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Darwin-L Message Log 1:76 (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.


<1:76>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Thu Sep  9 00:28:55 1993

Date: Thu, 09 Sep 1993 01:35:18 -0400 (EDT)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: Welcome to all from the sponsor
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

Greetings to all the members of Darwin-L.  This group was first announced
last Friday, and I have been overwhelmed by the response.  We now have over
340 subscribers from more than 20 countries.  I thank you all for your
interest, and for your patience during this period of intial growth when a
degree of confusion is inevitable.

My intention in establishing this group is to provide a forum for scholarly,
interdisciplinary exchange 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 hope is that we will be able to have many
thoughtful and well-focussed discussions here on a great variety of issues in
the historical sciences, and that we will discover many common interests and
problems that cut across traditional disciplinary boundaries.  Darwin-L is
not intended to be a forum for any particular specialized discipline,
although at times discussion will undoubtedly focus on certain areas more
than others.  Our aim is rather to identify the similarities and differences
_among_ historical disciplines; Darwin himself, for example, compared the
evolution of biological species to the evolution of languages, and Charles
Lyell introduced his _Principles of Geology_ by explicitly comparing
geological history with civil history; the early English naturalist and
antiquarian John Ray not only cataloged the fauna and flora of southern
England, but also the dialect variations of that region as well.  Some of the
best examples of this comprehensive view of the historical sciences are found
in the writings of the philosopher William Whewell, and I have appended two
quotations from him below.  Talking across disciplinary boundaries can
sometimes be difficult (Star Trek fans will understand if I say "Darmok and
Jelad at Tenagra"), but difficult things can be beautiful, and as long as we
maintain a considerate professional attitude toward one another I have no
doubt that we will succeed.

My own perspective on the historical sciences comes from my professional
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.

Because Darwin-L has grown so large the group has the potential to generate a
considerable volume of mail.  This makes it particularly important for people
to compose reasoned and well-focussed messages that will help to keep the
"signal-to-noise" ratio on the list as high as possible.  My worst nightmare
is that Darwin-L might turn into another talk.origins; I will not allow that
to happen, and will pull the plug before it does.  (talk.origins is a usenet
discussion group on evolution.  The level of discourse there is very low, and
if you have never read it you should consider yourself fortunate.  If anyone
here does read talk.origins, please do _not_ post an announcement of Darwin-L
there.)  Remember that many of the people here may already subscribe to
several other mailing lists in addition to Darwin-L, and may already have 20,
30, or more messages in their mailboxes each morning as it is.  I have
requested that the default reply-function for the list be changed so that
when you type "reply" after reading a message the reply will be sent to the
original sender rather than the list itself.  This should be taken care of
shortly.

I encourage new members to introduce themselves and say something of their
interests if they wish; many people have done this already, and we do indeed
have a remarkable group of professionals here: archeologists, geologists,
anthropologists, paleontologists, historians and philosophers of science,
systematists, linguists, classicists, and many others.  This is just what I
was hoping for.  Those who prefer to "lurk", as we say on the network, rather
than identify themselves, 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.

One semi-regular feature we will have on Darwin-L is "Today in the Historical
Sciences".  This will consist of a series of occasional notices of important
anniversaries relating to our many fields, birthdays of noteworthy historical
scientists, and so on.  I hope you will enjoy it.

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 here the two quotations mentioned above
from the 19th-Century English polymath William Whewell, one of the first
people who described and characterized all the historical sciences as a
group.  I had originally intended to name this group WHEWELL-L, but was
requested for computational reasons to come up with a name of fewer than
eight characters, hence DARWIN-L.  (Ah, the little things that alter the
course of history.) Whewell coined the unpronounceable term "palaetiological"
for our fields: 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 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, Darwin-L list owner

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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