The basis of science is the same as the basis of life: pattern-recognition. Even plants recognize patterns in the weather and the attacks of insects. The difference between scientists and trees, or scientists and sharks, is that scientists use reason and method, not instinct and other forms of biological automation.
Mathemodels of reality
Scientists try to identify and understand patterns in the world by creating patterns of their own: they perform experiments, they model and analyse data using mathematics, trying to create symbolic patterns that behave like real ones. Astronomy is the paradigm of this endeavour. There was sufficient regularity and permanence in the heavens for the ancients to predict lunar and solar eclipses. Ptolemy had an effective mathemodel of the solar system in the Second Century A.D.; Copernicus put forward a better one in 1543; Newton refined and expanded it in 1687. The power of Newton’s mathemodel was confirmed by the successful predictions it made: there were undiscovered planets out there. Uranus and Neptune were mathematics before they became matter.
Biology proved much more difficult than astronomy and other branches of physics. The great pattern of evolution escaped the notice of Aristotle before Christ and Linnaeus long after, and when Darwin and Wallace recognized it in the nineteenth century, their description was linguistic, not mathematical. Their logic was good and their evidence substantial, but evolutionary biology didn’t become a proper science until it had a solid foundation of mathematics. Stale pale males like Ronald Fisher (1890–1962) and W.D. Hamilton (1936–2000) built mathemodels of biological systems that behaved like the real thing and made good predictions. Indeed, biology turned out to have a mathemodel of its own: the three-dimensional double helix of DNA carries a two-dimensional genetic code, which synthesizes proteins, evolves, and protects itself from error in ways that are illuminated by the human mathemodel of information theory.
As Richard Dawkins puts it: “The essential difference between classical Darwinism (which we now understand could not have worked) and neo-Darwinism (which does) is that digital genetics has replaced analogue.” Dawkins will need no introduction. He’s much more famous than Fisher or Hamilton and a much better and clearer writer than his late rival, the Jewish Marxist Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002). Dawkins’ line about Darwinism comes from the lecture “Science and Sensibility,” which is collected in a new book of his called Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist (Bantam Press 2017). I’ve enjoyed the book and it’s reminded me again both of what I admire about Dawkins and of what I deplore.