Category Archives: books

review of Good Faith Collaboration

Joseph Reagle‘s Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia is a major step forward for understanding “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” and the community that has been building it for the past decade. Based on Reagle’s dissertation, the book takes a broadly humanistic approach to exploring what makes the Wikipedia community tick, combining elements of anthropology, sociology, history, and science & technology studies.

The book opens with an example of how Wikipedia works that turns the famous “Godwin’s law” on its head: unlike the typical Internet discussion where heated argument gives way to accusations of Nazism, Wikipedians are shown rationally and respectfully discussing actual neo-Nazis who have taken an unhealthy interest in Wikipedia. This theme of “laws” carries throughout the book, which treats the official and unofficial norms of Wikipedia while turning repeatedly to the humorous and often ironic “laws of Wikipedia” that contributors have compiled as they tried to come to an understanding of their own community.

Reagle’s first task is to put Wikipedia into historical context. It is only the most recent in a long line of attempts to create a universal encyclopedia. And what Reagle shows, much better than prior, more elementary pre-histories of Wikipedia, is just how much Wikipedia has in common–in terms of aspiration and ideology–with earlier efforts. The “encyclopedic impulse” has run strong in eccentrics dating back centuries. But the real forerunners of Wikipedia come from the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Paul Otlet’s “Universal Bibliographic Repertory” and H.G. Wells’ “World Brain”. Both projects aspired to revolutionize how knowledge was organized and transmitted, with implications far beyond mere education. Just as the Wikimedia Foundation’s mission statement implies–“Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge…”–Otlet and Wells saw Utopian potential in their projects. Those efforts were based on new technologies–index cards and microfilm–and each new wave of information technology since then has inspired another attempt at a universal knowledge resource: Project Xanadu, Project Gutenburg, Interpedia, Distributed Encyclopedia, Nupedia, GNUpedia. Wikipedia, Reagle argues, is the inheritor of that tradition.

Next, Reagle sets out to capture the social norms that the Wikipedia community uses as the basis for its communication and collaboration practices. These will be very familiar to Wikipedians, but Reagle does a nice job of explaining the concepts of “neutral point of view” and the call to “assume good faith” when working with other editors, and how these two norms (and related ones) underlay Wikipedia’s collaborative culture. Of course, Reagle readily recognizes that these norms have limits, and one doesn’t have to go far into Wikipedia’s discussion pages to find examples where they break down. But understanding the aspirations of the community in terms of these norms is the first step to an overall picture of how and why Wikipedia works (and, at times, doesn’t work).

Reagle then turns to consider the “openness” of Wikipedia, which is an example of what he calls an “open content community”. Wikipedia’s effort to be the “encyclopedia that anyone can edit” means that inclusiveness creates a continual set of tensions–between productive and unproductive contributors, between autonomy and bureaucracy, between transparency and tendency of minorities to form protected enclaves.

Decisionmaking and leadership on Wikipedia are even bigger challenges than openness. In successive chapters, Reagle examines the concept of “consensus” as practiced by the Wikipedia community and the role that founders Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger played in setting the early course of the project.

The ideal of consensus was inherited from earlier open technical communities like the Internet Engineering Task Force, whose credo declares “We reject: kings, presidents and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code.” But that ideal doesn’t map precisely onto Wikipedia, in part because the “running code” of Wikipedia content isn’t as easy to evaluate as a computer program. Reagle also draws in intriguing comparison between Wikipedia’s still-unsettled notions of consensus and the practices of a more mature consensus-based community: the Quakers. Wikipedia lacks some of the roles and traditions that support decision-making in Quaker groups, and one implication of Reagle’s discussion is that Wikipedians might be able to learn a lot about effective consensus-based governance from the Quakers.

The lasting imprint of Wikipedia’s founders, the “good cop” Wales and the “bad cop” Sanger, has been treated a number of times before. But Reagle’s is the clearest account yet of how the tension between their different ideas for how to structure a voluntary encyclopedia project played out. Especially in the early years of Wikipedia, Wales’ role was primarily focused on maintaining a healthy community and balancing the perspectives of community members, highlighting good ideas and attempting to build consensus rather than promoting his own specific ideas. Even from early on, though, Wales’ role as “benevolent dictator” (or “God-King”, in the negative formulation) was a source of tension. Reagle notes that this tension is a recurring feature in open content communities; even the half-joking titles given to Wales are part of a broader tradition that traces to early online communities.

From my perspective as a Wikipedian–already familiar with norms and much of the short history of Wikipedia–the most powerful part of the book is the discussion of “encyclopedic anxiety”. Reagle argues that reference works have long provoked reactions from broader society that say more about general social unease than the specific virtues and faults of the reference work at hand. Wikipedia is a synecdoche for the changes taking place in information technology and the media landscape, and has served as a reference point for a wide gamut of social critics exploring the faults and virtues of 21st century online culture. That is not to say criticism of Wikipedia is always, or even usually, off-base. But what critics latch onto, and what they don’t, involves the interplay of the reality of Wikipedia and its role as a simultaneous exemplar for many social currents and trends.

Good Faith Collaboration is an enjoyable read, erudite but well-written and straightforward. It will be required reading for anyone serious about understanding Wikipedia.

*disclaimer: I consider Joseph Reagle a friend, and he thanks me in the preface. I read and commented on early versions of parts of the book. At the time of writing this review (October 2010) I also work for the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit that runs Wikipedia. But neither of those factors would stop me from being harsh if I thought the book deserved it. The review represents my personal opinion.

Where Good Ideas Come From

I just finished Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.  It’s great read; I went straight through in one sitting, en-route to San Francisco.

At the start, Johnson sketches out his ambitions for a “natural history of innovation” by looking at three different kinds of environments that have been extremely conducive to innovation: coral reefs and their enormous biodiversity; cities and the rich cultural and subcultural diversity they generate; and the Internet, the key generative platform that underlies so many of the most celebrated innovations of recent years.  Patterns of innovation are fractal, he says, with recurring features to be found for ecological and macroevolutionary innovation, microevolutionary innovation, the physiology of innovation (that is, the neuroscience of how ideas come about), habits and lifestyles that foster innovation, innovation-friendly work environments, and social and political structures that promote widespread innovation.  So Johnson takes a “long zoom” approach, using examples from every level of zoom–but primarily, the stories of particular scientific and technological developments–to identify seven patterns that are part of innovative environments.

Johnson also makes clear at the outset his overall conclusion, which will be familiar to anyone involved with the free culture movement: “we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.”

The seven chapters on Johnson’s seven innovation concepts are fun and interesting.  I won’t go into detail; I’ll just say that each of them—the adjacent possible, liquid networks, the slow hunch, serendipity, error (as a goad to try new things), exaptation, and platforms (upon which further innovation can be built)—is a useful tool for thinking about innovation.  Johnson doesn’t convince me that this is any sort of natural or complete set of concepts for understanding innovative environments, but I don’t think he really tries to (despite the definitive subtitle: The Natural History of Innovation).  Others attempting a similar analysis of innovation would no doubt frame it in terms of different concepts.  Nevertheless, Johnson’s chosen concepts are satisfying and he puts them to good use.

It’s the concluding chapter that leaves me frustrated.  Here, Johnson tries to generalize about innovative environments using a framework from Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks.  He plots four “quadrants” where innovation might take place: market-focused individual environments (the entrepreneur inventor working alone), market-focused network environments (the group of firms or individual entrepreneurs sharing ideas and collaborating), non-market individual environments (the amateur inventor, the cloistered academic), and non-market network environments (the academic community, amateur open-source projects).  He categorizes two hundred “good ideas” (with no defined criteria for how they were selected) according to these four quadrants, and concludes that markets (with their intellectual property regimes that produce artificial scarcity for ideas) are not the ideal drivers of innovation they are often characterized as.

I agree with the conclusion itself, but I don’t think Benkler’s framework is a particularly useful way to categorize innovation here.  As Johnson notes, ideas happen at the level of individuals (with an enormous role, of course, for their environments).  A market/non-market dichotomy obscures the more fundamental issue of the motivation of individual innovators.  Taking an historical view, the political economy of science and technology has shifted dramatically from the Renaissance (where Johnson begins his catalog of innovations) through the Enlightenment and the Industrial Era into the century of Big Science.  Simply plotting the major innovations coming from each quadrant doesn’t account for the changing number of people trying to innovate in different types of environments.  And even within a given environment (say, the patronage scene in 17th century Italy, an Eastman Kodak R&D lab in the mid-twentieth century, or an academic molecular biology lab in the 1990s), the mix of market and non-market motivations for a given researcher doesn’t sort out neatly according to private sector vs. public sector.

Conspicuously absent from the bibliography is Steven Shapin’s brilliant The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation, which has shaped a lot of my thinking about environments for innovation and the relationship between markets and professional research.  I’d love to see a discussion between Shapin and Johnson; their ideas, in Johnson’s words, “want to connect, fuse, recombine.”

How far we have to go

c20080213_words_log_w_iconsThis chart comes from a post by Terry Hancock at Free Software Magazine, “Impossible thing #2: Comprehensive free knowledge repositories like Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg“. It’s hard to come to grips with the scale of Wikipedia, which is growing faster than anyone could keep up with reading 24/7. But any well-stocked university library has two, sometimes three, orders of magnitude more content than English Wikipedia; the aggregate collection of library material is tens of thousands of times larger the Wikipedia. Of course, many books have overlapping content and encyclopedia articles will rarely go into as much detail as books on the same topic.

But most writing that was worth printing in the first place has something of relevance for Wikipedia.

BibliOdyssey on Commons

Peacay of the amazing BibliOdyssey blog has joined Wikimedia Commons (after a bit of encouragement from me). BibliOdyssey, which focuses on scans of printed art, is quite an amazing blog; it serves as a continual reminder of just how big the web is, and how little of it the typical person ever sees. Hundreds of libraries and archives are digitizing thousands of fantastic images, and Peacay trawls through the wide web and finds the best of them.

Unfortunately (as I understand it), although most of the original versions of what Peacay showcases are public domain, the copyright status of most of the images are in that murky space between free and unfree. The United States is fortunate (or maybe unfortunate if you are a world class library) to have Bridgeman v. Corel (for now, at least), but in most countries, a “sweat of the brow” doctrine means that whoever scans the pages of a rare book can claim copyright on the scans, even if the original is public domain. Even in the United States, it is typical for libraries to assert copyright control over scans of public domain material they own (e.g., as the University of Oklahoma does on its wonderful, growing collection of history of science images). Of course, no one on the web pays much attention to such claims (whether they have legal force or not), but for many of the images on Commons, a re-user trying to publish nominally free images in the traditional publishing world will still have to go through the usual trials and tribulations to secure permissions.

Anyhow, check out the great image sets Peacay has uploaded so far, and hopefully we’ll see more in the future.

Human identity and science fiction

I’ve been working through Octavia Butler‘s Xenogenesis trilogy (a.k.a., Lilith’s Brood) in preparation for qualifiers. Butler, who died a year ago today, was an African American novelist who was the first science fiction author to win a MacArthur Fellowship. Her early work focuses heavily on the themes of race and gender (among others). With the Xenogenesis series, began in 1987, Butler makes human identity in general the central issue. A species of alien genetic engineers attempts to save the human species in the wake of a nuclear holocaust, but their means of doing so, genetic hybridization and improvement, destabilizes the meaning humanity. Characters argue about what it is to be human and what price should be paid for survival.

It’s interesting to read Butler against ST:TNG, which also premiered in 1987. Unlike the original Star Trek, which juxtaposed a utopian post-racist, post-sexist, post-nationalist humanity in the persons of Uhura and Chekov against the Klingon other who could stand in for blacks or Commies in turn, Next Generation took a more complex view of “human” nature. Humans and aliens, despite outward appearances, are usually treated as biological and social (if not political) equals; the species barriers are more cultural than biological. (The most interesting exception is the Ferengi, whose roles can be interpreted in a number of ways ranging from blatant anti-Semitism to an attack on misogyny and materialism to, in their DS9 iterations, a critique of the Trekkian leftist utopia itself.) In general, biology is secondary; humanity can be extended for all practical purposes to Klingons, Romulans, maybe even androids.

In Butler’s universe, biology is the root of human society and culture. Dawn opens many years after the end of human civilization; according to the Oankali who have “saved” humanity, humans are inherently intelligent and hierarchical–a combination that inevitably leads to disaster. Thus the only fix for humanity is a genetic one. For the aliens, almost all aspects of culture, even technology and material culture, are biological. The aliens commit no intentional violence, but have a deadly instinctual sting reflex; 3-way alien sex is primarily chemical and neurobiological, and doesn’t even involve physical contact except to interconnect their nervous systems. For Butler’s (post-)human characters the end of civilization is a small thing compared to biological transformations. The only value in the remains of Earth civilization, mainly of interest to the bio-luddite resisters, comes from whatever practical use can be derived from salvage.

So how does the culture- and knowledge-centric Star Trek universe line up with the bio-centric Xenogenesis universe? The Borg offer the clearest point of entry. While in-universe discussions of the origin of the Borg are numerous, their literary-cinematic origins are much more obscure. It’s certainly possible, though, that the Borg were partly inspired by Butler’s Oankali. Butler’s tendencies toward biological determinism would have been anathema to Gene Roddenberry; the Borg are the only recurring Star Trek species that offer no hope of cultural assimilation into the
peaceful Federation vision of humanity, and make a fitting arch-nemesis for the good collective (i.e., all the other humanoid races).

The Prime Directive makes for another interesting comparison. This doctrine of non-interference was a frequent point of contention as the Trek franchise evolved. The sentiment behind it was there in a few original series episodes, but in the Next Generation era (perhaps still feeling the weight of the Vietnam) the Prime Directive became a central practical and philosophical motif. New life and new civilizations means taking an anthropological perspective, and occasionally there are civilizations too unstable to keep from destroying themselves… sort of a Social Darwinism of the stars. This is what tempers the cultural assimilation aspects of the Federation. It’s the distinction between the third world and indigenous peoples. Even with the third world (i.e., post-warp civilizations), it’s more about the Open Door and the Big Stick than outright imperialism. In the later seasons, the movies, and in DS9 and Voyager (I can’t say much about Star Trek: Enterprise, since I’ve never seen it) there are plenty of points where the Prime Directive is pinched and poked, but for the most part it remains in place.

For Butler’s aliens, there can be no prime directive; they would stagnate and die themselves without new genetic trading partners, and here “trade” is of the non-optional, colonial (perhaps even slave trade) kind. The ethical crux is that the paternalistic higher beings really are saving the lower peoples from themselves. I’m not quite sure how to read this, especially from a feminist and anti-racist perspective. Whether we sympathize with Lilith (the black woman protagonist who grudgingly accepts the alien-imposed breeding program) or the resisters, neither offers much in the way of hope going forward… just different moral judgments on history.

The Cognitive Structure of Scientific Revolutions

I just finished a delightful (and fairly concise) book, The Cognitive Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Hanne Andersen, Peter Barker, and Xiang Chen (“ABC”, I’m told they’re called). These three have been working together for about ten years to create philosophical system to revive the essence of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).

Despite Kuhn’s huge, multi-discipline-changing influence, there weren’t (and aren’t) really any intellectual schools of philosophy, sociology, or history of science built around his ideas. Philosophers have never fully shaken free of the need to create a philosophy of science that can be used to demarcate science from non-science/pseudoscience and to categorically separate obsolete theories from reality/truth/currently accepted theories; Kuhn’s incommensurability threatened to make that simply impossible. Sociologists liked Kuhn, but wanted to take it further; only the most extreme advocates of the Strong Programme actually suggested that cognitive/intellectual/empirical/real-world factors were irrelevant altogether, but they generally attempted to explain as much of science as possible in terms of social structure and individual and group interests. Historians also liked Kuhn’s work, especially at first, but could not accept it as a general account of scientific development; historical counter-examples of gradual change are easy to find, like the Copernican revolution (ironically, the subject of Kuhn’s earlier work).

The premise of ABC’s book is that the mature version of Kuhn’s ideas (as opposed to the version in Structure) is historically justifiable and matches up well with developments in cognitive psychology that describe how humans make sense of the world. Revolutionary science happens when scientists (or scientific communities) have to disrupt the dynamic categorical hierarchies (called “frames”) by which they make sense of the world. They take the idea of frames straight from cognitive psychology (as developed by Lawrence W. Barsalou in the ’80s and ’90s), and supposedly they are a pretty good representation of the way humans actually think. Depending on the what aspects of the frames are disrupted, revolutionary change is science may or may not involve incommensurable theories. But incommensurability, in Kuhn mature philosophy and in the frame theory version here, is much less drastic than in Strucuture. In fact, by ABC’s analysis, the shift between geocentrism and heliocentrism did not involve incommensurability; the crux of the “Copernican revolution” was actually Kepler’s idea of orbits, which replaced the orbs (spherical shells) that provided the cosmological basis for Ptolemaic astronomers, Averroist astronomers, and Copernicus and his early adopters (who actually rejected his heliocentrism as well). Both revolutions and incommensurability, in this account, become matters of scale; it depends on how high up the hierarchy the disruptions occur.

Reading Structure was basically what got me into the history of science, and I’m hoping it comes back into fashion. I’ve periodically attempted to restructure the argument into a form that is actually defensible historically without being very very selective about which cases to apply it to. Mainly, this consisted of dividing up science into expansive hierarchies and finding revolutions of differing scale everywhere. Thus, it’s gratifying that the (only, as far as I know) science studies professionals who still take Kuhn seriously have fitted Kuhn to history and the realities of scientific practice by means similar to mine (though, obviously, in a much more sophisticated way, and with the support of some interesting empirical evidence).

ABC’s manifesto is found at the end of the book; they call out both philosophy and sociology for not following the methodology of history closely enough. Neither has lived up to David Bloor’s criteria for a satisfying analysis of science :

1. I would be causal, that is, concerned with the conditions which bring about belief or states of knowledge. Naturally there will be other types of causes apart from social ones which will cooperate in bringing about belief.
2. It would be impartial with respect to truth and falsity, rationality or irrationality, success or failure. Both sides of these dichotomies will require explanation.
3. It would be symmetrical in its style of explanation. The same types of cause would explain say, true and false beliefs. And,
4. It would be reflexive. In principle its patterns of explanation would have to be applicable to…itself. Like the requirement of symmetry this is a response to the need to seek for general explanations.

Like many people in science studies (including many who don’t adhere to the Strong Programme in general), I take these criteria to be axiomatic. History’s method of explaining science, which relies primarily on historical context, of course satisfies all four. But the scope of its generality is too wide… nothing conceptually separates the history of science from garden-variety history, and cognitive-intellectual content of scientific knowledge has no special status. Thus, the attraction of the theory-oriented approaches of philosophy and sociology. But, as ABC point out, philosophy and sociology have so far not created compelling theoretical approaches that leave enough room for historical context. ABC are convinced they’ve created such an approach, and I think they’ve convinced me. I’ll have to mull it over, but it’s tempting to try to frame my own research in terms of ABC’s reformed Kuhnianism.

Bookplates

I have a weakness for book buying, especially old books that are in some way related to the history of science. I don’t yet have anything very valuable, although I have a few that are fairly interesting finds (the American 5th edition of Origin of Species, The Memoirs of Robert Chambers, the book club edition of Silent Spring including the “Report by Justice William O. Douglas” pamphlet, and some nature study books that even Yale doesn’t have), especially considering how much I paid for them (<$10 each, for the above). I think the first old book I bought was John William Draper's History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, a 1902 edition. I didn’t know what to expect; what I got was a cute little octavo with marble boards, three-quarters leather binding, gilt lettering on the spine, with good enough paper that it isn’t falling apart or foxing much, and a bookplate that said “Ex Libris William Robert Smyth”. I had never heard of “ex libris” before, but that’s what really made the book-buying experience for me, and inspired me to make my own. Since then, the miracles of eBay and alibris.com have brought me plenty of material to stock my shelves, and a few more bookplates.

Via the incredible BibliOdyssey blog, I chanced upon Confessions of a Bookplate Junkie, and it reminded me of the joy I’ve gotten out of bookplates, especially from the process of designing my own and one for my dad.Another interesting bookplate came in each of two volumes of Harwicke’s Science Gossip that I won a few months ago on eBay.Cha[rle]s E[lihu] Slocum wrote a book in 1909 on the dangers of tobacco, and he has an elementary school and I think a few other things named after him.

It’s a shame that bookplates are out of style, as it’s never been easier to design and produced your own.

review of The Long Tail

I was fortunate enough to receive an advance reading copy of Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail (which was just released yesterday). Well after Anderson announced 100 free copies for blog reviewers (which were claimed within hours), I sent him an email about my previous Long Tail related blogging and my brief thoughts on the potential for a Long Tail analysis of science. His publisher apparently thinks blog review buzz is a good investment, because I got a copy just a few days later (this past Saturday). I plan to post about science and the Long Tail some time soon (update: see post here) , but without futher ado, my review of the book:

Chris Anderson’s concept of The Long Tail (read the Wikipedia article if you’re unfamiliar with it), widely known since his Wired magazine article in 2004 of the same name, is one of those ideas that opens up a box of other ideas; an intellectual tool for creating insights into many different domains. It started as a sort of pop-economics idea applied to digital entertainment: the internet opens up the entertainment market so that people can find niche content that appeals to them, rather than lowest-common-denominator radio hits and blockbuster movies.

Pretty soon, Anderson realized that concept had potential far beyond the entertainment industry; eBay, Google, Amazon, iTunes, and a host of other businesses were tapping into information technology-driven Long Tails. Anderson decided to expand his ideas into a book, and along the way, blog about the ideas he was developing.

The Long Tail blog was and continues to be a very interesting read. It often features fairly detailed econometric discussion along with speculation about the cultural implications, with mathematical digressions and nice graphs. The readers’ comments pushed Anderson to be thorough and precise, and gave him plenty of new ideas.

Unfortunately, the book does not deliver on the potential of Anderson’s concept. Anderson looks at the “Short Head” of watered-down hits and says “good riddance,” but his book is written to appeal a little bit to everyone. The graphs are almost uniformly qualitative (in fact, almost every graph of the long tail has the same proportions), the numerical detail is minimal, and structure is loose and repetitive. At a slim 226 pages, mostly anecdote and repitition, the book version is unlikely to challenge those already familiar with The Long Tail.

At times, the prose seems like the output of a context-free grammar program (like the classic automatic complaint letter generator, or the scholarly PoMo version) built from infomercial transcripts. To give you a taste, the following phrases appear on a single page (with a few liberal paraphrases on my part):

  • “In other, more obvious words, [the same thing I just said]”
  • “The calculation goes a little like this”
  • “It doesn’t have to be that way”
  • “A traditional retailer would have to… Yet as we’ve already learned…”
  • “That’s the dirty little secret of traditional retail”
  • “In a nutshell, [act now and The Long Tail can be yours for just three easy payments of $49.95]”

In part, Anderson seems to have ignored the very lessons he tries to teach his readers, about the value of niche content and uncompromised cultural products. Or maybe he learned the lesson too well; an early anecdote in the book explains how a strong online following can pave the way for mainstream success once a potential hit does finally hit the market. And Anderson’s blogger fanbase has already launched the book to #10 (and probabably rising) in Amazon’s daily sales rank for books. I guess he knew when to ditch the nerds and go for the mainstream jugular. Too bad he didn’t publish two versions, as the people who would ultimately get the most out of this are not well served by the “hit” version.

See some other reviews here.

When I start publishing, I’m going to have three versions of my book, so that the 2 or 3 people who would actually want a scholarly monograph on whatever my subject is will get it, other professional historians can get a normal-sized academic book, and grad students and, perish the thought, even a general audience can a concise book that doesn’t bog them down with details.

Review of The Evolution-Creation Struggle by Michael Ruse

I did a group book review for Beverly Gage’s class on American Conservatism last Spring, covering 4 books that deal in one way or another with the history of Intelligent Design. Best of the bunch was definitely Ruse’s book, The Evolution-Creation Struggle. (The others were Creationism’s Trojan Horse, Doubts About Darwin, and the 3rd edition of Ed Larson’s excellent Trial and Error.) In particular, I think Ruse’s book is relevant to all the pronouncements about the status of ID as science/pseudoscience/junk science and the frequent invocations of the mystical scientific method, in the wake of Kitzmiller v. Dover. And since I saw other sites mentioning the book recently, I thought I’d post that portion of the review. I also stumbled across this interesting interview with Ruse on the book.

My review:

Michael Ruse—who cultivates a great oval beard to emulate Darwin—has written about fifteen books, mostly on evolution, and edited about that many more. Ruse has a gift for melting down detailed historical scholarship and reforging it into something grander, capturing the broad themes in the history of evolution. His latest offering, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, demonstrates the historical continuity of thinking about creation, evolution, and the relationship between religion and science, putting Intelligent Design into context as a philosophical continuation of the same questions that partially-overlapping circles of evolutionists and Christians have been pondering and debating for hundreds of years.

Ruse begins by describing the cultural context in which evolution first arose, which is crucial for understanding the tensions and links between evolution and religion, then and now. Ruse argues that though “the eighteenth century did see much scientific activity, and some was certainly pertinent to the issue of evolution,” “metaphysical ideas played as big if not a bigger role in the origins of evolutionism.” Particularly, ideas of progress heavily informed the theories of virtually every prominent evolutionist before the 20th century, with the partial exception of Darwin himself. Ruse compares the spread of evolution after Darwin’s Origin of Species to the formulation of a religion from Jesus’ teachings, with T. H. HuxleyDarwin’s bulldog—playing the part of Saint Paul.

Ruse invokes a tripartite distinction of “pseudoscience,” “public science” and “professional science” to classify early work on evolution, demonstrating a remarkable parallel to Intelligent Design. He describes all the evolutionary theorizing before Darwin, from Lamarck to Robert Chambers, as pseudoscience, because it was derived as much from ideology as from empirical observations. With Darwin, evolution became public science; it was intellectually and empirically grounded, but it had little bearing on the actual practice of science. Even the celebrated evolutionary apologist Huxley, a great innovator in biological education, found room for only half a class on evolution in his two-year, 150-lecture course; while he championed the social and (anti-)religious dimensions of evolution in public speeches, he did not find it relevant for future scientists and doctors. Only with T. H. Morgan, and to a lesser extent Ernst Haeckel, did evolution become the pursuit of professional scientists, somewhat separate from ideology and metaphysics.

Ruse is thus more forgiving than most of the fact the Intelligent Design springs from religious ideas and has not been conducive to novel experimental work. Though ID is at best public science, if not pseudoscience, that does not preclude professional science in the future. Ruse is skeptical of its future potential as well, as he sees the retreat from methodological naturalism as a “science stopper,” but his commitment to a historical approach precludes the typical facile demarcation of science and religion as entirely separate entities, with ID consigned to the latter. In nearly a century and a half since Darwin, the relationships among religion, concepts of creation, and evolution have taken many forms, but religion and evolution have never been entirely distinct.

Ruse addresses the historical role of evolution as a secular religion, especially for the group of scientists who established the core modern evolutionary theory (neo-Darwinism or the synthetic theory of evolution) in the 1930s and 40s. A complicated set of connections grew up gradually among evolutionary theory, Christian theologies, secular and religious humanism, and theories of creationism. Of particular importance was, and is, the distinction between premillennialists and postmillennialists. Most creationism, particularly the tradition of creation science and flood geology, derives from premillennialist, fundamentalist Christian theology. Ruse also claims that for many evolutionists, such as Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson, “evolutionism entail[s] its own brand of postmillennial theology.”

Intelligent Design represents a new mixture of scientific, philosophical and religious concepts, and Ruse does his best to separate each thread of ID for analysis. For each aspect, historical continuity is critical, and The Evolution-Creation Struggle makes sense of ID in terms of the very real and continuing tensions between science and religion without reducing history to the old trope of a war between science and superstition. While the conclusions will not sit well with ID proponents, Ruse separates his philosophical judgments from his historical analysis so that a wide audience will find this book useful.

Pre-HSS Roundup

The proprietor of SciLitera, a science, literature and culture website under development, contacted me about my review of Dava Sobel’s The Planets (which he read on Amazon, where it is now one of the Spotlight Reviews). He wants to put it on his site as well as possibly other reviews or articles in the future, and I would get a share of the (probably negligible) ad revenue. It’s nice to be noticed. (The 13/13 helpful votes on Amazon is also gratifying.)

I’ve submitted the NSF GRFP application for the last time. Hopefully it will go better than last time.

Meanwhile, classes are getting the better of me and soon the papers I have due before the end of the semester (for classmate review) will be raining down misery upon me. We’re through the short papers in Narrative History. My last paper was fun; I reconstructed a heliocentric/geocentric dialogue between a Galileo character and a Bellarmine character (mostly from correspondence) to show the irrational side of Galileo and the rational side of the Church position, basically to support a Feyerabendian view of the way science works (i.e., “anything goes”). It went over well. For my final paper in that class, I’m going to be writing about Kepler, and basically trying to illustrate all my favorite history/sociology/philosophy of science ideas though a very selective narrative of his life.