Selection versus construction in science studies: A response to Hull’s Science as a Process

Hull’s Science as a Process (U. Chicago, 1988) invited us to borrow a biological theory, natural selection, after philosophical streamlining, to analyze scientific activity and conceptual change.  This ambitious synthetic work of the late David Hull, a philosopher of evolution and biological systematics, had been the subject of many reviews and symposia since it appeared (see e.g. Angier, Ruse, Maynard-Smith, Kirsch, Latour) at the time I prepared this commentary (1993).  Many commentators had been hard on Hull’s sociology and his credit economy.  Less attention was paid to the conceptual foundation of this work, namely, the borrowing of a biological theory, natural selection, and its deployment, after philosophical streamlining, to analyze scientific activity and conceptual change.  In my commentary I did not evaluate Hull’s analysis of science directly but, instead, argue that serious weaknesses exist in its foundations in biology.  I examined what is entailed in demonstrating natural selection and indicated that selectionist explanation is a very restrictive form of historical explanation (see previous posts).  As a consequence, in practice, selectionist accounts often collapse to a restatement of the observation of differential representation of variants or to a claim of current functionality of a feature.  The historical origin of the feature and the complexities of its inheritance and transmission over time are discounted. There are analogous consequences for any theory of social change built upon selection.  I noted that constructionist explanations, although not well developed in biology, can,  as in social studies of science, move beyond the focus on adaptiveness (functionality) and on necessity of what we observe.

Outline of argument

1. Terms such as natural selection, survival of the fittest, evolution, adapted, Darwin’s laws are familiar to us, not just as they arise in biology but through their use to give meaning to social phenomena. E.g. Laura Betzig on despots.

2. In Science as a Process Hull attempts to explain science as an evolutionary process.  Others have gone before him: in evolutionary epistemology it is proposed that there is natural selection of concepts or theories which relates to how well they represent reality.  To this conceptual evolution, i.e. science as a body of theories, H. adds science as social activity.

3. H.’s interpretations —

a) science as social activity:


scientists are curious about the world

scientists want credit for contributions they make


scientists are competitive-cooperative

=  seek priority   + build upon others

=> check other’s work   +  accept institutional norms

higher level consequence: coincidence of science’s self-interest with individual scientists’ self-interests;

competition-cooperation is the motor of scientific progress — it is necessary, in fact, more efficient (than ?)

b) conceptual evolution

General definition of Nat. sel. = differential perpetuation of replicators

because of differential extinction & proliferation of interactors

Here: scientists are the interactors; concepts are the replicators

4.  Two key questions for reader:

a) What is H. attempting to explain?

Answer: Historical change in concepts

+ apt-ness of those concepts

but then why not straight evol. epistemology? –>

a) To whom is H. responding?

A: Exciting, provocative field of social studies of science (threatening to eclipse philosophers as commentators of science), in which scientists are influenced by/ have to negotiate their activity within a context of laboratory life, disciplines, organization of funding…

In particular, H. is responding to externalism, i.e. that this larger context affects the content of theories.

5. I will not evaluate Hull’s analysis of science directly but, instead, go back to its foundations in biology.

Thesis: There are serious weaknesses in these foundations.

By examining what is entailed in demonstrating natural selection I indicate that selectionist explanation is a very restrictive form of historical explanation.  Then I explore the consequences of this restrictiveness.  (See previous posts for the way this discussion proceeds.)


12.  In short: historical change in biology is a process of construction =

a) resources and rules;

b) multiple intersecting processes.

To assess whether something is a resource it is necessary to consider what else could be — even if it doesn’t occur — a hopeless project unless the interpreter deals with levels of particularity and generality (not reducible to units of interaction and replication).

13. Not well developed in biology, but in social studies of science a rich constructionism (as against a crude externalism) may be showing the way — As in the case of Darwin’s natural selection, we might borrow a metaphor from society to interpret nature.


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