Literature Survey January 1996

Published in Origins & Design 17, no. 1

Zen Biology?

Jeffrey Levinton, “Life in the Tangled Lane,” a review of Stuart Kauffman, The Origins of Order, Evolution 49 (1995): 575-577.

In this review of Kauffman’s magnum opus, Levinton (Ecology and Evolution, SUNY Stony Brook) is cheerfully skeptical. “Kauffman’s model,” he writes, “is at once pervasive, explaining everything. But equally, it explains why we may never be able to explain anything in particular, which makes it come pretty close to Zen” (p. 575). Levinton argues that while “very powerful,” Kauffman’s central theory — the NK model of rugged fitness landscapes — is vastly overextended, into “great leaps” and “soaring flights of exciting and probably fanciful discourse” (p. 576). The data needed to test Kauffman’s ideas, Levinton worries, are not at hand. “At the morphological level so familiar to organismal biologists,” he writes, “we know essentially nothing about the role of complexity, even if so many choose to write about the subject at length. I suppose that this degree of confusion is why one can see prominently featured within the same journals one-parameter-tells-it-all optimal models along side of some prosody to the pervasiveness of contingency in evolutionary history. We are still in the dark, which leaves lots of room for nearly boundless assertion” (p. 577). In The Origins of Order, Levinton concludes, “you may see the future. Then again, you may be looking down a blind alley, poised on the edge of chaos” (p. 577).

Whewell on God and Knowledge

Laura J. Snyder, “It’s All Necessarily So: William Whewell on Scientific Truth,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 25 (1994): 785-807.

Snyder (Philosophy, Johns Hopkins) takes up William Whewell’s “antithetical” philosophy of science, so-called “for its attempt to combine seemingly opposed empirical and a priori elements” (p. 785). Whewell (1794-1866) was a mathematician, astronomer, and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, but is perhaps best known as among the first rank of English philosophers and historians of science in the mid 19th century. Snyder argues that one can make sense of Whewell’s “antithetical” epistemology only by looking to its theological foundation. “…without properly understanding the role of Whewell’s theology,” she notes, “it is impossible to understand not only Whewell’s notion of necessary truth, but also his resolution of the ultimate problem of his epistemology” (p. 795). Whewell anchored his understanding of knowledge on God’s authorship of the world. “On his view,” Snyder writes, “we are able to have knowledge of the world because the Fundamental Ideas which are used to organize our sciences resemble the Ideas used by God in his creation of the physical world.”

“The fact that this is so is no coincidence: God has created our minds such that ?they can and must agree with the world.’ God intends that we can have knowledge of the physical world, and this is possible only through the use of Ideas which resemble those that were used in creating the world….the Divine origin of both our Ideas and our world is what enables Whewell to claim that axioms knowable a priori from the meanings of our Ideas are informative about the empirical world, and necessarily true of it” (p. 796).

Sullivan vs. Dawkins

Lucy G. Sullivan, “Myth, metaphor and hypothesis: how anthropomorphism defeats science,” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 349 (1995): 215-218; and Richard Dawkins, “Reply to Lucy Sullivan,” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B. 349 (1995): 219-224.

A print debate between Richard Dawkins and an Australian critic of Dawkins’s theory of the “selfish gene.” Ms. Sullivan, the critic, complains that Dawkins’s writings have led to “a proliferation of pseudo-theories, who claim on our attention lies more in the realm of literature than of science” (p. 215). Dawkins, for his part, argues that Sullivan “unfortunately demonstrates that she has never read The Selfish Gene, never read Darwin,” and has misunderstood what she has read, leading to a “complete, root and branch, catastrophic misunderstanding of Darwin’s central idea of natural selection” (p. 219).

The Force of Predictions

Stephen G. Brush, “Prediction and Theory Evaluation in Physics and Astronomy,” in No Truth Except in the Details, eds. A.J. Kox and D.M. Siegel (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995), pp. 299-318.

Historian and philosopher of science Stephen Brush (University of Maryland) has long been studying what he terms “the dynamics of theory-change in science.” In this article, he presents several case studies (e.g., the Big Bang vs. steady-state cosmology, the origin of the Moon, gravitational light bending, and Hannes Alven’s plasma physics) to examine the impact of predictions on theory acceptance. Brush concludes that confirmed predictions provide “corroboration” of a hypothesis, but only in the minimalist sense of scientists voting with their publications (so to speak). Corroboration “merely makes it more reasonable to pursue that hypothesis than one that has not been corroborated,” and thus “there was a significant increase in publications on the theory [i.e., those theories in the case studies] that led to the prediction” (p. 314). Brush also stresses, however, that “if one’s basic assumptions and method are considered unacceptable by other scientists, no amount of empirical confirmation will force them to accept it. I say this not as a criticism of the scientific community, but simply as a fact about science which many philosophers of science ignore” (p. 307).

Haldane and Religion

Gordon McOuat and Mary P. Winsor, “J.B.S. Haldane’s Darwinism in its religious context,” British Journal for the History of Science 28 (1995): 227-31.

English biologist and science writer J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964) was one of the founders of the neo-Darwinian synthesis.

This article describes how his role “as an opponent of orthodox religion” (p. 228) was central to Haldane’s defense of evolution in general, and natural selection in particular. “Clearly,” McOuat and Winsor write, “Haldane believed that if could make natural selection more credible to his fellow biologists, he would be striking a blow in the war between science and religion. Haldane always loved a good fight” (p. 231).

Recognizing Newton

B.J.T. Dobbs, “Newton as Final Cause and First Mover,” Isis 85 (1994): 633-643.

Until her death in 1994, Betty Dobbs was Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. In this lecture, she evaluates the distortions of scientific histories, which may lead us to see thinkers of the past, such as Newton, in our own image. “…we unconsciously assume that their thought patterns were fundamentally just like ours. Then we look at them a little more closely and discover to our astonishment that our intellectual ancestors are not like us at all: they do not see the full implications of their own work; they refuse to believe things that are now so obviously true; they have metaphysical and religious commitments that they should have known were unnecessary for a study of nature; horror of horrors, they take seriously such misbegotten notions as astrology, alchemy, magic, the music of the spheres, divine providence, and salvation history” (p. 640). Newton’s system, Dobbs argues, “was very quickly coopted by the very -isms he fought, and adjusted to suit them. He came down to us as coopted, an Enlightenment figure without parallel who could not possibly have been concerned with alchemy or with establishing the existence and providence of a providential God” (p. 643).

The Architecture of Cells

Sheldon Penman, “Rethinking cell structure,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 92 (1995): 5251-57.

While his ideas of a complex cellular matrix are controversial (see, e.g., Science 268 [1995]: 1564-65), Sheldon Penman doesn’t apologize for them. Current cell biology is stuck on “solution biochemistry,” he argues. When the field awakens, however, it will turn to “cell architecture,” and realize that cytoskeletal structure can “illuminate that most vexing and refractory of puzzles — the nature and location of the genomic instructions dictating the form of cells, tissue, and, ultimately, organisms” (p. 5251). In this review, Penman (a member of the National Academy of Sciences and cell biologist at MIT) urges that conventional electronic microscopy has misled biologists, because it fails to reveal “most of cells’ architectural components.” This is critical, Penman is persuaded, to understanding the open questions surrounding the specification of biological form: “Form and structure are not natural subjects for biochemistry that, in the macroscopic world, deals with scalar quantities — i.e., amounts, rates, etc. Building the complex designs glimpsed in any anatomy or physiology text requires, at the very least, instructions that are vectorial — i.e., that specify direction and place. These instructions are encoded somewhere — it seems very likely that they reside in the heavily transcribed but “non-protein coding” DNA. Building staggeringly complex organs — e.g., brains or kidneys — by simply specifying the constituent protein components (as suggested by the more extreme formulations of molecular biology that genes are simply proteins) is unlikely. Such a strategy would be tantamount to trying to specify a bridge or an edifice by merely giving a list of parts. Indeed, Gray’s Anatomy, seen with an engineer’s eye, suggests that the complexity of the instruction sets for mammalian morphology require large regions of the genome: very likely much of most of the currently ignored, non-protein coding, 90% (or more) of the genome. I suspect that future cell scientists will marvel at the density and ingenuity of genome instructions for structure while wondering how we could overlook them for so long” (p. 5257).

Paul Nelson

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Paul A. Nelson is currently a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture and Adjunct Professor in the Master of Arts Program in Science & Religion at Biola University. He is a philosopher of biology who has been involved in the intelligent design debate internationally for three decades. His grandfather, Byron C. Nelson (1893-1972), a theologian and author, was an influential mid-20th century dissenter from Darwinian evolution. After Paul received his B.A. in philosophy with a minor in evolutionary biology from the University of Pittsburgh, he entered the University of Chicago, where he received his Ph.D. (1998) in the philosophy of biology and evolutionary theory.