Cultural Context Yet Again

Cultural Context Yet Again

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I am always torn when it comes to criticism of my thinking.  On the one hand, my inclination is to let it pass in silence.  I have had my say, and now it is the turn of others.  I am never quite sure that anyone gains if one spends time with charge and counter charge.  On the other hand, it does seem rather rude and indifferent not to respond.  If folk think that your ideas are worth criticizing – far more hurtful to an author is silence – then surely you in turn owe it to people to take the time to respond and to counter criticism, to clarify points, and perhaps indeed to admit to fault.  With some misgivings I will take the second line of action here, and I will make a few comments about those who have taken time to respond to what I had to say in my Meta column about science and its cultural links.

However, before I turn to my critics, let me take the time to restate (or state more clearly) my basic position.  At the end of this column I shall (quite without shame) take the opportunity to mention books that I have written on the subject, suggesting that those who really want to see how I think about things should go out and get copies and read them.  (I have a wife and many children, so I think you should buy not borrow copies.  I think you should buy copies for your friends and relatives, also.)

I accept that there is a real world in some sense.  I am not sure that I am a metaphysical realist, believing that there is a world when no one is around to observe it.  But we are around and there is a world to be observed.  I believe that it is the job of science to map and to try to understand this world, and I think science does pretty well what it sets out to do.  I would even go so far as to say that there are certain basic claims I accept as true and beyond doubt.  The earth goes around the sun, water is H2O, and humans evolved from blobs.  Anyone who seriously thinks that these are tentative should take a break from philosophy.  Too much Popper is bad for your mental health.

I am however very much aware that we humans are the products of evolution, and I am right with J B S Haldane when he said that the world is probably a lot queerer than we imagine or we could begin to imagine.  Of course, we think we can know everything and that all is objective and true – if evolution left us all doubting simple truths in a Humean sort of way, we would not be successful animals.  The proto human who spent his or her time worrying about the nature of causal connection lost out in the struggle for existence, as did the proto human who doubted that one has any moral obligations to anyone else.  But, this truth notwithstanding, I think we should be very wary of believing we have a direct line to absolute truth.  It is for this reason that, although I am not a Christian, I am unwilling to embrace atheism.  I simply do not know about the ultimate mysteries. I am a sceptic.

I am also much aware that we humans are much immersed in culture.  I am not just a philosopher of science.  I have spent thirty years now working on the history of science, precisely because I think (with Thomas Kuhn) that the way to understand the present is through an understanding of the past.  I have looked in detail at the history of science – at the history of evolutionary biology in particular – trying to see just how it is (if at all) that culture does affect the product of science.  Is it the case that science is just a social or cultural construction?  Or is science uniquely able to escape culture and rise above the human in this respect?   I think it is part of the ideology of science that it is able to rise above the cultural, but that is not quite the same thing.

The simple fact of the matter is that I do find that science – evolutionary biology in particular – is reflective of its culture. It is reflective of its origins in eighteenth century Europe, it is reflective (thanks especially to Charles Darwin) of nineteenth century Victorian Britain, and it is reflective of the twentieth century through and through.  That is a fact.  It is not a truth that I uniquely have discovered.  It is a commonplace today among historians of the topic.  Evolutionary theory reflects the religion, the politics, the economic, the sexual, the racial, the philosophical values of its day – changing often as the values change.  That you cannot deny.  It may be that evolutionary theory is unique in this. That it is not true of physics, for example.  That I cannot say, although I know that historians of physics have opinions on the subject.  The fact is that evolutionary thought is cultural.

I do argue however that there is more to the story than this. Evolutionary biology is not just cultural, relativistic, where anything goes.  It is a lot more than an epiphenomenon on the social whim of the moment.  There are rules of scientific conduct (known technically as “epistemic rules or norms”), the satisfaction of which confer objectivity.  I have in mind here such things as the need to be predictive, the constraints of coherence within and consistency with other parts of science, fertility, unificatory power (what is known as “consilience”), and most importantly simplicity.  Scientists are sensitive to the fact that beauty and elegance is something to be found in the best theories or models.  As time goes by and as new information is uncovered, science – evolutionary biology in particular – becomes ever more epistemic and hence in this sense objective.  It is not just a subjective morass but something which compels because it is more than mere opinion.

So how does one mesh this objectivity, this glimpse of the real world, with the cultural nature of science?  I would argue that theories or models are attempts to map this reality – they are deeply metaphorical and can only approach reality at a distance, and different people and different cultures will have different ways of approaching.  Not all paths are equally good, but it is a dangerous mistake to think that there is necessarily one uniquely proper way, or that one can ultimately jettison all traces of the cultural supports or spectacles.

What does this all mean in the case of something like evolutionary theory?  It certainly does not mean that there is an alternative approach which denies evolution but which is equally valid.  Such a way is our way, but wrong.  Creationism must be rejected because it fails the epistemic tests – it is not consistent with physics and chemistry, it is not predictive, it is not consilient, and it is simplistic rather than simple.  What my position might mean is that conceivably one might have a scientific culture for which evolutionary questions are not significant.  A culture like the ancient Greeks, for instance, which has a different conception of time, and which does not have the Judaeo-Christian tradition which makes questions about origins significant.

It means that one might have a culture where one asks different questions about processes and results.  Evolutionists, for instance, have made much of the notion or metaphor of a division of labour – it is found in Charles Darwin, in Herbert Spencer, and right down to the present and to Ed Wilson. I can well imagine a non-industrial society for which the division was alien, in which case it would hardly be usable in evolutionary biology.  But then the Ed Wilsons of that society would ask other questions about their ants – if indeed, they found the ants a particularly interesting group – and I see no reason why they might not get different answers.  Their science might or might not be as rich as ours, but that is a different matter.

(If you object that only an industrial society could support such a science as ours, I am prepared to take that as a reasonable hypothesis.  But still I would argue for the cultural impregnation of science.  I see not a priori reason why an industrial society must have a unique insight into reality.  And if you object that the very success of such a society proves that it has such an insight, then I would point to that very successful industrial society in Japan, which flayed the hide of the American auto industry in part because it broke from such notions as the virtues of a mindless division of labour.)

Now in the light of all of this, what about my critics (see Metaviews 029)?  Ursula Goodenough represents your good, old-fashioned, bluff scientist who thinks that science is about untarnished realty, and that if you ask hard enough the answers will be forthcoming.  Of course, in a sense I agree with her.  The only thing is that I think the whole matter of the questions is a lot more loaded – culturally loaded – than she suspects.  Kuhn is right about this.  Your theory or paradigm – which he like me thought to be deeply metaphorical (rather, I like him think deeply metaphorical) – dictates the meaningfulness of the questions and the appropriateness of the answers.  Some theories or paradigms are better than others, but they are all culturally impregnated.

I am rather touched by Ursula’s faith in the rigour of the scientific process.  Anyone who thinks that placing an article in Science or Cell has nothing to do with your pedigree – your supervisor, or your university – is naive indeed.  Study after study has shown that folk from Harvard get papers placed, whereas folk from Guelph do not. (This is not sour grapes.  I am not a scientist.)  In any case, rigour is simply not enough.  I suspect that Ursula agrees with me that Christianity is factually false – Jesus Christ was not the son of God, he did not rise on the third day, and he does not offer eternal salvation.  Yet the training of and demands on the Jesuits are equal to anything to be found at MIT or Cal Tech.  Why insist that one crew has a lien on the truth and the other does not?  I agree that one crew does have such a lien, but sincerity and activity is not enough to make the cut between the two.

Since Phil Skell finds me verbose, the temptation is to move straight on without a word, lest I offend again.  But let me pause to say that if he really has trouble seeing why Lorenz’s Nazi beliefs were vile, then we simply do not have a common standard of discourse.  But for the record let me say that in ethics or morality I believe one can have intersubjective – objective – standards, as I would argue we have in science.  Yet, morality like science is culturally impregnated.  In the nineteenth century, people thought that it was appropriate to give boys a level of education one would not give to girls.  We today would not agree – the Vet College at the University of Guelph has in my time gone from an annual intact of 80 men and 4 women, to 100 students over 90% of which are always women – but I am loathe to say that our forefathers were evil or immoral people.  They just had different ways of looking at things (in part based on science which we would now reject).  Lorenz was wrong because, by the twentieth century, it was known that Nazi science (so called) was false.  He as a scientist should have been sensitive to this fact, rather than simply serving his own selfish professional ends.  We today have the right and obligation to condemn his beliefs and actions back then, and I do.

John Cramer seems like a nice man and I have no desire to be rude, but he suffers from the same naivete as does Ursula Goodenough.  The fact is that science is big business and provides satisfying careers, usually at public expense, for many people.  It is hard work and very tense-making if you are going to do it well.  Many are called but few are chosen.  For every smiling Nobel Prize winner in Stockholm in December, there are ten at home with acid burning through the linings of their stomachs, as they writhe in jealousy and the feeling of having been diddled out of their rightful inheritance (not necessarily through fraud, but through prejudice and the like).  But for all of its demands and hurts, science is a satisfying way of life which has its many rewards.

To keep this up, you have got to convince your patrons – politicians, foundations, donors, the public – that what you are doing is worth the expense.  Worth our expense.  The fact is that noble appeals to the virtues of pure discovery are going to get you precisely nowhere. You have got to offer hopes of the cure for cancer, or for miracle new foodstuffs, or for ways of beating the Russians (Iranians, Iraqis, Serbs, whatever) into the ground.  And so this is precisely what scientists do.  They are no more heinous than the rest of us, but do not try to convince me that they are pure and disinterested seekers after the truth.  And anyone who has filled out a grant application – even philosophers – knows only too well that confidence is what is needed.  The very last thing you should do is leave the granting committee with the impression that you are all at sea – “Give me the money and let me see what I can do.”  Rather, you rush on regardless, over the gaps and the problems, happy to assure people that you know what you are doing and will get to the desired end within the granting period.

Michael Barnes agrees with what I have to say, underlining my points with additional ones of his own.  He seems to me like a wise man.  I am glad that Meta has readers of this quality.

Further Reading: In my The Darwinian Revolution: Science Red in Tooth and Claw (University of Chicago Press, second edition 1999), I give a basic account of Darwinism and its arrival on the scene.  There is much about the religious and philosophical currents of the day, and about their significance in understanding the revolution and Darwin’s achievements.  In my Taking Darwin Seriously: A Naturalistic Approach to Philosophy (Prometheus Books, second edition 1999), I try to give a sceptic’s account of epistemology and ethics from a naturalistic Darwin-impregnated position.  This book has been the object of more criticism than any other that I have written.  Naturally enough, I think it is my most important work of philosophy.  In my Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology (Harvard University Press, 1996), I look at the whole history of evolutionary thought, trying to disentangle the epistemic and the cultural, seeing their relationship and relative importance.  In Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction? (Harvard University Press, 1999) I continue this quest, looking at matters to do with objectivity and subjectivity, as well as at the significance of metaphor in science. I am now writing a book (for which I won a Templeton Award) which will complete my Harvard trilogy.  In Darwin and Design: Science, Philosophy, and Religion, I will look at some of these matters in a broader perspective trying to see how they make sense in the overall scheme of things.  Stay tuned!