Most helpful critical review
4 of 8 people found the following review helpful
FLAWED EPISTEMOLOGY: SCIENTIFIC TRUTH HAS SUCCUMBED TO THE PARADIGM
on May 11, 2011
If a poll were done of natural history researchers to name the leading Evolutionists of the 20th century, Ernst Mayr would undoubtedly be near the top of the list. A reading of the 323 pages of THIS IS BIOLOGY indicates why accolades are appropriate. Because Mayr's influence has been so extensive, it behooves natural history researchers to scrutinize Mayr's work. In doing such scrutinizing, especially by those engaged in the exact sciences, it ought to become obvious that there are flaws in Mayr's epistemology. These flaws detract from the otherwise praiseworthy overview of biology, from the perspective of a natural historian, as provided by Dr. Mayr. Because this flawed epistemology has had, in my view, such a negative effect regards natural history research, I am compelled to give an otherwise five star book but three stars.
In this review I use "Evolution" with a capital to include the core idea of common descent. Common descent has been inherent to the meaning of the word since "evolution" was first attributed to Charles Darwin's theory by Darwin's contemporary, Herbert Spencer (see Richards 1992). Note that I am not an Evolutionist. In my view, common descent does not best represent the facts / data of natural history. I rather have come to consider myself a Naturalistic Parallelist. Parallelism better represents the facts / data of natural history, e.g., evidences of probable global biogenesis. I consider Naturalistic Parallelism to be a theory within the discipline of Natural History.
My disagreements with Dr. Mayr's epistemology, an epistemology that has become common among Evolutionists, are concentrated between pages 57 to 62 of Mayr's book. But first, I will point out a couple places where I find myself agreeing with Mayr's understanding of science. On page 113, Mayr writes:
"One cannot do science, any science, without first establishing a solid factual basis --- that is, recording the observations and findings on which theories are based. Description thus is a very important aspect of any scientific discipline."
Few if any scientists would disagree with such a statement. Darwin's Beagle voyage around South America is a classic example: the collection of specimens and recording of collateral data in these regards; extensive observations and note-taking regards geography, ecology, etc. During and after the return voyage, Darwin and others continued to study, record, and classify the numerous specimens he brought back. These specimens were and still are some of "the observations and findings" on which Darwin's later fully developed theory was to be based and which theoreticians have argued continually over ever since. Note that "the observations and findings" are what are generally considered to be, especially after having been repeatedly verified, the facts of science. These facts and the description thereof are not theories. Rather, as Mayr correctly states here, theories are based on facts.
Dr. Mayr is also correct early on in his book when he describes biology as a science and in doing so describes the work of John Moore who presented eight criteria for determining whether a certain activity qualifies as a science. However, in determining that biology is a science just as physics and chemistry, I believe that there is a failure to distinguish biology from natural history. Clearly, history --- whether biological, physical, chemical, geological, human, etc. --- history does not hold to Moore's criteria, particularly when it comes to observation (such as of alleged common descent, the core idea of Evolution) or experimentation. It is this conflation of "natural history" with "biology" that is at the root of the errors of thinking and many controversies regards natural history research.
WORDS AND THEIR MEANINGS: Of course our study of physics, chemistry, and other sciences is not always related to non-historical information either. That is, there are historical truths in all sciences that may be interesting. Significant to our discussion here, the representation (i.e., words and their meanings) of historical truths is one of the two primary areas of difficulty I find with Mayr's epistemology. How do we know that any history that we learn represents what humans historically thought? In order to know historical truths as recorded by prior humans we must minimally assume that our understanding of what has been written and recorded represents what the people of history actually thought. But how can this possibly happen if the recorders of history continually use different word meanings over time? How will future researchers know what we think if our definitions of words are in a state of continual flux as Mayr, as discussed below, would seem to have it?
I do applaud Mayr for recognizing the importance of definitions (p.59):
"To me the need for clear definitions is so obvious that I have never been able to understand why so many philosophers have been opposed to giving definitions."
Modern Evolutionists have certainly taken this sentiment to heart. Evolutionists have over the years had no problem making up and providing definitions. The difficulty has been that there are seemingly no standards or consistency in this regards. Problems and confusions come in that, for example, every Evolutionist who provides a glossary in his book has tended to provide his own personal preferences for glossary entries. It might be a challenge to find two books by Evolutionists or two biological dictionaries that even provide precisely the same definition of "evolution." Rather, Evolutionists tend to subscribe to a quite troubling unstandardized methodology expressed by Mayr based on each researcher's current knowledge and preferences (p.57):
"[T]he meaning of a term may change as our knowledge of the subject grows. Such changes in meaning are not surprising, since scientific terms are usually borrowed from daily language and have all the vagueness and imperfections of this prior usage. Terms like force, field, heat, and so on used in modern physics have distinctly different meanings from earlier periods."
Is this true regards non-biological sciences? If words such as these in physics --- force, field, heat --- have changed in their core meaning such that their meanings are now distinctly different, then how is it possible to even know anything concerning the historical thinking of humans who have used these terms? If Galileo's notion of gravity differed from Newton's or Einstein's, how should we know that they were discussing the same phenomenon? How do we know that when Ptolemy discussed concentric circles that he wasn't really thinking about what modern mathematicians consider as elliptical orbits? Dr. Mayr writes further (p.59):
"The definitions of most terms used in science are continuously modified as our knowledge increases. Just about every basic term in the physical sciences, for example, has been redefined again and again."
Again, I fail to understand how we can discover historical thought in any practical manner with such an understanding regards the historical use of words and their definitions. I question whether the essential meanings of terms in the physical sciences have been continuously modified. Dr. Mayr suggests that new terms should be reserved for only drastic changes in meaning. But where does one draw that line? Is an ellipse all that different from a circle? I suggest that, other than by modern Evolutionists and contrary to Mayr's inferences, our fundamental understandings of word meanings and thus definitions haven't changed even over centuries of use, much less decades, years, or weeks. Consider another example from history. Galileo Galilei, in his DIALOGUES CONCERNING TWO NEW SCIENCES (, 1954; p.154), discusses the definition of "uniform motion." Galileo writes:
"In dealing with steady or uniform motion, we need a single definition which I give as follows:
"DEFINITION: By steady or uniform motion, I mean one in which the distances traversed by the moving particle during any equal intervals of time, are themselves equal.
"CAUTION: We must add to the old definition (which defined steady motion simply as one in which equal distances are traversed in equal times) the word 'any,' meaning by this, all equal intervals of time; for it may happen that the moving body will traverse equal distances during some equal intervals of time and yet the distances traversed during some small portion of these time-intervals may not be equal, even though the time-intervals be equal.
"From the above definition, four axioms follow, namely: [....]."
Notice that Galileo didn't change the meaning of what is meant by "uniform motion." Rather he refined the definition so that, say, if one were today to spend ten minutes jogging a distance of one mile this jog would be considered to entail uniform motion only if the jogger's speed didn't vary. This same understanding was true prior Galileo as it was in Galileo's time. Galileo merely made the definition more precise. He didn't change the essential meaning of the term. Compare this procedure of definitional refinement with changes of meaning that have been attached by Evolutionists to words as "homology" and "evolution." Also note that very often Evolutionists have tended to replace simple definitions with candidates for encyclopedia entries. Perhaps an appropriate definition of "definition" would be helpful.
Let's also consider "force" as mentioned by Mayr above. Several centuries ago, Galileo's interlocutors, Sagredo and Simplicio had the following discussion. The translators, Crew and deSalvio, included brackets in the text with the untranslated terms. I haven't provided some of the accent marks therein. ; p.291):
"SAGREDO: I will see if I can recall the demonstration; but in order to understand it, Simplicio, it will be necessary for you to take for granted concerning machines what is evident not alone from experiment but also from theoretical considerations, namely, that the velocity of a moving body [velocita del moventa], even when its force [forza] is small, can overcome a very great resistance exerted by a slowly moving body, whenever the velocity of the moving body bears to that of the resisting body a greater ratio than the resistance [....] of the resisting body to the force [forza] of the moving body.
"SIMPLICIO: This I know very well for it has been demonstrated by Aristotle in his QUESTIONS IN MECHANICS; it is also clearly seen in the lever and the steelyard where a counterpoise weighing not more than 4 pounds will lift a weight of 400 provided that the distance of the counterpoise from the axis about which the steelyard rotates be more than one hundred times as great as the distance between this axis and the point of support for the large weight. This is true because the counterpoise in its descent traverses a space more than one hundred times as great as that moved over by the large weight in the same time; in other words the small counterpoise moves with a velocity which is more than one hundred times as great as that of the large weight.
"SAGREDO: You are quite right; you do not hesitate to admit that however small the force [forza] of the moving body it will overcome any resistance, however great, provided it gains more in velocity than it loses in force and weight [vigore e gravita]. [text continues]."
Note that this text, written centuries ago, is entirely understandable using a modern dictionary such as THE AMERICAN HERITAGE SCIENCE DICTIONARY (p.241):
"FORCE [...]: 1. Any of various factors that cause a body to change its speed, direction, or shape. Force is a vector quantity, having both magnitude and direction. Contributions of force from different sources can be summed to give the net force at any given point. 2. Any of the four natural phenomena involving the interaction between particles of matter. From the strongest to the weakest, the four forces are the strong nuclear force, the electromagnetic force, the weak nuclear force, and gravity."
Cesare Emiliani's THE SCIENTIFIC COMPANION (1988; p.37) adds to the discussion:
"Pressure is force per unit area, and force is what is needed to make a body change its momentum. If a body is at rest, force is what is needed to make it move, that is to change its momentum from zero to some finite value. If it is moving, force is what is needed to make it change direction and / or speed. This is Newton's first law.
"The unit of force in the metric system is the newton (symbol N), which is defined as the force that can accelerate a mass of 1 kilogram by 1 meter per second each second."
Thus it can be readily seen that the term "force" has not been redefined. Rather, one might say that it has been refined. Our understanding of what "force" is hasn't changed.
If the Evolutionist's view of words and word definitions as indicated by Mayr were to prevail, future researchers will find it necessary to consult a separate glossary for each and every Evolutionist who has written a book in order to understand precisely the very unique way that a particular writer has used a word. It seems to me that a better solution would be to set standards regards how words and definitions are suggested and accepted. An appropriate definition of "definition" can be helpful. Much more discussion and agreement need to occur prior to being disseminated in formal or even informal writings and, especially, prior to being published in general works. It might even be reasonable to have tentative dictionaries so that discussion and feedback can be extensive and that as many researchers as possible are well informed and are focusing on the same phenomenon, idea, concept, etc. Furthermore, it seems to me that once a word and its definition --- such as "homology" or "evolution" --- is placed in a science dictionary and, especially, in a general dictionary, that word and its definition is no longer the sole "property," so to speak, of the scientific community but rather is now "owned" by the general public. Ideally there would be a one to one correspondence between words and definitions or, minimally, between word variants and their associated variations of meanings.)
FACTS, HYPOTHESES, THEORIES: The second problematical area of Dr. Mayr's epistemology comes under his heading "Defining Facts, Theories, Laws, and Concepts." I will touch also on hypotheses but not discuss here laws or concepts; see Carnap (1966) for a fuller treatment of all these terms. Dr. Mayr first states (p.60):
"Quite a large philosophical discussion has developed around the meaning of terms such as hypothesis, conjecture, theory, fact, and law. For example, philosophers insist on making a distinction between a hypothesis and a theory, but I am unaware of a definition of theory that always permits such a sharp demarcation, especially in the life sciences. In any case, the scientist in the field or at the laboratory bench is usually not as precise in his use of these terms as the philosopher at his desk might wish. Whenever a scientist has a brainwave, he may say, 'I just discovered (or invented) a new theory,' when what he is actually describing might be considered by a philosopher a conjecture or hypothesis."
But it seems clear to me that most everyone is aware that not all expressions coming out of the mouths of scientists are formal scientific expressions. The difficulty comes not among laboratory researchers and the such but when scientists, especially academic scientists, express themselves in formal papers or in their communications to the general public such as in the many books written by Evolutionists. The problem comes when the informal mannerisms noted by Mayr become part of the thinking as evidenced by the writings of academics.
Regards "hypothesis", the dinosaurs on PBS's children's program "The Dinosaur Train" define the word well. "Dr. Scott, the Paleontologist" has the dinosaurs inform us repeatedly, and in my view correctly, that "a hypothesis is an idea that can be tested." There might be a hypothesis, for example, concerning why one species has teeth and another doesn't, etc. Of course, we are all aware that difficulties arise in attempting to determine exactly what constitutes acceptable tests and in natural history, especially, subjectivity in what supposedly are confirmational tests of particular hypotheses --- e.g., common descent --- have long been problematical. For example, Dr. Mayr offers this example, listed often by Evolutionists, as a test of the collection of hypotheses leading to Evolutionists' belief of common descent (p.54):
"[T]he theory of common descent claims that the animals and plants of more recent geological periods are descendants of those from older geological periods. Giraffes and elephants, for instance, are descendants of early Tertiary taxa. It would discredit the theory of common descent if one found fossil elephants and giraffes in the early Cretaceous. Likewise, dinosaurs originated in the Mesozoic, and therefore it would contradict the theory of common descent if fossil dinosaurs were found in the Paleozoic."
We see here Mayr's point regards the distinction between "hypothesis" and "theory" may not always be distinct and easy to discern. However, theories are generally of wider scope than hypotheses and have also achieved a greater level of confirmation. Also, theories tend to be more explanatory than hypotheses.
Darwin referred to both his "theory of descent with modification" and also to "the theory of Natural Selection." But there is a distinction to be made between Darwin's well demonstrated theory of descent with modification and the theory noted by Mayr, the theory of common descent. The former is merely a recognition known prior to Darwin of variations that are inherited. The later is the belief that such inheritable variations ultimately lead to branching speciation and thus common ancestors. This later is what Spencer came to attribute to Darwin and label "Evolution." Evolution is a theory of speciation whereas descent with modification isn't. This last statement is dependent, of course, on the definition of "species" and our recognition of the time dependent nature of our conception of what a species is. When, precisely, did Mayr's "dinosaurs" above become dinosaurs? Evolutionists and non-Evolutionists alike recognize that there was no instance of time when dinosaurs were some other species. The theory of Naturalistic Parallelism prefers thus to emphasize lineages rather than species.
Regards the one line of supposed evidence cited here by Mayr for Evolution, i.e., the theory of common descent --- does such evidence as the non-existence of fossil elephants or giraffes in the early Cretaceous provide anything more than a refutation of biblical creationism? I am at a loss to see where it does. Such evidence regards elephants and giraffes, or lack thereof, offers no positive reason to accept common descent. The more parsimonious hypothesis is to realize the reality of probable global biogenesis and parallel developments there after. While it isn't appropriate to further explore Naturalistic Parallelism here, it can be suggested that the terms "species" and "anagenesis" are relevant and that the definition of the former is quite arbitrary and time sensitive.
A theory is of wider scope than single hypotheses. THE AMERICAN HERITAGE SCIENCE DICTIONARY (2005) defines a theory as "a set of statements, including laws and hypotheses, that explains a group of observations or phenomena in terms of those laws and hypotheses. Most theories that are accepted by scientists have been repeatedly tested by experiments and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena."
Dr. Mayr makes some very curious statements regards "Facts versus Theories" that surely don't represent the general consensus of exact scientists (p.60):
"A theory, to be sound, has to have a factual basis, but where does one draw the line between a theory and a fact? When does a universally supported and repeatedly verified theory come to be considered a fact? For instance, a modern evolutionist might say that the theory of evolution is now a fact. Strictly speaking, of course, a theory is never converted into a fact; rather, theory is replaced by fact."
Strictly speaking a theory is never a fact, neither by conversion nor by replacement. Facts (i.e., scientific facts), unlike theories, are verified by repeated observations and experiments. Theories, once developed as based on the accumulation of facts, hypotheses, and laws are tested in as many ways as possible and hopefully confirmed. An Evolutionist, on the other hand, might insist that unobservable Evolution is true; such is their paradigm. Rev. Franklin Graham, like his father Dr. Billy Graham before him, and other Fundamentalists insist that the Bible is word for word literally true; such is their paradigm. But even if Evolution were true, which it isn't, the theory would never be a "fact."
Mayr continues the above paragraph:
"When the outer planets Uranus and Neptune showed irregularities in their orbits, the theory [hypothesis would be a better term here] was advanced that there was a ninth planet, and in due time Pluto was indeed discovered. At that moment, the existence of Pluto was no longer a theory [sic; hypothesis] --- it was now a fact."
The "fact" or "facts" are not theories but rather are observationally based data associated with Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. Ideally, these data are repeatedly verified and records of the observations include as much associated data --- date and time of observations, etc. --- as possible. If Newton's theory hadn't already been developed to explain the observations, the data itself might be useful in developing a theory of planetary motion. Being that Newton's theory had already been developed, it could be said that the discovery of Pluto helped to confirm the theory. In any case, the real theory here is not specifically regards Pluto. The real theory is Newton's Theory of Planetary Motion. This theory, which was relevant to the discovery of Pluto, continues to exist and would do so whether or not Pluto had ever been observed.
Whether or not an entity actually exists only if observed is one that philosophers and quantum physicists continue to discuss. That is, can there be non-observed "facts"? Are there "facts" out there in the universe that won't actually be facts until they are observed? Does the notion of "fact" include "potentially observable" in addition to "observable"? There are competing answers to such questions. In any case, we can say that facts aren't theories and theories aren't facts any more than a game of baseball is equivalent to a baseball (whether or not the baseball is hidden under first base). Furthermore, in the strict language of science, theories aren't converted to facts. Nor are theories replaced by facts. The existence of a baseball (seen or unseen) can never replace an entire game of baseball.
REFERENCES: Some of the ideas in this review are based on information from Michael J. Crowe's THEORIES OF THE WORLD FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE COPERNICAN REVOLUTION (1990). Galileo Galilei's DIALOGUES CONCERNING TWO NEW SCIENCES (, 1954)translated by Henry Crew and Alfonso deSalvio and Cesare Emiliani's THE SCIENTIFIC COMPANION: EXPLORING THE PHYSICAL WORLD WITH FACTS, FIGURES, AND FORMULAS (1988) were mentioned above. THE AMERICAN HERITAGE SCIENCE DICTIONARY (2005) and Robert J. Richards THE MEANING OF EVOLUTION: THE MORPHOLOGICAL CONSTRUCTION AND IDEOLOGICAL RECONSTRUCTION OF DARWIN'S THEORY (1992) are great resources. I have long found that Rudolph Carnap has written particularly well on the subject of facts, theories, laws, and concepts. See Carnap's INTRODUCTION TO THE PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE (1966). There are many books written quantum physicists, both technical (and beyond this reviewer's current abilities) and non-technical. David Bohm's WHOLENESS AND THE IMPLICATE ORDER (1980) raises some possibilities regards creation of word variants. Amit Goswami's CREATIVE EVOLUTION: A PHYSICIST'S RESOLUTION BETWEEN DARWINISM AND INTELLIGENT DESIGN (2008) provides an interesting resolution regards the "observer" question. Goswami tends to blur the line between naturalism and supernaturalism and thus may be too religious for some. Werner Heisenberg's PHYSICS AND PHILOSOPHY: THE REVOLUTION IN MODERN SCIENCE (, 1970) is more down to earth but nevertheless also explains to the layman some of the "spooky" aspects of quantum physics. Erwin Schrodinger's three short books in one, WHAT IS LIFE with MIND AND MATTER and AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES (, 2010), is a fascinating classic of continuing relevancy. Of particular interest to the discussion above and to Evolution in general is this quote from Schrodinger (p.163):
"Scientific theories serve to facilitate the survey of our observations and experimental findings. Every scientist knows how difficult it is to remember a moderately extended group of facts, before at least some primitive theoretical picture about them has been shaped. It is therefore small wonder, and by no means to be blamed on the authors of original papers or of text-books, that after a reasonably coherent theory has been formed, they do not describe the bare facts they have found or wish to convey to the reader, but clothe them in the terminology of that theory or theories. This procedure, while very useful for our remembering the facts in a well-ordered pattern, tends to obliterate the distinction between the actual observations and the theory arisen from them. And since the former always are of some sensual quality, theories are easily thought to account for sensual qualities; which, of course, they never do."