RE: socially selected memes

John Wilkins (
Fri, 30 Jul 1999 09:30:07 +1000

Date: Fri, 30 Jul 1999 09:30:07 +1000
From: John Wilkins <>
Subject: RE: socially selected memes
In-Reply-To: <>

On Thu, 29 Jul 1999 09:53:19 +0200
(Gatherer, D. (Derek)) wrote:

>Except that Kuhn was a progressionist (see the afterword to the 1970
>edition of SSR):
>Yes, Gould does rather hate the word 'progress' being used in an
>evolutionary context.
>the late Dr Kuhn:
>Imagine an evolutionary tree representing the development of the modern
>scientific specialities from their common origins in, say, primitive
>natural philosophy and the crafts. A line drawn up that tree, never
>doubling back, from the trunk to the tip of some branch would trace a
>succession of theories related by descent. Considering any two such
>theories, chosen from points not too near their origin, it should be
>easy to design a list of criteria that would enable an uncommitted
>observer to distinguish the earlier from the more recent theory time
>after time. Among the most useful would be: accuracy of prediction,
>particularly of quantitative prediction; the balance between esoteric
>and everyday subject matter; and the number of different problems
>In other words, the theory would be more adapted....?? , in the
>evolutionist's sense of the word. But.... since adaptation is always
>in the
>context of the environment.... do you see what I mean? What I'm
>driving at
>is, for instance 'the number of different problems solved' is not a
>term but depends on what are agreed to be problems. Traditional
>medicine has no disease term corresponding to what Western doctors call
>hypertension, so the inability of any Chinese rememdy to cure high
>pressure is not seen as a problem (by TCM practitioners, it is seen as
>serious problem by your average Western MD.)

Yes, exactly. What I object to in Kuhn's Lamarckism (for such it is) is
the notion that adaptedness of theories is somehow absolute. The
selective context is highly relevant, but remember that Kuhn here is
stung by the criticisms of Shapere and others, and by the unwanted
"support" from Feyerabend, that he is a relativist. That's a Bad Thing
in some circles. But if one is to take an evolutionary perspective on
culture and science, then adaptedness is only ever relative to the local
fitness functions of the "ecology". What is highly adaptive in one
context may be maladaptive or fatal in another.

And I do want to take an evolutionary perspective to science, so I must
think that the fitness of a theory is relative. So should Kuhn have, or
he should have stuck with a developmental (Lamarckian) notion of
scientific history and left evolutionary accounts well enough alone.
Popper had the same equivocation, which is why he introduced a
neo-Lamarckian analogue into his view of scientific evolution.

To my mind, and this is just the musings of a Friday morning, the
problem arises when evolutionary theorists want to draw normative
epistemology from evolutionary dynamics. This is akin to trying to get
an evolutionary ethics - the ought-from-is difficulty. Hull avoids that
because he sticks to descriptive epistemology, and that can be
supplemented - for example by Kitcher's 1993 game theoretic account of
what a "rational" scientist must calculate about the benefits and risks
of differing strategies in cognitive adoption - but this is still a
meta-account rather than a set of maxims for improving one's
professional success rate.

If problem context determines the possible solution space, as I argued
in my essay in Biology and Philosophy, then there is no sense in which
we can say that science *as a whole* advances absolutely, although we
can say, and this is not often observed, that it makes progress within a
problem space locally and relative to a research program or discipline.
I know this sounds very postmodern and all, but I don't mean it to be.

Anyway, the refs:

Kitcher, Philip. The advancement of science: science without Legend,
objectivity without illusions. New York: Oxford, 1993.

Wilkins, John S. =B3The evolutionary structure of scientific theories.=B2
Biology and Philosophy 13, no. 4 (1998): 479=AD504.


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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