Metaphysics, the philosophical exploration of that which cannot be tested or proved, lies beyond the borders of science. I have used the term Popper's milestone to denote a boundary between science (methodical research) and metaphysics (the untestable), following the work of Karl Popper who felt that falsification – the capacity to prove something untrue – was a proper boundary for science. Others have disputed this claim, and with just cause, but as a demarcation of the limits of metaphysics Popper's idea remains salient.
Science never manages to be entirely free of metaphysics – the belief that it does, that there is a notion of “scientific truth” in some absolute sense, is itself a metaphysical belief. Indeed, one of the most prevalent confusions about science in modern times is that “scientific” should be taken to mean “proven true by science”, rather than “conducted in a spirit of formal investigation”. Thus, models that have been rejected, such as phlogiston or the ether, cannot be called “unscientific” without falling under the criticism raised by Thomas Kuhn:
If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sort of methods and held for the same sorts of reason that now lead to scientific knowledge. If, on the other hand, they are to be called science, then science has included bodies of belief quite incompatible with the ones we hold today. Given the alternatives, the historian must choose the latter. Out-of-date theories are not in principle unscientific because they have been discarded.
In a similar vein, when I talk about “myths of evolution” I am not accusing various ideas of being unscientific, I am talking about stories that are being spun out of the scientific theories in circulation. We are comfortable calling phlogiston a myth, because we presume that myths are not true, but this is not what I mean when I invoke the term 'myth'. When I, for instance, call “the selfish gene” a myth of evolution, I do not mean that the gene-centric view is not a valid scientific perspective, but rather that the idea of a “selfish gene” is an abstract embellishment that puts a particular spin onto an otherwise neutral concept. This is what I mean by 'myth' in this context: a metaphysical story that expresses a particular interpretative bias.
When dealing with the subject of evolution, myths abound. It is not Intelligent Design which is the chief culprit – most intellectuals can spot that this is a metaphysical belief about a scientific topic – but rather the various stories that are spun out of the numerous competing models developed for understanding the putative processes of natural selection. Because these models are all incomplete, speculative and by-and-large untestable, they accumulate a rich scientific mythology which is then mistaken for knowledge and (even more embarrassingly) used as the basis of teleological games largely indistinguishable from those conducted under a theistic paradigm.
In this short serial, I present five of these evolutionary myths, and offer for each an alternative story that is equally compatible with the current theories but entirely different in both meaning and implication. To begin with, I will discuss the iconography of the ladder of progress, depicted above in its most familiar form, and the reasons why this myth can be so misleading.
Next Week: Myth #1: The Ladder of Progress