Sunday, August 19, 2012

As I was saying...

The Popperazi's problem with induction keeps making them say silly stuff. Richard Dawkins posted a claim that a single fossil could refute the theory of evolution. Laurence Moran properly rebutted this. My comment follows.

Of course Prof. Moran is correct.

If, that is, you do not accept the falsificationist mantra. Dawkins' statement is scientifically wrong, grossly disrespecting the factual content of science as it really is. But it is philosophically respectable, and particularly popular with those who want to adhere to a predictivist vision of science. It seems to me that this position is held by a majority of scientists whenever they talk about science outside their professional journals.

My best judgment is that this philosophical viewpoint is so popular because of its origins in Popper's anti-Communism, which is not a dead issue. It is also adaptable to attacks on supposedly liberal viewpoints in the social sciences, as in evolutionary psychology. Consult the works of Steven Pinker for the current leader in pop science philosophizing in the US.

The thing is, errors like Dawkins' are not a simple misunderstanding of science, but outcomes of a conservative world outlook. Isn't probable that you can't make progress in refuting such nonsense without demonstrating the bias that led to it?

Prof. Moran followed up with a link to T. Ryan Gregory, which was an excellent detailed rebuttal. Being me, it seemed more could be said. My comment follows.

Pretty good article. In practice, if you look at the contemporary evidence from embryology and genetics showing common descent, the testing and exploration of the idea lead directly to writing the history of life. This is particularly true since paleontological evidence provides fossil evidence that raises a host of questions about the history of life (path, as you put it.) But, separating the fact of common descent from its history highlights the point that corrections to the science does not erase the mountain of evidence confirming the broad generalization of evolution. It is very common to talk about science as something provisional. In all everyday language something provisional is a short-term arrangement, equally liable to complete abolition as to correction. Strongly corroorated inductions like evolution are corrigible, not provisional.
Although what you say about Coyne’s version of evolution is impressively cogent and correct, might it not be possible to comment on the pattern in his recension? 1. It seems to me Coyne limits himself to microevolution rather than macroevolution because controlled experiments are possible there in a way unfeasible to macroevolution, which must rely on historical evidence. Many natural scientists (and more philosophers) deny a priori the possibility of an historical science. 2. I think he conceives gradualism as an essential component because the population genetics of natural selection requires gradual change. I think he’s making a claim that natural selection is the main driver of change, to the extent that it’s falsification would refute evolution. 3. I think that here Coyne is tacitly conceding the existence of a huge body of paleontological data demonstrating the reality of macroevolution without actually saying anything about macroevolution. Again, I think he is extremely uncomfortable about the scientificity of historical sciences, even the natural historical sciences. Certainly Popperians are, and this article is pretty explicitly Popperian. 4.What Coyne himself calls the converse of #3 is desirable because it starts from the experimentally available present instead of the suspect past. By those lights, I suppose this is not superfluous. 5. Prof. Coyne directs much of his commentary to people tempted by creationism. The real point of defining natural selection causing the appearance of design as essential to evolution is to highlight its nature as a scientific explanation.
Notably (I think) the proposed falsifications appear to imply that evolution is something even narrower than the five point list above. 1. The point about fossils may be Popperian. Occasionally, as here, I see a scientist implying that’s kind of foolish. But my powerful impression is that both the majority of scientists and the large majority of lay people adhere to predictivism and falsifiability and such Popperian folderol. If you believe this, it is in principle “reasonable” to regard evolution as a provisional hypothesis awaiting falsification by fossis etc. stuff. Hence, the importance of emphasizing the many times evolution has survived falsification, instead of simply pointing to the evidence.
2. The emphasis on the selfishness of adaptations is the selfish gene or Spencerian survival of the fittest Social Darwinism considered the essence of Darwinian theory. 3. The emphasis on genetic variety within a species is deemed essential because it is the material for intraspecific competition, key to projecting Darwinian struggle into society.Social Darwinist justifications for the social order are only as powerful as the alleged biological differences in individuals. 4.The key point for Coyne I think is the increasing fitness of adaptations. The Social Darwinist names the survivor as superior, not just lucky, not just a random variation, not just another step in a predetermined process, but inherently superior. 5. In many respects this is just #2 restatedin intraspecific rather than interspecific terms. Evidently Coyne regards selfishness as absolutely essential to his view of evolution.
#6. This restates the selfishness of genes yet again, this time in terms of behavior. This is implicitly aimed against the notion of culture, I think. All these suggest an agenda of defending evolutionary psychology’s version of evolution. I gather that Coyne would deny this. But something like this post or his absurd defense of Steven Pinker’s lame intervention against Edward O. Wilson say otherwise. His outrage at Wilson really seems to have little other ground.
7. The key term is “complete discordance” I think. This is entirely true I think. Your objection that we would rethink evolution actually concedes the point I believe. If genetic and fossil data were completely discordant, our scientific views really wouldn’t be what we would now consider “evolution.” But this is completely counterfactual. Nature has already done that experiment and the results are in. This is more or less a waste of time, unless you buy into Popperism.
Thanks for the post.

No typos were harmed in the making of this post.

No comments:

Post a Comment