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50 Years On: Thank You, Thomas Kuhn

Fifty years ago, when I started my life as a philosopher, one rigid distinction that we were taught was the difference between the “context of discovery” and the “context of justification.” A scientist might come up with an idea in the daftest manner – the favorite was Kerkulé discovering the circular nature of the benzene ring by seeing in the flickering flames of a fire a snake swallowing its tail – but the proof of the pudding lay in whether the evidence supported it. We philosophers needed to know nothing about the former and everything about the latter. The feeling was that history of science, which deals with discovery, is basically gossip.

Then in 1962 – 50 years ago this year – along came Thomas Kuhn and his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He drove a horse and four through the distinction, arguing that unless you know something of how and why a scientist gets his or her ideas, even as a philosopher you are missing something very important. Origins do matter, all of the time. Not that I think that Kuhn was a relativist, thinking that only origins matter. Some have taken him this way, or at least have used his authority to go down that path. His point rather was that to understand the present, you must understand the past.

That was one of the most important insights I have ever grasped. In a way, as an evolutionist, it was an easy one. If evolution tells you anything, it is that you had better not forget the past. But I don’t want to dwell too much on that. I am talking about culture (including science) not organisms, and I for one am not overly keen on simple analogies between biological change and cultural change. Richard Dawkins’s theory of memes, for instance, seeing units of culture akin to units of heredity, seems to me (shall we say) rather less than helpful. At most it puts in fancy language what we know already.

What I do want to dwell on is how this last weekend – at a small workshop in Paris on evolution and economics – the staggering importance of Kuhn’s thinking came home again to me. I was talking on a topic that obsesses evolutionists like David Barash. At what level does natural selection act? Is natural selection something that works always for and only for the individual – are we all ultimately nothing but selfish genes – or can it sometimes (often?) work for the benefit of the group, even the species? In other words, if one organism does something for another organism, does it always have to be enlightened self-interest, or can it be true, disinterested altruism? Giving and not counting the cost?

Most evolutionists think the former. They are not meanies – even with his obsession about female orgasms, I don’t think anyone would say that about David – but they worry about the problem of cheating. If I give to you but you don’t reciprocate, then I am losing resources and you are gaining them, and natural selection will favor you. In the long run, real altruism doesn’t stand a chance.

However there has always been a subgroup of evolutionists – the distinguished Harvard ant specialist and sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson is the latest representative – who think that selection can indeed favor the group. The benefits of hanging together rather than hanging separately, even if you yourself don’t gain, are so great that selection can promote genuine niceness. Needless to say, humankind is always a subtheme – not so “sub” actually – and a great attraction of “group selection” is that it seems to make for the possibility of genuine goodness evolving in humankind. We are not just out for Number One.

Our little workshop brought home to me how engrained this difference is in evolutionary thinking, dividing the two great discoverers of natural selection – Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin, a very rich man, was a beneficiary of the Industrial Revolution – his maternal grandfather was Josiah Wedgwood, the founder of the pottery works – and the economic philosophy of Adam Smith was (to use a phrase) gospel. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” This is absolutely and totally Darwin’s take on natural selection.

Wallace by contrary was about as low and unsuccessful a member of the middle classes as it was possible to be – he remarked of his father that he achieved peace of mind by knowing that he could fall no further – and from his youth Wallace was an ardent socialist. As a young teenager, he had heard the socialist mill owner Robert Owen, and always through his very long life looked upon Owen as his greatest inspiration. For him, natural selection had to be at times a group phenomenon. Later he bound this all up with a belief in spiritualism, but the latter was an add-on to the more fundamental belief that selection can work for good and not just for self.

The division persists. Don’t take me as saying that the empirical evidence is irrelevant. It isn’t, and most evolutionists – and I am one – think the evidence points to selection for and only for the individual. But in respects, scientists are a bit like the religious. Once they have a bee in their bonnet, they can always find something to support their position. And if all else fails, there is always statistics. Universal flood, sacred golden plates, group selection, adaptive female orgasms – something can be found to support them. Nothing stops a believer on the roll. (Ha Ha! You knew I was going to say something before I finished to upset David Barash. In a way, it is a bit mean, like taking candy from a kiddie.)

Teasing apart, there is a serious point here. History counts, in science as elsewhere. And if for that reason and for no other, that is why I am profoundly grateful for the influence that Thomas Kuhn’s great The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has had on my life as a philosopher.

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