Paradigms, Darwin, and Medieval French Poetry

Have you ever heard about or discussed a paradigm or a paradigm shift in your field?  A paradigm is a framework or a theory that defines or holds a particular field, often scientific, together. Maybe you heard some talking head on TV explain how some current event has caused a paradigm shift of some important kind.  Then you are heir to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (SSR) by Thomas Kuhn, a 1962 book that revolutionized our perception of how science and other fields progress and first popularized this word and phrase.  It radically changed my own view of science when I first read it some thirty years ago and has once again blown my mind as I reread it this week.  In this blog I would like to review this book and explain why it is as important today as it was 60 years ago when it was first published.


It may seem strange to be reviewing an arcane book on the history of science when we have so many current issues pressing on us.  I hope to make the case here that we need more folks, especially in the sciences, willing and able to think critically to develop, invent, and create solutions to current problems.  This is what Kuhn can help us do.

Thomas Kuhn obtained all three of his degrees from Harvard in the 1940s.  As a Cornell graduate myself I must say that he could have done better, but he did overcome these deficiencies.  While a professor at the University of California at Berkley he wrote SSR.  It attracted little attention in the first two years, but in the third year sales exploded and have never stopped.

Kuhn noticed a fundamental trend in the history of the sciences, especially the physical sciences, his own field, that others had overlooked.  He noticed that science does not progress in a smooth linear path, but seems to move in jumps and starts.  Also, it is hard to pin down when key events happen and who exactly should get credit.  He said that the question, “Who discovered oxygen and when?” is the wrong question and does not really help us understand the impact of this discovery.

Kuhn starts by explaining the usual daily work of most scientists.  In the first few chapters he explains how “normal science” works.  This is the science that most scientists spend most of their time doing.  They work in a generally well prescribed field in which the major landmarks are in place.  In the 1500’s astronomers worked within a field that understood that the sun and other planets circled the earth.  That was their paradigm or ruling model.  Physicians of that time worked within a paradigm or a framework that included the four bodily fluids and chemists worked in a field that had four substance- earth, air, fire, and water.  These days nuclear physicists work within a paradigm that includes the Standard Model of subatomic particles.  Chemists are constrained by the Periodic Table of Elements and biologists find structure for their work in evolutionary theory.  These are the paradigms of these fields both then and now.

Periodic Table from Wiki

A paradigm then is the framework that defines, or orders, or frames the work within a given field.  I have just explained six paradigms in the previous paragraph.  Now it is tempting to say that this is restricting and confining view of science, or any field of study.  But this is why we find this word paradigm so useful in our modern vocabulary, because so many fields from accounting to medieval French poetry all have ruling paradigms even if you don’t recognize them.  If you want to search for the ruling paradigm of a field, it is often useful to trace back to the origins of the field and how and when it split or broke away from another field.

Let me take an example from my own background.  I was a biochemistry major in college.  I love biochemistry, the study of the chemicals of life and how they interact.  It grew out of the larger field of chemistry in the early 20th century.  The field of organic chemistry was already well founded and people were noticing that a lot of the organic chemicals they knew of were also being isolated from living systems.  But it was really hard for folks at the time to grasp how living systems could so easily make all these things that were so hard to make in the lab.  Then in 1926 a researcher at Cornell named James Sumner succeed in crystalizing urease, an enzyme, and showing that it was a complex protein.  This showed how living systems did their miraculous work and that the catalyst was an ordinary chemical that could be crystalized just like other chemicals.  The field of biochemistry was born.  The nascent paradigm of the new field was that it was all chemistry all along.

A paradigm provides the framework in which normal science is done. This is the important work of firming up and extending these realms of knowledge.  There is a lot of good research that needs to be done normally.  The trouble is that sometimes these workers uncover facts that do not quite fit into the paradigm of their field.  They are anomalies, another of Kuhn’s terms.  At first these anomalies are ignored or chalked up to bad science, but as they accumulate they get more embarrassing and confounding.  Finally, either slowly or suddenly, a new theory or paradigm takes shape that seeks to encompass the new findings together with the old.  Of course, this is often disparaged at first, but then finally accepted.  We can think of the Copernican Revolution of the heliocentric universe, or the invention of the Periodic Table by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869, or the publication of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin in 1859.  These created huge seismic shifts in their fields.  

They established new paradigms or completely new ways of thinking about these fields.  Imagine an astronomer looking through his telescope during the geocentric time when the earth was understood to be the center of the universe.  He sees Mars and it looks oddly like our moon with a crescent shape that is lighted and the rest is dark.  He understands the parallel with are own moon but it is difficult to explain if everything revolves around the earth.  Then heliocentrism comes along and it suddenly all makes sense.  Both Mars and our moon are shaded as they revolve around the same sun as they appear from earth.  This is how a new paradigm can expand the mind and set everything on a new course.

Comet Siding Spring Seen Next to Mars by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC-BY 2.0

But what intrigued me when I first read the book and did again on the rereading was how SSR applies to everyday science, even the work that I was doing in the lab thirty years ago.  It was as if Kuhn was standing next to me and understood how the results of each experiment we did had the potential to reshape some small corner of science, and how the scientists in that subfield thought about things.  Immediately after reading the book last week, I happened to tune into a PBS show on eggs.  Yes, it is true, there was actually a whole hour-long show on the wonder of birds’ eggs, and I actually watched the whole thing without falling asleep.  I am truly a geek of the deepest order.  But with SSR on my mind, it was fascinating because the narrator kept saying things like, “Previously, scientists thought that egg albumin (egg white) was merely blah blah blah, but in recent studies they have developed a whole new idea of the purpose and function of this slimy material.”  In other words, there was a major paradigm shift in the narrow subfield of bird egg albumin. Not exactly on the order of a new Periodic Table, but in its context, quite a big change.  And this is happening and is possible in science all the time.  To those of you out there who are not scientists, I hope this explains some of the allure of this profession.  As a scientist, I am always one experiment away from radically changing the paradigm in my field, moving the center of gravity in some small field of study.  Being a scientist is about being on the cutting edge of what is known.

So, what makes the best kind of scientist, and by extension, the best kind of engineer or policy maker or innovator of any kind?  Using Kuhn’s view of how revolutions happen, it would be the person who sees the anomalies early on and puts them together before anyone else into a coherent framework of a new paradigm.  Or to use more modern terminology, it is the person who can think innovatively in ways that others have not, outside the current paradigm.  This is what Kuhn has to tell us today.

This is what got me excited personally.  I started thinking about the fields in which I have been laboring scientifically.  In certain cases, very diligent researchers, including myself , have been banging at the same types of experiments over and over for years.  We are getting the same confusing results over and over again.  We are not really advancing the field.  It is possible that the experiments were done correctly but that we were working under the wrong paradigm.  What’s that odd old saying about the definition of craziness is repeating yourself over and over expecting different results?  So, what I am now doing is trying to see where the anomalies are and where a new paradigm might lie.

So, what is your field?  Nuclear physics or accounting to medieval French poetry or bread making or plumbing?  What is the current prevailing paradigm?  What are its weaknesses?  Why is it frustrating and seems like a dead end sometimes?  What things just don’t fit with this framework?  Can you collect those anomalies in one place and try to make sense of them?  What direction do they take you? How can you take a step in that direction?  Are you ready to be the next Bill Gates or Mendeleev or Darwin or Simone Biles? 

Time for a paradigm shift, baby!!

One thought on “Paradigms, Darwin, and Medieval French Poetry

  1. Excellent review! I vaguely remember the book as it was referenced in an Organizational Behavior Class I took.

    Always ready for a Paradigm shift!!!! Thanks for the offering…!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: