Monday, November 26, 2012

THE SECRET ORIGINS OF EVOLUTION

I recently finished a 1999 book by Michael Ruse, a "philosopher of science" and academic writer attached to the Florida State University: MYSTERY OF MYSTERIES, subtitled "Is Evolution a Social Construction?" 

The short answer is, not entirely.  In the course of about 250 easily accessible pages, MYSTERY grapples with the claim, advanced by certain "science critics," that science is entirely a projection of the social attitudes of its proponents.  Ruse, in surveying the life and work of several key figures in the development of evolutionary theory, traces the way that both "epistemic values" (those dealing with 'falsifiable' scientific data/theories) and "non-epistemic values" (those stemming from the role of culture in the lives of the scientists).  His first chapter provides a strong summation of the conflict through a contrast of Karl Popper, the representative of "science as objective knowledge," and Thomas Kuhn, the representative of "science as conditioned by socially significant paradigms."

I'll admit that while I don't have a problem with Ruse's "not entirely" verdict, I bought the book hoping that it would reveal the ways in which particular objectivist scientists had allowed their personal prejudices to influence their work.  Instead, I felt Ruse let a couple of them off the hook too easily, barely examining the controversies in which notorious blockhead Richard Dawkins embroiled himself.  And once I learned that Ruse himself had collaborated with Edward O. Wilson, I wasn't surprised that sociobiology wasn't examined in depth for its cultural constructions.  In contrast, though I don't doubt that at the time of the book's writing Steven Jay Gould had been marginalized in the world of evolutionary science, I felt that Ruse didn't spend nearly that much time on the reception received by Gould's frequent opponent Dawkins in professional circles.  

Nevertheless, I found it interesting that Gould's position as stated by Ruse has a strong resemblance to the philosophy of pluralism:

"...no one level (especially not the micro-level) is to be privileged... one cannot hope to explain away everything at the upper, bigger levels by expressing them in terms of the lower, smaller level."

I also appreciate Ruse's summary of the objectivist attitude re: cultural metaphors:

"The point which should be obvious to anyone (says the objectivist) is that, although metaphor is extremely widespread in human discourse, it is not essential.  It is in a sense-- an important theoretical and perhaps practical sense-- eliminable.  We all use metaphors, but they are in the last resort short-hand for literal language."


A page later Ruse refutes this by pointing out the value of metaphors as being "absolutely vital  for their 'positive heuristic' as they push one into new fields and new forms of thinking."  I agree with this in part, but it's unfortunate that Ruse-- who is arguing that science is in part a "social construction"-- does not decisively refute the "short-hand" definition of metaphor, sticking purely to metaphor's applications to science in a practical sense.  It might have proved challenging, at least in his conclusion, to have pointed out, as did Philip Wheelwright, that "literal language" was merely one form of language as such:

Wheelwright sees the two "strategeies" of language as not only complementary, but necessarily intertwined throughout history. "Steno-language" (the language of plain sense) is, he tells us, the "negative limit" of language in its more expansive form, "expressive" or "poeto-language."--  A PAGE RIGHT OF PREHISTORY.

I can appreciate Ruse's choice to hew to a narrow application of his theme, but he may have missed the boat on a greater theme, in which one might examine the role of "steno-language" in terms of scientific analysis, and of "poeto-language" in terms of cultural expression.  However, I'm not sure that anyone since Ernst Cassirer has approached these subjects in depth, so I may be expecting too much of Professor Ruse.



No comments: