no trivial academic matter. All science follows the same path. How the anatomy of scientific development is recognized-as epistemic or non-epistemic, for example-determines how ideas grow and, in some cases, overthrows previously conceived notions of how our universe ticks.

Ruse examines several historical figures in evolution theory beginning with Erasmus Darwin. Even though Erasmus' science was probably "more suited for Ripley's Believe It Or Not", it was heavily impregnated with contemporary culture. "Deism," Ruse observes "...was the force behind his [Erasmus'] speculation." The same holds true for his grandson, Charles, whose own deistic beliefs are still present in The Origin of Species and Descent of Man. But Charles, at least, attempts to put his more subjective quirks outside of the science, while "promoting the internal epistemic values": there was more to understand in nature than to assume Divine guidance amongst all the variations found in the biological present and the past. The diversity of life follows physical guidelines.

Ruse evaluates the science and the motives of each successive figure. Earlier in this century, the Russian-born geneticist, Theodore Dobzhansky, dichotomized his work into writing for a scientific audience and "value discussion" for a popular audience. His book, Genetics and the Origin of Species, was tailored for a specific academic audience, while The Biological Basis of Human Freedom took a more subjective slant, "invit[ing] cultural underpinnings and interpretations". More contemporary authors like Richard Dawkins, who wrote The Blind Watch-maker and The Selfish Gene, tend to blend the styles of writing, "providing new metaphors and new ways of seeing" how mechanisms, primarily natural selection, might work. Dawkins' novel tool (at least at the time of his writing) was computer-generated models, and his writings show much disdain for those who promote evolution by Divine intervention or design.

Harvard's Stephen Jay Gould, an award-winning writer in his own right, offers another example of how epistemic and non-epistemic values are interwoven. His scientific claim to fame was to show, with fellow paleontologist Niles Eldredge, how evolution follows gradual steps of development, punctuated by leaps of quick (at least in geological, as opposed to biological, time) speciation. Traditionally, much of the evolutionary synthesizing in the twentieth century focused on genetics. Fossils were only trophies in museum exhibits. But by looking for patterns in the fossil record, Gould and Eldredge brought fossil evidence on par with genetics. As Ruse so poignantly states, "No longer will [paleontology] be the puppy led by the geneticist master."

Ruse is successful in showing the duality of evolutionary science. Computer models, genetics, and fossils combine with a maturing, reflective science to illustrate a unique view of the world. But the evolutionary science is also still rich in non-epistemic values, though attempts are made to separate them from the pure act of science. What all the major players share, in fact, are the non-epistemic values. The metaphor that reflects a particular culture at any one time is key for developing and understanding science. This was the case with Darwin's "very Victorian notion of progress", and with many others as well. As Ruse admits, "without metaphors-which are vehicles for seeing similarities in otherwise dissimilar things-one would lose a value [as] essential" as a descriptive narrative, and "in its absence science would simply grind to a halt". We need the cultural context as a tool to describe the world and the universe.

Mystery of Mysteries is geared for the curious of mind, and illustrates not only the nuts and bolts of science, but how one chooses the nuts and bolts in the assembly of ideas. Full of clear and engaging interpretations and brief historical sketches, supplemented with a short glossary, his thesis shows the humanity of science-namely, that it is neither possible nor necessary to separate ourselves entirely from our surrounding world. And in an age where science-phobia is rampant, Ruse's x-ray of this one part of our culture is food for thought, for the general reader as well as the professional. 

Tim Tokaryk is a historical scientist who works at the Eastend Fossil Research Station in Saskatchewan.


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