There was a symposium at my department ‘to celebrate the academic career of Henry Plotkin‘ – i.e. his retirement or half-way point in the academic career, depending on how you want to look at it (half full, half empty, sour). Prof Plotkin was our head of department and supervised my final year project, gave inspiring lectures on evolution of mind and wrote good books on the same, so you bet I was there. Some thoughts follow.
David Hull gave a fairly gentle talk on evolutionary epistemology. I shall just pick out a few comments I found particularly interesting, chiefly on universality. This is a claim made about a feature or characteristic, specifically that it is found across [the class, taxa, all life – but most typically species, and in the context of humans neary always framed in this way] without exception excluding abnormal cases. According to Hull, although all humans possess characteristics, if species evolved as evolutionary biologists think they do, universals should be rare. In fact, Hull doubts that many exist at all, especially not the hundreds of traits claimed by Donald E. Brown to constitute his ‘Universal People’. What Hull points out is that universals are often achieved by arguing away variability – partitioning off the ‘normal’ population under consideration. As he points out, blue eye colour is found in 1% of the population, and is the result of a malfunctioning gene, but it’s just as human as anything else. I share this concern, which has its mirror in the tendency of some universalists to universalise from traits only seen in the abnormal – i.e. in psychopaths – which I wrote about here .
Hull also posed a question, which can be summed up as ‘Why are universals so universal?’ Why is the need to pin these things down so ubiquitous? He suggested two reasons, one being sheer outgrowth from the nature-nurture debate and the polarised positions this produces. He also suggested that it is due to a perceived link between universality and Laws of Nature – the Big Game of scientific endeavour – even though the considered view in biology is that there is no such thing. He concluded that perhaps it is also that essentialism is simply very hard to avoid.
Hull is also concerned with the future of science – whether it has a future, which he doesn’t take for granted and urges us not to. He is convinced that central to science is the notion of Mutual Use – collaboration, sharing of information, open access, which he feels must stay central to science to prevent it going under. So yay science blogging.
Tomorrow I’ll try to give a little on a few more talks.