Several decades ago I had a patient with complex needs that boiled down to what’s called “personality disorder”, combined with a low IQ. The problems presented as a great dependency on a weekly fix of doctor, on whom she could offload her many nebulous problems and vaguely uncomfortable feelings. She actually managed reasonably well on that.
At some point I lost touch as she drifted to a new medical crutch, but when I did get to see her again there was a significant difference, in that she’d been told, somewhere in the psychiatric referral system, that she was suffering from “depression”. Her problems were now all focused on that explanation, a very incomplete if not entirely incorrect one. I can’t say she was any more or less ill, but she was certainly less willing to attempt to deal with life issues herself, because the enemy was now a medical condition beyond her control.
In most cases of true depression, the diagnosis is a huge relief, as it defuses the overwhelming sense that ones own failure is the problem and enables one to fight the right enemy, through to recovery. But in this case, the patient sadly had little innate sense of self-worth to recover, and so the medical “knowledge” simply added to her load. It certainly changed, quite radically, the nature of the problems she had.
I felt a little of that in reading Thomas Kuhn’s indispensible book on The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It has cast a new and essential light on the history of science, and on the way it actually works as contrasted to the textbook myth. So it has undoubtedly earned its reputation as a “game changer”. But by revealing what was previously an unselfconscious set of processes, it has changed not only the understanding of “paradigm shifts” in science, but like my patient’s diagnosis of depression, probably the nature of any future scientific revolutions in themselves. There is a big difference between feeling ill, and sticking your tongue out at the mirror in case you might be. As in quantum physics, observing a process alters it.
Nowadays, especially in the context of blogs like this, the big Kuhnian question is whether Neodarwinism is in the process of undergoing a paradigm shift, or not. In terms of diagnostics, it’s worth remembering that in Kuhn’s book Darwinism is treated mainly as an example of a revolution back in the day, and no questions are raised about its own present status.
But I would have to say that, according to the various criteria Kuhn lays down, Michael Denton was being no more than descriptive when he called Neodarwinism “a theory in crisis”, which is a terminus technici in Kuhn rather than a criticism. To Kuhn, all theories eventually reach a state of crisis, pending their replacement, so it would be surprising if Neodarwinism should be an exception. The only question is whether that time is at hand or not.
Several of Kuhn’s markers are, as far as I can judge, in place. For a start there is without doubt widespread questioning of whether the old paradigm is adequate from within the scientific community itself. That shouldn’t need too many examples, but one big one is ENCODE, which is certainly raising big questions and contriversy, if the number of aggressive edits on Wikipedia is a clue.
A second Kuhnian marker is also commonly cited, and that is the addition of “epicycles” to account for anomalies in the paradigm. An example of that might be convergent evolution, which isn’t especially well-accounted for by randon variation and natural selection (or by any other mechanism as yet) but is regularly used to explain surprising non-homologous similarities, thus making the surprise seem normal.
A third of Kuhn’s markers is the multiplication of variants of a theory within the paradigm. Perhaps the uneasy truce between adaptive and neutral evolution, or gradualism and punc eek, would illustrate that, but also referenced in the book is the phenomenon of different specialities developing distinct understandings of the same theory, which certainly appears to be the case, from the mutual accusations of failure to understand the theory of evolution between molecular biologists, evolutionary biologists, population geneticists, palaeontologists, and so on.
A fourth feature to which he points is the tendency for the underlying philosophical foundations of a theory to be examined more around the time of a paradigm shift. That too appears to be the case with current evolutionary theory, as a number of the dissidents revisit the nature of causality in Goethian or Aristotelian terms. By the same token, one might find more professional philosophers questioning the theory on philosophical grounds as opposed to assuming its truth, as before. Pigliucci and Nagel come to mind.
Lastly Kuhn points to the development of a number of rival theories which, before a paradigm change, all fail to win the day because they do not have sufficient explanatory power to displace the original theory. The plethora of newly proposed mechanisms for evolution seems to fit that bill – the wide variations, for example, in the theories of those challenging the theory from within (such as the Altenberg 16 and the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis) or more consciously from the outside (such as the Third Way, apparently now becoming known as the Oxford 50, or even Intelligent Design, whose call for a change in science is probably more radical than most in its rejection of naturalism). It could be that one of these will prevail, but on historical precedent it’s more likely that some young scientist will propose an as yet unforeseen principle that unites most of the phenomena accounted for by Neodarwinism with all, or most, of the disparate contenders.
So far then, in my view, Kuhn would regard twenty-first century Neodarwinan evolutionary theory as being, under his criteria, in crisis in the sense of showing the relevant signs of awaiting a new paradigm. You may or may not agree, but that’s not my main concern here, for Kuhn’s book deals with theories in retrospect, and everyone will know soon enough if evolution does undergo its own revolution. No, what occurred to me as resulting from his thesis is that, unlike any previous situation is science, everyone is now fully aware of Kuhn, and his name is constantly dropped with respect to evolution – Michael Denton being just one, already mentioned, example.
How might such a sense of self-consciousness of possible change play out? I somehow doubt it would result in the easing of the wheels of change. Kuhn points out both the negative effects of resistance to change (the diehards refusing to accept new evidence and so on), and also the positive effects of such resistance, in maintaining a working paradigm against a descent into anarchy until there is something better to replace it. The fact is that those with vested interests, whether emotional, professional, financial or political, in an old paradigm will not have those motives much altered by reading that they are normal, in history and philosophy of science texts like Kuhn’s. Quite a few will, in all probability, reject those texts altogether as nonsense simply because they cut too close to the bone. That may account in part for the strong thread of anti-philosophical and anti-historical sentiment in the hard biological sciences, justified by those other disciplines not being hard sciences.
Others may decide that though scientific paradigms do undergo revolutions, their particular theory is too valuable to be allowed to “succumb”. In other words, the realisation of threat, in a manner that former generations of scientists lacked, might lead to more organised and desperate measures for self-defence. I just wonder if some of the experience of outright hostility from “the establishment” expressed by so many of those with alternative views on evolution might result from such entrenchment. If such a thing exists, it is likely to be more bitter nowadays simply because the forces involved are so much greater in science than ever before. Spats between private scholars in Victorian times must surely be on a different scale from our Big Science, supported by Big Universities, Big Government and Big Media, all wielding Big Money. Paradigms have roots extending far beyond science itself nowadays.
Conversely, whereas in former times dissidents would say, “There’s something inadequate about the old theory – here’s a new one,” nowadays people are, perhaps, aware that they are trying to shift a paradigm. Is that healthy or unhealthy for the progress of science? I’m not sure, but I suspect it alters the dynamic quite markedly. One might be reminded of those leftist student politicians of the sixties who were perceived as simply protesting for their views, but were in fact following a particular theory of how to subvert the body politic.
One criticism heard about those who see weaknesses in the Neodarwinian synthesis – or in associated theories such as hypotheses about the origin of life – is that one cannot criticise a theory without providing a replacement. I was interested to see that Kuhn refers to that very situation, suggesting that scientific critics of a theory will always be seen as “bad workmen blaming their tools”. He even suggests that some workers, no longer content to work within an existing theory but unable to come up with a better, leave the field altogether in disillusion. But Kuhn does not say that critics of a theory ought to provide a replacement, but rather that this is what tends to happen in fact. In order to continue doing their science, even dissatisfied scientists will continue to work within the existing theory until (perhaps in some cases with a sense of relief) they see its replacement arrive.
When a theory is in crisis, then, one would expect a proportion of scientists to be living with a degree of cognitive dissonance rather than the far more unsatisfactory and unproductive experience of working without a theory, which really means the impossibility of working at all. I hadn’t considered such psychological inevitabilities before reading the book. There is no mileage in a working scientist renouncing a time-expired theory whilst it is still the only game in town. In any case, Kuhn points out that most “normal science” is the filling in of the details of a theory’s application, so people who ask big questions about the theory itself are always in a minority.
On the other hand, note that the motivations for such attitudes of “working with the paradigm for lack of a better” are essentially professional. If one wants to stay in a science, one has to work with the prevailing theoretical framework unless one seriously believes one is on to something new. In that sense, scientists (as professionals) simply can’t criticise a theory without coming up with a replacement. I identify with that from my professional career in medicine. I had doubts about some of the basic assumptions of conventional medical practice then, and even more now I am several years distanced from it. But there were all kinds of reasons, practical and psychological, for not abandoning the usual professional framework, for there is no other apart from non-professional frameworks.
However, that’s not true for the non-professional outsider, who is in one sense advantaged over the professional, even whilst lacking in-depth working knowledge (cf Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge) of a theory. An observer can afford to be agnostic in a way the professional cannot. He has no obligation to replace a deficient theory with a better, but is at liberty to say “a plague on both your houses” and play the field of possibilities. Even that role may have altered post-Kuhn, as science has become, in the Internet age, something on which the public has both a big stake (through taxes etc) and a bigger say than before – witness sociologist Steve Fuller’s concept of “Protscience“.
And so even if Neodarwinism turns out to be a genuine Kuhnian case of “a theory in crisis”, the very knowledge of the theory of paradigm shift may mean that the outcomes are as unpredictable as ever they were in earlier ages. Maybe Neodarwinism is set to continue to be as “certain as the law of gravity” for a long time to come.
On the other hand, there seem to be some recent murmurings even about the fundamental nature of gravity.