Wednesday, August 08, 2007


Once Too Often to the Well

More datapoints for the proposition that there truly is nothing new under the sun:

One Dr. Michael Kellman will be giving this week's "Pinhead Town Talk" at the Telluride Science Research Center, which is entitled: "Is it Science? — Global warming, intelligent design, the cosmic anthropic principle and Einstein's moon." The origin of the name for the occasion is complex (see "history" under "About Pinhead Institute") but one can only hope that the ordinary associations it engenders lend the affair a certain air of tongue meeting cheek, given the following from Dr. Kellman:

When biologists are not feeling defensive, they admit that there is a lot not understood about evolution. In public, biologists tend to overstate their case. Evolution is too young and under-analyzed, too complex to be a real theory. To the biologists who claim that evolution is as well established a scientific theory as the law of gravity, I would say to them, 'You don't understand the law of gravity.'
Oh, my! Now, I won't claim to understand the theory of gravity but, last I heard, no one had figured out how the stuff actually works. Sure, the fact of gravity and it's association with mass are as well established as anything in science but the fact of evolution and its association with reproduction is hardly far behind. And biologists at least have a very good, though not certain, account as to how evolution works.

But Dr. Kellman's error is not in mismeasuring the relative certainty of the two theories. His is a more basic misunderstanding of science itself. And it's an old one.

In 1860, mathematician and physicist William Hopkins reviewed the Origin of Species for Fraser's Magazine. In the review, Hopkins compared evolutionary theory to Newton's theory of gravity and the "undulatory theory" of light. David Hull explains Hopkin's error, which appears to apply to Kellman as well:

Biologists tend to become indignant when their own efforts are judged by the standards of excellence set in physics. Regardless of whether the practice of judging biology on standards derived from physics is inherently reprehensible, it should be undertaken only by someone with sufficient knowledge of both biology and physics, and such men are hard to come by. More often than not, the critic finds fault with biology either because he is ignorant of the biological theory he is criticizing or because he lacks sufficient understanding of the physical paradigm. As Darwin observed, Hopkins did not understand evolutionary theory very well. But it is of greater significance that Hopkins' canons of reasoning and evidence were drawn from only two physical theories, and he held an extremely distorted (though prevalent) view of these theories.

[T]he philosophy of science extracted from a cursory knowledge of physics by such men as [William] Whewell and [John Stuart] Mill was untrue not only for science in general but also for the physical theories which served as paradigms. Hopkins demanded that evolutionary theory be proved in the same manner that gravitational theory and the undulatory theory of light had been proved. In the first place, neither had been proved because both were false. In the second place, these two theories were hardly typical of physics. There were other physical theories -- for example, the theory of matter erected on Maxwell's equations -- that fitted the paradigm derived from these two theories little better than evolutionary theory. As [Charles] Peirce observed, when statistical theories, like the theory of gases, were taken as paradigms, evolutionary theory did not come off so badly. Given Hopkins' parochial selection of physical theories and his unrealistic interpretation of them, evolutionary theory was bound to be judged inadequate, no matter how fair he might be.
So, not only has the philosophy of science eluded Dr. Kellman ... so has history.


I love when chemists/physicists try to paint evolutionary biology as poorly understood, by biologists.

The Bio Dept. at his university should give him an exam from one of their evolution courses to see if he can even pass the thing.
Chemistry? Bah! Why, chemistry is nothing but the law of higgledy-piggledy!

(Actually, Hopkins was almost as dismissive of chemistry as he was of biology.)
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