Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Butler as an effective prosecutor and peer-reviewer

As Butler, in “The Deadlock in Darwinism” never claimed to be a naturalist and argued against Darwin, not on the truth or falsity of the content of “On the Origin of Species” but on the proposal of the theory itself, I similarly make no claim to be a historian and will support Butler on his work as it is.

It was useful for me to think of “The Deadlock in Darwinism” as a sort of criminal trial, with Butler as the prosecution and Darwin, the defense. In a criminal trial, it is the prosecution’s responsibility to produce proof that a defendant should be lawfully imprisoned (i.e. habeas corpus), or in academic terms, discredited. However, once the prosecution has made their case, the responsibility shifts and the defense is expected to address the claims made by the prosecution.

Based on Butler’s overwhelming amount of relevant textual evidence as well as our class’ lack of an argument against him, it seems Butler had certainly made a strong case. However, we know that after Butler’s prosecuting case circulated, Darwin (as the defense) made no move to counter: “When essayist and novelist Samuel Butler (1835–1902) ‘accused Darwin of slighting the evolutionary speculations of Buffon, Lamarck, and his own grandfather, Erasmus’, Gould reported that Darwin reacted to these accusations with ‘silence” (Gould, S.J., Darwin vindicated! New York Review of Books 26(1):36–38, 1979, p. 36 as cited by Bergman, J., While a lack of response when blindly or personally insulted would have been appropriate, in this situation, Darwin’s silence only seems to incriminate him further.

Furthermore, I think Butler’s essay is a noble academic pursuit and, more specifically, an excellent early example of our current scientific article peer-review process. While Butler wouldn’t technically be considered Darwin’s peer (as he is not a studied naturalist), his essays resemble what could be an early stage in the peer-review process, namely determining if the new ideas in a researcher’s article are the researcher’s own. [Rather than giving a full explanation of what scientific article peer-reviewing entails, I will simply refer you to a more reputable source:] Similar to “Darwin as a defendant”, “Darwin as a scientist” would have even more responsibility to support his claims and his work as legitimately his, as his theory could be the foundation for further research.

Ultimately, if we view Butler’s essay through a modern lens, we should only find ourselves praising his effort, for the effort alone, regardless if the claim he makes is true or false.

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