Can you explain what a research program is and how it might pertain to the life sciences?
Lakatos's notion of a research program is that all theories have lots of and lots of little anomalies. They wallow in a "sea of anomalies"—he was very good at making up these little aphorisms. However, a research program has a hard core of beliefs which are never challenged, and then there's a whole bunch of auxiliary beliefs which can be modified. What distinguishes what he called a progressive research program from a degenerative research program—two highly loaded expressions with a lot of Hegel and Marx behind them—is the way in which they deal with anomalies.
Lakatos thought the progressive ones explain the anomalies and enable one to broaden the scope of research whereas a degenerating research program develops a kind of protective belt in order to exclude anomalies in an ad hoc way. I think one can say that the whole history of molecular biology since 1962, when the first ream of Nobel Prizes came out, has been in Lakatos's terms an extraordinarily progressive research program.
So, for example, epigenetics, changes in gene activation without altering DNA, might be an example of an anomaly that modifies the overall picture while leaving the hard-core "research program" intact. It makes the overall picture more complex…
…more complex and, in the end, more interesting.
Molecular biology has routinely taken problematic things under its wing without altering core ideas. Indeed, the very expression often used of the "central dogma" of recombinant DNA is a good example of a hard core of a research program.
Fifty years on, there have been distortions, misappropriations and distractions related to Kuhn's work. Can you speak to that?
I don't know why the notion of a paradigm took off, why a totally obscure word became common usage within a few years—and not only in English: If you do a Google n-gram on "paradigm" in German or French or Italian, you find the same leap into common usage, which wasn't there before.
Some people have been upset about Kuhn's idea that science, like Darwinian natural selection, has no overarching goal.
Many people find it very disturbing. I don't. Of course many people have always found it very disturbing that Darwinian evolution seems to have no goal. Remember that Kuhn wasn't against progress; he just thought that progress wasn't "to" something. It was progress away from what didn't work very well, but that there isn't any kind of permanent goal.
What about the association of his ideas with scientific relativism? He spent part of his career trying to refute that.
Well, he wasn't a relativist. There's a long and complicated story of the rise of a desire for scientific relativism. Part of it may well be simply sort of rage against reason, the fear of the sciences and a kind of total dislike of the arrogance of a great many scientists who say we're finding out the truth about everything—and here [with Kuhn] there was a way to undermine that arrogance.