Wednesday, August 3, 2011


Since I started reading a lot of long-form articles on the internet, I have been exposed to a lot of great ideas, and great writing. The latest is an article by Steven Shapin in the London Review of Books, The Darwin Show. He synthesized 14 (fourteen!) books that appeared around the celebration of his 200th birthday in 2009. In it, he explores a lot of interesting themes, and one of the main ones revolves around why this is such a big deal. Summarizing his synthesis would do injustice to his tour-de-force, but I want to focus on one argument Shapin makes, and this is related to the distinction people normally make between natural history and scientific method, artists versus scientists, qualitative versus quantitative:
"Artists create; scientists discover. That’s our usual understanding of the thing, and scientists – together with some of their philosophical allies – have been in the van of insisting so. (That’s one way in which ‘relativism’ and ‘social constructivism’ are commonly opposed.) If science is discovery and not invention, then it follows that discoverers’ relation to what they reveal is different in both intellectual texture and moral resonance from Mozart’s relation to his operas, Shakespeare’s to his plays, and even Bush’s to his wars. You couldn’t say of Figaro or Lear or the Iraq war that they were waiting there to be ‘discovered’. ‘Something of that sort’ may well have come into being, but an example of ‘something like’ Figaro is Salieri’s Axur, Re d’Ormus or even Abba’s ‘Waterloo’. "
 Shapin argues that this is only true to a certain extent:
"You can still say, with perfect accuracy, that the Origin is much more than its ‘essential’ theory of natural selection: it is a book, a magnificent theatre of persuasion, ‘one long argument’ (as Darwin called it), supported by masses of arduously compiled evidence, ingeniously organised and vouched for by a special individual, with known special virtues and capacities. [...] Wallace himself was well aware that it was one thing to come up with a theory but a much greater thing to make it credible: he thought of himself as a mere ‘guerrilla chief’ of evolution while Darwin was ‘the great general’, mapping out the grand literary and political strategy to make natural selection stick in the culture."
 No matter what we "discover", we also always have to present this discovery, and this aspect is also creative, and one of the the reasons why we celebrate Darwin and not Wallace. This "presentation" or "creation" has several important consequences, though. The article looks at some personality influences on his theoretical exploration of evolution and the writing of his books, and also on how his ideas have been used in very different contexts to further agendas of scientists and social movements (maybe something that Ingrid will explore to a certain extent in her PhD work).

One other consequence of this presentation of discovery is that it shapes, implicitly or explicitly, the discoveries we are trying to make. Take for instance our "new" definition of rareness of a species in a community.

Another example of how presentation can shape a discovery is the discussion I am having with Ingrid on a figure that can form the basis of some of her PhD ideas. Ingrid started it by presenting this figure (details are not important, yet):

I transformed it because I think there is not enough structure in the figure: the actors (bubbles) are differentiated from each other, the influences (arrows) are different depending on the actors they connect, and there is not a real focal point. So I transformed it into this:
Ingrid's main problems with this presentation are the hierarchical nature, focusing on the differences and not the similarities, elimination of certain influences. Our discussion than drifted to feminism versus patriarchal dominance structures, which are always fun discussions to have. But the main point is that these two presentation are related to the same "discovery", but have very different meanings to the creator and to the reader. You could argue that me shoehorning Ingrid's general picture into a specific structure will prevent me from finding potentially key influences, I can argue that Ingrid's general picture does not provide the reader an explicit guide through her thinking. 

The importance is not who is correct, but 1) finding arguments to justify a presentation, and 2) to be very aware of the consequences (advantages and limitations) of a certain presentation, as is illustrated by the synthesis of Shapin and our new definition of rareness.

ps: we finally solved Ingrid's problem with my hierarchical concept map by ... making the concept go from left to right instead of bottom to top! Little things make a hugh difference.

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