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Darwin-L Message Log 5:78 (January 1994)

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.


<5:78>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Fri Jan 14 13:41:59 1994

Date: Fri, 14 Jan 1994 14:47:46 -0500 (EST)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: Neodarwinism, and the attribution of "importance" to historical events
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

Neither my friend Professor Amundson nor anyone else should ever worry about
contradicting anything I say here, and as leader I am much more often fearful
than fearless, I assure you.  I think my reaction to claims about the decline
of neodarwinism or the "synthetic view" has two sources at least.  Since I
was a graduate student during the 1980s, I learned about things like punk eq,
developmental constraints, etc., etc. from the beginning, and they were never
"new" ideas for me in the sense of ideas that contradicted a well-established
set of beliefs I had previously held.  They all seemed perfectly sensible and
reasonable within their domain, just as most of Ernst Mayr seems sensible to
me within its domain also.  I was certainly never indoctrinated into
"selection uber alles" as John Wilkins says he was, and I'm always surprised
when I find out that some people were.  This may have something to do with
the fact that higher-level systematics has always been my focus rather than
population biology, and so I just never studied neodarwinian selection theory
as well as I should have.  ;-)  The second possible cause of my reaction is
that, being historically inclined I more often see continuity among ideas
("this work is an interesting and valuable addition to our understanding of
evolution") rather than ruptures ("neodarwinism has been overthrown!").  This
may also be a function of personality for all I know too.

But let me try to draw out of this particular case an interesting observation
relating to historical theory.  When we read or write history we are
accustomed to seeing different levels of importance assigned to different
historical events.  Thus the fact that Darwin read Malthus one day was
important, whereas the fact that he read, say, Milton the day before was not.
If the events we are speaking of (Darwin's reading of Malthus and Darwin's
reading of Milton) are well back in the past, we are able to assign
importance to these events with some confidence.  Darwin's reading of Malthus
was an important event because it provided information and insight that
contributed to the development of the idea of natural selection, which he
later proposed as the principal mechanism of evolution, and which has been
extremely influential in science in the last hundred or so years.  Darwin's
reading of Milton was not an important event because nothing we regard as
important happened as a consequence of it.

Consider what happens, however, when we describe events that are current or
very recent (as opposed to temporally remote), and try to assign importance
to them.  Is the notion of punctuated equilibrium, for example, a
revolutioanry contribution to contemporary science, or is it a minor gloss on
evolutionary theory?  (Is it Darwin's Malthus or Darwin's Milton?)  Now in a
very real sense it is not possible to answer this question in the present: it
depends on how the world goes in the future.  If the idea takes over,
generates publications, leads to new conclusions and the rejection of old
ideas, causes Departments of Punctuated Equilibrium to be established in
universities, if it gets written up in whole text books and talked about in
coffeehouses, then it will be correct to say that it was a revolutionary
idea.  But if it sort of dies out, and gets mentioned in a couple of
paragraphs in neodarwinian textbooks, then it will be correct to say that it
was a minor gloss on what we already knew.  As time goes on one may have a
greater or lesser sense that one or the other of these futures is coming
true, but certainly at the time the idea was proposed it was not really
possible to say which one it would be.

This general problem is sometimes called in the philosophy of history the
problem of future contingents: the recognition that attributions of
importance or value to particular past events (or conversely of unimportance
or valuelessness) depends upon knowledge of the future which we may not have.
Arthur Danto discusses the problem in his book _Narration and Knowledge_
(Columbia Univ. Press, 1985), a book I recommend highly to people who may be
interested in the philosophical aspects of historical understanding.  Here's
a sample from Danto:

  I may refer to my favorite candidate as our next president, and though she
  may indeed be that, it will have been false that she was that if she in
  fact fails to win the election.  I shall call such predicates, which are
  true of objects and events at a given time only if certain objects and
  events occur at a time future to them and faling which they are
  retrospectively false, _narrative predicates_.  When we apply them to
  present objects, we are making a _special_ claim on the future, different
  indeed from that made by the use of non-narrative future-referring
  predicates.  (pp. 349-350)

There is a very interesting paper by Rouse that will connect this observation
with what we were talking about above.  The paper is:

  Rouse, J.  1990.  The narrative reconstruction of science.  _Inquiry_,
    33:179-196.

Rouse claims that scientists cast their own understandings of their fields in
a sort of narrative form (first came Darwin, then rejection of selection,
then the Synthesis and the revival of selection, etc.).  I think it is
the case that we each of us also tacks on to this narrative a set of
expectations about the future course of our respective fields, and it is from
this set of future expectations that we make the assignments of value that we
do to particular ideas or theories.  I think most of the proposed
alternatives to the Synthetic view are interesting but not especially
revolutionary, because I don't think they are going (as time marches on) to
have an especially major effect on our thought.  Another person might
disagree.  Likewise I think that cladistic systematics is indeed one of the
most important developments in twentieth-century science, because I foresee
as a result of it an enormous number of transformations in thinking that have
just barely begun.  Others may and have disagreed with this, because they
think it will fizzle out into nothing.

To put a question out for our group, let me ask whether in historical
linguistics people have referred to particular events in the history of
language as "important changes", "key innovations", or the like.  It is
traditional to refer to various events in evolutioanry history, such as the
origin of jaws in vertebrates, as "key innovations" which made a big
difference in subsequent history.  Such attributions of importance are
clearly narrative predicates of the kind described by Danto.  I am wondering
if they are widespread throughout the historical sciences.

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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