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More on Darwin's famous book. Why does it matter for philosophy, beyond providing an alternative to intelligent design? Is it really anti-religious? How can well tell if it's really a scientific theory? Talking about a species evolving trait X to enable survival sounds teleological; is it really, and is that bad? Why would the mind develop through natural selection?
Continues from part 1, or just get the unbroken, ad-free Citizen Edition. Please support PEL!
End song: "I Live" by Jason Falkner, as interviewed on Nakedly Examined Music #47.
Luke T says
Perhaps it’s a flight-of-fancy, but does the pluralism inherent in undirected genetic mutation, and it’s redeeming quality for species evolution and natural selection, recommend something metaphorical for us interested in philosophy? In this piece linked below, one might take the lesson that genetic bio-diversity is the salvation of humankind. Albeit here with deliberate and direct human intervention (something like a telos), it at least begs analogy to the indefinite and gradual adaptation Darwin meticulously paid witness to in his scientific journals.
Erik Weissengruber says
I was thinking about what shift in thinking is apparent in Darwin. There were attempts to think about the development of natural forms before Darwin and his ideas about reproduction with variation, and differential selection for traits. Hume got read out at the end of the episode and that reading provided a good example of the Lucretian, Empedeoclean, and I would add Hobbesian attempts to think about directionless evolution.
There is a very fine poetic exposition of these pre-Darwinian thoughts about the ontology of change in Chapman’s “Bussy D’Ambois.” One character comes forward with a monologue about how forms are generated naturally:
Now shall we see that Nature hath no end
In her great works responsive to their worths;
That she, that makes so many eyes and soules
To see and fore-see, is stark blind her selfe;
And as illiterate men say Latine prayers
By rote of heart and dayly iteration,
Not knowing what they say, so Nature layes
A deale of stuffe together, and by use,
Or by the meere necessity of matter,
Ends such a work, fills it, or leaves it empty
Of strength, or vertue, error, or cleare truth,
Not knowing what she does;
Here, Nature is posited as some entity that can lay pieces of matter together, though she is not herself an entity subject to change by some other power. In a series of iterations, she puts bits of matter together. This activity allows her to develop a habit (“use”) for the construction of some particular kind of work. Alternatively, there is an unchanging necessity governing the combination of matter, or particular necessities at work in combinations of particular kinds of matter.
This passage suggests that Nature as such develops habits and can produce individual instances of a species as one could exercise one’s acquired habitual skills on different occasions. The habit is developed by the entity Nature as a whole. There is no discussion of a population of active entities which have a tendency to reproduce themselves in a particular, with a number of unpredictable variations that permit reproductive success in a particular situation.
Necessity is invoked here not in the sense of a general logical necessity or any particular natural law. The matter layed together by Nature fits together in ways governed by some necessity. This necessity is not said to govern Nature in any way, put it operates at the level of all or some particular kinds of matter.
There is no sense that matter may reproduce itself. There is no suggestion that living entities can reproduce themselves, or that their reproduction will vary in unpredictable ways, or that that these entities will compete with other living entities, or that any one living entity may succeed in flourishing while the species of which that one individual is part faces inevitable extinction because of a drastic change in the environment. An individual living entity or any other product of nature may be virtuous, deficient, or incomplete. But there is no suggestion that any general habit of combining matter, once acquired by nature, will ever be extinguished. This 17th century naturalism cannot conceive of how a species may evolve, or be eliminated. There are no material entities above the particular “work” General tendencies belong to Nature, they are her habits. General tendencies are not spoken as probabilistic estimations of how a population will thrive in a situation.
Darwinism allows that species may be extinguished, but not in the sense of some comprehensive change in Nature’s habits. Rather, a population with similar traits may become extinguished because, in general, that population’s traits do not fit with the environment. Natural selection may be considered the kind of necessity cited in the monologue. But the sense of an uncertain interaction between a changing species a changing environment is completely lacking.
I would say that thinking of averages, of the unpredictable behaviour of populations, thinking of self-reproducing individuals whose particular allotment of traits, if reproduced, may contribute to the ongoing reproduction of the species are all intellectual achievements that need to be in place before Darwinism is possible.
And I would give Darwin credit for being the one person who is responsible for bringing them all together. But I’ve never read Wallace so I can’t do that.
The idealist tradition would have us seek forms in some realm outside of the physical. It took a long time before form could be thought of as arising from inside of natural activities. I don’t think it was just the power of established churches upholding a certain kind of idealism that prevented the development of a naturalistic explanation for the evolution of natural forms. A number of intellectual shifts had to take place before Darwin could conceive of entities the way he did.
Peter Sattler says
This is a follow-up to my comment left after Part 1 — and because it explores much of the same disappointment, I will keep it brief.
In exploring “Darwinism,” you did a real disservice to Darwin and his book. Part II contains, as far as I can recall, not not one quote from ORIGIN, not one moment when you take each other and your listeners to a particular page, metaphor, argument, or turn-of-phrase. (Hume and the Standford site get more time!)
This was done, it seems, to find a way in which Darwin’s book could remain philosophically “interesting” (implying that without leaving the text and exploring the larger unanticipated or unspoken implications, it could not). But I don’t think that is the case.
Darwin’s book is filled with examples and stories that explore or at least gesture towards deep philosophical and psychological import. Chapter I hints at the limits of our own intentions (as manipulators of species), when he talks about how breeders are producing profound changes to the breed itself — even creating new breeds — without *intending* to do so. Chapter 2 presents a direct attack both on the abilities of scientists to perceive natural kinds (read “species” vs “variations”), and hence on the very *existence* of such kinds. Chapter 3 explores the limits of our own minds to perceive “Nature” as a system — to see its horrific waste and struggle, to see the effects of small changes over huge amounts of time, etc. And Chapter 4 ends with a statement of natural selection (and hence of the natural world) at its mechanical and algorithmic best — without mind, without intention, yet also unavoidable.
You could even have talked about Darwin’s own metaphors — his own attempts to narrativize and “un-narrativize” his story, to make it visible to and perceivable by his readers, in spite of our own deep philosophical tendencies to the contrary. Think, for example, of his own central images for struggle, for diversity, for variation, and for what he unfortunately sometimes calls “perfection.” These deserve and would repay attention.
There’s so much in ORIGIN that speaks to ontology, essentialism, epistemology, the philosophy of science, and limits of the human scale and human system-building, etc. And you don’t really spend time specifically with any of it, at least in Darwin’s own terms and examples. That is disappointing, given how much support and interest you extend to all your other writers and thinkers.
I love the show, and I love Darwin’s ORIGIN. But this once, my two loves did not mix — and I suspect that it was because you thought the book in its own right (as opposed to its heritage and implications) wasn’t up to the task.
I think you were mistaken.
Adam L says
Enjoyed the episode very much, especially the difficult part about goal-directed acorns. I watched a bunch of Robert Sapolsky’s Stanford lectures on youtube recently (recommended!) on genetics and behavior (among other stuff). He spends a lot of time pushing the point that environment and organism are so intertwined that teasing out what is doing what as a result of what is often well nigh impossible. It makes the idea of ‘intrinsic-to-the-acorn’ (tree blueprint) and ‘extrinsic-to-the-acorn’ (squirrel snack) even more fuzzy and impossible. Flux, baby!
Wayne Schroeder says
Adam L says
Thanks very much,
Wayne Schroeder says
While the environment definitely affects the development of individual organisms and organs, and mutations occur genetically and epigenetically, one false implication of evolution is that organs (and traits) , such as sense organs are simply continuous body shape modifications based on pre-existing sensory setups (where is the implicated gene?).
Random mutations which individually have no effect on an organism can engender complexity in a process known as constructive neutral evolution. (Carl Zimmer, Scientific American, 2013) Also, most of the time evolutionarily, nothing is happening and there isn’t really much impact from all the competition stuff. Then a genetic mutation may occur and a massive change follows, after which things return back to normal. The theory of gradualism is thus overgeneralized according to the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould who developed the concept of punctuated equilibrium from the study of fossils, subsequently questioned as a paleontologist, but also reaffirmed by biologists more recently.
Darwin does well to 1) replace fixed types with populations and statistical aggregates to define a species, and 2) replace degrees (of difference) between species with differential relations among traits which represents a range of intensity. In the development from one species to another, if a species is a population, its traits will be statistically averaged around a relatively stable point, while at the margins, members will deviate from the mean and have a different differential relation among traits. In England moths increase in darkness as pollution increases, but this variation is not due to degrees regarding increasingly darker moths, but due to a differential relation in the population which the statistical aggregate of traits re-organizes into a new statistical aggregate. Environment contributes to this shift via predation so that it is harder to see a moth which resembles its environment in color (expression). The moth remains the same species though its expression and varies independently of content.
The molecular view challenges the molar heritability notion that traits are genetically received, inevitable and produced. While the evolutionary biologist argues that the trait is commonly seen among groups and has emerged because it is inherited and beneficial, at the molecular level evidence of a gene is needed to establish a direct connection.
Adam L says
And thanks for this too. I almost understand some of it. Enjoyed very much a short talk with Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong on the Aspen Ideas Festival recently touching on (I think?) some of this.
But what are the philosophical implications?!
Wayne Schroeder says
As Kant warned us with his paralogisms, illusions of reason are produced by idealizing God, man or nature. Darwinian evolution or Hawking’s Grand Design (theory of everything regarding quantum mechanics) need to be scaled back from Aristotelian teleology and causality, and logical excess, such as excessively logical categories, or reliance on math as the measure of reality. Instead, we can rely on statistical probabilities to measure gradations of difference, not hard dileneations between entities and focus on inter-relations to explain phenomena, including external as well as internal factors.
Dennis Helmuth says
I enjoyed your discussion of Darwin, but I would characterize it as a bit scientifically naive on a couple of points.
One was the overemphasis on genetic variation being a strictly internal and random process. In recent years it has been discovered that environmental factors can directly affect genes and what is passed on to the next generation. Lamarck was partially right – the source of heritable variation is not only random mutations but is also influenced by external factors. This process is know as epigenetics, an example of which is methylation of certain DNA bases in response to environmental stress.
The second was the overemphasis on certain human pursuits, such as artistic creation, being simply “free riders” in evolution. Evolution is much too efficient to allow an organism to waste energy. Indirect evidence for this can be found in the human digestive system, which is much less robust than in other mammals (that is why we have to cook our food). Natural selection determined, as it were, that it devoting more calories and protein to the brain at the expense of the digestive system made us more fit. This kind of trade-off would be unlikely to occur unless almost all of the higher functions of our brains were really important for passing along our genes.
For example, one theory holds that humans produce music as a sort of show of mating fitness (like the peacock’s plume). Mark, you must have noticed that musicians get all the chicks.
Wayne Schroeder says
“In many ways, the genes-versus-environment dichotomy is a misleading one because so often the two work hand in hand. Say, for instance, a gene or genes instructs for a certain amount of testosterone in the womb. If the level of that hormone varies and somehow influences the development of the fetus, should traits affected by the level of testosterone be dubbed genetic or environmental? One could argue that the biochemical conditions in the womb-the fetus’s surroundings-qualify as environmental factors, but those conditions are shaped by genetic instructions. Yet within the DNA of every cell of that newborn baby, there will be no information specific to the child’s conditions in the womb. Can we call that a genetic trait? ” https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/03/31/left-handedness-david-wolman/
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
What a terrific insight to mention!
If I might be so bold as to build on your comment from something I gleaned from a book called “Beyond Domination,” I would further like to complicate the notion of genes-versus-environment while also noting that this complication further applies to genes-versus-nurture arguments (or, nature-versus-nurture).
In an essay from that book (I can’t remember which one), the author makes the point that what is available to humans within the environment in which they are situated is also in many ways and most often determined by their very own activities. Additionally, that which is available to those humans in that place is also meaningfully determined by the historical activities of all of those who came before them in that place. In other words – generally speaking, there is no “pure” environment in which humans simply just live.
In this sense, the conditions of possibility that allow for the activation of various and distinct gene expressions is significantly determined by the human activity in that environmental place and vice versa. From this perspective, the author argues that while genes inform who humans become, so too does human activity within the environment inform which genes will be expressed vis-a-vis their effects on the environment itself. In other words, there is no human gene expression that exists in isolation from the environment in which it is situated, and no environment in which humans are situated that exists in isolation from human gene expressions (and human activity).
The argument is essentially a dialectical one of mutual causation that is meant to nullify and/or mitigate the binary opposition of nature-versus-nurture, as well as perhaps genes-versus-environment.
In this situation, I can’t remember if the author advocated a different kind of succinct description of the relationships between these things, but maybe it would be something like – nature-is-nurture-is-nature or genes-are-environments-are-genes…or something along those lines.
I suppose that this argument could also be extended to particular animal communities and/or to a holistic and interdependent perspective where all activities that effect the environment will simultaneously result in conditions of possibility that favor certain gene expressions which will subsequently allow for certain kinds of impacts on the environment and on and on.
At any rate, I found that essay compelling and likewise found your comment wonderfully noteworthy. Thanks!
Brian Laughlin says
Great discussion as always! Your discussion around acorns and squirrels had me thinking that the relationship between the two must be more symbiotic than the discussion suggested. The way it was discussed in this episode suggested that acorns are “unsuccessful” if they get eaten by squirrels, and go on to create a new oak tree only if they are not eaten.
In fact (and as I suspected), squirrels are helping acorns when they eat them! Apparently the top of the acorn is rich in fats (which squirrels love), whereas the bottom of the acorn is rich in bitter tannins that squirrels don’t like. The bottom of the acorn is where the embryo of the acorn also happens to reside. So, squirrels are doing the acorn a favor when they grab them, roll and shake them, move them some distance from the Oak tree, and eat them (or store them far from the tree, since the Oak offspring is more likely to survive farther from the parent Oak).
Neat stuff, thanks for prompting me to look this up!