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Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology.

Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1996, cloth [pounds]33.50

In the Acknowledgments of Monad to Man, Michael Ruse thanks E. O. Wilson for having urged him 'at least once to write a really big book' (Ruse [1996], p. ix). He also thanks a number of readers of early versions of the book. At least two of those readers, historians of science, have since described it as controversial. Peter Bowler called it 'an important book on the status of evolutionism that will almost certainly become embroiled in controversy' (Bowler [1997], p. 274). On the slipcover of the book itself, Robert Richards is quoted as saying the book would 'instruct, excite, and infuriate ... [it] makes for compelling reading, even if at times you want to throw it across the room.' One is led to recall that E. O. Wilson's first 'really big book', Sociobiology: the New Synthesis, was associated with a degree of controversy. Monad to Man will be controversial not because of its implications for social and ethical issues, but because of what it says about the scientific study of evolutionary biology.

According to Ruse, evolutionary biology has virtually never in its history been regarded by scientists as an unequivocally professional scientific discipline. Even today most biologists regard evolution as on the fringe of the discipline of biology. Monad to Man attempts to explain why this is so. Ruse's thesis is that evolutionary biology has been associated with culturally biased concepts of progress throughout its history. The earliest modern concepts of evolution arose in the eighteenth century, concurrent with then-new ideas about social progress. From these early times onward evolutionary ideas were suffused with progressionism, ideas of biological progress that were extrapolated from ideas of social progress. The single complication was the growth of professionalism in science. Evolutionists who wanted to professionalize biology recognized (perhaps unconsciously) that progressionist ideas were at odds with the epistemological standards suitable to the best science. One solution to this dilemma was not to discuss evolution in professional scientific writings, but to make it the subject of popular writings. T. H. Huxley is identified (surprisingly) as the originator of this strategy. The alternative was to find a way to make evolutionary studies fit epistemic norms by making them independent of any talk of progress. This was difficult to accomplish. With the exception of W. F. R. Weldon, it was not accomplished until after the Modern Synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s. Even the architects of the Synthesis were strongly progressionist. Their advantage over predecessors was only that the achievements of population genetics conferred epistemic credentials on evolutionary studies that were independent of the progressionism of the theorists themselves. Ruse sees somewhat less progressionism in contemporary evolution theory, perhaps because concepts of progress are going out of fashion in the society at large.

What is so bad about concepts of progress in evolution? To some extent, this question is irrelevant to Ruse's thesis. Professional biologists seem to have believed that progressionism is out of place in scientific discussions, and that's what really matters, But there are methodological reasons to be suspicious of progressionist doctrines in a scientific context. Judgements of global progress are nonnative judgements, and so cannot be derived from scientific observation. Even if directional change is observed, the progressiveness of that direction is not a part of the observation. Normative judgements about social progress are less controversial (in this context, anyhow) because they are openly based on normative judgements about human values. Ruse tries to show that beliefs about evolutionary progress have been metaphorical extensions of these normative social judgements. The book examines a large number of individual scientists, and asks three questions about each. First, do a scientist's ideas about biological progress correspond to what one would expect if the scientist were influenced by ideas about social progress? Second, was that scientist conscious of the relation between the two kinds of progress, the correspondence between social progress and natural history? Third, to what extent did the biological views 'outstrip the evidence'? The larger the gap between evidence and theory, the more likely it is that the scientist was carried across that gap by social biases.

Readers may be surprised that Michael Ruse is arguing for a strong social influence on the conduct of science. We are accustomed to hearing these ideas from some sociologists and historians of science, and other thinkers with a social-constructivist bent. Even though Ruse has written a good deal of history, he is an analytic philosopher, perhaps even a logical empiricist (as Hull [1997] suggests). Does this book mark a change of heart? Not in the slightest. Ruse's treatment of underdetermination, the outstripping of evidence by theory, shows his commitment to quite standard empiricist views of science. Unlike social constructivists and others, Ruse thinks that 'the evidence' for a theoretical view is fairly easy to identify and to discriminate from non-evidentiary causes of belief. Many non-constructivists also consider the idea of an evidentiary gap to be too simple for an understanding of scientific reasoning. Ampliative epistemological virtues such as consistency with a successful research program can be involved in a scientist's theoretical commitments. These can be non-relativist and epistemologically robust, partially filling the evidentiary gap. In this book Ruse discusses only the gaps. He assesses the sizes of these gaps with assurance, even when discussing theories that were embedded in cultures and intellectual traditions very different from our own.

One source of likely controversy (perhaps the one alluded to by the historians quoted above) is Ruse's confidence that he can spot the virtues and shortcomings of historical scientific views. Scholars who specialize in particular historical or theoretical areas will have plenty to examine in this long narrative. For my part, I found Ruse's treatment of morphological evolutionary traditions to be less satisfactory than his treatment of adaptive, Darwinian traditions. The progressionism attributed to evolutionists of morphological leanings is identified as deriving from Naturphilosophie. It is true that the Naturphilosophs' interests in morphology are similar to later biologists', but their particular version of progressionism does not have so many obvious successors. Ruse sometimes attributes this 'German notion' of progress to morphologically inclined biologists when there is little direct evidence of progressionism at all. He identifies Richard Owen as a social progressionist solely on the grounds that Owen was influenced by Naturphilosophs who themselves were social progressionists (p. 125). Even Stephen Jay Gould, otherwise non-progressionist in biology, is suggested to be influenced by the Germanic notion of progress (p. 506). Admittedly, my worry that Ruse sees Naturphilosophs in the woodwork is limited in its scope. He does give us direct illustrations of the progressionism of some evolutionary morphologists. And anyhow the issue is more relevant to the nineteenth- than the twentieth-century discussions, back when morphological approaches to evolution were more prominent.

A second and related source of controversy will be the standards and techniques that are used to identify progressionist beliefs and influences. It is tempting to read Monad to Man as a sort of longitudinal demographic study of the correlations between beliefs in evolution and progress. The large number of chronologically arranged subjects together with the three-question approach at first give this impression. But Ruse's actual treatment of his subjects is anything but a checklist. The subjects are treated differently according to what information is available about them, and how they fit into the overall narrative. The criteria by which social or scientific progressionism is judged vary somewhat from case to case. Ruse admits that it's hard to find data regarding views about progress for some authors, even though he is obviously trying very hard. He willingly and openly engages in speculation and sometimes even psychoanalysis (e.g. the suggestion that J. B. S. Haldane was afflicted with self-hatred, p. 319). As a demographer, he's a washout. Even for so large a book, the historical range is huge - over two centuries, right up to today's debates. With this range, one wonders whether a slightly different sample would have given the same results. So any bias that the reader might perceive in the treatment of particular individuals must be multiplied by the possibility that the chosen sample of individuals has itself been biased, even if unconsciously.

In addition, Ruse shows little interest in historiography. Compared to the more cautious and closely documented works of recent history of science, Monad to Man can seem undisciplined. An interesting comparison is V. B. Smokovitis [1996]. Smokovitis covers many of the same twentieth-century scientific developments as Ruse, with some complementary insights and perspectives. Smokovitis shows almost an obsessive concern with historiography and how histories of science ought to be written and interpreted, with entire chapters devoted to how other chapters of the book should be interpreted. Ruse gets historical methodology out of the way in two pages. His method is to find the answers to the three questions listed above, and to tell us what those answers are.

Ruse's writing style is bluff, unselfconscious, and opinionated. He frequently reports what 'one senses' about the case at hand. His descriptions of disapproved ideas carry more than a tinge of sarcasm. The summary of Herbert Spencer's personality is utterly hilarious (p. 187), although it may have given a Spencer scholar (e.g. Robert Richards) the urge to throw the book across the room. Far from being a demographer, Ruse is scarcely a neutral observer. It is easier to read his case studies as illustrations of his historical thesis than as close documentary proof of its singular correctness. Read as sheer documentation, one is continually wary of both the choices of scientists and the variety of criteria for what counts as progressionism. Read more as a narrative, other virtues appear.

Ruse's freewheeling style does detract from the appearance of neutrality. But it adds immeasurably to the literary value of the book. Monad to Man combines the sweeping history of the science of evolution with intricate details about individual scientists' researches, prejudices, and personal lives. Ruse has no identifiable doctrine about how personality, economic interests, personal peccadilloes, and epistemic standards should be dealt with in writing history of science. They are fitted in where they seem relevant. The result is a richly textured narrative. Because these scientists' personal views on progress are so closely connected to their actual research, the narrative gives us personal perspectives on a very large number of scientists. The portraits of well known figures are often surprising. T. H. Huxley appears not as a firebrand evolutionist, but as a staid professional morphologist who enforced barriers between professional (non-evolutionary) and popular (evolutionary) science. J. B. S. Haldane is seen as limited in his scientific imagination and personal skills. E. S. Goodrich, now remembered chiefly as a morphologist, seems to have been the first to recognize the prospect of a synthesis between Darwinian and Mendelian thought (a synthesis which would, ironically, remove morphology from the centre stage of evolutionary theory). Besides these revisions of popular images of scientists, we are offered dozens of new portraits - scientists of whom we previously had no personal image at all unless we read their individual biographies. These portraits are combined with substantial accounts of scientific views. In some cases we are led through intriguing and instructive accounts of theoretical disputes. A wonderful example is a section on the evolution of sex, with comparisons of the theoretical and personal views of George C. Williams, John Maynard Smith, and William D. Hamilton (pp. 470-84).

Once one comes to terms with it, Ruse's opinionated style ceases to be a problem. Nothing is hidden, so it is easy to make allowances. When Ruse 'senses' something, he informs the reader that he is 'sensing' it. Another example of his openness comes from the many personal interviews which give much of the basis for his reports on modern biologists' views of progress. When reading reports of the interviews, one gradually gets the feeling that Ruse was pumping the interviewees for opinions about progress, and that the opinions they come up with under this pressure might not be particularly important to their scientific work. Just at this point Ruse reports an interview in which Niles Eldredge responded to incessant questions about progress by blurting out in frustration 'I just don't care! I really don't care!' (p. 506). A more guarded author might not have reported that revealing exchange, and maintained the fiction that his subjects were eager to talk about progress.

Besides a great many personal interviews with modern scientists, the book is based on primary and secondary historical writings, and very extensive readings in personal archives. These especially add to the personal portraits of the scientists. The narrative constantly moves between scientific, personal, and social details. Some personal details are less relevant than others, of course. But they add to the pleasure of the read. I, for one, am very glad to have learned that General George Patton once tried and failed to get G. G. Simpson to shave his beard.

It is instructive simply to think through the many examples of progressionism which Ruse uncovers. Many sound perfectly objective on first reading. The earliest land amphibians really were clumsy, weren't they? No, not by any description licensed by Darwinian biology. Such an assessment requires a comparison to modern organisms, which were no part of the environment of the first land amphibians (p. 292). But if this sort of comparison is ruled out for evolutionary studies, why is Ruse so willing to pass judgement on the evidentiary gaps in past scientific theories? Presumably because science is progressive (to Ruse) while evolution cannot be proven to be.

After an immersion in Monad to Man with its displays of the varieties of progressionism, one's sensitivity to the phenomenon is sharpened. Progressionism and a sort of human chauvinism can easily be seen in the claim that dinosaurs would have evolved into humanoid forms if they had not gone extinct (p. 528). But similar kinds of claims are not rare in modern evolutionary discussion. Consider the explanation that is often given for surprisingly deep and widespread homologies, such as the well known homologies in tetrapod skulls that derive from embryonic gill arches, or the newly discovered molecular homologies in the homeobox gene systems among all metazoa. These highly conserved structures are explained as consequences of 'efficiency' or 'economy' during the course of evolution. It is said to be 'less expensive' to evolve vertebrate skulls from the common system of vertebrate embryogenesis 'than to break it up and produce unbalanced genotypes' (Mayr [1982], p. 476). Again, 'The amazing conservation of the [homeobox] complexes throughout evolution suggests that once an efficient way of specifying the anterioposterior axis was found, it was easier to produce new body shapes by modifying that system than to develop entirely new strategies' (de Robertis et al. [1990], p. 52). At first glance these explanations seem innocuous, even truisms. But notice the underlying progressionist assumption. It is that tetrapod skulls and metazoa with anterioposterior axes were going to evolve anyway, whether gill arches and homeoboxes were available for use or not. But is there really any reason to believe that tetrapods would even have evolved if the gill-arch system had not been as malleable as it has proven to be? Not to my knowledge. The homeobox system appears in all metazoa. The assumption that evolution would have found another, different way to build metazoa, and that the homeobox was just one handy option, is progressionist in the extreme. To say that evolution chose the more economical or efficient path to these goals is to assume that evolution has goals, and that tetrapods and metazoa were among them. Without the progressionist assumption, the homeobox system might be seen as a necessary condition for the very existence of metazoa, and the gill arch system as a necessary condition for the existence of vertebrates. The view that intelligent, humanoid bipeds are inevitable is indeed progressionist. So is the view that metazoa or tetrapods are inevitable outcomes. Each assumes that evolution was going our way anyhow. The only question was which path it would take.

Ruse has certainly established that the ideas of evolution and progress have been closely linked. His thesis that the profession of biology has been shaped by scientists' embarrassment about this linkage will be the focus of further debate. In the meantime he has given us a rich and compelling narrative of the personalities and ideas that shaped the history of evolutionary biology. This is true even if, like Niles Eldredge, you just don't care about biological progress.


Bowler, P. J. [1997]: 'Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology' (book review), American Scientist, 85, pp. 274-5.

De Robertis, E. M., Oliver, G., and Wright, C. V. E. [1990]: 'Homeobox Genes and the Vertebrate Body Plan', Scientific American, 263, July, pp. 46-52.

Hull, D. L. [1997]: 'Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology' (book review), Nature, 385, pp. 497-8.

Mayr, E. [1982]: The Growth of Biological Thought, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Ruse, M. [1996]: Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Smokovitis, V. B. [1996]: Unifying Biology: The Evolutionary Synthesis and Modern Biology, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.
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Author:Amundson, Ron
Publication:The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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