The following is a paper I wrote on the nature of scientific knowledge examined through Theory of Evolution. This was a paper developed as a part of a course in evolution that I signed up for this year.
On nature of scientific knowledge
Theory of evolution from its formative stages to the current is a classic demonstration of how scientific knowledge tends to be tentative and a product of human inference, reasoning, imagination and creativity. Scientific knowledge in every age is embedded deeply in social and cultural ideas of that age. Hence, it is not surprising that quite often scientific reasoning and knowledge came in conflict with the prevalent ideas of the times it was proposed in. From Galileo to Hypatia and to late 20th century ‘monkey trial’, we see instances of science standing in direct conflict with religion. People’s ideas it is seen are often shaped by their religion and religious institutions. This was true to a great extent in the pre-modern times and is partially applicable in the 21st century as well, where we see some countries making it rather compulsory to devote equal time (and emphasis) in classroom teaching of evolution and religion.
The process of science and nature of science overlap with each other and are not clearly demarcated. Yet it is necessary to distinguish between the two.1 Scientific knowledge historically has undergone a shift from being absolute truth (Ptolemy, 323 B.C) to being progressive and perhaps in our times it has been liberal in many ways. However, it must be noted that being liberal and progressive is relative to a moment in time. When the moment changes the view undergoes a change too. This might be referred to as the inherent nature of scientific knowledge. Studies in evolution are often described with a pre-Darwinian and post-Darwinian reference. If anything, this indicates the impact of Darwin’s theory of evolution which for the first time proposed a most convincing explanation of evolution. The theories before that bore a characteristic human imagination and creativity which remained unconfirmed in nature. There are other characteristics of scientific knowledge as demonstrated by the theory of evolution, which this article proposes to discuss.
Lamarck and his ‘truths’
In his Zoological Philosophy, Lamarck theorizes that “environment affects the shape and organization of animals” based on his observations and reasoning of observed phenomenon. He then asserts that “Nothing of all this can be considered as a hypothesis or private opinion; on the contrary, they are truths which, in order to be made clear, only require attention and the observation of facts.” His hypothesis was that frequent use of any organ, when confirmed with habit, increases the functions of that organ, leads to its development and extinguishes the lesser used ones. In course of time this modification is passed on to the offspring of that organism. He explained this by citing long necks and limb size of giraffes. Taller necks he reasoned are due to an attempt by the animal to constantly reach out to foliage on taller trees. This reasoning when applied to other animals would have fallen inconsistent, but Lamarck takes a confirmed position on his observations and the reasoning derived thereof. The conviction that his observations are ‘truths’ stand thin on reasoning and logic (as any scientific method should have) and neither any empirical studies support his claim, yet he asserts them to be true. He also adds that to establish this one only requires attention and observation.
While several inconsistencies can be pointed out about the theory Lamarck formulated, we can do so only in retrospect. For the information about natural processes and systems available at that time his theory offered another way of reasoning.
Evolution’s age of reason – an intrepid explorer and a young voyager
Every successive theory that was proposed, to explain evolution appeared to have built upon the reasoning of the earlier. The newer theories either advanced the earlier thought, or disputed them and took an opposite position in offering a credible reason to the phenomenon. In addition to this, the rigour of observation, reasoning and confirmation of observed phenomenon by extremely large scale observations led to a more agreeable and logical explanation of evolution. For instance, Alfred Russel Wallace collected 126,000 specimens on a 8 year collecting trip to the Malay archipelago.
Scientific knowledge then can also be seen as a continuum of information and understanding that every age builds that the next age inherits. In his letter to Robert Hooke on February 5, 1675 Issac Newton wrote,
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
This affirms that prior body of knowledge, however satisfactory or unsatisfactory, accepted or contested, adds to the understanding of the problem under study. In a similar vein, Lamarck’s observations furthered the scientific knowledge on evolution.
Fifty years later, Alfred Russel Wallace, an intrepid explorer and naturalist wrote the following in his paper titled On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type:
“The life of wild animals is a struggle for existence. The full exertion of all their faculties and all their energies is required to preserve their own existence and provide for that of their infant offspring.”
With this Wallace was proposing a theory of evolution based on natural selection. This paper illustrates well, the manner in which natural selection as an explanation to evolution came to Wallace. At the time of writing this paper he was recovering from a bout of malaria in the Isle of Ternate, located in the Dutch East Indies. He recalled Malthus’s Principle of Population which talked about the effective agent in evolution of organic species. The idea of struggle for existence as suggested by Malthus’s work offered a seed to Wallace’s theory of natural selection.
Wallace refers to Malthus’s work in his memoir My Life: A record of events and opinions:
“I thought of [Malthus’s] clear exposition of the ‘positive checks to increase’ – disease, accidents, wars, famine – which keep down the population… It then occurred to me that the same causes, or their equivalents, are continually acting in the case of animals also… Why do some die and some live? And the answer came clearly, that on the whole the best fitted live… Then it suddenly flashed upon me, that this self-acting process would necessarily improve the race…”
This reveals the gradual manner in which Wallace’s ideas about evolution took shape. The body of scientific knowledge that he built upon and was himself adding on to, in his case was extensive sampling studies on insects, birds, fishes and animals across the world.
Darwin started out as a young voyager, who undertook several expeditions across the world to study natural diversity and geographies. Darwin’s work on natural selection is a fine example of how scientific knowledge is built empirically and is rooted in firm scientific enquiry process. His works, exhibit a high degree of methodical observation and scientific process. Confirmation of observation by rigorous reasoning and more observation is evident in this fascinating paragraph from his book On the Origin of Species:
“When on board H.M.S Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seem to throw some light on the origin of species- that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. On my return home, it occurred to me, in 1837 that something might perhaps be made out on this question by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it. After five years of work, I allowed myself to speculate on the subject, and drew up some short notes; these I enlarged in 1844 into a sketch of the conclusions, which then seemed to me probable; from that period to the present day I have steadily pursued the same object. I hope that I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision.”
Darwin by this time (1859) had already received Wallace’s paper and was surprised to realize that someone else has discovered the same theory that he has, years back. Darwin was working on gathering enough evidence for his theory of evolution by natural selection for over twenty years after having first formulated it on one of his voyages. The intensity of studies is also evident in his own submission that ‘I have not been hasty in coming to a decision’.
‘Survival of the fittest’ and ‘extinction of the unfit’
Wallace and Darwin, both discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection at the same time, and even co-published their findings together to the Linnaean Society of London in 1858. But later works suggest that there was a fundamental difference in the way Wallace and Darwin saw natural selection. While Darwin meant ‘survival of the fittest’, Wallace’s view was that natural selection operated by ‘weeding out the unfit at every stage of existence’.2
The intention of indicating this difference is to argue that scientific knowledge is rooted in facts yet can have numerous interpretations. On manner in which one interprets these facts rests further progress of the field of study. Interpretations can either make one believe in creation of diversity by God or a supernatural force. It could also make one see it as a logical consequence of interaction between organisms and the environment.
Scientific knowledge and gymnastics of reasoning
A highly contested part of Darwin’s theory in later years has been about human origins from a common ancestor. That man evolved from apes at one time was a preposterous reasoning. No amount of confirmed, systematic and rigorously built scientific knowledge could help this situation. And in some ways, it stands as a debate even in the present times. I cite two brief instances of this.
Human society makes a fascinating study in reasoning. When does reasonable become unreasonable and the unreasonable turn reasonable, is beyond any order or form. This is the tragedy of scientific knowledge too, that it has been subjected to myriad interpretations which are governed by the cultural or religious ideas of the times they are held in. While this may not be a problem as such, the hard lining views which lead to distortion of facts and in many cases a complete abhorrence of science has been very damaging. Therefore, restraint and certain caution must to be exercised with scientific knowledge.
Seven months after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, the famous 1860 Oxford Evolution Debate happened. The debate is best remembered today for a heated exchange in which Wilberforce supposedly asked Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey.3 Huxley is said to have replied that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth.4 The debate occurred after a presentation on intellectual development of Europe with relation to Darwin’s theory, that the progression of organisms is determined by law.
In another relatively recent case, commonly known as Scopes Monkey Trial, the conflicted nature and interpretation of scientific knowledge is well illustrated. Scientific knowledge built upon logical reasoning and rigorous observations, only intends to further mankind’s understanding of the world it lives in and operates. Yet, it has the potential to against the grain of religious institutions and belief systems. Scopes monkey trial was a case between The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes in 1925. Scopes, a school teacher was accused of teaching evolution in classroom, which was unlawful under the state’s law. The case was argued by a famous biblical scholar who also represented the public opinion that origin of man from apes is absolutely absurd. To argue the case for Scopes was a well-known lawyer and an atheist. The arguments went long and the judge apparently was compromised in his position as he was inclined with the church’s view. At all points in the trial, any evidence from scientists were overruled and prevented from being presented in the court. The trial ends in the judge being convinced that the act of teaching evolution in classroom may not be a sacrilege but nevertheless invites punishment. Scopes is awarded a small punishment by the way of paying a fine and let off. At the same time the public opinion though not formally changed nor attempted by the court, had fairly shifted to science and Darwin’s theory.
- The Nature of Science and Instructional Practice: Making the Unnatural Natural, Abd-el_Khalick et.al. http://dahsm.medschool.ucsf.edu/history/medical_tech_course/med_tech_pdf/khalicknature_of_science.pdf
- Alfred Russel Wallace and the elimination of the unfit www.ias.ac.in/jbiosci/jun2012/203.pdf
- 1860 Oxford evolution debate, Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1860_Oxford_evolution_debate
- 1860 Oxford evolution debate, Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1860_Oxford_evoluion_debate