Saturday, 7 February 2015

David Hull on priority & impact

Here are some quotes from philosopher of science David Hull showing that he distinguishes between priority and impact of a publication and credits Darwin's On the Origin of Species for its impact not its priority. In particular, Hull (1990) argues that the anticipators of natural selection, like Matthew (1831. On Naval Timber and Arboriculture) caused no revolution (for whatever reasons) and that it is therefore being called the Darwinian revolution and not, say, the Matthewian one.
     The low impact of Matthew's book is evident from the fact that nothing much happened for 28 years. Admittedly, some scholars reviewed and cited it, most importantly Loudon (1832. "Matthew Patrick On Naval Timber and Arboriculture with Critical Notes on Authors who have recently treated the Subject of Planting." Gardener’s Magazine. Vol. VIII. p.703), because he had not only read the book but, unlike others (e.g., Chambers), also received the message about natural selection as a cause for species transformation in it. But, apart from this limited impact, neither public debate nor scientific revolution ensued. Even in 1858, after the documents of Darwin and Wallace had been read before the Linnean Society of London, nothing much happened. The paradigm shift only occurred after the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859.
     That is, we can do justice to both by crediting Matthew's priority in formulating the idea that natural selection may cause a transformation of species, and crediting Darwin's impact in causing a scientific revolution with this. 
"According to the conventional mores of science, one scientist can work twenty years developing a theory; another may spend only a couple of weeks on his theory. If the second scientist publishes first, the officially this scientist is supposed to receive all the credit for the contribution. Of course, the system does not always work this way. For example, Darwin is endlessly castigated for not behaving more honorably toward Wallace. What he actually should have done upon receiving Wallace's paper was to write to Wallace asking permission to have it published, wait the year necessary for Wallace to receive the letter and for Wallace's reply to get back to England, and then publish Wallace's paper. After that, he could properly publish his own work.
I find this scenario of proper scientific etiquette absurd in the extreme, but even if Darwin had been foolish enough to behave so irresponsibly, the subsequent history of Darwinism would have been little altered. Darwin still would have received most of the credit. But, one might justifiably object, historians are not supposed to be able to reach such contrary-to-fact conclusions. In this case, however, the conclusion is unexceptional because, after Darwin and Wallace published, an obscure author established priority over both men. In 1831 Patrick Matthew (1790 - 1874) had published a clear statement of natural selection in an appendix to a book on naval timber and arboriculture. If Wallace deserved priority over Darwin because of his 1858 paper, then Matthew surely deserved priority over both men because of his 1831 paper. All sorts of reasons can be given for ignoring Matthew's claim to priority for natural selection: he published his views in an out-of-the-way place, he did not develop them in sufficient detail, he did not continue to develop his theory in later publications, and so on. The problem with these excuses is that they apply to numerous unappreciated precursors to whom we have awarded retrospective credit." (David Hull 1990. "Science as a Process." P. 51)
Later, however, Hull (1998) added strategic reasons in priority disputes in trying to answer the question why we speak of Mendelian genetics, although Mendel's historical position has been similar to the one of Patrick Matthew. In particular, he attributes the cause in the junior re-discoverers (Correns and Tschermak) preventing any attempt by anybody to attach de Vries's name to the new genetics, by referring to it as Mendelian instead.  
"What counts as a "new scientific truth?" How "new" must it be? To answer these questions, [End Page 213] I turn to two examples of scientific revolutions: the Darwinian revolution and the Mendelian revolution. Inevitably, when scientists publish what they take to be new scientific ideas, historians will find all sorts of precursors. For example, Matthew (1831) anticipated Darwin with respect to natural selection, and numerous authors, including Lamarck and Robert Chambers, anticipated him with respect to evolution. Why then term the revolution that took off in 1859 the Darwinian revolution? Why not the Matthewian revolution? The answer is that Matthew did not produce a revolution of any kind. His allusions to what came to be known later as "natural selection" went totally unnoticed at the time. Authors such as Lamarck and Chambers had some impact with respect to the transmutation of species (e.g., on Wallace), but neither succeeded in producing anything like a "revolution." Darwin did.
The Mendelian revolution poses a different set of problems. Was Mendel the author of the Mendelian revolution or was he simply a precursor like Matthew, Lamarck, and Chambers? Although Mendel's 1865 paper did not go totally unnoticed, it certainly did not initiate anything like a revolution in the study of heredity. The Mendelian revolution did not occur until the turn of the century when others came up with views similar (though far from identical) to those of Mendel. These authors claimed independent discovery. If so, then Mendel's paper played no role in the "rediscovery" of Mendelian genetics. Then why call this revolution "Mendelian?" One answer is that Mendel's paper includes a careful and clear exposition of the theory that eventually came to bear his name. It was not just a vague sketch. Another reason is that it served to stave off a priority dispute. The two junior rediscoverers were not about to have this theory named after them. They were able to sabotage any potential effort by the powerful de Vries to get his name attached to this emerging field by emphasizing the role of Mendel. Better Mendelian genetics than de Vriessian genetics." (David Hull 1998. Studying the study of science scientifically. Perspectives on Science 6(3): 209-231)
This would suggests that Alfred Wallace, Darwin's co-(re-)discoverer of natural selection, could have sabotaged any potential effort to call the theory in question Darwinian, if he would have wanted. What Wallace has done, however, was the opposite. He has titled one of his books "Darwinism" and has done so in 1889, long after he had learned about Matthew's anticipation.

While plagiarism theorists will surely construe this as evidence for Wallace's (and Darwin's) guilt in plagiarising Matthew (1831), I prefer to think that Wallace was simply fine with the term "Darwinism" being attached to the theory.

In accordance with my previous post, I suggest to allow no cheap excuses and crediting Matthew (1831) with priority full stop. I also suggest to credit the impact of a work as equally if not more important than priority for the historic development of a science. Darwin would have gotten most of the impact-credit, historically, simply because it was his book that had a major impact on natural history/biology and not Matthew's. However, the credits given in the history of genetics would need to be re-apportioned. 

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