Kuhnian Anomalies and Evolutionary Thought

One thing that interests me is the question of anomalies and the structure of scientific revolutions as per Thomas Kuhn.

We tend to associate anomalies and revolutionary science with the physical sciences, most especially physics. This is unsurprising because ours is a society where physics has become the queen of the sciences, so that “paradigm shifts,” as it were, have the greatest revolutionary force when they occur in physics.

When physics sits augustly upon our cognitive throne revolutions in physics become not just revolutions in science but revolutions of science.

Although we tend to focus on the case of the physical sciences it is possible to see anomalies that could be said to have presaged, presage or require, a revolutionary upheaval of thought. For instance, consider the case of philosophy. Russell’s paradox was a paradox but to follow Kuhn one could argue that in its essence it was a Kuhnian anomaly plunging Fregean analysis into crisis, which ultimately was resolved through revolutionary work in mathematics and logic.

The paradox of the one to one correspondence between the analysandum and the analysans might best be seen as an anomaly for analytical philosophy requiring a revolutionary new philosophical methodology beyond analytical philosophy, hitherto the dominant methodology (I ignore continental philosophy, true, and for reasons of charity will leave aside further discussion as to why). We might say that the Gettier counter examples function as a species of Kuhnian anomaly necessitating a revolution in epistemology.

I don’t want to focus on the philosophical cases, nor that of physics, at least not today.

I would like to consider the case of evolution. Christian De Dueve likes to use the term “singularity” to describe events in the history of life that had a singular origin such as, to follow his lead, the emergence of the Eukaryotic cell, the origin of multicellular life and the like. We can include in this what is often referred to as “the mind’s big bang” such as the origin of language in humans.

Say we impute to these a genuine singular origin. It is easy to see how the evolution of biological singularities can be construed as an anomaly for our traditional conception of evolutionary theory.

How might this resolved?

We might argue with respect to the first revolutionary process in evolutionary biology, namely the development of the modern synthesis. The mechanism of heredity was an anomaly for evolutionary thought right from the get go. The anomaly was resolved when a physical mechanism, Mendelian genetics, of heredity was found and subsequently unified with evolutionary theory.

Perhaps this unification between evolution and more basic physical considerations needs to be made deeper still to resolve outstanding anomalies such as that due to singularities. I suspect that we need to consider how it is that physical entities emerge and subsequently evolve through processes of self organisation upon the reaching of certain critical levels of complexity in order to crack the problem of singularities.

In this case what is being developed is a general theory of self organisation under conditions of complexity that applies to all physical processes or arrangements of matter and the biological case of life merely forms a special sub set to this general theory of physical evolution.

That way biology would lose, at a deep fundamental or basic life much like chemistry, its sui generis status as an intellectual discipline.

This would be a revolutionary act in the history of thought.

Should such a state of affairs come to pass notice that this would entrench physics even more firmly upon her throne, although the mathematical Indignados with their Platonic conception of reality always lurk in the wings ready to stoke the insurrectionist embers of revolution.