Problems with terminology
Arthur S. Lodge     |     home
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Up Level (Evolution)
Some writings suggest that the system of logic in common use, e.g. in mathematics and the physical sciences, may be inappropriate for discussing biology and evolution. I propose to use the word bio-logic to denote the alternative system, whatever it is. The writings suggest that bio-logic might

(1) allow a word or phrase to carry more than one meaning ;
(2) allow A and not-A statements to be simultaneously valid; and
(3) allow a high value to be placed on concepts that are of low value in logic.

For example, the eminent Darwinist Ernst Mayr wrote: "endeavors to solve all scientific problems by pure logic and refined measurement were unproductive, if not totally irrelevant, when applied to biological phenomena" (Mayr, 1988, p.1) and: "Fortunately, the younger philosophers of biology entirely agree … that a careful analysis of the underlying concepts has primacy in philosophy over exercises in logic" (ibid.
Mayr does not explain how to analyze concepts without exercising logic.
In reference to the claim that the concept natural selection is a tautology, Mayr wrote: "Curiously, the tautology argument has been raised again and again, even though it must have been refuted by at least 8 or 10 qualified biologists and philosophers, …. .In fact, it is possible to formulate the theory in a clearly nontautological manner:….individuals differ…. In their adaptedness to their common environment…..It follows by simple logic that those with the highest adaptedness have the greatest chance to survive and reproduce" (ibid., p.112). Mayr did not define adaptedness on p.112, but on p.52 he had quoted a definition: adaptive ( = contributes to survival)…..Adaptive means simply: being the result of natural selection. Mayr's allegedly non-tautological formulation is clearly tautological. This seems to be an example of item (2) above.  On p.129, Mayr wrote: "Adaptation…is a term that has legitimately several meanings", an example of item (1) above.

Waddington (1960) wrote: "Darwin's major contribution was, of course, the suggestion that evolution can be explained by the natural selection of random variations….. Natural selection turns out on closer inspection to be a tautology, a statement of an inevitable although previously unrecognized relation. It states that the fittest individuals in a population (defined as those which leave the most offspring) will leave most offspring. Once the statement is made, its truth is apparent. This fact in no way reduces the magnitude of Darwin's achievement; only after it was clearly formulated, could biologists realize the enormous power of the principle as a weapon of explanation." I suggest that this is an example of item (3) above.

On p.178, Mayr (1988) wrote: "When we speak of Darwinism today, we mean evolution by natural selection", but on p. 535 he wrote: "Darwinism is not a simple theory that is either true or false but is rather a highly complex research program that is continuously being modified and improved". This is another example of item (1) above. "Evolution by natural selection" is, in fact, a simple theory that may be valid for some phenomena but not for others. In 1998, Mayr wrote about Darwin's theory: "His basic theory, that evolutionary change is due to the combination of variation and selection, was, however, completely sound and is daily confirmed by every evolutionist".

Are we then to understand that "Darwin's theory" is not the same thing as "Darwinism"- that one is a theory (whose truth is confirmed every day) while the other is a research program (that cannot be true or false)? The research program must be remarkably successful to give daily confirmation of truth, but Mayr's assessment becomes less astonishing when one realizes that he excludes consideration of many criticisms of Darwinism on the quaint grounds that the qualifications of the critics (= "outsiders", Mayr 1988, p.264) are, to him, unacceptable. Perhaps this is another bio-logic practice because, outside bio-logic, the validity of a criticism in science can be assessed without knowledge of the critic's qualifications.

Mayr, E., 1988: Toward a New Philosophy of Biology, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA

Mayr, E., 1998: Preface, p. xiii, in The Evolutionary Synthesis (ed. Ernst Mayr and Will B. Provine, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA)

Waddington, C. H. (1960) in Evolution after Darwin (ed. Sol Tax, University of Chicago Press) 1, p.385