Category Archives: Darwin

On Purpose

“When Henry Fawcett commented to Charles Darwin that some scientists found Darwin too theoretical and believed that he should just let the facts speak for themselves, Darwin responded: ‘How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.’3

This quote is taken from a review in Science magazine of cognitive neuroscientist Paul Thagard’s book: The Brain and the Meaning of Life1,2. I found the review intriguing, particularly the section which comment’s on Thagard’s attempts to use a scientific point of view to answer the question: “What kind of government should countries have?”

However, I reproduced the quote, above, because it struck a chord in my mind. To my mind, Darwin’s viewpoint discards the great utility and pleasure that one may find in observation for the sake of observation. That is, scientific exploration. It is not always possible to observe, to collect information with a hypothesis in mind, and such exploratory behavior can inspire hypotheses or new avenues of scientific discovery. How limiting to always approach a situation with a theory, a reason, a preconception.

In fact, I don’t believe that Darwin was suggesting anything so strong as to eliminate exploration from one’s methods, his own travels as a young man were likely not begun with a plan of attack to corroborate his grandfather Erasmus’ evolutionary theory, though this was the end result. However, science in the present day is extraordinary goal oriented; every scientist must compete for funding and the drive to present completed work is thus ever present. There is something romantic and collaborative in the idea that some men of science in Darwin’s age wanted the facts to “speak for themselves.”

Collaboration is something that we can always use more of.

1. Shermer, M (2010) Meaning-Making Neurons. Science, 328: 693-694; DOI: 10.1126/science.1189752
2. Thagard, Paul. The Brain and the Meaning of Life. Priceton: Princeton University Press.
3. Letter, C. R. Darwin to H. Fawcett, 18 September 1861;