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,