Thursday, July 24, 2008


Viva La RevoluciĆ³n!

In the aftermath of the "Altenberg 16" meeting and the extravagant claims about the impending death of Evolutionary Theory As We Know It, coming from creationists, sensationalist journalists and even from some within and about the scientific community who should know better, it is apt to review David L. Hull's discussion, in his seminal book, Science as a Process, of the tendency to declare the coming of great revolutions in science.

There is nothing new in such claims and, perhaps, no area in science is more prone to the phenomena than evolution. In retrospect, sometimes the claims are warranted -- the onset of evolutionary theory itself, popularly initiated by the publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers in 1844 and put on a scientific footing by Darwin and Wallace, certainly qualified as a major change in scientific thinking. Conversely, as Hull points out, during the so-called "Eclipse of Darwin" at the beginning of the 20th century, "numerous authors argued that area after area of biology was incompatible with Darwinian versions of evolutionary theory," a death every bit as premature as Mark Twain's. Most, of course, fall somewhere in between. The "Modern Synthesis," for example, while it was a correction of the errors of the Eclipse of Darwin, was not, in fact, a monolithic "movement," despite the best efforts of its proponents to portray it as one. Hull quotes A.R. Templeton and L.V. Giddings observation that:

... the Modern Synthesis is often treated as if it were a single, unified view of evolution, yet as is evident to anyone who has read and contrasted the works of Fisher, Haldane, and Wright (three of the principal contributors to the Modern Synthesis from the population genetics viewpoint), there never was a single evolutionary theory.

More recent examples of the phenomenon were the claims sometimes made for "Punctuated Equilibrium" and "Cladism." Quite apart from the validity of such declarations, what is the impetus for scientists to make them? Hull proposes an underlying motivation:

[S]cientists are engaged in the ongoing process of jockeying for recognition in science. Some scientists exaggerate their differences with the received view to emphasize how original their contributions are, while others exaggerate the similarities between their views and those of contemporary Darwinians in order to throw the mantle of the great Darwin around their own shoulders. Their opponents then attempt to unmask these exaggerations. ...

From the beginning of their careers, scientists are presented with a dilemma. They can make their work look as conventional as possible -- just one more brick in the great edifice of science -- or as novel and controversial as possible -- declaring the foundation of a whole new theory or possibly even a whole new science. On the first strategy, their work is likely to be incorporated effortlessly into the greater body of scientific knowledge. If so, then they will get some credit, but not much. On the second strategy, the work is likely to be greeted with silence. If the author is especially lucky, perhaps an authority can be smoked out to attack these radical new views. However, if on the outside chance that these new views become accepted, the author receives considerable credit. The choice is between a safe strategy with minor payoff versus a very dangerous strategy that promises great rewards. From my own reading of the recent history of science, I see no strong correlation between my own estimates of the novelty of an idea and which strategy an author adopts.

What is more, it is common, even among scientists, for scientific theories to be viewed as "timeless and immutable," much like species were considered by early biologists, with each theory having "its own essence, a set of propositions that all, and only, the adherents of this theory accept." Science, along with life itself, is rarely so simple. In Darwin's own case:

... at any one time in his conceptual development Darwin toyed with a variety of mechanisms, settling strongly on one or another only for periods in his life. ... Darwin was not above changing his mind.

150 years of refinements and extensions to Darwin's ideas and massive additions to our store of knowledge have made it difficult, if not impossible, to determine what "Darwinism" is or what a "revolution" in it would look like. There is much justification, therefore, in recent calls to do away with the term Darwinism and its cognates, such as Olivia Judson's, Larry Moran's and John Wilkin's. I have my doubts that that it can be done so easily. Not only will any such move have to await the passing of the tsunami of praise and remembrance for Darwin, justly deserved, that will inundate us over next year, but it will have to overcome the fact that Darwinism has become more than just a scientific theory. As Hull said of the reactions to Darwinism at a conference of historians:

Darwinism was many things to many people. It was rank materialism, an atheistic attack on the Christian faith, unadulterated positivism, a death blow to teleology. Simultaneously it was irresponsible speculation, an outrage against positivistic science, a rebirth of teleology, proof of the beneficent hand of God, a Christian plot to subvert the Muslim faith. It was also an intellectual weapon to use against entrenched aristocracies, a justification for laissez-faire economic policies, an excuse for the powerful to subjugate the weak, and a foundation for Marxian economic theory.

It may never be possible to uncouple that multiplicity of ideas, and the emotions they represent, from either the man or from the science of evolution he has come to represent in our collective consciousness. In the meantime, reports of the looming overthrow of either should be taken with the Bonneville Salt Flats ... or two.

I suppose the unifying theme of most coverage of science and engineering by the popular press is how bad it is. Whether it's diet, health care, or computers, they seem to get it wrong far more often than not. I find it hard to believe that the journalists responsible are so clueless, but that might be the explanation. It might also be that they try to inject some excitement into their narrative, because they're afraid we won't be interested in the article otherwise.

That plus the natural antipathy some religious bigots feel for Darwinism go along way toward explaining what you've observed, I think.
All that plays a part in it. And scientists themselves are human too.
Until I realized that science is a process of discovering and then attempting to fit together pieces of a very difficult puzzle, I would've been likely to fall for end-of-the-theory claims. What I've realized now from studying the history of science is how many "revolutions" are just turning pieces around for a better fit.

Take Newton and Einstein. Newton said, "This piece goes here, and in this way!" Einstein said, "This piece certainly goes here, but you didn't fit it properly." Newton, despite his theories being modified, is still very much with us, and so will Darwin be, no matter how many modifications evolution undergoes.

And so, yes, absolutely: with all claims of "The death of the theory!" at least one salt flat is required.
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