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On Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859 with the final edition published in 1872), ch. 1–4, 6, and 14.
What are the philosophical ramifications of Darwin's theory of evolution? Our last reading ended with David Hume saying that given the order of nature, the idea of a designer was natural and inescapable. Less than a century later, Darwin provided an alternative that undermines the common intuition Hume is talking about. Apparent design, Darwin claims, is just the result of random variation (Darwin actually had no idea why this occurred) plus differential survival of variants depending on the survival or reproductive advantage of the variations. If pollution darkens the bark of trees, then the dark moths who blend into those trees get eaten less and propagate more widely than light-colored moths.
Though the book is light on philosophical argumentation, Darwin was certainly aware of the implications of his theory, and so he sneaks the reader toward it, starting off in chapter one with examples of the enormous varieties within a species produced by domestic breeding of plants and animals. In chapter two he argues for the claim that such variation happens in the natural world too, and that there's no hard-and-fast line between the concept of a species and that of a variety within a species. Chapter three covers the struggle for existence, which causes any naturally occurring variations that provide a survival advantage to become more prevalent with succeeding generations. Finally in chapter four we get his theory of natural selection. Chapter six responds to objections to the theory, and chapter fourteen summarizes and concludes the book.
Mark, Wes, Dylan, and Seth go through the book's arguments, put Darwin's theory in historical context with prior theories of evolution like Lamarck's, and talk about how an evolutionary way of looking at things has influenced philosophers.
Buy the book or read it online. The two relevant Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy articles are this one about pre-Darwinian evolution and this one about Darwinism, covering both his thought and his successors.
Continued on part 2, or get the ad-free Citizen Edition now. Please support PEL!
Darwin picture by Olle Halvars.
Jennifer Tejada says
Yipppeeeee!!! So excited for this one!
Peter Sattler says
I have only listened to the first half of this Darwin episode, but here are some things that I think you are missing — things are are philosophically and rhetorically interesting about the first 4 chapters of ORIGIN:
• Darwin repeated explore and expresses WHY these ideas are so difficult to “see” in nature. CHAPTER 1: WHY is it so difficult to see common ancestry, even when we produce the differences ourselves (remember that he felt that pigeon and dog breeders were trying to “perfect” their own breeds, but never intended to create new breeds — and denied that they could even do so)? CHAPTER 2: WHY is it so difficult to see that that there is no clear boundary between what we call “species” and what we call “variation.” (You did this one a bit more, but think more about the hypothetical story of ornithologists seeing pigeon breeds in the wild, naming them clear different species or even genera) CHAPTER 3: WHY is is so difficult to see the struggle for survival?
• Darwin repeatedly talks about the ideas that “nature does not make leaps.” This is a direct way that thinking about what Wes calls the “soup” of quasi-types. This is a powerful way of thinking about the natural algorithmic system, and it deserves more attention. It also relates to the issue of “perfection” and progress — an issue that Darwin directly address in Chapter 4 (and is image of the multiple trees of persistence, connection, extinction, and change). It also dilutes the idea that animal features are all essentially “random” and “chance” (Wes’s term). The intra-species variety has some randomness — but that variety is limited to the possibilities offered by the parent generations. No leaps.
• And you could have talked more about Darwin’s central metaphors and thought experiments: the “face” of Nature being compared to “a yielding surface, with ten thousand sharp wedges packed close together and driven inwards by incessant blows” (1859 ed); the story of the perpetually breeding elephants; Darwin’s survey of one square yard nearby heath; the tangled bank; the extended idea of multi-level struggle.
I mention all these not because you will miss them, but because till now, your conversation is being taken over mostly by discussions of the scientific implications (DNA, species vs individual struggle, the question of homosexuality or altruism [see Chapter 8 for hints at how Darwin might address the former, when he talks about neuter or sterile” insects]). And in pursuing these topics and broader questions, you are ignoring many of the big ideas and images of the text itself.
I look forward to Part II.
Michael Kurak says
This idea that certain traits are “somehow conjoined causally” to others (or, more weakly, “are correlated with” others) is question begging. It seems inconsistent with the contingency that lies at the heart of Darwinism and points instead to an a priori causal order that one could readily connect up with your idea (from a previous talk) that “natural law plus emergence equals natural kinds”.
good stuff, in some ways I think Dewey was the first post-Darwinian philosopher (at least in the US) and as such the first to really get rid of Geist-like theological hangovers.
Michael Kurak says
Yes, I agree. His article: “The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy” would make an excellent accompaniment to this talk.
indeed and good thru line to Rorty’s http://pages.uoregon.edu/koopman/courses_readings/rorty/rorty_CIS_full.pdf
Contingency being the key philosophical contribution rising from all of this.
Michael Kress says
I really enjoyed this episode. I’ve never read Darwin but I’ve read a lot by Dawkins and it seems like all of you understand Darwinism very well. I especially liked when you talked about Lamarck. I always thought of his theory as being like if somebody went into the gym and got really swole, then their kids would end up being swole too.