Darwin and all that


For as much one admires Darwin, we must remember that he offered a theory, a brilliant one, but only a theory.

Darwin may have single-handedly changed science but his brilliance was more about the method. After Darwin, the scientific method combined the brilliant flashes of thought experiment with careful - painstaking is the word perhaps - examination of evidence. Darwin was not alone but he was the most famous among a nineteenth century club of equals, after whom science was not the same. And, we can attribute much of our experimental success thereafter to this methodological breakthrough. What it means to be doing science was different after Darwin and his contemporaries.

But that did not mean that the content of his theory was all correct. Indeed, Darwin did not have a theory of inheritance - and his conjectures were off the mark on that one. Gregor Mendel was still too obscure and modern genetics was decades away when Darwin died. His evidence, based on what we knew through fossils until then, had a lot of gaps and it's still being filled with new discoveries today. Given this, his core ideas held up remarkably well even with this new evidence and new ideas. 

But if the history of science is any guide, we should treat Darwin's theory as a theory, rather than the revealed truth. We may find new evidence today that confirms his conjecture, but we live in the Darwinian paradigm today and its meant to be so. Our knowledge about the evidence that do not fit the paradigm is meant to be imperfect. If we remain true to the scientific method - Darwin's included - we should be weary of revealed truths. Science is a quest and all truths are provisional; something is correct based on the available knowledge and until a better explanation comes along. 

This brings me to my point that we do a great disservice to Darwin by being Darwinian. This is one area where our superstitous desire for a book that shows us the way finds common cause with our contemporary pretence that we know everything that's there to know. As we arrogate ourselves the role of the lord of the universe and lay out in conference speeches the destiny of humanity we wish to craft, we miss the essential Darwinian point about the role of chance and the almost unimaginable slowness of change. And, as we take the Darwinian ideas and slap them onto areas where they don't belong, such as human society, states and peculiarly culturally-specific institutions such as universities or justice systems, we are violating the principle of evidence-based thinking and succumbing to the temptations of a catch-all revealation. 

Ever since Darwin, there have been many attempts to put Darwinian principles to explain diverse subjects - how machines evolve, how to arrange the society, how we should recognise merit have all been tried - and oftentimes these efforts had none of the intellectual humility and honesty that came with Darwin's method. I have nothing against using Darwin's ideas as a rubric to understand these phenomena; the trouble starts when one starts to use as a prescription, use this as an iron law of nature! As I mentioned in earlier posts, I grew up in a Communist-ruled state where poster claimed that 'Marxism is true, because it's a science' and have developed this lifelong apathy towards self-serving claims of science in any form. The Darwinist party - which spans both Left and Right of the political spectrum - is no less vocal and no less virulent in the manners of social life; and that, I feel, goes against the method and the spirit of Darwin's work.

As I invoked the spirit of Darwin's work, I shall allow myself a digression. Darwin is now canonised and his life story is told in a particular way. His patience - waiting for more than two decades to publish - is interpreted as deference to Emma, his wife, and her religious beliefs. And even then, his teasing silence about the origin of man in The Origin of Species is seen as a sign of internal struggle with himself. But Darwin was a decent man and this behaviour is to be expected: Deference to others is no weakness, patience is not confusion and taking time to study and accumulate evidence is a sign of thoroughness. It's true Darwin was aware of the implication of what he was going to say and he knew it was not going to be popular. The world of contigency that he was peering at was too frightening. It was not only the Man's final and irreversible fall from grace, it was also to be the admission that we knew little and controlled little of our world. He broke the news gently, with consideration to others' feelings, with decency - and did not venture away from evidence. The circular logic of 'it's truth because it's science' misses all these points: careful consideration, decency towards others, commitment to evidence gathering and clear distinction between all-encompassing claims and observation-based theory.

The Post-modernists may claim that the grand narratives are dead, but as their own assertions prove, human beings tend to love the grand narratives. At least, Judeo-Christian people of the book definitely do. For me, growing up an idol-worshipping multiplicity of God, each of which were invoked for a particular purpose and proclaimed as the most superior one until the next one took its place, it's far easier to live without a single theory than explains all, the precarity of Darwinian existence. But as Enlightenment's persistent obsession with grand theory shows, it's much easier to deny God than to defy the lure of a everything book.


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