Friday, March 30, 2007


History, Hagiography and Hesitation

John Wilkins, an unregenerate antipodian and philosopher of science, has posted a couple of times in the past few days at his blog, Evolving Thoughts, about two cental myths about Darwin: that he hesitated for 20 years before publishing his theory out of concern about how his theory would be received and that, at the time Darwin did publish, all British naturalists held to divine special creation of species.

The first post is a short review of an article by John van Whye, who is the person behind the happy development that almost the entirely of Darwin's works are online in searchable form. Whye's article is available at the Royal Society's site in both html and pdf form and is entitled "Mind the gap: did darwin avoid publishing his theory for many years?" Whye shows that, not only did Darwin set his schedule for publishing on evolution well before Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, the scientific reaction to which supposedly caused his "caution," was first published in 1844, but that Darwin's work had already become so well-known in the scientific establishment of the day, that his concerns about its reaction there could not be as great as they are made out.

In his second post, John uses Darwin's comment, at the outset of the Origin of Species, that the book addresses "that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers," as a springboard to show that, at the time Darwin published, "it appears to have been a widespread view if not the consensus, that species transformed."

As John points out, we ... and scientists are hardly immune ... like out heroes outsized. Add to that the fact, as one of John's favorite books, David L. Hull's Science as a Process, maintains, there is a "strategy" to the interaction of scientists where, if you tie your work to a "great man" or "great woman," you are then committed to defending and enhancing the reputation of your source of legitimacy. As John recounts it:

The Heroic View of Science was employed by the leaders of the Modern Synthesis at and around the time of the Centenary of the publication of the Origin in 1959. One of the rhetorical moves they made was to use Darwin as the solitary genius, allowing that Wallace was equally so, who changed forever the way science was done.
By painting the scientific community of the time as uniformly (and religiously) against Darwin, the hagiographers make the dragon slain more ferocious and all-encompassing. And explaining the lag between Darwin's conception and the ultimate (and rather harried) publication of Origin as understandable fear on his part, makes his smashing success all the greater.

Scientists are not above myth making. They are, after all, just human.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

. . . . .


How to Support Science Education