The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense

By Michael Shermer | Go to book overview

13
A GENTLEMANLY
ARRANGEMENT

Science at its Best in the Great
Evolution Priority Dispute

WHEN THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace returned home from eight years in the jungles of the Malay Archipelago in the Spring of 1861, he boasted an almost unbelievable collection of 125,660 total specimens, including 310 mammals, 100 reptiles, 8,050 birds, 7,500 shells, 13,100 butterflies, 83,200 beetles, and 13,400 “other insects.” In addition to collecting, Wallace also wanted to put the seemingly infinite variety of nature's pieces together into a puzzle so that as a historical scientist he could solve the riddle of what his friend and colleague Charles Darwin called the “mystery of mysteries”—the origin of species. It was this combination of broad observational scope and penetrating theoretical depth that set Wallace apart from most of his contemporaries and led him to his discovery about the mutable nature of species and the interdependency of organisms in their geographical location. Wallace was demonstrating the practice of science at its best—the blending of process and product into an art form described by Sir Peter Medawar as “the art of making difficult problems soluble by devising means of getting at them.” 1

The story of how Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace discovered the mechanism of evolution demonstrates how the progress of science is often an interaction between steady historical trends and serendipitous flashes of insight and discovery. As Thomas Kuhn and others have shown, the history of science is not an asymptotic curve of progress toward Truth, or a steady withdrawal of the shroud cloaking Reality. Rather, it consists of long periods of paradigmatic status quo, occasionally interrupted by shifts in the shared worldview, resulting

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