May 2, 2018

The Inexorable Intrusion of Assumption

It seems strange that nature should divulge one of her profoundest secrets only to the inhabitants of Great Britain.

Clifford Goldstein

I’ve been reading Steven Shapin’s book Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority, which shows that, contrary to popular opinion, science is not this uber-objective pursuit of raw truth unencumbered by the kind of things that taint mere mortal forms of human inquiry.

Take, for instance, evolution, which arose in a specific historical time and place that, according to some, influenced the rise of the theory itself.

“Each age,” wrote James Moore, “fashions nature in its own image. In the nineteenth century the English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882) recast the living world in the image of competitive, industrial Britain.”

Even Karl Marx noticed it: “It is remarkable,” he wrote, “how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labor, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions,’ and the Malthusian ‘struggle for existence.’”

Given the international character of science, it seems strange that nature should divulge one of her profoundest secrets only to inhabitants of Great Britain.

“It is a curious fact,” wrote John C. Greene, “that all, or nearly, all, of the men who propounded some idea of natural selection in the first half of the nineteenth century were British. Given the international character of science, it seems strange that nature should divulge one of her profoundest secrets only to inhabitants of Great Britain. Yet she did. The fact seems more explicable by assuming that British political economy, based on the idea of the survival of the fittest in the marketplace, and the British competitive ethos generally predisposed Britons to think in terms of competitive struggle in theorizing about plants and animals as well as man.”

How strange that nature would, indeed, divulge one of “her profoundest secrets” only to a nineteenth-century Englishman. Or, instead, maybe the competitive ethos of British society caused these Englishmen to read natural selection into nature when it was never there to begin with, at least to the degree that it could, as Darwin’s theory claims, cause a proto–life-form to eventually morph into Homo sapiens—a preposterous idea, yet openly promoted over and over until many don’t see just how preposterous it is.

In other words, the social and political environment in which he lived could have caused Darwin to hold assumptions that he might not have held had he lived in Czarist Russia or the Antebellum South, where he may never have arrived at his theory of evolution by natural selection to begin with. A theory derived from subjective assumptions (as they inevitably are) doesn’t automatically need to be wrong; it means only that the theory was derived from, well, subjective assumptions, which hardly guarantee the theory’s veracity.

The origins of Darwin’s assumptions are a handy example of the bigger issue in science: the inexorable intrusion of assumption. Science works on givens, foundations, paradigms upon which it rests and from which it proceeds. However, if those givens, those foundations, those paradigms, are created by “people with bodies, situated in time, space, culture, and society, and struggling for credibility and authority,” we have no guarantee of their veracity, even when proclaimed in the authoritative name of science.


Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, Baptizing the Devil: The Seduction of Christianity, is available from Pacific Press.

Clifford Goldstein
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