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.
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