Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist
A rich narrative of the “billionare of bizarre facts”
Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Penguin 1992

“The full enigma of Darwin’s life has never been grasped.” In their biography of Charles Darwin, this observation leads Desmond and Moore in two directions. One is to show that Darwin’s life really was enigmatic, that is was filled with confusion, conflict, and inconsistencies. The other is to make those enigmas less mysterious by relating them to his social and political environment. Their method fits their goal: they want to open up Darwin’s inner life by sorting through his voluminous personal writings, making use of recent volumes of his letters, manuscripts, commentaries, and memoranda. On the whole the book is a marvellous success, though its richness causes it to raise new enigmas as well as settling old ones.

What is the enigma?  Darwin’s ambiguous attitude towards evolution, especially his long delay in publicizing his ideas on the topic.  And how do Desmond and Moore explain this?  Darwin’s science drove him towards a radical and godless doctrine; but his upbringing, his wife’s faith, his Cambridge connections, and many of his scientific acquaintances, coupled with his “instinctive reverence for rank”, all forced him into secrecy.

The book uses Darwin's “social context” as a framing device rather than a set of theories about Darwin’s life and work.  It contains remarkably little analysis of its subject matter. Except for the introduction, authorial comments are thin on the ground, either in the form of moral or intellectual judgments, generalizations, or scrutiny of secondary sources.  Insofar as the authors draw parallels between Darwin’s thought and political events (French uprisings, the Reform Bill, Chartism, the Vivisection Bill, the Crimean War….) they do so implicitly, by showing not by telling.  Sometimes this pared-back approach is the opposite of enlightening.  For example, we never get a clear explanation of why Darwin, the gentle white-supremist, could upbraid his own son about the evils of slavery. And we do not find out whether Darwin’s ill-health was primarily physical or psychological in origin.

The upside of the book’s narrative form is that it licenses the authors to explore every aspect of Darwin’s life in great detail, and to recall them in a fresh and vivid way.  In this sense the book resembles Darwin himself, that “billionaire of bizarre facts.”  We already know that Darwin dropped out of medical school: what this book tells us is what Darwin and his brother ate when they arrived in Edinburgh, and the stench and horror of Darwin’s first dissection.  We know that Darwin disagreed with Owen: but in this book we see Owen drilling with the Honourable Artillery Company, and Darwin, the closet transmutationist, breakfasting with the Owens in London.  The writing helps a lot here. In this story, events move swiftly on the back of snappy prose.

Desmond and Moore reveal Darwin’s inner life indirectly, through his responses to outside events, so it is no surprise that the authors offer no summary assessment of Darwin’s character. Instead of a portrait we get a gallery of sketches: Darwin the heartbroken father, the calculating suitor; the grumpy recluse, the jolly companion; the impressionable youth, the grand old genius; the hater of Owen, the magnanimous rival of Wallace; the brave man of science, going forward alone; the timid Darwin, hanging on the approval of friends. Here are more enigmas. Desmond and Moore leave them hanging.

What of Darwin’s science?  It is true that Desmond and Moore show (for example) Darwin developing the principle of “division of labour” by analogy with industrial workshops, and the bloody Crimean war informing his chapter on the Struggle for Existence.  But the “enigma” that this book helps us to grasp is emotional and social, not intellectual. What “tortured” Darwin were not the implications of believing his theory of evolution (Lyell suffered the most from this kind of torture), but the implications of publicizing it.  If this is what the authors want us to grasp then the book is an outstanding success, even if it leaves some of the interpretative work in the hands of the reader. 
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The 'P' Word
Making sense (insofar as it is possible) of Kuhn
Journalist Waleed Al-Shobakky has a post on "the 'p' word": paradigm. He professes guilt at using this term in the past, and tells how it got him into trouble recently at the first conference of Arab science journalists. Al-Shobakky frames the post as a warning about the dangers of using this "too beautiful and brilliant" term of Kuhn's. It can land you in deep water, he says, because it's too easy to think that the "Western paradigm of science" is universal, whereas in fact it may not be.

But the post unwittingly gives a different warning.The main danger of the 'p' word is not that it will lead you into factual error but that it will lead you to make unhelpfully vague claims about science and culture. The best weapon against "the 'p' word" is not empirical research but the analytic knife. So here are some sources of vagueness in the post, and some warnings about them.

"I’ve written several articles about science initiatives in the Arab Gulf; would I have written them differently had I had a different, well, paradigm?"

There is no specific form of vagueness here, just undifferentiated vagueness in the use of the term "paradigm." There are lots of ways in which two people could write an article "differently", and these differences could be due to numerous background facts about the writers. If they went to different schools then one might indent the first sentence of each paragraph, and the other not. If one was working for the political section of the paper and one for the economic section, they would focus on different aspects of science in the Arab Gulf. And if one took the bible literally and the other did not, they would differ over the merits of an study in evolutionary psychology. Some of these differences are trivial from the point of view of philosophy of science; some may not be. It's important to distinguish between them because otherwise it's to easy to extrapolate falsely from one sort to another sort. So, for example, there is probably no sense in saying that one writer is "wrong" to use indents. But we shouldn't leap to the conclusion that there is no sense in saying that the creationist (or the evolutionist) is "wrong."

"In Islam and Science, Muzaffar Iqbal writes that the Islamic view is that there is a unified human knowledge domain where knowledge of the worldly is tributary to knowledge of the divine. So we know God better, for instance, by investigating how trees grow or why dinosaurs disappeared."

Best to distinguish between the methods of scientists and their motives, because different motives need not imply different methods. People can (and do) do science to earn a living, please their partners, discover the truth about nature, and get closer to their chosen god. But these differences in purpose need not mean they all carry out science in a different way -- indeed, they may all be working in the same lab, on the same problem. This is because their different ultimate goals can be served by the same proximate goal -- that of getting a sound understanding of some aspect of nature. So the fact that some scientists see science as "tributary to knowledge of the divine" may not lead to any relevant differences in the way they do science.

"The secular-sacred dichotomy, deeply established in Western thought, may actually not have an equivalent in the Islamic worldview." [Al-Shobakky takes this as a good challenge to the claim that "the conclusions of a paper in Nature are equally valid, and replicable, in China and Egypt, by a Buddhist or a Muslim researcher".]

The point to make here is that different ways of doing science need not be incommensurable -- they need not lead to irreconcilable disagreements about nature.

Suppose Islamic researchers do in fact do science differently as a result of their faith. They might use different equipment, make different assumptions, use a different form of maths. This would not be a ground-breaking discovery, nor would it interest Kuhn very much. What is ground-breaking is the idea that they could be completely different from other scientists yet their conclusions be just as correct.

Suppose that Islamic scientists and Western scientists disagree about (say) the formation of stars. Now suppose that no arguments from Western scientists could rationally oblige Islamic scientists to change their conclusions about the formation of stars. And suppose that the same is true about arguments from Islamic scientists directed at Western scientists. That would be interesting. That is what Kuhn argues for. It is a much stronger claim than just the claim that different communities do science differently, and get different results. According to the stronger claim, the conclusions of a sound Nature paper may not actually be replicable by a Buddhist or a Muslim researcher -- even by a very sound one, using the same instruments as the Nature researcher.* But if only the weaker claim is true, then the existence of cultures that have different methods and different conclusions from Nature researchers is not enough to challege the (quite plausible) claim that a sound Nature paper will be confirmed by any sound scientist who happens to be Buddhist.

The point is that to challenge the universality of a Nature paper it is not enough to point to cultures that have a different "worldview" from the Nature researchers. You need to show (at least) that the other worldview is sound. And in doing so you would need to come to terms with Kuhn's big idea: that paradigms can at the same time be different and right.**

*Of course, even Kuhn could admit that some paradigms are bad ie. even the members of some paradigm can be convinced that it is false, by members of another paradigm. So even if incommensurability is possible, it may not be a omnipresent.

**in the most rigorous sense possible of "right."

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Royal Institution Young Scientist Centre
Why you should go: Science education that is both scientific and educational. Why you want to go: Portable labs.

A new strain of science education is growing in the basement of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. The Young Science Centre, up and running this September, is designed to make science fun (which is not unusual for this form of outreach) but also to make it intellectually stimulating (which is unusual).

To get to the Centre, make your way through the black Jaguars on Albemarle Street, Westminster, enter the Royal Institution, go past the plush lecture halls and glass cases, and drop down into the lower floors. Already there are a few eye-catching things on display. There are lots of bright lights in primary colours, and some big projection films featuring old labs. One curious thing is an empty white room. This is where working scientists come down to....work as scientists. Not a bad way to show kids how science works.

But the most interesting stuff will be behind a blue door marked: "Young Scientist Centre." At the moment the YSC looks very much like a museum basement in the middle of renovations. The main room is the size of a tennis courts and houses a lot of boxes, old books, and empty frames.

The room looks quite different in the mind of David Porter, who is managing the new project. In the blueprints it is cross between a lab and a moon-base. The furniture is a series of white circular benches, neatly tesselated and arranged in rings and lines. They have taps and power sockets like ordinary lab benches. But these benches are much more interesting. You can push each one around the floor to make new rings and clusters. You can adjust their heights, from waist level upwards. And nearby there is a smaller room filled with tiered, rounded sofas, the interior decorator's version of a bouncy castle.

This unusual decor is the backdrop for a series of interactive projects that Porter hopes to roll out once the Centre opens. The manoeverable and height-adjustable benches mean that students of all ages (and heights) can use them for many different kinds of hands-on projects. The bouncy break-out room is for planning and discussing the results of tests and experiments carried out in the laboratory. And Porter expects there will be more to discuss than playdough, dinosaur posters, and plastic models of the solar system, because the educational tools in the lab will be the tools of real scientists, from pipettes to microscopes to Geiger counters.

Porter also wants to equip the lab, and the students, with a scientific attitude -- something that they may not get at school. After 30 years working as a science teacher, he thinks he has a good idea of what works and what does not in science education. And he hopes that the combination of sleek instruments, funky decor, hands-on discovery, and inspired teaching, will illuminate science - real science - in a way that routine science classes cannot. The Centre will be a ray of light for teachers as well as students, if Porter has his way. Let's hope he does.
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