Darwin-L Message Log 5:44 (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.

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<5:44>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Sun Jan  9 12:50:56 1994

Date: Sun, 09 Jan 1994 13:56:56 -0400 (EDT)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: Arguments in science
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

The following comes to us from Peter Stevens (p_stevens@nocmsmgw.harvard.edu).

Bob O'Hara (darwin@iris.uncg.edu)


As we work through arguments about aquatic apes, over-optimistic ornithologists
and lapsed linguists, we may take heart from, or despair over, the case of
William Sharp Macleay.  Proponent of the ultimately discarded idea of
Quinarianism, he acknowledged that he might well be wrong, but that progress in
the discipline would result from the activities of those who disproved his
thesis as being false (I am sorry, I do not have the text here).  The botanist
A.-H. G. de Cassini made a similar comment about -his- ideas.  And of course
the arguments Macleay stirred up were integral to the distinction between
analogy and affinity.  Also, the number of people who refer to Macleay's ideas
directly or indirectly is quite large (as far as I know, no study had been
carried out).  Finally, if you want a good example of ad hominem arguments in
particular, and pure vituperation in general, read some of Macleay's papers...

Of course, one might reply to Macleay, was it really -necessary- for change
that we should have had to spend time and energy in disproving your ideas?
Hull's discussion (in "Science as a Process") about over how to use
developmental data in deciding on which characters were advanced and which
primitive is perhaps relevant here.  Lundberg withdrew from the debate, and so
could be seen as leaving the field to Nelson.  However, I cannot see that the
numerous papers addressing the question over the next decade or more led to
that much clarification of the argument.

I am also reminded of the story of Paul Mangelsdorf, a central figure in
developing our knowledge of corn (maize) breeding, who is said to have
complained how much effort it had taken him in disproving the suggestion that
Edgar Anderson (an ideas man) had made almost in passing that maize was known
in SE Asia before it could have been arrived there aided by europeans.

There is no real conclusion to all this, except that life would be very boring
without any arguments!  At the same time, there has to be balance within a
discipline between people who push ideas on shaky or no data, theoreticians,
fact-gatherers who disdain theory (of course, they are likely to be subtly, but
no less deeply in thrall to unarticulated theories), etc.  Perhaps I am wrong,
but for all our discussion, we do not seem to be that much closer in
prescribing the optimal situation for change in science.

P. F. Stevens.

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