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Darwin-L Message Log 1:1 (September 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.


<1:1>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Sat Sep  4 20:19:01 1993

Date: Sat, 04 Sep 1993 21:25:23 -0400 (EDT)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: Greetings to all new subscribers
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

Greetings to all the new subscribers to Darwin-L.  The first public
announcements of the list were sent out just 24 hours ago, and we already
have 80 subscribers, from Canada, Iceland, Italy, Australia, Germany, Brazil,
the United States, and New Zealand.  That surely bodes well for our group,
especially since this is a weekend, and in the United States a holiday
weekend at that.

My wish in establishing this group is to encourage interdisciplinary
discussion among practicioners, theorists, and historians of all the
historical sciences.  These fields -- historical geology, evolutionary
biology, archeology, historical linguistics, and cosmology, among others --
are scattered today across a variety of departments at most universities, but
they all share the common goal of reconstructing the past from evidence in
the present.  My own perspective on the historical sciences comes from my
background in evolutionary biology, and in particular in systematics, the
study of evolutionary trees.  My research has concerned the history and
theory of evolutionary trees as representational devices, and the nature of
historical explanation and inference in evolutionary biology.  I am also
collaborating with a manuscript scholar applying some of the techniques now
used in systematics for the reconstruction of evolutionary trees to the
reconstruction of the copying history of Medieval manuscripts.  Like
biological species, ancient and medieval manuscripts are commonly related to
one another through "descent with modification", and the computer software
developed for analyzing evolutionary trees turns out to work quite well for
the analysis of manuscript trees ("stemmata") also.

But Darwin-L will not just follow my interests: it will become whatever we as
a group make of it within the general context of the historical sciences.  I
encourage new members to introduce themselves and say something of their
interests if they wish; others who prefer to "lurk" -- as we say on the
network -- are of course welcome to do that as well.  I hope to put a few
lists of references on the historical sciences up on the ukanaix computer
shortly, and will let you all know when they become available.

A note on the geography of Darwin-L itself is perhaps in order: I am a
postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and
the computer that runs Darwin-L is located at the University of Kansas in
Lawrence.  Prof. Lynn Nelson of the Kansas History Department has been kind
enough to serve as our network host, as Darwin-L fits in with a range of
history computing initiatives he is sponsoring.

To set our general theme, I will offer for your consideration two quotations
from the 19th-Century English polymath William Whewell, one of the first
people who described and characterized the historical sciences as a group.
Whewell coined the unpronounceable term "palaetiological" for these sciences:
the sciences of historical causation.  1994 will be the 200th anniversary of
Whewell's birth, and I think it's time to revive his perspective on the
historical sciences, though probably not his term for them!  Here is Whewell:

"As we may look back towards the first condition of our planet, we may in
like manner turn our thoughts towards the first condition of the solar
system, and try whether we can discern any traces of an order of things
antecedent to that which is now established; and if we find, as some great
mathematicians have conceived, indications of an earlier state in which the
planets were not yet gathered into their present forms, we have, in pursuit
of this train of research, a palaetiological portion of Astronomy.  Again, as
we may inquire how languages, and how man, have been diffused over the
earth's surface from place to place, we may make the like inquiry with regard
to the races of plants and animals, founding our inferences upon the existing
geographical distribution of animal and vegetable kingdoms: and this the
Geography of Plants and of Animals also becomes a portion of Palaetiology.
Again, as we can in some measure trace the progress of Arts from nation to
nation and from age to age, we can also pursue a similar investigation with
respect to the progress of Mythology, of Poetry, of Government, of Law....It
is not an arbitrary and useless proceeding to construct such a Class of
sciences.  For wide and various as their subjects are, it will be found that
they have all certain principles, maxims, and rules of procedure in common;
and thus may reflect light upon each other by being treated together."
(William Whewell, _The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences_, second edition,
London: John W. Parker, 1847.  Volume 1, pp. 639-640.)

"I have ventured to give reasons why the chemical sciences (chemistry,
mineralogy, electrochemistry) are not at the present time in a condition
which makes them important general elements of a liberal education.  But
there is another class of sciences, the palaetiological sciences, which from
the largeness of their views and the exactness of the best portions of their
reasonings are well fitted to form part of that philosophical discipline
which a liberal education ought to include.  Of these sciences, I have
mentioned two, one depending mainly upon the study of language and the other
upon the sciences which deal with the material world.  These two sciences,
ethnography, or comparative philology, and geology, are among those
progressive sciences which may be most properly taken into a liberal
education as instructive instances of the wide and rich field of facts and
reasonings with which modern science deals, still retaining, in many of its
steps, great rigour of proof; and as an animating display also of the large
and grand vistas of time, succession, and causation, which are open to the
speculative powers of man." (William Whewell on liberal education, quoted in
_Great Ideas Today_, 1991:388-389.)

Bob O'Hara

Robert J. O'Hara (darwin@iris.uncg.edu)
Center for Critical Inquiry and Department of Biology
100 Foust Building, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina 27412 U.S.A.

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