How Science Progresses

March, 2013

Berlin -- After an event we both attended in Washington last week, Barmak Nassarian drove me to the Bethesda Metro for the remaining subway ride home. On the way he told me of his plan to use student loan default rates to improve higher education quality, but he soon transitioned to observations about the philosopher Hegel, and to my (partly) German education. Barmak can do this seamlessly.

I replied that I would soon be in Berlin at the site (Humboldt University on Unter den Linden) where Hegel taught, to pay respects to him and to Max Planck, who also has been on my mind lately.

Actually, I have been thinking they were both wrong about how science progresses. Hegel described the process as moving from thesis to antithesis to synthesis, which becomes a new thesis, and so on. Planck suggested that science moves forward one funeral at a time, as old scientists die off, to be replaced with a younger generation that is free of old, mistaken ideas.

But now comes the case of the Frenchman Lamarck, whose ideas on evolution were ridiculed for decades but are now commanding new respect. The 21st century science of epigenetics has shown that environmental adaptations are heritable, at least to some extent, as Lamarck believed. This is opening a whole new field of research in the life sciences and medicine.

What other cases do not fit the old paradigm of scientific progress? If Lamarck is rehabilitated, can the great Nebraska scientist, Frederic Clements, be far behind? The founder of the science of ecology and a devoted follower of Darwin, he stubbornly would not give up his Lamarckian views that some environmental adaptations were heritable and complemented natural selection. So now it seems he was right.

Clements had his admirers in Germany. On my list of places in Berlin to visit will be the Botanischer Garten in Dahlem to see what ecologists there are making of epigenetics.