Positivism in evolutionary science

James Francis Lyons-Weiler weiler at ERS.UNR.EDU
Wed Dec 3 08:21:20 CST 1997

On Wed, 3 Dec 1997, Finn N. Rasmussen wrote:

> James Lyons-Weiler wrote (in the "windows to the past thread"):
> >        I agree entirely.  These preconvictions and expectations
> >        amount to _positivism_ .  Care must be taken with this
> >        term, though - it's not "optimism".  Second, people in
> >        the past have labeled all sorts of modes of inference
> >        as "positivistic".  As I have come to use it, a positivistic '
> >        phylogenetic inference is one that is based on the expectation
> >        that evolution has been benevolent enough to leave behind
> >       phylogenetic signal.
> I wonder if we can we use this term in evolutionary biology. Isn't it
> from history (real history, not evolutionary)? This might be worth a
> thread in in the DARWIN list.

        I don't at all mean that people are mislead by applying the
        principles and theorems of evolution to the problem of
        phylogenetic interpretation.  I am referring to positivism
        within that conceptual framework.  Positivism has been
        identified in sociology and anthropology (rightly or
        wrongly I don't know), but it really is a more general description
        of a philosophical fallacy.  It came from philosophers.

        I tend to balk at the positivisitic position that the processes of
        evolution (be they simple, complex, hierarchical, cyclical,
        neutral or Darwinian) will have occured in just the right way to
        allow us to summarize the geneaological relationships among
        organisms with a parsimony model, for example. Note that I am not
        questioning the robustness and validity of the evolutionary
        paradigm -  just what one can correctly expect to do with it.

        This position in not vacuous iconoclasty, but is, I rather
        hope, a first step (among many first steps) to identify the
        limitations of how we make historical inferences.  Once
        the limitations are known, then we can try to deal with
        them directly.  It is (seems to me) positivistic to
        assume that we can do our best while ignoring the pitfalls.


        James Lyons-Weiler

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