Monday, August 13, 2007


Past as Prologue

There were many objections raised to Darwin's theory but one subgroup was the attack that Darwin's method was not "true science." These claims were not limited to religiously biased proponents of special creation but were also made by competent scientists who were, by all apparent measures, honestly attempting to fairly judge a novel theory. As David Hull (yes, him again) explains in his book, Darwin and His Critics: The Reception of Darwin's Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community:

The solution to these puzzles can be found in the philosophies of science promulgated by such philosophers as [John] Herschel, [William] Whewell, and [John Stuart] Mill and their most important predecessors, Aristotle, Bacon, and Newton. Darwin was caught in the middle of a great debate over some of the most fundamental issues in the philosophy of science -- the difference between deduction and induction and the role of each in science, the difference between concept formation and the discovery of scientific laws, the relation between the logic of discovery and the logic of justification, the nature of mathematical axioms and their relation to experience, the distinction between occult qualities and theoretical entities, and the role of God's direct intervention in nature. Before philosophers of science had thoroughly sorted out these issues, they were presented with an original and highly problematic scientific theory to evaluate. That they rejected evolutionary theory, a theory which has outlasted many of the theories judged to be exemplars of scientific method, says something about the views of science held by these philosophers and scientists. [p. 14]

Darwin had his own doubts about his method but time has more than vindicated him. One of those potentially "occult qualities" mentioned above was essentialism:

A belief in a finite number of discrete kinds of entities underlay both Mill's and Whewell's notions of verification. It also was one of the major factors in the prevalence of occult qualities in science. Science deals with classes of entities. On the essentialist view, these classes must be distinguishable by characters which universally covary. Time and again no such set of universally covarying 'observable characters could be found. Hence, these classes had to be distinguishable by unobservable characters. Sometimes this maneuver met with considerable success (e.g., in distinguishing elements by their atomic weight and number). Sometimes it did not (e.g., distinguishing life from non-life by the presence of a vital force).

In reading the scientific and philosophic works of the period, the modern reader often finds himself wondering how essentialism could have had the slightest appeal or could have seemed in the least plausible. The answer can be found in its apparent applicability to physical geometry. Here, there was no doubt as to which characters were essential and which were accidental. Maybe all reptiles did not have three-chambered hearts, but all triangles had three sides. Geometric figures were the chief examples of natural kinds in essentialist philosophies from Plato and Aristotle to Whewell and Mill. Species of plants and animals were the second most popular examples. When the diversity of the organic world was only very poorly known, organic species seemed to be as distinct as those of geometry. [p. 70]

Essentialsm may not have been right but it was not stupid, given the knowledge of the day. The temptation to think we are smarter now than people in the past is a great error.


Thanks for this review; the book is yet another one that I'll have to read soon. I actually want to get my hands on Robert Chambers' "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation" soon as well, especially since I've heard that Chambers' book, although wrong, really primed the public for Darwin's theory since it got people talking about evolution.
I've been to that well a few times of late, so I've added the tag "Hull: Darwin's Critics" to them (I think I got 'em all) that you can click on to bring them all up together.

John Wilkins has scanned a copy of Philip Gosse's Omphalos you might be interested in too.
I know I'm late getting back (sorry!), but thanks for the reply. I'm definitely glad there's someone else out there who's digging through old scientific/theological writings as much as I'm attempting to do!

Thanks for the link to the scanned copy of Omphalos. I actually purchased a copy last spring and read it cover to cover (I nearly died), but it's good to have it online. A friend of mine also supplied me with a list of other texts from the likes of Agassiz, Buckland, and Mantell that have been added online, so eventually I'll have to round up the links so everyone can benefit.
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