Monday, November 05, 2007


Oh To Be in England

I've been neglecting my intended discussion of Neal C. Gillespie's book, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation.

First, to set the stage, I want to recall Francisco J. Ayala's contention, in Darwin And Intelligent Design, that the "Copernican Revolution" and the "Darwinian Revolution" "may jointly be seen as the one scientific revolution, with two stages":

The discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and others in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had gradually ushered in a conception of the universe as matter in motion governed by natural laws.
That mechanistic view, however, was yet to be extended to the biological realm:

Supernatural explanations, such as Paley's explanation of design, depending on the unfathomable deeds of the Creator, [still] accounted for the origin and configuration of living creatures -- the most diversified, complex, and interesting realities of the world.

It was Darwin's genius to resolve this conceptual bifurcation. Darwin completed the Copernican revolution by drawing out for biology the notion of nature as a lawful system of matter in motion that human reason can explain without recourse to extra-natural agencies.
While Ayala's version of the change is more nuanced than the standard account, as Gillespie points out, there is more to it than that. The change from the creationist to the positivist episteme in biology was not all Darwin's doing:

Owing to increasingly refined practice and to the increasing volume of successful science, practitioners began to feel that a theological domain in nature which neither yielded to nor permitted scientific investigation was an actual obstacle to the full development of scientific knowledge. ... [W]hat must not be overlooked is that many Victorian scientists were uneasy or skeptical about the role of religion within science, and as the century wore on their numbers grew. This was the focal point of the conflict, and it turned on the question of knowledge. The episteme shift under consideration did not require the repudiation of religion as such. It only required its rejection as a means of knowing the world.
Although Darwin's "genius," as Ayala puts it, can't be discounted, there were other forces at work. John Wilkins, in discussing classification and, in particular, what counts as natural kinds, and how the terms have themselves evolved over time, makes a point that I think is equally valid here:

Darwin and Wallace were not mere historical ephemera instantiating the ineluctable progress of science. Nor were they the crucial individuals in every aspect of the development of future biology, lone geniuses who discovered what could not otherwise have been. They are neither dwarfs on the shoulders of history, nor giants in a featureless plain with neither precursors nor peers. History is not that simplistic ...
... but people who think it is abound.


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