Achinstein and the Evidence for Evolution

Richard A. Richards

in Philosophy of Science Matters

Published in print March 2011 | ISBN: 9780199738625
Published online May 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780199894642 | DOI:
Achinstein and the Evidence for Evolution

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Peter Achinstein began his Book of Evidence with the claim that standard philosophical theories of evidence are and ought to be ignored by scientists. He could have gone further: historians of science should ignore standard philosophical theories of evidence as well. The problem is that these theories are prescriptive, formal, and a priori. Consequently, they are unable to help us understand what counted as evidence for actual scientists and they are insensitive to context, in particular to scientists’ beliefs about empirical facts. What historians of science need is, first, a descriptive concept of evidence that can help us understand when something was actually evidence for some person at some time; second, a prescriptive concept that is sensitive to context and empirical knowledge. Achinstein's framework gives us both: first, in his subjective concept of evidence, which is relativized to persons, and second, in his epistemic concept, which is relativized to context. These concepts can help us better understand complex historical cases such as Darwin's acceptance of branching evolution on the basis of the taxonomic facts, and his apparently conflicting views about whether these facts were evidentially sufficient.

Keywords: prescriptive concepts of evidence; descriptive concepts of evidence; induction; subjective evidence; epistemic situation evidence; Darwin; evolution; taxonomic facts

Chapter.  5560 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy of Science

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