Introduction to the Philosophy and History of Science
Final Essay Michael Millerman

2 Imre Lakatos, the Hungarian philosopher of mathematics and science, argued that the historian of scientific thought ought to attend seriously to the various historiographical methodologies made available to him by the philosophy of science when selecting the methodology he will use to write his history. By reviewing the four major historiographical methodologies that Lakatos defines in his paper, History of Science and Its Rational Constructions (1970), I will show that Ernst Mayr’s methodology in The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance (1982) most closely approximates Lakatos’ methodology of ‘scientific research programmes.’

Lakatos identifies four distinct historiographical methodologies, or ways of doing the history of science, that he calls ‘logics of discovery.’ What distinguish these logics from one another are the criteria that govern the acceptance and rejection of competing scientific theories. These criteria have two primary functions: they provide a standard, normative rule, or ‘code’, that cannot tolerably be transgressed by the historian working within that logic, and they are the essential, invariable cores of these distinct logics. In other words, each logic determines what is properly considered rational in the rational reconstruction entailed by a history of science. The four logics are inductivism, conventionalism, methodological falsification, and scientific research programmes.

Inductivism as a methodology of science is characterized by the acceptance into science of only those propositions about bare facts or about the generalizations derived from those facts. If a proposition has not been clearly proven from known facts or derived from known facts, it is not admitted as a true scientific proposition. In its radical form,

3 inductivism rejects scientific theories or propositions that are influenced by factors external to the logic of discovery itself, whether those factors are intellectual, psychological or sociological: only the basic factual propositions and the valid inferences that are drawn from them are relevant to this historiographical logic.

It would be a mistake to consider Mayr an inductivist, because it is not only facts and inferences that concern him, but also, and more importantly, hypothesis, conceptions, explanatory schemas, background assumptions, and answers to the question why.

For instance, after stating the five facts and three inferences that constitute Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Mayr writes that, “the question that the historian of science must ask is which of these facts were new with Darwin, and if none were new, why others before him had not made the same inference?” (480). It is clear that the inductivist logic, which would presumably have stopped at the facts and inferences, leaving out the historical consideration of priority, does not well represent Mayr’s own methodology1.

A similar analysis shows that Mayr does not operate in the conventionalist logic of discovery. Conventionalism, according to Lakatos, is marked by the introduction of “pigeon-hole” systems that organize facts into a whole, with simplicity as the primary value differentiating systems of organization. In this logic, it is not necessary to regard any system as actually true, only ‘true by convention.’ Science progresses, on this view,


Lakatos argues that the question of priority, while “external” or non-rational to inductivists, naïve falsificationalists and conventionalists, can be a vital “internal” problem in the methodology of research programs, because “…in this methodology it becomes all-important for rational appraisal which programme was first in anticipating a novel fact and which fitted in the by now old fact only later” (104).

4 with the accumulation of new facts, while “the changes on the theoretical level are merely instrumental.” (Lakatos, 95).

Mayr’s comment that, “scientific progress consists in the development of new concepts, like selection or biological species, and the repeated refinement of definitions by which these concepts are articulated” (43) seems opposed to the conventionalist view. Inasmuch as, for Mayr, it is conceptual development and clarification that drive science, not the discovery of new facts, we cannot place Mayr with the conventionalists.

The third logic of discovery that Lakatos identifies is methodological falsification. According to this logic, “that theory is accepted which has withstood successfully the greatest number and variety of attempts to refute it.” (Mayr, 26). A claim must be falsifiable in principle to be scientific, on this view. The historian working within this methodology looks for “great, ‘bold’, falsifiable theories” and for the crucial experiments that refute them (97).

All of this is quite unlike Mayr’s method in The Growth of Biological Thought. Mayr himself notes that falsification “is sometimes as difficult to provide as positive proof,” (26), and that “it is therefore not considered the only measure for obtaining scientific acceptability” (26). Because current theories of science are based on “a probabilistic interpretation of scientific conclusions,” it is “inappropriate” to talk of proofs and refutations as somehow absolute (27). Evidently, Mayr does not apply falsificationism as his historiographical methodology, either.


The fourth of Lakatos’ four logics of discovery is his own ‘scientific research program’, and it is this logic that most closely approximates Mayr’s rational reconstruction of biological thought, though it does not do so perfectly.

“According to my methodology,” writes Lakatos, “the greatest scientific achievements are research programmes which can be evaluated in terms of progressive and degenerating problemshifts” (99). A research program is progressing when its empirical growth is anticipated by its theoretical growth. When the converse is true, the program is said to be degenerating or stagnating (100). “Progress is marked by instances verifying excess content rather than by falsifying instances” (101). The historian who accepts the scientific research program methodology “will look in history for rival research programmes, for progressive and degenerating problem shifts” (102).

Mayr’s historical methodology is specifically one of tracing, not the competing research programmes, but the primary problems of a period. “A history of ideas,” he says, “requires that the science of a given historical period be divided into the major problems and that the development of each problem be traced in time” (83)2. But although

Mayr’s primary focus is on problems, the analysis and evaluation of competing research programmes that are trying at a given time to resolve those problems does feature prominently in his narrative.


Mayr, 6-9).

6 Whether comparing the physicist’s view of biology with the view that biology is an autonomous science, distinct from the physical sciences, contrasting typological with population thinking, or providing detailed accounts of those theories that assumed a static, created world before, and even after Darwinism revolutionized biology’s conceptual space, Mayr regularly juxtaposes competing research programmes, occasionally making the matter of which programmes he endorses polemically clear.3

Modern biology, according to Mayr, is almost entirely unified now, under the synthetic theory that rejects essentialism, inheritance of acquired characteristics, saltationism and vitalism (131), but various research programs – molecular biology, neurobiology, behavioral biology, and ecology to name a few – will continue to explore the major unsolved problems facing the various biological disciplines. What’s certain is that no singular experiment, no immediately falsified theory, and no mere induction from basic facts will hold center stage in Mayr’s rational reconstructions of current biology. Instead, he can be expected to focus on how the introduction of new concepts and the clarification and application of existing concepts, such as population thinking, can resolve those problems, while marking the impact of new technologies, and vigilantly exposing those research programmes that are confused, degenerating, or simply wrong.


Mayr gives his reasons for this “categorical, sometimes almost one-sided” manner of presentation in the chapter called How To Write A History of Biology, under the section Subjectivity and Bias (9-13).

7 Works Cited

Lakatos, Imre. History of Science and Its Rational Reconstructions. PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association. Vol. 1970. pp. 91136. http://www.jstor.org/stable/495757. Accessed: 23/11/2009.

Mayr, Ernst. The Growth of Biological Thought. Harvard University Press. London, England, 1982.

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