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Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction?

By: Michael Ruse (Author)

296 pages, 30 b/w illustrations, tables

Harvard University Press

Paperback | May 2001 | #119446 | ISBN: 0674005430
Availability: Usually dispatched within 5 days Details
NHBS Price: £14.95 $19/€18 approx
Hardback | Dec 1999 | #94775 | ISBN: 067446706X
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About this book

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.

"Michael Ruse is a Canadian philosopher of science with a sharp but good-natured wit, and an inclination to pursue controversial topics related to evolution [...] Mr. Ruse is at his scholarly best [in this book], exploring thoughtfully the role of ideological and epistemic values in evolutionary science."
– Phillip Johnson, Washington Times

"Ruse proposes to investigate the history of evolutionary biology from the late 18th century to the present to determine the influence of various factors in deciding the course of this scientific discipline [...] Because evolutionary theory has been one of the chief battlefields in the war between constructivists and positivists, Ruse could not have picked a more appropriate topic of study [...] The readers of Ruse's spirited and ambitious book get to enjoy one more salvo in the science wars."
– David L. Hull, Science

"Which values drive scientific knowledge? Are they epistemic values (objectivity, reproducibility, predictive strength, empirical fruitfulness)? Or cultural values (religion, belief in progress, egalitarianism, militarism)? 'Scientists' involved in the culture wars say epistemic; 'sociologists' say cultural. Ruse detects a false dilemma [...] He argues that epistemic values inform all science that survives [...] [but] the cultural values of important scientists can be seen in the work they choose to do [...] In Mystery of Mysteries we have a fine presentation of the Highlights of Evolutionary Thought."
– Paul Gross, National Review

"Ruse is trying to do several hard things in this smaller book. He wants to cool the sectarian heat of the science wars enough to tackle what he regards as philosophically serious issues underlying the debate. And he aims to do so in a way accessible to the general reader. He succeeds pretty well on both counts [...] Ruse's consistently good-humoured book is a fine example for anyone who wants to approach the science wars constructively. And it gets pretty close to persuading the sceptical reader that popular epistemology might be a viable enterprise."
– Jon Turney, Times Higher Education Supplement

"[Ruse] has put his knowledge to good use to say some fascinating things about the relative roles of culture and hard fact in the history of evolution and its mechanisms [...] To anyone interested in the evolution of evolution, I recommend this book. It is written with clarity and grace, and both the professional and the layperson will find it full of riches."
– John Tyler Bonner, Natural History

"[Ruse's] evenhandedness, coupled with an engaging, jargon-free writing style, makes Mystery of Mysteries a good book for nonscientists who want to know more about evolution and the nature of science."
– Kathleen L. Housley, Christian Century

"The title of Michael Ruse's book – Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction? – suggests a rather ambitious undertaking, and on that score readers are certainly not disappointed [...] [It] is an entertaining and knowledgeable [...] survey of evolutionary thought [...] [and] provides a starting point for those who want to know what the science wars are all about."
– Jay A. Labinger, Chemical & Engineering News

"Ruse concludes that the ratio of culture to 'epistemic science,' as he calls the hard, objective stuff of proper research, has gradually reversed in favor of science, as molecular biology and other experiment-based methods of testing evolutionary theory's predictions have developed [...] [The book] is enlivened by Ruses's historical profiles of ten leading evolutionists, from Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwins grandfather) through Charles Darwin, Julian Huxley, and E. O. Wilson."
California World

"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

"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, Booklist

"[Mystery of Mysteries is] 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 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."
– Lloyd Davidson, Library Journal

"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 Australian-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 ultimate verdict: science remains embedded in cultural values, even as it improves its quest for objective knowledge."
Publishers Weekly

"[Ruse's] 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, this contructivist-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."
– R. F. White, Choice

"Thoughtful readers will doubtless differ as to which view of science – objective reality or social construct – 'wins' the debate addressed in this book. Nonetheless, by what strikes me as a clever and effective device of 'pairing' a dozen or so distinguished people, Ruse gives the reader a well-written and thought-provoking analysis of opposing points of view. For each member of a given pair – for example, Richard Lewontin and Edward O. Wilson – he gives something of the personality and background of the individual and a summary of research interests and accomplishments, with emphasis on the individual's views on the issue at stake."
Key Reporter

"Readers are treated to lively profiles that pair the work and thoughts of Erasmus and Charles Darwin; Julian Huxley and Theodosius Dobzhansky; Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins; Richard Lewontin and Edward O. Wilson, and finally, the English sociobiologist Geoffrey Parker and the American Jack Sepkoski."
Kirkus Reviews

"In one hundred years science historians may identify the past half century as the age of the 'science wars' – with armies on one side marshalling their defense of science as an objective enterprise, against the forces on the other claiming science is socially constructed. Michael Ruse's Mystery of Mysteries will be identified as a watershed in the science wars debate, as he navigates the treacherous waters between extremists on both sides and shows us how to find an intelligent middle route. To find out how science can be both the product of fallible, biased, culture-bound scientists, and a self-correcting method that unveils real facts about reality, read this compelling work by one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking minds of our age."
– Michael Shermer, Publisher, Skeptic magazine, author, Why People Believe Weird Things

"The contemporary 'science wars' have made poignant the question of the objectivity of science, and Michael Ruse enters the fray with typical bravura, armed with the weapons of both the philosopher and the historian. He incisively portrays the development of evolutionary thought right up to the present day, enthusiastically exposing the political and religious forces shaping it. While many of the of the contemporary scientists discussed will be made exceedingly uncomfortable by this dismembering of their thought, the reader will take guilty delight in the spectacle˜as well as understand a bit better the power of evolutionary theory."
– Robert J. Richards, University of Chicago

"Mystery of Mysteries is vintage Michael Ruse. First-hand knowledge of the science and the scientists, incisive historical and philosophical analysis, fluid prose, focus on an important subject. The issue is the objectivity and realism of scientific knowledge, but readers will learn much about evolution and evolutionists."
– Francisco J. Ayala, University of California, Irvine

"When biology meets philosophy in the Mystery of Mysteries, readers from both fields will be satisfied. Ruse compares his book with a detective story and it is indeed as gripping [...] [This] book provides a milestone in the philosophy of biology."
– Doris Schroeder, New Genetics and Society

"Building on his previous studies, philosopher Michael Ruse, analyzes key factors shaping the science of representative evolutionary thinkers in the last 250 years [...] The book raises important questions and offers significant insight of further deliberations."
– Sylvia W. McGrath, Red River Valley Historical Journal

"Mystery of Mysteries is both extensively researched and informative, especially in regard to the work and backgrounds of noteworthy Darwinists."
– Steve Dilley, Philosophia Christi

"Is evolution true? Or is it an arbitrary human invention, influenced by fashion, a handy way of organizing experience, but ultimately having no more claim to truth than biblical literalism or the latest offering of the postmodern deconstructionists? Ruse takes us through the history of evolutionary theory, and shows us how at every turn its development was influenced by culture and personality [...] We may never know ultimate reality, he states, but we can know when one way of organizing our experience is better than another. The history of evolutionary thought demonstrates [...] that] Darwinism is without a credible rival. [And] guess what? I found the book in an airport bookstore, of all places, right there next to The Seven Steps to Health, Wealth and a Slim Figure."
– Chet Raymo, Boston Globe


Contents

Prologue: Science Wars

Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn: Two Theories of Science
Erasmus Darwin: From Fish to Philosopher
Charles Darwin: On the Origin of Species
Julian Huxley: Religion without Revelation
Theodosius Dobzhansky: Evolution Comes of Age
Richard Dawkins: Burying the Watchmaker
Stephen Jay Gould: Speaking Out for Paleontology
Richard Lewontin: Adaptation and Its Discontents
Edward O. Wilson: Southern Baptist Meets Charles Darwin
Geoffrey Parker: The Professional’s Professional
Jack Sepkoski: Crunching the Fossils
Metaphors and Metavalues: Can Evolution Cut the Mustard?
Epilogue: Terms of Engagement

References
Glossary
Index


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Biography

Michael Ruse is Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy, Florida State University. He has appeared on Quirks and Quarks and the Discovery Channel.

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