Empiricism: Was it Darwin's scientific methodology?
Empiricism is a term that has been used in class discussion for the past couple of weeks in order to describe Darwin’s scientific method. It is a term that I was not very familiar with before the start of this class and I would like to explore it. Then after I have a more solid idea of what the term “empiricism” entails, I want to try and apply it to Darwin and his work: On the Origin of Species.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, empiricism is defined as a practice founded upon experiment and observation, an ignorant and unscientific practice, and quackery (OED). This diverse set of definition seems to have been derived from a variety of time periods and contexts. It evidently first began to appear in the mid 1600s as exemplified in Helmont’s Vind. by G. Starkey to indicate that empiricism was associated with a more negative context since it was described as being “dangerous,” which does seem to indicate certain dubiousness about the actual scientific method of the practice (OED). From that starting point it slowly evolved to have a less negative connotation by the time the 1880s which describes empiricism as being “more scientific than it was in former days” by Sir J. Frayer in Nature XXI (OED).
The definition of empiricism as quackery might have arisen from a distrust of the classical idea of empiricism that was a bit different than other scientific methods of the time. Classical empiricism was a complex notion in that it was a concept that was based on the idea of “experience and the self” according to Gupta. This meant that the data collected from observations was sensory data. Only that which could be seen, touched, smelled, heard, or tasted in the observers immediate vicinity and then had some judgment made about it would be considered empirical data. Gupta uses an example in her book to describe this kind of data that I found quite apt:
I am sitting before my computer. I can hear the soft whirring sound
of the hard drive. And I can see on my right a round and orange coaster
that lies next to a square, yellow one. Now, according to the sense-datum
theory, the immediate objects of my experience are not the hard drive
and the two coasters but certain fleeting sense-data. These sense-data
include a whirring auditory sense-datum, and an oval-shaped patch or
orange next to a diamond-shaped patch of yellow in the right part of my
I found this explanation helpful in that it provided a specific example of the sort of data that classical empiricists collected. The classical idea of empiricism lasted well into the twentieth century before it was revised in any radical fashion (13, Gupta). This means that Darwin would have been a classical empiricist, since he was a man who lived in the nineteenth century before any of that radical revision took place, and that all of the data presented in On the Origin of Species would have been sensory data.
Logically, the next question to address would be: Is can Darwin and his work On the Origin of Species be classified as empiricist? I believe that he probably was an empiricist based on the sorts of information that he gave in his work. For example, he describes the characteristics of domesticated pigeons at some length in the first chapter and I found that the account was very detailed; it describes the birds’ visual appearance, the texture of their skin at certain points on their bodies, the sounds that the different types of pigeons made, their exact coloration, etc. which are all observations that seem to be based in sensory data (107-112, Darwin). He mentions these sorts of detailed observations throughout his work. Assuming that this was the sort of data he had been collecting for years before the theory was published and that this was in fact the way he conducted all of his research, then if can be deduced that he was an empiricist. That is based on a great deal of assumption. I cannot know for sure the exact nature of his actual data collection simply based upon the data that was shown in his work, but I believe that he probably kept that sensory data idea throughout all of his scientific investigations.
The concept of empiricism is complex and I have only touched the surface. However, I believe that my conclusions in regards to Darwin have enough reason behind them to stand against a logical argument. I have no definite proof of Darwin’s actual scientific practice, but I do have his theory of evolution which is arguably one of his greatest works and most likely exemplifies his method of study better than another work of his might have. Empiricism is the study of the sensory in the classical sense, and Darwin did know his sensory data.
“Empiricism.”Oxford English Dictionary 2nd Edition.1989. Oxford University Press. 12 Feb. 2009 http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50074227?
Darwin, C. On the Origin of Species. Ed. Joseph Carroll. Canada: Broadview Press Ltd, 2003.
Gupta, A. Empiricism and Experience. Oxford University Press, Inc, 2006. 12 Feb. 2009 http://site.ebrary.com/lib/brynmawr/docDetail.action?