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Insight In Science

Recently I have been poring through Ernst Mayr's collected essays, There are some 47 essays in the volume which originally appeared from the 50's through the early 70's. The essays are divided into nine main categories, evolution, speciation, history of biology, philosophy of biology, theory of systematics, the species, man, biogeography, and behavior.

Ernst Mayr is a grand old man of evolutionary biology with a career spanning seven decades. He was one of principal architects of the modern neo-darwinian synthesis. He is an excellent writer, albeit daunting. He is the author of numerous books, including The Growth of Biological Thought and Toward a New Philosophy of Biology.

In the essay The Recent Historiography of Genetics the following appears on page 331:

"In retrospect it has become obvious that most of the great controversies in the history of genetics and of evolutionary biology were due to a failure to make precise definitions and to develop clear-cut concepts. The thesis that new facts are always responsible for the ultimate clarification of scientific problems is becoming increasingly questionable. Rather, what seems often more crucial is the superior analytical power of certain individuals who, when looking at the same facts as others, suddenly achieve a new insight. Four confusions in particular were responsible for slowing down advance in genetics in the last 200 years."

He then goes on to identify and discuss these four basic confusions:

  1. The failure to make a clear distinction between "kind", "variety", and "species" and the belief that such a distinction did not matter;
  2. The failure to distinguish between individual "varieties" and geographical "varieties" (subspecies);
  3. The failure to recognize that there were two kinds of isolation, reproductive isolation and geographic isolation;
  4. The failure to understand fully that the genotype and phenotype are not the same.

He discusses how various workers, e.g. Mendel, Darwin, Lamarck, Linnaeus, and DeVries went off track because of these confusions.

In another essay he discusses the Kuhnian paradigm shift and doubts its applicability in the history of biological thought. It might seem that Darwin's publication of Origin of Species and the rapid acceptance of it would be a premier example of a paradigm shift, a revolution in science. When one looks at the matter, though, it isn't a good example a revolution. The period 1750-1850 had much speculation and theorizing about evolution (in response to geological, biological, and paleontological discoveries) which was distorted by various philosophic and scientific preconceptions, issues that had to be worked through before hand. Darwin's publication was indeed a signal event. Evolution and common descent were rapidly accepted. Darwin provided two things - a plausible mechanism (variation and natural selection) and meticulously detailed supporting data.

We have an odd thing though. The Darwinian paradigm was not well accepted. By the turn of the century a wide variety of competing mechanisms, e.g. pseudo-Lamarckian theories, orthogenesis, and mutationism, were standard fare. It wasn't Darwin's mechanism that was persuasive - it was the establishing of the existence of plausible mechanisms, together with a convincing presentation of data that was persuasive. The establisment of the Darwinian paradigm took another seventy years after Origins.

Nietzsche remarked that there are no facts; only interpretations. Whether this is so and in what way may be a matter of debate. However a simpler and yet subtle issue is the matter of what do we account as being facts that need explanation. Consider fossils. Today we look at fossils as the fossilized remains of ancient life forms; the origins and nature of these ancient life forms is a question to be considered. There was a time when this question was not asked. Now this is not because there was a magic moment when the first fossil was discovered (although one can indeed point to the discovery of the Maestricht mosasaurus jawbone in 1770 as a defining moment.) People had discovered fossils thoughout history. Fossils were not, however, recognized as needing serious explanation. It sufficed to give a handwaving explanation, e.g. freaks of nature, or artifacts of creation. No need was seen to explain how one stone (which looked in detail like a bone) got inside another stone. Fossils were not "facts", i.e., something to be taken seriously and to be explained and analyzed.

As a related example, consider the recently discussed "theory of mind" which is a new and problematic area in psychology. From the introduction of Theories of theories of mind:

"Curiously, the modern phase of work on theory of mind by developmental psychologists began with a paper in primatology - Premack and Woodruff, 1978 - which raised the question of whether chimpanzees have a theory of mind. This question proved immensely difficult to answer, although it has spawned a good deal of very interesting research since... But what it certainly did do, was to force all psychologists to think very hard about what it is to possess a conception of the mind of another creature, and also about the behaviour which might show whether or not such a conception is possessed."

Curious indeed. Here is a subject which has been implicitly a concern of philosophy, literature, and psychology for millenia. Yet, never is the question raised as a specific serious question to be considered until by chance it is asked in a paper on primatology.

Can the brilliant thinker, pondering in his armchair, cut through these mazes of confusion by insight alone? Sometimes. Yet the history of biology is replete with brilliant thinkers who had acute insights which were acutely wrong, either because the thinker did not have access to essential data or because the thinker unconsciously made assumptions, erroneous arguments from first principles.


(1) Evolution and the Diversity of Life, Selected Essays, Ernst Mayr, Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1976, First paperback edition 1997, ISBN 0-674-27105-X, 711 pages.
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(2) Theories of Theories of Mind, ed. by Peter Carruthers and Peter K. Smith, Cambridge University Press, 1996, ISBN 0-521-55916-2.
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This page was last updated November 25, 1997.