Sunday, 20 November 2011

On Darwin

Looking through The Descent of Man (and without in the least, of course, doubting the central thesis of that work) I'm struck by the great extent to which Darwin's evidential base is anecdotal. One example of what I mean:
Many animals, however, certainly sympathise with each other's distress or danger. This is the case even with birds. Captain Stansbury found on a salt lake in Utah an old and completely blind pelican, which was very fat, and must have been well fed for a long time by his companions. Mr. Blyth, as he informs me, saw Indian crows feeding two or three of their companions which were blind; and I have heard of an analogous case with the domestic cock. We may, if we choose, call these actions instinctive; but such cases are much too rare for the development of any special instinct. I have myself seen a dog, who never passed a cat who lay sick in a basket, and was a great friend of his, without giving her a few licks with his tongue, the surest sign of kind feeling in a dog. [103]
Captain Stansbury found a fat, blind pelican; Darwin himself saw a dog lick a cat. On such slender pillars is modern science balanced.


Gareth Rees said...

I think the comparison cuts both ways: on the one hand, it's easy to fool oneself or one's readers with a suitable selection of anecdotes, but on the other, if we limit ourselves to what we can establish through controlled experiment then our universe of observations is impoverished. There are so many more observational truths than we can possibly establish scientifically.

Adam Roberts Project said...

That's true. One of the critical commonplaces about Darwin is that his books are written such that an interested layperson can both read and understand; which is rarely the case in scientific literature nowadays (I'm not speaking about books specifically designed to popularise science, of course). Looking through the Descent, though, I was struck that Darwin was actually a gentleman amateur. He was a dedicated gentleman amateur, and of course he was a genius, whose theories have revolutionised their field; but nonetheless.