Re: Parody in Science

John Wilkins (
Thu, 29 Jul 1999 09:50:02 +1000

Date: Thu, 29 Jul 1999 09:50:02 +1000
From: John Wilkins <>
Subject: Re: Parody in Science
In-Reply-To: <>

On Wed, 28 Jul 1999 10:54:45 -0500 (Aaron Lynch) wrote:

>David Hull's 1988 book _Science as a Process_ points out that
>disagreements are often marked by surprising rates of parody. My own
>impression of this is that much scientific parody is not deliberately
>developed with the intention of parody in mind. Rather, parody often
>to result from the usual human tendency to exaggerate the relative
>of one's own work, often producing self-delusion about rival works.
>Eagerness to distinguish one's work from competing works and theories
>seems to play a part.
>In the selection process, it may be that those who absolutely avoid
>typically fail to distinguish their work sufficiently to achieve wide
>acclaim, leaving those who engage in some degree of parody advancing
>average) to higher prominence and thus becoming more widely imitated.
>Working against this, however, is the fact that the higher the level of
>parody one exhibits, the more susceptible one becomes to charges of
>scholarship. Going to the extreme of extensively or systematically
>falsifying a colleague's work can damage one's credibility. Such
>selection pressures can favor an intermediate level of parody, perhaps
>affecting only a small fraction of statements about colleagues' work
>still happening often enough to surpise those who hold an idealistic
>of science.
>Awareness of the surprising frequency of parody in science can,
>lead some to conclude that parody and even extensive falsification are
>the ways one advances in science. This can result in making a large and
>abrupt high-side departure from the levels of parody that have been
>produced by generations of selection. Individuals who take this cynical
>reading of Hull and put it to practice may engage in the kinds of
>systematic falsification that can damage their credibility and
>reputations. Any field of science where the awareness of Hull's work is
>more common may even exhibit a discipline-wide loss of credibility in
>comparison to other sciences. Hopefully, such an effect will not become
>long-term burden facing memetics. (I should point out that Hull himself
>favors greater camaraderie among memeticists.)
>Hull, D. 1988. _Science as a Process_. University of Chicago Press.

And it should be noted that Hull himself has been subjected to such
parody, when that book came out. Cladists, in particular Jamie Farris,
who is a b=EAte noir of Hull's book, wrote a scathing review of it in the
journal Cladistics in 1989, and I have heard Gary Nelson, another
villian of the piece, say of it that it was the only book he knew of
that became more wrong (on the details of the systematics) as it was
commented on by the principals. Both Farris and Nelson are excellent
parodists of opposing traditions, and ironically they demonstrate Hull's
very point in their reactions. Farris even said that Hull misunderstood
that selection does not always cause change in evolution! My God, Hull
wrote the book on philosophy of evolution.

I must be careful what *I* say, because Nelson is my supervisor (and I
must say that I find him historically erudite and very helpful as a
supervisor on systematics), even if I disagree with him on some points.
It may be that *he* is being somewhat parodied by Hull. I have to say
that I am now convinced of the pattern cladist point by Gary where Hull
(and Ridley, etc) led me to reject it out of hand.

The drawing of morals or rational heuristics from an evolutionary
perspective is fraught with perils. Those who have read Hull's book may
decide that it is a *good* thing to parody opponents because of the
success (professional success) scientists have had in the past with that
strategy (the "I'm gonna get that son of a bitch" strategy Hull speaks
of) or they may decide that it is dangerous for just the reasons you
outline. The choice of *strategy* is the raw variation on which
selection will act.

I think that there will be a distribution of intellectual coherence and
dissonance in memetics as in any other intellectual tradition, and that
God will sort 'em out. Sorry, I meant selection (and drift, and
epistasis, and pleiotropy ...) :-)


John Wilkins, Head, Graphic Production The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research Melbourne, Australia <mailto:wilkins@WEHI.EDU.AU><> Homo homini aut deus aut lupus - Erasmus of Rotterdam

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