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Darwin’s Boulders and the human face of induction

As a young man aboard HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin was fascinated by erratic boulders. After completing his voyage, he wrote several papers about their origin. Tierra del Fuego was of particular interest, for he found boulder trains at different elevations at a place known as Bahia San Sebastian, which faces the Atlantic Ocean. Darwin actually delayed the survey work of HMS Beagle so he could gather more extensive information. On returning to the UK, he made the boulders the focus of two geological papers published in 1841. The route by which Darwin reached his conclusions is instructive for all of us involved in research today.

[Details omitted of how Darwin interpreted the boulders and of the recently published revised interpretation ]

Inductive reasoning starts with observations and philosophical premises, uses reason to identify patterns, which lead to the proposal of initial hypotheses. These can then be tested and confirmed hypotheses lead to theories. Darwin’s observations were of angular erratic boulders, the ability of icebergs to carry large rocks over long distances, and relatively short glaciers in the upland areas. His philosophical premise was uniformitarianism. Put these together and the hypotheses were iceberg rafting or stream-ice rafting. The angularity of the boulders ruled out stream-ice rafting, so Darwin drew the conclusion that the mechanism was iceberg rafting.

The problems with this start with the philosophical premises. Once uniformitarianism was accepted as essential to science (as Lyell argued), Darwin felt honour-bound to adhere to it. His thinking became constrained. He was only prepared to work with hypotheses that were compatible with uniformitarianism – all else would be regarded as speculation or even antiscience. This led him to overlook data that was right in front of him: the “tight distribution” of the boulders that was inconsistent with the hypothesis. It also delayed the recognition of the glacial features that covered Tierra del Fuego.

The problem goes back to Francis Bacon, who wanted to move away from the deductive methodology of the Aristotelians and establish something more grounded in empiricism. Induction was a key stage in his methodology – but he underplayed the human dimension. Researchers have to bring philosophical premises to bear on their work. How can we avoid becoming slaves to our adopted premises? Uniformitarianism lasted a century before researchers accepted that catastrophism was just as viable as a philosophical presupposition. What matters is that we use these philosophical approaches to generate testable hypotheses. Multiple working hypotheses are to be commended as long as ways are found to put them to the test.

Charles Darwin never escaped uniformitarianism. It pervaded his geology – as is apparent from the example before us here. It entered his thinking about biological transformation: the natural selection of small incremental variations. (Unfortunately, this constraint is still with us today, as Darwinians are unwilling to concede anything significant to the theory of punctuated equilibrium or to evo-devo.) Darwin missed out in understanding heredity, because he was looking for gradual change rather than discontinuous variation. (For more on why Darwin did not discover the laws of inheritance, go here).

For more – on why ID thinking is essential for the scholarly world to be healthy – go here.

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19 Responses to Darwin’s Boulders and the human face of induction

  1. “His philosophical premise was uniformitarianism. Put these together and the hypotheses were iceberg rafting or stream-ice rafting. The angularity of the boulders ruled out stream-ice rafting, so Darwin drew the conclusion that the mechanism was iceberg rafting.”
    Silly Darwin, being undermined by his philosophical premise. Unlike David Tyler of the Young Earth creationist Biblical Creation Society, who are probably more able to correctly deduce the boulders’ age as 6,000 years and their placement as being the result of catastrophic upheavals at the time of the Great Flood.

  2. Not even a tu quoque.

    Not, oh look, you did this too. But rather, oh look, you might one day make the same mistake.

    The problem goes back to Francis Bacon, who wanted to move away from the deductive methodology of the Aristotelians and establish something more grounded in empiricism.

    This view sort of confuses me though, for I don’t see why the Aristotelian method appeared to Bacon to be non-empiricist, or even non-inductivist.

  3. Actually, waterbear, Dr. Steve Austin who is a YEC addresses the issue quite capably in a video filmed on location near San Sabastian (www.youtube.com/watch?v=3darzVqzV2o). His conclusion regarding the placement of Darwin’s boulders has nothing to do with the “Great Flood” but with the evidence that was also available to Darwin himself.

  4. Dr. Steve Austin who is a YEC addresses the issue quite capably in a video filmed on location near San Sabastian (www.youtube.com/watch?v=3darzVqzV2o). His conclusion regarding the placement of Darwin’s boulders has nothing to do with the “Great Flood”
    Then Steve Austin really needs to tell David Tyler about this 6 mile-wide 400 foot deep great (but local) flood theory of the boulder placement, because Tyler’s ARN blog post links to a Geological Society of America paper which, with the benefit of a mere “170 years of subsequent study of the glacial history of Tierra del Fuego, petrography, and terrestrial cosmogenic nuclide measurements” revisits the origin of “Darwin’s Boulders” and concludes they were deposited by a glacier about 22 thousand years ago, which has to be wrong because that’s 16 millenia before the world even existed.

  5. I’d like to point out that my blog is about the way philosophical presuppositions influence not only what we think but also what we see. There are important lessons here and I fear that these will be missed if the discussion drifts on to chronology – which I intentionally avoided when writing the blog.

    Mung’s query is a useful one: few people seem to appreciate the depth of feeling shown by Bacon when appraising the influence of Aristotle. Here is a quotation from: The New Organon, Or True Directions Concerning The Interpretation Of Nature, Francis Bacon (1620), Section LXIII.
    “The most conspicuous example of the first class was Aristotle, who corrupted natural philosophy by his logic: [. . .] Nor let any weight be given to the fact that in his books on animals and his problems, and other of his treatises, there is frequent dealing with experiments. For he had come to his conclusion before; he did not consult experience, as he should have done, for the purpose of framing his decisions and axioms, but having first determined the question according to his will, he then resorts to experience, and bending her into conformity with his placets, leads her about like a captive in a procession. So that even on this count he is more guilty than his modern followers, the schoolmen, who have abandoned experience altogether.”
    Bacon thought he could counter the deductive style of reasoning coming from Aristotle with an inductive methodology. History shows that Bacon did not get it completely right – because many followers of induction (like Darwin himself) have become examples of deductive thinking because their presuppositions determine the options they are prepared to consider further.

  6. David Tyler @ 5

    I’d like to point out that my blog is about the way philosophical presuppositions influence not only what we think but also what we see.

    My observation is that philosophers of science are well aware of how researchers are influenced by the presuppositions they bring with them to the laboratory or the field.

    They would also observe that, while such presuppositions are of interest to philosophers or historians of science, they have no bearing on the soundness of a theory such as evolution. That is decided empirically.

    Charles Darwin never escaped uniformitarianism.

    The irony of such an observation being made by a Christian, whose creationist presuppositions are presumably inescapable and inviolate, will not have escaped notice, either

  7. David Tyler: History shows that Bacon did not get it completely right – because many followers of induction (like Darwin himself) have become examples of deductive thinking because their presuppositions determine the options they are prepared to consider further.

    Since Newton, the methodology has been primarily hypothetico-deduction, not naïve induction. Presuppositions can often lead a scientist down the wrong alleyway, but that is resolved by hypothesis-testing.

    As for Darwin’s particular presuppositions, he relied upon experts in many fields of study. At that time, it was considered unlikely that glaciers could have covered such an extent. (Esmark and others had suggested the possibility of an Ice Age, but it didn’t gain much currency in geology until later.) This is similar to Darwin’s reliance of anthropological studies that incorrectly showed much wider divergence in human populations than were warranted by the evidence, or even by Darwin’s own personal experience.

    All scientists rely on each other for findings in related fields. A geologist is a common companion for a paleontologist. A computer scientist and a geneticist may team up. An astronomer and a mathematician might work together on a new theory. All researchers cite previous scholarship in their scientific papers. In this way, they hope to minimize errors, extend the reach of their studies, and leapfrog into new territory.

  8. Aristotle…corrupted natural philosophy by his logic…

    Those pesky logicians!

    Aristotle, of course, was trying to place science on a sure footing. So much for Aristotelian science.

  9. I’d like to point out that my blog is about the way philosophical presuppositions influence not only what we think but also what we see. There are important lessons here and I fear that these will be missed if the discussion drifts on to chronology – which I intentionally avoided when writing the blog.

    I hope you can at lest see that, as a YEC, you have some huge philosophical presuppositions. And these assumptions are, apparently, impervious to empirical evidence.

    Odd you mention punk eek, and evo-devo. Both have been discussed by evolutionary biologists. the notion that there is variation in the rate of evolution (which is what punk eek says) is generally accepted. Evo-devo is also accepted, although it’s clear that we’re still coming to grips with some of the implications.

  10. Sirs,

    Darwin is deadly wrong from head to toe in many scientific ideas he proposed. Especially his theory of evolution.

    History of Science will discuss it as being the greatest scientific lie that was elevated as a scientific truth and great minds bought it by dismissing the negative evidences against it.

  11. Severshy @ 6
    They would also observe that, while such presuppositions are of interest to philosophers or historians of science, they have no bearing on the soundness of a theory such as evolution. That is decided empirically.
    This is an example of the type of thinking I want to change – evolutionary biologists ae no exception to the principle that scientists bring presuppositions to their work. The case studies provided by Darwin (the boulders and the laws of inheritance) are instructive for us today.

    Zachriel @ 7
    Since Newton, the methodology has been primarily hypothetico-deduction, not naïve induction.
    For those who want more on this, Del Ratzsch’s book “Science & its limits” IVP (2000) is worth consulting. Do you think that that the hypothetico-deductive approach would have delivered Darwin from his fixation with uniformitarianism?

    As for Darwin’s particular presuppositions, he relied upon experts in many fields of study. At that time, it was considered unlikely that glaciers could have covered such an extent.
    We all bring presuppositions to our work, and some of these are gained by relying on experts. This is where Kuhn’s work on paradigms in science is particularly useful. Recognition of the source of some of Darwin’s presuppositions only serves to reinforce the points I have made in the blog.

    Heinrich @ 9
    you have some huge philosophical presuppositions. And these assumptions are, apparently, impervious to empirical evidence.
    We need to get to the position where presuppositions are openly acknowledged in science. Yes, I have philosophical presuppositions, but I do not see these as qualitatively different from others. ID scholars have been making related points about the philosophical roots of Darwinism for years – the issue is not empirical science but philosophically-driven science. Regarding the comment about being impervious to empirical evidence, the best way of addressing this (to my knowledge) is to adopt multiple working hypotheses and then to systematically test them. This is my approach and I commend it to others.

  12. Zachriel: Since Newton, the methodology has been primarily hypothetico-deduction, not naïve induction.

    David Tyler: Do you think that that the hypothetico-deductive approach would have delivered Darwin from his fixation with uniformitarianism?

    Darwin was working hypothetico-deductively, and proposed many verifiable and verified hypotheses. His work was so fruitful that it has spawned entire new fields of study.

    As for uniformitarianism, the term has many meanings, and your use has been equivocal. During the early nineteenth century, the tension was between young earth flood geology and new theories about a very old earth. The new geology posited continuous processes acting over long periods of time. A modified uniformitarianism is still the reigning paradigm in modern science.

    Zachriel: As for Darwin’s particular presuppositions, he relied upon experts in many fields of study. At that time, it was considered unlikely that glaciers could have covered such an extent.

    David Tyler: Recognition of the source of some of Darwin’s presuppositions only serves to reinforce the points I have made in the blog.

    Darwin relied on the best available science of the time, especially when outside his areas of expertise. That is entirely appropriate.

    David Tyler: We need to get to the position where presuppositions are openly acknowledged in science. Yes, I have philosophical presuppositions, but I do not see these as qualitatively different from others.

    This illustrates your confusion. Uniformitarianism is not a philosophical presupposition, but a testable scientific hypothesis.

  13. Zachriel @ 12
    Darwin was working hypothetico-deductively, and proposed many verifiable and verified hypotheses.

    You should know that Darwin claimed to work in the Baconian fashion, and that his followers have always sought to present his methodology as grounded in empiricism. I have drawn attention to case studies that disprove this claim. Your response by-passes all this! I’ll just stick with evidence I’ve presented and let people assess the arguments themselves.

    Zachriel
    As for uniformitarianism, the term has many meanings, and your use has been equivocal. During the early nineteenth century, the tension was between young earth flood geology and new theories about a very old earth. The new geology posited continuous processes acting over long periods of time.

    I would have thought it was pretty clear that the uniformitarianism I have been speaking of is that propounded by Lyell. The authors of the paper I cited also use the term in this way.

    Your history of geology is wrong. Old-Earth geology was well-established by the early 19th Century. YEC geology was defended by only about a dozen writers. The tensions that existed were between uniformitarian and catastrophist interpretations of the rock record.

    Zachriel:
    Darwin relied on the best available science of the time, especially when outside his areas of expertise. That is entirely appropriate.

    I repeat: Thomas Kuhn’s analysis speaks directly to this. We need to learn from Darwin’s mistakes.

    Zachriel:
    This illustrates your confusion. Uniformitarianism is not a philosophical presupposition, but a testable scientific hypothesis.

    I have only to refer you to Charles Lyell and to the history of Lyellianism. What was needed to overthrow it was a paradigm shift.

  14. David Tyler: You should know that Darwin claimed to work in the Baconian fashion …

    Darwin’s practice of science was clearly an interplay between proposing and testing models, including in Origin of Species.

    About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorise; and I well remember some one saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!” —Darwin

    Zachriel: Darwin relied on the best available science of the time, especially when outside his areas of expertise. That is entirely appropriate.

    David Tyler: I repeat: Thomas Kuhn’s analysis speaks directly to this. We need to learn from Darwin’s mistakes.

    But you didn’t respond. No scientist can independently verify every fact before proceeding, especially in fields outside their expertise. That includes prevailing views. When inconsistencies are discovered, either the prevailing theories must be modified or discarded, but that’s all part of the scientific method.

    Typically, a useful theory will be stretched to fit what are seen as minor inconsistencies. For instance, one doesn’t dispense with Newton’s Theory because of the anomalous precession of the perihelion of Mercury. It becomes Newton’s Theory (with exceptions), unless and until a better theory is proposed.

    As for scientific revolutions, that can be seen within the larger paradigm of how change occurs in evolving systems, lots of small changes, a few large changes, and the rare revolution.

    Zachriel: This illustrates your confusion. Uniformitarianism is not a philosophical presupposition, but a testable scientific hypothesis.

    David Tyler: I have only to refer you to Charles Lyell and to the history of Lyellianism. What was needed to overthrow it was a paradigm shift.

    So? That doesn’t make it philosophy. That makes it the prevailing scientific theory. Scientists can be hard-headed, no doubt, but it’s evidence that brings about new scientific theories. In any case, the modified principles of uniformtarianism (actualism) still prevail in geology.

  15. Zachriel

    It seems like the theory of evolution is getting stretched further and further. I wonder how long until it is like ptolemaic cosmology?

  16. Okay, apparently I can’t figure out how to do the tags. Zachriel did not say what I quoted him saying in #15, that was mine. I meant to quote him saying
    “Typically, a useful theory will be stretched to fit what are seen as minor inconsistencies. For instance, one doesn’t dispense with Newton’s Theory because of the anomalous precession of the perihelion of Mercury. It becomes Newton’s Theory (with exceptions), unless and until a better theory is proposed.

  17. Collin: It seems like the theory of evolution is getting stretched further and further. I wonder how long until it is like ptolemaic cosmology?

    For deuterostomes, such as yourself, the outlines of your ancestry are fairly well-established. As much of evolutionary science concerns historical reconstructions, there are obviously going to be some gaps.

    At this point, many of the ‘epicycles’ concern the most ancient history of life. Many of the familiar mechanisms have less explanatory power the farther we peer back in time. New mechanisms have been proposed, with varying success. Of course, the evidence is scant, so there are natural limits to what can be said at this time.

    More generally, a useful theory will usually be stretched until replaced. (It’s Newton's Gravitational—Except for Certain Predictions of the Precession of the Perihelion of Mercury and Luminance and a Few Other Things We Can't Explain Yet—Theory). But even if the Theory of Evolution becomes a veritable Rube Goldberg Machine, that doesn’t lend support to Intelligent Design. That would require independent evidence.

  18. Zachriel said: “But even if the Theory of Evolution becomes a veritable Rube Goldberg Machine, that doesn’t lend support to Intelligent Design. That would require independent evidence.”

    You are absolutely right. A lot of people assume that evidence against one theory is the same as evidence for another.

    Tell me what you think of this following scenario:

    A new disease suddenly afflicts the United States. It is a virus and is deadly and transmitted very easily. A terrorist group claims that it bio-engineered the virus from a previously less dangerous one. US biologists have their doubts. Is it possible for them, just looking at the virus, to tell if it had been designed, or if its existence is wholely due to natural mutations? If there is a way to tell, what tools do the biologists have available to them to tell if the virus has been “tampered with?”

  19. Collin: Is it possible for them, just looking at the virus, to tell if it had been designed, or if its existence is wholely due to natural mutations?

    Sure it’s possible, but not certain. If viruses only evolved by simple mutations, then it would almost certainly be possible. Humans would mix and match components, such as adding lethality from one virus to the cold virus. However, viruses have been known to trade components between strains naturally, so it may not be possible to know with certainty.* Even if the virus is a chimera, it could probably be traced to its origin. If it is a slight modification of a common flu virus traced to livestock in rural populations in China, it would probably be considered natural regardless of the claim.

    But as always, what you do is propose a hypothesis—then test it. There would almost certainly be telltale signs of human involvement.

    -
    * Most pathogens do evolve by descent with modification, so their lineages can often be reconstructed, just as is done with vertebrates or other complex organisms. This has been very useful in the fight against HIV and Influenza.

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