The Captain-of-the-Gaps

Imagine a sailboat traveled from Oslo to Antarctica. One might infer from this that there was a pilot of the sailboat, who guided the process by which the boat arrived where it did, leveraging the natural processes when he could and the mechanical processes of the boat. Furthermore, one might infer that he intended to arrive there when he set out. So, you have coordination combined with intentionality.

A response to these inferences might be that we can explain the movement of the sailboat by reference to the tides, currents, wind, and the direction of the rudder on the boat and propulsion of the propeller – all natural or mechanistic causal explanations – without a captain or pilot. The destination was arrived at in a way by chance – the boat just happened to arrive where it did, propelled by these natural or mechanistic causes.

Yet, there might be parts of the journey where it seems unlikely the boat would be able to navigate simply based on these causal processes – perhaps there is a narrows, or any area with reefs, or pack ice, or perhaps the trajectory of the boat seems to require tacking. It might seem unlikely that the causal processes outlined above are sufficient to explain the traveling of the sailboat.

To this, one could say a ‘captain-of-the-gaps’ (or perhaps ‘captain-of-the-narrows’ is more apt) is being postulated, to help the boat get across terrain it seems unlikely to have been able to have traversed with the given repertoire of causal processes (current, wind, and so on). Yet, perhaps in the future we will discover circumstances that make it seem more likely that the repertoire is sufficient – perhaps the reefs weren’t as numerous as thought, and so on.

In this case, however, what I have in mind is not an imaginary one but rather an historical one, where the Norwegian expedition to the Antarctic, led by Roald Amundsen, traveled from Oslo to the Ross Ice Shelf. In this case, we know that the sailboat (the Fram) was guided by a captain, various steersmen, and so on, and that the natural forces of tide, wind, current and so on were important – necessary – parts of the story, but the entire story would be incomprehensible if left at that.

When developing a theory of how the boat got from one place to another, we might get progress by postulating currents, prevailing winds, and so on. We might therefore conclude that these will be sufficient to explain it. This is not a good argument. Rather, we have warrant for saying we have a part of the picture.

6 thoughts on “The Captain-of-the-Gaps

  1. Taggard

    The problem with this analogy is that nature doesn’t start with one boat. It starts with millions and millions of boats and sets them adrift. The one boat that makes it, the boat we are in today, is the boat that was best adapted to make it. All the other boats crashed or were simply overtaken by our boat. No captain required.

  2. admin Post author

    In the analogy in the post, ‘millions of boats’ would be equivalent to the tide, or wind, or some mechanism like that. If you have a mechanism like ‘lots of replicating entities’, that is most assuredly part of the evolutionary puzzle, and part of an explanation of the trajectory evolution has followed so far. Yet, the evidence we have to say it’s part of the puzzle is not evidence that it is the entire puzzle. That maneuver is unwarranted.

  3. Taggard

    What other parts of the puzzle are missing??? When it comes to evolution by means of natural selection, that mystery is pretty much solved.

    1. Taggard

      I don’t know it, but I do believe it. The model created by the theory of evolution by natural selection has been peer-reviewed, tested, and even used to predict things that have been found to be true. The vast majority of experts in the field agree that it is sound. DNA, fossils, and experimentation have proven it sound again and again. As far as science goes, it is probably the most well understood, studied and documented natural process we have.

      What makes you doubt we have figured it out?

  4. admin Post author

    One thing is that the “theory of evolution through natural selection” seems true if construed vaguely enough, but then uninteresting. In that vague formation, it basically means “evolution through whatever forces affected evolution.” True but uninteresting.

    So why think a more specific, contemporary version of it isn’t universally true? Because the history of science shows theoretical overreach repeatedly, generally. Because evolutionary biology in specific is a rapidly changing field – the field is significantly different now than 30 years ago, say, or compare now and 80 years ago.

    Your remark “and even used to predict things that have been found to be true” is exactly right. If theorists are making universal pretensions, I think there needs to be much more rigorous testing and much more robust predictability than an “even” here.

    Or consider that we are just now learning what is in genomes – how can we say, at the outset, we already know how the genomes evolved if we don’t even know what’s in them? Seems like obvious theoretical overreach to me.


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