Friday, October 02, 2009
The enthusiasm of modern biologists for Darwin's theory of natural selection helps to explain why the Darwinian Revolution is looked upon as a one-man show. There is far more of Darwin's original theory in modem Darwinism than there was of Copernicus's astronomy in the Newtonian world view that completed the Copernican Revolution. Darwin is a hero of modern science because he introduced both the general idea of evolution and the particular mechanism of change still favored by most biologists. Historians of biology have thus tended to discuss the history of evolutionism as though it were essentially the history of Darwinism. This in turn seems to have convinced the cultural historians that a theory as powerful as natural selection must have had an immediate impact on nineteenth-century thought. But even a fairly conventional survey of Darwinism's later history reveals facts that seem inconsistent with these assumptions. ...
There is surely a paradox here. Historians concentrating on Darwin's cultural impact seem content with the idea that the materialist view of nature was generally accepted in the late nineteenth century. Yet those who study the development of biology agree that the theory of natural selection -- surely the heart of Darwin's materialism -- had little effect until the twentieth century. I believe that the potential incompatibility between these two positions has been concealed by a failure to explore the alternatives to Darwinism that flourished within nineteenth-century evolutionism. Historians of biology who admit that the selection theory had little immediate impact have nevertheless continued to focus on the limitations of Darwin's thought, especially his lack of a modern theory of heredity. Because they have dismissed anti-Darwinian evolutionism as irrelevant, they have produced nothing that might persuade the cultural historians to reconsider their assumption that Darwinism dominated the Victorian world view. I suggest that it is unreasonable to believe that a theory that failed to impress the scientists of the time could have brought about a major cultural revolution. Once this point is accepted, one is led to suspect that the traditional interpretation of the Darwinian Revolution is a myth based on a distorted image of Darwin's effect both on science and on the emergence of modern thought.
- Peter J. Bowler, The Non-Darwinian Revolution: Reinterpreting a Historical Myth
It is reported or published.
Later, people provide in depth analyses.
Even later, people provide contrarian analyses.
Eventually a consensus develops about what happened and what it meant (this bit is blessed by hindsight) in today's context.
I reckon it takes about 50 years for the cycle to go around. Perhaps more for a complex event like the cause for a particular war. Probably even more for the complexities of a scientific theory like evolution by natural selection to be worked through. Probably less for a celebrity's love life.
As an aside, I really get annoyed at the presumption that there is only a single cause behind a significant event. Not only is this rarely factual, it also encourages the cycle of competing analyses.
Yes, and this snippet (from Bowler's introduction) is part of his explanation why another analysis is needed. He is particularly noting that there are different "specialties" in history (here, cultural history and history of science) and how they may have differnet "blind spots" that can wind up reinforcing each other, which can contribute to the presumption that there is only a single cause behind a significant event.
There is far more of Darwin's original theory in modem Darwinism than there was of Copernicus's astronomy in the Newtonian world view that completed the Copernican Revolution.
This is quantified how? Darwin wrote before the invention of population genetics, and ascribed Lamarck's principle of "use and disuse" an important role in evolution. If Newtonian mechanics were called "Neo-Copernicism" would we be able to make such a statement?
Darwin is a hero of modern science because he introduced both the general idea of evolution and the particular mechanism of change still favored by most biologists.
The general idea of evolution preceded Darwin by decades. The particular mechanism of natural selection was independently discovered by at least two other writers.
Darwin makes a great public face for modern biology because he was such an excellent scientist: patient, methodical, even-tempered. And because had much less of the tendency to teleology of the other great evolutionists, Wallace and Lamarck.
But maybe none of that matters. There are few greater cranks in history than Isaac Newton. And he's a hero of science too.
Obviously, a judgment call, but Copernicus had no mechanism, had the basic shape of the orbits wrong, put the sun at the center of the universe and even denied that he was saying his system was, in fact, true.
Darwin got an amazing amount right, given the scientific knowledge of his day. It might be an interesting exercise to examine all the major scientific theories of Darwin's time and see if there are any that still have as much of their systems incorporated in present day science as Darwin's.
The general idea of evolution preceded Darwin by decades.
True, but Darwin "introduced" it to serious scientific consideration.
There are few greater cranks in history than Isaac Newton. And he's a hero of science too.
See! There is hope for cranks everywhere. All you have to do is be brilliantly right about a lot of things and everyone will forget all the stuff you're wrong about ... assuming the world doesn't end sometime in the next 50 years.