Fallen Angels

Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History

by Stephen Jay Gould
Norton, 347 pp., $19.95

I was once asked to be the commentator at a Philosophy of Science Association meeting on a paper by a famous epistemologist on the difference between theory confirmation in physics and in evolutionary biology. At first I was worried that I would not understand his paper, but after I read it, what worried me was that I did understand it.

Biology has been an embarrassment to the philosophers of science and so, for a very long time, most of them pretended it did not exist, or denied that it was real science at all. The great guru of modern philosophy of science, Sir Karl Popper, declared in The Poverty of Historicism that despite the claim of its practitioners to be scientists, the theory of evolution is not a science at all, but what he elsewhere called a “metaphysical research program.” He has since changed his view to some extent, but the unease that the study of biology creates in the hands of an older generation of philosophers remains. During the last twenty years the philosophy of science has become more and more, in the hands of a younger generation of philosophers egged on by a few of their more insightful elders like Marjorie Grene, the philosophy of biology. The historical irony is that with cries of “No Poppery!” they have nearly all chosen to study evolutionary biology.

At the heart of the philosophers’ preference for physics over biology is the question of uncertainty. Science is supposed to be a study of what is true everywhere and for all times. The phenomena of science are taken to be reliably repeatable rather than historically contingent. After all, if something happens only on occasional Tuesdays and Thursdays, popping up when one least expects it like a letter from the IRS, it is not Science but History. So, philosophers of science have been fascinated with the fact that elephants and mice would fall at the same rate if dropped from the Tower of Pisa, but not much interested in how elephants and mice got to be such different sizes in the first place. In terms of the formal calculus of propositions, the statements of science are supposed to be so-called “universally quantified” statements of the form—

For all x, if x is A then x is B

—rather than historical statements, which are only existentially quantified—

There exists an x such that x is B.

The point, Popper tells us, is that the first kind of statement can always be falsified, by finding a single example that does not obey the rule, while we can never disprove the second kind because we may have accidentally missed the cases that agree with it. So the first kind of statement is what characterizes a science, while the second kind is just storytelling.

Philosophers have not been alone in claiming that science must be about universals. In a fit of severe physics envy, biologists, even evolutionary biologists concerned with the history of…

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