Primates and Philosophers: Read monkeys for preexistence

Darwin opened his “M” notebook in the summer of 1838, when he had already formulated the thesis of common descent but not yet the mechanism of natural selection. The “M” notebook was dedicated to “metaphysical” considerations (note well: the modern usage of “metaphysical” differs). Speaking very broadly, it explored the evolutionary history of human psychological traits. On page 128, we find Darwin’s at his most quotable:

Plato says in Phaedo that our “necessary ideas” arise from the preexistence of the soul, are not derivable from experience — read monkeys for preexistence.

Ever since Darwin it has been evident that much of our emotional and cognitive furniture must be explained by our evolutionary history. This is one of the most philosophically significant aspects of evolutionary biology, but also one of the hardest to explore empirically.

Frans de Waal’s Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved is a modern continuation of Darwin’s “M” project: a reflection by a leading primate researcher on the evolutionary origins of our moral sentiments. It is tremendously enjoyable. I can give it no higher recommendation than to note that I have already ordered more books by the author. De Waal argues that the “building blocks” of human morality can be found in our primate relatives and are the results of evolutionary processes such as reciprocal altruism, kin selection and perhaps (de Waal is skeptical) group selection. This is of course not unique: The value of the book lies in its copious and lucidly presented empirical material on the morally significant behavior of primates. De Waal argues forcefully and intelligently that moral behavior is not a thin “veneer” of good behavior plastered onto a brutish, selfish psychological core. Instead, acting morally is as human (or primately) as anything.

The book also includes comments by a number of philosophers. These are not as engaging as the science (although this may reflect only my interests), but they are useful. I particularly liked Philip Kitcher’s contribution. He argues that the “veneer theory” of human morality, which de Waal attacks at length, may be a straw man: Who really believes that morality is a purely cultural layer on top of a selfish underlying biology? I suspect that de Waal needed some sort of dialectic to get going with his argument, but “veneer theory” may not be a good choice, and I rather doubt that he is being fair to those he names as exponents of the view (such as Thomas Henry Huxley and Richard Dawkins). A more productive sparring partner might be one of the following positions: (1) The assumption (which may be prevalent among philosophers) that morality is a matter of reason and not of evolved emotions; or (2) the charge that de Waal’s primate research is merely “descriptive” and so has no bearing on morality, which is understood to be “normative”.

As a separate point, Kitcher argues that it is insufficient to speak of the foundation of morality in “altruism”: different dimensions of altruism must be distinguished in order for the “building blocks” notion to be made precise. I think this is a useful conceptual clarification. It lays groundwork for the continuation of the exciting and difficult empirical project.

The elephant in the room does not get much discussion, perhaps wisely: It is the conclusion (which I find nearly inescapable, and de Waal might agree) that an understanding of our moral sentiments is all there is, or almost all there is, to understanding the foundations of ethics and morality. For now, I leave it to Hume and Ruse and Wilson to argue for this – but read also Peter Singer’s contribution to the book in hand.

Against what method? (Or: Feyerabend in context)

In December 2012 the Blogosphere and Twitterverse became agitated about an opinion piece by Brian Cox and Robin Ince in the New Statesman: Politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science. Cox and Ince were immediately criticized by members of the science studies community such as Rebekkah Higgith and Jack Stilgoe. I don’t wish to get into the many issues of this debate, but I have a straightforward point to make about one aspect of it. It concerns the term “scientific method”.

Cox and Ince refer to the “scientific method” (without going into much detail) and are taken to task for this. For instance, Higgith writes:

[T]here are many scientific methods and many, when studied in detail, are not particularly methodological.

If Twitter is any indication, mentioning the “scientific method” is considered a sign of naiveté in the science studies scene. Jon Butterworth summarizes this nicely (also in the Guardian) when he says that talking about scientific method is “apparently not the done thing”. True! But where in the technical literature do we find the roots of the apparently deeply held belief that there is no such thing as scientific method, or that it is in any case “not particularly methodological”?

My best guess is that the denial of scientific method traces back in some way to Paul Feyerabend’s famous Against Method. Popularly associated with the slogan “anything goes”, Feyerabend’s book used historical cases to argue that a number of mid-20th-century philosophical beliefs about scientific method are wrong, or at least do not hold universally. These include: the belief that there is one single method that regulates all scientific epistemology; the belief that falsification plays a key role in the progress of science; the belief that ad hoc hypotheses are condemned and rarely occur in good science; the belief that replacing theories always have more empirical content than replaced theories.

Without a doubt Feyerabend’s book was an important milestone. It pointed out many serious problems with widespread mid-20th-century views of scientific epistemology. But it is important to understand that Feyerabend’s argument was more local than his title suggests. The book was not some ingenious, grand reductio argument that showed that no such thing as scientific method can possibly exist. It mostly showed that old proposals of scientific method — then dominant, but now largely abandoned — don’t hold water. Since these old conceptions were largely the product of non-naturalistic, ahistorical armchair philosophizing, this should not be too surprising.

So Feyerabend’s Against Method does not license sweeping claims against scientific method, and if seen in context it should not give comfort to social constructivists. The best explanation of the massive success of the empirical sciences remains the assumption that its theories have some special relationship with nature. In brief, scientists are great at epistemology! The hard problem, however, is to describe and understand the process. Peter Lipton summarized this nicely in his 2004 Medawar Lecture:

It is one thing to be expert at distinguishing grammatical from ungrammatical strings of words in one’s native tongue; it is something quite different to be able to specify the principles by which this discrimination is made. The same applies to science: it is one thing to be a good scientist; it is something quite different to be good at giving a general description of what scientists do. Scientists are not good at the descriptive task. This is no criticism, since their job is to do the science, not to talk about it.

Lipton’s next remark is so good as to deserve special emphasis:

Philosophers of science are not very good at describing science either, and this is more embarrassing, since this is their job.

But the difficulty of the task is no indication of its hopelessness. That would be a bit like denying that organisms grow on the grounds that the causes and mechanisms of developmental biology are incompletely understood.

95 theses on the church door

I’ve uploaded a version of my new talk “Towards a methodology for integrated history and philosophy of science” (with Tim Räz). If it seems rather programmatic, then that’s because it is intended that way.

The talk begins with a version of my “fundamental argument” for an integrated history and philosophy of science. It then proceeds to a discussion of how the methodological problems of the HPS project can be approached in practice.

I like the way it raises its family, partly birdly, partly mammaly

Ann Moyal’s book on the history of the platypus is a good read. It gives an overview of the difficulties the platypus posed for zoology and of the way it gradually came to be understood in light of evolution. Along the way, we meet many of the great figures of the history of 19th century biology – Georges Cuvier, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Richard Owen, Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley – and learn something about their scientific context. Much of this material is familiar, but it works. There are also some very nice platypus anecdotes spread throughout the book, such as Churchill’s attempts to import a platypus to Britain in the middle of the second World War (it came to be known as “Winston”).

However, something about the book irked me, and I think it relates to a broader issue in the history of science. As the etiquette for serious historians of science dictates, Moyal discusses the past entirely on its own terms. This means that we do not get much of a primer on platypus biology early on in the book, and as past scientists formulate theories about the platypus, we are rarely told whether their findings were true or not. This approach makes for a cognitively challenging read. Sometimes it would be nice just for orientation to know which early findings were true or false, why past scientists were mistaken, and how exactly they squared their (false) theories with empirical findings. Far from resulting in de-contextualized history of science, I believe that this would make it easier to appreciate the social context of scientific discovery – to understand in some detail how empirical, social and personal forces interacted. As it stands, the history is often just one thing after another, and in some sense we wind up as ignorant of the overall process as the historical actors themselves. Surely that’s not the goal of historiography.

More generally, I felt that a more distanced view would have improved the book. Much of the second half is structured around a “race” (there are shades of The Double Helix here) to determine the platypus’s mode of reproduction – oviparous, ovoviviparous, or viviparous. This ends with what is perhaps the most famous telegram in the history of science: “monotremes oviparous, ovum meroblastic”. (The platypus lays eggs, and their development is more like reptiles than mammals.) However, it seems to me that much of the real intellectual action of the case was in the struggle to use different kinds of information about the platypus – including, but not limited to, its mode of reproduction – to see where it belongs in the overall scheme of biological classification. I would have loved to read more about that side of the story. But I guess it can’t be told unless we relax and make good use of our privileged present-day view of the case.

This is not to say that Moyal stays strictly in the past. In the final chapters, she reports on present-day findings about the platypus. These are among the most fascinating chapters. For instance, the platypus’s snout (famously “duck-like” in dead specimens, hence its scientific designation Ornithorhynchus anatinus, or “duck-like bird snout”) is in fact a unique organ for electrolocation. The platypus uses it to locate its prey as it dives with eyes and ears closed. In this respect the platypus is a highly specialized modern species rather than a relic of our evolutionary past. When I read about this, I thought it would have made for a great essay by Stephen Jay Gould. Of course, SJG was way ahead of me: you will find his highly enjoyable take on the story in Bully for Brontosaurus.

Hasok Chang: Scientific Pluralism and the Mission of History and Philosophy of Science

Hasok Chang’s Cambridge inaugural lecture is a fascinating and accessible presentation of his views on the mission of history and philosophy of science. He argues that one function of HPS is to provide a pluralistic perspective from which we can study the history of science not only in order to understand it, but also in order to recover forgotten experimental facts and theoretical approaches. The idea is that this “complementary science” will ultimately enrich current science and contribute to its public understanding.

I can’t claim that I have entirely made up my mind about Chang’s ideas. It seems to me that there are a number of different components to the package, and these can be discussed independently.

For example, I am quite ambivalent about Chang’s non-relativist pluralism about scientific knowledge – although I am not sure that I fully understand what it entails. Meanwhile, I largely agree with his conception of the relationship between history and philosophy of science: philosophy is a rich source of questions about the history of science, and historical scholarship allows us to refine our philosophy in a way that is often superior to purely philosophical omphaloskepsis. Chang likes to say that “historical fact is stranger than philosophical fiction”, which I think is spot-on.1 Finally, it is yet another separate question whether “complementary science” can be a productive mode of inquiry. My hunch is that science is too efficient to leave many fruitful avenues unexplored. But a hunch is all it is, and I would not bet much on it. It certainly gives me pause that Stephen Jay Gould’s magnum opus, which I have long found fascinating, can easily be construed as a sustained exercise in complementary science!

In any case, I highly recommend the talk, which is well worth the hour.

  1. Chang discusses his view of the relationship between the history and the philosophy of science at some length in his contribution to a recent volume of the Boston Studies (S. Mauskopf and T. Schmaltz (eds.), Integrating History and Philosophy of Science). Among other things, he says that we should stop thinking about integrating history and philosophy of science either “top down” or “bottom up”. Instead, we should think about it in terms of how an episode (say, of The Simpsons) relates to the concept of the whole series – perfect!

The fundamental argument for an integrated history and philosophy of science

I’ve mentioned before that I am organizing a workshop next November on the integration of history and philosophy of science: The philosophy of historical case studies. As I read authors who have thought about the issue, it occurs to me that an important point does not get as much attention as it deserves. I call this the fundamental argument for an integrated history and philosophy of science.

Science by its nature is in the epistemology business: Its main goal is to give an accurate description of reality. Philosophy of science asks a lot of interesting questions about this epistemological project. Thus, philosophy of science furnishes us with a range of interesting questions to put to the history of science.

Here’s a selection of the kinds of questions I have in mind:

  • Confirmation: By what method or set of methods does science establish truth? Were these always the same? If they are evolving, how so? Are there subtypes? How have different subtypes fared so far? In what circumstances are they useful or not? Why?
  • Realism: Do we have reasons (perhaps independent of the discussion about methods) for thinking that our best current theories are true, or close to true? If not, why not?
  • Theory change: Can we expect current scientific theories to persist, or must we expect upheavals? What about past theories that we no longer accept? Are our current theories as fallible as past ones were? If not, why not?
  • Discovery: How do scientists come up with potential answers to puzzles before putting them to experimental or observational test? In other words, how is science as efficient as it is at populating the hypothesis space?

One of my first introductions to the science of history was a little book by Volker Sellin. He argued that we must approach historical sources with clearly formulated questions. My experience so far backs this up: While there are some historians of science who claim to approach history without conceptual or philosophical baggage, in my view they are just not very explicit about the nature of their work. Sellin made another, related point which I have generally found to be true: Historical scholarship often progresses by asking new questions of old sources.

Given that we must approach history with questions in hand, we should make an effort to choose pertinent questions. I submit that this is what philosophy of science offers to history of science: Questions that are particularly relevant to science’s core epistemological concerns. Asking and answering them is the key mission of an integrated history and philosophy of science.

However, this is not a one-way interaction. It’s not just that philosophy helps us to put pertinent questions to the history of science. History is at the same time an empirical basis which we can use to test, expand and refine our philosophical conceptions. It would be surprising indeed if studying the most successful epistemological enterprise in the history of the universe (so far as we know) had no conceptual upshot.

Now pure-blood historians might object that there are many interesting questions to ask about science that are not related to the epistemological concerns discussed above. I agree with you, and I am looking forward to reading your works – or most of them, anyway.

Some pure-blood philosophers might argue that we can gain insight into science’s epistemological project by philosophical arguments alone, with no or only minimal empirical or historical input. To them I say: good luck with that.

Confessions of a Complexity Skeptic

I’ve uploaded a forthcoming book chapter to the PhilSci archive. In “Confessions of a Complexity Skeptic“, I discuss some of the methodological difficulties that must be overcome by those who argue that “complexity thinking” of some sort will become, or should become, important in science (see Sandra Mitchell for a philosophical and Melanie Mitchell for a scientific take on the issue).

The paper is not a standalone piece but a commentary on another paper which will appear in the same volume (written by Prof. Max Urchs). Nevertheless, the commentary can probably be read on its own, and I think that the difficulties I discuss have some claim to generality.

My main points are these:

  1. Whenever we claim that the explanation of a phenomenon requires complexity thinking, we must make sure – by looking very closely at actual science – that more traditional explanations cannot handle the phenomenon. Since one of Urchs’s examples is the ineffectiveness of monetary policy during the financial crisis, I show (at only slightly tedious length) that this phenomenon can at least potentially be explained by a standard Keynesian analysis.
  2. When we claim that some area of science will profit from complexity thinking, it is not enough to point to an area where we currently have major gaps in our understanding, such as neuroscience. Our lack of understanding may be due to the fact that we are not sufficiently mindful of complexity. But it is also possible that we lack the appropriate mathematical methods, or that we have not yet grasped the salient aggregate-level causal factors in the system. The argument for complexity thinking requires us to show that actual problems have been solved by the approach. A promissory note is not enough.

That being said, I will follow the continuation of this debate – which, on the whole, is a bit removed from my area of research – with great interest.