It’s Creation Science Fair time! »« Happy Darwin Day!

I shall not even try to list all the things science has failed to anticipate

Help me wrap my brain around this tweet. I can’t grok it.

Philosophers’ historic failure to anticipate Darwin is a severe indictment of philosophy. Happy Darwin Day!

John Wilkins isn’t helping.

Likewise, scientists’ failure to anticipate The Beatles is a severe indictment on science.

Don’t you mean Pink Floyd, John?

Also, since Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus was a philosopher and poet, and since his work did anticipate (incompletely) evolution, couldn’t we say that a philosopher actually did anticipate Darwin, and he was a Darwin too? We could also declare that the poets got there first.

And since Darwin considered himself a natural philosopher, couldn’t we also say that a philosopher did more than anticipate, but actually came up with Darwin’s theory of evolution?

Darwin appreciated philosophy, but also thought it essential to include experiment and observation. In his Autobiography he actually praised his education in philosophy.

Again in my last year I worked with some earnestness for my final degree of B.A., and brushed up my Classics together with a little Algebra and Euclid, which latter gave me much pleasure, as it did whilst at school. In order to pass the B.A. examination, it was, also, necessary to get up Paley’s Evidences of Christianity, and his Moral Philosophy. This was done in a thorough manner, and I am convinced that I could have written out the whole of the Evidences with perfect correctness, but not of course in the clear language of Paley. The logic of this book and as I may add of his Natural Theology gave me as much delight as did Euclid. The careful study of these works, without attempting to learn any part by rote, was the only part of the Academical Course which, as I then felt and as I still believe, was of the least use to me in the education of my mind.

He also respected William Whewell, a philosopher (and a theologian. Christ, we’re screwed here!).

Dr. Whewell was one of the older and distinguished men who sometimes visited Henslow, and on several occasions I walked home with him at night. Next to Sir J. Mackintosh he was the best converser on grave subjects to whom I ever listened.

Whewell is also the guy who invented the term “scientist” to describe practitioners of a specific branch of…philosophy. I guess it was a philosopher who anticipated scientists.

And, apparently, Darwin’s shipmates on the Beagle called him “philosopher”!

The first Lieutenant, however, said to me: “Confound you, philosopher, I wish you would not quarrel with the skipper; the day you left the ship I was dead-tired (the ship was refitting) and he kept me walking the deck till midnight abusing you all the time.

So I am confused. How can anyone use Darwin Day as an excuse to indict philosophy? It’s as if I used my birthday as an opportunity to cuss out my dad.

Comments

  1. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Hieroglyphic scribes’ historic failure to anticipate alphabetical writing is a severe indictment of Pharaonic Egypt.

  2. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Early agriculturalists’ historic failure to anticipate Roundup Ready soybeans is a severe indictment of Catal Huyuk’s culture.

    Probably why they disappeared. Not to mention the Maya.

  3. doublereed says

    I took it as silly humor. Isn’t that the kind of thing that creationists and the like say about science?

    That’s how I took it. Shrug.

  4. gussnarp says

    Dawkins is just really bad at Twitter. At least that’s what I’ve decided. Not to say he doesn’t also have some bad ideas, but when he tweets he lacks all nuance and explanatory power and his bad ideas and good ideas all come out sounding like execrable ideas.

    This one could be a bad idea, or it could be a bad joke. I mean, it’s almost got to be an attempt at sarcastic humor, right? Why would philosophy be expected to predict anything? Maybe there’s some kind of comment about science’s failure to predict something that he’s trying to play off of?

    And yeah, your point about Darwin calling himself a natural philosopher is important. Back in those days, science was still an emerging discipline and basically a subset of philosophy. It had yet to come into its own and pretty much every scientist was a philosopher. If I wanted to cast aspersions on philosophy, my argument would be that philosophy no longer contributes any new knowledge and has been entirely subsumed by science. Philosophy gave birth to and contained science, but science has grown and replace philosophy as a generator of knowledge. Not that there was anything wrong with philosophy two hundred hears ago. But I don’t want to cast aspersions on philosophy, so I won’t do that.

  5. gussnarp says

    Ah, I see everyone beat me to the punch on the suggestion that it was a joke whilst my brain went on a little side trip into the nature of science and philosophy.

  6. says

    I think the general idea Dawkins had in mind was this: evolution and/or the concept of natural selection more specifically feels obvious to us –> feels weird that philosophers did not come up with it earlier.

    This is not necessarily a valid “indictment” of philosophers, though (let alone a severe one).

  7. Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human. says

    Hero of Alexandria’s failure to anticipate 5,200 horsepower, simple articulated steam locomotives is an indictment of the philosophers of the first century BCE.

    Yeah. I think it was a joke poking fun at certain asshole liars for Christ creationists.

    Failure to anticipate a future development, a future idea, a future use of an existing idea or invention, is not an indictment of predecessors. Hell, who would have thought that cell phones would be replacing home phones thirty years ago? Or that home computers would have opened up a porn market that was inconceivable even twenty years ago? I failed to anticipate both of those. So did almost all of us. Does that mean that, since it is obvious now, that we failed?

    The joke doesn’t work. For me, anyway. Your mileage may vary. Not to be taken internally. Produced by a nut in a manufactured facility.

  8. Sastra says

    My own guess is that Dawkins was indicting the philosophical theory of Pure Rationalism, which posits that Truth can be discovered through intellectual work alone, no need to go out and check or gather information or anything. Armchair Philosophy, in other words. As opposed to science, which is the philosophy which weds rationalism to empiricism to good effect.

    If that’s the case, then Dawkins has once again been tone-deaf to the problem of equating “philosophy” with “armchair philosophy” — particularly since as I understand it the latter is mostly a straw man and hasn’t really been popular outside of religion in hundreds of years.

    KEEP HIM OFF TWITTER.

  9. bigz says

    I took it as meaning that if thinking was all we had to do to figure out evolution, they philosophy would have done it.

    Evolution took years of research, travel and physical work to figure out.

  10. doublereed says

    Can we agree to properly ignore Dawkins’ Twitter? To say he doesn’t represent himself well on twitter is a massive understatement.

  11. Rob Grigjanis says

    It kind of fell flat, I’m afraid.

    It’s an Oxbridge joke. They’re supposed to fall flat, like New Yorker cartoons.

  12. MadHatter says

    I struggle to understand twitter but I tried to go look at the conversation, but this follow up from Dawkins suggests that it wasn’t actually a joke?

    It's precisely BECAUSE philosophers did so many other brilliant things that I expressed amazement that they missed natural selection.— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) February 12, 2014

  13. says

    We’ve had a succession of scientists badly abusing philosophy, so even if it was intended as a joke, it was poorly timed and wasn’t clear enough to be read as a joke…so yeah, it could be a philosophical Poe.

    But I don’t like Poes, either.

  14. Muz says

    I’m guessing some philosopher said “Science’s failure to anticipate..something something..is a terrible indictment”.
    Or something…

  15. gussnarp says

    @bigz – If that was his intent, then it demonstrates why he fails at Twitter. In his effort to say it with wit and brevity, he left out clarity. But your version, with some modest editing, fits nicely in a tweet and at least encompasses brevity and clarity:

    If thinking was all we had to do to figure out evolution, philosophy would have done it. It took years of research, travel and work.

  16. gussnarp says

    This, by the way, is why I think writing tweets, as well as other writing with mandated limits, is a useful exercise, if not always the best way to get a point across. At its best, one expresses an idea, then edits it by trimming away everything in excess. Finally, when nothing else can be trimmed without sacrificing meaning or sounding stupid, if you haven’t made it into the length requirement, then you’re using the wrong medium.

  17. gussnarp says

    @MadHatter #15 – That follow up makes PZ’s argument seem to be the appropriate response.

  18. houndentenor says

    Yes, everyone was observing the same world and didn’t see what Darwin saw. The same could be said of everyone before Isaac Newton. Or pretty much every other important scientist who discovered or quantified anything. The irony of these discoveries is that in almost every case someone else could just as easily have made the same observation/discovery only they didn’t.

  19. says

    I am the guy what figured out patterns of motoneuron organization in the zebrafish spinal cord. Where’s the philosopher who anticipated me, huh? I am amazed that they missed it.

  20. fourtytwo says

    I also don’t see it as a joke. I think he is saying that such a simple and elegant theory should at least have been predicted by philosophy, as with Democritus and atoms for example. However, as PZ pointed out, Erasmus did hint at the idea of evolution so it’s not the best argument.

  21. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    The irony of these discoveries is that in almost every case someone else could just as easily have made the same observation/discovery and may well have only they didn’t get it published and noticed.

    FIFY.

  22. carlie says

    I thought it was a joke on how some people say that science is bunk because science didn’t predict [insert sociological/philosophical situation here], so he was flipping it around to show how stupid it is to claim that one field is useless for not predicting things in another field entirely.

    But yeah, he needs to get off of Twitter. He’s spent his life being able to hold the floor as long as he wants, with people paying attention to the bitter end, so he has no idea how to be concise. It really is a learned skill.

  23. David Marjanović says

    Hieroglyphic scribes’ historic failure to anticipate alphabetical writing is a severe indictment of Pharaonic Egypt.

    Looks like they actually invented it – for use by other people. I can’t find where I read that, but the outcome is here.

  24. jsaj says

    And didn’t Aristotle come up with something very like evolution? I know that he dismissed it, but he still came up with it.

  25. MadHatter says

    @20 gussnarp

    I agree, I was just wondering if my lack of twitter skillz meant I missed something. But the bit of the conversation I read was just as silly as it sounds.

  26. says

    If you look at Dawkins’ Twitter feed, it doesn’t appear that he sees it as a joke as he has doubled-down on the claim several times.

    In addition, I think the claim is false. In fact, Aristotle discusses and rejects a version of evolution by natural selection in his Physics (Book II Part 8). The view he discusses there is an older view attributed to Empedocles (c. 490-430 BCE). Obviously these versions were not as nuanced and rigorous as Darwin’s (and they lacked the copious amounts of empirical evidence Darwin provides), but I think by any reasonable definition of the term they do in fact “anticipate” Darwin in much the same way that Democritus “anticipated” the atom. And that was 2400-2500 years ago. In general, the ancient Greeks did a pretty impressive job of articulating different possible metaphysical accounts of the world and the implications of those accounts. They simply lacked an understanding of how one could effectively decide among them; a development that would really have to wait until Bacon and the Scientific Revolution a couple of thousand years later.

  27. latsot says

    Ah what the hell, I’ll have a guess too.

    My guess is that Dawkins was trying to say something about how philosophers didn’t anticipate it because they were so mired in the historic mess of creationist assumptions and it took the application of science to free us from that. Or to put it another way, perhaps he means that nobody before Darwin applied a strictly biological approach to explaining the sorts of thing we expect present day philosophers to talk about. Not true but ah… maybe…. sort of OK in the context of the tweet providing you interpret it in the generous way I have here.

    I know, I know, I know it doesn’t make much sense. If he’d said “philosophy’s” instead of “philosophers’” it might have been kinda-sorta wrong rather than incoherent. In my imaginary scenario, philosophy is a failed discipline because it doesn’t rely on evidence. So just thinking about things didn’t work, possibly because religion, but testing things did work.

    There’s a germ of a point in there, but it’s one we all already know and one I’m really grasping at. And it’s still only a germ.

    So if Dawkins was saying that science answers questions that philosophy doesn’t and did so in this case, that’s…. kind of correct. Darwin’s brilliant application of the scientific method is the reason he’s so admired and the reason he made such an important contribution. Perhaps Dawkins was trying to say something like that, but who can say? And it would hardly be difficult to put that point in 140 characters. And it certainly – which is the point – wouldn’t imply a failing in philosophy.

    It would indicate that a particular way of doing thinking reliably results in reliable ways of saying what’s probably true.

  28. carlie says

    Yes, he is doubling down, but still doesn’t seem to understand what he’s saying.

    Philosophers’ historic failure to anticipate Darwin is a severe indictment of philosophy. Happy Darwin Day!

    Goodness, I hit a nerve! I’m genuinely CURIOUS why Darwin’s idea, simple enough to need only an armchair, had to wait for 19thC naturalists

    It’s precisely BECAUSE philosophers did so many other brilliant things that I expressed amazement that they missed natural selection.

    Yes indeed, it seems that Darwin needed the Beagle, not just an armchair. Er, that was kind of my POINT!

    His last tweet in that list entirely contradicts the first three. They say that it was a simple idea that one needed only to think of, so he’s amazed that philosophers didn’t do that. Then the last tweet is that going out and looking at things rather than just thinking about them was necessary, and claims that was his point.

  29. Menyambal --- making sambal a food group. says

    It’s a confusing message, Shirley.

    As Darwin noticed, every stock-breeder in the world had anticipated him.

    The philosophers of nature had thought of natural selection, even, but had focused only on the case where it eliminated unsuitable differences to keep the species homogenous (and suited to static conditions). Which was why Darwin focused on species splitting when circumstances changed.

    Darwin worked on building a good case, and took a long time about it. Wallace figured it out, wrote it down, and mailed it off … to Darwin. Both were philosopic, there.

    So Darwin gets credit for nailing it down, mostly due to all the hard work that he did. But as a philosopher, he was a step in the development of an idea … or would have been, if he hadn’t made a cast-iron staircase out of it.

    And as someone said, “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that.”

    As for Dawkins, and whatever he was thinking—indictment, really? I like how this blog doesn’t regard him as a great leader.

    Maybe he was regarding Darwin as a great leader.

  30. Menyambal --- making sambal a food group. says

    I am just read Dawkins’ follow-ups, and have the worst deja vu. Again.

  31. David Marjanović says

    His last tweet in that list entirely contradicts the first three.

    Dawkins has often published ideas while he was still thinking about them, hoping to start a discussion and never thinking about how this comes across.

    And as someone said

    Thomas Henry Huxley: “How stupid of me not to have thought of this myself!”

  32. coldthinker says

    Duh. Are PZ and other people being intentionally anti-Dawkins again? Jeez, the lengths you go to misunderstand his light statements. What is so hard about this one? Didn’t you read his previous tweets?

    Dawkins has often wondered why Darwinism wasn’t discovered before the 19th century. The point was his wondering why philosophy, an admittedly remarkable discipline of deep thinking, failed to come up with the simple idea of Darwinism, as in “the evolution by natural selection”. Arm chair philosophers had managed to come up with much more difficult ideas, strange that this obvious fact didn’t occur to them.

    It apparently took science, a method of collecting evidence and making tests, observations and predictions, before such a simple and almost self-evident basic principal of life was discovered. It shouldn’t have needed all those observations during the Beagle trip, simple logical thinking of a philosopher should have sufficed. So, there’s the joke explained, funny or not.

  33. Nick Gotts says

    Goodness, I hit a nerve! – Richard Dawkins

    Whenever anyone says that, you know they can’t actually support what they’ve said.

  34. Nick Gotts says

    David Marjanović@26,

    I’ve recently finished A History of Writing by Steven Roger Fischer, who says something similar, and just started Masters of the Word: How Media Shaped History by William Bernstein, who specifically suggests that Egyptian scribes showed some foreign guest-workers a few of the simpler signs…

  35. barbaz says

    @carlie 31,

    His last tweet in that list entirely contradicts the first three.

    No, it doesn’t. He said that he would expect a smart philosopher (which he admits existed) to be able to come up with evolution by natural selection only by thinking, but apparently (aka “it seems”) the beagle was necessary. This also isn’t the first time he expressed this opinion.

    I would agree however that none of this was obvious from the first two tweets alone.

  36. coldthinker says

    Ogvorbis,

    Wasn’t my point that it really was so obviously what he wrote, just didn’t this time use the exact words you (or perhaps I) would have chosen or preferred? There are thousands of ways to say a thing, and I didn’t find this particular way in any way confusing. So, I wonder why PZ found it so. From Dawkins, I thought its was poetic enough to justify the tweet. And kind of funny, considering the little semi-serious feud some philosophers and scientists are having. The idea being, philosophers are prone to make things too complicated, so they miss the simple truths like Darwinism.

    Perhaps he should have said “Darwinism” instead of “Darwin”, but isn’t it clear that when art historians say something like “the Italian city states gave birth to Leonardo and Michelangelo”, they actually talk about renessaince art, not giving birth to the two chaps.

    So, I do share Dawkins’s thought that it is a huge failing of philosophy that, after two, three millennia of deep thinking, philosophers didn’t manage to come up with the most essential and important fact about life on this planet. All the ideas of all the centuries of thousands of arm chair philosophers are more complicated, yet less important than this simple idea of one Charles Darwin.

    But you have a point, it is ironic that Dawkins makes a big deal of clear and understandable science writing, yet gets misunderstood once again. But in most cases, as in this one, I don’t think its’s about reading comprehension. I trust PZ and many, if not most, readers of Pharyngula are better at it than I am. People just want to find errors in whatever Dawkins happens to write, apparently so does PZ, too. Perhaps RD even considers it a compliment.

  37. Nick Gotts says

    Turning to the subject of Dawkins’ puzzlement, I think a large part of the answer is that “evolution by natural selection” was Darwin’s answer to questions that weren’t asked – because no-one had the knowledge necessary for it to make sense to ask them – before the late 18th century. Primarily:

    How is it that life has changed radically over very long periods of time?

    but also:

    What explains the geographical distribution of fauna and flora across continents and on remote islands?

    and:

    How is it that some species have become extinct?

    and:

    Why do some species that live in very similar ways and look superficially similar turn out to be very different in their anatomical structure, while some that live in very different ways and look superficially different turn out to have very similar anatomical structures?

    Another part of the answer is essentialism: almost all pre-18th century western philosophy was unquestioningly essentialist, following Plato: classes of things (such as species) are defined by their essential natures, which limit the extent to which members of the class can vary. Until the hold of this idea weakened, Darwin’s “tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type” (I quote from memory) was literally unthinkable.

  38. carlie says

    He said that he would expect a smart philosopher (which he admits existed) to be able to come up with evolution by natural selection only by thinking, but apparently (aka “it seems”) the beagle was necessary.

    Nope. He already knows that the Beagle was necessary, in which case he can’t possibly expect a smart philosopher to be able to come up with it otherwise. In that case, his first questions were rhetorical, and therefore should have been in the past tense. He said:

    I’m genuinely CURIOUS why Darwin’s idea, simple

    When, in fact, he is not curious at all, because he already knows that the Beagle is a crucial component. He could have said “I would be genuinely curious”, or “isn’t it then curious”, or anything that doesn’t indicate that he is STILL “genuinely CURIOUS”, because if it’s a rhetorical question, he isn’t.

    It’s only 140 characters – every word has to be correct if you want to get your meaning across.

  39. Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human. says

    coldthinker:

    Wasn’t my point that it really was so obviously what he wrote

    Ah. So am I an ignorant and uneducated rube who is so dumb that I ended up studying history? or a reflexive PZed worshiper who must, to keep my PZed card current, immediately hate anything Dawkins writes? Or, perhaps, what he wrote really isn’t all that clear. And his followups didn’t help much.

  40. carlie says

    …Because if the point is “someone should have thought of it”, well, scientists didn’t just think of it either. That’s not a “gotcha”. If the gotcha is “thinking isn’t good enough, you also have to observe”, then he’s not genuinely curious as to why people didn’t just think of it, and the first 3 tweets didn’t make sense.

  41. David Marjanović says

    Turning to the subject of Dawkins’ puzzlement, I think a large part of the answer is that “evolution by natural selection” was Darwin’s answer to questions that weren’t asked – because no-one had the knowledge necessary for it to make sense to ask them – before the late 18th century. Primarily:

    I agree. Deep time wasn’t known, Australia and remote islands weren’t known (indeed, Wallace basically started the science of biogeography), extinction wasn’t known, comparative anatomy was very badly known, and Linné was ruthlessly essentialist.

  42. David Marjanović says

    And as soon as these things became known, Buffon speculated about evolution, and Lamarck came up with a theory to explain it…

  43. carlie says

    I spend two entire lectures on “Everything we learned before Darwin came along, and were necessary pieces to feed into what became evolution by natural selection”. Dawkins knows that it really took all of those pieces coming together, and that it wasn’t really possible prior to that – evidence is right there in all of the other scientists (including Charlie’s Grandpa Erasmus) who came up with parts of it but weren’t able to consolidate it all together.

  44. barbaz says

    When, in fact, he is not curious at all, because he already knows that the Beagle is a crucial component

    Now that’s BS. He can be curious as long as the question isn’t answered. The fact that the expedition was necessary doesn’t explain the why. Also, just because it happend this way doesn’t mean it was necessary. Finally, it’s still possible that a philosopher or a letter is discovered that shows that someone did come up with this by thinking.

    Yes, the first tweet was quite ambiguous (BTW, the first tweet wasn’t even the first tweet), but you can stop now.

  45. carlie says

    The fact that the expedition was necessary doesn’t explain the why.

    That’s the part that I didn’t think needed to be said – because it was observations of what was going on in nature, as opposed to just thinking about what might could happen. That’s the one part of the shorthand that he didn’t need to clarify.

  46. carlie says

    Seriously, stepping back: his main job since at least 1995 has been as a science communicator, right? And yet, every time he tries to tweet something, it’s in a way that a rather large percentage of people reading it, including scientists, can’t easily grok what he means by it. That’s being shitty at your job.

  47. Sili says

    Rob Grigjanis,

    It’s an Oxbridge joke. They’re supposed to fall flat, like New Yorker cartoons.

    You’re right. It passes the “Christ, what an arsehole” test.

  48. coldthinker says

    Come on, Ogvorbis. And Carlie, too.

    I never called you any kind of rube (whatever that is). It’s precisely because I do presume you to be an intelligent person, I can’t easily accept that you didn’t honestly understand Dawkins’s tweet. And the same goes for PZ, even more so since he knows what Dawkins has written and spoken previously!

    “Philosophers’ historic failure to anticipate Darwin is an indictment of philosophy” — what else could it possibly mean to you than — “There’s something wrong with the practice of philosophy because so many generations of philosophers didn’t beat Darwin to this very simple but essential idea [of evolution by natural selection]“. Honestly?

    Isn’t that quite literally the same thing? And I do find Dawkins’s wording better, more sophisticated English and a more interesting tweet than my silly rephrasing.

    So this is why I kind of blame PZ, some others and perhaps you too for going out of your way to find error in Dawkins, whose statements, to me, seem almost always extremely clear and logical. And English is my third language, so I think I’m somewhat at a disadvantage and could easily misunderstand the true meaning of words and idioms. But I honestly seek to get the point, not to intentionally miss it. If there’s a hidden meaning here which I don’t get and therefore fail to see the honest conflict, pray tell.

    Perhaps it’s also silly of me to go on with this, but this is a tweet I so full-heartedly agree with. Yes, there really is something wrong with the way philosophers think, because discovering the simple, logical, yet powerful idea of evolution by natural selection should not require any scientific observation, just thinking things through. Great philosophers have been among the smartest, wisest, most intelligent and most educated people of each generation, for millennia. They have come up with so many much more complex ideas. And yet they missed this one, the simplest of ideas among all the essential ideas about life. Was it too simple for them to see? It’s like humanity had discovered calculus before multiplication.

    Of course, there’s a personal side to my rant in Dawkins’s defense. I’m not a scientist myself, but have friends in both science and philosophy. And I have to say scientist friends are always easy to have an interesting conversation with, even about things they have hugely more knowledge of than I do. While those in philosophy just can’t stay on subject, they wander off to wherever and throw quotes after quotes with endless appeal to authority. I do appreciate my scientist friends’ effort to make complex things somehow understandable, as opposed to philosopher buddies’ habit of complicating even the simplest of things beyond all comprehension.

  49. says

    coldthinker #55

    “There’s something wrong with the practice of philosophy because so many generations of philosophers didn’t beat Darwin to this very simple but essential idea [of evolution by natural selection]“

    Someone had to think of everything first. We may as well indict hunter-gatherers for not thinking of the obvious advantages of farming.

  50. Greta Christina says

    Has Dawkins never read David Hume? Hume basically came up with proto-Darwinism: the idea that natural filtering processes could generate things that seem to have been created.

    That’s not in any way to detract from Darwin’s brilliance and importance. Darwin applied this idea to biology and to the diversity of life, in a way that (as far as I know) Hume did not. (And I don’t know if Darwin read Hume or not.) But at least one important philosopher did, in fact, anticipate Darwin.

  51. says

    Or for that matter, Empedocles. Granted, his theory was bizarre and incomplete (not suggesting common descent but instead spontaneous generation), but not much more so than Democritus’s atomic theory.

  52. carlie says

    Yes, there really is something wrong with the way philosophers think, because discovering the simple, logical, yet powerful idea of evolution by natural selection should not require any scientific observation, just thinking things through.

    ? Why on earth not? If all we need to do is think about things that seem to make sense, that leads us directly to astrology and homeopathy and the like. Actual observations is what science is BUILT on, which Dawkins knows damned well.

  53. carlie says

    Maybe that’s where we’re not understanding each other – I find the concept that “somebody should have just thought of it” to be completely ridiculous to the point that I can’t believe anyone would really think that.

  54. Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human. says

    coldthinker @55:

    It’s precisely because I do presume you to be an intelligent person, I can’t easily accept that you didn’t honestly understand Dawkins’s tweet

    Ah. I didn’t think of that option. I’m lying.

    Got it.

  55. says

    coldthinker:

    It’s precisely because I do presume you to be an intelligent person, I can’t easily accept that you didn’t honestly understand Dawkins’s tweet

    I just caught up on this thread, and this reads [to me] as if you’re doubting both carlie and Ogvorbis. They’ve both said that Dawkins was unclear. You disagree. Yet you’re going further and stating that you don’t accept what they’re saying. I think they’re being honest. Just because you’re coming to a different conclusion than they are doesn’t mean they’re being dishonest about their conclusion.
    Given that several people have stated that Dawkins’ tweets are unclear, and given Dawkins’ history, I tend to think he should have worked to be a lot less vague. As carlie stated @52, it’s RD’s job to be a science communicator. He should be much more effective at communicating than he is (perhaps it’s the particular platform in question).

  56. Menyambal --- making sambal a food group. says

    Those folks who “should” have figured it out didn’t really have any way of knowing that things had changed over time. People now have trouble grasping evolution, but without even the idea of it, of deep time, of fossil evidence, or of any reason to doubt the gods, why would some philosopher come up with it?

    Common descent wasn’t even in evidence, as chimps and gorillas weren’t known. Natural selection would only be logical in terms of an arms race, and even that would have seemingly obvious limits.

    Mind you, I don’t like philosophy. I also don’t think Darwin is an origin myth. He was a product of his time, and worked well with what was around him. He couldn’t have done what he did much sooner, and if he’d taken much longer, he’d have been beat.

  57. says

    I could have mentioned Floyd, but I didn’t think Dawkins would have heard of them.

    Adam Smith, arguably a philosophy, anticipated Natural Selection as a mechanism for change and equilibrium. There are a number of supposed philosophical precursors to Darwin’s idea in the Greeks (see the Talkorigins FAQ, written by some erstwhile philosopher, here). Empedocles had something a bit like it. But the reason why NS wasn’t “discovered” before Darwin has to do with the fact that the origins of species didn’t arise until

    1. Species were first defined in biology (about a century before Darwin)

    2. The extent and complexity of biogeographical distributions of species were discovered (in the half century before Darwin came up with the idea)

    3. There arose a “species question” among biologists (sorry, zoologists and botanists; biology as such didn’t exist before the early nineteenth century) to seek to explain why species existed where and how they did. This arose in the early years of the nineteenth century.

    and

    4. “Deep time” had been discovered. Until the age of the earth was known to be millions of years old, and not a few tens of thousands (we can date this to the 1820s), the idea that species might arise through natural processes of an ordinary kind was literally inconceivable (I keep using that word…).

    But suppose that a scientist in the 14th century had proposed it (Frederick II nearly did). A scientist (or natural historian, as they would have been called then) might say that it is a failure of philosophy not to have discovered it before then. No matter when it is discovered, an idea can be thrown in the face of philosophers for not having thought of it before it was thought of.

    Finally, let me note that philosophers are not in the business of empirical explanation. So that is why my Beatles comment. Scientists are not in the business of making revolutionary music, either. It is no shame that they fail to do so, and nothing relevant to the task of science when some of them actually do. [I will pass over in dignified silence about Feynman's bongos.]

  58. carlie says

    Besides which, declaring that someone should have thought of it means that you want to tell other people what is important to think about. Yeah, they understood crossbreeding in agriculture, not that people in the position to be philosophers had much practical experience in it. And so what? The philosophers were all busy thinking about all of the things they found interesting. To say that one of them “should” have thought about it means “you shouldn’t have been thinking about what you wanted to, but what I think you should have instead”. A-rro-gant.

  59. Menyambal --- making sambal a food group. says

    So is Dawkins saying that if HE had been a philosopher back in the early 1800s, HE would have anticipated Darwin? Sitting in an ivory tower in Oxbridge, with just his thoughts and a quill pen, HE would have deduced evolution through natural selection?

    Or much earlier than that? While quaffing mead, watching oxen ford the river? While musing upon the runners in the gymnasium, and putting Socrates in his place? While the dinosaurs died around him, and the furry things squealed in fear?

  60. Rob Grigjanis says

    coldthinker @55:

    Yes, there really is something wrong with the way philosophers think, because discovering the simple, logical, yet powerful idea of evolution by natural selection should not require any scientific observation, just thinking things through.

    Yes, it’s a shame there was no one thinking things through for all those centuries. Congrats on your 20/20 hindsight. Pick up your retroactive Master of the Fucking Obvious on the way out.

    Epistemology without contact with science becomes an empty scheme. Science without epistemology is – insofar as it is thinkable at all – primitive and muddled.
    Albert Einstein

  61. pacal says

    A few people have mentioned various Ancient Greek thinkers and especially the Atomists including Democritus. Well Dawkin’s is bluntly exaggerating or frankly talking out of his ass. AS several people have pointed out several thinkers before Darwin did think about Evolution and a few had some notion of Natural selection.

    The Roman author Lucretius in his book The Nature of the Universe, which sums up his review of the doctrines of Epicurus does seem to have in v. 837-924 a inkling at least of the doctrine of Natural selection.

    When I took a course in physical anthropology in University the Prof. gave a overview of the history of the idea of Evolution from the Ancient Greeks to Darwin’s time and from what I remember there were several, at least precursors to Darwin who had something like Darwin’s idea of Natural selection.

    So it appears that Dawkin’s comment is, well – largely wrong.

  62. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    Finally, it’s still possible that a philosopher or a letter is discovered that shows that someone did come up with this by thinking.

    In addition to the Ancient Greeks mentioned in this thread, I seem to recall reading something about something resembling Darwin’s theory having been found among Henry Cavendish’ private papers, though never published. Anyone know if that’s true?

  63. says

    So, let’s just add “philosophy” to the long list of things Dawkins doesn’t know shit about but thinks he’s totally qualified to judge.
    Like sociology, 7 dozen muslim cultures, linguistics, feminism, reproductive rights,…

  64. fourtytwo says

    The good things about his somewhat cryptic tweet is that this discussion has been very interesting; I have enjoyed learning new things about pre-Darwin philosophy from this thread. It’s a bit like one of those films that leaves you to decide what happened at the end: often the discussion is more fun than the film was.

  65. Lyn M: ADM MinTruthiness says

    Azkyroth #70

    I seem to recall reading something about something resembling Darwin’s theory having been found among Henry Cavendish’ private papers, though never published.

    I think not, but just about every other discovery was in there somewhere. What an odd man he must have been.

  66. Forelle says

    David Marjanović at 47:

    Linné was ruthlessly essentialist.

    Could you (or anyone else) please expand a bit on this? Just a couple of sentences would be enough for me to chew on somewhat, ignorant as I am, and I’ll try to look around on my own. Or is this too off-topic?

  67. says

    David @ 47

    Linnaeus was not, contrary to rumour, ruthlessly essentialist. I refer you to Polly Winsor’s essay on the matter, usefully entitled:

    Winsor, Mary Pickard. 2006. “Linnaeus’ biology was not essentialist.” Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden no. 93 (1):2–7.

    and her follow up essay

    Winsor, Mary Pickard. 2006. “The Creation of the Essentialism Story: An Exercise in Metahistory.” Hist. Phil. Life Sci. no. 28:149-174.

    In my opinion, the error comes from taking the use of the term “essential” in his character essentialis, the set of identifying keys used to determine what taxon something is in, as a philosophical notion, when in fact it was simply for identification, and he allowed atypical instances.

    In no way did Linnaeus insist that specimens had to have all the characters nor did he think that this meant change was impossible.

    Moreover, Buffon was not an evolutionist, but something more like a devolutionist: that is, he thought that the premier souche or primary stock, changed over time in a limited fashion to adapt to geographical conditions. “Species” in the Linnaean sense we just temporary varieties to him; they remained of the same (Buffonian) species and could be interbred, giving rise to his oft-misunderstood dictum that two organisms were of the same species if they could successfully interbreed. He meant, for example, that all cats were the same species, from lion to tabby.

    The Mayrian story is basically an exercise in reinterpreting history to make Mayr seem like the heir to scientific tradition, when it is a lot more complex than that.

  68. says

    PZ, you and readers of this thread may be keen to see my comments, which illustrate the depth of his gaffe:

    Here and Here

    I should perhaps add that I’m an Ivy League historian of science and philosophy. You know, the kind of guy Dawkins should talk to before saying things like this.

  69. karpad says

    Late to the party, but:

    This is more a speculation off the top of my head, but Buddhism/Hinduism/Jainism have a worldview allowing for deep time, billions and billions of years. While their worldview was still generally static: things just are as they have always been, it’s possible there was some thought in that religious world view which may have anticipated Evolution.

    I would not be terribly surprised if such a thing did exist, and Dawkins simply hasn’t heard of it.

  70. susans says

    Easy for you to say, John Wilkins. You have “written” all those “books” about “species” so supposedly you know something about stuff.