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Michael Ruse


Is Evolution a Social Construction?

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Michael Ruse has written extensively on the history and background of evolutionism, which he is well qualified to do, being, somewhat unusually, a professor of both philosophy and zoology. In this book it is mainly the philosophy of science that he is concerned with. He wishes to explore the question of how far science can be regarded as a cultural product rather than an objective quest for truth.
What is the true nature of science? Is it objective? Is it, as Karl Popper said, "knowledge without a knower"? Something which tells us about the real world out there? Or is it subjective, as Thomas Kuhn and those following him have suggested? Is science a reflection or epiphenomenon of culture? Something which changes as science changes and which tells us less about reality and more about ourselves? Is science a social construction? Is evolution a social construction?
To answer these questions Ruse takes a partly historical approach, by considering the work of a number of prominent figures, past and present, and asking how far their ideas have been shaped by cultural values. We start with Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, and then look in turn at Charles Darwin himself, Julian Huxley, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Richard Dawkins, Richard Lewontin, Edward O. Wilson, Geoffrey Parker, and Jack Sepkoski. In most cases Ruse relies on the published work of these authors but for the last two he supplemented this with interviews.

Ruse finds that there has been a constant trend towards objectivity throughout the period he considers, but cultural influences can nearly always be discerned if one looks for them. Erasmus Darwin expressed his views mostly in verse, which one might think pretty much excludes him from consideration as a serious scientist, and in fact he was not taken very seriously in his own time. Things were very different in the case of his grandson, Charles, but cultural values, including a belief in progress, did colour his thinking. And this was even more true of his colleagues, especially Thomas Henry Huxley.

For Huxley's grandson, Julian, the role of culture was still more obvious. Although he was trained as a biologist he disliked university life and soon changed tack to become a writer and a public figure, He was Secretary of the London Zoo for a time and later became the first director of UNESCO. He was also what would today be called a "celebrity", well known for participating in a popular quiz show, The Brains Trust, on the radio and later on television.

The first part of the twentieth century saw the blending of Mendelian genetics with evolution. Huxley popularised the new understanding in his book Evolution: The Modern Synthesis and linked this with ideas of progress, treating evolution rather as a secular substitute for religion. But this was not original science and Ruse is fairly scathing about Huxley's status as a scientist.

Dobzhansky, in contrast, was a genuine scientist and in his hands evolution moved decisively from philosophy to science. This trend continued as the twentieth century progressed, but even so, cultural values are still present in the work of later writers, especially those who, like Dawkins and Wilson, have written extensively for non-professionals. Ruse seems to think that writing of this kind inevitably entails a certain loss of objectivity and scientific purity. Dawkins is well-known for linking evolution with his hostility to religion. Wilson, unlike Lewontin, has sought to extrapolate from evolution to an understanding of human nature and society - sociobiology.

Geoffrey Parker is, for Ruse, about as far from a culturally conditioned evolutionist as one can get. He has hardly written at all for non-professionals and has tried to answer limited questions rather than to construct grand edifices of ideas. But even Parker, he finds, cannot escape from cultural values altogether; such considerations may have influenced the kinds of problem he has tackled. He has been interested in the mating behaviour of flies and feminist critics have apparently objected to the relatively passive role that he attributes to the females. I have to say I found this a little far-fetched.

Sepkowski, like Parker, has tried conscientiously to exclude cultural influences from his work, and Ruse is hard put to it to find any. The best he can do is to quote a passage in which Sepkowsky suggests that mass extinctions may have been "good" for the biosphere because they allowed room for new kinds of biodiversity to emerge.

The question that Ruse deals with in this book is an important one at present, because one of the ways in which hostility to science expresses itself is by claiming that science does not offer any degree of objective knowledge. Ruse shows pretty clearly that, at least in the case of evolution, such claims are false; cultural values may be there to a greater or lesser degree, but this does not mean that we are not getting genuine knowledge from the work of scientists.

So, in the end, one can … talk of objectivity and subjectivity, reality or the nonreal … Good-quality science tells us about this former kind of reality. Poor-quality theories or discourses—pseudo- or quasi-sciences—do not. This is true whether you think there is ultimately a kind of human-independent reality or not.

Ruse writes well and expresses quite complex ideas clearly. He uses evolutionism as an example of science but do his conclusions apply to other branches of science too? In an epilogue says that he thinks they probably do.

See also Narratives of Human Evolution, by Misia Landau.

10 March 2011

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%T Mystery of Mysteries
%S Is Evolution a Social Construction?
%A Ruse, Michael
%I Harvard University Press
%C Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England
%D 2000
%G 0-674-46706-XISBN
%P 296pp
%K evolution, philosophy of science
%O illustrated

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