I want take up Tony’s question about this Dennett quote:
There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination (Dennett 1995)
One way to answer this is through recourse to the literature on Science and Technology Studies (STS). We could weave our way through a dense web of philosophical and empirical work on scientific practice that demonstrates time and again that value-free inquiry is an illusion. Yet another way to answer is by making a formal argument using Weber as a guide.
But, because so many readers of this blog are big, big fans of Stephen Jay Gould, I will use Gould and Vrba’s 1982 article introducing the term exaptation to demonstrate that philosophical baggage can be used as a lever to discover better questions.
Gould and Vrba, in contrast to Jason Richwine and Steve Hsu, are fully aware that the categories through which you effect an analysis matter. And in what may be the finest use of Foucault within the pages of Palaeontology, Gould and Vrba start their article with the following passage:
We wish to propose a term for the missing term in the taxonomy of evolutionary thought. Terms in themselves are trivial, but taxonomies revised for a different ordering of thought are not without interest. Taxonomies are not neutral or arbitrary hat-racks for for a set of unvarying concepts; they reflect (or even create) different theories about the structure of the world.
The opening sets the tone for what follows. Gould and Vrba proceed to note the analytic term adaptation carries two differing connotations, which are subsumed under the prevailing classification scheme. They imply, by way of the opening paragraph, that the classification system they criticize has its roots in Victorian mores and morals.
Adaptation, they argue, has two meanings: historic origin and current utility. Gould and Vrba further note adaptation refers to both a process and a state. After introducing the philosophical baggage they will unpack and leverage, they proceed to tease apart the twin uses of adaptation using the tools of rhetoric in a way that Richard McKeon might have appreciated. That is, by using rhetoric to open a new view on an old paradigm.
What was gained is the concept exaptation. A trait or feature may have been adapted for one purpose but is found useful for another, often quite different, purpose. It is a concept which might be described as future utility.
Following the formation of the concept, Gould and Vrba use a few examples from the fossil record as illustrations of the concept. The best known example are feathers. Feathers evolved for warmth but were exaptated for flight. Another example they use is the case of extra or junk DNA. Many organisms carry around duplicate, spare, or otherwise unaccounted DNA, whose presence cannot be explained by recourse to adaptation. Like a brocoleur at his pile of spare parts, these organisms use their DNA junk piles to make new traits as needed.
But the main point I want to make here is simply that Gould and Vrba demonstrate that natural sciences and philosophy, like the Dennett quote indicates, are intertwined, and each can make good use of the other. Just compare Gould and Vrba’s rich conceptual development to Richwine’s unexamined and altogether ridiculous deployment of the category “hispanic,” or Hsu’s utterly lazy and unscientific conflation of IQ, SAT score and the g-factor.
In a similar vein, I wrote about Tools and Toolchains earlier this spring.