Dialectical Materialism As A Heuristic in Biology and Elsewhere
Some evolutionary biologists, such as Richard Lewontin and the late Stephen Jay Gould have employed dialectical materialism in their approach, playing a precautionary heuristic role in their work. For example, from Lewontin's perspective,
Dialectical materialism is not, and never has been, a programmatic method for solving particular physical problems. Rather, a dialectical analysis provides an overview and a set of warning signs against particular forms of dogmatism and narrowness of thought. It tells us, "Remember that history may leave an important trace. Remember that being and becoming are dual aspects of nature. Remember that conditions change and that the conditions necessary to the initiation of some process may be destroyed by the process itself. Remember to pay attention to real objects in time and space and not lose them in utterly idealized abstractions. Remember that qualitative effects of context and interaction may be lost when phenomena are isolated". And above all else, "Remember that all the other caveats are only reminders and warning signs whose application to different circumstances of the real world is contingent."
Stephen Jay Gould shared similar views regarding a heuristic role for dialectical materialism. He wrote "Dialectical thinking should be taken more seriously by Western scholars, not discarded because some nations of the second world have constructed a cardboard version as an official political doctrine." Further
when presented as guidelines for a philosophy of change, not as dogmatic percepts true by fiat, the three classical laws of dialectics embody a holistic vision that views change as interaction among components of complete systems, and sees the components themselves not as a priori entities, but as both products and inputs to the system. Thus, the law of "interpenetrating opposites" records the inextricable interdependence of components: the "transformation of quantity to quality" defends a systems-based view of change that translates incremental inputs into alterations of state; and the "negation of negation" describes the direction given to history because complex systems cannot revert exactly to previous states.
This heuristic was also applied to the theory of punctuated equilibrium proposed by Niles Eldredge and Gould. They wrote "History, as Hegel said, moves upward in a spiral of negations," and that "punctuated equilibria is a model for discontinuous tempos of change (in) the process of speciation and the deployment of species in geological time." They noted that "the law of transformation of quantity into quality", "holds that a new quality emerges in a leap as the slow accumulation of quantitative changes, long resisted by a stable system, finally forces it rapidly from one state into another," a phenomenon described in some disciplines as a paradigm shift. Apart from the commonly cited example of water turning to steam with increased temperature, Gould and Eldredge noted another analogy in information theory, "with its jargon of equilibrium, steady state, and homeostasis maintained by negative feedback," and "extremely rapid transitions that occur with positive feedback."
Lewontin, Gould and Eldredge were thus more interested in dialectical materialism as a heuristic, than a dogmatic form of 'truth' or a statement of their politics. Nevertheless, they found a readiness for critics to "seize upon" key statements and portray punctuated equilibrium, and exercises associated with it, such as public exhibitions, as a "Marxist plot".
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