Friday, October 23, 2009


Philosophers and Science

A thought:

Darwin expected theologians, people untrained in scientific investigation, and even those scientists who were strongly religious to object violently to his theory of evolution. He had also anticipated the skepticism of even the most dispassionate scientists. He had not labored over twenty years for nothing gathering facts to support his theory and attempting to discount those that apparently conflicted with it. But he had not anticipated the vehemence with which even the most respected scientists and philosophers in his day would denounce his efforts as not being properly "scientific."...

Darwin had both the good fortune and the misfortune to begin his scientific career at precisely that moment in history when philosophy of science came into its own in England. Of course, philosophers from Plato and Aristotle had always written on epistemology and, after the scientific revolution, they were presented with the added advantage and obligation of reconciling their philosophies with the current state of science. Some of these philosophers were also themselves scientists. ...

Commencing with John Herschel's Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830), English-speaking scientists became self-conscious about the proper method of doing science. During the years 1837-1842, when Darwin was residing in London and working on the species problem, the great debate on the philosophy of science erupted between William Whewell (1794-1866) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). ...

In the nineteenth century, "to be scientific" meant to be like John Herschel's extension of physical astronomy to the sidereal regions. Thus, Darwin was especially anxious to hear the opinion of Herschel, the "great philosopher" referred to in the opening paragraph of the Origin. He sent Herschel a copy of his book and wrote to Lyell to pass on any comments which the great physicist might make since "I should excessively like to hear whether I produce any effect on such a mind." Herschel's opinion was rapidly forthcoming. Darwin wrote to Lyell, "I have heard, by a roundabout channel, that Herschel says my book 'is the law of higgeldy-piggeldy.' What this exactly means I do not know, but it is evidently very contemptuous. If true this is a great blow and discouragement." In the face of such a rejection by the most eminent philosopher-scientist of the century, it is easy to understand Darwin's pleasure when he discovered in an equally roundabout way that another great philosopher, John Stuart Mill, thought that his reasoning in the Origin was "in the most exact accordance with the strict principles of logic." On closer examination, however, Mill's endorsement can be seen to be not nearly reassuring. Darwin had properly used the Method of Hypothesis, but this method belonged to the logic of discovery, not proof. In spite of twenty years' labor, Darwin had failed to provide proof for his theory of evolution by natural selection.

- David L. Hull, Darwin and His Critics

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It's true that when Darwin wrote to Lyell on 23 November 1859, anxious to find out what Herschell thought of the Origin, he already knew that Herschel "says he leans to side opposed to me", and on 10 December 1859 had "heard by round about channel that Herschel says my Book “is the law of higgledy-pigglety”.— What this exactly means I do not know, but it is evidently very contemptuous.— If true this is great blow & discouragement."

However, before Darwin heard from Harry Fawcett's letter of 16 July 1861 that John Stuart Mill "considers that your reasoning throughout is in the most exact accordance with the strict principles of Logic... the Method of investigation you have followed is the only one proper to such a subject.", he had already had encouragement from Herschel.

Darwin was gratified by Herschel's Physical Geography giving partial endorsement of the arguments in the Origin, while excluding mankind and giving design a greater place than Darwin had, and on 23 May 1861 Darwin was confident enough to write thanking Herschel, "quite easy about the ultimate success of my views". On 5 June Darwin wrote to Asa Gray that Herschel "agrees to certain limited extent; but puts in a caution on design, so much like yours that I suspect it is borrowed". Given that Darwin continued to disagree with Gray on design while regarding him as one of his greatest supporters, it hardly suggests great concern. David Hull's idea of failure seems much exaggerated.

Sources: letters in Darwin Correspondence Project, and intro for 1861:
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