Why didn’t YOU think of it?

I’m being very bad, very truant and frivolous and unserious, and I’ll probably be banished from all the things as a result, but I just found Dawkins’s latest Tweetinspiration too funny to resist.

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

Yup. Also of music, poetry, agriculture, painting, weaving, pottery, history, drama – oh the list is long. Long long longitty long. Think of all the people who failed to anticipate Darwin. It’s a severe indictment of being a person.

So I’ve been preaching sombre sermons on the problem on Twitter. Twitter is terrifically good for writing about complicated things in ten or fifteen words, so I go there whenever I have sombre sermons to preach.



  1. says

    It would be funny if not for the fact that Darwin was a philosopher and published many of his scientific conclusions in philosophy journals (the clear split between science and philosophy did not happen until the 20th century; indeed the word “scientist” was invented in his lifetime and not widely in use until after his death) and if you asked him, he would tell you evolution was an idea born of philosophy and that he was doing philosophy when he came up with it, and when you look in periodicals and books of the time, his theory was often called the “philosophy of evolution” (and similar cognate phrases).

    Oh, that, and the fact that philosophers did think of Darwin’s idea before him: natural selection was developed as a theory of the origin of kinds by Epicurus (possibly earlier, but it traces at least that far), was popularized by Lucretius, and from then to Gassendi just before the Scientific Revolution. The separate concepts of evolution (change over time) and common ancestry were originally developed by philosophers like G.L.L. Buffon (French, 18th century) and Pierre Louis Maupertuis (same). Darwin simply combined these three concepts, and gathered data to prove them (a long and ancient tradition in philosophy, and in this case already begun by philosophers before him, including Lemarck), and did so as a philosopher, continuing a long tradition of philosophical progress in natural philosophy, as science was then called.

    So, Dawkins should talk to a historian next time before saying something so silly.

    I recommend everyone watch as inoculation against ignorant sentiments like what Dawkins just sputtered, my extensive refutation, delivered presciently months in advance (golly, how did I know!?): Is Philosophy Stupid?.

  2. says

    It’s past time somebody, anybody, hack Dawkins’ twitter account and make it unaccessible to him. Or program his computer firewall to block twitter access. Anything. For the mercy of it.

  3. hjhornbeck says

    Agreed, philosophers did in fact figure out evolution.

    English philosopher and historian of science William Whewell coined the term scientist in 1833, and it was first published in Whewell’s anonymous 1834 review of Mary Somerville’s On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences published in the Quarterly Review. Whewell’s suggestion of the term was partly satirical, a response to changing conceptions of science itself in which natural knowledge was increasingly seen as distinct from other forms of knowledge. Whewell wrote of “an increasing proclivity of separation and dismemberment” in the sciences; while highly specific terms proliferated—chemist, mathematician, naturalist—the broad term “philosopher” was no longer satisfactory to group together those who pursued science, without the caveats of “natural” or “experimental” philosopher.

  4. says

    Dawkins is using a bastardised definition of philosophy here because it is one that specifically excludes science. For science itself is actually a branch of philosophy – namely that which references empiricism. If one did not know any better one would think that philosophy and science were mutually incompatible. Considering how Dawkins educates the general public on matters scientific this is a serious error though to be fair this view is quite common amongst professional scientists anyway. The non empirical or non falsifiable branches of philosophy are what many mean when they reference it but it is important to state that this is actually wrong. It is rather ironic as scientists more than anyone else are actually in a position to determine objective truth. So to misunderstand a simple definition is hardly believable

    Very often in science the one who gets all the glory is not necessarily the one who came up with the idea. And in the case of Evolution that certainly is true. Darwin was not the first. One who did come up with the idea before him was his own grandfather Erasmus Darwin. And the one who deserves as much credit for Evolution apart from Darwin himself was of course Alfred Wallace. Though in the case of Evolution what matters is the idea rather than the originator of it as indeed with all scientific discoveries. Henri Poincare was working on a Theory Of Relativity some twenty seven years before Albert Einstein but beyond science no one has heard of him. Everyone has heard of Francis Crick and James Watson who cracked the mystery of DNA but not Rosalind Franklin whose notes they actually stole. She was the first to hypothesis on the famous double helix but death robbed her of a Nobel Prize. She deserves as much credit as the other two though like Poincare no one outside of science has heard of her. So not all those who get credit are solely the ones who deserve it. History can be so cruel sometimes

  5. says

    De Rerum Naturae, part V, under “origins of animal and vegetable life”

    For lapsing aeons change the nature of
    The whole wide world, and all things needs must take
    One status after other, nor aught persists
    Forever like itself. All things depart;
    Nature she changeth all, compelleth all
    To transformation. Lo, this moulders down,
    A-slack with weary eld, and that, again,
    Prospers in glory, issuing from contempt.
    In suchwise, then, the lapsing aeons change
    The nature of the whole wide world, and earth
    Taketh one status after other. And what
    She bore of old, she now can bear no longer,
    And what she never bore, she can to-day.

    It’s cool, because Lucretius is groping toward the idea that life arose spontaneously from the earth (OK, it didn’t start with grassy fields, but more likely bacterial muck…

    In the beginning, earth gave forth, around
    The hills and over all the length of plains,
    The race of grasses and the shining green;
    The flowery meadows sparkled all aglow
    With greening colour, and thereafter, lo,

    And the need to mate, to carry on the generations

    For we see there must
    Concur in life conditions manifold,
    If life is ever by begetting life
    To forge the generations one by one:
    First, foods must be; and, next, a path whereby
    The seeds of impregnation in the frame
    May ooze, released from the members all;
    Last, the possession of those instruments
    Whereby the male with female can unite,
    The one with other in mutual ravishments.

    And exctinction and natural selection:

    For whatsoever creatures thou beholdest
    Breathing the breath of life, the same have been
    Even from their earliest age preserved alive
    By cunning, or by valour, or at least
    By speed of foot or wing. And many a stock
    Remaineth yet, because of use to man,
    And so committed to man’s guardianship.
    Valour hath saved alive fierce lion-breeds
    And many another terrorizing race,
    Cunning the foxes, flight the antlered stags.
    Light-sleeping dogs with faithful heart in breast,
    However, and every kind begot from seed
    Of beasts of draft, as, too, the woolly flocks
    And horned cattle, all, my Memmius,
    Have been committed to guardianship of men.
    For anxiously they fled the savage beasts,
    And peace they sought and their abundant foods,
    Obtained with never labours of their own,
    Which we secure to them as fit rewards
    For their good service. But those beasts to whom
    Nature has granted naught of these same things-
    Beasts quite unfit by own free will to thrive
    And vain for any service unto us
    In thanks for which we should permit their kind
    To feed and be in our protection safe-
    Those, of a truth, were wont to be exposed,
    Enshackled in the gruesome bonds of doom,
    As prey and booty for the rest, until
    Nature reduced that stock to utter death.

    I’m not saying the Epicureans and Lucretius understood evoltion – far from it – but Dawkins is simply wrong.

  6. permanentwiltingpoint says

    I think I get what he wants to say – that reasoning without data is not “a way of knowing”. But no, he’s not very good at twitter.

  7. says

    I hope that’s not what he wants to say, because that’s a childish mistake. Philosophy is not a branch of epistemic relativism. I truly hope Dawkins is not uninformed enough to think that.

  8. permanentwiltingpoint says

    Well, yes, there’s the problem – it’s not clear what he wants to say, is it? I took it for a clumsy formulation of the following sentiment, as expressed by Lawrence Krauss (remember his blunder in 2012 ?):

    “To those who wish to impose their definition of reality abstractly, independent of emerging empirical knowledge and the changing questions that go with it, and call that either philosophy or theology, I would say this: Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature.”

  9. says

    4. hjhornbeck : Indeed. Darwin was born in 1809. The Beagle sailed in 1836. He began developing his theory of evolution the next year. He read Malthus in 1838. Was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1839. So he was already doing science before “scientists” existed, and Whewell’s coining of the term was only just being discussed, and didn’t become popularly used (as I noted) until the 1890s, well after Darwin had died. In my talk (mentioned above) I give examples (actual screenshots) of books and papers in which Darwin’s peers discuss evolution science specifically and science generally, and are simply calling it philosophy and its practitioners philosophers. That wouldn’t really change until the 20th century. Note all this is just as true of Maxwell–far more the paradigmatic “scientist” in the anti-philosophy mythology today, yet, uhem, he was a philosopher doing and publishing philosophy, even the kind Dawkins would despise (I discuss this in that talk, too).

    7. surreptitious57 : All apt, I’d just add that, as I discuss in my talk linked above (citing other examples of course, since I didn’t really psychically see into the future to know Dawkins would eat this foot, too), Dawkins’ false belief is a common mythology shared by scientists, so he is really just a man of his own mythbound culture. Ironic for someone so keen on exposing and abandoning traditional dogmas.

    9. Marcus Ranum : It’s important to be more precise here. The Epicureans did not anticipate Darwin, because they did not yet know one thing Darwin did: that the stratified fossil record shows species changed over time (evolution), and consequently it never occurred to them that that had happened, and consequently neither could the idea of common ancestry have occurred to them (comparative phylogeny was not yet sufficiently advanced a science, and though paleontology was more advanced in their day, it had not yet gathered enough data to see species change over time). It’s important to remember that these are three different things (the third being natural selection: the one thing the Epicureans did anticipate, and cleverly), and also important to remember that it’s “logically possible” for any one or two of them to have been false and the others still true. Darwin simply combined them, and found that combo fit the evidence. He did not invent any of them, though–each had already been posited by philosophers a century before; and although the idea of combining them had also been toyed with in the preceding century or so, Darwin had much more data to look at (not just his own, but also a century’s worth of new geological and paleontological and phylogenic research before him).

    10. permanentwiltingpoint : I think I get what he wants to say – that reasoning without data is not “a way of knowing” : The problem is that that is a false caricature of philosophy, tantamount to assuming all atheists are Marxists. Philosophy has been reasoning with data since its inception. Science itself is philosophy, and had been recognized as such all the way up to the 20th century. Dawkins is simply stuck in a false belief that philosophy consists of “reasoning without data” and worse, that it never makes progress or anticipates any scientific discoveries: false, false, and false. My talk disproves each.

    11. Actually, Ophelia, he actually might really believe that. I say this because so many scientists actually do (e.g. Dawkins’s pal Krauss, whom I quote in my talk saying something even more stupid than Dawkins, and then mention how Krauss got publicly pwned for it…yet still even Dawkins didn’t get a clue from that hard lesson; it’s hard to disabuse the arrogant of their ivory tower dogmas, no matter how many facts you have at your command).

    12. Permanentwiltingpoint, Krauss has said even dumber things than that (as I note in my talk, which also serves as the refutation of your quote from him as well). It’s a shame scientists have to be so enmeshed in their own mythologies.

    13. Ophelia, the blunder he means is where he made those statements about philosophy and got publicly burned for it (I discuss that in my talk; permanentwiltingpoint only quotes one of those boner statements).

  10. permanentwiltingpoint says

    My own question for Dawkins would be if he thinks falsificationism is a severe indictment of philosophy. Lest you think I agree on the notion that it has nothing to contribute to understanding of the world.

    Yes, the Krauss quote stems from a clarification he wrote after “being burned”, and is already tuned down. I chose it because it seems to encapsulate his (and probably Dawkins’) true stand.

    Depending on how high the waves get over this, we might get a clarification from Dawkins now, too, as seems often to be necessary when he tweets. Then we’ll know for sure.

  11. says

    Richard – I just wonder if Dawkins will defend his statement by saying that when he said philosophers failure to anticipate Darwin he did not mean scientific philosophers just non scientific philosophers. Even if this is true and I believe that is what he meant it is still below par for a professional scientist to be so ambiguous in his use of language. What is even more ironic is that he explains everything in his books in beautiful crisp prose. And with a wonderful precision of logic that all good science writers possess. He is not a naturally clumsy writer. I blame twitter just as much. It only has a one hundred and forty character limit so one is restricted by length and so it is a natural medium for delivering soundbites. But they are not always the best means of conveying simple facts. Also it is a perfect vehicle for trading insults. I have never used it myself for those reasons

    I have read three of Dawkins books and am currently on The Selfish Gene. His authority cannot be denied and his writing style is so accommodating and I shall in time probably read all of them. But when he steps outside of biology and into the realm of philosophy as in The God Delusion he is not as good. He should be more open minded on the subject of philosophy. Saying that it is ironic that Anthony Grayling is one of his best friends and he is a philosopher himself. So I wonder what he makes of the tweet ? Dawkins should delete his account and get back to what he does best which is writing excellent books on Evolution in that wonderful prose of his. That and touring the American campuses and universities and educating the American public on general science and critical thinking

  12. says

    scientific philosophers just non scientific philosophers.

    He would still be wrong. The two men I named from the 18th century were philosophers, not scientists even by modern definitions. Likewise Epicurus.

    The distinction is also conceptually bogus, because it’s a tautology: if you exclude all philosophers who treat data scientifically, obviously what you have left are philosophers who deal in conceptology. To then accuse the latter of being only conceptologists is perverse–you just defined the other philosophers out of existence!

    You are close to another key point (related to one I made in my talk): Dawkins has written so much philosophy it is really funny to see him slag off philosophers. He’s deriding himself, and half of his own books.

    (But yes, often when someone claims philosophers never do anything useful, that someone is widely published as an awful philosopher themselves.)

  13. Vincent Fleury says

    Actually Maupertuis even stated that :

    -the origin of animal forms was in differential of adhesion between the presumptive parts of the embryo (this is how new animals are form from the seminal fluid)
    -animals descend from a common ancesor
    -there is a memory of the difference in adhesion from one generation to another
    -animals would change by “elements of hazard” modifying that element of memory
    -animals with different traits would be found in different biotopes where they would be more fit

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