cover image Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction?

Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction?

Michael Ruse. Harvard University Press, $28.5 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-674-46706-4

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.)