Introduction (Full Text)
- One of the charms of coming with a Darwinian eye to the study of organisms is recognizing the mixture they display of astonishing adaptive sophistication and botched improvisation. For a long time one of the most persuasive arguments for the existence of God was the so-called Argument from Design: the idea that the finely tuned structures of organisms simply could not have come into existence by chance, and must therefore be evidence for the existence of an unimaginably powerful and intelligent creator. Once Darwin's theory of evolution1 by natural selection had proposed a mechanism by which such structures might result from purely natural and unplanned processes, what increasingly impressed biologists was the extent to which organisms turned out - despite being miracles of coordination and functioning - to be riddled with absurdities that no self-respecting designer would have allowed as far as the drawing board. Darwinian evolution2 does not work by planning from scratch with some end in view. The organisms produced by natural selection are merely the ones that happen to keep reproducing in the environments where they happen to be, and selection has nothing to work on but chance variations in structures that have previously been selected, often for quite different purposes. The result is that organisms carry with them fossils of their design history - which is why there has been so much success in tracing that history.
- This fact provides a rather pleasing coincidence between this book and the Darwinian organisms that are its starting point. This is not, I hasten to say, in its being unplanned or the kind of thing any self-respecting designer would disown (an analogy need not work on all fronts), but in being rather different from what it would have been if it had been planned from scratch as an argument for its main thesis. And it is worth mentioning this because, as again Darwinians know very well, what looks odd or inexplicable if you approach it with one set of presuppositions may not only make perfect sense if you start from a different point, but also reveal elements that might otherwise have been invisible.
- The book is, as its title implies, a contribution to the current Darwinian debate, whose main focus is the implications of the Darwinian revolution for our understanding of what we are3 and where we fit into the scheme of things. Everybody knows, because it is part of the legend, that Darwin's theory came as a horrible shock to the respectable Victorians on whom it was let loose, because this radically new account of their origins was so totally at odds with their own self-image. Everybody also knows - if only because of the recurring headlines about American schools that try to banish evolution4 from the curriculum, or insist that it is taught as 'only a theory' along with 'creation science' - that there places where this horror is still felt, and where the Darwinian account of human origins is as strenuously resisted as ever. But it may be less clear, because there is such confusion in the public debate, that even where evolutionary5 theory is not resisted in its entirety, a modified version of the same controversy still continues. Many people who are by now resigned to the idea of our biological relationship with apes and fruit flies, and even yeast, are nevertheless alarmed by the way Darwinism seems increasingly to be getting ideas above its station, and encroaching on territory that at first looked as though it could be kept sacrosanct. Darwinian thinking is seeping through the intellectual landscape; and there is a general anxiety that the further it penetrates, the more we lose in the way of traditional ideas about the kind of thing we are or can hope to achieve. This anxiety about ourselves and our situation seems still to be, just as it always was, a large part of the reason why the battles over Darwinism are so fierce.
- This book is about the extent to which these fears are justified, and it deals with topics that are familiar subjects of anxiety: free will and responsibility, the possibilities for change and improvement, ethics, altruism, and personal and political ideals and aspirations. It approaches the matter, however, not by joining in the battles about the extent to which our origins and nature can be understood in Darwinian terms, but by taking on the more fundamental - and relatively neglected - question of how much is really at stake in these battles. Its purpose is to work out the extent to which the more radical forms of Darwinism really do have the alarming implications they are alleged to have. Different problems appear in different places, but the overall conclusion is that for a variety of reasons - many connected with an insufficient appreciation of how radical Darwinian thinking is, and a failure to recognize philosophical problems for what they are - much less turns on the outcome of the battles than often seems to be assumed.
- However - to return to the matter of design history - although the main purpose of the book is to investigate the implications of different degrees of Darwinian thinking, it started life with that as only its secondary purpose. It was originally written as part of an Open University course - Philosophy and the Human Situation - which was intended primarily to teach philosophy, and philosophical techniques, at an introductory level. Darwinism was chosen as the subject of this book partly for its intrinsic interest and its appropriateness for the course as a whole, but largely because it raised a wide range of relevant philosophical problems. A good deal of the original chalk has been dusted off this version of the book, but there is still no mistaking its origins as a teaching text. The design fossils, once you recognize them for what they are, are apparent everywhere, to the extent that the book is as much a Darwinian introduction to philosophical analysis as a philosophical analysis of problems raised by Darwinism.
- I am not, however, intending this as an apology. For one thing, the fact that so much of the original teaching material remains means that the book can still be used as an introduction to philosophy by anyone who likes the idea of approaching the subject by way of this flourishing area of modern science and controversy. But also, and of direct relevance to the book as a contribution to current Darwinian debate, it probably does the job of explaining and defending its substantive thesis better in this form than it could otherwise have done. Much of the smoke of the Darwin wars is generated by widespread unfamiliarity with fairly basic techniques of philosophical argument and analysis, and making them explicit is just what is needed for clearing the air. This direction of approach, furthermore, also turns out to have given the book what amounts to a secondary thesis - a methodological one running in parallel with the substantial case - because the attempt to devise teaching techniques turned out (as it so often does) to be immensely helpful for getting to grips with the issues themselves. There were several points at which an obdurately amorphous tangle of problems actually began to cooperate when I tried to keep to the order of analysis and argument construction I had been trying to work out for students; and I think a good deal more progress could be made by means of this approach, given time, even with the subjects dealt with here. The detailed setting out of arguments also has the advantage of allowing anyone who disagrees with the conclusions reached - as many inevitably will, in an area as controversial as this - to be able to see exactly which part of the supporting argument they need to challenge.
- All in all, it is difficult to know whether to count the book as a substantive thesis about the implications of Darwinism with a subsidiary methodological thesis, or a philosophical introduction to Darwinism, or a Darwinian introduction to philosophy. Still, that should not bother anyone except pre-Darwinians who are uncomfortable with anomalous forms that cannot be readily classified as existing species (though I wish this category did not include the proprietors of certain large bookshops who insist that any book can be classified under only one subject heading). It is all of those things, and readers with different interests can adjust their dosage of the different elements accordingly. If you know the biology, you will immediately recognize the sections you do not need to read; if you want the overall thesis without too much introductory philosophy, you will quickly see which explanations of techniques and discussions of texts can be skimmed or omitted. And, conversely, if you do want the book as an introduction to philosophy and its techniques, you will find that in many places the arguments are accumulated in ways that make the text easy to treat as a workbook, in which you pause to work out the next stage of the argument before reading on.
- Anyway, I hope that for everyone who is - or is ripe for becoming - enchanted by the Darwinian view of life, or by philosophy, or ideally both, its being of no clear species will not matter. It can be counted as one of those Hopeful Monsters, setting out to find, in this vast and expanding subject, its own ecological niche. That, too, sounds appropriately Darwinian.
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- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
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