Darwin’s Birthday

I missed it. The 200th was yesterday. But here goes anyway: Many Happy Returns of the Day, sir.

Our retirees’ book club – which bears the grand name, The Atheneum – will be discussing Darwinism next week. Club meetings are always a pleasant occasion. The wine flows. We allow digressions.

The book is Michael Ruse’s Mystery of Mysteries (1999), subtitled, is Evolution a Social Construction? Ruse is Professor of Philosophy and Zoology at the University of Guelph, now teaching at Florida State. He’s published many books, most of them on Darwin and Darwinism. I’ve read two, though not the one we will be discussing. (I hope to get along on the basis of general knowledge and reviews culled from the Internet. And perhaps a second glass of wine.) The Atheneum, all ten or so of us, includes mostly retirees from the science side of the campus. The topic – is science “independently real” or is it a social construct – should keep them going. What in their heart of hearts do they think they’ve been doing all these years? Uncovering nature’s secrets? Or expressing the fads, fancies, and preoccupations of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the language of physics, zoology, and geology?

We will not in all likelihood get into the subject of Ruse’s recent volume – which I have read, and am rereading, and which is entitled The Evolution-Creation Struggle (2005). Ruse is familiar with the arguments of the prominent advocates of the theory known as Intelligent Design. He’s been reading them for years. And in this volume he sums up his conclusions. In the clash between evolutionists and creationists, who wins?

His answer is a little surprising: Here he is in the concluding pages: “We have no simple clash between science and religion. but rather between two religions.  The outcome of the conflict is not obvious.”

He goes on: “Those of us who love science must do more than simply to restate our positions or criticize the opposition. We must understand our own assumptions, and equally find out why others have (often) legitimate concerns. This is not a plea for week-kneed compromise but a more informed and self-aware approach to the issues. First understanding and then some strategic moves. You now know why I wrote this book.”

1 Response to “Darwin’s Birthday”

  1. 1 Sandor Ajzenstat February 14, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    Is science independently real—my 2 cents worth.

    The physicists I’ve talked with tell me that physics doesn’t purport to figure out how the physical universe actually works. Rather, they tell me, it constructs models to explain, with ever greater accuracy, what the universe will do under various circumstances, but never precisely how it does this doing. Scientific modelling runs parallel to reality as a commentary runs parallel to a text, explaining reality in its own terms. Its intent is to be the most perfect reflection of real-world phenomena—the perfect explanation—but not the thing itself. Einstein spoke of the study of the physical universe metaphorically as the observing of a pocket watch. We can study the behaviour of the watch—the movement of its hands—and we can create a model to explain how the insides of the watch might function, but we can never actually look inside the watch.

    Even supposing a scientific model were to hit upon the actual explanation for how, there would be no way to know this had happened—no way to prove it.

    So, though the development of scientific models aims toward providing ever-clearer reflections of the independently real, it’s track runs along-side the real, a track we’ve created, in the realm of social construct.

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