Sunday, January 10, 2010

Yup. Darwin.

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:


  1. this is sort of interesting, mostly because the way science actually happens and the way science is presenting as happening are so starkly different.

    a.) scientists think very little to not at all about history and, in scientific research, it is never discussed nor referenced. in other words, the origin of the species is not a citation, etc. in other words, when we talk amongst ourselves, in literature and otherwise, we couldn't give a fuck.

    b.) i think scientists interacting with the public at large are the ones guilty of these acts of deification of the great scientists of the past. when we show ourselves to the world i think we want to show a nice linear narrative with great acts by great men. we'd rarely let you all know that we know. we like to display ourselves to the world as great men discovering the absolute, inevitable truths. to be fair, i think you guys want it that way too. in the trenches, amongst scientists, i think most would admit a lot of 'great discoveries' are right man right time situations. the messy innards of science are a frightening thing to witness.

  2. All right, good article. I'll now rant back. This is not so correct:

    "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."

    Yes (as a person with a degree in physics) most physicists would claim Newton to be one of the great physicists because of a tiny part of his life. It is NOT because we we see things as correct based on the standpoint we know now. All of Newton's three laws as they are usually stated are -wrong- based on what we know now. But his set of laws is still used. He created one of the most useful models ever. It was new in his time and pointed the way for many others; in fact no one before him had even thought to make this kind of universal model. That is why his work on physics (it's physics now no matter what he called it, so who but historians care?) is why he is revered even though almost every physicist knows he was somewhat of a nut about alchemy and other things. The fact that he was a man of his time makes him even more remarkable in that he came up with something so timeless.

    Reading that passage put me on edge right away because it seems to show that the science/humanities divide in scholarship is as wide as ever. Science is all about models, not a few but many many models, hundreds, thousands of them, specific to each field. That is what working scientists use and test every day. When someone can create something that most models must be consistent with, what we call Scientific Theories, or Laws, that makes that person (or people) important, no matter what else they ever do.

  3. Ok interesting point. I hate the whole science/humanities divide because, (a) it is very recent and very American, and (b) I don't consider myself a humanities person. I like science. I have taken a full physics sequence, I have done advanced mathematics, and I read science articles (in science journals, not science reported news) every day. I'm not sure what the models stuff is about: Newton didn't have an idea of models, and his Laws could only be the laws of god in his design of the universe. Indeed, the concept of equations wasn't even fully worked out at this point, and mathematical formalization and standardization had a long long way to go. There are no vectors in the Principia, nor integrals, nor anything resembling the modern Newtonian Theory.

    And I've actually read Newton's Principia. If you read it you understand why you shouldn't think of it as modern physics. First off, although he had devoloped most of the calculus at the point of publication, the Principia is done entirely geometrically. It doesn't look anything like 'Newtonian physics.' That is a result of the 18th century, and later, where the basically reinterpreted all of Newton's work, including providing a more rigorous mathematical basis and notation (following Leibniz's notation, and not the infinitesimal notation and conceptualization of Newton.)

    I'm not denying that Newton was important; I'm just complaining that bad history is bad history, and if you are concerned with the facts, then its important to do good history. If all your interested in doing is understanding Newton's 'physics,' then historical evidence isn't important. What he actually did, from his methods, to his interpretations, to his understanding of what we deem his physics and his other work, are all very different from how we conceptualize these activities. To Newton, his commitment to a particular conception of God was necessary to understand his picture of causality in the world, and especially to understand how space and gravity functioned in the universe.

    The basic idea is that if you try to understand Newton in terms of what we view as his 3 laws, etc, you aren't really trying to understand Newton--you are understanding the image we have him from science textbooks. If we are really impressed with his achievement, we should try to understand it on its own terms, not try to fit it into current conceptions of how science is practiced (models, whatever), but rather on how Newton did it. Not that such reinterpretations aren't important; they are, but they can lead astray in the history of science.