Cutting edge

August 31, 2001

Writing a book not only helped one philosopher to believe he could die happy, it also helped him to answer a fundamental question about the nature of science.

Fifteen years ago I decided to write a really big book on evolution. I did not want to lie on my deathbed, having piddled away my life on reviews and short pieces. I did not want to go out, unfulfilled, muttering the immortal words of Marlon Brando: "I could have been a contender."

I set out to write a massive history of the idea of progress in evolutionary thought. But not just a history. I am a professional philosopher, I wanted to contribute to the loud and noisy debate about the nature of science. Is it an objective reflection of disinterested reality? Or is it a social construction, an epiphenomenon on the culture of the day?

I wanted to see how progress played out through time and see if I could throw light on this debate. I had a hypothesis. I knew that early evolutionists were ardent progressionists. I knew that you would not get much progress if you gleaned the pages of today's journals. It would seem that the objectivists are right: as science matures, ideology gets thrown out and the truth prevails. But I was one step ahead. Perhaps it is not that the ideology goes but that it changes. What intellectual today - after Hitler, the bomb and global warming - could believe in progress? Perhaps contemporary journals tell us nothing about progress because no one today believes in the idea. Perhaps some other value inspires evolutionists instead.

My research led me to spend three weeks in archives in Philadelphia looking at the papers of the palaeontologist George Gaylord Simpson (1902-84). Simpson was a progressionist who had written books on the topic. Yet he had written other books where there was no hint of progress. He was truly on the cusp of my study, a key transitional figure. More practically, he was a man who kept absolutely everything - drafts, manuscripts, letters, the lot. So there had to be a smoking gun somewhere if I looked long and hard. And I certainly found stuff on progress, not much but some. Unfortunately, most of the really interesting stuff - the really interesting, totally irrelevant stuff from which I had to keep tearing my greedy eyes - was about the politics of science: Simpson putting the boot into those he did not like, Simpson writing strong recommendations for grants for his buddies, Simpson whining about the molecular biologists who were getting the plums in university posts, and so forth. Great gossip but not serious.

I came back home to Canada and I settled down to work. Then it hit me. Never again would I pretend that the facts do not matter and that it is all culture and ideology. Of course, all of that irrelevant stuff was what really mattered. Simpson, a deeply ambitious man who was working in a rather insecure branch of science, was trying desperately (and I think mainly successfully) to upgrade his science. He wanted respect as an evolutionist. He wanted grants and professorships and students and the like. He realised that ardent progressionist though he was, if he kept dragging his beliefs through his science, he was lost. Even though he thought that evolution was ideological and cultural, the culture of successful science demanded that he suppress this. So he wrote two sets of books. One was serious to the point of tedium, all about evolution and not a hint of progress. This was the set that graduate students had to read. Then there was a second, nigh identical to the first set, but clearly labelled "for the general reader", and a couple of additional chapters at the end where Simpson let it all hang out about progress, man and the American way. In other words, he was having his cake and eating it.

The objectivists were wrong: ideology does count and the simple facts are not all-determining. The constructivists were wrong: ideology does not rule the day nor does it stay forever embedded in science. The true answer is a complex intertwining of fact, culture, and the social structure of science itself. And I saw this before anyone else. Scholarship does not come any better than this. I may not be Muhammad Ali but I shall die happy.

Michael Ruse is professor of philosophy at Florida State University and author of Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology (Harvard University Press, 1996). He will deliver two of the Gifford Lectures, on Monday 3 and Thursday 6 September, at the BA Festival of Science in Glasgow.

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