Review Of Michael Ruse’s Mysteries Of Mysteries – Is Evolution A Social Construction?

Review of Michael Ruse’s “Mysteries of Mysteries – Is Evolution a Social Construction?”
bob mccue
July 26, 2005

A friend asked some time ago that I write a review of Michael Ruse’s (“Michael”) book “Mysteries of Mysteries – Is Evolution a Social Construction?” (“Mystery”) and post it to a science list on which we both participate. Here is it for those here who are interested in this kind of thing.

I should first confess my biases. I am a realist. However, I am acutely aware of the human tendency toward feeling certain of our conclusions, and how the influence of our dominant social group pervades our perceptions of reality. Hence, while I believe there is a reality “out there”, I am circumspect regarding our ability to pin it down. I am also a pragmatist. We make decisions moment by moment mostly on the basis of an amazingly efficient set of heuristics (see for example, We are also subject to powerful biases, many of them related to the group influence just noted. So, I think it important to keep the idea that I don’t know for sure what is real. This is my best bet to keep myself as free from things like the confirmation bias (see and authority bias and other group based influences over my perceptions as possible, while trying to collect as much information as possible about what is “real” and make my decisions on that basis using probability theory. Michael is also a realist with pragmatist leanings (from what I could tell) similar to my own. Not surprisingly, I both liked his book and found it helpful.

For the same reasons as I set out my biases so that those who read this will understand where they may wish to discount me, I did a little background reading regarding Michael so that I might have an idea of his biases before reading Mystery. See: for an example of what I found. It is a review of another of Michael’s books titled “Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?: The Relationship between Science and Religion” in which Michael attempts to rationalize what sounds from the above review like an unusual form of Christian belief with a form of evolutionary theory. While I have not read that book, I doubt that Michael and I would agree in this area. I tend to side with people like Joseph Campbell and Karen Armstrong in believing that most literalist religious beliefs do more harm than good, while accepting that most religious beliefs when taken metaphorically can be useful. However, this is the kind of thing I will look forward to chatting with Michael about at Star. I tend to learn the most from those well-informed folk with whom I disagree.

In any event, my perspective is likely to be different with regard to Mystery than that of many who read here. This is because my scientific senses are still at a relatively immature level, and my knowledge of the history of science is in a similar state.

Finally, I should confess that I have not finished the book. I have about 50 pages left, and while traveling this weekend left the book in a hotel. It will arrive back in time for my trip to Star Island, but not in time to finish this review, so I will send this off without the benefit of reading Michael’s conclusion. I will be interested to see how it squares with what I have inferred so far.

Michael’s stated objective is to analyze the scientific and social content of the work done by the leading evolutionary theorists from the beginning of evolutionary theory up to date of publication, which was 1999. He does this by defining what he means by scientific content. This included things like consistency, predictive quality, ability to open new research paradigms, etc. I found this analytical framework helpful.

Michael then moved on to show how social values tend to creep into scientific thought. In that regard, he sketched the background of the realism v. social constructionism by summarizing Sokal’s Hoax, and then Karl Popper’s and Thomas Kuhn’s theories and tying them into some interesting personal background. Because of its brevity, this summary is inadequate to give a sense of the complexity of the issues covered. I am not critical of Michael in this regard. One can only do so in the set up of a 320-page book. The best single book I have read regarding the epistemic background against which Michael writes is Peter Godfrey-Smith’s “Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science”. And this only hits the high points of a bogglingly complex part of epistemology. For someone at my stage of understanding, the analysis Michael supplies of evolutionary theory and its history becomes much more useful when set against the theoretical background of Godfrey Smith’s book or something like it than it would be on its own.

For example, I found Godfrey-Smith’s analysis of Bayesian probability theory as a backdrop to Popperian analysis particularly useful. Popper is a realist who posited that we are progressing toward a better understanding of reality through the collective scientific enterprise. Bayesian probability theory supports this notion. However, Godfrey-Smith does a good job of showing how the foundations of probability theory must be assumed or inferred to be correct, and that this analysis can be shown to be circular. This reminded me of the reading I have done relative to Godel’s incompleteness theorems (see Rebecca Goldstein, “Incompleteness” for example. She has an interesting interview up at When we get down to the basics tenets of even math, we find that the bottom of the pool is elusive. And yet by continuously expanding the range things we can use to predict future states, on the basis primarily of Bayesian probabilities applied to empirical data, we continue to create technologies that bring more of what we perceive to be reality under our control. At bottom, despite our inability to ever put a pin in where we are through the use of probability theory or anything else, this approach seems to come closest to justifying the Popperian view.

At the same time, it seems clear that there are surprising shifts in “paradigm” that from time to time occur within the scientific community. These are consistent with the less probable future outcomes predicted by Bayesian theory prior to existence of the evidence on the basis of which a paradigm shift occurs. Hence, in my view, probability theory works to synthesize at least some of Kuhn’s views with a kind of Popperian analysis.

Michael proceeds to focus on biological evolution, and to review the theories related to it that have been put forward by a variety of scientific luminaries starting with Eramus Darwin (Charles’ grandfather), moving up through people like Steve Gould, Dick Lewontin and E.O. Wilson, and concluding with contemporary scientists like Geoff Parker. He added interesting background information with regard to each scientist, and used that to allege a correlation between his scientific work and social context. In each case, I learned something about the history of science and saw how difficult it was in many cases to tease apart scientific theory and personal biases.

Michael’s analysis of values that were imbedded in science, and “metavalues” (values about how science works) was for me particularly useful. For example, he showed how Julian Huxley’s Victorian progressionism was imbedded in his science. And on the other hand, he showed how other more recent scientists had similar values, but did not allow them to enter the scientific equation in the same way as did Huxley, and how this resulted in a basically different epistemic paradigm. And I note as an aside how interested I was in Michael’s discussion of the Victorian “progress” paradigm and how it influenced the development of evolutionary theory as a social construct. Mormonism (my inherited belief system) formed in a Victorian environment around the time Eramus and Charles Darwin did their thinking, and the idea of the “eternal progress” of each human being is central to Mormon theology. While I was aware of how progress oriented the Victorian era was, for some reason I had not put 2 + 2 together on this point until reading Michael’s summary of the period and how it influenced (and still influences to a degree) evolutionary thought. Here is an online summary of certain aspects of this idea that I add primarily for my own purposes -

Another crucial distinction Michael made that I found helpful was between the content of the “professional” and “popular” publishing of the various scientists whose work he reviewed. He attempted to demonstrate that some were much better than others at sticking to science when writing professionally and restricting their value-laden views to popular publications. And, the pattern to which Michael clearly pointed was that as time has passed, the leading popularizers of science have become increasingly better at doing science at the highest professional levels and restricting their culture laden views to literature that does not purport to meet professional scientific standards. I will return to this concept below. It is one that left what may be my most lasting impression of Mystery.

The value laden views that Michael attributed to various scientists often amounted to just so stories of marginal scientific value, some of which now look quite foolish, that Michael felt he could trace to cultural influences. I do not know enough scientific history to critique the connection Michael posited between Lewontin’s Jewishness, Wilson’s WASP Southernness, etc. and how those influences may have affected their science. But right or wrong, by presenting his analysis as he did, Michael showed how it is reasonable to conclude that it is very difficult for any of us to be completely objective, try as we might, and how engrained our biases are likely to be in our worldview. This was for me the interesting part of the analysis – how intertwined the cultural and the scientific could become.

While Michael did not focus on this point, one of the messages that came through to me (which Godfrey-Smith did emphasize) is that the best way to deal with the objectivity issue is to use as many perspectives as possible so that our biases are likely to set each other off. I am reading Phillip Ball’s “Critical Mass” at the moment as I wait for Mystery to return by mail. The role of the law of large numbers in social contexts is the main theme of that book. I don’t think Ball addresses the issue of scientific epistemology per se, but I can see how what he says about some other things would apply in this regard.

Since reading Mystery, I have round myself more sensitive to social constructs in the views expressed by others regarding science as well as in my own thought. I consider this to be a step forward, and yet another reason to be more humble about what I think I “know”. We all seem to need regular reminders of our bounded our perceptions of reality are, and Michael provided that nicely in my case.

Those who favour Kuhnian thinking may not find Mystery as helpful as I did. For example, Margaret Wertheim writing for Salon has this to say:

“In the end Ruse wants to have his cake and eat it, too: He sees evolutionary theory as essentially objective, but with an overlay of metaphorical subjectivity. Not everyone will feel satisfied with this resolution, but it is a heartening testimony to our times that this avowed champion of Sokal is at least prepared to acknowledge that the other side is not entirely wrong.”

As noted above, it is my view that probability theory at least partly reconciles the Popperian and Kuhnian (at least the soft Kuhnian) perspectives. Some of Kuhn’s more difficult to understand and/or radical, relativist ideas and those of the entire radical side of the postmodern school are, in my view, silly enough to simply dismiss. Their important point was that we should be prepared to be wrong, and that it is useful to “deconstruct” our social contexts in an effort to immunize ourselves against powerful group influences. As the postmodernists pass into a paralyzing relativism, they become a kind of dangerous nonsense that I do not take seriously. I like what Susan Haack has to say about what might be called the “silly side” of postmodern scholarship. See and for example.

And I note that arguably one climbs to near the pinnacle of irony to watch religious scholars of any ilk attempt to “deconstruct” the “metanarratives” of things like history and science in defense of their dogmatic religious beliefs, while turning back flips to justify not using the same tools to question the premises of their belief system. This is all the more fun if the beliefs in question include the idea that their group alone has a corner on truth. This has all been the case within the Mormon academic community.

Michael’s focus on some of the most prominent popularizers of science, and his indication of their relative standing in the scientific community, made me think of something else that has been on my mind for a while. That is, why are some scientists willing to go over the line into “culture laden” issues that are not subject to the same strict epistemic norms as is professional scientific work, while most are not? And what kind of role will society tend to permit the scientists to play who take it upon themselves to create culture? Since these ideas are also relevant here, I will discuss them briefly in the context of Mystery.

I recently found some thought provoking material related to these issues in a PhD thesis written at Cornell by, of all people, Greg Graffin, the lead singer of the punk rock group “Bad Religion”. Graffin is a bona fide biologist – anthropologist and did some useful work for his thesis in the form of a series of interviews with some of the greatest living biologists about their belief (or lack thereof) in god, and how those beliefs can be reconciled to the theory of evolution. He was following up on earlier studies that are reviewed in “How We Believe” by Shermer. Those studies found that a surprising large percentage of scientists believe in a god of some kind. However, the more respected the scientist, the less likely such a belief as to be found. Graffin refined and updated the study by focusing on biologists (including geneticists), making the survey questionnaire more comprehensive, and (as already noted) by conducting detailed interviews with about a dozen of the most respected of the group. The interviews are published in full in an appendix to the thesis and were the most interesting part. This work was done in 2004. See

During his interviews Graffin invited his subjects to speculate as to how evolutionary theory might become a kind of religion or analogous social force. I was surprised at how dead to this issue most of his interviewees seemed. They seemed not so much to be reluctant to step out of the strict rules of scientific enquiry, as unaware that this might be a possibility. Michael’s review of the history of evolutionary theory was enlightening to me in that regard. The way in which people like Lewontin and Wilson, for example, have gone at each other and the furor other scientists who have stepped into the cultural ring have created should be expected to warn all but the most adventuresome scientists.

This made me start to think about why the few scientists who are willing to speak in terms of values are received with so much enthusiasm in some quarters and rancor in others. And indeed, why the public should pay any more attention to scientists once they stray outside their professional field than to anyone else who has demonstrated expertise in any field of human endeavour. Graffin’s interviews demonstrated that those scientists who had a belief in god often backed this up with naïve views. That is, once the basis for their belief was disclosed, it was not more compelling than the basis for belief that someone like Tom Cruise might express. Michael shed more light on this issue by chronicling the manner in which the religious beliefs of a number of prominent scientists influenced their work.

The point Michael helped to bring into focus for me is that scientists are not per se any more worth listening to with regard to religion, values or cultural issues than anyone else, unless questions about which they speak fall within the professional expertise of the scientist in question. And we know that by their nature, sociology, anthropology etc. do not admit of the kind of epistemic rigor as does biology of physics. So, why are the views of biologists, physicists etc. given the credence they are with regard to these matters? Think of Einstein and Feynman, for example. Or more recently, Dawkins.

In my view, science has become a kind of de facto religion or mythology. And so prominent scientists are those whom an increasing percentage of the population in most of the developed world (except perhaps in the US) trust to describe the most important aspects of reality. This trust, however, is based on the professional side of science that Michael was careful to distinguish from the very kind of popular scientific writing that tends to be culture laden. I do not believe that many people (like me) who are powerfully influenced by the writings of respected scientists realize the extent to which our respect for the professional scientific enterprise as a whole may cause us to tend to accept the values of science popularizers based on just so stories that they themselves would never put forward for serious scientific consideration in professional journals.

So, people like Dawkins are not necessarily leading scientists. The role of the popularizer is a specialized niche that requires a certain amount of scientific credibility but more than that, an entertainer’s flair. Michael Shermer fits this bill, while being perhaps a little short on the respect of his academic peers. He does, however, put on a great show, writes easy to read books and has a flair self-promotion. This is perhaps why Lewontin savaged Pinker in Graffin’s thesis. Pinker, according to Lewontin, is a [expletive] upstart shooting his mouth off about all kinds of [expletive] stuff that he knows [expletive] nothing about. But, Pinker writes gripping books, also has a flair for self-promotion and exhibits Wilson’s tendency to extrapolate theories ahead of data. Lewontin is much more conservative in his epistemic approach, and it rankles him to see popular “science” writing that falls far below what he considers to be science’s minimum epistemic standards.

The paradox just noted will likely be what I chew on for the longest as a result of reading Mystery.

So, where does that leave us in terms of scientists who are inclined to create culture and posit values and by definition must be culture laden?

For my part, I am happy to accept scientists who incline toward the spiritual or value aspect of life as my high priests. I will not follow and obey them, but rather accept the basic epistemic paradigms of science as I listen to as many voices as I can while trying to learn to hear my own, or perhaps allowing my own to emerge from what I hear as it resonates with my biology and history. So, I will encourage those scientifically oriented within my small sphere of influence to speak out about what they value, and why. Michael sensitized me, however, to the line between professional and popular science and the just so, non-scientific concepts that are often unwitting passed off and accepted as science in the popular press. When we are making a value choice that is culture laden, we should address that issue instead of bowing to what we think is the best available science on some point.

I also wondered how long it will be before we see a greater integration between some of our science popularizers and our culture’s best story tellers. Think of Joseph Campbell’s long collaboration with George Lucas. Or how about The Matrix and what it attempted to do with regard to certain basic philosophy concepts. It is only a matter of time before we see science being pitched in this fashion. I think that this could be a wonderful thing, and expect also that the promoter of the ID project (for example) will realize an opportunity to push their agenda through this means.

I am now out of stream. To provide some additional context for Mystery, I have attached links and text below of several online reviews.

Best regards,


Published in University of Toronto Quarterly – Volume 70 Number 1, Winter 2000/01- Letters in Canada.

To see more articles and book reviews from this and other journals visit UTPJOURNALS online at

Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction?

Michael Ruse.Harvard University Press. xii, 298. $42.50

Reviewed in University of Toronto Quarterly by JAMES ROBERT BROWN

This extremely readable and interesting book is about the nature of science. Do scientists give us a disinterested and objective account of the world? Or do they somehow concoct theories which perhaps serve their interests and reflect their subjective values? Michael Ruse says a bit of each, but he mainly sides with the angels of objectivity. And he is surely right to do so.

The real trick is showing how subjective values interact with the objective pursuit of knowledge. This Ruse does astutely through the device of individual case studies. Key figures in the history of evolutionary biology are given individual chapters in which their personal biographies and scientific views are discussed in an integrated way. Naturally, Darwin and Huxley are here, but so are a large number of moderns including Dawkins, Gould, Lewontin, and Wilson. As well as the ten individual biologists covered (the others are Erasmus Darwin, Julian Huxley, Dobzhansky, Parker, and Sepkoski), there is a beginning chapter on the philosophy of science (Kuhn vs Popper) and a final chapter on metaphors and metavalues.

Stephen Jay Gould, to pick one of Ruse’s examples, is well known as a popularizer of the biological sciences; indeed, he is one of the great essayists of our times. Gould is also well known for his theory of punctuated equilibria. This is (depending on whom you hear it from) a genuine rival to Darwinian evolution or a mere supplement to it. Gould claims that there are significant rapid changes in the history of species often brought about by major environmental change (think of comets and dinosaurs) or by having part of a population cut off from the rest (known as the founder principle). Instead of Darwinian gradualism, Gould sees short periods of rapid change followed by long periods of stasis. What has this to do with values? According to Ruse, plenty. For one thing, Gould is interested in upgrading his own cherished discipline of paleontology. Instead of taking their marching orders from geneticists, the fossil folks can lead the way. Second, Gould has a Marxist background, and punctuated equilibria fit in nicely with a picture of history highlighted by revolutions. Third, the Darwinian gradualism which he opposes is tied to the so-called adaptationist program of sociobiology, a theory which tries to account for all human characteristics and behaviours in biologically adaptive terms. Gould, perhaps because of his Jewishness and his socialism, sees human differences as more the result of culture and environment than of nature.

These, according to Ruse, are the kinds of values that can play a role in the thinking of a scientist. But do they determine scientific outcomes? Did they determine the outcome for Gould? There is a classic distinction philosophers make between `discovery’ (having an idea in the first place) and `justification’ (having objective evidence for accepting it). In a pinch we could say that Gould’s values contributed to the former, but played no role in the latter. Ruse notes that the scientific community has paid scant attention to punctuated equilibria. So he concludes that Gould’s values did not contribute to the course of evolutionary thinking.

By contrast, the values of E.O. Wilson (who had a southern Baptist and military background which led to strong views about sex roles) have found their highly influential way into sociobiology. Ruse, however, sharply separates the `real’ science from `popularizations’ and claims that Wilson allows his various values only into the popular realm. When it comes to real science, traditional epistemic values such as prediction, explanatory scope, and so on carry the day for Wilson and for the scientific community at large.

Ruse’s principal conclusion is that science is largely an objective enterprise. Scientists are rife with subjective values and these values play a role in motivating scientific work. They also play a role in popularizations. But in real science objective epistemic values come to the fore. Messy though it is, science is an objective process.

Like all of Ruse’s earlier books, this one is a pleasure to peruse. (Thanks to a lack of support for our universities, Canada is losing many of its top academics. Wouldn’t it be a pity of we were to lose our best philosopher-historian of biology?) Charmingly irreverent and opinionated, gracefully witty and informative, Mystery of Mysteries is a great read, for professional and public alike.

The Social Construction Blues

Sanford Pinsker

The Social Construction of What?
By Ian Hacking.
Harvard University Press.

Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction?
By Michael Ruse.
Harvard University Press.

Let me begin with a confession: I am one of those old-fashioned sorts who associates the scientific method with scrupulously objective observation, the rigorous testing of hypotheses, and explanations of the natural world that are as precise (and, yes, true) as they are often poetic. No doubt my admiration for scientists who engage in the slow, demanding work of laboratory experimentation springs from a sense (confirmed by a wide range of teachers) that I possessed a world-class math block, and that I would not likely push the scientific envelope one smidgen. Add the unhappy fact that I happen to be a diabetic and you can easily see how it is that I cheer, positively cheer, any researcher hard at work on a cure for what ails me.

I take a measure of solace, however, in reminding myself that many combatants in the science wars know even less about hands-on science than I do. Small wonder, then, that genuine scientists, the ones who work with Bunsen burners and chalk up on the blackboards, often regard the culture studies crowd with such contempt. That’s where I may have something of an advantage because the same attacks now being mounted on scientific authority are old hat to those of us in literary studies who watched our discipline become systematically destabilized. Bashing Shakespeare, either as Exhibit A in the hegemony of dead, white, European writers or, more recently, as an apologist of empire, became a way to ask, again and again, questions beginning with whose: Whose greatness? Whose excellence? And most important of all, whose interest is being served? Dressed up in the impenetrable language that may well be postmodernism’s defining feature, the agendas of identity politics rolled over those who talked about novels and poems (rather than “texts”) and who believed, on aesthetic grounds, that some books were better than others. Such innocents often found themselves contemptuously dismissed as under-theorized, or worse.

As someone who has suffered these slings, these arrows, I know full well how cultural warfare works–and also how a spongy term such as “social construction” can easily be applied to everything from authorship to Zulu nationalism. That’s why Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What? is such a gratifying book. It covers a wide range of clashes about everything from how best to treat mental illness, child abuse, or anorexia, to the current research being done in sedimentary geology–and always with an eye on the specific “what” in question. My hunch is that Hacking has little patience with much that currently travels under the wide umbrella of social construction (“both obscure and overused,” he snorts), but also that he recognizes useful thinking when he sees it:

Social construction has in many contexts been a truly liberating idea, but that which on first hearing has liberated some has made all too many others smug, comfortable, and trendy in ways that have become merely orthodox. The phrase has become a code. If you use it favorably, you deem yourself rather radical. If you trash the phrase, you declare that you are rational, reasonable, and respectable.

Given the vitriol on both sides of the science wars, Hacking serves a valuable function by explaining, in language as clear as it is smart, what noncombatants in the science wars need to know. Here, for example, is what he has to say about socially constructed anorexia:

Unfortunately, social construction analyses do not always liberate. Take anorexia, the disorder of adolescent girls and young women who seem to value being thin above all else. They simply will not eat. Although anorexia has been known in the past, and even the name is a couple of hundred years old, it surfaced in the modern world in the early 1960s. The young women who are seriously affected [their exact numbers are currently a subject of hot debate] resist treatment. Any number of fashionable and often horrible cures have been tried, and none works reliably. In any intuitive understanding of “social construction,” anorexia must in part be some sort of social construction. It is at any rate a transient mental illness, flourishing only in some places at some times. But that does not help the girls and young women who are suffering. Social construction theses are liberating chiefly for those who are on the way to being liberated–mothers whose consciousness has already been raised, for example.

Since Peter L. Berber and Thomas Luck Mann published the first study to use “social construction” in its title (The Social Construction of Reality, 1966), we have been awash with imitators. Most of them concentrate on the “how it is” that our consciousness has been changed, and always, we are told, for the good. By contrast, the what that so interests Hacking hardly matters. Even fundamental physics is not immune in an age when some argue that scientific results, like everything else, are social constructs rather than discoveries about our world that hold independently of society.

We think of this fundamental debate separating social constructivists from objectively grounded scientists as yet another aggravating feature of postmodernism, but in fact it is quite old. In 1898, long before the term “social construction” was coined, Edwin J. Goodwin, an Indiana legislator, proposed a bill that would make ¹ = 3.2–and furthermore, that people using his “New Mathematical Truth” be required to cough up royalties. The scheme, part of other misguided efforts at the time to “square the circle,” was eventually defeated. But it’s not hard to imagine other, equally daffy efforts to have a social tail wag the scientific dog. Who, after all, would be surprised if a contemporary version of Goodwin proposed that ¹ get rounded off to 3.0 rather than its more cumbersome 3.14 °? My imaginary politician might argue that, with enough votes, the natural order could be changed–and in ways that would certainly please the lazier students of his state.

Unfortunately, there would be other, unforeseen consequences as well. Many more scientifically minded folk were quick to point out that nobody would want to stand near buildings designed by an architect who used a 3.0 ¹ (or a 3.2 one, for that matter) in his calculations–and this is especially true for structures sporting domed roofs. Unfortunately, the sort of fuzzy thinking that once turned charlatans into objects of derision is now taken very seriously indeed.

Flash forward to Alan D. Sokal’s wickedly delicious 1996 parody of theory-heavy science. His essay was a torpedo below the water line, a deadpanned way of holding pretentious lingo and vacuous ideas up to ridicule. It demonstrated, as no “straight” account ever could, just how much nonsense was passing itself off as cutting-edge thought. Sokal’s jawbreaking title, “Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” should have been enough to tip off the editors of Social Text, but given their preference for airy postmodernist theorizing, it is hardly surprising that they accepted his tangled arguments about the social construction of gravity. Peel away phrases such as “privileged epistemological status” or “oppositional discourse,” and copious footnotes to the likes of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, or Luce Irigaray, and what one discovers is that gravity has a strong social component. Indeed, what Sokal proposes (with tongue lodged firmly in his cheek) is that gravity can operate quite differently in New York City than it does in San Francisco–depending, of course, on how the respective citizens decided this matter at the ballot box.

Sokal, you will remember, brought his 1996 hoax to the attention of Lingua Franca, a journal that enjoys nothing more than a juicy academic scoop, and the rest, as they say, is history. The wire services jumped on the story and in short order Social Text became a national laughingstock. Not even the intellectually playful Stanley Fish was able to provide effective damage control–although he made a pinch-faced effort in a New York Times op-ed piece that scolded Sokal for “bad faith” and other crimes against the scientific community. But Fish’s sophistry didn’t wash–not for scientists pursuing the truth about how our world works, and certainly not for those who had long regarded postmodernist theorists as self-proclaimed emperors parading around without clothes.

I mention the much-aired Sokal hoax not only because Ian Hacking and Michael Ruse give it significant attention in their respective books but also because the flap itself sets the framework for what might be called “Social Construction: Round II.” For Hacking, what matters most in the talk, pro and con, about social construction is the what at the immediate issue. Is it facts or gender, quarks or reality? Is it a person, an object, or an idea? Ruse puts it a slightly different way when he proposes that we may have been asking the wrong questions all along, and that, rightly seen, what we have is a situation in which both camps can mount strong arguments:

Our ultimate concern [Ruse argues] is surely with the issue of realism. Does an objective “real world” exist “out there” that can be known through the methods of science, or is science a subjective construction corresponding to shifting contingencies of culture and history, with nothing “real” beneath it? Are the epistemic norms of science guaranteed to lead us to a knowledge of this world, and if so why? Or are the epistemic norms also simply part of culture in the end, on a par with the metaphors of science? I worry about these questions [which Ruse obviously feels are the right ones], and now candor forces me to admit that–on the evidence we have–one could reasonably argue for either realism or nonrealism!

That is, one can make a case for Karl Popper who believes that there is indeed a “real world” out there. We may never know it exactly, but (in Ruse’s words) “‘truth’ is the correspondence of our ideas with this world, and the aim and method of science is to approach such truth, if only asymptotically”; or one can make an equally compelling case for Thomas Kuhn who believes that “there is no reality other than that seen through and created by the paradigm.” His fair-mindedness (if that is what Ruse’s waffling comes to) reminds me of the Yiddish joke about the rabbi who listens to a couple seeking a divorce. The husband begins first, outlining his grievances (she is a lousy cook, a sloppy housekeeper, etc.). The rabbi gazes thoughtfully at the ceiling and proclaims, “You’re right!” He then goes on to hear what the maligned wife has to say (her husband is a lazy bum, and beats her to boot), and after giving the ceiling another look, announces: “You’re right!” “But rabbi,” a witness interjects, “how can they both be right?” Stroking his beard, the rabbi sidesteps the contradiction with this playful retort: “Nu, so you’re also right!”

If Hacking takes up the pros and cons of socially constructing damn near everything, Ruse at least has the advantage of focusing squarely on evolution. Mystery of Mysteries not only follows the twists and turns of the long debate about evolution, but it also provides lively portraits of the major participants. Here, for example, is a snippet from the section devoted to Charles Darwin:

Start with religion. . . .The young Darwin moved from Christianity to deism, and evolution was for him, as for his grandfather, a confirmation of his religious position rather than an anomaly. This was the philosophy of the Origin: “Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual.” Later in life, particularly under the influence of Huxley, Darwin’s beliefs faded into agnosticism. Even then, however, he did not go through the Origin systematically removing references to God.

Ruse provides equally compelling (and balanced) portraits of contemporaries such as Stephen Jay Gould and Edward O. Wilson. The result is a study that charts the progress of thinking about evolution and that shows how what was once a debate became a bitter dispute. Here it might be helpful to think of evolution as a kaleidoscope. Turn the cylinder one way and its shapes arrange themselves into one pattern; give it a quarter twist and you end up with something else, equally plausible so far as Ruse is concerned. My hunch is that Hacking would feel much the same way–that is, if we substituted one social construction of x for another.

Both Hacking and Ruse provide insider information delivered from a vantage point well above the fray that the science wars have produced. My hunch is that those on either side of the aisle will be unhappy with at least some of their observations–that is not only to be expected, but applauded. The consequences of science are simply too important for scientists and nonscientists alike to settle for tunnel vision, half-truths, and gobbledygook.

Has feminism changed science?

Has Feminism Changed Science?
By Londa L. Schiebinger
Harvard University Press, 256 pages

Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction?
By Michael Ruse, Harvard University Press, 320 pages

– – – – – – – – – – – –
By Margaret Wertheim

June 22, 1999 | In classic biology textbooks, the story of conception resembles nothing so much as a true-romance novel, in which the bodice-ripping formula of Barbara Cartland et al. is transposed into a cellular-level melodrama starring the virile “active sperm” and the demure “passive egg.”

“In these sagas of conception,” writes science historian Londa Schiebinger, “the spermatic hero actively pursues the egg, surviving the hostile environment of the vagina and defeating his many rivals.” Like Sleeping Beauty, the egg drifts unconsciously in the fallopian tube, waiting to be awakened by the valiant, vital sperm. It is an archetypal story of female passivity enlivened by male energy — a story as old as Aristotle, and as replete with patronizing overtones.

Since the late 1970s, however, a new generation of biologists has begun to peek behind this suspect veil and, using fresh analyses, to reveal quite a different story, one summed up by the title of a seminal paper, “The Energetic Egg.” In this new account the egg, no longer a slumbering princess, becomes an active agent, directing the growth of microvilli (small finger-like projections on its surface) to capture and tether the sperm. Here the egg and sperm are partners, co-activators in the process of conception.


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What is particularly noteworthy is that while the egg’s cone of microvilli was discovered in the 1890s, it was not thought worthy of serious scientific attention until 80 years later — a time when women’s roles in society were themselves being reconceived.

But before we cheer too loudly for this liberation of a core biological function from the rhetorical trappings of millennia-old sexism, it is worth stopping to reflect that the new tale itself is rife with gendered cultural overtones. As Schiebinger notes, in this new account the egg and sperm have come to resemble nothing so much as the high-powered dual-career couple of the ’80s and ’90s.
Like the contemporary corporate woman, the new “energetic egg” is valued precisely because it is now seen to be more like its male counterpart. Like the business exec with her power suit, the new egg has been “masculinized.” And just as the female exec risks accusations of aggressiveness, so too the new egg is all-too-easily seen as a “femme fatale, threatening to capture and victimize sperm.” The point is that while the new story may have stripped away the old sexist overtones, the egg and sperm remain gendered, essentially reflecting the pattern of current social arrangements between men and women.

This saga of transformation in one of our premier biological narratives raises a question that has become central to the current discussion about science: Can science ever be free of cultural influences? To put it another way: Can science ever be purely objective, an inquiry into the unsullied “truth” about the “real” world, or will it always be prey to the vagaries of subjective experience?

This is the question that resides at the heart of the so-called “science wars” that have rocked the academy for the past several years, and which show little sign of abating. On the one side are the objectivists (sometimes called realists), who believe that science is an ever-progressing ascent toward an ultimate picture of the-world-as-it-really-is. On the other hand are the subjectivists (sometimes known as relativists), who believe, to varying degrees, that science will always carry the stamp of the culture from which it springs. For this camp, prevailing views about gender, race, class and the like inexorably influence scientific theories, so that we can never (even in principle) see the world as it really is. To this camp, that very notion is a fiction that must be abandoned.

Many, though by no means all, scientists fall into the first camp — Stephen Jay Gould is an eminent exception. Likewise, many, though not all, historians, philosophers and science-studies scholars fall into the second camp.

The question of whether science can ever be culture-free is also at the heart of a number of new books. One of the best is Schiebinger’s provocatively titled “Has Feminism Changed Science?” If science is, as the objectivists claim, a culture-free activity, then the answer must be no. But as the changing narrative of the egg reveals, it is not so easy to strip away the cultural subtext from our scientific theories.

The science wars have been simmering for the past decade, but in 1996 they moved from sort of a cold war standoff phase into active engagement. The catalyst was the publication by a little-known physicist named Alan Sokal of an article in the cultural studies journal Social Text. In his now infamous piece Sokal purported to present a postmodern critique of physics in which, using lashings of trendy French philosophy and deliberately nonsensical postmodern jargon, he suggested that quantum mechanics could be seen to support the view that all knowledge is culturally relative. Immediately after the piece came out he gleefully exposed it as a hoax designed to show that cultural studies types know naught about science and ought to lay off pronouncements on the subject.

Whether one regards this as a brilliant exposé or as a petty frat-boy prank, the fallout has driven a deep wedge between the community of scientists and the community of science-studies scholars (those who study how science fits into the social, cultural and historical landscape.)

One way of looking at this divide is suggested by Canadian philosopher Michael Ruse in his new book, “Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction?” Ruse divides the two camps, roughly speaking, into the Popperians (following the Austrian philosopher of science Karl Popper), and the Kuhnians (following the American philosopher of science Thomas S. Kuhn). For Popper, science was a progressive activity, getting us ever nearer to a true picture of reality. Although Popper acknowledged that we could never find ultimate truth, he insisted on an objective view of science as an exploration of the world as it really is.

Kuhn, in his 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” famously declared that all science proceeds according to “paradigms” — mental constructs or theoretical frameworks which inevitably change as our society changes. For Kuhn, science is not an ascent towards any God’s-eye view, and the science of one age must be considered no better or worse than the science of any other.

Kuhn’s book sparked its own revolution, not in science but in science studies, and it became a flash point for even more revolutionary views of science, which have culminated in the radically relativist views that Sokal and the objectivists so deplore.

The two extremes in the debate may be characterized as follows: For radical objectivists, nature is the only voice, with human culture playing no role. For radical relativists, nature has no voice of its own, and all scientific knowledge is the production of humans. In reality, most people fall somewhere in between. Even Einstein, that arch-realist, recognized that we can only know nature through the prism of our theories — we can never see it naked, as it were. Glad news it is, then, to see Ruse and Schiebinger trying to find a middle ground.

Both Ruse and Schiebinger approach the question — and both books are indeed framed as questions — from the vantage point of a particular case study. For Ruse the case study is the theory of evolution, and the ways that ideas about evolution have themselves evolved over the past two centuries. For Schiebinger the case study is feminism, and the way that both female practitioners of science, and feminist theories about science, have affected (or not) various scientific disciplines — from cell biology to primatology, archeology, medicine, mathematics and physics.

Feminist science scholars, it must be noted, make up one of the key groups to have claimed science as a culture-laden activity. As such, they are seen by objectivists as a key battalion of the enemy. In the post-Sokal era, Schiebinger is aware of the need for caution, and she approaches her subject with the hyperalert acuity of a lion tamer encountering a large, wild cat. The big surprise for many objectivists will be that Schiebinger lays to rest to the notion that women in and of themselves change the nature of science simply by becoming scientists. The culture of science is not rooted in the chromosomes of its practitioners, she assures us — a conclusion all objectivists should applaud.

But if women do not necessarily do science differently, the historical record suggests that feminist perspectives have indeed made an impact on both the culture and content of science. The saga of the egg is just one example Schiebinger gives in which women’s involvement in a field has opened up new lines of inquiry that have led to significant new discoveries. Another case in point is primatology. For more than a century primatologists, who were almost exclusively male, focused almost exclusively on male primates. Once a new generation of primatologists — again beginning in the 1970s, and who by then included women — started to pay attention to the females of the species, they found that previous views were clearly distorted. Other cases can be found in genetics, archeology and medicine.

Some of the female scientists who made these discoveries were avowed feminists, but many were not. Yet, as Schiebinger shows, it is no coincidence that so many of these insights came to the fore at a time when women’s own role in society was changing, and when the very nature of “femininity” and “womanhood” was so much a subject of debate. In short, you do not have to be a feminist to be influenced by feminist cultural movements.


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One example of this trend that has struck me forcefully over the past few years is the way in which the whole question of embodiment has become a hot topic in fields like artificial intelligence and cognitive science. After decades during which intelligence was seen to be a purely mental phenomenon, suddenly there is talk of it being ineluctably rooted in the physical reality of a body. Most of the current scientists and philosophers making this claim are men who would not (I am sure) identify themselves as feminists; nonetheless, feminist philosophers have been making just this claim for decades.

We are all a part of a cultural matrix, which, even if unconsciously, affects the way we think. As Schiebinger puts it “We cannot free ourselves of cultural influence; we cannot think or act outside a culture. Language shapes even as it articulates thought.”

Reluctant though he seems to be to admit this, Michael Ruse comes to a similar, if more guarded conclusion regarding evolution. Tracing the evolution of evolutionary theory through a half-dozen of its major proponents — from Charles Darwin to contemporary practitioners such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould and E.O. Wilson — Ruse reveals how their views of evolution were influenced both by the culture of their time and by their own upbringings.

Wilson, for example, perhaps as a legacy of his Southern Baptist childhood, is still essentially looking for some kind of fundamental truth. As he acknowledges in his own recent book, “Consilience,” at university he traded in his religion for science. Given the indelible traces of each man’s culture on his scientific theories, Ruse frankly admits, “I see the influence of culture on scientific ideas as something that is here to stay.”

That said, Ruse also wants to claim victory — and for him it is the most significant victory — for objectivism. The course of history has shown, he says, that although in the beginning evolutionary theory was almost purely a cultural construction, over the past two centuries it has been increasingly cleansed of such intrusions. While individual practitioners may still reveal the hallmarks of their culture, particularly in their use of metaphors to describe their ideas to non-scientists, in the final analysis the theory has been born out by objective, empirical validation.

In the end Ruse wants to have his cake and eat it, too: He sees evolutionary theory as essentially objective, but with an overlay of metaphorical subjectivity. Not everyone will feel satisfied with this resolution, but it is a heartening testimony to our times that this avowed champion of Sokal is at least prepared to acknowledge that the other side is not entirely wrong. | June 22, 1999

Mystery Of Mysteries: Is Evolution A Social Construction? – Review
Natural History, April, 1999 by John Tyler Bonner

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MYSTERY OF MYSTERIES: IS EVOLUTION A SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION? by Michael Ruse. Harvard University Press; $27.50; 320 pp.; illus.

After centuries of biological theorizing, have we yet formulated an objective science of life?

I started this book with some uncertainty because, unlike the author, Michael Ruse, I am neither a philosopher nor a historian; I am a laboratory biologist. But we do overlap in our common interest in evolution. He is a professor at the University of Guelph in Canada, and in his latest book he 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.

Is evolution a subject that has always been treated with total objectivity, or has it always been affected by philosophical and cultural attitudes prevalent at various times? If the latter is true, what has that influence been? At the risk of ruining the plot, let me say that in the author’s view, the study of evolution has become less influenced by culture over time, moving increasingly toward an objective “science” in its purest form.

Ruse begins his journey at the end of the eighteenth century with the physician, poet, and naturalist Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather. Here was a man of strong appetites (for food and for the ladies) who believed there had been a transmutation of species–that is, an evolution of living organisms–but who looked upon the matter as a given and, therefore, not in need of carefully assembled evidence. Despite his new ideas, he was “thoroughly culturally laden,” as Ruse points out. Indeed, his treatise on transmutation, The Temple of Nature, is written in verse.

Ruse is especially good on the far more complex position of Charles Darwin, who, not satisfied with merely describing the fact of evolution, sought its causes in the mechanism of natural selection. Surrounded by a church-influenced culture during the time he was breaking new ground for a more objective science of biology, Darwin was understandably cautious about publishing his ideas. Ruse also argues that artificial selection–the careful breeding of domestic animals and plants to produce new and different varieties–was a well-established practice in Darwin’s time and helped to shape his views.

From here, Ruse takes the leap into this century, selecting eight scientists who have been influential in the study of evolutionary biology and who represent some of the schools of thought over the decades. The first is zoologist Thomas H. Huxley’s grandson Julian Huxley, who did some solid work in embryology, behavior, and evolution but is most widely known for his popular writings. I remember Huxley coming to Princeton a number of times to lecture, and he packed the house. Huxley’s objectivity, Ruse suggests, was compromised by his belief in the idea of progress–and especially in the “improvement” of mankind–which led to his regrettable enthusiasm for the mystic evolutionism of Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Like Huxley, Theodosius Dobzhansky made many of his scientific contributions during the second quarter of the twentieth century. Dobzhansky was a Ukrainian American geneticist who emigrated to the United States in 1927 to begin his career in Thomas Hunt Morgan’s famous “fly room” at Columbia University–the laboratory that gave birth to modern genetics. Dobzhansky then went on to do some of the foundation work connecting genetics to evolution. What intrigues Ruse is that Dobzhansky, a deeply religious man, succeeded in keeping his personal convictions separate from his professional science.

After Dobzhansky come a pair of biologists whose reputations were built as they popularized evolutionary science during the 1970s. Richard Dawkins, an Oxford University zoologist, had instant success with the 1976 publication of The Selfish Gene, in which he argues that Darwinian natural selection acts primarily on the genes. Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard paleontologist who has been a columnist for Natural History since 1974, argues here and in numerous books that evolution acts on a hierarchy of levels, including whole organisms and groups of organisms. Dawkins and Gould are both brilliant writers, and their spirited debates have enlivened the subject of evolution for us all.

Next come two Harvard professors who played important roles in the 1970s and 1980s. Work by Richard C. Lewontin, a star student of Dobzhansky’s, is an interesting mixture of groundbreaking population genetics and Marxist politics. Edward O. Wilson, an entomologist specializing in ants and founder of the field of sociobiology, combines solid science and voluminous popular writings.

Finally, Ruse discusses two scientists who are currently in midcareer: the English sociobiologist Geoffrey Parker, of the University of Liverpool, and the American paleontologist J. John Sepkoski Jr., of the University of Chicago. Parker is known for his research on the reproductive strategies of dung flies, upon which he has based important mathematical models of evolutionary strategies; Sepkoski applies mathematical models to interpreting trends in the fossil record.

From Erasmus Darwin onward, there has been a steady decrease in the influence of culture on the way we do science, and an increase in objectivity. “However socially or culturally convenient one may find the science,” Ruse concludes, “if it does not succeed in the fiery pit of experience, it can and should be rejected.” 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, emeritus professor of biology at Princeton University, is the author of a number of books, including Life Cycles: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist (Princeton University Press, 1995).

COPYRIGHT 1999 American Museum of Natural History
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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