John C. Greene and Ernst Mayr, Dueling Philosophies of Science

I am just reading this: Debating Darwin – Adventures of a Scholar, by John C. Greene.

A wonderful mind. I regret that I didn’t look him up in 2007, when I first picked up the book…

Of all the writing in this book, his correspondence zings loudest and clearest, (as it does with many of us – we know our audience, and are trying to make our point with wit and force). His mind so nicely, cleanly and lucidly understands and separates the biologists’ fiction of having it both ways: That we have a supernaturally all-powerful, choosing, remaking, selecting and altering “nature,” always spurring on life to ‘greater’ accomplishment and ‘higher’ levels of expression; which we also and simultaneously must, by definition regard as a dead, ‘chance-driven’ evolutionary machine.

The book takes the form of several essays, together with long excerpts from considerable correspondences with two evolutionary biologists, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and Ernst Mayr. Below is an excerpt from one exchange with Mayr.

Mayr to Greene (p. 222):

[Y]ou still have the 19th century concept of science as something absolute, something that provides ironclad proofs and totally logical conclusions. But this is no longer the concept of science and even [Karl] Popper is now hedging on his falsifiability criterion. All conclusions of science are tentative, they are what at this moment is most probably and consistent with the greatest amount of evidence. Hence the alternatives which you offer on p. 33 [the “positivistic dilemma”] are a parody.

Greene to Mayr (p. 227):

I come next to your argument that “as modern scientists we must reject escape into non-material causations, and if we look for the science that can serve as the basis for our interpretations, we find that the only one that is suitable for this purpose is evolutionary biology (broadly defined to include psychology and sociology, as far as they evolutionary).” What a host of philosophical assumptions and attitude lie embedded in that statement!

These supposedly scientific explanations in terms of natural selection are embedded in a matrix of philosophical interpretation of physical science. We are told that evolution is a “mechanistic process.” But what does “mechanistic” mean? To me it means either “exemplifying the principles of mechanics” or “like a machine,” but it is doubtful whether evolution is mechanistic in either of these senses except insofar as all bodies in the universe exemplify the principles of mechanics.

Again, we are told that the evolutionary process is “materialistic,” but this turns out to mean that the process involves nothing spiritual or “supernatural” or “ineffable.” But this is a philosophical assertion based on the maxim that nothing can be attributed to nature that is not manageable within the frame of reference of scientific investigation. In short, scientific investigation exhausts the field of rationale inquiry.

There is also a deep-seated fear that to admit the validity of metaphysics and theology as intellectual disciplines would be to undermined the security of the scientific enterprise by opening the door to non-material causation. It is this fear that underlies your belief that I must be motivated by religious considerations: [Mayr wrote:] “One continuously reads between the lines, “let us go back, let us go back to God, then we will be comfortable, and then we can refer all objections to all viewpoints to Him.”

You sense a threat to the autonomy of science in any suggestions that the positivistic world view associated with much (though not all) of modern evolutionary biology is open to question. Your mind conjures up fanatical creationists crusading to force creationist biology on school children. The threat is a real one, but it is generated in considerable measure by the insistence of [T.H.] Huxley, Simpson, Darlington, Wilson, and others on palming off evolutionary biology as the only safe guide to human duty and destiny. The claim is preposterous.

It is one thing to argue, as you do, that natural selection might select for “open programs” that permit ethical systems. It is quite another to claim that evolutionary biology (and only it) can discover human duty and destiny. If evolutionary biologists go around making claims of this kind, they should not be surprised if parents decide to take a hand in determining what kind of biology their children will be exposed to.


One Comment

  1. I spent much of another late night reading about what I and others have known to be true for a long time –

    That Lamark was more correct than Darwin (that Darwin only talked about what kills an organism, not what “originates” one), that environmental factors figure greatly in physical expression of the individual (thus the species), and that change occurs in the plastic state.

    I’ll bet that major illness, including epidemics, are part of evolutionary change – softening the species, making it once again more fluid, more malleable, so that greater changes occur in utero, to produce more visible change in the next generation.

    Taken together with Margullis’ symbiogenesis, and the rapdid nature of bacterial bonding with amoeba cells, one is free to postulate that evolution is fast and rather (rathuh!) abrupt, not accidental, slow, and boooring..

    Local fox farmers had asked Belyaev for help in breeding a less vicious animal. Belyaev began with the tamest foxes he could find. From their offspring, and for many generations thereafter, he chose only the tamest for breeding. He’d expected that each new generation would be a little less vicious, a little more tame. But by the tenth generation, he was seeing things he’d never expected.

    RAY COPPINGER: All of a sudden his fox ears started down, his fox tails started up, they started to bark, which is not characteristic of foxes. They started to have different coats, all these little features that you can’t imagine being in the wild type. I mean it’s not a matter of selecting for, because they’re not there to be selected for—that variation isn’t there.

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