Some Thoughts and Readings on the History and Philosophy of Science

Richard E. Lenski

I am a professional scientist, in particular one who studies biological evolution. I am not a trained historian or philosopher. However, I find the historical and philosophical bases of my chosen science to be fascinating on several fronts:

With this preamble, where to next? Here's a menu, depending on why you made it to this page and what interests you.

Some wonderful books describing the history of evolutionary thought

Some old books on the development of evolutionary ideas (most pre-Darwin)

Some popular books on our current understanding of evolution and its implications

Some exceptionally clear thinking on science and religion


Some wonderful books describing the history of evolutionary thought

Loren Eiseley. 1958. Darwin's Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It. Doubleday Anchor Books, Garden City, New York.

Loren Eiseley was an anthropologist, a historian of science, and a great writer. He turns a history of evolutionary thought into a wonderful Odyssey of discovery and conflict. It's an intellectual journey that began long before Charles Darwin, a journey to which Darwin contributed immensely, yet a journey that left major scientific challenges unresolved in Darwin's lifetime. Let me hasten to add, however, that these challenges - concerning the physical age of the earth, and the mechanism of heredity - were both resolved in the early 1900s such that Darwin's evolutionary theory is much stronger now than in his lifetime. [And if you are a bibliophile interested in collecting books on evolution, it's a wonderful source of important but hard-to-find books. Start with Eiseley's book itself, which is out of print but still can be found from old book sellers.]

Adrian Desmond & James Moore. 1991. Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. W. W. Norton & Company, New York and London.

An outstanding biography of Charles Darwin, it captures both a man and his life's work. Personally, I think a good playwright could make a successful stage or screen production out of this material.

Adrian Desmond. 1994. Huxley: The Devil's Disciple. Michael Joseph, London.

Another fine biography, this on Thomas Henry Huxley, who became Darwin's bulldog by taking on the public fights about evolution that Darwin dreaded but Huxley relished.

In reading these inter-woven biographies of Darwin and Huxley, I found that Darwin's was most gripping up until about 1859, when he published On the Origin of Species, at which point the great tension in his story was released. (Although Darwin remained a prolific and important scientist for two more decades, his world-changing views were out.) By contrast, Huxley was a middling scientist, with no great ideas, before Darwin's views came out - at which point Huxley had a scientific epiphany: "How stupid not to have thought of it before!" He threw himself with gusto into defending evolution against attacks from all sides, and so his biography becomes most interesting precisely when the debate leaves Darwin's mind and is thrust into the public realm.

Joe D. Burchfield. 1975. Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth. Science History Publications.

The story of how this great 19th century physicist rigorously challenged the geologists and Darwin about their evidence for an ancient earth, and why his challenge ultimately failed when radioactivity was discovered early in the 20th century. Much more technical than the three books recommended above, but worth reading for those interested in how a seemingly imprecise science (geology) prevailed over the most precise science (physics), because of ignorance of a yet-to-be-discovered physical process. Nowadays, the physics of radioactive dating reveal the earth's age to be several billion years.

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Jonathon Miller and Borin Van Loon. 1982. Darwin for Beginners. Icon Books, Cambridge, Great Britain.

Need a quick overview of Charles Darwin and the development of his theory? This 175-page book is filled with amusing illustrations and just enough words to convey the basic story.

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Some old books on the development of evolutionary ideas (most pre-Darwin)

Under construction! More to come...

Benoit De Maillet. 1750. Telliamed: Or, Discourses Between an Indian Philosopher and a French Missionary, on the Diminution of the Sea, the Formation of the Earth, the Origin of Men and Animals, And other Curious Subjects, relating to Natural History and Philosophy. T. Osborne, London. [Reprinted in 1968 by University of Illinois Press.]

De Maillet (1656-1738) was a well-traveled French diplomat who evidently developed a great interest in the natural world and its history. In Telliamed, he presented many provocative ideas about our planet, its inhabitants, and their history - and he did so long before James Hutton, Georges Buffon, Georges Cuvier, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Charles Lyell, Robert Chambers, and Charles Darwin wrote on these topics. Many of the facts and interpretations in Telliamed we now know are wrong, and some seem crazy by today's standards. Nonetheless, this book was clearly an attempt to understand nature based on evidence from nature and inferences from that evidence - not based on what was told in sacred books or inferred from them. In other words, let us try to read from the great book of nature itself. (Click here for an interesting quotation from this book on keeping science and religion separate.)

Charles Darwin. 1859. On the Origin of Species. John Murray, London. [Reprinted many times and readily available. The first edition is usually regarded as the best. The sixth edition was published in 1872, and some reprints are from that edition.]

Link to electronic text: http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/darwin/darwin.htm

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Some popular books on our current understanding of evolution and its implications

The following books are ones that should appeal to a general audience that is interested in evolutionary science, and that appreciates an interesting author's unique perspective on the issues (as opposed to the more cut-and-dried textbook formulation). Most or all are available in later editions, as well as the edition listed below. I welcome suggestions for additional books to place under this heading.

Richard Dawkins. 1976. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York.

A provocative and engaging account of a fascinating subject, although not without some controversy. The following link provides a thoughtful review by a non-specialist:

http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/introser/dawkins.htm

Stephen Jay Gould. 1989. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. W. W. Norton, New York.

Gould, a paleontologist and historian of science, is the best known popular writer on the subject of evolution -which infuriates some scientists who sneer at this very important activity. Wonderful Life happens to be my favorite of his many books.

Randolph M. Nesse & George C. Williams. 1994. Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine. Times Books, new York.

Given the mental association with ancient fossils, it is easy to think that evolution has no consequence for our well-being in the modern world. This book dispels that mistaken view by showing how an evolutionary understanding - of ourselves and the agents that infect us - can inform medicine.

Jonathan Weiner. 1995. The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time. Vintage Books, New York.

A journalist describes scientists' research that shows evolution as an on-going process in the natural world.

Jared Diamond. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W. W. Norton, New York.

Not really a book on organic evolution per se, but rather a fascinating account of human cultural evolution and its interface with nature. By weaving together information from history, agriculture, biogeography, epidemiology and technology, Diamond provides a compelling explanation for why some human societies have economically, politically, and militarily dominated others (and, in so doing, dispels racial explanations).

Kenneth R. Miller. 1999. Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution. Cliff Street Books, New York.

The title reflects the author's search for ways to reconcile his acceptance of both science and religion.

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Douglas J. Futuyma. 1983. Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution. Pantheon, New York.

Need a reasonably short overview of the major lines of evidence for evolution? This 251-page book provides an excellent summary.

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Some exceptionally clear thinking on science and religion

Benoit De Maillet. 1750. Telliamed: Or, Discourses Between an Indian Philosopher and a French Missionary, on the Diminution of the Sea, the Formation of the Earth, the Origin of Men and Animals, And other Curious Subjects, relating to Natural History and Philosophy. T. Osborne, London. [Reprinted in 1968 by University of Illinois Press.]

The following passage is one of my all-time favorites, because I hear a voice from more than 250 years ago clearly explaining why we should keep religion out of science. In it, the first "I" is the French missionary (and author), while the second "I" is Telliamed, the Indian Philosopher:

"I asked him concerning his Country, his Name, his Family, his Religion, and the Motives of his Travelling ; he accordingly spoke to me nearly in the following Manner :

"Sir, I have always declined speaking to you of my Religion, because it can be of no use to you, and because all Men being naturally prepossessed in favour of that in which they are born, it offends them to contradict the Articles of it. For this Reason, and by the Advice of my desceas'd Father, I have all my Life avoided entering into this Matter, that I might not give rise to Disputes in which every Man thinks it a Point of Honour and Conscience to support his own Opinion, and which never terminate but in mutual Animosities. For this Reason, Sir, I hope you will pardon me for not satisfying your Curiosity in this Particular. I would not have even spoke my Sentiments to you, on the Composition of the Globe, the Study of which is the Cause of my Travels, if I had not discerned in you, a Soul capable of triumphing over the Prejudices of Birth and Education, and above being provoked at the Things I intend to communicate to you ; perhaps they will at first appear to you opposite to what is contained in your sacred Books, yet I hope in the End to convince you that they are not really so. Philosophers (permit me to class myself among that Number, however unworthy of the Name) rarely find these happy Dispositions ; they have not even met with them in the Ages and in the Countries of Liberty, where it has been often dangerous for some of them who have dared to speak against the Opinions of the Vulgar. Besides, continued our Indian, you have traveled a great deal, you have travelled thro' many Maritime Countries, you seem to think that the Secrets of Nature are not unworthy of your Curiosity. You have learned to doubt, and every man who can do so, has a great Advantage over him who believes implicitly, and without taking the Trouble to examine. You therefore possess, Sir, the principal Dispositions necessary for relishing the Observations I am about to make. This gives me Reason to hope that you will yield to the Evidence of the Proofs I shall bring, for the Support of my System." (pp. 1-2)

Let me give a bit of background on this book, in order to put this passage into its context. De Maillet (1656-1738) was a well-traveled French diplomat who evidently developed a great interest in the natural world and its history. In Telliamed, he presented many provocative ideas about our planet, its inhabitants, and their history - and he did so long before James Hutton, Georges Buffon, Georges Cuvier, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Charles Lyell, Robert Chambers, and Charles Darwin wrote on these topics. Many of the facts and interpretations in Telliamed we now know are wrong, and some seem crazy by today's standards. Nonetheless, this book was clearly an attempt to understand nature based on evidence from nature and inferences from that evidence - not based on what was told in sacred books or inferred from them. In other words, let us try to read from the great book of nature itself.

But that was a radical idea in its day, and de Maillet was possibly fearful of ridicule or persecution. So the book was not published, even in its original French (and then out of Amsterdam), until 1748, more than a decade after de Maillet's death, although copies of the manuscript had circulated decades earlier. (The quotation above comes from the first English edition, published two years later.) Even the printers of dangerous books wanted protections, lest they be charged with blasphemy. So de Maillet took precautions: He dedicated the book "To the illustrious Cyrano de Bergerac, Author of the imaginary Travels thro' the Sun and Moon". Cyrano (known to us today as a largely fictionalized character in Edmond Rostand's play) was the author of what might be considered early science fiction, so this dedication might have allowed the defense that de Maillet's own work, too, was intended as fiction. Also, the French traveler always speaks about nature through his Indian philosopher, essentially merely reporting the speculations of another person, while occasionally interjecting that certain things he could not believe because they went against his religion. But most importantly, de Maillet, again speaking through his Indian philosopher, explained why these ideas should be judged on grounds other than religious authority.

At the same time, de Maillet also managed to be provocative. Giving the philosopher his own name spelled backwards hardly hid his identity. And the book was written as a six-day conversation that seems intended to mirror the six days of creation in Genesis.

Robert T. Pennock. 1999. Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A philosopher of science, Pennock examines the arguments of creationists who wish to introduce "creation science" into public schools as an alternative "theory" to evolution. Among his important findings are that these creationists are really several distinct camps, including young-earth creationists, old-earth creationists, and the intelligent design camp. While united by their religiously motivated disbelief of scientific evidence for evolution, their own beliefs are often incompatible with one another. He also points out some of the extreme attempts of creationists to distort and demonize evolutionary science, how their attack extends well beyond evolution to viewing all science as a religious ideology, and the dangers to society of giving "equal time" to these nonscientific arguments. This book is a must-read for anyone who is interested in the (unfortunately) on-going clash between religion and science.

Kenneth R. Miller. 1999. Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution. Cliff Street Books, New York.

Miller is a professor of cell and molecular biology at Brown University, and he is also a devout Christian. The title of his book thus reflects a very real and personal challenge to reconcile science and religion. Along the way, he offers an excellent summary of several major lines of evidence for evolution. Miller also provides a critique of Michael Behe's claim that some biological systems are "irreducibly complex" and hence could not have evolved - a claim that is trumpeted as evidence for "intelligent design" by those clamoring to put "creation science" in the public school scientific curriculum. (For more on this, see also Miller's evolution resources web page:

http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/index.html.) Miller ends with a suggestion of how God and evolution may be reconciled, one based on the indeterminacy inherent in quantum physics.

Ian Johnston. Johnstonia: Miscellaneous Essays. http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/

Johnston is an instructor of Liberal Studies at Malaspina University-College in British Columbia. He teaches "great-books" courses that include several classics of science by Georges Cuvier, James Hutton, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and Charles Darwin, along with Richard Dawkin's The Selfish Gene as an example of recent scientific writing accessible by a general audience (and for which he provides a thoughtful review calling attention to both positive and negative aspects). Fortunately, Johnston puts his material on the web, including his own summaries ("introductions, designed for readers who are encountering these texts for the first time"), many e-texts of important works, contemporary reviews thereof (I stumbled on this site while searching for Richard Owen's review of Darwin's Origin), and Johnston's own essays. Here are links to several of Johnston's essays on science, which impress me for their clear thinking and plain speaking:

Ancient and Modern Science: Some Observations
The Illogic of a Creationist Argument
Creationism in the Science Curriculum?
The Short Proof of Evolution
Some Non-Scientific Observations on the Importance of Darwin
Towards an Initial Understanding of Science

Finally, I know I am not in the same league with these exceptionally clear thinkers on science and religion. Nonetheless, I have attempted to address this interface on some occasions, and here are two of my own efforts.

(1995) Here is a column that I wrote for, and had rejected by, a news magazine, after I received a deceptive and harassing phone call from someone opposed to evolution.

Richard E. Lenski. 1995. Science, Church and State. (PDF file)

(1998) As part of a local forum, I was asked to respond as a scientist to a talk by Dr. Philip Hefner, a distinguished Lutheran theologian and author of The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture and Religion (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1993). This book won the 1995 Templeton Foundation Book Prize; in it Hefner advances a "Theological Theory of the Created Co-Creator" in which we humans have "emerged from within the natural evolutionary processes " (p. 277). Despite this author's clear acceptance of science and its findings, which I applaud, my response emphasizes that science cannot be used to support a religious viewpoint - ironically, even one that accepts science for what it is.

Richard E. Lenski. 1998. Science and Religion: Vive la Différence. (PDF file)

Here's a link to the Frank & Ernest cartoon mentioned in this essay:
http://frankandernest.com/cgi/view/display.pl?98-08-02

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