Emergence of Species and the Ascent of Man

This paper addresses and critically analyzes Darwinian and Neo-Darwinian evolution, their doctrines, and their impact on biology, sociology, philosophy of science and theory of human nature.

On Darwinian Natural Selection

The theory of natural selection grew out of the attempt by Charles Darwin to explain the evolution of current life forms from previous life forms.  Darwin is most noted for his system of classification of species  in terms of the two-part nomenclature of genus-species. This system of classification was borrowed from Linnaeus, Cuvier, and Aristotle. Darwin was a great admirer of the biological writings of Aristotle:

“Although Aristotle’s zoological work is not as well known as his logical and philosophical books, it was a vast encyclopaedia of natural history and was surpassed only in the 18th century. There is a famous saying by Darwin, who was much impressed the first time he read Aristotle’s zoological work: ‘I had not the most remote notion what a wonderful man he was. Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods, though in very different ways, but they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle.” ‘ – from web blog ‘A Brief History of Life: Understanding Evolution in 45 Posts,  CATEGORY ARCHIVES: ARISTOTLE 1. ARISTOTLE ON LESBOS 346-343 BC Posted on June 5, 2013 under Aristotle, by Michael Boulter

Aristotle’s four books on The Parts of Animals (De Partibus Animalium) was the first known great study of the animal kingdom.  Like Darwin after him, Aristotle was an active explorer, investigator and classifier of animal life forms.  His famous book was based in significant part on his work was done while studying animal life forms in the lagoon off of Lesvos, an island in the Aegean.  There is an excellent book, The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science, by Armand Marie Leroi, Professor of Evolutionary Developmental Biology at Imperial College, London, and an extended BBC video narrated by Professor Leroi, that describe the wonderful and detailed work performed by Aristotle.  H/T to Skye Stewart, a fellow student of Aristotle, for pointing me to this beautiful video.

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Aristotle’s Lagoon – Lesvos island – Greece

Classical Darwinism

According to classical Darwinian doctrine, organisms survive to reproduce their own kind (phylogeny) solely by virtue of the fact that they have ‘evolved’ so as to function optimally within their own local special environment or ‘ecological niche.’  Thus the process of species adaptation is to be understood primarily as essentially an external struggle of each existing organism (ontogeny, a living instance of a species) to cope with the demands and limitations of its environment.  Adaptation, then,  must be seen as the organism’s struggle for survival at the ontogenetic level (of the individual organism) as well as the phylogenetic (qua its history of inherited capabilities) which the organism can call upon in this struggle.

Natural selection then, is in essence a theory that attempts to explain the existence of observable species (phenotypes), and the absence of earlier species, as the outcome of  the selective survival of adaptive species and the elimination of maladaptive species in a given geological and environmental context. Presumably, all members a a given species in a given habitat face the same competition armed with the same inherited capabilities (and weaknesses) from a survival perspective. Thus the survival of the individual tends to  collectively determine the survival of its species.   Note natural selection thus explains the elimination of species and survival of species but does not and cannot in itself explain the origin of species.  Indeed, in no case can Darwin’s theory of ‘The Origin of Species’ be regarded as a causal mechanism underlying the actual origination of a species, for aside from variation (which is not definitive of a species), Darwinism cannot explain how truly new viable species (not to be confused with mere varieties of a given species) come into existence.

Darwinian Gradualism

Darwin was well-aware of the deficiency of support for evolution at the fossil level, The fossil record essentially  failed to show any evidence for the emergence of new species from old at any level of the archeological strata.  To explain away this lack of evidence, Darwin invoked the doctrine of gradualism, i.e., an exceedingly slow process of species emergence (i.e., speciation) that cannot be detected in terms of any humanly comprehensible units of historical natural of time, such as centuries.  Evolution, must, it was asserted, require hundreds or even thousands of millennia to yield truly recognizable new species.

Darwin’s Nominalist Definition of ‘Species’

Darwin argued against an essentialist view of species and embraced instead a nominalist view of species as an arbitrary name for a group of entities that have sufficiently similar characteristics, where none and no combination of such characteristics can be regarded as constituting an essence of a given species.

Systematists will be able to pursue their labours as at present; but they will not be incessantly haunted by the shadowy doubt whether this or that form be in essence a species. . . Systematists will have only to decide (not that this will be easy) whether any form be sufficiently constant and distinct from other forms, to be capable of definition; and if definable, whether the differences be sufficiently  important to deserve a specific name.

. . .

In short, we will have to treat species in the same manner as those naturalists treat genera, who admit that genera are merely artificial combinations made for convenience. This may not be a cheering prospect; but we shall at least be freed from the vain search for the undiscovered and undiscoverable essence of the term species. – Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection, Chapter XV: Recapitulation and Conclusion, p. 447.

Etienne Gilson points out the strangeness of Darwin’s apparent denial of the concept of species, given that it is the subject of Darwin’s book, The Origin of Species.

It is thus quite difficult to know that of which Darwin intends to explain the origin, unless it be the origin of something which does not exist.  It is particularly surprising that the term “species” occupies so visible a place in the title of the work when it plays such a diminished role in the doctrine.

. . .

[H]e even persists in speaking about species in order to say that they do not exist.  He had need of the word precisely to be able to deny its existence. — ‘From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species and Evolution‘ by Etienne Gilson, translated by John Lyon, Ignatius Press, first published in 1971.

Is this not a shocking admission in the context of writing a book entitled ‘The Origin of Species?’   Surely there are clear (neither arbitrary nor convenient nor conventional) differentia dividing one species from another.  For example that only organisms of the same species can reproduce sexually, and thus be cross-bred.   Surely cross-breeding is an essential functional feature allowing one to define the parents and offspring to be of the same species, although their individual phenotypes of the offspring may differ from their parents in many superficial qualities (such as size, color, body shape, etc.).  This proves the point that neither nominalism nor essentialism are valid for the definition of species.  If the essentialist is looking for a common morphological commonality, it is a mistaken criteria. The proper approach is functionalist.   Thus the function (or potentiality) of cross-breeding (cross-reproduction) between two individual organisms of different phenotypes,  proves commonality of  species if reproduction succeeds.

Ambiguity of the Concept of ‘Environment’ in Evolution Theory

There is an inherent ambiguity regarding the concept of ‘environment’ vs. ‘organism’ or ‘species’.   In fact most species create (to a greater or lesser extent) their own environments in which they live and from which they venture out into the external world.  Thus insects build underground nests, birds above-ground nests, bees hives, beavers dams, etc.  These ‘homes’ are therefore the result of both the constraints of the given ecological context (are twigs and mud available?) and the proactive intentional behavior of the animals (species) themselves. Thus the forces of evolution are not only the random stochastic actions of the environment (e.g. weather, erosion, forestation, etc) but also the teleological factors underlying the behavior of  ‘niche’ or ‘home’ building species themselves.   This contrast and distinction is, I think, important but is rarely pointed out in studies of evolution theory.

Even in the broadest sense of environment as the dynamic ecological complex of structures and events external to an organism in its struggle for survival, the concept of ‘environment’ remains problematic.

The term environment…stands for a continuously changing and extraordinarily large and complex assortment of variables.  For the organism capable of locomotion the “environment’ is never really permanent.  For the organisms with memory, it is never really gone.  An Intellectual History of Psychology, by Daniel N. Robinson, University of Wisconsin Press, 1976, p. 449.

The Imprecision  of ‘ Natural Selection’

Some modern historians of science object to the loosely defined and loosely applied concepts of evolution, and argue that science cannot explain any given actual phenotype as an outcome of so-called ‘natural selection.’  Writing about the direct application of Darwinian doctrine to behaviorist psychology, Daniel Robinson writes:

Evolutionary theory is, itself, in the process of evolving and is far from an adequate scientific theory.  Indeed, as we get farther away from the research and writings of molecular biologists, we find that evolutionary principles are thrown about in a way that can only be described as “loose talk.”  There is no “thing” in the world that is “selection” nor have we explained a phenotypic outcome  by casually referring to “natural selection.  The term environment, which psychologists tend to use as if it were a volt or a weight, stands for a continuously changing and extraordinarily large and complex assortment of variables.  For the organism capable of locomotion, the “environment’ is never really permanent.  For the organisms with memory, it is never really gone.”    – from   An Intellectual History of Psychology, p 449.

Evolutionary ‘Forces’: Their Constraints and Limits

We are constantly told that all of our biological being, our anatomy and physiology, our structure and function are the product of our genes, more precisely our genotypes, and their expression in our individual being, our phenotype.  But this is not the whole nor the correct story.  For our anatomy, morphology, and its related physiology, are all constrained by predefined (dare I say ‘pre-emergent’) patterns that are imposed on all species at the phylogenetic level.  The patterns of our skeletal structure was deeply studied and articulated by Sir D’Arcy Thompson, in ‘On Growth and Form‘ (Cambridge University Press, 1961).  This fundamental biological work must be read by anyone who wants to truly understand the nature and limits of  the possible forms and growth patterns of living phyla of organisms.

Sir D’Arcy was a polymath and Greek and Latin Scholar.  He admired Aristotle and translated his biological writings. “He also lectured at Oxford in 1913 On Aristotle as a Biologist.” – from 1. ARISTOTLE ON LESBOSThe most dramatic revelation of Thompson’s magnum opus,  “On Growth and Form,” are the diagrammatic, geometric proofs of the common patters across homologous parts of different species of the same phylum.  Thus the bones in the ‘hand’ consist of a definite number of bones arranged in a definite order.  This number and order are preserved across all homologous parts of related vertebrates of difference species.

Constraints in Hand Bone Order - Number - and Sequence

From D’Arcy Thompson – On Growth and Form: Chapter IX: On the Theory of Transformations, or the Comparison of Related Forms, p. 303.  (see also: Hoof  Bone Arrangements.)

On the application of Cartesian geometry to the study of biological forms, D’Arcy Thompson describes thusly:

The mathematical definition of a ‘form’  has a quality of precision which was quite lacking in or earlier stage of mere description; it is expressed in few words or in still briefer symbols, and these words or symbols are so pregnant with meaning that thought itself is economized. –  D’Arcy Thompson – On Growth and Form: Chapter IX: On the Theory of Transformations, or the Comparison of Related Forms, p. 268.

Thus, it appears that certain geometric constraints on growth and morphology manifest themselves across all species, depending on genus, allowing variation in size and shape, but not in order or number.  We do not know how these constraints have emerged and been encoded in DNA in such a way that they cannot be overridden by any forces of genetic evolution.  These are  simple and fundamental facts relating to the science of organic morphology.  Thompson believed that the historical approach to understanding evolution (which dominated his age, and ours as well) was useless without first studying the history of individual morphological growth patterns across species and within a species.

To him – along with many of his contemporaries – historical explanations were suspect: they appeared as controversial and unsupported speculations. Indeed, any explanation about organic evolution had to start with the knowledge of the laws ruling individual development. Animal morphologies and their historical changes were only comprehensible through the understanding of how individual development worked. . . Thompson firmly believed that the differentiation of the organic form could not be explained by Darwinian evolution, but by individual growth rates emerging from a specific “system of forces.”- from  Problematic “Idiosyncrasies”:Rediscovering the Historical Context of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s Science of Form, Science in Context 27(1), 79–107 (2014). Copyright © Cambridge University Press doi:10.1017/S0269889713000392, p. 82.

In sum, the Darwinian laws of natural selection and species variation are not not the sole forces, whose unlimited random unfolding explain the existence or absence of the given  structure and function of an organism or species, but instead, evolution is itself constrained by the predefined laws of biological morphology.  Such constraints are indeed biologically causal and not accidental

Neo-Darwinism and the Modern Synthesis

Neo-Darwinism argues that natural selection acts primarily at the genetic level.  It is the genes (the genotype) and their concomitant power to produce traits  in the individual (phenotype) that are the central causal factor, acting in on the phenotype via natural selection, that accounts for the origin of species.

One of the architects of the modern synthetic theory of evolution was Ernst Mayr.  Here is Mayr’s clear statement of the synthetic theory of evolution (quoted by Stephen J. Gould in The Logic of Life: The Challenge of Integrative Physiology, by C. A. R. Boyd and D. Nobel, Oxford Press, 1993,  Chapter Two ‘ Evolution of Organisms’ by Stephen J. Gould, p. 17):

The proponents of the synthetic theory maintain that all evolution is due to the accumulation of small genetic changes, guided by natural selection, and that transpacific evolution is nothing but an extrapolation and magnification of the events that take place within populations and species. – from Ernst Mayr, Animal species and evolution. (1963), p. 586

Gould, a critic of the synthetic theory, talks about his initial  fascination with the theory and how, over time, he abandoned it, regarding it as ‘effectively dead’ as a theory:

The synthetic theory beguiled me with its unifying power when I was a graduate student in the mid-1960s. Since then I have been watching it slowly unravel as a universal description of evolution. The molecular assault came first followed quickly by renewed attention to unorthodox theories of speciation and by challenges at the level of macroevolution itself.  I have been reluctant to admit it — since beguiling is often for ever — but if Mayr’s characterization of the synthetic  theory is accurate, then that theory, as a general proposition, is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy.  – from ‘ Evolution of Organisms’ by Stephen J. Gould, in Boyd and Nobel 1993, p. 18.

Darwinian Reductionism vs Punctuationist Hierarchy

Following the above statement, Gould went on, under the heading ‘Reduction and Hierarchy’  to state:

The modern synthetic theory embodies a strong faith in reductionism.  It advocates a smooth extrapolation across all levels and scales — from the base substitution to the origin of higher taxa. – from ‘ Evolution of Organisms’ by Stephen J. Gould, in Boyd and Nobel 1993, p. 18.

This reductionism is based on a faith in mutational gradualism and natural selection alone as the forces that determine speciation and evolution.  According to the research of Stephen J. Gould and his associates, the fissile record shows that evolution was not everywhere changing gradually.  There is strong evidence for long periods of stasis (no speciation) along side relatively sudden bursts of man new species (punctuated speciation).

Why did the origin of multicellular life proceed as a short pulse through three radically different faunas rather than as a slow and continuous rise of complexity?  The history of life is endlessly fascinating, endlessly curious, but scarcely the stuff of our usual thoughts and hopes.  – Stephen J. Gould in his classic, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, p. 60.

Gould argues for an alternative approach to evolution, an approach based on layered hierarchies underlying organismic anatomy and physiology, with each layer in the hierarchy having its own semi-autonomous  nature and power to control and select the transformation and propagation of lower level causal events in response to lower level physiological processes.   In Gould’s own words:

The general alternative to such reductionism is a concept of hierarchy — a world constructed not as a smooth and seamless continuum, permitting simple extrapolation from the lowest level to that highest, but as a series of ascending levels, each bound to the one below it in some ways and independent on others.  Discontinuities and seams, characterize the transitions: ’emergent’ features, not implicit in the operation of process at lower levels may control events at higher levels.  The basic processes — mutation, selection, and so on — may enter into explanations on all levels (and in that sense we may still hope for a general theory of evolution), but they work in different ways on the characteristic material of diverse level [see Bateson (1978) and Koestler (1978) for discussion on the inadequacies and on hierarchy and its antireductionist implications]. – from ‘ Evolution of Organisms’ by Stephen J. Gould, in Boyd and Nobel 1993, p. 18-19.  Note: Brackets in the original.

Referring to the process of the controlled creation of proteins as sequence of triplet encoded codons, Gould writes:

Molecular biologist are groping to understand this higher control upon primary products of the triplet code.  In that understanding, we will probably obtain a basis for styles of evolutionary change radically different from the sequential allelic substitutions, each of a minute  effect, that the modern synthesis so strongly advocated. . . The synthesis is now breaking down on both sides of this argument. Many evolutionists now doubt exclusive control by selection on genetic change within local populations.  Moreover, even if local populations alter as the synthesis maintains, we now doubt that the same style of change controls events at the two major higher levels: speciation and evolutionary trends across species. – from ‘ Evolution of Organisms’ by Stephen J. Gould, in Boyd and Nobel 1993, p. 19-20.

Thus there is emerging significant doubt about the adequacy of classical Darwinism and it modern synthesis.  This doubt is accompanied by new approaches to thinking about and modeling evolutionary processes.  What is most in doubt is the gradualist and progressive nature of evolution.  These are discussed sequentially below.

On the Progressive Nature of Evolution

If the evolution of species is truly the product of random forces both within the organism and within the organism’s external environment, why is it that organisms never devolve to more primitive forms but instead progressively evolve into more and more complex and refined organisms with more complex and refined organs and functional systems?   Beneath this emergence of complex life forms are fundament laws of biology, known and yet to be discovered.  So say Ludwig von Bertalanffy:

So, evolution appears to be more than the mere product of chance governed by profit.  It seems a cornucopia of évolution creatrice,  a drama full of suspense, of dynamics and tragic complications.  Life spiral laboriously upwards to higher and ever higher levels, paying for every step. It develops from the unicellular to the multi-cellular, and puts death into the world at the same time,.  It passes into levels of higher differentiation and centralization, and pay for this by the loss of regulability after disturbances.  It invents a highly developed nervous system and therewith pain. . . .

From the standpoint of science, however, the history of life does not appear to be the result of an accumulation of changes at random but subject to laws.  This does not imply mysterious controlling factors that in an anthropomorphic way strive toward progressive adaptation, fitness, or perfection.  Rather there are principles of which we already know something at present, and of which we can hope to learn more in the future. Nature is a creative artist; but art is not accident or arbitrariness but the fulfillment of great laws.  – from Problems of Life: An Evaluation of Modern Biological and Scientific Thought, by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Harper Torch Books; The Science Library, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1952, pp. 108-109

On Darwinian Gradualism

As for Darwin’s principle of  ‘gradualism.’  This concept is inherently imprecise, for it is not clear whether it means to imply (a) the the origin of new species is a process of gradual ‘evolution’ (whatever that may mean beyond the concept of differential species survival) or whether it means to imply (b) that all species changes, when they do occur (which is non-predictable), must occur slowly and incrementally over long geological time frames, or both.

In fact, the geological record shows actual stasis (long periods of stability with no apparent evolutionary change) of certain species, and at the same time (during the same time period, as measured within the same geological strata) relatively rapid or ‘sudden’ emergence and proliferation of multiple new species (apparently from a common root parent species). This phenomenon which at least leads to the questioning of gradualism as sufficient or even necessary as a component of evolution, has been called punctuated equilibrium by its theoretical advocates, S. J. Gould and N. Eldredge.  See ‘Punctuated Equilibria: An Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism.‘   The theory of punctuated equilibrium is a dramatic alteration and augmentation of Darwinism, and is rightly called a flavor of Neo-Darwinism.  Again, how and why punctuated equilibria occur is not yet understood by paleontologists and evolutionary biologists.  Stasis, now being shown to be the norm and not the exception, leads paleontologists to doubt the dominance or even relevance of gradualism.  S. J. Gould explains this concept in his book  Punctuated Equilibrium thusly:

This elevation of stasis to visibility, respectability and even to expectation, has generated subtle and interesting repercussions for gradualism.  Then gradualism enjoy high status as a virtually definitional consequence of evolution itself, few researchers thought to question such an anticipated result (but simply rejoiced in any rare instance of affirmation).  However, once stasis emerges as an alternative norm, with gradualism designate as uncommon by the same analysis, then gradualism itself must fall under scrutiny for the first time.  – Stephen Jay Gould, in Punctuated Equilibrium, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2007, p. 123. 

Gould argues that the paradox of gradualism should have been apparent from the beginning and should have been suspect and regarded as rare rather than regarded as the mechanism underlying macroevolution.

With this shift of perspective, a parade that should have been obvious from the start finally emerged into clear view: gradualism, prima facie, represents a “weird” result, not an anticipated and automatic macroevolutionary expression of natural selection — thus, perhaps, accounting for its rarity. Punctuated Equilibrium,  p. 123.

Beyond it rarity, Gould asserts, that gradualism is simply too slow to explain natural selection in local populations.

Geological gradualism operates far too slowly to yield any workable effect at all when properly scaled down and translated to the immediacy of natural selection in local populations!  (See Jablonski, 1999, for a forceful assertion of this paradox.) – Parenthetical in the original. Punctuated Equilibrium,  p. 123.

From a different perspective, it may be seriously argued that ‘gradualism’ was introduced into Darwin’s theory as an ad hoc argument to defend itself against the empirical evidence, or rather lack thereof, of any mechanism or principle that could naturally account for the gaps in the geological record, i.e. intermediate transitional forms between differing levels of living organic organization.  So the actual cause(s) of evolution are still mainly unknown.  This is not to question the principle of evolution of ‘advanced’ or ‘complex’ species from earlier, supposedly simpler species or forms, but only to question Darwinian gradualism as a real contributing principle underlying the origin of species.

On Darwinian Tree of Evolution

As for the so-called ‘tree’ of evolution, it is a misleading bias to (1) first show the evolutionary tree as a unified bottom-up process, where the latest forms of life are at the leaves, not the roots, i.e. to show that evolution is a broadening or divergence and not a narrowing or convergence of life forms and functions, and then to call the leaves examples of ‘descent’ and (2) to fail to specify that as far as the geological record is concerned, there appear to be multiple ‘trees’ evolving in parallel, and  (3) To describe evolution as a descending process, as a ‘descent’ of an extant species from earlier species.  Surely, a better term would be ‘ascent’.  For the species at the ‘leaves’ of the trees are typically more advanced in terms of structure and function, with new structures leading to new functions, ascending to higher level of function and structure from the more primitive structures and functions of the lower level species.

The Mathematics of Neo-Darwinism

Neo-Darwinists have argued that all critiques of their version of Darwinism, especially critics of the weaknesses of the fossil record, gradualism, universal common descent, mutation theory, and neo-Darwinism’s failure to address such issues as 1. the implications of protein folding, 2. combinatorial inflation, and 3. problems of gene duplication theory, and many other issuer, are to be considered irrelevant in the face of the alleged strong mathematical model underlying neo-Darwinism.

[N]eo-Darwinian evolutionary biologists assumed that mutation and selection had nearly unlimited creative power, enough to generate even complex systems of the kind described in Frazzetta’s book [*].

The mathematical expression of neo-Darwinian theory, as represented in the equations of a sub discipline of biology known as population genetics, seemed to confirm this conviction.  Population genetics models how gene frequencies change as the result of processes such as mutation, genetic drift (neutral changes in the genome that natural selection neither favors nor eliminates), and natural selection. On the assumption that advantageous variations of traits will arise as the result of even single mutations, the mathematical models of population genetics describe how much evolutionary change can occur in a given period of time. . . As long as mutations generate a continuous supply of new traits, any system, however complex, can be build one trait at a time—trait upon trait—via the creative power of natural selection.  Or so the story goes. — from ‘Complex Adaptations and the Neo-Darwinian Math,’  Chapter 12 of Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen C. Meyer, p. 234.

* Tom Frazzetta, Complex Adaptations in Evolving Populations, 1975.

Referencing the details of the works of Murray Eden, professor of engineering and computer science at MIT, Douglas Axe, Ph.D. in chemical engineering at California Institute of Technology, David Stoke, physicist at University of Pittsburg, Michael Behe,  professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, Thomas H. Frazzetta, biologist at University of Illinois, Meyer provides the documented inadequacy of population genetics to explain the emergence of complex living systems.  At the end of Chapter 12, he points out the irony that the mathematical model population genetics, when applied to the observed and calculated date, refutes its own predictions of the creative powers of natural selection:

There is a concluding irony in all this.  The researchers calculating waiting time for the appearance of complex adaptations have in each case do so using models based on the core principles of population genetics, the mathematical expression of neo-Darwinian theory.  In a real sense, therefore, the neo-Darwinian math is itself showing that the neo-Darwinian mechanism cannot build complex adaptations—including the new information-rich genes and proteins that would have been necessary to build the Cambrian animals.  To adapt a metaphor that Tom Frazzetta might appreciate, the snake has even its own tail. — from ‘Complex Adaptations and the Neo-Darwinian Math,’  Chapter 12 of Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen C. Meyer, p. 254.

Teleological Explanation and Darwinian Evolution

Darwin appears to have wanted his theory to be philosophically consistent with the established dominant views of physical sciences, with their explicit base in random, purposeless motion at the base of physics and their total rejection of teleology (i.e., final cause in the Aristotelian sense) and the conception of life as itself manifesting a strategy.  On the concept of life manifesting an intrinsic strategy, see Clifford Grobstein’s The Strategy of Life,  W. H. Freeman and Company, 1965.  As to the relevance of teleology and its potential for providing deeper and more convincing clarity in biological analysis, methodology, see chapter VII, entitled ‘Teleological Systems, Behavior and Explanation’ in The Biological Way Of Thought, by Morton Beckner, (First Printing, Columbia University Press, 1959), University of California Press, 1968, in which Beckner argues:

. . . The essence of teleological explanation lies in the epistemological priority of knowledge of the goal in relation to the content of the explanation.  . . . This comes very close to saying that the goal is an agent in its own realization — the formulation so unacceptable to many philosophers.  But, of course, the future is not acting upon the past, nor is the goal itself an agent.  It is true, however, that in specifying the details of the feedback mechanism, deviations from the norm in terms of which the goal is defined are assumed to possess causal efficacy.  – from  The Biological Way Of Thought,  pp. 152-153.

And later in that chapter, in a context directly relevant to evolution theory:

There is, nevertheless, another side to the development of biological theory which is aided to an incalculable extent by teleological explanations, even those which are post hoc and non predictive.  Teleological explanations provide , not general hypotheses, but data, of a natural historical character, data which in turn suggest and provide evidence for further hypotheses.  This aspect is most evident in teleological explanations within evolution theory. For notice that the process of change or of persistence that is subject to teleological explanation my not be short and isolated, but may be long, even if measured by geological time, and may leave in its wake a  altitude of collated effects. . . . This topic will be resumed when we come to discuss evolution there, where it will be shown that evolving populations are teleological systems, and that many explanations utilizing the principles of neo-Darwinism are teleological explanations.  – – from  The Biological Way Of Thought, pp. 154-155.

The False Dichotomy of Determinism versus Randomness

Stephen Gould wrote his book Wonderful Life to offer an alternative to the false doctrine that either the causes of events are deterministic or the causes are random (or some combination of these two extremes).   This is the axis (or as Gould called it the ‘line’) that biologists were to walk if they were to to achieve credibility in mechanistic reductionist biology.   Gould argues for a third scientific approach, an empirical approach that takes seriously into account the contingency of current states and potentialities on future states and their evolution.  This approach, according to Gould, is simply the historical approach, taking seriously the history of an evolved organism based on the many contingencies that influenced its possibilities and actualities throughout its evolutionary history.  In Gould’s words:

I write this book to suggest a third alternative, off the line.  I believe that the reconstructed Burgess fauna, interpreted by the theme of replaying life’s tape, offers powerful support for this different view of life: any replay of the tap would lead evolution down a pathway radically different from the road actually taken.  But the consequent differences in outcome do not imply that evolution is senseless, and without meaningful pattern; the divergent route of the replay would be just as interpretable, just as explainable after the fact, as the actual road.  But the diversity of possible itineraries does demonstrate that eventual results cannot be predicted at the outset.  Each step proceeds for cause, but no finale can be specified at the start, and none would  ever occur a second time in the same way, because any pathway proceeds through thousands of improbable stages.  Alter any early event, ever so slightly and without apparent importance at the time, and evolution cascades into a radically different channel.  Stephen J. Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, p. 51.

NOTE on Astronomy:  It seems to the bioperipatetic that this same line of reasoning can be fruitfully applied to the evolution of the cosmos.  Astronomers, like biologists are misled by the seemingly inescapable axis (Gould’s ‘line’) with determinism (equated with ‘causality’) at one pole and randomness (equated with ‘non-causality’) at the other.   We know that there is more to the universe than Newtonian laws of motion acting on passive material objects.  We know that matter  itself is not so well know as once assumed; that energetic matter (called plasma) exists and has its own causal origins and consequences.  See particularly the work of Hannes Alfvén on plasma dynamics.  See also the recent work of Mordehai Milgrom on his theory of modified Newtonian dynamics (MOND).

NOTE on Gould:  It can be reasonably argued that Gould’s is a diachronic approach as contrasted with a synchronic approach to the study of evolution.

A diachronic study or analysis concerns itself with the evolution and change over time of that which is studied; it is roughly equivalent to historical. – from Glossary developed by Constantin Behler, of Univ. of Washington

Modern Darwinian Explanations as Ideological

Given the preceding perspective and analysis, a better title for Darwin’s opus might be: ‘The Assent of Species and the Emergence of Man.’   Surely this is a more objective formulation and summation of Darwin’s theory of evolution.  But, given this new proposed title, what would have been the social ideological impact of Darwin’s theory?  Surely a more positive and conservative  one that does not so seriously degrade the stature of man in his ascent as one of the most complex, diversified, adaptive, and capable of all species, the only species capable of reason, concept formation, volitional consciousness, abstract language (including mathematics) and, last but not least, the development of science itself, (including of course the science of paleontology).

But, based on modern presentations of Darwinism,  such a positive perspective of mankind was not, it would seem,  Darwin’s aim.  He meant, if we take modern interpretations of his theory and its statement seriously and literally,  to demean the stature of the phenomenon of life, and by implication, of man and to relegate mankind (and all forms of life for that matter) to the meaningless heap of random cosmic history.  But was this Darwin’s true ideological view and the true spirit of his work, or does it rather represent the impact of current ideology on science’s interpretation of Darwin’s theory as well as those theories, such as that of the nature of DNA, that today extend and claim to ‘complete’ the Darwinian program?

In his book, A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down, Nobel Laureate Robert B. Laughlin has this to say about how  Darwin’s theory of evolution has in modern times come to be embraced as an unquestionable doctrine and ideology rather than as a corrigible scientific theory:

A key symptom of ideological thinking is the explanation that has no implications and cannot be tested.  I call such logical dead ends anti theories because they have exactly the opposite effect of real theories: they stop thinking rather than stimulate it.  Evolution by natural selection, for instance, which Charles Darwin originally conceived as a great theory, has lately come to function more as an anti theory, called upon to cover up embarrassing experimental shortcomings and legitimize findings that are at best questionable and at worst  not even wrong. Your protein defines the laws of mass action?  Evolution did it!  Your complicated mess of chemical reactions turns into a chick? Evolution?  The human brain works on logical principles no computer can emulate?  Evolution is the cause?  . . . We often ask ourselves nowadays, whether evolution is an engineer or a magician — a discoverer and exploiter of preexisting physical principles or a worker of miracles — but we shouldn’t. The former is theory, the latter anti theory.  – from  A Different Universe,  pp. 169-170. 

For a book that directly addresses Laughlin’s charge that evolutionary theory as well as genetic theory have jointly shared a dark ideology of purposeless determinism dominating the ideas taught and practiced in todays biological institutions, see Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA, by R. C. Lewontin, Harper Perennial, 1991. 

From the perspective of classical Darwinism, Lewontin teaches us that the prevailing doctrine that Darwin’s view of the relationship of the organism to the environment is that of the environment dominating the organism and the organism struggling to survive and adapt to but never overcoming nor rising above the mechanistic, random, purposeless forces of the environment.

.. . . [I]n Darwin’s view, organisms were acted upon by the environment; thy were the passive object and the external world was the active subject.  This alienation of the organism from its outside world mean that the outside world has its own laws that are independent of the organisms and so cannot be changed by those organisms.  Organism find the world as it is, and they must either adapt or die.  – from Biology as Ideology, p. 12.

From the perspective of Neo-Darwinism, Lewontin articulates another example of an ideology replacing or overwhelming science, positing mechanistic principles as the sole (or certainly the key) determinant of the life of organisms.  In this case it is not only evolution, with its external restraints on survival of any organism, but also DNA and its internal determinate powers that overwhelm the organism and fully constrain and define its nature and  capabilities.  The power of DNA cannot be overcome by the organism, but rather is the organism’s deterministic master.

Living beings are seen as being determined by internal factors, the genes.  Our genes and the DNA molecules that make them up are the modern form of grace, and in this view we will understand what we are when we know what our genes are made of.  The world outside us poses certain problems, which we do not create but only experience as objects.  The problems are to find a mate, to find food, to win out in competition over others, to acquire a large part of the world resources as our own, and if we have the right kinds of genes we will be able to solve the problems and leave more offspring.  So in this view,  it is really our genes that are propagating themselves through us.  We are only their instruments, their temporary vehicles through which the self-replicating molecules that make us up either succeed or fail to spread through the world.  In the words of Richard Dawkins, one of the leading proponents of this biological view, we are “lumbering robots” who’s genes “created us body and mind.”  – from Biology as Ideology  p. 13. 

The Loss of Direct Realism in Neo-Darwinism

Meanwhile, modern biology has widely embraced the Darwinian (or Neo-Darwinian) view of cognition, from perception through conceptualization, which holds that all tools of knowledge are the product of competitive environmental and inter-species adaptation to stress and to threats to survival, thus all knowledge and all tools of knowledge are the ultimate product of Darwinian pragmatic selection.  This was the view held by Karl Popper:

In sum, there is a clear conflict with Mach’s insistence that’ all sensations are immediately given and are certain [a form of Direct Realism]- “as if their character were independent of the way in which they were identified, or misidentified ” Such a theory, such an “epistemology which takes our sense perceptions as ‘given’, as the ‘data’ from which our theories have to be constructed”, Popper [Karl Popper in  Objective Knowledge (Oxford University Press, 1972, pp. 145-6.] denounces as “pre-Darwinian “, as failing “to take account of the fact that the alleged data are in fact adaptive reactions, and therefore interpretations which incorporate theories and prejudices… there can be no pure perception, no pure datum… Sense organs incorporate the equivalent of primitive and uncritically accepted theories, which are less widely tested than scientific theories. – from  Philosophy of Biology versus Philosophy of Physics by William W. Bartley, III, in Fundamenta Scientiae, Vol. E, No. 1, 1982, p. 66. (Bracketed enhancement added by bioperipatetic.)

This Neo-Darwinian view of the nature of knowledge and epistemology held by Karl Popper and Konrad Lorenz, author of  Behind the Mirror: A Search for A Natural History of Human Knowledge,   is called “evolutionary epistemology”, so named by American psychologist, Donald T. Campbell.

Evolutionary Ideology and Man’s Biological Nature

From a cultural perspective Darwinism speaks loudly to the irrelevance of all that makes man unique, including his rational form of consciousness, which makes possible all of human civilization and human culture, including philosophy, theology, science, (including most relevantly for this bioperipatetic, the biological and psychological sciences), mathematics, arts, and engineering (including all of the applied sciences).

The one science focused on man’s nature as a conscious being, possessing reason, volition, intentional essence, is (or should be) the science of psychology.  Unfortunately, psychology has over the entire history of its development into various competing schools, has repeatedly surrendered its subject matter to the biological and physical sciences.  Most relevant to the current topic is the relationship between relatively recent (and still dominant) schools of psychology that align themselves with Darwinism.  The most explicit of these is behaviorism, especially the radical form of behaviorism advocated by B. F. Skinner.  Here we see Skinner’s argument that behavioral conditioning via operant reenforcement is microcosm of Darwinism, and presages his new scientific behaviorist utopia.

We have seen that in certain respects operant reinforcement resembles the natural selection of evolutionary theory.  Just as genetic characteristics which arise as mutations are selected or discarded by their consequences, so novel forms of behavior are selected or discarded through reinforcement. . . . As a characteristic of the social environment this practice modifies the behavior of members of the group. The resulting behavior may affect the success of the group in competition with other groups or with the nonsocial environment.  Cultural practices which are advantageous will tend to be characteristic of the groups which survive and which therefore perpetuate those practices.  Some cultural practices may therefore be said to have survival value, while others are lethal in the genetic sense.  – from B. F. Skinner, Science and Human Behavior, Chapter XXVIII:Designing a Culture, (1953) Free Press,  1965, p. 430.

When we ask what science has to say about ‘concepts as individual freedom, initiative, an responsibility. . . we do not find dry comforting support for the traditional Western point of view. ‘ p. 447.

The hypothesis that man is not free is essential to the application of scientific method to the study of human behavior.  The free inner man who is held responsible for the behavior of the external biological organism is only a prescientific substitute for the kinds of causes which are discovered in the course of a scientific analysis.  All these alternative causes lie outside the individual.  The biological substratum itself is determine by prior events in a genetic process.  Other important events are found in the nonsocial environment an in the culture of the individual in the broadest possible sense.  These are the things which make the individual behave as he does.  For them he is not responsible, and for them it is useless to praise or name him.  It does not matter that the individual may take it upon himself to control the variables of which his own behavior is a function or, in a broader sense, to engage in the design of his own culture.  He does this only because he is the product of a culture which generates self-control or cultural design as a mode of behavior.  The environment determines the individual even when he alters the environment.  – from B. F. Skinner, Science and Human Behavior, Chapter XXIX:The Problem of Control, pp. 447-448

Skinner’s most unabashed book on behaviorist utopia, entitled Beyond Freedom and Dignity,  (where beyond means implicitly ‘the denial of the reality of”) contains the following passage:

An experimental analysis shifts the determination of behavior from autonomous man to the environment — an environment responsible both for the evolution of the species and for the repertoire acquired by each member. . ..  Is Man then ‘abolished’?  Certainly not as a species or as an individual achiever.  It is autonomous inner man who is abolished, and that is a step forward.   –  from  Beyond Freedom and Dignity,  (Knopf 1971) Bantam/Vintage 1972, p. 205

We see in Skinner the unification of behaviorism with materialism with consequence that the entire idea of autonomous man is rejected as ‘unscientific.’

If behaviorism and materialism possess a common ground, it is that upon which rejections of autonomous man have always stood firm.  Both have judged the very idea of autonomous man to be laden mysticism, religiosity, and superstitious musing.  The notion of “free will” in a determined universe violates every canon of parsimony, scientific unity, objectivity, and positivism. . . . The mind, itself, has come to be treated as a metaphysical fiction designed to obscure the essential fact of our determined, material, and temporary lives which, like the planet hosting them, are accidents of mindless creation. – from   An Intellectual History of Psychology, p 452-453.

Thus the individual organism is, according to modern Neo-Darwinian doctrine, including behaviorist psychology, the passive victim whose fate is controlled by two deterministic forces, one internal: DNA (dubbed by Dawkins our “selfish genes”), and one external: Natural Selection, which is the ultimate arbiter of which genotypes will survive and which will perish.  As for man, his inner autonomy is destroyed by Darwinian psychology, and with glee.

It is autonomous inner man who is abolished, and that is a step forward. – B. F. Skinner in Beyond Freedom and Dignity

From the perspective of Darwinian biology and psychology man is no longer viewed as a rational, independent, responsible, moral, autonomous being.  Man is now viewed as a passive victim of deterministic genetic, environmental and evolutionary forces which shape his very being, body and mind, therefore man’s very ontology and epistemology.  All that is allow to exist, under the materialist doctrine, is deterministic matter in motion.  Thus mind as purposeful and the creator of design is rejected as an illusion and abolished from ‘science.’

Failing to find purpose and design in our world, we question the existence of purpose or design in ourselves.  Looking everywhere and discovering only matter in motion, we begin to see the same in the mirror.  It is one of the quiet triumphs of the human mind that it can exhaust itself in attempting to refute its existence. – from   An Intellectual History of Psychology, p 453.

Given the implicit materialist reductionist philosophy of Neo-Darwinism,  a darker view of man’s nature is hardly imaginable!

Darwinism and British Utopianism: Mostly Totalitarian

Darwinism, with its implicit vision of progressivism, has served as a scientific foundation for the design and actual implementation of experimental utopian societies.  Several British Darwinists worked separately on their utopian social models which they based on their own interpretation and philosophical extension of Darwinian theory.

The synthetic work of J. B. S. Haldane, R. A. Fisher and J. S. Huxley was characterized by both an integration of Mendelism and Darwinism and the unification of different biological subdisciplines within a coherent framework. But it must also be seen as a bold and synthetic Darwinian program in which the biosciences served as a utopian blueprint for the progress of civilization. – from the Abstract of  Utopianism in the British evolutionary synthesis by Maurizio Esposito in Center for the History and Philosophy of Science, Department of Philosophy, University of Leeds, 2. The Wellsian utopianism of J. B. S. Haldane, p. 43.

Haldane was particularly enthusiastic about developing a real progressive evolutionary utopia.  He openly embraced the Soviet model, which embraced a Lamarkian view of evolution, pioneered in the Soviet Union by Lysenko, who was given absolute power over the biological sciences in the Soviet Union.

The Haldane’s enthusiasm for the Soviet science was explicitly manifested in the 40s; In 1940 Haldane appeared in a Russian scientific documentary, Experiments in the Revival of Organisms. He describes with an impassive voice an experiment which shows how a living dog could be dismantled and fixed again; such an experiment demonstrated the unlimited power of Soviet science on life. Furthermore, in 1943 Haldane participated in a series of broadcast talks together with Wells and Huxley.In his talk titled ‘‘Reshaping Plants and Animals’’ Haldane highlighted the importance of biotechnologies to improve agriculture. In particular he praised Soviet science, Lysenko and his process of vernalization; as he said ‘‘Some of you owe your lives to Lysenko’’ (Haldane, 1944). – – from Utopianism in the British evolutionary synthesis: 5. Conclusion, p. 48.

Haldane’s embracing of Soviet utopianism is not an intellectual aberration, but the product of Darwinian utopian ideas permeating much of British academia.  It is a phenomenon that shows the power of scientific ideas to transform social standards and political ideas to such an extent that new utopian movements are formed in the name of science.

[T]he lesson I think we can draw from the British synthesizers is that, however we want to define Darwinism, it cannot be removed from the contexts in which it has been adapted, or to put the point another way, defining Darwinism does not only mean pinpointing its scientific content and achievements, but also understanding how it has been used and which other traditions supported it.

Finally, the philosophy of progress and scientific control that these figures endorsed was not always matched with a liberal and democratic philosophy. Excepting Fisher, who was never sympathetic of any form of totalitarianism, Haldane and Huxley legitimated diverse kinds of non-democratic and non-liberal political stances for the sake of collective society and the realization of their utopias. – from Utopianism in the British evolutionary synthesis: 5. Conclusion, p. 48.

Political movements, especially utopian movements, have always be pioneered by well-intentioned, highly intelligent men, who lacked the knowledge of history and who tended to ignore the unsolved difficulties of trying to directly translate science into social models, and who were often unable to see that they were caught-up in a Zeitgeist that appeared to ring indubitable truth.  Yet these Darwinist did not realize that by changing, extending, implementing Darwinist social programs, they were helping to define Darwinism itself, as a social institution and vision.

We have seen that Haldane, Fisher and Huxley all shared a concern for the future of humankind. In thinking about this issue, however, they articulated different possible scenarios: i.e. utopias. Yet, they were inspired by different sources; Haldane by Wellsian utopianism, Fisher by Galton’s utopian agenda and Huxley by both Wellsian socialism and Spencerian progressivism. But all consid- ered utopia not as an improbable place in a static universe, but as a state of knowledge in an evolving universe which carried societies toward an unending progress.  – from Utopianism in the British evolutionary synthesis: 5. Conclusion, p. 47.

Current Darwinist Ideological Impact on Science and Law

Darwin Day in America reveals the disturbing impact of Darwinist ideology on scientists, political scientists, and government agencies:

In the expanded paperback edition of Darwin Day in America (ISI Books, February 2015), political scientist John G. West describes the growing misuse of science to curtail basic freedoms, erode time-honored ethics, and circumvent democratic accountability. – from New Edition of Darwin Day in America, Evolution News & Views February 9, 2015 12:01 AM

The misuse of Darwinian science for political purposes is unfortunately still prevalent in America, as it was in the 1930’s and 1940’s with the rise of the Eugenics Movement, championed by Margaret Sagner, which was a significant cause of the Nazi holocaust, which applied racist concepts to classify mankind as falling into graded classes of culturally desirable, or undesirable, culturally fit or unfit, with the implication that euthanizing, lobotomizing or aborting the actual or potentially unfit is moral, practical and scientific.   Now Darwinists are using Darwinian science to slowly erode the democratic institutions that undergird the American system of creative individualism.

Darwin Day in America tells the disturbing story of scientific expertise run amuck, exposing how an ideological interpretation of Darwinian biology and reductionist science have been used to degrade American culture and fuel a relentless march from democracy to technocracy in criminal justice, welfare, business, education, and bioethics.  – from New Edition of Darwin Day in America

Reforming Evolutionary Theory: Stephen J. Gould (1992)

Many modern paleontologists (and even early critics of Darwin’s theory of evolution, such as St. George Mivart as far back as 1871, in his book On the Genesis of Species) have been critical of Darwinian gradualism and natural selection as continuous forces acting on the organism, which is regarded as a passive object of the continuous effective forces of natural selection which the organism is helpless to resist.

Stephen J. Gould, in his paper ‘Evolution of Organisms’, argued that the modern synthesis breaks down on the premise that is central to that synthesis:

I think I can see what is breaking down in evolutionary theory—the strict construction of the modern synthesis with its belief in pervasive adaptation, gradualism, and extrapolation by smooth continuity from causes of change in local populations to major trends and transitions in the history of life.  – Stephen J. Gould, ‘Evolution of Organisms’, C.A.R. Boyd and D. Noble, The Logic of Life: The Challenge of Integrative Physiology, 1992, Chapter Two, pp. 15-42.

What is required is a new conception of evolution which embraces what it has neglected about the nature of the organism: (1) That nature consists of an integrated hierarchy of of multiple levels of causal regulation, control and generation.  (2) That the concept of  organism where an organism is itself a manifestation of an integrated hierarchy of morphological and physiological levels of structure, regulation and generation.  On integrated hierarchy, the first of the two principles required by any effective new synthesis of evolution theory Gould (1992) wrote:

The new theory will be rooted in a hierarchical view of nature. It will not embody the depressing notion that levels are fundamentally distance and necessarily opposed to each other in their identification of causes, as the older paleontologists held in maintaining that macroevolution could not, in principle be referred to the same causes that regulate microevolution (see for example, Osborn 1922).  It will possess a common body of causes and constraints, but will recognize that they work in characteristically different ways upon the material of different levels—intrademic change, speciation, and macroevolutionary trends. – Stephen J. Gould, ‘Evolution of Organisms‘, p. 36.

On integrated organism,  the second of the two principles required by any effective new synthesis of evolution theory Gould (1992) wrote:

As a second major departure of current orthodoxy, the new theory will restore to biology a concept of organism. In a most curious and unconscious bit of irony, strict selections (which was not, please remember, Darwin’s own view) debased what had been a mainstay of biology—the organism as an integrated entity exerting constraint over its history.   – Stephen J. Gould, ‘Evolution of Organisms‘, p. 36.

In further support of his second point, Gould then refers to the analogy first presented by Mivart (1871) who argued that the proper understanding of the organism was that of a being possessing ‘internal and latent capabilities’ for both maintaining and repairing its natural morphology and physiology thus restoring the organism to a new state of equilibrium.

The conception of such internal and latent capabilities is somewhat like that of Mr. Galton, before mentioned, according to which the organic world consists of entities, each of which is, as it were, a spheroid with many facets on its surface, upon one of which it reposes in stable equilibrium.  When by the accumulate action of incident forces this equilibrium is disturbed, the spheroid is supposed to turn over until it settles on an adjacent facet once more in stable equilibrium.

The internal Tendency of an organism to certain considerable and definite changes would correspond to the facets of the surface of the spheroid.  – from St. George Mivart, On the Genesis of Species, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1871,  p. 244

Gould concludes that organisms must be seen for what they are: active agents in the process of affecting their own survival and procreation.  Referring to Mivart’s ‘multi-faceted spheroid’ analogy, and to the implicit assumption in the Neo-Darwinian synthesis  that the organism is, ideally, a perfect sphere, in terms of its passivity and its inability to resist or counteract the forces of natural selection, Gould concludes:

Organisms are not billiard balls, stuck in deterministic fashion by the cue of natural selection and rolling to optimal positions on life’s table.  They influence their own destiny in interesting, complex, and comprehensible ways.  We must put this concept of organism back into evolutionary biology.  – Stephen J. Gould, ‘Evolution of Organisms‘, p. 37.

In sum, Gould has a new vision and recommends a new synthesis of evolutionary biology that is required to lead biologist out of the current quagmire of the current synthetic theory of evolution.  Two of the key principles that must be restored and integrated into the new synthesis are the principles of an integrated natural hierarchy and the integrated organism, the latter being an instance of such a natural hierarchy.

Neo-Darwinism Challenged

Yet there is a strong reaction to classical- and new-Darwinism in today’s scientific community.  This reaction has roots that go back as far as the beginnings of scientific conceptions of life itself. For details see bioperipatetic.com/emergence-of-life/.

Of significant importance is the recent questioning within the philosophical community of the adequacy and even the validity of the entire materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature.  See the daring book with the daring title: Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, by Thomas Nagel.  From the book’s blurb we read:

The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology.

Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history, either. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such.

Nagel’s skepticism is not based on religious belief or on a belief in any definite alternative. In Mind and Cosmos, he does suggest that if the materialist account is wrong, then principles of a different kind may also be at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic.

In spite of the great achievements of the physical sciences, reductive materialism is a world view ripe for displacement. Nagel shows that to recognize its limits is the first step in looking for alternatives, or at least in being open to their possibility. – Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, Oxford University Press, 2012, from the front blurb.

This bold and well-reasoned book has (not surprisingly) been viscously attacked by the broad community of materialist reductionists and Neo-Darwinists.  Yet the pendulum is swinging back, it would seem, to recapture the dignity and autonomy of man.

The Ascent of Man

How can one capture the fundamental difference between man and other animals.   How can one illustrate the contrast between the mind of man and the mind of another species of mammal, such as the gazelle, each ostensively performing the same reaction in response to a gun-shot as seen by a third party observer.  The answer to this question is best answered by a beautiful passage from the book ‘The Ascent of Man‘ by Jacob Bronowski, Little Brown and Company, 1973.

So far, there is nothing to distinguish the athlete from the gazelle — all that, in one way or another, is the normal metabolism of an animal in flight.  But there is a cardinal difference: the runner was not in flight.  The shot that set him off was the starter’s pistol, and what he was experiencing, deliberately, was not fear bust exaltation.  The runner is like a child at play; his actions are an adventure in freedom, and the only purpose of his breathless chemistry was to explore the limits of his own strength.

Naturally there are physical differences between man and the other animals, even between man and the apes,.  In the act of vaulting, the athlete grasps his pole, for example, with an exact grip that no ape can quite match.  Yet such differences are secondary by comparison with the overriding difference, which is that the athlete is an adult whose behavior is not driven by his immediate environment as animal actions are.  In themselves, his actions make no practical sense at all; they are an exercise that is not directed to the present.  The athlete’s mind is fixed ahead of him, building up his skill; and he vaults in imagination into the future.

Poised for that leap, the pole-vaulter is a capsule of human abilities: the grasp of the hand, the arch of the foot, the muscles of the shoulder and pelvis — the pole itself, in which energy is stored and released like a bow firing an arrow.  The radical character in that complex is the sense of foresight, that is, the ability to fix an objective ahead and rigorously hold his attention on it.  The athlete’s performance unfolds a continued plan; from one extreme to the other, it is the invention of the pole, the concentration of the mind at the moment before leaping, which give it the stamp of humanity. –  The Ascent of Man:Chapter 1: Lower than the Angles, p. 36.

Bronowski’s clear appreciation of the majesty and uniqueness of man is also shown in another passage from the same book.  This time Bronowski is articulating an argument (that I have only seen in this amazing book)– an argument about the meaning of the hand-prints on ancient cave walls inhabited by ancient pre-historic cave-dwellers.  This is clearly an interpretation of that phenomenon that is pure Bronowski at his finest:

The men who made the weapons and the men who made the paintings were doing the same thing — anticipating a future as only man can do, inferring what is to come from what is here.  There are many gifts that are unique in man; but at the centre of them all, the root from which all knowledge grows, lies the ability to draw conclusions from what we see to what we do not see, to move our minds through space and time, and to recognize ourselves in the past or on the steps to the present.  All over these caves the print of the hand says: ‘This is my mark. This is man.’  –  The Ascent of Man:Chapter 1: Lower than the Angles, p. 56.

Darwinist Epistemology vs. The Argument from Reason

Surely the key capacity and power that differentiates humans from other animal species, is his power of reason.  Yet the neo-Darwinists, especially the physicalists, are logically required to argue that reason is a materialist, determinate product of Darwinian evolution.  As William Hasker has put this point:

For humans in this post-Darwin era, there is a tight link between evolution and rationality. . . If rationality is something we’ve got, evolution must have given it to us. — William Hasker, The Emergent Self, page 75.

There is an implied Darwinist epistemology in this point of view.  Neo-Darwinists argue that human cognition and mental processes are deterministically selected because they help the possessor to successfully compete in the struggle for survival.

The central idea of Darwinist epistemology is simply that an organism’s conscious states confer a benefit in the struggle to survive and reproduce. — William Hasker, The Emergent Self, page 75.

But how can this be?  Given the neo-Darwinist’s demand that all evolution be closed at the physical level, i.e., that at all levels of structure and function, all of evolution is the product of physical and only physical forces acting on the organism (externally as well as internally), it follows that all mental content and all mental processes are fully reducible to the mechanistic laws of matter in motion and that there is nothing else out there in the physical world.  Thus, it follows that no physical laws can be appealed to nor can they in principle account for the power of reason to grasp the facts of reality and to act accordingly.  This, presumably, leading to better behavioral adaptation and organismic survival.  Thus Darwinist epistemology contradicts Darwinist physicalism, for under physicalism and its principle of physical closure, conscious reasons (mental acts or content) are evolutionarily irrelevant in that they cannot (qua mental ideas) be subject to selection pressures.

Thus, one can argue against both Kim and Davidson—and in fact, against any physicalist view that maintains the causal closure of the physical domain—that “whether for not a given event has a mental description” (for instance, as the acceptance of a proposition which constitutes a good reason for some other proposition) “seems entirely irrelevant to that causal relations it enters into” (for instance, to what other beliefs a person comes to accept as a result).  To put it more plainly, On the assumption of the causal closure of the physical, no one ever accepts a belief because it is supported by good reasons.  To say that this constitutes a serious problem for physicalism seems an understatement.  –Page 68.

All of this merely restates, in the language of counterfactual conditionals, what should by now be obvious:  In a physicalist world, principles of sound reasoning have no relevance to determining what actually happens.  –Page 71.

Thus, if all evolutionary mechanisms are to be understood in strictly physicalistic terms, then evolution cannot explain the survival benefits of consciousness, especially of a consciousness capable of acting on one belief rather than another based on the former’s characterization as based on sounder  (or better) reasoning.

What this means is that, given the physicalist assumption, the occurrence and content of conscious mental states such as belief and desire are irrelevant to behavior and are not subject to selection pressures.  On this assumption, natural selection gives us no reason to assume that the experiential content of mental states corresponds in any way whatever to objective reality.  And since on the physicalist scenario Darwinist epistemology is the only available explanation for the reliability of our epistemic faculties, the conclusion to be drawn is that physicalism not only has not given any explanation for such reliability, but it is in principle unable to give any such explanation.  And that, it seems to me, is about as devastating an objection to physicalism as anyone could hope to find. — William Hasker, The Emergent Self, page 79.

Aristotle on Teleology

Aristotle’s biology is deeply imbued with his concept of teleology, or final causation: that for the sake of which an activity or organ exists.  Aristotle considered it impossible to even begin to study biology without first grasping the self-evidence of teleology as a fundamental principle underlying all of biology at its causal level.  Etienne Gilson emphasized the centrality of this Aristotelian doctrine:

Aristotle found teleology so evident in nature that he asked himself how his predecessors had bee able to avoid seeing it there or, still worse, had denied its presence.  He explained their error on the grounds that they were deceive on the notions of matter and substance.  — ‘From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species and Evolution‘ by Etienne Gilson, translated by John Lyon, Ignatius Press, first published in 1971.

Gilson, by way of explanation, pointed out the fact that teleology died with the emergence of the Baconian / Cartesian machine theory of the organism during the so-called enlightenment.  For more on Descartes’ impact on the biological sciences, see Descartes and the Philosophical Crisis of Modern Science.

Aristotle and Darwinism

Aristotle, the father of the science of biology, is currently having a significant positive influence on countering the Neo-Darwinian dogma that dominates modern biology.  With Aristotle’s top-down hylomorphic approach to the biological order and his anti-reductionist emergentist viewpoint of organic development, Aristotle stands as a beacon of reason in the face of Neo-Darwinian obfuscation and stochastic reductionism.  A recent paper, An Aristotelian Account of Evolution and the Contemporary Philosophy of Biology’ discusses in depth the importance of Aristotle in the current debate over Darwinian evolution.

The anti-reductionist character of the recent philosophy of biology and the dynamic development of the science of emergent properties prove that the time is ripe to reintroduce the thought of Aristotle, the first advocate of a “top-down” approach in life-sciences, back into the science/philosophy debate. His philosophy of nature provides profound insights particularly in the context of the contemporary science of evolution, which is still struggling with the questions of form (species), teleology, and the role of chance in evolutionary processes. — An Aristotelian Account of Evolution and the Contemporary Philosophy of Biology, by Mariusz Taloaczek, , from Proceedings of the Conferences on the Dialogue between Science and Theology, November, 6 – 11 2014

Of particular importance to the topic of evolutionary processes are Aristotle’s understanding of species and teleology within the context of his theory of causality with its four aspects: efficient causation, material causation, formal causation (these last two understood by Aristotle’s hylomorphic unity) and final causation (understood as teleological or in modern parlance teleonomic causality).

This exploration leads to an inquiry into the central topics of the present debate in the philosophy of evolutionary biology. It shows that Aristotle’s understanding of species, teleology, and chance – in the context of his fourfold notion of causality – has a considerable explanatory power which may enhance our understanding of the nature of evolutionary processes. — — An Aristotelian Account of Evolution and the Contemporary Philosophy of Biology, by Mariusz Taloaczek

For a deeper discussion of Aristotle and emergence theory, ‘Aristotle, Emergence and the Recovery of Science’ on the bioperipatetic page entitled ‘Recovering Aristotle‘.


References (in order of citation)


  1. Michael Boulter ‘A Brief History of Life: Understanding Evolution in 45 Posts,  CATEGORY ARCHIVES: ARISTOTLE 1. ARISTOTLE ON LESBOS 346-343BC Posted under Aristotle on June 5, 2013 
  2. Greek T., Aristotle’s Lagoon – Lesvos island – Greece,  YouTube, Published, November 20, 2012
  3. Armand Marie Leroi,  The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science, Viking/Penguin Publishing Group, New York, 2014.
  4. Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection,  With a special introduction by Julian Huxley Paperback, Mentor Books, 3rd edition, 1960
  5. Etienne Gilson, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species and Evolution , translated by John Lyon, Ignatius Press, first published in 1971,
  6. Daniel N. Robinson,  An Intellectual History of Psychology, University of Wisconsin Press, 1976.
  7. Sir D’Arcy Thompson, On Growth and Form, Cambridge University Press, 1961.
  8. Stephen J. Gould, ‘Evolution of Organisms’ Chapter Two in The Logic of Life: The Challenge of Integrative Physiology, edited by C. A. R. Boyd and D. Nobel, Oxford Press, 1993.
  9. Sir D’Arcy Thompson, On Growth and Form, Cambridge University Press, 1961.
  10. Ernst Mayr, ‘the synthetic theory of evolution’ (quoted by Stephen J. Gould in The Logic of Life: The Challenge of Integrative Physiology, by C. A. R. Boyd and D. Nobel, Oxford Press, 1993,  Chapter Two ‘ Evolution of Organisms’ by Stephen J. Gould, p. 17):
  11. Maurizio Esposito, Problematic “Idiosyncrasies”:Rediscovering the Historical Context of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s Science of Form, Science in Context 27(1), 79–107, Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  12. Stephen J. Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, W. W. Norton, New York, 1989.
  13.  Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Problems of Life: An Evaluation of Modern Biological and Scientific Thought, Harper Torch Books: The Science Library, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1952
  14. Stephen Jay Gould, Punctuated Equilibrium, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2007.
  15. Stephen C. Meyer,  Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, Harper-One, New York, 2013.
  16. Dr. John G. Wes, Darwin Day In America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, Paperback – February 9, 2015.
  17. Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False,.Oxford University Press; 1st edition, September 26, 2012.
  18. Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man Little Brown and Company, 1973.
  19. William Hasker, The Emergent Self, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1999.
  20. Mariusz Taloaczek, An Aristotelian Account of Evolution and the Contemporary Philosophy of Biology, from Proceedings of the Conferences on the Dialogue between Science and Theology, November, 6 – 11,  2014.

First Published on October 4, 2014.

Copyright  © 2014-2017 by Jack H. Schwartz (a.k.a. bioperipatetic).  All rights reserved. 

Latest revision: October 18, 2017 @ 4:33 am

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