Friday, 1 February 2019

My Brontosaur Theory on Counterfactual Histories of Science

Good evening. To get the THRUST of this post, please watch the clip first.

So called counterfactual histories are scenarios of what could have come to pass, if some contingent event of the past had turned out differently. It is controversial whether exploring such counterfactual alternative paths to the actual history has any merit for academic historiography. This is even more true for the history of science, because science is often assumed to approach one reality. Alternative paths in a counterfactual history must inevitably reach the same or a very similar state of knowledge, so the assumption.  

Therefore, historians of science usually claim that counterfactual narratives usually result in an alternative state of science that is pretty close or even identical to the actual state of science. This claim is supported by the assumption that a plausibility constraint prevents counterfactual histories from becoming incompatible with the actual science. That is, if a counterfactual history would end in a state of science that was incompatible with the actual science, then it would turn into science fiction and cease to belong to academic historiography. In other words: Counterfactual histories of science cannot be incompatible with the current state of science and be plausible at the same time!

Plausible counterfactual narratives that do end in identical or closely similar states of science are variously referred to as being contingent in a benign or weak sense (e.g., Soler 2008; Hesketh 2016; Tambolo 2018). One could think of this as two potential paths that departed at a contingent point of the past, but only one path got realized. If both had been realized, the gap between them would have remained rather thin and they would eventually have converged again. Think of the outline of a worm rather than a brontosaur

A popular example of a counterfactual narrative that has been taken to be benign or weak in this sense is Peter Bowler's Darwin Deleted (2013). It ends in an alternative state of science that is identical in its scientific content and only differs in its social context. In Darwin Deleted, Charles Darwin dies prematurely but, in the end, the resulting evolutionary theory is identical to the current one. The difference between the counterfactual and the actual science is that some social discontents (like social Darwinism, Nazi eugenics) got associated with alternatives to natural selection (e.g, Lamarckism, Spencerian ideas, orthogenesis) and sunk together with them. That is, they did not get associated with natural selection, which came in later. Therefore, natural selection came out clean in Bowler's counterfactual and Bowler's aim of his counterfactual was, in fact, to prove that there is no necessary association between natural selection and its social discontents.

I am not interested, here, in these social issues or Bowler's beef with the Intelligent Design proponent Weikart, who apparently wants to burden Darwin with some responsibility for the holocaust etc. Instead, I want to refute the above claimed necessary association between the plausibility of counterfactual histories of science and their compatibility with the actual science.

If this association was necessary, then any history of science (even one about actual not counterfactual research) would appear to be outlandishly improbable to us, because it went through states that are utterly incompatible with the current state of knowledge. Take Bowler's Darwin Deleted, for example. It is completely incompatible with the current state of evolutionary biology somewhere in the middle, because alternatives to natural selection like Lamarckism, use-inheritance, blending inheritance etc. rule there. At the same time, this intermediate state of science is not only plausible but grounded in what many actual scientists and philosophers did indeed believe for a long time after Darwin and before the Modern Synthesis. That is, even actual history confronts us with states of science that are incompatible with the current state and yet plausible to the highest possible degree.

In other words, the gap between the path of Bowler's counterfactual and the actual history of evolutionary biology is not worm shaped!

Hence my theory, which is mine, ahem ahem: The gaps between most counterfactual and actual histories of science are thin at the beginning, much, !much! thicker in the middle, and then thin again in the end. That is my Brontosaur Theory of counterfactual histories of science. It is mine and belongs to me and I own it and what it is too.

I have a second theory, which is the second part of my first theory and it is also mine. This is it: AHEM!!! By chopping brontosaur counterfactuals in half and truncating them, the gap between the counterfactual and the actual history will become cone shaped. That is, the gap will gape and never close again. I call this my Hyolith Theory on Counterfactual Histories of Science.

Reconstruction of Haplophrentis, a hyolith. From Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

1. Bowler, P.J. 2013. Darwin deleted. Imagining a world without Darwin. The University of Chicago Press.
2. Hesketh, I. (2016). Counterfactuals and history: Contingency and convergence in histories of science and life. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 58, 41-48.
3. Soler, L. (2008). Revealing the analytical structure and some intrinsic major difficulties of the contingentist/inevitabilist issue. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 39,
4. Tambolo, L. 2018. So close no matter how far: counterfactuals in history of science and the inevitability/contingency controversy. Synthese,

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

How the theories of Matthew, Darwin, and Wallace came to be seen as identical

The following blog post tries to explain how it came about that Patrick Matthew, Charles Darwin, and Alfred Wallace all thought about their evolutionary theories (first published in 1831 by Matthew and in 1858 jointly by Darwin and Wallace)  as essentially identical, when closer analysis reveals significant differences (e.g., Dagg 2018). How could they, and many people ever since, have overlooked the differences?

Huxley's review of Darwin's Origin of Species
Thomas H. Huxley anonymously reviewed Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859). His review was first published in the Times (26 December 1859, pp. 8-9). The Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette (3 March 1860, pp.192-193) reproduced it. Therein, Huxley gave examples of breeds (pigeons, swine, cattle) that grossly deviated from their wild ancestors and explained the process of artificial selection employed by the breeders before stating: 
"But in all these cases we have human interference. Without the breeder there would be no selection, and without the selection no race. Before admitting the possibility of natural species having originated in any similar way, it must be proved that there is in nature some power which takes the place of man, and performs a selection sua sponte. It is the claim of Mr. Darwin that he professes to have discovered the existence and the modus operandi of this natural selection, as he terms it; and, if he be right, the process is perfectly simple and comprehensible, and irresistibly deducible from very familiar but well nigh forgotten facts." (Huxley 1860, 193, col. 3)
He then continued with the over-reproduction of all organisms, the struggle of survival and the survival of the fittest resulting from it. That is, Huxley's review was a simplification and popularization of Darwin's theory that every lay-reader of the could comprehend. Most strikingly, Huxley's review completely lacked the principle of divergence by which Darwin laid so much stock, but which is now largely forgotten or, if not, causes much perplexity among biologists. 

Darwin mentioned it in a letter to Asa Gray, 5 September 1857, (Darwin Correspondence Project, Letter no. 2136, accessed on 8 Jan. 2019, stating: "One other principle, which may be called the principle of divergence plays, I believe, an important part in the origin of species." In a later letter to Joseph D. Hooker, 8 June 1958, (Darwin Correspondence Project, Letter no. 2282, accessed on 8 January 2019,, he stated that the principle of divergence and natural selection will together form the key-stone of his book to come (On the Origin of Species). And in his Autobiography, edited by Nora Barlow (1958, 120), Darwin recounted having an eureka moment, when he came across this principle while in a carriage on a road and he likened his solution to the one of Columbus and his egg. 

Why was the principle of divergence important to Darwin? 
Biologists, today, see island biogeographies everywhere. A hilltop in a flat country can be an island just as an isolated valley in the mountains. Rivers and other geographic barriers can create one island biogeographic setting for some species and a totally different setting for others depending on their ecological niches. Biologists see island biogeographies where Darwin saw none. Furthermore, they know about genetic drift as a mechanisms that accelerates evolutionary change in small populations in these settings. 

Darwin, however, had found from taxonomic studies that taxa on continents were not only larger than on islands but also that their members (e.g., genera, species) were more divergent from each other than on smaller islands. He also believed that the smallness of the populations on islands would retard the process of evolution there simply by making favorable variants a rare occurrence. Therefore, he needed a principle that would explain this pattern. In other words, he needed something that would drive lineages apart on continents, in the absence of catastrophes or islands. 

What was the principle of divergence?
His principle of divergence achieved this by proposing that the internal competition between varying individuals within species was disruptive enough to allow lineage splitting. Advantageous sports dodged being swamped somehow and, instead, managed to exterminate the intermediate (parental) form. If more than one such variant occurred simultaneously, and the variants could no longer interbreed after the extinction of the parental form, lineage splitting (speciation) had occurred without geographic isolation of the variants (in sympatry). Geographic isolation could facilitate this lineage splitting, but is was not a necessary prerequisite.

In this principle of divergence, Darwin's theory differed not only from Wallace's (who had an island biogeographic setting for lineage splitting) and Matthew's (who had catastrophes doing the lineage splitting), but also from Huxley's simplified review and from current evolutionary theory. The latter is, in my humble opinion, closer to Wallace's island biogeographic scheme than to Darwin's original scheme from 1859.   

Matthew's priority claim
Matthew had read Huxley's review in the Gardeners' Chronicle from 3 March 1860 and sent his priority claim to that periodical at 7 March 1860. This is evident from the date and signature given by Matthew at the end of his letter to the journal. (It took the editors until 7 April 1860 to publish Matthew's claim.) It is unlikely that Matthew had consulted Darwin's book at length or in any detail within those four days. It seems far more likely that he had simply taken what he could gather from Huxley's review and written his priority claim on the spot, collating passages from his book that fit the simplified account given by Huxley. 

Darwin's reply to Matthew's claim
Darwin's response was equally hasty (within 6 days). It got published on 21 April 1860 in the Gardeners' Chronicle (pp. 362-363). However, Darwin had sent his response to Joseph D. Hooker for approval on 13 April 1860 (Darwin Correspondence Project, Letter no. 2758, accessed on 8 January 2019, Basically, Darwin had ordered Matthew's book (see letter to Charles Lyell, 10 April 1860, Darwin Correspondence Project, Let. 2754, accessed 8 Jan. 2019,, in order to make sure that the passages given by Matthew in his priority claim were scattered passages in a book on an otherwise different subject. This he made sure, in order to excuse himself for having overlooked Matthew's book in his long pondering on the subject. His response read:
"I have been much interested by Mr. Patrick Matthew’s communication in the Number of your Paper, dated April 7th. I freely acknowledge that Mr. Matthew has anticipated by many years the explanation which I have offered of the origin of species, under the name of natural selection. I think that no one will feel surprised that neither I, nor apparently any other naturalist, had heard of Mr. Matthew’s views, considering how briefly they are given, and that they appeared in the appendix to a work on Naval Timber and Arboriculture. I can do no more than offer my apologies to Mr. Matthew for my entire ignorance of his publication. If another edition of my work is called for, I will insert a notice to the foregoing effect."
Wallace's review of Butler's Evolution Old and New
Alfred Wallace only returned from the Malay Archipelago in 1862. Consequently, he remained largely ignorant about Matthew's ideas until Samuel Butler sent him a complimentary copy of his book Evolution, Old and New (1879). Butler (1879) claimed that Darwin's theory was nothing but Lamarckism redux and that Matthew's theory was worlds apart in this. However, Butler mistook Matthew's catastrophism as necessarily putting him in one camp with Cuvier and opposite to Lamarck. Matthew had in fact married Cuvier's catastrophism to to transmutationism (Lamarckian or otherwise). Apart from this nonsense, Butler also re-quoted the passages that Matthew had already re-quoted in his priority claim against Darwin in 1860 (except for one paragraph about spontaneous generation). Apparently, Wallace read these passages from Matthew only now for the fist time. He replied in a letter to Butler:
"To my mind, your quotations from Mr. Patrick Matthew are the most remarkable things in your whole book, because he appears to have completely anticipated the main ideas both of the Origin of Species and of Life and Habit." (Wallace to Butler, 9 May 1879
Wallace published a review of Butler's book in the journal Nature (12 June 1879, Vol. 20: 141-144), in which he had the following to say about Matthew: 
"We come next to Mr. Patrick Matthew, who in 1831 put forth his views on the development theory in a work on arboriculture; and we think that most naturalists will be amazed at the range and accuracy of his system, and will give him the highest credit as the first to see the important principles of human and “natural selection,” conformity to conditions, and reversion to ancestral types; and also the unity of life, the varying degrees of individuality, and the continuity of ideas or habits forming an abiding memory, thus combining all the best essential features of the theories put forth by Lamarck, Darwin, and Mr. Butler himself."
Wallace continued with re-quoting yet again, some of the re-quotes by Butler of Matthew. 

Thus, a persistent historical pattern had been firmly established. From now on, every other decade, someone would stumble over Matthew, be very surprised about his prescience and re-quote the same old passages once over, in order to emphasize how very identical these were to Darwin's and Wallace's theories. This would reiterate itself for the next century and a half without any proper historiography of the Patrick Matthew case ever emerging from this reiteration of a legend.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Patrick Matthew's evolutionary clock (1831)

Patrick Matthew is generally considered to be one of the predecessors of Charles Darwin concerning the integration of natural selection into an evolutionary scheme. Concerning the species problem, Matthew (1831. On Naval Timber and Arboriculture, p. 381) wrote:
"Throughout this volume, we have felt considerable inconvenience, from the adopted dogmatical classification of plants, and have all along been floundering between species and variety, which certainly under culture soften into each other. A particular conformity, each after its own kind, when in a state of nature, termed species, no doubt exists to a considerable degree. This conformity has existed during the last forty centuries. Geologists discover a like particular conformity—fossil species—through the deep deposition of each great epoch, but they also discover an almost complete difference to exist between the species or stamp of life, of one epoch from that of every other." (highlight added)
Here, Matthew was dealing with the problem of the stability of species, that is, why do species not disintegrate into one mêlé of amorphous variation without any clear species boundaries (gaps between species)? This problem had two sub-problems: 1. Why does spontaneous variation (sports) not lead to such a mess? 2. Why does hybridization not lead to such a mess? Matthew's answer was natural selection. Oddly, from our current perspective, he later referred to it as the problem of species fixity: 
"In my discovery of the fixity of species by natural competitive selection, I have overturned the only argument worth overturning brought forward by ancient superstition against the law of development. I have shown that we [farmers] can go ahead of college-bred, closet-taught naturalists, and leave them to follow in our wake at the distance of thirty years. This is nothing remarkable, as most of them are mere bundles of old-world prejudices. May I therefore hope for assistance from my brother-farmers, that we may keep ahead?" (Matthew 1861. Utility of change of place in seed, and still more in life continued by tubers or cuttings. The Farmer’s Magazine, Ser. 3, Vol. 19: 283-285, p. 285, highlight added)
Species fixity, here, did not mean that species were absolutely fixed in their morphology and physiology. The problem was to explain why species and varieties remained stable, despite the occurrence of sports and hybrids, but why demarcating species and varieties properly was so difficult at the same time. It starts out as a practical problem of classifying organisms, it then takes on a taxonomic dimension (how to define species and varieties), and it turns, in modern parlance, into a problem of the evolutionary maintenance of species (and varieties). In agreement with this, Matthew called himself the "solver of the problem of species" on the title page of the political pamphlet Schleswig Holstein (Matthew 1864) and not "discoverer of the principle of natural selection" as Charles Darwin (1865, 22 and 28 October. To J. D. Hooker. Darwin Correspondence Project, Letter no. 4921.) wrongly wrote to Joseph Hooker. 

Despite this stability of boundaries between species and varieties, Matthew thought they could still adaptation (lineage adaptation or anagenesis) to changing conditions, for example, in climate. The splitting of species (lineage splitting or cladogenesis), however, only occurred in short periods after global catastrophes had exterminated most species and thereby rendered an open field for the radiation of the surviving organisms into empty niches so to speak. Hence, Matthew's scheme is one of long periods of stability of species punctuated by short periods of quick radiation and lineage splitting. Naturally, the question arises how long Matthew thought that these periods of stability and radiation were. The only hint he ever gave us, however, are the forty centuries of conformity highlighted in the first quote from Matthew (1831, p. 381) given above. 

These 40 centuries only make sense in the context of chronologies being popular at that time, which told the history of the world along the lines of biblical events. Trying to align scientific findings from geology with the stories of the old testament was its own genre and was not regarded as unscientific (even Kepler and Newton engaged in it). The chronology of James Ussher, Archbishop Armagh and Primate of all Ireland, from 1650 was particularly popular. He dated the first day of creation to 23 October 4004 BC and the Noachian flood to 2349 BC.

The Noachian flood was thought to have occurred 4179 years before Matthew wrote his book in 1830, that is, roughly 42 centuries. Having no other numbers to go by than Matthew's 40 centuries of conformity, it would mean that the time for the evolutionary radiation after the last global catastrophe, the Noachian flood, were a mere 200 years after which lineage splitting (cladogenesis) stopped and the environments were fully stocked again. They could still change in response to changes in climate etc. (lineage adaptation) but no longer split. Species boundaries were then stable for 4000 years. This evolutionary scheme can be depicted in a pie chart with 200 years of radiation and 4000 years of stability.

The only other number from Matthew to go by is his statement: "millions of ages of regularity which appear to have followed between the epochs" (Matthew 1831, p. 383). Apparently, Matthew thought that the above depicted clock had turned millions of times. Make that 1 million and the age of Life on Earth would have been 4.2 billion years, which would be quite close to the current estimate of 3.9 billion years. 2 million revolutions or more would, of course, render Matthew's scheme out of whack with modern estimates.

Sunday, 30 December 2018

A Punxsutawney Phil degree in history of science

This post is about how aspects of the movie Groundhog Day (with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell) can be seen as a parable for a specific controversy in the history of science. But first I need to say a thing or two on that controversy.

The contingency-inevitability controversy is about the question whether the history of science would inevitably have had to lead to our current science, no matter what contingent path had been chosen in the past, or whether it could have lead to true alternatives, that is, sciences that are as successful as our current one but remarkable different in its theories, methods, machinery etc. [Some classical references: Hacking, Ian. 1999. The social construction of what? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Hacking, Ian. 2000. How inevitable are the results of successful science? Philosophy of Science, 67, S58–S71. A more recent collection of works on that issue: Léna Soler, Emiliano Trizio & Andrew Pickering (Eds.). Science as it could have been. Pittsbugh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.]

The most often quoted statement in this controversy is from Hacking (2000, S61, original emphasis):

"Take any results R, which at present we take to be correct, of any successful science. We ask: If the results R of a scientific investigation are correct, would any investigation of roughly the same subject matter, if successful, at least implicitly contain or imply the same results? If so, there is a significant sense in which the results are inevitable."

[I even quoted it myself in a paper once and refrained from pointing out the redundancy in "implicitly contain or imply" lest I'd be seen as a smart-ass or too stupid to sense an irony by Hacking. But a blog-post seems fair enough to indulge.]

The extreme positions on the contingency-inevitability continuum are: 
1. Extreme Contingentism: History of science is totally contingent. If scientists had taken an alternative turn at some point in the past, we would live with an entirely different science. It might not even be compatible with our current science yet be as successful (e.g., in statistics of healing sick patients).  
2. Extreme Inevitabilism: History of science is totally inevitable. No matter what alternative turn scientists might have taken in the past, we would live with exactly the same science as we have today.

Suppose the film-makers of Groundhog Day had been adherents of extreme contingentism. Then, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) could have planned nothing, because Butterfly Effects would have thwarted all his attempts to anticipate what will happen the next (same) day from what he experienced the previous (same) day. The boy would not always fall from the same tree, the man in the restaurant not always choke on a chunk of steak etc. Phil Connors should become mad by round 10 and the film-makers unable to tell a narrative. The film would be DaDa. 

Suppose, instead, the film-makers had been adherents of extreme inevitabilism. Then, Phil Connors could have changed nothing, no matter how hard he tried. All his attempts would be futile and the film would have no ending, just an open end telling us that it will go on and on forever.

Apparently, the film-makers chose an intermediate route, in order to be able to tell an interesting narrative. While Phil Connors is able to remember what had happened the previous (same) day and react differently, all others do not and behave just the same. In this way, Connors is a contingent factor (loose cannon at times) in an otherwise predictable world. Therefore, Phil Connors can work at trying to change his fate. If the rest of his microcosm was unpredictable or he had no power to change his own behavior and thereby tilt the microcosm towards another direction, then a film without a story ould have resulted.

Interestingly, many historians of science think that authors who try to devise what-if scenarios of what might have come to pass, alternatively, (so-called counterfactual histories) are bound by similar narrative constraints. They can allow one or a very few factors of the past to deviate contingently, but the rest must remain predictable. Otherwise, their counterfactual history would become Dadaistic (everything contingent) or boring (everything determined) but either way have no merit for historiography.

P.S.: Of course there are other messages in the movie, like the one that love is a liberating force, but I was exclusively trying to explore analogies with a particular history-of-science issue.

Thursday, 27 December 2018

The genitals of old statues suggest that Michelangelo's David was an athlete

This post will be for you, if you ever stood in front of old statues, like I stood in front of David, perplexed by questions like the following: Why should Michelangelo have taken a model that had not only a glaringly non-Jewish manhood but also featured a prepuce (foreskin) that seems to be constricted enough to still prompt modern surgeons to consider the option of circumcision for non-religious reasons? Why do old statues sometimes seem to suffer from phimosis or apparently even grosser disfigurements of their genitals? Why did the artists depict them thus and not in a more natural and healthy way?  
     One look at the athletic bodies of old statues can tell most people that they were—well—athletic. The following musings about some odd genital features of some old statues, however, suggest (to me) that Michelangelo's model for David was an athlete in the sense of a professional sportsman. Anticipating the key point, athletes used to perform naked; therefore, they had to lace up their prepuce in a peculiar way for reasons of decency. Surprisingly, the effects that lacing up the prepuce with these strings, called Kynodesmes, had on the foreskin are visible in old statues. Current but ignorant onlookers, like me, can easily associate these features with a phimosis rather than a common feature of athletes.

The long way round to the key point
The Liebighaus in Frankfurt currently hosts a fabulous exhibition about Iason, the Argonauts and most importantly Medea (until 10 Feb. 2019). It's worth it, especially if you manage to get guidance (our guide was captivating). However, I will not retell the vast epic of Medea and its prequel about the Golden Fleece and, instead, focus on a rather peculiar detail: the genitals of some of the exhibits, of which I have taken pictures.
     Taking an Etruscan mirror as his point of departure, the curator of the Liebighaus advances a controversial thesis about two famous bronze statues otherwise known as Ruler and Boxer at Rest of Quirinal (or Thermae Ruler and Boxer). The mirror shows a standing Polydeukes (or Pollux, one of the Argonauts) to the left and a sitting Amykos (son of Poseidon and king of Bebryces) to the right, whom Polydeukes defeated in boxing. The woman behind Amykos is a goddess and the egg on the column indicates that Polydeukes had hatched from an egg.
Etruscan mirror with Polydeukes (Poloces, standing left) and Amycos (sitting right).

The curator arranged replicas of the Ruler and Boxer of Quirinal in positions resembling those of Polydeukes and Amykos on the mirror. Again, I will not go into the details of the controversy about whether or not these bronze statues were really meant to depict Polydeukes and Amykos and instead focus on a still more peculiar detail.
Quirinal Ruler and Boxer at rest or, maybe, Polydeukes and Amykos?

This detail is the penis of the Ruler.
Genitals of the Quirinal Ruler
On seeing it I immediately thought, "Damn this man had a phimosis!"  and I remembered that I had thought the same about Michelangelo's David, when in Florence many years ago. Again, I know that it is highly popular to wonder about the size of the genitals of antique statues and ask oneself, why they were depicted so small. And, again, I will not go into that direction.

At the end of the guided tour, I had a chance to ask our fabulous guide (a female in her thirties with a long course of studies of archeology behind her, whose name I unfortunately did not register) and she taught me a lesson. It was customary among athletes to take the foreskin and wind a string around it and then bind the penis close to the body. The proper word for the string for binding the penis tight is Kynodesme and the purpose seems to have been preventing the glans from peeping out of the foreskin, which was regarded as dishonorable among the Greeks and Etruscans. (Maybe they associated an exposed glans with sexual arousal.)

And, indeed, returning to the Terme Ruler and Boxer afterwards, I could see that the Boxer has his penis bound to curl upwards, which was one customary way to wear the Kynodesme. Here's a picture of the genitals of the Boxer at Rest.
Genitals of the Quirinal Boxer at rest

What you see here is the scrotum with the testicles, the tightly bound penis above the right testicle and the foreskin with the Kynodesme string around it above the left testicle. Okay, you do not see it. I show you the penis in a white ellipse and the bound foreskin in a white rectangle:
Genitals of the Boxer with an ellipse around the penis and a rectangle around the prepuce. 

What appears to be a gross disfigurement at first sight, turns out to be due to a Kynodesme. This suggests (to me) that the Quirinial Ruler has, from long custom of binding his penis away in like fashion, a foreskin that looks as though it was constricted by a phimosis. I comply with the interpretation of my competent guide. But now I wonder whether the model that Michelangelo used for his David was a young athlete (boxing or otherwise), whose foreskin was not yet as worn out as the ones of the Quirinal Ruler or Boxer but already showed first signs of constriction from being laced up in the then customary fashion. Make up your own mind by looking at the following details from Michelangelo's David. Does his foreskin show signs from wearing a Kynodesme?
David's genitals seen from the right.
David's genitals seen from left.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

The Comicreader’s Guide to the Historiography of Science

Abstract. This is neither a comic nor a piece of history or science. It is rather a meta-level comparison of two narrative formats—comic or graphic novel with historiography. The insights gained from this comparison are then applied to examples from the history of evolutionary theory, in order to show how the analogy can serve as a tool for visualizing particular narrative structures and functions.

The explanatory role of narrative is a topical issue in philosophy and history of science (see Morgan and Wise 2017, and articles following in this special issue called Narrative in Science). In this quest, images are often used as analogies that can visualize narrative structures and their functions (e.g., Morgan 2017). John Lewis Gaddis, for example, begins his excellent book The Landscape of History with Caspar David Friedrich’s painting The Wanderer above a Sea of Fog (fig. 1). This summons up Gaddis’s own sense of what historical consciousness is all about. Historians focus their attention, from whatever vantage point they can find, on where they have been and turn their back on concerns of the present (Gaddis 2002, p. 2).

Fig. 1.: The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich (around 1817). Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany (picture taken by Elke Waldorf).

Soon, however, Gaddis needs to exchange this gazebo retrospective with other illustrative allegories and metaphors for the historian’s perspective. An eagle-eye (remote sensing) view can see what is happening in the valleys of the metaphorical landscape but will miss the action going on under canopies or roofs. Participant or protagonist reports can provide the latter, but will be limited to their individual experiences (see section 3, below).
    By chapter two, Gaddis’s metaphors are in disarray. A map is better than the eagle-eye view at conveying the idea that the landscape (history) is a representation that has been construed by someone. But he needs to depart from these static metaphors and to admit that historians can manipulate time, matter, and space in ways that neither a look-out, a map-reader, or a protagonist could. Historians can scale dimensions up and down by zooming in and out of situations. Zooming in, they can spy out particular events, like immaterial ghosts, without ever getting embroiled in the action (like time-travelers in movies). They can not only de-materialize themselves but also render the past scenery concrete or abstract. And they can retard and speed up the passage of time by jumping large swaths of time with a few sentences only to expand a crucial moment by treating it at a length that takes much longer to read or enact. That is, Gaddis needs to add allegories of dimension jumping, time traveling, and the like to the wanderer’s retrospective from a promontory.
   This suggested to me that comics may provide a more versatile analogy for historiographic narratives, even though the proposition may seem preposterous at first. It will seem less so after understanding the comic as a narrative format rather than a genre. Most people think of the comic or graphic novel as a genre and do associate it with either funny animals (e.g., Donald Duck) or superheroes. However, this is far from gauging the diversity of comics. Some are (auto-)bio-graphic novels (e.g., Bechdel 2007 on her family life, father’s suicide, and homosexual coming out; Dewilde 2016 on his surviving the terror attack on the Parisian night club Bataclan and finding back into life thereafter), some are journalistic war-zone reportages (e.g. Sacco 2009) or documentaries (e.g., Mandel and Bouagga 2017 on the refugees’ Jungle of Calais) and many deal with science in an instructional, educational, or edutainment form. Narratives of any genre can be put into the format of a comic or graphic novel. The format has been analyzed by McCloud (1994), Eisner (2001), Jüngst (2010) and many other comic makers and experts. All agree that it is a sequential art requiring a succession of still images. Whereas the story of a comic or graphic novel can be translated into many different media (e.g., film, audio play, text), the format is limited to media that can feature sequences of still images whether on paper, walls, or in digital media.
    The advantage of the comic over other narrative formats is that its structures and functions are rather obvious. They almost illustrate themselves. Therefore, the comic format is a good foil against which to compare narrative structures and functions in the history of science, which is a far more complex animal. Not each element, function, form of representation, or perspective in comics finds an analogon in the history of science but, in comparing these narrative formats, differences can be as informative as similarities.

1 The comic format
Comics and graphic novels will be obvious representations, even if they are documentary or biographic by genre. Therefore, the comic format has the advantage that nobody gets confused about the status of the narrative as a representation that has been constructed. This is not true for history writing, where their representational status needs emphasizing (Gaddis 2002).
    Comics are montages of both words and images (Eisner 2000, 8) where visual regimes (like perspective, symmetry, or resolution) are integrated with narrative ones (like grammar, syntax, plot). This is also true for pieces of history or science. Admittedly, the graphic character of comics dominates over the textual, whereas the reverse is true for history or science. The comic format is, nevertheless, closer to the history of science than purely graphic formats, like art canvas. The analogy between the comic and historiographic format is already closer than with others, before their texts are even written and their images even drawn.

1.1 Typical elements and their narrative functions
Figure 2 shows a prototypic comic strip with the usual elements being labelled in red. These elements are panels, gutters, captions, balloons, soundwords, and speedlines. The panels are snapshots of the story. They illustrate the narrative. The panels are separated by gutters. While these seem to be empty spaces, the readers need to construct the narrative from the snapshots by actively filling the void of the gutters with the help of their imagination. The readers have their minds in the gutters. The captions are explanatory comments that provide context. Balloons contain direct speech or thoughts of the protagonists. Soundwords evoke sound and speedlines evoke motion in the imagination of the readers.

Fig. 2: Typical elements of a comic (after Jüngst 2010, 14, red labels added).

1.2 Comparing the comic with the historiographic format
Comics and graphic novels lose their tension, when the information of the words simply duplicates that of the images. While this must be avoided in many genres put into the shape of a comic or graphic novel, such redundancy may be desired in educational or information comics. For example, in comics made for learning foreign languages images illustrate the meaning of words. Therefore, words and images represent the same things. Likewise, suspense is a desideratum in text-based thrillers and whodunits but not in scientific or historiographic writings.
    The comic panels (snapshots of the story) are analogous to pieces of the historical record. In history of science, these can be publications, data sets, pieces of correspondences, etc. The work of constructing a story from these snapshots is not left to the readers but provided by the author. This work is necessary for several reasons. First, the pieces of the historical record usually do not readily suggest a narrative by mere juxtaposition. Second, the pieces of the historical record are not necessarily snapshots of only one narrative. Sometimes they are too detailed and need to be stripped down, in order to represent a snapshot in the proposed narrative. Sometimes they are too meager and need to be augmented, in order to do so. And generally, they are very heterogeneous in media type and content. Some are texts, some diagrams, some data sets, some images, some theories, some methods, some instruments, some abstract, some concrete. Mere juxtaposition does not suggest a narrative. For these reasons, historians fill the spaces (gutters) between their record pieces with a lot of text that relates one piece to the next. Historians have their minds in the gutters.
    Balloons have their analogon in quotes and soundwords have a less direct analogon in metaphors and figurative speech. A soundword is an item of text that evokes a sound in the mind of the reader. Conversely, a metaphor or figure of speech is a piece of text that evokes an image in the mind of the reader. Historical narratives have no need for a special element evoking motion, like speedlines do in comics, because motion is simply described by words (e.g., ran, drove, speedily).
    What would happen, if a history comic transformed into a history book? The context providing captions would increase to pages of text. The gutters would expand even wider and fill with text forming whole chapters. The panels would shrink and attain various forms ranging from vintage images to vintage pieces of text. Soundwords would turn into metaphors and allegories and often migrate into the gutters. Speedlines would be replaced by words of motion and balloons by quotes of relevance. Text would thus invade the panels. Whenever authors conceived of producing their own illustrations of a historic situation or process, however, images would also invade the gutters. That way, the graphic novel would turn into a book of history as was well-nigh prerequisite, if the process was to count as a transformation of the comic into the historiographic format.

1.3 A difference that sheds a light on a philosophical issue
One unresolved issue of the history and philosophy of science concerns the relation of narrative and, respectively, scientific data or historical records (Morgan and Wise 2017). Does the narrative make (construe) sense of of the data and records, or does it discover their meaning? At first sight, the comic-format analogy seems to support the position that the images (analogous to data and records) imply the narrative, whereas the dominance of text in historical publications seems to support the opposite. Assume, however, a person with a brain damage of its narrative faculties. That person would neither be able to read the story from the images of a comic, no matter how narrow or absent the gutters, nor would it be able to get the narrative from the text of a history, no matter how detailed in prose and relieved of esoteric data and vintage records. Likewise, the significance of scientific data or historical records may often remain obscure without a narrative, but the narrative will remain an irrelevant fancy without data and records. That is, the difference between the dominance of images in comics and text in histories can be used instructively.

2 Graphic regimes in comics
2.1 Duration in comics (manipulating the time)
The space-time analogy is an inherent feature of sequential art (Eisner 2000, 25; McCloud 1994, 100). The sense for the passage of time works by associating spatial with temporal distance. Excluding literary tricks like flashbacks and so on, the chronology of images establishes a sense of time passing by. The comic reader connects images as though they were snapshots of a process in time. Just how much time passes from panel to panel is not determined by an external chronometer that ticks away independently of the narrative. It can be anything from a split second to an aeon. Again, the sequential art is closer to text-based narratives, where sentences can bridge various amounts of time, than non-sequential arts.

2.2 Forms of representation (transforming the matter)
Comics can represent something in a concrete, abstract, or metaphorical form. The form of representation can switch from one panel to the next and different forms of representation can even be interlaced within one panel. Figure 3 shows a page from a science-comic featuring all three forms of representation. The top panel even interlaces concrete with abstract representations. By abstract I do not mean the abstraction of iconic from real images as in the middle panel (fig. 3, the figure of Barak Obama). Such icons still represent things that eyes could see in reality. The arrows in the top panel of figure 3, however, represent scientific conceptions that are not visible to the eye. Here, the arrow coming in from the sun represents electromagnetic waves in the range of visible light. The arrows that go out from the earth and bounce back from the outer atmosphere, however, represent a mixture of things: electromagnetic waves in the infrared range (that is, heat waves) are partly reflected back to earth, but their energy is also absorbed by molecules and converted into the kinetic energy of these molecules. As kinetic energy of molecules it can no longer escape into space. That the visual representation of the greenhouse effect is incomplete, however, is irrelevant to the current point that comics can visualize abstract concepts of science.

Fig. 3: From The Great Transformation. The top panel interlaces concrete and abstract representations as well as tele- and macroscopic perspectives. The bottom panel is a metaphorical representation (after Hamann et al. 2014, 19, red explanations added).

2.3 Perspectives (jumping the dimensions of scale)
Comics jump dimensions of scale easily. For example, one panel may show a remote (telescopic) perspective on a situation and the next a macro-, micro- or even submicroscopic perspective. While this jumping of dimensions of scale usually occurs between panels, the different perspectives can also be interlaced within one panel. As already seen in the previous section, the top panel of figure 3 interlaces an abstract representation of the greenhouse effect with a concrete, though iconic, representation of Hans Joachim Schellnhuber. But is also interlaces a telescopic with a macroscopic perspective. Such jumps between and interlacing of perspectives also occurs in other forms of narrative. They are even necessary in order to overcome a rock-paper-scissors like dilemma of single perspectives in historiography (see following section 3).

3 A rock-paper-scissors dilemma of single perspectives
3.1 The gazebo retrospective
Gaddis (2002) opened his book with a gazebo perspective and suggested that it could represent the perspective of historians focusing on the past and firmly turning their back on present concerns. However, it may as well represent a limited perspective, where the author has an elevated point of view but does not see the goings-on in the valleys of the landscape. Abridged accounts, as can often be found in educational rather than historical or scientific publications, lead from a presumed past to a fancied present by connecting the landmarks of a research history in a straight line. They do not check whether the nether regions of that history support the straight narrative. Take the online lesson Key Events in the History of Biological Study by Meredith Mikell (2018) at the online learning platform It states:
“Around the same time, British naturalist Charles Darwin proposed his theory of evolution by natural selection in his work, On The Origin of Species, following his famous voyage on the HMS Beagle to the Galapagos Islands. He was not the first or only scientist to suggest evolution as the cause of biodiversity; Alfred Wallace had independently also proposed that evolution occurs as descent with modification. The theories of Darwin and Wallace were highly controversial at the time, but establishing the concept of evolution is considered to be the single most important contribution to the study of biology. These concepts were furthered by the works of Gregor Mendel on inheritance, for which he was considered the father of genetics.” (Mikell 2018)
The next paragraph jumps to the molecular structure of DNA and credits Rosalind Franklin with the discovery of the double helix rather than James Watson and Francis Crick. Leaving the factual errors aside, this is an abridgement connecting landmark publications in a straight line without any regard of the contorted historical paths in between. Figure 4 (left) illustrates this, by allegory, with a path that seems to pass over three hilltops in a roughly straight line. One problem with the abridged gazebo account of Mikell (2018) is that the Mendelians turned against the Darwinians and proposed mutation as the ultimate source of variation instead of Darwin’s conditions of existence or Weismann’s sexual reproduction (Stoltzfus and Cable 2014). From an eagle-eye perspective (fig. 4, right), the street turns out to be curvy and loop back on itself at times.

Fig. 4: Path over hills. Left: gazebo perspective. Right: Map-reader's view. Circles represent hills.

3.2 Remote perspectives
The eagle-eye perspective has its own shortcomings. In our landscape analogy, the eagle does not see what goes on under canopies and roofs. The peers of a field might seem to move coherently into the same direction, when a closer surveillance would record significant disagreements among them. Unless such disagreements boil over into overt controversies, they often get glossed over in statements made from an eagle-eye perspective, in order to give an overview or introduce to the general topic. It is a small step from there to historical oblivion.
   For example, such amicable disagreements were important for the advance of theory on the evolutionary significance of sexual reproduction in the 1970s. Here is the context. In the late 1960s, evolutionary biologists took a U-turn that transformed sexual reproduction from the default mode of reproduction into an anomaly and, conversely, turned asexual reproduction into the expected but anomalously rare default mode. Weismann (1889, chap. 5) had rejected the conditions of existence as the ultimate source of heritable variation. Since he needed such a source of heritable variation, lest natural selection grind to a halt, he seized sexual reproduction as that source instead. Fisher (1930) and Muller (1932) in turn replaced it by mutation as the ultimate source of heritable variation, but they kept sexual reproduction as a mode of speeding up the population-wide process of adaptation. This implied a benefit of sex for groups, like populations or species, which got explicitly rejected in the late 1960s. Without this group benefit of sex, however, the ubiquity of sexual reproduction among animals and plants turned into an anomaly.
   The pioneers George Williams, John Maynard Smith, and Bill Hamilton were not mental triplings. They disagreed on fundamental issues like the cost of sexual reproduction or the relevance of parasites for its evolutionary maintenance. In particular, Williams (1975) conceived the cost of sex as the cost of reducing the relatedness, r, of parents to their offspring from 1 to 0.5, whereas Maynard Smith (1978) conceived it as the cost of males that contribute nothing (except sperm) to reproduction. Williams’s cost occurs in all sexual reproduction, whereas Maynard Smith’s is absent from species where gametes are of equal size or both parents care equally for the offspring.
   Likewise, Hamilton’s model assumptions disagreed with Williams’s. Hamilton modeled the differential effect of pathogens and parasites, that can quickly adapt to overcome their host’s defences, on asexual mutants in species with otherwise obligate sexual reproduction (e.g., Hamilton et al. 1990). Williams (2000) challenged the applicability of these red-queen models to organisms with a complex life-cycle of the strawberry-coral type. They produce (philopatric) offspring that stays close to its parents (and its parents’ pathogens and parasites) as well as dispersing offspring that gets away from the parents. However, the philopatric offspring is clonal and the dispersing offspring recombinant. If fast adapting parasites were the selective pressure keeping sexual reproduction beneficial, organisms with this life-cycle should do the opposite (see Dagg 2016; 2017 for details on these disagreements).
   Accounts of such amicable but important disagreements are more likely to be gotten from the reports of participants (e.g., Trivers 2010; 2015, 195) or, vicariously, through preserved pieces of correspondence (see Dagg 2016), biographical notices, etc. Lumping these pioneers together on issues they disagreed about is unhelpful historically though not necessarily in other respects:
“It is important to realize that the ‘cost of sex’ [meaning Maynard Smith’s cost of males] and the ‘cost of meiosis’ [meaning Williams’s cost of reducing relatedness] are not different concepts.” (Bell 1982, 63)
“George Williams, whose evolutionary ideas have always seemed convergent like those of a twin or older brother from whom I was parted at birth.” (Hamilton 1996, 354)
“Anisogamy leads to a cost of sex, whether the gamete types are produced by the same individual (hermaphroditism) or by different reproductive morphs (males and females) of the same population (Maynard Smith 1971a, 1978; Williams 1975; Bell 1982).” (Jokela et al. 2009, S43)
The first quote is factually wrong, the second states a sentiment rather than a fact, and the third is a simplification lumping three scholars together (in parenthesis).

3.3 The protagonist’s or participant’s report
Gaddis (2002, 4) mentions early on that the participants in a story usually lack an expanded horizon beyond their immediate experience, unless they can find some lookout point. This leads us back to the need of a gazebo and to a rock-paper-scissors like dilemma in historiography. Each perspective has its advantages over the antecedent and its disadvantage over the subsequent.
   The participant’s account of Robert Trivers (2010; 2015, 195), for example, relates how George Williams challenged one of Bill Hamilton’s theories during a memorial session for the deceased Hamilton.
“George got up and said, “I wish Bill were here today, because I have a bone to pick with him.” He then proceeded to pick that bone for the entire talk. It had to do with the evolution of sex and patterns of evidence that George had pointed out years ago that contradicted (so George said) aspects of Bill’s parasite approach. I thought it was wonderful. There were those who said that his talk was inappropriate, and why didn’t he just tell stories. But I thought it was perfect for the occasion. Both vintage George Williams – no wasted motion with that organism! – and a tribute to the enduring importance of Bill’s ideas.” (Trivers 2015, 195)
This account leaves the reader clueless as to what the disagreement of Williams with Hamilton was actually about. It lacks some lookout point from which to see the antecedent theories of Hamilton (red-queen model) and Williams (strawberry-coral model) as well. Fortunately, Williams (2000) managed to put his challenge on record (see previous section) in what seems to have been one of his last attempts at doing science before he drifted off into Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, it has been utterly ignored—possibly—because it occurred in an obituary rather than a regular scientific article.
In conclusion, one perspective is not sufficient for historiography. Therefore, the comic format seems to be a better analogy for what is required.

4 Applying the analogy to examples
4.1 The Song of the Dodo
David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo (Quammen 2012) belongs to the genre of popular science writing. And its concerns are not purely historical but also the environmental crisis and species extinction. But it contains enough history of science and literary craftsmanship to illustrate some narrative analoga to the comic format.
   Quammen (2012, chap. 1) begins with describing the cutting of a Persian carpet into pieces as a metaphor for habitat fragmentation, unraveling of ecosystems, and species extinction. The comic-format analogon to metaphor is a soundword like:

Chapter 2 opens with cases of species and sub-species that used to live on particular islands, like Madagascar, Bali, or Lombok, but are now extinct (Quammen 2012, 17f). These concrete examples are narrated from a map-reader’s perspective. These mementos of the environmental crisis serve to fetch readers with contemporary environmental concerns where they stand and lead them on to a history of science journey. That journey begins with a gazebo retrospective (p. 18f) that enumerates some landmarks of island biogeography: Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, Alfred Wallace’s Island Life, Joseph Hooker’s publications on the botany of New Zealand, and The Theory of Island Biogeography (MacArthur and Edward Wilson 1967). Quammen does not molest his readers with this abstract theory itself, but they do get a hunch that such a theory exists.
   Quammen (2012, 19f) continues with some biographic information about Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin. Before the biography style can put lay-readers off, however, he launches into full participation by interlacing the story of Wallace’s journey in the Malay Archipelago with accounts of his own journey on the tracks of Wallace. By this clever move, Quammen is able to tell the stations of Wallace’s journey from the participant’s perspective. Pieces of Wallace’s historical record get sprinkled into the personal experiences of Quammen or vice verse.
   Thus, before he even launched the story of Alfred Wallace in the Malay Archipelago, Quammen has run an impressive gamut of narrative ploys. He has jumped perspectives from map-reader’s view over gazebo retrospective to participant’s report. He has varied his forms of representation from metaphoric to concrete and even left a hint at the existence of an abstract theory. And he has interlaced the past with the present.

4.2 Dispelling the Darkness
While John van Wyhe’s Dispelling the Darkness (2013) also deals with Alfred Wallace, it is an entirely different animal from Quammen’s Dodo. Whye begins his narrative with an account of how Alfred Wallace conceived his idea of species transmutation through natural selection while suffering a fit of tropical fever on the island Ternate. That is, he begins with a biographic protagonist’s perspective. His chapter 8, however, can serve to illustrate the narrative analogon of zooming in from a telescopic to a macroscopic scale and simultaneously retarding the passage of time to slow-motion. In this chapter, Wyhe addresses the plagiarism-claim that Wallace’s famous Ternate essay, which galvanised Darwin into writing up his theory, must have reached Darwin earlier than the latter admitted. For this, Wyhe manipulates the dimensions of scale and time.
   The chapter begins with describing the island of Ternate (featuring several vintage maps), continues with describing Wallace’s house (featuring a floor map of Wallace’s house and a photography of a similar house). Wyhe reviews previous theories about these happenings (gazebo retrospective), before he zooms in to human life-size and decelerates, in order to dissect the happenings of February 1858. He takes on the hat of a ship-company’s clerk, who details the time-tables of departures and arrivals, as well as the hat of an archivist, who matches Wallace’s notebook entries with these time-tables.
   It is not my job, here, to judge the correctness of Wyhe’s conclusions. His chapter stands exemplary for many scholars who have studied the time-tables of potential ships for the Ternate essay in minute detail. In the current context, it illustrates the narrative strategies of jumping dimensions of scale and manipulating the passage of time in history of science writings.

5 Conclusion
I started by suggesting that the comic format is a particularly versatile analogy for historiography. Limiting the use of analogy in history to this one would, nevertheless, constrain authors unduly. If one wished to enrich one’s prose with a diverse oeuvre of metaphors, figures of speech, paintings etc. such a constraint would indeed be gagging. I do not propose to limit the use of analogy in historiography but, figuratively, try to open a new window to fruitful analogizing. I have no other aim, here, or conclusion. A long quote from The Landscape of History indicates that John Lewis Gaddis would have appreciated the use of such a versatile analogy and the fresh air that the young sequential art would have brought to historiographical considerations.
“I fear that this chapter has staggered, even more than the others, under the weight of the metaphors I’ve inflicted on it […]. I make no apologies for metaphors, however, mixed or otherwise. […] For it seems to me that empathy – whether with respect to the past, the present, or the future – absolutely requires them. If we’re to be open to impressions, which is what I’ve argued empathy means, we’ve also got to be comparative. And that, in turn, is just another way of saying that something is “like” something else. […] If metaphors help us think – if, to use yet a final one, they can open windows and let in fresh air – then we have every reason to rely on them, and to do so unashamedly. We need all the help we can get.” (Gaddis 2002, 128)
If the comic analogy is a solution to a problem that John Gaddis never had, then that will be due to the fact that he is an accomplished history writer. The above sections showed, nevertheless, that differences in the comic and historiographic format can be used instructively (section 1.3) and that similarities can be used to to gauge the narrative craftsmanship of a history writer (section 4). This analogy may well turn out to be a useful lamp for seeing structures and functions in historiographic narratives via comparing them with the graphic techniques of comics. If the comic analogy helps any student to decipher or compose a history of science, this article will have served its purpose.

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Bell, Graham. 1982. The Masterpiece of Nature: The Evolution and Genetics of Sexuality. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Dagg, Joachim. 2016. On Recognising the Paradox of Sex. Philosophy & Theory in Biology 8.
Dagg, Joachim L. 2017. How Counterfactuals of Red-Queen Theory Shed Light on Science and Its Historiography. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 64, 53–64.
Dewilde, Fred. 2016. Mon Bataclan : Vivre encore. Paris: Lemieux Editeur.
Eisner, Will. 2000. Comics & Sequential Art. Expanded Ed. Paramus, NJ: North Light Books.
Fisher, Sir Ronald Aylmer. 1930. The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.
Gaddis, John Lewis. 2002. The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hamann, Alexandra, Claudia Zea-Schmidt, and Reinhold Leinfelder. 2014. The Great Transformation. Climate – Can We Beat the Heat? Comic. Berlin: Wissenschaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen.
Hamilton, W. D. 1996. Narrow Roads of Gene Land. Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hamilton, W. D., R. Axelrod, and R. Tanese. 1990. Sexual Reproduction as an Adaptation to Resist Parasites (a Review). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 87.9, 3566–73.
Jokela, Jukka, Mark F. Dybdahl, and Curtis M. Lively. 2009. The maintenance of sex, clonal dynamics, and host-parasite coevolution in a mixed population of sexual and asexual snails. The American Naturalist, 174(S1), S43-S53.
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Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Motives and merits of counterfactual histories of science

A preprint of my new article is here. The published version is in Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences: A free entry for 50 days (from 16.02.2019) onward is here:

In the article, I propose a simple way for distinguishing construed from genuine contingencies—the so-called temponaut's test. Suppose the historian in question travelles back in time and, inadvertently, puts his counterfactual history into action. Here's an illustration (that is not in the published article) of the temponaut's test applied to a construed contingency. 😜

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Friday, 25 May 2018

Plagiarism software hardly finds significant overlap between Darwin (1859) and Matthew (1831)

[Update 26.5.2018: Now with control assay (blind sample) at the end, in order to render the conclusion valid.]

Some folks incessantly claim that that Charles Darwin (1859: On the Origin of Species) plagiarized Patrick Matthew (1831: On Naval Timber and Arboriculture) by touting similarities in usage in combination with findings that merely show that Victorian naturalists and publishers were connected by less than six degrees of separation. The latter is only to be expected, given that science was a much smaller endeavor back then. Mere connections leading from Matthew to Darwin via acquaintance or citation, along x degrees of separation, does not prove conscious plagiarism by Darwin. Here, I check both books with a plagiarism-detection software, in order to test the claim about similarities in usage proving plagiarism.

The software
WCopyfind is an easy to use software that compares text-files. In order to compare vintage books, like Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) and Matthew's On Naval Timber and Arboriculture (1831), you only need to download them as plain text from sites like, or Project Gutenberg and save them in a format that the program can process (e.g., .docx). The program is very lean, fast and easy to use. The download takes a mere second and getting started a mere half an hour. Just click on the link above and try it yourself.

The interface looks like this.

In the image shown above, the parameters are set to report matching strings with a length of four words or more ("Shortest Phrase to Match: 4 Words"). The parameter "Most Imperfections to Allow: 2" means that, here, the program will bridge up to two non-matching words within a phrase thus allowing for some editing. The parameter "Minimum % of Matching Words: 80%" also allows for editing in that only 80% of two passages or phrases need to be identical and will still be reported. "Fewest Matches to Report: 1 Words" actually means that even 1 matching 4-word phrase (not "1 words") will be reported. This is the lowest bar and one match can be expected by mere chance in book of such length.

Basic check
All the above parameter settings are as recommended by the maker of WCopyfind, except the string-length to be matched. Here, the maker recommends a string-length of 6 matching words for reporting. With this default setting, however, there will be 0% overlap between Darwin's and Matthew's book.

There must be some rounding involved in this reported 0% overlap, because some hits can still be found in viewing both texts side-by-side. But these are entirely fortuitous and would occur in any two texts of a certain length. They signify no plagiarism as the immediate context of the matching phrases shows.

For example, such a search yields matches of the following kind: "we have also seen in the," which Darwin continues with "second chapter" and Matthew with "moss of Balgowan."

Other matches require some more context, in order to get the fortuitous triviality of the match:
"in many cases it is most difficult to" (Darwin 1859) vs

"in cases where it is difficult to" (Matthew 1831).
The green words are the ones that have been bridged and the red words constitute the 6-word match. However, the immediate context of this match is completely different in both books:
"Although in many cases it is most difficult to Conjecture by what transitions an organ could have arrived at its present state yet, considering that the proportion of living and known forms to the extinct and unknown is very small, I have been astonished how rarely an organ can be named, towards which no transitional grade is known to lead." (Darwin 1859)

"Forests of Ficus sylvestris are sometimes destroyed by insects under the bark, in cases where it is difficult to decide whether external circumstances, such as a dry warm season, has been promotive of the increase of the insect itself, or has induced some disorder in the plant, rendering the juices more suitable aliment to the worm." (Matthew 1831)
One actually needs to reduce the string-length down to 4 words, in order to get to the point, where the phrase that Mike Sutton, criminologist of Nottingham Trent University, takes to signify that Darwin plagiarized Matthew:
"this process of natural selection" (Darwin 1859) vs

"this natural process of selection" (Matthew 1831).
The immediate contexts:
"Therefore, I can see no difficulty, more especially under changing conditions of life, in
the continued preservation of individuals with fuller and fuller flank-membranes, each modification being useful, each being propagated, until by the accumulated effects
of this process of natural selection, a perfect so-called flying squirrel was produced." (Darwin 1859, p. 181)

"Mans interference, by preventing this natural process of selection among plants,
independent of the wider range of circumstances to which he introduces them, has increased the difference in varieties, particularly in the more domesticated kinds and even in man himself, the greater uniformity, and more general vigour among savage tribes, is referrible to nearly similar selecting law the weaker individual sinking under the ill treatment of the stronger, or under the common hardship."(Matthew 1831, p. 308)
It is true, both contexts are evolutionary, but does that prove plagiarism by Darwin of Matthew? The perfect matches amount to 2% of Darwin's book and 4% of Matthew's, most of it the trivial stuff that is clearly coincidental. And allowing for the bridging of words and only 80% matching words in phrases did not change this for the overall matches.

Control assay (blind sample)
The problem with purely random word-salads is that they are not grammatical. That is, two word-salads will show less matches, by pure chance, than two independent texts, because grammar, rules, as well as an era's fashion of speech force language into similar strings of words at times. A blank sample or control assay must, therefore, compare two texts that are from the same time and culture, whose authors did not imitate each other. I assume (with no expertise in English literature on my part)* that Oscar Wilde's (1854-1900) tastes were sufficiently different from that of Amanda Minnie Douglas (1831-1916), author of juvenile fiction like the Little Girl... and Helen Grant... series, and that they did not copy each other. I compared their novels The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and A Little Girl in Old Boston (1898) using identical parameter settings as above.

* I assumed that a homoerotic book by an openly homosexual author would have little in common with the girly romance novel of a spinster.

Here, the perfect matches amount to 3% in Douglas's book and 4% in Wilde's and, respectively, the overall matches amount to 3% and 5%. This is slightly higher than in the comparison of Darwin's Origin with Matthew's Naval Timber (see above) suggesting that there is no more reason to assume that Darwin plagiarized Matthew than to assume that spinster Douglas plagiarized scandalous Wilde. Surely, the 2% and 4% overlap between Darwin's and Mathew's book, respectively, is within the range of what is to be expected from any pair of books of roughly the same age and culture.

A note of caution to those who are fond of relying on algorithms rather than reading and thinking themselves, the program missed a four-word-shuffle, because it found an overlapping perfect three-word match first. That is, the program overlooked the following matches:
"but it seems somehow" (Douglas 1898, p. 11) vs

"but somehow it seems" (Wilde 1890, p. 14).
Instead, Wilde's sentence is matched with another of Douglas, because of a three-word match that required no bridging:
"Now, it seems to me I never could learn French." (Douglas 1898, p. 99)
"It is a silly habit, I daresay, but somehow it seems to bring  great deal of romance into one's life." (Wilde 1890, 14)
Obviously, neither the perfect three-word match nor the four-word-shuffled match has any significance concerning plagiarism. Apparently, four-word-shuffled matches do occur by mere coincidence at times. One should, therefore, take the occurrence of such a match between Darwin (1859) and Matthew (1831) with a grain of salt.

Some readers might think that the string "natural process of selection" is charged with meaning in a way that "but somehow it seems" is not and, therefore, the former string carries biological significance in a way that the latter does not. However, the first time that the string "natural process of selection" has been used in publication (as far as the digitized record goes) was by Sigmund Spaeth (1829. The Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 19, pp. 636-639). This entry in an encyclopedia, however, carries no significance concerning natural history. It is about music appreciation and contains the four words in a context that has nothing to do with biology:
"Program music will generally be found easier to grasp than absolute music, and this is again a natural process of selection." (Spaeth 1829, p. 638)