- The Paleontological Society
In a rare lapse of judgment, T. H. Huxley defined science as “organized common sense.” Huxley's motivation cannot be faulted, for he wished, by this definition, to stress the accessibility of science to any well-educated person. In the first paragraph of his most famous work on popular science (The Crayfish: An Introduction to the Study of Zoology, 1880), Huxley stated the fallacy that he wished to dispel with this definition:
Many persons seem to believe that what is termed Science is of a widely different nature from ordinary knowledge, and that the methods by which scientific truths are ascertained involve mental operations of a recondite and mysterious nature, comprehensible only by the initiated, and as distinct in their character as in their subject matter, from the processes by which we discriminate between fact and fancy in ordinary life.
Unfortunately, however, what we call “common sense” mixes our inherent faculty for everyday good reasoning (Huxley's legitimate point) with our propensity for imposing deeply rooted fallacies of our own social or mental construction upon an external nature that rarely matches human preferences. Such biases become especially recalcitrant when we include them within our conception of “common sense,” and therefore outside the realm of self-scrutiny.
The idea that “competition” regulates the major patterns of life's history falls into this oddly mixed category of both “too obvious and sensible to be entirely false” and “strongly favored for illegitimate reasons of tradition and sensory limitation.” The concept of an overall (and basically progressive) order arising naturally as a consequence of unfettered struggle among individuals forms the centerpiece both of the “free market” economics generally favored in western Europe and America from the late eighteenth century to our own times, and of Darwin's own central conviction (see Gould 1996 that biotic competition in “crowded” ecosystems operates …