The Evolution of Evolution

By Bonner, John Tyler | Natural History, April 1999 | Go to article overview

The Evolution of Evolution


Bonner, John Tyler, Natural History


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 varietieswas 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. …

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