POST 16 – 27-08-2014
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The Historical Sciences
I am a newly hatched member of an organisation called the Independent Scholars Association of Australia (ISAA) which has a very sophisticated website at:
I have written an article-in-brief to their journal ISAA Review in support of an opinion piece proposing that ISAA should review the “two cultures”. A longer version of the article follows.
History, Science, and the Historical Sciences
I have perused some of the Association’s publications and have found four fascinating and relevant articles:
• Doug Cocks on “Science in ISAA” in the ISAA Review Vol 13 No. 1
• John Hood on “Writing History: The Elasticity of Evidence“ in ISAA Proceedings 2013
• Sybil Jack on “A Modest Defence of Prejudice” in ISAA Proceedings 2011
• Hans Goodman on “Science Faith and Prejudice” in ISAA Proceedings 2011.
Doug Cocks refers to the “Two Cultures” first spelt out by C.P. Snow in1959. Snow’s thesis was that “the intellectual life of the whole of western society” was split into two cultures — namely the sciences and the humanities. He considered that this was a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems. Some things have progressed since then and the information revolution allows us all to have access to views from disciplines associated with both cultural sources. Despite this some of the science/humanities divide still exists and the segregation of thinkers in their separate institutions in the academy and elsewhere allows the divide to continue if not to flourish quite as much as it once did.
Cocks suggests that the current membership of ISAA is comprised largely of scholars with a “history” emphasis and proposes a joint emphasis on the “historical” sciences including cosmogony, evolutionary biology, palaeontology, ecology, geology and geomorphology, archaeology and climatology. These sciences rely on a process that has much in common with the study of history.
I cannot support Cocks’ view that the incentive needed to encourage us to re-examine the two cultures is the need to prevent the approach of doomsday. One should be wary of such an extrapolation which ignores potential feedback that could modify the outcome. I find there is sufficient incentive in the more positive need for us to continue examining the civilising process which has attracted humanity’s attention since there were people with sufficient leisure to devote time to it. Rather than attempting to avoid the apocalypse I suggest that furthering human flourishing is surely the objective of the civilising process and should be a sufficient incentive for ISAA to take up the proposed activity.
John Hood views the historian’s task as based on an examination of evidence and adds that “the evidence should be investigated and that the historian should strive to present an explanation of the past that attempts to be a true account”. Is that not similar to the scientific method which seeks evidence by experiment and formulates theories in an effort to interpret the evidence by the application of reason? In my view we only have evidence and reason to facilitate our accumulation of knowledge and both cultures seem to use them in their own rather similar ways.
Sybil Jack makes a case for prejudice or bias which emphasises the personal role in making sense of what we can know. This seems to me to underlie the need for us to apply ourselves to a study of the values we all hold, for our various reasons, and to accept that those values are affected by, but not mandated by, our biological and cultural histories. The recognition of the role of various preferences and prejudices in the formation of what we sometimes call “community values” is important in any society but especially in one like ours that is clearly pluralist and which we endeavour to make multi-cultural. However much I might like to preserve what I may call “my” values, I must recognise the status of what I may want to see as “your” prejudices. We need to study the ways in which we develop our values so we can better live together.
Hans Goodman proposes that understanding “faith” is important in assessing the distinctions between science and religion. It may be that faith is something different from bias and prejudice but it is still close to a value judgement which has little evidential support.
If a belief is a proposition that one holds to be true, that belief may be based on evidence that ranges from nil through to very strong, empirically based and well reasoned evidence supported by a developed theoretical framework. There may be no such thing as absolute proof but there are some forms of evidence-plus-reason that get us close. Faith and belief are words often used with similar meanings but faith is more commonly used to refer to a belief that is held with a lack of, in spite of or against, reason and evidence, but may also be used to mean belief based upon some degree of evidence. Scientists seek to base a belief only on evidence and recognising that the quality of evidence varies they have a commitment to improving that quality by refining the methods of measurement.
As a retired veterinarian who specialised in avian health and husbandry, I have in recent years developed a scholarly interest in evolution. This interest flowed out of my professional involvement in poultry genetics (where artificial selection has been extraordinarily successful) and in viral genetics (where natural selection is so rapid and pervasive that special measures must be taken to limit its effects in vaccine production and use).
Looking forward from the Darwinian perspective of biological evolution, one can see that the process of evolution by natural selection is applicable in the field of the spread of ideas in cultural development. The unit of cultural transmission is called a “meme” which is defined in a recent edition of the Oxford English Dictionary as “an element of culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means”.
In essence, Darwin’s1 theory described how new species could arise by “descent with modification”. Subsequent studies have suggested that the Darwinian process of evolution applies more broadly to genetic modification than just to the emergence of new species and that the process of biological evolution consists of three steps:
• Replication (or serial copying)
• Variation (or the occurrence of error)
• Competition (or survival in the environment or preservation of the error)
The concept of “memes” first proposed by Richard Dawkins2 is now an accepted view and it is well described by Daniel Dennett 3. Essentially the same mechanism applies to the immune system, the nervous system and probably the processes of memory storage and recall.
The way an idea is formed is important. Neuroscience tells us that all information gets into our nervous system through sensory nerve endings where an electro-chemical change is set off that travels through neurones and across synapse junctions to form a complex of nervous activity, sometimes involving memory and various cognitive processes, culminating in some response that might be unconscious or conscious. The conscious experience is what we call an idea.
I am faced with semantic problems in trying to describe the things that happen inside an individual’s nervous system leading up to the formation of an idea. We use words such as idea, thought, percept, meaning opinion etc. A Thesaurus gives 18 major and 26 minor synonyms for “idea”. These are all variations on ways to describe the event that happens when something is presented to our consciousness. I choose “idea” to cover the semantic problem.
Much of what goes on in our mind is involved in the running babble of our stream of consciousness but sometimes we focus on a serious proposition or question and may form an idea. When that idea is a new one, we call it creative. Over the centuries creative ideas have occurred and have been promulgated through the culture with good, bad or indifferent consequences.
The gene is recognised as the element that carries the biological coded message. The gene replicates, is subject to error and must compete to survive in its environment.
A creative idea being spread through the culture has been called a “meme” by Dawkins and others have adopted that term and extended it to “memeplex” to describe the complexes that may develop. The meme replicates, is subject to error and must compete to survive in its environment.
The electro-chemical impulse is the nervous system’s equivalent of the gene and the meme and I have labelled it the “neme” (or nervous system meme). It forms at a sensory nerve ending and becomes complex as it interacts with other nervous impulses to form “nemeplexes”. The neme replicates, is subject to error and must compete to survive in its environment. We need to know how we can affect it both inadvertently and intentionally.
I have coined the term “preme” (or precursor of a meme) to describe that cultural idea as it is about to be released from the mind of the individual who generated it. That preme is formed in the mind of the creative person as a result of a process that starts as a neme and after passing through the nervous system may or may not become a conscious idea that may be expressed and may or may not enter the culture as a meme.
Converting the idea into words or an artefact depends upon the skills and craft of the person involved. One of the wonderful things about our human mind is our ability to manipulate the images formed in there and to produce new things. How can we better control that manipulative ability? How can we improve the mental skill required to produce new ideas, new premes, to be set free into the culture where they may be husbanded so as to serve humanity.
The chain of mental events is:
NEME —— NEMEPLEX —— PREME —— MEME —— MEMEPLEX
As with the gene, each of the elements in the system is replicated, is subject to error and needs to compete in its ecosystem in order to survive.
A field of study is suggested that accepts that evolutionary change will occur whether or not humans intervene in the creative process and seeks ways to identify unintentional human interference and means of intentional intervention which should allow us to encourage the formation and dissemination of ideas that can assist human flourishing.
Is it too much to hope that an increased perception of ideas as evolving by natural selection and being susceptible to change by human intervention, either intended or unintended, might enable us to better develop new ideas and to promulgate them through our culture? We need to learn more about the artificial selection of ideas so that we are in a better position to improve human flourishing which surely must be the object of the civilising process. Like many processes these go on whether we intervene or not and we must be aware that our acts of omission as well as commission influence outcomes.
David Sloane Wilson 4 has proposed the need to develop a science of “intentional change” to study the application of Darwinian evolutionary principles in influencing human affairs. This shows that there is an interest in the field even if the particular approach Wilson proposes may not appeal to all.
Looking backward from Darwin has led me to adopt an historical stance, once described in a TV interview by an astronomer as “cosmic archaeology”. Examining the available evidence allows us to look back to seek further evidence and to form theories about what has gone before. This approach has led to the development of whole Big Bang approach to the origin of the Universe.
In this historical stance I anticipate that the closely studied process of biological evolution must have emerged from a precursor process which had the appropriate characteristics that allowed the new features to emerge.
Emergence is the process of change in which a new phenomenon emerges from a pre-existing situation and even has its own Journal at:
The emergence of a mini-landslide on the side of a sand-hill under particular circumstances is a basic example.
I have been backtracking along history’s path to identify the source of the evolutionary process and I am currently looking at the preservation of change by mechanisms that could operate in non-living situations, including in the present and in the pre-biotic times before living entities emerged with their coded genomes operating to preserve the “message” between generations.
An evolutionary type of process may also apply to other mechanisms of change. For the three elements to occur there must be a “change” that is subject to “error”, which is capable of “survival”. This would work best in a self-replicating system where feedback mechanisms carry the coded message of the cycling activity through the process.
The system exists to preserve its own stability but to survive in a changing environment it must be sufficiently adaptable to include some errors into its operations. Darwinian evolution is then able to be seen as one example of a stable system that is able to incorporate error under some circumstances.
Existing non-living, self-replicating systems include galactic, solar and planetary systems. On our planet there are examples of sub-systems such as continental drift, the climatic system and weather systems. Then there are sub-sub-systems, within both the weather and climatic systems including the cycling of water and various gases, including especially nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide.
I have discussed some of this in my own blog (see https://warraba.wordpress.com/2014/05/ )
I conclusion I repeat that I support the proposition that ISAA should develop an interest in encouraging science and the humanities to eschew any adversarial position and conduct a collaborative approach to furthering human flourishing as part of the civilising project.
We need some creative memes about solving world poverty, avoiding war, encouraging objective value formation and so much more.
1. Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
2. Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford.
3. Dennett, D. (2010). The New Replicators. Encyclopedia of Evolution. Ed. Mark Pagel. © 2002, 2005 by Oxford University Press, Inc. Encyclopedia of Evolution: (e-reference edition). Oxford University Press. Tufts University. 10 December 2010. http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/dennett/papers/newreplicators.pdf
4. Wilson, David Sloane et al. (2013). Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change. To be published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (in press). Cambridge University Press. http://www.wrightofer.com/uploads/2/0/5/6/20561318/wilson-bbs-d-11-00562_copyedited_final_v2a.pdf