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Academic & Professional Books  History & Other Humanities  Philosophy, Ethics & Religion

How Scientific Progress Occurs Incrementalism and the Life Sciences

By: Elof Axel Carlson(Author)
209 pages, 10 colour & 46 b/w photos and illustrations
A persuasive book arguing that the history of biology is special, and saw incremental changes in our knowledge rather than the paradigm shifts that Thomas Kuhn envisioned.
How Scientific Progress Occurs
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  • How Scientific Progress Occurs ISBN: 9781621822974 Hardback Jun 2018 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1-2 weeks
Price: £48.99
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About this book

The idea of a paradigm shift was initially presented in Thomas Kuhn's influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Kuhn used this concept – the creation of a new world-view – to explain how scientific progress develops, specifically in the physical sciences. But does this concept also apply to the biological sciences? Noted geneticist and science historian Elof Carlson explores this question in How Scientific Progress Occurs. Carlson had originally posed this question to Kuhn in the early 1970s, asking why paradigm shifts were rare or nonexistent in the life sciences. Kuhn's response was that the physical sciences depended more on theory than biology did and that biology was largely descriptive.

How Scientific Progress Occurs: Incrementalism and the Life Sciences examines how progress in the life sciences occurs. Detailed narratives of the development of the fields of, for example, cell theory, gene theory, mutation, evolution, and several others, are presented as evidence. And because of the interconnection of the life sciences, cognate fields and shared tools that they may use are also considered. Carlson concludes that progress in the life sciences occurs by a process that he calls "incrementalism," which is analogous to Kuhn's "normal science" – but in Carlson's view is raised to a more significant level. As he states in How Scientific Progress Occurs, "Scientists are not solving a jigsaw puzzle. Most of the time they have no idea where innovation will lead and the paradigm, if it exists, is a constantly changing one, not a photograph on a box propped up on the table for us to look at." This insightful journey exploring progress in the life sciences will appeal to historians of science, student, and working scientists, as well as philosophers of science.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Kuhn said paradigms, but biology is special
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 30 Oct 2018 Written for Hardback

    This review is part of a double bill. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press recently published qHow Scientific Progress Occurs: Incrementalism and the Life Sciences. In it, Elof Axel Carlson explores the relevance to biology of the ideas Thomas S. Kuhn formulated in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Having read both books back-to-back, this review follows on the one of Kuhn’s book.

    Carlson, a retired geneticist and historian of science, had the good fortune of meeting Kuhn around 1974. Not convinced that Kuhn’s model of scientific revolutions applied to the history of genetics, he asked Kuhn why the life sciences did not seem to show a history of paradigm shifts. Kuhn’s answer? The physical sciences depend more on theory than biology, and biology is largely descriptive. Beyond that, nothing more came of this exchange. Now, over four decades later, Carlson has set himself the task to revisit this topic and reflect more in-depth on how the life sciences have advanced and whether they obey Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shifts.

    In eleven short chapters, Carlson gives canned histories of the rise of biological disciplines such as cell biology, genetics, microbiology, embryology, and evolution. Each chapter reaches deep back into history (regularly the 16th century, but Ancient Greece if necessary), highlighting the major players and key findings, adding colour and black-and-white illustrations, and ending each chapter with a helpful flowchart.

    As you might have already guessed from the book’s subtitle, Carlson does not see paradigm shifts in any of these fields. Instead, he champions the idea of incrementalism: the life sciences advance in smaller and larger steps by constant experimentation, introduction of new technologies and tools, and emergence, fusion or splitting of fields of knowledge. Notably, Carlson says, new tools generate new theories rather than vice-versa. X-ray diffraction, for example, allowed the elucidation of the molecular structure of DNA, while the electron microscope increased our understanding of the internal structure of animal and plant cells.

    I admit that I started this book somewhat sceptical. Take for example the idea of spontaneous generation (see my review of Creatures Born of Mud and Slime), this was a fully-fledged, well-reasoned idea that saw various explanations over time. It took several scholars (notably Louis Pasteur) experimentally showing that sterilisation prevents life from spontaneously emerging in, say, broth or a piece of meat for the majority of the scientific establishment to convert to the idea that life arises from pre-existing life. And, much like Kuhn says, Pasteur’s germ theory initially raised all sorts of new questions. It did not have all the answers, but it performed better as an explanation than spontaneous generation. To me, this seems like the archetypal example of a paradigm shift.

    Carlson places this historical episode in a larger network of developments in our understanding of life cycles and does not think it a paradigm shift. Are we then to consider the various ideas of spontaneous generation as an example of what Kuhn calls the pre-paradigm period? A period in which everyone started from first principles and came up with completely different ideas to try and explain the observation of life arising, with germ theory being the first unifying paradigm to arise?

    I admit that most of the historical episodes Carlson describes are best characterised as incrementalism rather than paradigm shifts (the history of evolution, the rise of genetics – these are examples where Carlson's narrative leaves little doubt). And yet I cannot escape the nagging feeling that it almost depends on the resolution of your analysis, i.e. on what level you look at knowledge development. Zoom out far enough, and everything starts looking like a web of interconnected developments spawning new disciplines. But at a higher resolution, could some of these steps not be considered paradigm shifts for the research communities involved?

    Carlson thinks not and seems to apply a strict definition of Kuhn’s paradigm shifts (i.e. asking: was there a preceding unifying theory? Was there a piling up of anomalies?). And yes, he thinks that there are plenty of examples of revolutions in the life sciences, but they are more often a consequence of new tools and procedures birthing new fields, without necessarily overthrowing old ones. Not all revolutions are paradigm shifts.

    As you can see, I found How Scientific Progress Occurs an intellectually stimulating read, though it generated more questions that answers for me. Carlson concludes, reasonably, that other disciplines have a history of genuine paradigm shifts, and he, reasonably, does not seek to impose incrementalism on these disciplines either. Having explored Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shifts in my previous review of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I was very impressed with Kuhn's book. Is biology special? Of course, as a biologist, I am predisposed to saying “yes!” – and Carlson’s well-written book provides much to sway me in that direction – but I cannot deny that I remain open to counterarguments.
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By: Elof Axel Carlson(Author)
209 pages, 10 colour & 46 b/w photos and illustrations
A persuasive book arguing that the history of biology is special, and saw incremental changes in our knowledge rather than the paradigm shifts that Thomas Kuhn envisioned.
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