19 May 2010

And One Man in his Time Plays Many Parts.

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts," — As You Like It, II, 7.

Figure 1. Blogger Paul MacRae.
Paul MacRae (Figure 1) blogs at False Alarm. He is a former Canadian newspaper editor, a global warming skeptic and an admirer of T. H. Huxley. Last year, these interests came together in an essay titled "Consensus Climate Science: What Would Thomas Huxley Say?"

Thomas Henry Huxley — bulldog of Darwin; bearder of Wilberforce; baiter of Booth. What would he have said, indeed? Nothing positive, MacRae assures us. Consensus climatology violates Huxley's views as to what constitutes good science.

There is much to like about MacRae's analysis. Huxley's prescriptions are unimpeachable; their juxtaposition with contemporary climatological practice, a compelling study in contrast (Table I). Arguably, the analysis could be strengthened by distinguishing more carefully what working scientists have been saying from activist talking points. But that is a quibble. The former have long been in bed with the latter, which is one of the more important conclusions to emerge from the ClimateGate emails. Moreover, the world's scientists, both individually and through their professional organizations, such as the National Academy of Sciences, are increasingly involved in promoting policy — go here, for a recent example. This is extraordinarily worrisome. Instead of individual investigators promoting their ideas, we have large segments of the scientific community tied to particular opinions. The pressure to defend these opinions, lest the community as a whole appear foolish, is increased thereby. This undercuts the self-correcting nature of science, which is what distinguishes scientific prescription from other forms of advocacy.

Table I. Huxley vs. Consensus Climate Science According to Paul McRae.
HuxleyConsensus Climate Science
Scientific certainty does not exist.The evidence is so overwhelming there’s no need to discuss it any further.
A strong theory must be “in entire accordance” with the data.Ignore data … that doesn’t fit the theory …
Data not in accord with previous experience should be regarded with suspicion.Ignore previous experience … if it doesn’t fit the theory.
Theories must be able to predict accurately.Nothing, so far, predicted accurately.
Extreme claims require extreme proof.If the proof doesn’t exist, fall back on the precautionary principle.
Science doesn’t operate by consensus.Yes, it does.

At different times in his career, Huxley assumed the mantle of both critic and defender of the conventional wisdom. That is the subject of today's post. In passing, I will touch on the science vs. religion aspect, still on-going (Witham, 2001) of course, of the evolution debates, the Huxley-Wilberforce exchange, in particular, and on the scientific criticisms initially leveled at "Darwin's dangerous idea" (Dennett, 1995). Returning to anthropogenic global (AGW) warming, I conclude that whether or not the world goes marching down the path of carbon mitigation will likely depend, not on the confirmation or rejection of AGW as a scientific hypothesis, but on chance correspondences.

Huxley. Darwin's bulldog didn't always practice what he preached. His assertion that
"an inductive hypothesis is said to be demonstrated when the facts are shown to be in entire accordance with it" [Emphasis added]
notwithstanding, he could nonetheless cling to an idea in the face of evidence that was strongly contradictory. Like today's proponents of AGW, Huxley stuck to the facts when they were in his favor and dissembled when they were not. When disputing Owen's claim that the hippocampus minor (Gross, 1893) distinguishes man from ape, he relied on anatomy (Huxley, 1853) — because he could. But when responding to Thomson's calculation that the earth had been habitable for no more than 100, and perhaps as few as 20, million years (Thomson, 1862, 1866), he fell back on "mother-wit" and his considerable rhetorical skills — because he had to.

A Matter of Time. William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) was the discoverer of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which holds that there are no perpetual motion machines and that the universe must one day run down. With uniformitarian geology and its assumption of essentially limitless time (Burchfield, 1990; 1998)
, Thomson had a bone to pick : The earth was once a molten sphere; the time required for it to cool to its present temperature could be estimated; the number that resulted placed an upper bound on geological time. While rock still flowed, there could be no oceans, no sedimentary deposition and certainly no life. Physical law trumped geological estimates that required unverifiable assumptions. During the course of his long career, Thomson returned repeatedly to the age of the earth and to that of its star, a preoccupation that antedated The Origin's publication and was thus arguably independent of his views (Thomson, 1871) on evolution and religion. With each refinement, and to the Darwinians' dismay, the estimates grew shorter. Writing in 1895, the celebrated English geologist, Archibald Geikie, would later observe (1895),
"Geologists have not been slow to admit that they were in error in assuming that they had an eternity of past time for the evolution of the earth’s history. They have frankly acknowledged the validity of the physical arguments which go to place more or less definite limits to the antiquity of the earth. They were on the whole, disposed to acquiesce in the allowance of 100 millions of years granted to them by Lord Kelvin, for the … whole … of geological history. But the physicists have been insatiable and inexorable. As remorseless as Lear’s daughters, they have cut down their grant of years by successive slices, until some of them have brought the number to something less than ten millions." [Emphasis added]
Thomson's arguments were mathematical, and to Darwin and his supporters, Huxley among them, impenetrable. And so Huxley wrote (1869b) as follows:
"Biology takes her time from geology. The only reason we have for believing in the slow rate of change in living forms is that they persist through a series of deposits which, geology informs us, have taken a long while to make. If the geological clock is wrong, all the naturalist will have to do is to modify his notions of the rapidity of change accordingly." [Emphasis added]
Correspondingly, in the 6th and final edition of The Origin (Darwin, 1872), we find the following:
"It is, however, probable, as Sir William Thompson [sic] insists, that the world at a very early period was subjected to more rapid and violent changes in its physical conditions than those now occurring; and such changes would have tended to induce changes at a corresponding rate in the organisms which then existed." [Emphasis added]

Figure 2. Anchiornis huxleyi, a four-winged dinosaur named after Thomas Huxley and close to the ancestry of birds. Feather colors inferred from the size and shape of melanosomes — see Li et al. (2010).
Figure 3. Skeletons of man and apes compared. From Huxley (1863).

Figure 4. Samuel J. Wilberforce strikes a characteristic pose. Originally published in Vanity Fair Magazine. From Zoonomian.

Huxley and Darwin were being disingenuous. The assumption of essentially unlimited time during which species could be transformed, bit by imperceptible bit, the one into the other, had been central to the transformist hypothesis since the days of Lamarck. Thomson robbed evolutionists of time, even as his colleague and business associate, Fleeming Jenkin (Stevenson, 1887), relieved them of variability (Jenkin, 1867). Together, these two gentlemen eviscerated the Darwinian argument (Eiseley, 1959).1 What was left were Darwin's "facts," patterns of taxonomic affinity, homologous structures, vestigial organs, the recapitulatory nature of embryological development and distributional patterns in time and space. For such observations, descent with modification offered an economical accounting, or, as Darwin put it (1863), connected them "by an intelligible thread of reasoning." Most important was accumulating paleontological evidence for the prior existence of intermediate forms now extinct — Archaeopteryx, Neanderthal Man, three-toed horses, etc. As a result, the case for evolution grew. With the passing of Louis Aggassiz, the last major Special Creationist, in 1873, its scientific acceptance became near universal.

Professionalization of Science. Darwin and the naturalists of his generation were amateurs. But by 1867, the professionalization of science had proceeded apace. When Jenkin published his review of The Origin in the North British Review, he felt obliged to insert the following disclaimer:
"The cardinal facts [pertinent to Darwin's argument] are the production of varieties by man, and the similarity of all existing animals. About the truth and extent of those facts none but men possessing a special knowledge of physiology and natural history have any right to an opinion; but the superstructure based on those facts enters the region of pure reason, and may be discussed apart from all doubt as to the fundamental facts." [Emphasis added]
Jenkin, an engineer and no biologist, would concede the particulars of physiology and biology to the specialists. It was only with the conclusions induced from those facts that he felt entitled to argue.

To the professionalization of science, Huxley was an important contributor. He helped found the journal, Nature, to which he contributed an editorial (Huxley, 1869) that appeared in its first issue. He was also a charter member of the highly influential X Club (Barton, 1998). Both organizations figured prominently in the struggle of the rising generation of professional scientists to wrest control of British science, the Royal Society, in particular, from the older generation of gentleman amateurs (Lucas, 1979; Di Gregorio, 1982; Jensen, 1988; Barton, 1998).

Huxley was, of course, one of the young Turks. As Jensen put it, referring to the legendary exchange (see below), between Huxley and Wilberforce,
"The battle was not only between the Darwinists and the divines, but between the Darwinists, generally the younger scientists, and the older, more conservative scientists, with [some] notable exceptions … At the British Association meeting in 1894 the Marquis of Salisbury looked back at the 1860 meeting and said that 'in many cases religious apprehension only masked the resentment of the older learning at the appearance and claims of its younger rival'."
Huxley's defense of Darwin was thus at least partly an exercise in self-promotion. Huxley may, indeed, have had sensible prescriptions for doing good science. But he also labored on behalf of a larger cause: replacement of the old, churchly priesthood by a new, secular authority — as insulated from common opinion by claims to proprietary knowledge as its predecessor, and equally determined to control it. The scientific establishment today, the East Anglia white washers, in particular, are heirs to this tradition.

All my Children. It is no exaggeration to suggest that intellectuals of all stripes view their creations in much the way that "regular folk" regard their children. Of Fidelio, his first and only opera, Beethoven wrote
"Of all the children of my spirit, this one is dearest to me, because it was the most difficult to bring into the world."
It follows that scientific revolutions result not just from observations that undermine the "older learning.". As important to the passing of old ways of looking at things is the passing of those who do the looking. Darwin was not unaware of this when he wrote (Darwin, 1860) Huxley,
"I can pretty plainly see that if my view is ever to be generally adopted, it will be by young men growing up & replacing the old workers, …"
In short, habit and predisposition play important roles in the succession of constructs whereby science contemplates Creation. Stereotypically, habit is a product of age; the inclination to novelty, an attribute of youth. As a rising scientific luminary, Huxley could embrace natural selection with the enthusiasm of a convert (but see, DiGregorio, 1982). "My reflection, when I first made myself master of the central idea of the 'Origin,'" he would later reminisce (Huxley, 1887)
" was, 'How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!' … The facts of variability, of the struggle for existence, of adaptation to conditions, were notorious enough; but none of us had suspected that the road to the heart of the species problem lay through them, until Darwin and Wallace [1858] dispelled the darkness … ."
A decade later, when the new consensus to which Huxley had contributed was itself threatened by considerations of time and inheritance, he could only respond with sophistry. His position, if you will, was that of a population trapped on a sinking peak in an adaptive landscape (Wright, 1932) — doomed, and with nowhere better to go. Like the men and women of Jacques' soliloquy (above), Huxley, "in his time, played many parts."

Huxley and Wilberforce. Huxley's scientific achievements include the deduction that birds derive from small, carnivorous dinosaurs (Figure 2) and the demonstration of bone for bone anatomical correspondence between man and the the great apes (Figure 3). He is best known, however, as evolution's tireless defender, in particular for his besting of Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, in the famous "debate," actually an impromptu exchange, at the 30th annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. "Soapy Sam," so called because he was so smooth, alternatively, because he often rubbed his hands together as though washing them (Figure 4), viewed the argument of The Origin as "unphilosophical." By this he intended that it was speculation unjustifiably raised to the level of hypothesis. According to one recounting (Lucas, 1979, see also Jensen, 1988), Wilberforce asked Huxley whether he, Huxley, was maternally or paternally descended from a monkey. To that, claws and beak claws already sharpened up, Huxley replied that he
"was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth."
Huxley's rejoinder is often portrayed as a turning point in the struggle between science and religion — see, for example, Eldredge (2005). Other writers, Lucas (1979) in particular, regard this view as exaggerated if not downright inaccurate.

The Argument Against Darwin. At the time of the "debate," Wilberforce had recently written a review (Wilberforce, 1860),
then still unpublished, of The Origin. Undoubtedly, he believed that good science would inevitably harmonize with theology. But the bulk of his written review, and presumably that of the Oxford lecture, is devoted to scientific arguments. The review totals 40 pages, and it is not until page 31 that he finally gets round to Revelation. And even here, Wilberforce maintains that scientific questions need to be resolved by scientifically. "Our readers will not have failed to notice," he wrote,
"that we have objected to the views with which we have been dealing solely on scientific grounds. We have done so from our fixed conviction that it is thus that the truth or falsehood of such arguments should be tried. We have no sympathy with those who object to any facts or alleged facts in nature, or to any inference logically deduced from them, because they believe them to contradict what it appears to them is taught by Revelation. We think that all such objections savour of a timidity which is really inconsistent with a firm and well-instructed faith …" [Emphasis added]
Lucas (1979) summarizes Wilberforce's approach as follows:
“[He] may not have told his audience … that it was … possible that Darwin’s theory was true, in which case humanity would have to eat humble pie, but it is clear that he did not argue that Darwin’s theory must be false because its implications about the nature of man were unacceptable. As he saw it, and as most of his audience saw it, he was showing that it was, as a matter of scientific fact, false, and only having established this did he go on to say in effect ‘and a good thing too’.” [Emphasis added]
Of course, Wilberforce may have appealed to scientific arguments as a matter of practicality, having concluded that to have argued on theological grounds would have been unproductive. But the fact often overlooked when we view reaction to The Origin through the lens of modern understanding is that direct evidence for Darwin's thesis was at the time thin. Within-species variability did appear to be constrained; domestic breeds were not reproductively isolated; the fossil record did not provide examples of intermediate forms. To these objections, Thomson and Jenkin would add paucities of time and variation, which inconveniences evolutionists were forced to live with for the next forty years (Bowler, 1992)

Two Theories. At least within the scientific community, Victorian objections to descent with modification have since been answered to just about everyone's satisfaction. Yet even today, the observation (Grant and Grant, 2009), of a new species, appropriately enough, a Darwin's finch, in apparent statu nascendi, is deemed an important discovery. The reason for the interest is that the mechanisms by which transmutation is effected remain murky (Gould and Lewontin, 1979; Segerstråle, 2000; Witham, 2001). There is evolution, the fact, what has happened, for which the evidence is overwhelming, and there is evolution, the theory, how it happened, which remains in flux. And that brings us to the essential point. It was Darwin's "facts," not the plausibility of the Darwinian mechanism, that ensured the idea's survival. Darwinians had no real answers to Jenkin and Thomson, but their faith in evolution was sustained by accumulating evidence that it had somehow occurred.

And this brings us back to AGW. The climate system is enormously complicated. Understanding it well enough to accurately predict its behavior is unlikely. But predictions can succeed for two reasons: because one actually understands the system and for some other reason, which is to say, "by chance." It is because one can get the right answer for the wrong reason
— see Cohen (1966) for a non-trivial example — that, when a theoretical prediction is sustained experimentally, the next step is to generate a new prediction and perform a new experiment. Only when repeated attempts at falsification fail, can hypothesis be elevated to the level of theory. And only when more such attempts fail does theory become "law." Because AGW has become so politicized (see, for example, Dan Botkin's opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal), it is reasonable to anticipate that any continued warming, be it a consequence of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations or simply one of the repetitive ups and downs of a non-equilibrium system, will be seized upon by activist-scientists as "proof" of the theory, in just the way they attempted to so portray the post-1970's warming, now abated. The climate system being almost certainly chaotic, and therefore ever changing, it's a crapshoot. May the Gods of Chaos protect us.


1. To varying degrees, subsequent writers (Vorzimmer, 1963; Gould, 1985; Morris, 1994; Bulmer, 2004) have attempted to qualify this assessment. Alternatively, it may be argued that the popularity of neo-Lamarkiansism, orthogenesis and other now discarded ideas during the latter part of "Darwin's century" can only be understood in terms of perceived inadequacies of the Darwinian mechanism. All that changed during the first decades of the 20th century. With the rediscovery of Mendel, came the realization that variation is not blended out; with the discovery of radioactive decay, that the earth was even more ancient than the evolutionists had imagined.


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