Imprimir Republish


Darwin and the new view of science

Darwin_treewikimedia commonsThe Origin of the Species, the first edition of which was published in 1859, had an impact not only on the field of natural history and the disciplines that we nowadays refer to as biology sciences, but also on our own way of viewing and conceiving scientific activity.  In England, the field of natural history in Darwin´s time was often confused with “ natural theology,” when the naturalists (very often unassuming clergymen) believed that the apparent perfection of adaptations and co-adaptations were evidence of divine intentions, emphasizing the harmony of nature.  The backdrop of the queries had been characterized by major disputes, on which the thoughts of Charles Darwin would be decisive.  On  the level  of geological and paleontological debates, the main dispute was between “catastrophism”  versus “ uniformitarianism.”  The uniformitarians defended “ gradualism, the slow and gradual occurrence of events, according to the operating uniformity of the laws of nature in action, throughout time, of observable causes and still today responsible for the phenomena, without resorting to uncommon events or extraordinary powers to explain them. The catastrophists accepted the occurrence of catastrophes, cataclysms that radically changed the face of the Earth and the living conditions on it, and required the restoring intervention of an extraordinary force. This attitude was a perfect match for the “ creationist”  view in regard to the origin of the species. In regard to this latter issue, the big dispute was “ creationism vs. Evolutionism”, which took on a strongly emphasized local flavor in England, because of the influence of “ natural theology;” Both terms underwent different meanings. In regard to “ evolutionism,” the differences were, above all, related to the mechanism of change. As for “ creationism,”  this word took on different levels of commitment with the idea of divine intervention for the explanation of natural phenomena. The creationism which Darwin clearly opposes has a very technical meaning:  it is the view that each species is the result of a special act of creation.

Darwin’s great contribution to the origin of the species issue was the mechanism of this natural selection theory (the preservation and accumulation in the required direction of the variables useful to their bearer and the elimination of the harmful ones), through which the production of new and “ more improved”  organic forms takes place. Darwin, in his Introduction to the Origin of the Species, said that to defend evolutionism it was not enough to admit evolution without showing its mechanism. (This is why it is debatable, in Darwin, to distinguish the theory of evolution from his theory of natural selection.) This new way of viewing the key issue of Origin will decisively reflect on the research studies conducted in various fields of natural history, with various new departments being created and re-organized:

“When the views developed by me and by Mr. Wallace in this volume, or when the analogous views on the origin  of the species are generally admitted, we can divine that there will be a considerable revolution in natural history.” (1872, pg. 425).
“The other more general natural history departments will grow enormously in terms of attracting interest.  The terms used by the naturalists, related to affinity, relations, kind of community, paternity, morphology, adaptable characters, rudimentary and aborted organs, etc.  will no longer be metaphors and will take on full meanings.  When we no longer look at an organic being in the manner of a savage looking at a ship, as something totally beyond his comprehension, when we begin to consider each production by nature as something that has had a long history, when we begin to contemplate each complex structure and instinct as the sum of so many ingenious events, each one useful to its owner, in the same manner that a mechanical invention is the sum of work, experience, reasoning and even of the mistakes of so many workers; when we begin to look at each organic being – I refer to my own experience – then the field of natural history will become so much more interesting!
A vast and almost virgin field of study will open up on the causes and laws of variation, of correlation […] The study of domestic productions will increase tremendously in value.” […] – (emphasis added) (1872, p. 426)

In addition to answering the question of evolution and responding to the objections raised about his work, Darwins efforts brought us – among many other things – a new view of scientific procedure standards. The relationship of Darwinian “ explanation”  with the “ scientific”  criteria and procedures of his times is as rich, multi-faceted and sometimes as ambiguous as such scientific standards are.  But the connotations that Darwin lends to what is an explanation-related task represent one of the strongest indicators of their contemporary nature. All the time during his explanatory task, Darwin is attuned to the fact that “ explaining”  always depends on a specific theoretical view or supposition and, especially, on the comparison of different views, particularly in cases such as his own, when, according to his words, there is no single fact of the listed facts that cannot be viewed in a different manner than his own. Comparing the acuity and broader range of his view with an opposite view will be one of Darwins basic strategies while building up and defending his own theory. A major result of this strategy is the “ explaining”  of results when presenting the best possible explanatory alternative – which happens to be the Darwinian theory – and, this, later on, becomes the only possible rational explanation.  When comparing his theory with that of his opponents, by means of his responses to their objections, Darwin normally resorts to various procedures acknowledged as being “ scientific”:  systematic observation, experiments, substitution of facts under rules, studies of exemplifying cases, classification, use of diagrams, illustrations, discussions, comparative and analogical tables. Some of the other procedures are quite innovative, such as the information network he created in his correspondence, the handling of difficulties and objections to his theory, the game of what is real (that which is given) and that which is possible (that which can be given, without logical or factual impossibility) when explaining and evaluating the merits of our explanations.  He requests that the explanatory power of theory “ as a whole” be taken into consideration, _as well as his use of imagination, metaphors and their appeals to the explanatory power as a whole.  He requests the acknowledgement of the extension of our ignorance – in spite of our efforts – of the authority of the scientific community with its values and ideals, the psychological conditions of scientific investigation and the progress of research that a theory allows.  These “ innovative”  procedures are echoed in many recent analyses of scientific investigation, that emphasize the relationships between theory and “ models,” attuned to the complexities of the relationships between theoretical unity and empirical testing, and to the substantial role of argumentative strategies.

1.  At this point, the text resorts to references in the 6th British edition (1872), the last edition revised by Darwin himself (The origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: John Murray, 1872).

Anna Carolina Krebs Pereira Regner is a professor and researcher of the Post-graduate Program in Philosophy at Unisinos University, in the State of Rio Grande do Sul. She has published various papers on Darwinian theory.