except in the light of evolution, nothing in biology makes sense – apparently Theodosius Dobzhansky said something like this once. Presumably in Russian.
I feel I must have blogged on this point before as the main thought I have on it keeps popping up in my mind and seems to be both commonsensical and unrecognised, but this may be its first time in print … As it is the first time, it may not be as clear as could be hoped, but if it continues to seem to me a worthwhile point, it may find further life in future texts. So, watch this metaphorical space!
While it is commonly asserted that evolutionary theory possesses both the evidential basis and centrality to science of gravitational theory, I am inclined to dispute each of these things. I don’t have massive issues with evolution per se (I certainly don’t reject it out of hand, as for instance young earth creationists do), but there are a few reasons why I think it’s unhealthy for scientists to see the scientific project as being epitomised by evolutionary theory rather than, as more classically envisaged, by physical theory. I’ll leave the evidential basis for evolution (which I question primarily when it comes to matters of mechanism, rather than those of historical shared descent and corresponding patterns amongst living organisms) aside for this post, so even if you’re a card-carrying believer in the neo-Darwinian/modern synthesis, you may find yourself open to being persuaded by me on this post’s point.
Evolution, though attempting explanation of current features of the world and some prediction of future contingencies, is firstly an historical science and so experiment plays a different role than it does in most areas of theoretical physics or chemistry (for example).
A better analogy for evolution in physics, it seems to me, is theories of the formation of solar systems; while a better analogue of the laws gravity in biology are ‘laws’ of ecological organisation, or perhaps concepts around biological form and function. It’s less tidy, as biologists don’t subscribe to mathematical laws quite as physicists do, but there are sets of relevant constraints and patterns (perhaps I’ll do a lot more work on this later in life, we shall see). Of course, these things are linked – theories of solar system formation are required to be based in or consistent with gravitational theory and theories of evolution are similarly constrained by biological facts, not just individually but as systematised in generalisations about ecological relationships and the study of biological form and function. While no doubt there is plenty more room for argument in this area, the dependence I’ve highlighted only supports my contention that evolution is not the fundamental theory in biology; it is the biological facts and their current relationships, rather than hypothesised histories to these, that needs to take precedence.
It may still be that we can’t truly make sense of these current relationships between and consistent features of organisms, organs, tissues, cells, protein machines etc without recourse to evolutionary explanation (I think the evidence points very strongly to that conclusion) – but the scientific method as I understand it, will still have us start with these facts (while a careful scientist must also acknowledge that even these ‘facts’ are theory-laden, with our interpretation of them relying on a host of previous scientific conclusions) and work from there.
Additional musing (comments like these are meant to be in smaller text, but I can’t get that feature to work, so it will have to be a ‘one size fits all purposes’ situation):
The rise of quantum physics may question the ‘fundamental’ nature of gravity (I have no idea and can’t be bothered working out the relationship between the various forces and quantum rather than classical physics at this stage of my Sunday afternoon) as the reductionist paradigm of what science is about. Also intriguingly, I wonder if a focus on evolution (while I think a bit mislead, in that while important, it’s not quite as fundamental as its champions like to assert) is a little at odds with a purely reductionist view of the world. The study of organisms and their history is, at least in its current form, (or so it appears to my unsophisticated eyes) quite non-reductionistic, in being quite comfortable in dealing with complex systems as they are, rather than breaking them down ad infinitum. It doesn’t follow that evolutionary theory couldn’t non-problematically be phrased in equivalent non-reductionist terms, I’m just saying that it isn’t treated in that way, whereas physics and chemistry are for me far more clearly reductionist in their general approach.
If you wonder, motivating this hesitancy of giving evolution the pre-eminent place in scientific theory is a range of concerns, including my preference for a fairly straightforward ‘inductionist’ (for want of a better word) account in science (I think I want it to start with the observed facts rather than their supposed history), my sympathy for a teleological account of the universe’s history and my more general dislike of the rather unfortunate way in which Darwin is heralded as king of a brave new materialistic universe when in fact an evolving biosphere provides little support to naturalism, let alone showing it to be the only viable option. Unfortunately, as things currently stand, an evolution-centric view of science will be used in the aggressive promotion of ideas which at best are orthogonal to the theory and I believe are quite damaging to the scientific project and humanity’s flourishing in general. (As a final controversial aside, if the point of philosophy is in fact ethics, as has been suggested in an earlier post, perhaps it is something like the duty of philosophers to oppose a view like evolutionary naturalism, or at least some of its iterations, which have fuelled moral scepticism like no other view!)