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Utility and evolution

Evolution is the ultimate theory of modern science because it’s all about utility.

Early modern scientists and philosophers of science dismissed formal and final causes in favor of material and efficient (i.e., mechanistic) causes. Galileo Galilei rejected final causes and endeavored to answer how things happened, not why. Francis Bacon spurned formal and final causes because they were “not beneficial.” René Descartes rejected formal and final cause explanations as barren and pointless. They were after utility, finding out how things worked, providing practical applications. Whatever didn’t contribute to that was discarded.

Modern science follows utility so much that is it not uncommon for scientists to deny that anything else exists. Formal and final causes are not merely useless, they are nonexistent precisely because modern science rejects them. A curious combination of forgetting the origins of modern science and becoming arrogant about the successes of modern science leads more people to dismiss anything outside modern science.

If modern science looks for utility and is only concerned about utility, then utility must be the engine of the universe. Evolution says essentially that. What works continues and what doesn’t work doesn’t continue. Fitness determines everything.

The circularity of the argument is so obvious it is amazing that anyone could fall for it but many have and continue to do so. “Nothing succeeds like success” and apologists for modern science have an abundance of examples to show its success. The fact that there are many failures gets lost in the fine print and publications that don’t happen. Who wants to read about failure? Yet failure is the key to modern science. The irony is great.

From history to nature

Over the centuries the various sciences have developed from a focus on history to a focus on nature, that is from a temporal or diachronic focus to a spatial or synchronic one. Saussure saw this in linguistics and reoriented it from a focus on historical language change to language as a system. Both have their place but historic study finds few natures, i.e., invariants, whereas the study of natures discovers many invariants.

For example, astronomy and physics in ancient times focused on cycles and the “harmony of the spheres” but in modern times focuses on a four dimensional continuum. Chemistry has developed from an alchemical focus on transmutation to a modern focus on the periodic table and compounds. Biology still focuses on temporality with its concentration on origins and history; to further develop it will need to focus on the nature of biological kinds. Geology has a similar focus on temporality so it will need to focus more on the nature of geological features.

Both History and Nature have been used by atheists as substitutes for God — in the 18th century Newton’s system was seen as Nature in control, then in the 19th & 20th centuries Darwin’s evolution was seen as History in control. So both approaches can be carried to extremes and will be by some.

Biology — whether evolutionary or creationary — needs to move from defining species or created kinds in terms of descent from original organisms to defining them in terms of their nature, e.g., as either having something in common (an essence) or a some type of interconnectivity (a topological definition).

Biases of modern science

Mainstream modern science is biased…

  1. toward what it calls “primary qualities” (and against other qualities)
  2. toward greater and greater extension (and less intension or meaning)
  3. toward efficient and material causal factors (and against formal and final ones)
  4. toward repeatability (and against the unique)
  5. toward positive results (and against negative results)
  6. toward the current paradigm (and against alternate paradigms)
  7. toward greater abstraction (and away from concrete experience)
  8. toward greater specialization (and against general observations)
  9. toward naturalism (and against the supernatural)
  10. toward materialism (and against the immaterial)
  11. toward empiricism (and against other kinds of experience)
  12. toward positivism (and against other kinds of knowledge)
  13. toward scientism (and against the humanities)
  14. toward secularism (and against interaction with any theism)
  15. toward linearity (and against the ancient bias toward circularity)
  16. toward nominalism (and against metaphysical realism)
  17. toward minimal kinds of things (and against balancing things and kinds)
  18. toward more state funding for science (and against reduction of state funding).

Falsification or limitation?

Karl Popper made falsification the key to scientific legitimacy. But as others have pointed out, scientists do not spend much time trying to falsify theories. Instead, they work to confirm and extend theories. Moreover, an observation that goes against a theory doesn’t falsify the whole theory; it creates an anomaly that can be dealt with in various ways–for example, search for hidden factors, modify the theory slightly, or discount the observation.

It is only when a superior theory arises that explains anomalies and everything else an older theory explained that scientists take note. So there can be a period of instability as some people question the theory and others try to defend it. This has happened many times in the history of science, from the geocentric-heliocentric debate, to the origins debate of today.

What I’d like to suggest is that falsification shouldn’t be the motivation regarding a theory which has some evidence for it. The question should be: What are the limits to the theory? The fact is that all theories have their validity limits (as Fritz Rohrlich calls them). Why? Because theories assume simplifications of reality, construct isolated systems, and are based on limited data.

While scientists posit theories that are nominally universal, that scope is merely a default in place of the unknown limits that will be discovered later. Science is both optimistic that its theories cover a wide number of cases and open to findings of the limits of theories. Promoters of science seize on the optimistic part and downplay or ignore the limitation part.

In the 18th century enthusiastic Newtonians were very influential in making a clockwork universe the common mindset. Their mistake was taking the word “universal” in universal gravity literally as if Newton’s theory had no problems. In recent years promoters of universal common descent have been very influential in taking the word “universal” literally in evolution, even as the limits of natural selection (and other mechanisms of change) are becoming more known.

Science should search for the limits of every theory. That can be done by finding out the conditions under which it is false, or it breaks down, or works poorly. This sets the stage for a superior theory, that is, one with a larger extension. It also puts all theories on the same level: they all can have their uses but they are always limited.

Scientific theories are not falsified; they are limited, and their limits become known over time.


Science is not universal

When Isaac Newton published his Principia with its laws of motion, he asserted their universal application. Since he had unified motion on the surface of the earth with the motion of the solar system, it was a powerful argument. Nevertheless, to claim universal application excessively extrapolated and interpolated far beyond any data available at the time.

But you reply, That is how science works. Propose a theory and then test its limits. Precisely. So the limits are not known when a theory is proposed or even when it is confirmed. The limits of a theory are only known when it is superseded.

In the eighteenth century people believed Newton. The universe was believed to be a mechanical clock. Mechanistic thinking was very influential.

In the twentieth century Newton’s laws were superseded by quantum mechanics and relativity theory. Now the limits are known and Newton’s laws are not universal. Newton was wrong.

Should anyone ever have believed that Newton’s laws were universal? No. Accepting the universality of an unsuperseded theory takes science too literally. The universe is not a mechanism. The scope of even the best theories is less than universal.

Yet science operates with an optimistic methodology so the proposed scope of a theory is always beyond what the data allow. Only after a theory is tested is its actual scope eventually discovered.

Charles Darwin proposed a theory of biological evolution whose basic principle is descent with modification. That is, descendants of organisms may differ from their ancestors, so much so that new biological species develop. Such descendants are different in degree but not in kind, even if classified as separate species.

What is the scope of biological descent? As a scientist Darwin asserted that descent was universal. It is often supposed that evolution entails universal common descent, but that is a statement of its applicable scope, not of any scientific law.

While Darwin’s version of evolution has been modified, Neo-Darwinism is unsuperseded within the mainstream scientific community. Should people believe that the scope of evolution is universal? No, for the same reason that Newton’s claim of universality should never have been believed.

Certainly scientists act as though the scope of evolution is universal, but that is how science works: assume the greatest scope and search for limits. The mainstream scientific community has so far not found the limits. That is an expression of their ignorance, not of their knowledge.

The scope of common descent is the scope of the mechanisms for it. They are not two theories (contra NCSE). The result of the mechanisms such as natural selection is common descent. The extent of common descent is the extent of natural selection.

In the twentieth century people believed Darwin. The universe was believed to have completely evolved. Evolutionary thinking was very influential.

But philosophers, theologians, and others do know something about the limits to Darwin’s theory. An excellent case can be made that human beings are different in kind, not just in degree from other organisms. Mortimer J. Adler’s book The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes provides a philosophical argument. Others can point to scriptures, traditions, and evidence that support the same premise.

We do know there are limits to evolution, as there are to all mechanisms. We don’t know all of the limits, but we do know there exists at least one limit: human life cannot have evolved from non-human life. The science community should be searching for all the limits to evolution.

From Newton to Darwin

Ancient Greek astronomy distinguished the ordered cosmos of the superlunary world from the disordered chaos of the sublunary world [see Remi Brague’s book The Wisdom of the World, English translation 2003, University of Chicago Press]. Isaac Newton undermined this distinction with his laws of physics published in 1687 by showing that universal gravitation accounted for both superlunary and sublunary movements.

His followers “proclaimed Newton’s intellectual achievements as a model and justification for social order, political harmony, and liberal but orthodox Christianity.” [Margaret C. Jacob, Newtonianism and the Origins of the Enlightenment: A Reassessment. Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Autumn, 1977), p. 1] The Enlightenment had begun.

The result was people looked on the universe as an ordered place and came to expect order, not chaos, disruption, and catastrophe. This led to the adoption of Steno’s principles of geology, which looked on the earth as an ordered place and expected an orderly progression to account for its features. This in turn undermined the commonly accepted ancient accounts of a great deluge that would have had a large impact on the earth’s features.

Charles Darwin built on this a progression of generations to account for all the diversity of life. The ancient principle of Natura non facit saltum (Latin for “nature does not make a jump”) had triumphed.

But the human desire for order, the Enlightenment confidence that order has been found, and the 19th century belief in progress all depend on culture, not on nature. If a culture comes to disbelieve in progress, if worldwide catastrophe comes to be expected, if confidence in order is lost, then a different science would result. We live in such a time.


The origin of species terminology

Creationism in a philosophical/scientific context was first propounded by Socrates (David Sedley, Creationism and its Critics in Antiquity, 2007). Socrates did not provide specifics but it is often said that Plato and Aristotle did: biological species were like logical species and so did not change — species were fixed — and purportedly this is what creationists have said ever since. But that is an over-simplification which requires a two-part response: (1) what are species, and (2) what does species fixity mean?

The place to begin is with the book Species: A History of the Idea by John S. Wilkins. The author starts by rejecting what he calls “the Received View” which runs like this:

“Plato defined Form (eidos) as something that had an essence, and Aristotle set up a way of dividing genera (gene) into species (eide) so that each species shared the essence of the genus, and each individual in the species shared the essence of the species. Linnaeus took this idea and made species into constant and essentialistic types. Darwin overcame this essentialism.” p.4

Wilkins shows that the Received View is mistaken. Species have come down to us via a neo-Platonic, not an Aristotelian, route. Typology and essentialism were not bound together. Instead, what he calls the generative conception of species runs through pre-Darwinian thought.

Wilkins distinguishes two kinds of taxonomy: universal, which is classification in general by division, and biological, which is classification by generation. Plato classified things by diairesis (division) and synogage (grouping) according to their differences and similarities. The purpose was to “carve nature at its joints”.

Aristotle broadened Plato into a method that was later called per genus et differentiam — by the general type and the particular difference. For him “a species is a group that is formed by differentiating a prior group formed by a generic concept.” Aristotle accepts only the possibility (not the necessity) that species might be eternal. Similarly, the Epicureans held that “species are forms generated by the natures of their substances.”

In the modern era John Ray in the 17th century was the first to describe biological species. In his 1686 History of plants Ray was the first to produce a biological definition of species:

“… no surer criterion for determining species has occurred to me than the distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation from seed. Thus, no matter what variations occur in the individuals or the species, if they spring from the seed of one and the same plant, they are accidental variations and not such as to distinguish a species… Animals likewise that differ specifically preserve their distinct species permanently; one species never springs from the seed of another nor vice versa”. (Ernst Mayr, Growth of biological thought, p.256).

Carl Linnaeus ran with this in his Systema Naturae (“The System of Nature”) and other writings. While he later realized the species concept had its limits, it has provided a basis for natural history ever since.

The concept of permanent species came to be known as fixity of species and was the foil for Darwin, who focused on its lack of changeability. For Ray and Linnaeus change was variation that was not part of the species (the type or kind). For Darwin change is evolution which includes each species and more. It’s a question of which came first or is primary: change or type? For evolutionists, change is primary; for Darwin’s predecessors and opponents type is primary.

If type is primary, then the type or kind (which is what the word species means in Latin) is invariant. Science generally looks for and studies invariants such as conservation principles. But biologists after Darwin look for variance instead. That allows them to explain anything and everything as change. It’s a gain in explanatory ability at the cost of invariant principles. There are no laws of evolutionary biology, unless you want to make the non-law “everything is change” a law.

Science and ideology

Isaac Newton was the first science “star” — someone who achieved great prestige as a result of their scientific investigations. His contemporary Alexander Pope famously wrote about him:

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said “Let Newton be” and all was light.

Newton himself was more modest of his own achievements, writing in a letter to Robert Hooke in February 1676:

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

As with other eponymous words, “Newtonian” can be an adjective indicating a person, e.g., “Newtonian works” or something associated with a person, e.g., “Newtonian worldview”. Although Newton opposed the mechanistic philosophy of Descartes, in the 18th century a clockwork universe was sold as Newtonian. In short, Newton was co-opted for something he would have opposed.

We can describe this as Newton’s science vs. Newtonian ideology. It is the same today with Darwin. Although Darwin was a great scientist for his observational and rhetorical skills, his enthusiastic followers such as Huxley promoted an ideological Darwinism. Even today a one-two punch of Darwin and Darwinism makes people think they cannot question the ideology associated with Darwin.

Newton has fared well despite being superseded by later science. Perhaps the same will happen to Darwin but in the meantime the Darwinian ideologues will have done more damage than the mechanistic Newtonians.

History of science via Ngrams

Google’s Ngram Viewer is a fascinating look at word usage since about 1800. For example, the story of how the term natural history declined and the terms biology and geology increased is told in a simple chart. Let’s look at the etymologies first, via the Online Etymology Dictionary:

biology (n.) 1819, from Greek bios “life” (see bio-) + -logy. Suggested 1802 by German naturalist Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus (1776-1837), and introduced as a scientific term that year in French by Lamarck.

The usage of biology rises steadily from the mid-19th century to today, with a pause during the Depression.

geology (n.) 1795 as “science of the past and present condition of the Earth’s crust,” from Modern Latin geologia “the study of the earth,” from geo– “earth” + logia (see -logy). In Medieval Latin, geologia (14c.) meant “study of earthly things,” i.e. law, as distinguished from arts and sciences, which concern the works of God.

The modern usage of geology rises in the early 19th century and levels off.

As Wikipedia notes: The English term “natural history” is a translation of the Latin historia naturalis. Its meaning has narrowed progressively with time. Natural history has its heyday in the early 19th century and then declines and levels off since 1920.

The usage of evolution rises slowly in the early 19th century, and then quickly from 1860 to the 1890s, peaks around 1920, drops lower in the 1930s and has been rising since the 1950s. Perhaps the dip has to do with (American) textbooks in the 1930s avoiding the word evolution (see Textbook History).

Special creation never comes near the usage that biology and geology have, which reminds us that it was never a particular theory but only a general understanding of how the creation must be. Its usage peaked around 1890, which is not surprising as it was (and is) used as a foil for evolution.

Creationism was rare before the 1860s, then still uncommon even when its usage jumped in the 1980s and leveled off. Intelligent design is less common, with a modest peak in the 1880s and a rise since the 1990s. Its component word design bottomed out in the 1890s, when it rose until the 1990s and leveled off.

Consensus science

Michael Crichton, a well-known scientist and author, delivered the Caltech Michelin Lecture on January 17, 2003. He entitled it “Aliens Cause Global Warming” which criticized what is called “consensus science” starting with SETI. A few excerpts:

I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled.

He went on:

Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

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