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Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 50 Years Later


Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions reaches a milestone this year, the 50th anniversary of its publication. For the occasion, one of our favorite Darwinists, philosopher Michael Ruse, celebrates with an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education. As Ruse presents it, Kuhn’s main point appears to be the staggering revelation that a scientist’s or any thinker’s conclusions are influenced by his personal history and background. No kidding?
He gives the illustration of Charles Darwin’s emphasis on natural selection at the individual level versus the emphasis that Alfred Russel Wallace placed on group selection, and how the different levels of privilege they enjoyed in life may have influenced them in this respect. We touched on the contrast the other day and it’s well articulated by Michael Flannery in the accompanying video.
Ruse says this about his fellow evolutionists, and other scientists as well, which is certainly true and amusingly expressed:

Don’t take me as saying that the empirical evidence is irrelevant. It isn’t, and most evolutionists — and I am one — think the evidence points to selection for and only for the individual. But in respects, scientists are a bit like the religious. Once they have a bee in their bonnet, they can always find something to support their position. And if all else fails, there is always statistics. Universal flood, sacred golden plates, group selection, adaptive female orgasms — something can be found to support them. Nothing stops a believer on the roll.

We hope to come back to the subject of Thomas Kuhn’s book and its influence and meaning at a later time. For now, we observe that Ruse has fundamentally misconstrued Kuhn. In fact, it didn’t matter to Kuhn how a theory originated; indeed, it didn’t ultimately matter how well it fit the evidence. What mattered was how the theory fared in the subsequent political struggle for survival in the face of existing theories.
The one theory Kuhn exempted from his analysis was Darwinian evolution. Indeed, as the description above implies, his analysis was fundamentally Darwinian: random variation sorted by natural selection. Maybe that’s why Ruse likes Kuhn so much.