Sunday, September 25, 2005

 

Taking Your Time

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Much has been written about Darwin’s delay in publishing his theory for over twenty years until he received young Alfred Russel Wallace’s paper setting out similar ideas. And there is no telling how much longer his "big book" would have been in the making if his hand had not been forced by events. A number of "theories" have been advanced as to why he took so long, including a claim that Darwin was tormented by what he saw as a betrayal of his social class [1]. The philosopher of science, David L. Hull, has, to my mind, by far the best explanation in his book, Darwin and His Critics: The Reception of Darwin's Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community.

Hull first discusses Darwin’s own conflicted views on the proper scientific method, which only reflected the larger ferment in the philosophy of science at the time, as it struggled to both free itself of the notion that the first creation, life and mind were the sole province of theologians and to turn itself into a true profession where intelligence and dedication counted more than the circumstance of one’s birth. Despite some dithering, Darwin ultimately recognized that hypotheses were a necessary part of science and that the order in which observations were made and when hypotheses were formed was less important than whether the hypotheses were subject to being verified or refuted by empiric evidence and whether serious attempts were, in fact, made to do so.

With that in mind, Hull gives the following explanation for what took Darwin so long:

. . . Darwin did think that the temporal order of the verification and the publishing of a hypothesis was important in the sociology of science, both for the sake of the scientist's own reputation and for the sake of the acceptance of his theory by the scientific community. To a young scientist, Darwin advised, "I would suggest to you the advantage, at present, of being very sparing in introducing theory in your papers (I formerly erred much in Geology in that way) [2]; let theory guide your observations, but till your reputation is well established, be sparing of publishing theory. It makes persons doubt your observations."

Darwin also had a reason for advising restraint in publication which was less personal and more significant to the progress of science. He was aware of the fate of Lamarck and Chambers. Chambers had received considerable popular acclaim but scathing denunciation from the academic community, including T. H. Huxley (1854). Lamarck received nothing but ridicule from all sides. Darwin criticized Lamarck and Chambers, not for suggesting mechanisms for evolution which he thought were mistaken, but for foisting their views on the scientific community without sufficient effort at careful formulation and verification. Lamarck and Chambers looked upon the process of scientific verification as a very casual affair. Darwin looked upon these matters as of utmost gravity. Lamarck published radically new theories in a variety of fields as diverse as mineralogy and meteorology. He felt that the originality of his impressionistic sketches would be enough to motivate others to undertake the subordinate task of filling out and verifying his theories. As Burkhardt (1970) has aptly observed, public neglect and private ridicule were the fate of his theories. Prior to knowing that Chambers was the author of the Vestiges of Creation, Darwin chided him for objecting to the skepticism of scientific men. "You would not fulminate quite so much if you had had so many wild-goose chases after facts stated by men not trained in scientific accuracy."

Darwin's conservative views on publication were rewarded to some degree. His Origin of Species did not suffer the same fate as those works on evolution that had preceded it. It was treated as a serious work of science even by those who denounced it. But a similar reticence on the part of Gregor Mendel resulted in his laws of heredity being overlooked for almost forty years. Mendel published his laws in 1865, soon after the appearance of the Origin. He too wanted to avoid being branded a speculator. In his original paper he barely alludes to his unobservable "factors," though the cogency of his entire argument rested upon their existence. In a letter to Carl Nägeli (Mendel, 1867), he claimed that, "as an empirical worker" he had to "define constancy of type as the retention of a character during the period of observation." Perhaps Darwin's advice might protect scientists from being engulfed in half-baked scientific publications, but it also contributed to the obscurity of Mendel's potentially great contribution to science. Because Lamarck neglected the niceties of the sociology of science, his work was ignored with disdainful embarrassment. Because Mendel was too scrupulous in observing them, his work was overlooked. Darwin struck an appropriate compromise.

Darwin's beliefs on the ethics of publication go a great way toward explaining his reticence in publishing his own views on the origin of species until his big book was complete. (pp. 10-11)
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[1] See, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore.
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[2] Darwin was referring to his paper on the "parallel roads" of Glen Roy, where he theorized they were the remnant of beaches of the ocean left as the land gradually rose (as he had seen happening in South America). Louis Agassiz (later an opponent of evolution as well) quickly showed that the features were the shorelines of lakes resulting from ice dams formed by glaciers. This was one of the greatest embarrassments in Darwin’s career.
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