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the Complete Review
the complete review - science/philosophy

Mystery of Mysteries

Michael Ruse

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To purchase Mystery of Mysteries

Title: Mystery of Mysteries
Author: Michael Ruse
Genre: Science
Written: 1999
Length: 256 pages
Availability: Mystery of Mysteries - US
Mystery of Mysteries - UK
Mystery of Mysteries - Canada
  • Is Evolution a Social Construction ?

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting questions, fairly well done -- though it does not dig quite deep enough

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Isis . 6/2000 Michael T. Ghiselin
National Review B 8/3/1999 Paul R. Gross
Natural History A 4/1999 John Tyler Bonner
New Scientist B- 18/9/1999 Ben Rudder
Partisan Review . (4/2000) Sanford Pinsker
Salon . 22/6/1999 Margaret Wertheim
Science . 14/5/1999 David L. Hull
Southern Human. Rev. . Summer/2000 James P. Hammersmith

  Review Consensus:

  Generally fairly positive, though no one is completely satisfied with the case Ruse makes.

  From the Reviews:
  • "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

  • "Although Ruse shows, in elegant vignettes, that the role of "epistemic values" in science has increased over the past two centuries, he has a harder time with "cultural values." To identify, as he does, belief in progress as a cultural value is already a stretch; to suggest as he does that such a belief actually affects the content of contemporary evolutionary biology is simply unjustified." - Paul R. Gross, National Review

  • "Ruse's focus on individual scientists fails to address the central claim of sociologists." - Ben Rudder, New Scientist

  • "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. (...) 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." - Sanford Pinsker, Partisan Review

  • "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." - Margaret Wertheim, Salon

  • "The readers of Ruse's spirited and ambitious book get to enjoy one more salvo in the science wars." - David L. Hull, Science

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Michael Ruse's book uses the evolution of the theory of evolution as a case study of sorts to consider the question whether science is subjective or objective, or, to put it another way, whether it is socially constructed or independently real. Basing his account very much on the people involved in shaping evolutionary theory, Ruse usefully also begins his book with two figures that cast their shadow over the philosophical debate: Karl Popper and Thomas S. Kuhn. The two are representative for the two sides to the debate, Popper the objectivist, Kuhn the subjectivist (leading to the now popular notion of social construction).
       Where the subjectivist sees science as determined by cultural values, the objectivist sees epistemic values (defined in Ruse's useful glossary as "those norms or rules that supposedly lead to objective knowledge") as the moving force. Ruse announces early on where he is headed:

My conclusion (...) will be that indeed both Popper and Kuhn were right about science. In a sense -- in the ever-greater exemplification and satisfaction of epistemic norms -- evolutionary science is object and aspires towards objectivity. But in another sense -- in the uneliminable and significant position of culture, including its values -- evolutionary science was and ever remains in the realm of the subjective.
       Ruse then devotes the next ten chapters to ten prominent figures who have contributed to the development of evolutionary theory. Erasmus and Charles Darwin, Julian Huxley, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Edward O. Wilson, Geoffrey Parker, and Jack Sepkowski and their work are carefully examined as Ruse considers which values -- epistemic or non-epistemic -- are more influential. If nothing else the book is a useful survey of the evolution of evolutionary theory. Fortunately Ruse also does a bit more than that.
       Ruse finds cultural influences particularly strong as evolutionary theory is first developed. Erasmus Darwin's theories -- presented in verse, no less -- are not taken very seriously and still framed within the cultural values of the time. Charles Darwin's contribution is a huge leap towards making evolution a mature science, but Ruse still finds non-epistemic values playing a large role. Religion is the most obvious of these, and Ruse finds that evolution became "a kind of secular religion." He finds that even after Charles Darwin's contributions "at all levels it (evolutionary science) is thoroughly impregnated with culture."
       The transition to a "science of the first order", with, for example, predictive value, comes in the 20th century. Here Ruse finds examples of scientists in whose work the cultural influence is less obvious. The trend, as he makes it appear, is towards a dominance of the epistemic, and the examples are fairly convincing (though Ruse admits his selection of scientists used as examples is somewhat arbitrary, and the possibility that they are perhaps not representative of evolutionary studies as a whole must be considered).
       All Ruse's examples are fairly interesting. The most controversial are the discussions of the popularizers Stephen Jay Gould and E. O. Wilson. Here Ruse is careful to separate their work done for an almost exclusively professional audience and their popular works. The popularizing paleontologist Gould is shown to imbue his popular works with cultural values, while his scientific contributions to evolutionary theory (particularly his claim for the idea about "punctuated equilibria") are held in low regard. "The average working evolutionist is no better off with Gould than without him," Ruse states.
       With E.O.Wilson, "whose cultural values and beliefs are so strong and so explicit," Ruse also separates out the popularizing (Wilson's train of thought leading to Consilience) from the academic and scientific (Wilson's biogeography, and much of his work on ants, for example). This makes Ruse's point somewhat clearer, but seems a dangerous oversimplification. Certainly, scientists like Wilson, Gould, Dawkins, and others, working on a wide variety of subjects, will find different areas of work differently influenced by cultural factors. The labour division among ants is perhaps more likely to be influenced by cultural outlook than genetic analysis of the ant. The truly interesting question, however, is that where the connections are not so obvious.
       Ruse seems to be looking in the wrong places when he speaks of the scientists' backgrounds. Ruse tells us of Wilson, born in America's South, that "childhood experiences left deep marks on the man." There was religion (Wilson was briefly born-again), the South's militarism (which Ruse sees "reflected in Wilson's work"), New Deal progress in the wake of the Depression, and racism. Significant, all, but Ruse only looks for the obvious connections, e.g. between militarism and his interpretation of ant behaviour. He does not try to explore exactly how militarism influenced Wilson and all the possible ways this may have affected him.
       Gould's secular Jewish youth as a baseball fan, son of a Marxist, is considered significant. With someone like Geoffrey Parker (in a chapter titled The Professional's Professional), the "son of a professional chemist and the younger brother of a physicist" Ruse is hard pressed to make connections. Parker is less in the public domain and public eye, writing almost exclusively for professional journals. "One should therefore not expect to find -- and one does not in fact find -- broad-scale nonepistemic values intruding in Parker's work," Ruse claims. Aside from the biased language (why are nonepistemic values per se considered intrusive ?) this statement is surely only true on superficial level. Here as elsewhere Ruse simply fails to dig deeper and see if there might not, in fact, be a host of nonepistemic values at play. (This is not to say that there are such values there, but Ruse does not even consider the possibility -- if it is in a professional journal, he seems to be saying, it is cut and dried and epistemic stuff, no questions asked.) Ruse does admit to some cultural values in Parker's writing -- as well as saying "it is cultural also in style" (Faulknerian, no less !) -- but these are only values of a very general sort. In a bizarre nod to popular culture he acknowledges that, since it relies on the Darwinian model as it is known in our culture, and on game theory, it is "theorizing that is as indebted to the late twentieth century as any novel that wins the Booker or Pulitzer Prize".
       Ultimately the most useful of the scientist-portraits is that of Jack Sepkoski. Here Ruse is most successful in explaining the actual work being done and, in conversation with Sepkoski, revealing the scientist's character and what moves him and his science. Unfortunately, Ruse is too willing to accept Sepkoski's statements at face value and again does not dig deeper into the possible connections between cultural values and scientific work.
       Ruse comes to his promised conclusion, in a useful chapter summing up the work. A fair position giving both "sides" some due, Ruse sees evolution evolving to the current level where epistemic norms are the norm (and "stand up through time and space"), always allowing for some cultural influence.
       Ruse has written an interesting book (and useful overview of much of the work that has been and is being done in evolution), but it is not entirely satisfactory. At the beginning he worried about asking the proper questions. He did, basically, ask the right question, but he seems to be looking for the answer, at least in part, in the wrong place. Social construction is a more complex beast than he suggests. Among the avenues that might have been more productive are a closer examination of questions such as:
  • Why the scientists originally took up the study of evolution.
  • What their thinking about evolution was before they entered the field.
  • What their general (and/or specific) world-view was before they entered the field.
  • How have specific cultures/societies/nations/classes gone about the study of evolution during the past century, and with what success.
  • Is the vanguard of evolutionary studies limited to a few locales and, if so, why and what are the consequences of this.
  • How did specific "discoveries" and insights re. evolutionary theory come about.
  • What alternate evolutionary theories (or rather alternate branches of evolutionary theory) have been proposed and failed over the past century, and why have they failed. (Failure is surely as illuminating about social construction as success is.)
  • What areas of evolutionary study are considered unproductive and why, which scientists are pursuing these areas and why. (And how have the answers to these questions varied over the course of the century.)
  • What areas of evolutionary study have previously been considered productive and why, and has this estimation held up.
  • How is work in evolutionary studies funded, and are there proposals that are more or less likely to be funded.
       Answers to these questions might, we feel, offer a better understanding of the cultural values and their effect on the study of evolution. Ruse addresses some of them, but not sufficiently in depth. In likelihood, there are also many more questions that need be asked.
       Nevertheless, Ruse's book is well-written and does offer a good deal of thought and some interesting conclusions. The book is certainly recommended to independent thinkers who realize that there is a bit more to the question. Or to scientists who like to believe that this is the way the world and their work should be seen.

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Mystery of Mysteries: Reviews: Michael Ruse: Other books by Michael Ruse under review: Other books about Evolution under review: Other books about Social Construction under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Richard Lewontin (profiled in Mystery of Mysteries) about gene, organism, and environment, in The Triple Helix

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About the Author:

       Michael Ruse was Professor of Philosophy and Zoology at the University of Guelph (Ontario) and currently teaches at Florida State University.

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© 1999-2021 the complete review

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