Thomas Kuhn gave a name to this phenomenon, he called it a “paradigm shift”. And it is essentially unresolvable for reasons that haven’t changed in 100 years, which is why I’m partial to Max Planck’s version: “Science progresses one funeral at a time.”
The reigning Darwinian paradigm is that Natural Selection operates on the functionality of traits, promoting those that lead to greater fecundity. The Neo-Darwinian Synthesis moved those traits into the genome and called them genes. The Watson-Crick-Franklin discovery moved those genes into DNA strands and sequenced them, so the present debate is whether the entire story is unravelling beginning with the word “function”. Does every strand of DNA have a function? Yes, says ENCODE, but 80% of them have nothing to do with genes. No, say Darwinists, only genes undergoing Natural Selection are privileged to have functions.
Well, you are probably thinking, this is a meaningless debate, why don’t we just call them “function-1” and “function-2” and get on with life? That’s what Germain-Ratti-Boem said in their paper, and this has Dan Graur and PZ Myers all riled up. Because for these two dedicated Darwinists, allowing a non-selective function is a heresy, since it would remove the last desperate bulwark of a dying theory (“But there are no alternatives!”) by framing an alternative. It shines a spotlight on what Imre Lakatos called “a degenerate science program” which relies on semantics to shore up failing predictions; what George Orwell famously called “doublespeak”. So if DNA is found to not make genes, to not be selected by NS, to not improve the fecundity of the organism, then it must not be allowed to have a function, since that would invalidate Darwin’s prediction.
Note the subtle shift involved here. Rather than evaluate a theory on its ability to make predictions about the real world, we are now engaged in making the real world conform to our theory. Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci had a book review where he discusses this pernicious tendency of theories to take on a life of their own. He quotes “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: in case of conflict between the Guide and Reality, it is Reality that is at fault.”
Graur and Myers are on the side of the Guide, Germain et el., are on the side of Reality, and the battle rages in the Academy (and not, for example, in the biotech companies trying to make a buck on these new functions.)
But there is another reason why we know Graur and Myer are wrong, and it is the more disturbing. They are insisting, demanding, throwing a messy hissy fit with corollary damage, that it is possible to prove a universal negative–“there can be NO function.”
This is the one thing that inductive science can never prove. “There can be NO black swans” is a famous version. Now of course we can make universal negatives about math and logic–“there can be no square circles”, but this is because we get to control the definitions of all the words in our sentence. But then we didn’t learn anything new, because the deductions are all implicit in the definitions. If we want to learn something new, if we want to form novel inductive generalizations from observations of reality, if we want to do science, then we cannot prove what sort of swans future scientists might find, what sort of functions future scientists might discover. So for PZ to say, “it’s [GRB paper] mostly using some valid criticisms to defend an indefensible position” he has gotten it 180-degrees backwards, doing the Freudian projection thing that is the hallmark of post-modern argumentation. Because if they can’t twist your logic, they would have no logic at all.
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