so i be bloggin. or ranting. or what is the difference. this is something i wrote earlier today about on google reader, this article:THE DARWIN SHOW YO!. I thought id cry about it blog about it, you know. Know. [edited to de-snark and fix errors]
This is a pretty nice article by the historian of science Steve Shapin (who is a truly excellent historian, I note, but one with whom I have some disagreements at least in orientation: his model of history is social history, and cultural history, whereas mine is of intellectual history, and he makes use of some aspects of anthropology and sociology of science, (some of which I find to be based on a misunderstanding of Wittgenstein) whereas I am more in line with historians and philosophers of science...but leave this for some other time). Aside from some snide remarks and one-off disparagements (e.g., 'and their philosophical allies...'), the article points to some fascinating ways in which Darwin is incidentally loved and celebrated because of his achievement, but primarily co-opted for various modern day debates (atheism vs. creationism, ultra-adaptationists vs. selection pluralists, hard-nosed literary theory vs. po-mo theory, etc). All multifarious ways in which Darwin is a sort of rhetorical trope is very fascinating, especially since it started happening right away in 1859.
What is especially interesting to me, as someone who teaches history of science, is that with a person like Darwin, and other such figures, everyone feels entitled to them, and thus recruits him into their what have you. This is all fine, and much of the use I heartily endorse (though its often humorous when both sides recruit him to purposes at odds, as with Dawkins/Williams v. Gould/Eldridge). But the problem with these adoptions is that nitty-gritty, archival, details in all their glory history seems to have little place in much of the discourse. Since Herodotus history has often, perhaps even primarily, been about heroes and villains, losers and winners, told from a particular point of view for the purpose of supporting those in power or attacking them. Not until Ranke and others in the 19th century did historians begin to become historiographically sophisticated. And yet still history is used to this end (just look at the teaching of history in American public schools--often heroic, myth making lie after lie more or less ).
And this is what annoys me so much about the Darwin stuff. Scientists are often guilty of this [mis]use of history. When they claim Galileo and Newton as heroes and founders of their discipline, they claim only a tiny part of what these men did, the part they label 'scientific,' that is, what they see as being correct from the standpoint of what we now know. What is the purpose of setting up these mythological foundations for their discipline? Why should a modern physicist choose to represent and talk about Newton as the one of the greatest physicists of all time, when, in fact, he was no physicist in the modern sense (he would consider himself a mathematician and natural philosopher, roles which don't quite mean science in the modern sense), and while he was a real smart dude, he was also bit of nutty character, obsessed with Biblical chronology, alchemy, and screwing over his rivals?
The problem with the histories sometimes given by scientists isn't just that they are historically inaccurate (that is, they get the facts wrong), but they commit two cardinal sins of interpreting and understanding history: whiggishness and anachronism. The former is to view the history (especially of science) as necessarily leading to the current state of affairs. In reality, though most likely we would end up with more or less the same scientific theory, the route taken is highly contextual, as much a result of social, personal, and other factors as anything else. This is no more than to say that they history of any scientific achievement is a very messy business, a result of mistakes, breakthroughs, blind paths, chances, luck, observation and experimental prowess, rivalries, discussions, fights, and so forth. To think otherwise is really to diminish the incredible accomplishments of past scientists, for what glory is there in achieving something that was necessarily bound to turn out as it did?
The second error so often made, anachronism, is twofold: it is to judge the past by modern standards and to view what we agree with in past figures as being what was most important to them and their contemporaries and immediate followers (thus jettisoning those facts that are deemed unscientific and incorrect and focusing on the 'real' accomplishment of some figure, for instance ignoring that for Newton and most of those who came after him, you cannot really understand their theories of gravity, space, and motion without talking about God's role in the universe; to abstract from this fact, while it can be instrumentally useful, means that you are not, in an important sense, really trying to understand them on their own terms); and second, it is also to assume that those in the past are more or less participating in the same sort of activity and for the same sorts of reasons and by the same sorts of methods as we do now. Not to say that this is never the case, but rather to emphasize with Hartley that the past is like a foreign country and people do things differently there. Galileo wasn't an experimental physicist exactly: he was first a mathematician (a tutor really) and then natural philosopher and matter theorist, one who valued experience as a guide to understanding the natural world but had no real conception of systematic experimentation in the modern sense.
Its especially galling to see history so used by scientists when, if their own work was so misrepresented (as it so often is by politicians, science writers, and general idiots) they get up in arms about these errors (as they should).
This is not to say that scientists must do history or must learn about the origins of their disciplines--its more important in scientific training to teach them, well, how to do whatever science they are doing. But if they choose to use history, or they discuss it (especially in public) they should be held accountable, they shouldn't just repeat the fairy tale histories one finds in the 'moments in history' bubbles found in textbooks. And part of the blame surely lies in the hands of historians (of science and otherwise), who do to little to communicate their work and stand up to potted histories.
What worries me is that maybe it's dangerous to teach real histories of science, given how important science is today and how poorly people understand it--perhaps it would serve only to confuse an already mystified populace with the complications and complexities of real scientific endeavor. I dunno--I hope that it might have a more salutary effect. Does that mean Dawkins et al shouldn't invoke Darwin for their cause? Well no, but if they do so on the basis of shoddy, incomplete, and inaccurate history, they should be called out on it.
Or something. Lets follow that shoe guy instead of Darwin: