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Darwin-L Message Log 3:79 (November 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.


<3:79>From CSM@macc.wisc.edu  Sat Nov 20 14:24:28 1993

Date: Sat, 20 Nov 93 14:26 CDT
From: Craig McConnell <CSM@macc.wisc.edu>
Subject: Momentum
To: DARWIN-L@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

This is in response to Will Kimler's query of 18 November, "Can someone provide
examples and or references to the use of notions of momentum or inertia in
constructing a model of cultural change?"

I have a tangential response, which may impinge on his question.  This is more
a response to the question, "Where are the metaphors from physics in biology?"

I have noticed in my survey of the history of modern biology that references
to idealized Newtonian science get fewer and farther between the closer one
gets to the present.  Lamarck and Cuvier, for example, sound very Newtonian in
their emphasis on axiomatic science.  Schwann made nice comparisons between
the regular laws of the solar system and the regular laws of cellular
development.  As you get closer to (and pass by) Darwin, the language of
mechanism is still there, but the metaphors to force, law, etc. (a group that
would include momentum) fall out.  So Haeckel has his idea of a universal
theory of development that can be discerned in both the organic and inorganic
world, but he's imposing biology lingo on physics more often than not.
Weismann's criteria for a good theory of heredity includes a mechanistic
flavor, but it too is cast in biology lingo.

My tentative hypothesis at this stage is that the unfolding complexity of
biology begins to preclude simplistic comparisons to physics (I once heard a
brilliant lecturer ask, rhetorically I'm certain, "How could physicists _not_
figure out the orbit of a planet?  It's two objects in empty space!  Now
explain where life comes from:  _that's_ a problem!").  I would say a corollary
to this is that as biologists became more sophisticated in their thinking, they
found that organic metaphors were more convincing than physical ones.  (I just
read Frederick Churchill, "From Heredity Theory to Vererbung" _Isis_, 1987--he
argues that as biologists like Weismann and Hertwig got more savvy about
heredity, they relied less frequently on economic metaphors).

So my question for you is:  isn't it more likely that you'll find organic
metaphors for cultural change than momentum metaphors?

Craig S. McConnell, (608) 238-1352
Internet:  csm@macc.wisc.edu

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