Rejection of valid theories of biology on theoretical grounds

Rejection of valid theories of biology on theoretical grounds

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Is there a theory in biology that was initially disregarded as false (because of critical or contrasting perspectives) and only recognized as important after a considerable time, possibly only in recent years, thus significantly impeding its development?

The idea that organisms with mitochondria derive energy from respiration through a proton motive force was considered controversial at the time.

This is the best reference I could find at the time:

His theory explained that it was the energy captured from those protons returning to the matrix and not energy stored in an undefined high-energy covalent chemical intermediate that was then used to drive ATP synthesis. This Nobel Prize-worthy concept (1978) was so counter to the leading theories of the day that the field spurned it for the better part of a decade.

Pagliarini, D.J., Rutter J. Hallmarks of a new era in mitochondrial biochemistry 2013 Genes Dev.


The idea that life is not spontaneously created, but always develops from… well, something.

For decades, centuries even, the notion that invisible micro-organisms were responsible for diseases, mold etc. was controversial.

Louis Pasteur's swan necked flask experiment (in the 1860's!) is one of the last and most famous demonstrations that sterile media must be contaminated and cannot generate life from scratch. He showed that a sterile broth communicating with the outside world through a single aperture was not contaminated if the aperture was long enough to prevent accidental contact with ambient micro-organisms, whereas the broth grew turbid quickly after being directly exposed to air by removing the swan neck.

Before this theory was accepted, the notion that sterility is important notably in hospital settings was often challenged, leading to thousands of people dying of nosocomial infections.

I notice from his bio, that the poster is a mathematician, so I have chosen to answer this question as an experimental scientist (a molecular biologist with a chemical education) to a non-experimental scientist:

In my view, for biology, the acceptance or rejection of hypotheses plays only a minor role on the development of the science. This is because actions speak louder than words - it is the experimental validation or support of a hypothesis that is important. If the hypothesis is correct, but the technical or theoretical basis does not exist to test it, then that basis is also lacking to exploit the idea.

This only applies to an open society. An example of the damaging effects of false theory can be seen in the rejection of genetics by the Soviet Union in the 30s (and later) on political grounds (Lysenkoism), a rejection that did not affect science in the West, but was responsible for thousands, if not millions, of deaths by starvation because of its influence on Soviet agricultural practice.

Let us consider the two answers already given (both of which I have upvoted). First @Mowgli on Pasteur and 'germ theory'. I would maintain that it was only when a mode of killing 'germs' by heat was suggested, that practical demonstrations of the effectiveness of measures to prevent spoilage of food and drink (and to prevent sepsis) was possible. And it was these practical demonstrations that overturned the prevailing theories, not the strength of the intellectual arguments against.

The case made by @Cell for the rejection of Mitchell's hypothesis is perhaps more pertinent. Certainly Oxford biochemists were still taking about X~P (an unidentified 'high-energy' phosphorylated intermediate) in the mid 60s, five years after the hypothesis was published in Nature. But the key - and unusual - thing was that this was specifically a hypothesis. It was supported by a variety of arguments and equations, the latter of which would cause many to shrug their shoulders. Clearly some scientists were attracted to the idea, but it took a system with photosynthetic bacteria to provide practical evidence, as well as improved characterization of the membrane ATP-synthase (which was generally referred to as an ATPase, because that was all it could do in vitro). So the maximum of a 10-year lag in acceptance was not caused by the rejection of the idea, but the lack of a means to prove it.

Similar arguments may be made about the non-acceptances of the idea of Avery (1944) that DNA was the genetic material. Although this was based on experiments, one could argue against the experiments. It was only with the determination of the structure of DNA and the development of phage and isotopes, that the means to confirm this idea and develop the field further arose.

That's how I see it. However I would be interested for suggestions of any other examples (template theory of antibodies?).

A Critique of Barbieri’s Code Biology Through Rosen’s Relational Biology: Reconciling Barbieri’s Biosemiotics with Peircean Biosemiotics

Biosemiotics argues that “sign” and “meaning” are two essential concepts for the explanation of life. Peircean biosemiotics, founded by Tomas Sebeok from Peirce’s semiotics and Jacob von Uexkül’s studies on animal communication, today makes up the mainstream of this discipline. Marcello Barbieri has developed an alternative account of meaning in biology based on the concept of code. Barbieri rejects Peircean biosemiotics on the grounds that this discipline opens the door to nonscientific approaches to biology through its use of the concept of “interpretation.” In this article, it is noted that Barbieri does not adequately distinguish among Peirce’s semiotics, Peircean biosemiotics, and “interpretation-based” biosemiotics. Two key arguments of Barbieri are criticized: his limited view of science and his rejection of “interpretation-based” biosemiotics. My argument is based on tools taken from a different approach: Robert Rosen’s relational biology. Instead of “signs” and “meanings,” the study begins in this case from the “components” and “functions” of the organism. Rosen pursues a new definition of a law of nature, introduces the anticipatory nature of organisms, and defines the living being as a system closed to efficient cause. It is shown that Code Biosemiotics and Peircean biosemiotics can share a common field of study. Additionally, some proposals are suggested to carry out a reading of Rosen’s biology as a biosemiotic theory.

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I. Introduction

Biological theories within the field of criminology attempt to explain behaviors contrary to societal expectations through examination of individual characteristics. These theories are categorized within a paradigm called positivism (also known as determinism), which asserts that behaviors, including law-violating behaviors, are determined by factors largely beyond individual control. Positivist theories contrast with classical theories, which argue that people generally choose their behaviors in rational processes of logical decision making, and with critical theories, which critique lawmaking, social stratification, and the unequal distribution of power and wealth.

Positivist theories are further classified on the basis of the types of external influences they identify as potentially determinative of individual behavior. For example, psychological and psychiatric theories look at an individual’s mental development and functioning sociological theories evaluate the impact of social structure on individuals (e.g., social disorganization, anomie, subcultural theories, opportunity, strain) and the impact of social function and processes on individuals (e.g., differential association, social learning, social bonds, labeling). Biological theories can be classified into three types: (1) those that attempt to differentiate among individuals on the basis of certain innate (i.e., those with which you are born) outward physical traits or characteristics (2) those that attempt to trace the source of differences to genetic or hereditary characteristics and (3) those that attempt to distinguish among individuals on the basis of structural, functional, or chemical differences in the brain or body.

This research paper is organized in rough chronological order and by historical figures associated with an important development. It is difficult to provide an exact chronology, because several important developments and movements happened simultaneously in various parts of the world. For example, although biological theories are considered positivist, the concept of positivism did not evolve until after the evolution of some early biological perspectives. In addition, biological theories of behavior that involve some aspect of evolution, genetics, or heredity are discussed in terms of those scientific developments, although physical trait theories still continued to be popular.

The following sections discuss some of the more important and relevant considerations in scientific developments that impacted biological theories of behavior. A brief history of positivism also is provided, tracing the development and use of the biological theories from early (largely discredited) beliefs, to the most current theories on the relationship of biology to behavior. This section also provides a conclusion that discusses the role of biological theories in the future of criminological thought.

1. Introduction

Scientists are increasingly turning to computer simulations and statistical inferences in their research efforts, as the existence of journals such as Bioinformatics, Computational Molecular Biology and others attest. Because these approaches are so methods-intensive, when disputes arise, theoretical considerations are not necessarily central to their resolution. For example, the methodology-heavy nature of contemporary scientific research has been noticed by Eric Winsberg, who claims that in computer simulation studies, any underlying theory is just one of many factors involved in interpreting the outcome of simulations. According to Winsberg, theory may not bear any direct, substantive relationship to the knowledge generated by simulations (Winsberg 2006, 2009, 2010). Statistics may be conceived similarly, since many different approaches (e.g., t-tests, principal components, Bayesian networks, and so on) can be used to address any given question. Because different individuals or communities of investigators often have contrasting perceptions of the relative merits of different approaches, tradition or convention tends to guide the choosing of a particular method rather than theory (e.g., Smith 2009). Given that a growing number of scientific research projects are built on simulations and statistical analysis, theory is increasingly taking a back seat in relation to methodological issues in many scientific debates.

After years of discussion regarding ‘the practice turn’ in the philosophy of science, increasing interest from philosophers of biology in practical controversies in current evolutionary biology might have been expected. However, philosophers of biology working on evolutionary matters seemingly continue to follow Ernan McMullin in considering theoretical disputes “the commonest source of controversy in science” (McMullin 1987, p. 66 see e.g., Dietrich and Skipper 2007). Studies of controversies at the theoretical level are certainly important however, emphasis on theories, understood as sets of propositions or as formal structures, obscures the fact that many important current conflicts in evolutionary biology are linked to the generation and interpretation of results obtained by means of modeling tools and similar resources. Moreover, the generation of theory in evolutionary biology itself forms a part of scientific practice, so that current controversies often have to do with concrete ways in which specialists actually measure phenomena, describe processes, and quantitatively address their explanations, and not with abstract, isolated theoretical considerations.

We consider that exclusive focus on theory means that important elements of how science generates knowledge are missed. Instead, the study of scientific practice can do much to illuminate not only philosophical but also sociological issues related to contemporary biological science. These issues include, for example, the identification of what biologists understand by inference and objectivity, as well as the procedures by which philosophers of biology map out how biological scientific knowledge is generated. With this framework in mind, here we address a recent controversy in a high-profile subdiscipline of evolutionary biology called phylogeography. This field, which has been described as a “bridge linking the study of micro and macroevolutionary processes” (Bermingham and Moritz 1998, p. 367), currently provides an outstanding example of a biological controversy in which statistical inferences and computer simulations have taken center stage. Our analysis of the controversy illustrates how theory plays little part in the debate. Furthermore, we suggest that disagreements regarding the value of statistical methods represent only the surface of a deeper conflict related to many issues of importance to philosophy of science such as the nature of scientific inferences, the justification of scientific results, and the generation of scientific knowledge.

As part of a larger debate on the nature of science, thinking of theory as standing separately from practice has a long tradition in the philosophy of science. As a result, philosophers of science have an extensive battery of conceptual tools at their disposal to think about the theory-practice relation. The vocabulary of laws and axioms, the terminological distinction between syntactic and semantic relations to the world, and the notions of models and theories as explanatory devices, all stem from the conception of theory as being in some way distinct from practice. The understanding of theory as interacting inextricably with practice has, in contrast, less resources at its disposal, and because of its complexity, much conceptual machinery remains to be built (e.g., Pickering 1995 Rheinberger 1997 Keller 2002 Martínez 2003 Douglas 2013).

As a result from our epistemological—and partially sociological—study of the phylogeography controversy (see also Arroyo-Santos et al. 2014), we develop the notion of borrowed epistemic credibility (BEC). We believe that BEC is a useful tool to understand how theory and practice interact to construct scientific knowledge in modern, model-based evolutionary biology, and perhaps in other biological research areas. BEC describes the situation in which, unable to justify a particular claim on empirical grounds, a given researcher (a) looks to justify her stance through an appeal to a set of extra-empirical values that correspond to proper scientific standards in her field, by (b) invoking similarities in her research to practices, results or methodologies with a well-established set of values. Once the claim for similarity is granted, then we say the researcher has successfully borrowed epistemic credibility. Consequently, affirmations defended by the associated project should be held as correct because they conform to what members of the relevant scientific community consider as good scientific practice. 1

In current epistemology and sociology of science, it is generally agreed that non-empirical values play an important role in research, but the question remains as to how they do so. Addressing the how question will allow us not only to understand better scientific practice and the generation of scientific knowledge, but also to better understand what do scientists accept as objective, valid, or justified (e.g., Douglas 2009 Gervais 2013). We claim that, in our case study, our notion of BEC illuminates how a methodological debate is only the visible part of a conflict where two competing, active research groups disagree on the nature of their discipline. We also suggest that BEC is useful to understand how such methods-laden scientific controversies are linked to non-epistemic values in science.

In the first part of this paper, we briefly introduce the field of phylogeography (interested readers may also consult Arroyo-Santos et al. 2014 for a more detailed discussion). Our interest here is to present the root of the controversy, and to indicate that empirical arguments are not sufficient to settle it. Since data-based arguments do not suffice, we argue that contending sides appeal to borrowed epistemic credibility. In the following section, we develop more fully the notion of BEC, and show how a controversy seemingly restricted to methods is in fact part of a larger debate on the nature of phylogeography, evolutionary biology, and science itself.


Theories of social and cultural evolution are common in modern European thought. Prior to the 18th century, Europeans predominantly believed that societies on Earth were in a state of decline. European society held up the world of antiquity as a standard to aspire to, and ancient Greece and ancient Rome produced levels of technical accomplishment which Europeans of the Middle Ages sought to emulate. At the same time, Christianity taught that people lived in a debased world fundamentally inferior to the Garden of Eden and Heaven. During the Age of Enlightenment, however, European self-confidence grew and the notion of progress became increasingly popular. It was during this period that what would later become known as 'sociological and cultural evolution' would have its roots.

The Enlightenment thinkers often speculated that societies progressed through stages of increasing development and looked for the logic, order and the set of scientific truths that determined the course of human history. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, for example, argued that social development was an inevitable and determined process, similar to an acorn which has no choice but to become an oak tree. Likewise, it was assumed that societies start out primitive, perhaps in a Hobbesian state of nature, and naturally progress toward something resembling industrial Europe.

While earlier authors such as Michel de Montaigne discussed how societies change through time, it was truly the Scottish Enlightenment which proved key in the development of cultural evolution. After Scotland's union with England in 1707, several Scottish thinkers pondered on the relationship between progress and the 'decadence' brought about by increased trade with England and the affluence it produced. The result was a series of conjectural histories. Authors such as Adam Ferguson, John Millar, and Adam Smith argued that all societies pass through a series of four stages: hunting and gathering, pastoralism and nomadism, agricultural, and finally a stage of commerce. These thinkers thus understood the changes Scotland was undergoing as a transition from an agricultural to a mercantile society.

Philosophical concepts of progress (such as those expounded by the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel) developed as well during this period. In France authors such as Claude Adrien Helvétius and other philosophers were influenced by this Scottish tradition. Later thinkers such as Comte de Saint-Simon developed these ideas. Auguste Comte in particular presented a coherent view of social progress and a new discipline to study it: sociology.

These developments took place in a wider context. The first process was colonialism. Although Imperial powers settled most differences of opinion with their colonial subjects with force, increased awareness of non-Western peoples raised new questions for European scholars about the nature of society and culture. Similarly, effective administration required some degree of understanding of other cultures. Emerging theories of social evolution allowed Europeans to organize their new knowledge in a way that reflected and justified their increasing political and economic domination of others: colonized people were less-evolved, colonizing people were more evolved. The second process was the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism which allowed and promoted continual revolutions in the means of production. Emerging theories of social evolution reflected a belief that the changes in Europe wrought by the Industrial Revolution and capitalism were obvious improvements. Industrialization, combined with the intense political change brought about by the French Revolution and US Constitution which were paving the way for the dominance of democracy, forced European thinkers to reconsider some of their assumptions about how society was organized.

Eventually, in the 19th century, three great classical theories of social and historical change were created: the social evolutionism theory, the social cycle theory and the Marxist historical materialism theory. Those theories had one common factor: they all agreed that the history of humanity is pursuing a certain fixed path, most likely that of the social progress. Thus, each past event is not only chronologically, but causally tied to the present and future events. Those theories postulated that by recreating the sequence of those events, sociology could discover the laws of history.

While social evolutionists agree that the evolution-like process leads to social progress, classical social evolutionists have developed many different theories, known as theories of unilineal evolution. Social evolutionism was the prevailing theory of early socio-cultural anthropology and social commentary, and is associated with scholars like Auguste Comte, Edward Burnett Tylor, Lewis Henry Morgan, and Herbert Spencer. Social evolutionism represented an attempt to formalize social thinking along scientific lines, later influenced by the biological theory of evolution. If organisms could develop over time according to discernible, deterministic laws, then it seemed reasonable that societies could as well. This really marks the beginning of Anthropology as a scientific discipline and a departure from traditional religious views of "primitive" cultures.

The term "classical social evolutionism" is most closely associated with the 19th-century writings of Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer (who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest") and William Graham Sumner. In many ways Spencer's theory of 'cosmic evolution' has much more in common with the works of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Auguste Comte than with contemporary works of Charles Darwin. Spencer also developed and published his theories several years earlier than Darwin. In regard to social institutions, however, there is a good case that Spencer's writings might be classified as 'Social Evolutionism'. Although he wrote that societies over time progressed, and that progress was accomplished through competition, he stressed that the individual (rather than the collectivity) is the unit of analysis that evolves, that evolution takes place through natural selection and that it affects social as well as biological phenomenon.

Progressivism Edit

Both Spencer and Comte view the society as a kind of organism subject to the process of growth—from simplicity to complexity, from chaos to order, from generalization to specialization, from flexibility to organization. They agreed that the process of societies growth can be divided into certain stages, have their beginning and eventual end, and that this growth is in fact social progress—each newer, more evolved society is better. Thus progressivism became one of the basic ideas underlying the theory of social evolutionism.

Auguste Comte Edit

Auguste Comte, known as father of sociology, formulated the law of three stages: human development progresses from the theological stage, in which nature was mythically conceived and man sought the explanation of natural phenomena from supernatural beings, through metaphysical stage in which nature was conceived of as a result of obscure forces and man sought the explanation of natural phenomena from them until the final positive stage in which all abstract and obscure forces are discarded, and natural phenomena are explained by their constant relationship. This progress is forced through the development of human mind, and increasing application of thought, reasoning and logic to the understanding of world.

Herbert Spencer Edit

Herbert Spencer believed that society was evolving toward increasing freedom for individuals and so held that government intervention, ought to be minimal in social and political life, differentiated between two phases of development, focusing is on the type of internal regulation within societies. Thus, he differentiated between military and industrial societies. The earlier, more primitive military society has a goal of conquest and defence, is centralised, economically self-sufficient, collectivistic, puts the good of the group over the good of the individual, uses compulsion, force, and repression, rewards loyalty, obedience and discipline. The industrial society has a goal of production and trade, is decentralised, interconnected with other societies via economic relations, achieves its goals through voluntary cooperation and individual self-restraint, treats the good of the individual as the highest value, regulates the social life via voluntary relations, and values initiative, independence, and innovation. [1]

Regardless of how scholars of Spencer interpret his relation to Darwin, Spencer proved to be an incredibly popular figure in the 1870s, particularly in the United States. Authors such as Edward L. Youmans, William Graham Sumner, John Fiske, John W. Burgess, Lester Frank Ward, Lewis H. Morgan and other thinkers of the gilded age all developed theories of social evolutionism as a result of their exposure to Spencer as well as Darwin.

Lewis H. Morgan Edit

Lewis H. Morgan, an anthropologist whose ideas have had much impact on sociology, in his 1877 classic Ancient Societies differentiated between three eras: savagery, barbarism and civilisation, which are divided by technological inventions, like fire, bow, pottery in savage era, domestication of animals, agriculture, metalworking in barbarian era and alphabet and writing in civilisation era. Thus Morgan introduced a link between the social progress and technological progress. Morgan viewed the technological progress as a force behind social progress, and any social change—in social institutions, organisations or ideologies have their beginning in the change of technology. [2] Morgan's theories were popularised by Friedrich Engels, who based his famous work "The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State" on it. For Engels and other Marxists, this theory was important as it supported their conviction that materialistic factors—economical and technological—are decisive in shaping the fate of humanity.

Émile Durkheim Edit

Émile Durkheim, another of the 'fathers' of sociology, has developed a similar, dichotomical view of social progress. His key concept was social solidarity, as he defined the social evolution in terms of progressing from mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity. In mechanical solidarity, people are self-sufficient, there is little integration and thus there is the need for use of force and repression to keep society together. In organic solidarity, people are much more integrated and interdependent and specialisation and cooperation is extensive. Progress from mechanical to organic solidarity is based first on population growth and increasing population density, second on increasing 'morality density' (development of more complex social interactions) and thirdly, on the increasing specialisation in workplace. To Durkheim, the most important factor in the social progress is the division of labor.

Edward Burnett Tylor and Lewis H. Morgan Edit

Anthropologists Edward Burnett Tylor in England and Lewis H. Morgan in the United States worked with data from indigenous people, who they claimed represented earlier stages of cultural evolution that gave insight into the process and progression of cultural evolution. Morgan would later have a significant influence on Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who developed a theory of cultural evolution in which the internal contradictions in society created a series of escalating stages that ended in a socialist society (see Marxism). Tylor and Morgan elaborated upon, modified and expanded the theory of unilinear evolution, specifying criteria for categorizing cultures according to their standing within a fixed system of growth of humanity as a whole while examining the modes and mechanisms of this growth.

Their analysis of cross-cultural data was based on three assumptions:

  1. contemporary societies may be classified and ranked as more "primitive" or more "civilized"
  2. There are a determinate number of stages between "primitive" and "civilized" (e.g. band, tribe, chiefdom, and state),
  3. All societies progress through these stages in the same sequence, but at different rates.

Theorists usually measured progression (that is, the difference between one stage and the next) in terms of increasing social complexity (including class differentiation and a complex division of labor), or an increase in intellectual, theological, and aesthetic sophistication. These 19th-century ethnologists used these principles primarily to explain differences in religious beliefs and kinship terminologies among various societies.

Lester Frank Ward Edit

There were however notable differences between the work of Lester Frank Ward's and Tylor's approaches. Lester Frank Ward developed Spencer's theory but unlike Spencer, who considered the evolution to be general process applicable to the entire world, physical and sociological, Ward differentiated sociological evolution from biological evolution. He stressed that humans create goals for themselves and strive to realise them, whereas there is no such intelligence and awareness guiding the non-human world, which develops more or less at random. He created a hierarchy of evolution processes. First, there is cosmogenesis, creation and evolution of the world. Then, after life develops, there is biogenesis. Development of humanity leads to anthropogenesis, which is influenced by the human mind. Finally, when society develops, so does sociogenesis, which is the science of shaping the society to fit with various political, cultural and ideological goals.

Edward Burnett Tylor, pioneer of anthropology, focused on the evolution of culture worldwide, noting that culture is an important part of every society and that it is also subject to the process of evolution. He believed that societies were at different stages of cultural development and that the purpose of anthropology was to reconstruct the evolution of culture, from primitive beginnings to the modern state.

Ferdinand Tönnies Edit

Ferdinand Tönnies describes the evolution as the development from informal society, where people have many liberties and there are few laws and obligations, to modern, formal rational society, dominated by traditions and laws and are restricted from acting as they wish. He also notes that there is a tendency of standardization and unification, when all smaller societies are absorbed into the single, large, modern society. Thus Tönnies can be said to describe part of the process known today as the globalisation. Tönnies was also one of the first sociologists to claim that the evolution of society is not necessarily going in the right direction, that the social progress is not perfect, it can even be called a regress as the newer, more evolved societies are obtained only after paying a high costs, resulting in decreasing satisfaction of individuals making up that society. Tönnies' work became the foundation of neo-evolutionism.

Franz Boas Edit

The early 20th century inaugurated a period of systematic critical examination, and rejection of unilineal theories of cultural evolution. Cultural anthropologists such as Franz Boas, typically regarded as the leader of anthropology's rejection of classical social evolutionism, used sophisticated ethnography and more rigorous empirical methods to argue that Spencer, Tylor, and Morgan's theories were speculative and systematically misrepresented ethnographic data. Additionally, they rejected the distinction between "primitive" and "civilized" (or "modern"), pointing out that so-called primitive contemporary societies have just as much history, and were just as evolved, as so-called civilized societies. They therefore argued that any attempt to use this theory to reconstruct the histories of non-literate (i.e. leaving no historical documents) peoples is entirely speculative and unscientific. They observed that the postulated progression, a stage of civilization identical to that of modern Europe, is ethnocentric. They also pointed out that the theory assumes that societies are clearly bounded and distinct, when in fact cultural traits and forms often cross social boundaries and diffuse among many different societies (and is thus an important mechanism of change). Boas in his culture history approach focused on anthropological fieldwork in an attempt to identify factual processes instead of what he criticized as speculative stages of growth.

Global change Edit

Later critics observed that this assumption of firmly bounded societies was proposed precisely at the time when European powers were colonizing non-Western societies, and was thus self-serving. Many anthropologists and social theorists now consider unilineal cultural and social evolution a Western myth seldom based on solid empirical grounds. Critical theorists argue that notions of social evolution are simply justifications for power by the elites of society. Finally, the devastating World Wars that occurred between 1914 and 1945 crippled Europe's self-confidence [ importance? ] . After millions of deaths, genocide, and the destruction of Europe's industrial infrastructure, the idea of progress seemed dubious at best.

Major objections and concerns Edit

Thus modern socio-cultural evolutionism rejects most of classical social evolutionism due to various theoretical problems:

  1. The theory was deeply ethnocentric—it makes heavy value judgements on different societies with Western civilization seen as the most valuable.
  2. It assumed all cultures follow the same path or progression and have the same goals.
  3. It equated civilization with material culture (technology, cities, etc.)
  4. It equated evolution with progress or fitness, based on deep misunderstandings of evolutionary theory.
  5. It is contradicted by evidence. Some (but not all) supposedly primitive societies are arguably more peaceful and equitable/democratic than many modern societies. [citation needed]

Because social evolution was posited as a scientific theory, it was often used to support unjust and often racist social practices—particularly colonialism, slavery, and the unequal economic conditions present within industrialized Europe.

Biological Theories of Crime

Biological theories are a subtype of positivist theory. Positivism evolved as instrumental in explaining law-violating behaviors during the latter part of the 19th century as a response to the perceived harshness of classical school philosophies. Classical thought, which emerged during the Age of Enlightenment (mid-1600s to late 1700s), asserted that man operated on the basis of free will and rational thought, choosing which courses of action to take. According to classical theorists, individuals would engage in behaviors that were pleasurable and avoid behaviors that were painful. Punishment (of the right type and in the right amounts) would deter an individual from committing an act if that punishment resulted in pain that outweighed the pleasure. Classical theorists, for the most part, denounced torture as a type of punishment because it was more punishment than was necessary to prevent a future occurrence of the act they believed that punishment should be proportionate to the crime to be effective as a deterrent.

Classical views were not very concerned about the causes of behavior. Behaviors were seen as the result of choice rather than as the result of inherent or external factors largely uncontrollable by the individual. The significant progression of scientific thought and method, however, led to the application of science in the study of human and social behavior. The central focus of these new ideas was that the aim of any social action toward individuals who violated law should be curing them, not punishing them.

Positivist criminology is distinguished by three main elements: (1) the search for the causes of crime, whether biological, psychological, or sociological (2) the use of the scientific method to test theories against observations of the world and (3) the rejection of punishment as a response to law-violating or deviant behavior, replaced with treatment based on the medical (rehabilitation) model. Positivism rejects free will and replaces it with scientific determinism. Finally, it rejects focus on criminal law and replaces it with a study of the individual.


These results, in tandem with prior literature, suggest that college biology instructors may be able to support highly religious student evolution acceptance by explicitly describing that evolution does not disprove the existence of supernatural entities. In other words, teaching the bounded nature of science in the context of evolution by describing evolution as agnostic rather than atheistic. While prior literature suggests that religiosity and evolution acceptance are related due to specific religious beliefs that are incompatible with evolution (Scott, 2005 Winslow et al., 2011 Barnes et al., 2020), our study suggests that evolution acceptance and religiosity are also related because students perceive that evolution is atheistic.

However, our methodology for this study does not allow us to make claims about the causality of the relationships we studied. Further, we did not test the impact of changing students’ perceptions of evolution from atheistic to agnostic, so we cannot say what the magnitude of that impact would be. However, student self-reports in interview studies suggest that helping students understand that evolution is agnostic may increase their evolution acceptance (Winslow et al., 2011 Barnes, et al., 2017b), and leaders in evolution education have self-reported in essays that teaching the bounded nature of science while teaching evolution has led to positive impacts on their students’ evolution acceptance (Smith, 1994 Southerland and Scharmann, 2013 Scharmann, 2018 Nelson et al., 2019). The practical significance of this study is to illuminate that more than half of college biology students perceive that evolution is atheistic, which is concerning, because it is a potentially inaccurate conception that could lead to religious students’ rejection of evolution and other poor evolution education experiences. Our results build on the prior literature and confirm that the conception that evolution is atheistic is prevalent among students and statistically significantly related to lower evolution acceptance among religious students. Together, this body of research and experience from evolution educators suggests that instructors can increase evolution acceptance among religious students by explicitly teaching them that evolutionary theory is agnostic rather than atheistic. The magnitude of this effect should be explored in future research.

Our results also highlight the importance of examining religious students separately from nonreligious students in evolution education. Because religious students have a set of worldviews that can create barriers to evolution acceptance that are not present for nonreligious students, relationships between variables and evolution acceptance will likely be different for religious and nonreligious students. Although recent evolution education studies have probed the interactions between religiosity and other variables when studying evolution acceptance (Weisberg et al., 2018), such research is still uncommon. Many studies do not collect or report students’ religiosity (i.e., Mead et al., 2018 Metzger et al., 2018 Pobiner et al., 2018). However, our results build on the growing body of literature that suggests this should become a common part of any protocol in which researchers are measuring evolution acceptance.

Given these results and prior literature, we encourage biology instructors to think about how their own personal views of evolution and religion may affect how they communicate with students about whether evolution is atheistic or agnostic. Seventy-five percent of biologists nationwide do not believe in a God (Ecklund and Scheitle, 2007 Pew, 2009), so presumably these biologists hold the personal view of atheistic evolution. However, do biologists who hold an atheistic personal view of evolution recognize and communicate to their students the bounded nature of science? It is likely that instructors who do not have personal religious backgrounds themselves do not think or teach about this distinction in the context of evolution (Barnes and Brownell, 2016, 2018), because the culture of science is generally seen as more compatible with atheism than theism (Ecklund and Park, 2009). However, our data suggest that whether an instructor recognizes and communicates the bounded nature of science accurately during evolution instruction could matter for religious student outcomes in evolution education. For these reasons, we encourage instructors to familiarize themselves with Religious Cultural Competence in Evolution Education (Barnes and Brownell, 2017), an umbrella framework of instructional practices identified in the literature to help nonreligious instructors better understand how to teach religious students about evolution in an effective and culturally competent way, which includes teaching the bounded nature of science (Barnes et al., 2017b).

We operated on an assumption about the nature of science that supernatural existence or influence is outside the scope of science. However, still a small number of biologists claim that because evolutionary theory operates on the assumption that a God is not needed for evolution to occur, this means that evolution does indeed claim that God was not involved in evolution and/or does not exist (Coyne, 2015 Dawkins, 2009). We agree that evolution operates from the assumption that a God is not needed for evolution to occur, but do not agree that this is incompatible with a personal belief that a God does exist and has somehow influenced evolution. Researchers in evolution education have discussed and advocated for this distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism in the evolution education literature (Scott, 2005 Sober, 2011). A thorough treatment of this nuanced distinction is outside the scope of this paper, but for an overview see “Nature of Science” (Scott, 2005, chap. 13).

We chose to aggregate scores from Likert-type response options to create continuous Likert scales and used parametric statistics in our analyses. As argued by Norman (2010), this issue has two parts: measurement and statistics. The conclusions from the parametric statistics are valid as long as the assumptions of the data distributions are roughly met. Substantial literature exists to show that parametric statistics are robust, giving the right answers even when assumptions are violated. In the Results sections of this paper, we have demonstrated that the assumptions linear regression has on data distributions are roughly met, which justifies the use of the parametric statistics methods on the data. However, we would like to acknowledge the controversy in the measurement part. In our study, we followed a commonly accepted practice of summing individual items scores to form the score of the scale and use the summed score to represent the latent construct. We agree with the opponents of this practice that single Likert response format items are on an ordinal scale, but the proponents of this practice argue that many studies have shown that Likert scales (as opposed to single items) produce interval data appropriate for parametric statistics (e.g., Carifio and Perla, 2007). As a further direction, one may consider applying item response theory (Hambleton et al., 1991) to extract measurement of the latent constructs.


Progress in understanding cognition requires a quantitative, theoretical framework, grounded in the other natural sciences and able to bridge between implementational, algorithmic and computational levels of explanation. I review recent results in neuroscience and cognitive biology that, when combined, provide key components of such an improved conceptual framework for contemporary cognitive science. Starting at the neuronal level, I first discuss the contemporary realization that single neurons are powerful tree-shaped computers, which implies a reorientation of computational models of learning and plasticity to a lower, cellular, level. I then turn to predictive systems theory (predictive coding and prediction-based learning) which provides a powerful formal framework for understanding brain function at a more global level. Although most formal models concerning predictive coding are framed in associationist terms, I argue that modern data necessitate a reinterpretation of such models in cognitive terms: as model-based predictive systems. Finally, I review the role of the theory of computation and formal language theory in the recent explosion of comparative biological research attempting to isolate and explore how different species differ in their cognitive capacities. Experiments to date strongly suggest that there is an important difference between humans and most other species, best characterized cognitively as a propensity by our species to infer tree structures from sequential data. Computationally, this capacity entails generative capacities above the regular (finite-state) level implementationally, it requires some neural equivalent of a push-down stack. I dub this unusual human propensity “dendrophilia”, and make a number of concrete suggestions about how such a system may be implemented in the human brain, about how and why it evolved, and what this implies for models of language acquisition. I conclude that, although much remains to be done, a neurally-grounded framework for theoretical cognitive science is within reach that can move beyond polarized debates and provide a more adequate theoretical future for cognitive biology.

7. Quine’s Critics

Searle’s criticism of Quine’s behaviorism was discussed above. One other important critical response to Quine’s specific rendering of the philosophy-science relationship is found with the work of Michael Friedman (1997, 2001). Quine’s naturalism, with its rejection of any form of a priori knowledge, results in a holistic picture of human knowledge as one large web of belief touching experience only at its edges. Friedman argues that this picture fails to account for a more subtle interaction between the exact sciences, such as mathematics and logic, and the natural sciences, and as a result, cannot properly make sense of their historical development.

Friedman’s alternative picture involves a dynamical system of beliefs, concepts, and principles that can be distinguished into three main elements or levels. There is an evolving system of empirical scientific concepts and principles, a system of mathematical concepts and principles that make possible the framing of empirical science and its precise experimental testing, and lastly a system of philosophical concepts and principles that serve during times of scientific revolution as a source of suggestions for choosing one scientific framework rather than another (Friedman 1997, 18-9 2001). All of these three systematic levels are constantly changing and interact with each other, but each plays a distinctive role within the general framework of scientific knowledge. For example, consider the revolutionary scientific changes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Here, the guiding aim was a precise mathematical description of natural phenomena using an atomistic theory of matter that explained natural changes as the result of movement and impact of tiny particles. This guiding ideal requires the use of mathematics to achieve precise results that can then be subjected to exact experimental tests. Here, we have a distinctive contribution at the mathematical level, where this forms the necessary backdrop to empirical testing within the natural sciences. But this achievement lacked the mathematical and empirical resources needed for its successful completion and was sustained by distinct philosophical contributions. It is here that Descartes’ system of natural philosophy, with its careful revision and reorganization of philosophical concepts derived from scholastic philosophy that distinctive philosophical contributions helped to promote this new scientific ideal (Friedman 1997, 14, 16-7).

Although Friedman’s account agrees with Quine that none of our beliefs are forever immune from revision, it further diverges from Quinean naturalism in two fundamental ways. First, it highlights a modified Kantian view of the way mathematical concepts and principles stand as a priori conditions that make possible both the very framing of empirical scientific principles and their experimental testing. Second, it highlights a distinct role for philosophy in relation to science, when it suggests that during deep conceptual revolutions in science, a separate level of philosophical ideas and concepts can be offered as resources for sustaining a new scientific framework. Adopting Quine’s general assimilation of philosophy to empirical science obscures the constitutive a priori role mathematics plays in the formulation of empirical scientific principles, Friedman argues, and further ignores the distinctive role philosophy plays in relation to science during scientific revolutions. Friedman’s alternative conception of the relations between philosophy, mathematics and empirical science suggests a more complicated interaction than seen with Quine’s naturalism, one that arguably is needed if we are to fully understand the historical development of the sciences and philosophy’s contribution to that process.


This study revealed some problematic issues concerning the teaching of biological evolution in Oklahoma’s public high school introductory biology course, as evidenced by the fact that the average student in the study completed the Biology I course with increased confidence in their biological evolution knowledge yet with a greater number of biological evolution misconceptions and, therefore, less competency in the subject. Who is culpable? Certainly one’s first compulsion is to implicate the teacher. Such a verdict may be justified in many cases as research has revealed ‘ … instruction in evolutionary biology at the high school level has been absent, cursory, or fraught with misinformation’ (Rutledge and Mitchell [2002] p. 21) and ‘about one-fourth of Oklahoma public school life-science teachers place moderate or strong emphasis on creationism’ (Weld and McNew [1999], p. 52). Disturbingly, this study revealed two cases in which students who entered their Biology I courses held a higher pre-instruction BEL Survey mean index score than the BEL Survey index scores produced by their respective teachers on the identical survey. This result indicates that these students, on average, had a more accurate understanding of biological evolution prior to instruction than did the teachers whose task was to instruct them in the topic. Based on this result alone, there is little doubt that teachers may serve as sources of biological evolution-related misconceptions or, at the very least, propagators of existing misconceptions.

Identifying the sources of misconceptions is difficult at best. While this study focused primarily on teachers as a source of student biological evolution misconceptions, other contributing factors may certainly have played a role, including religious and parental influences, textbooks, and popular media, all of which have been known to foster student misconceptions (for example, Cavallo and McCall [2008] Linhart [1997]), as well as content and teachers associated with other courses. Evidence also exists that the topic of evolution is too complex for high school students, most of whom still think at the concrete level, lacking the cognitive development necessary to comprehend biological evolution-related concepts fully and are therefore unable to construct solid accurate understandings of the topic (Lawson and Thompson [1988] Settlage [1994]). No doubt, multiple factors contribute in varying degrees to the acquisition and retention of student misconceptions of biological evolution. It is imperative, then, that we as educators identify sources of student biological evolution-related misconceptions, identify or develop strategies to reduce or eliminate such misconceptions, and then implement these strategies at the appropriate junctures in students’ cognitive development. If teachers are unaware of the misconceptions prevalent with students and do not take them into consideration when implementing instructional strategies, they may hold overly optimistic expectations of the effectiveness of their teaching (Lightman and Sadler [1993]).

The Oklahoma Academy of Science strongly supports thorough teaching of evolution in biology classes, deeming evolution one of the most important principles of science while noting that ‘a high school graduate who does not understand evolution is not prepared for college or for life in a technologically advanced world in which the role of biology and biotechnology will continue to grow’ (Oklahoma Academy of Science [2007], p. 1) These graduates deserve a high school biology teacher who functions not as a source of students’ misconceptions but rather as a resource for their identification and elimination. Yet, students’ knowledge structures have been found to approximate those of their teachers (Rutledge and Mitchell [2002]), and currently substantial numbers of biology students become biology teachers while still retaining major misconceptions (Nehm et al. [2008]). We must work diligently to disrupt this cycle.

Watch the video: Evolution u0026 Bhagavatam: What are the issues for devotees? The Monks Podcast 165 with Akhandadhi P (July 2022).


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