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The Great Debate: Philosophical Responses to Evolution

Evolution and Darwinism
by David Large

Selected Notes from day school held on Saturday 20th May 2000 at Centre for Lifelong Learning, University of Newcastle


1) General Definition

The idea that the world and its contents, especially organisms, develop from primitive beginnings through natural processes.

2) Empirical Definition

The action of natural regularity and material cause.

This is taken to be the scientific definition.

3) Social Definition

A belief in social and cultural progress yielding an analogous belief in upward development in the natural (biological) world confirming, in turn, the original social beliefs.

This is often regarded as a circular definition.


An all embracing account of development not just the development of an individual organism.

See C Darwin - The Origin of Species, 1859 See AR Wallace Darwinism, 1912

According to Darwinism evolution occurs through natural selection.

Natural Selection

Successful organisms tend to differ from unsuccessful organisms. Over time this leads to significant permanent change.


Under the pressure or force of natural selection organisms invade new niches, new habitats, made habitable by the development of special mechanisms.

Organisms are thus adapted. This implies that they are designed and suggests that they become increasingly well designed.

Natural selection, however, concerns differential survival and differential extinction.

What, however, is this thing that survives or goes extinct ?


Genes provide the mechanism of natural selection. They thus underpin Darwinism, forming a keystone of evolutionary theory

Genes are passed on by survival of a species or are not passed on when a species goes extinct. Genetics is the biologically adequate theory of heredity.

See R. Dawkins The Selfish Gene, 1978

Evolutionary Psychology

Genes explain how we inherit the characteristics we inherit. This explanation has been shown to hold true for features such as the colour of eyes, baldness, the disposition to contract certain medial conditions etc.

Evolutionary Psychology holds that such explanations can be used to explain our psychological life, our behaviours, beliefs and social dispositions. It takes genetics into the social realm. It may be seen as a development from the ideas expressed by EO Wilson's Sociobiology and with overtones of eugenic implications it remains controversial.

Challenges to Darwinism

Even today Darwinism faces considerable challenges. These fall into two main types:

1) Darwinism is not true

Eg Creationism, static speciesism

2) Darwinism is not Science

Whatever else it is, a convenient myth perhaps, Darwinism isn't a proper scientific theory eg Nominalism See D Stove, 'So you think you are a Darwinian?', Philosophy, 1994 and S Blackburn, 'I rather think I am a Darwinian,' Philosophy, 1996

Philosophical Questions: Setting up the debate


The Problem of Thought:

Given that we think then what is thinking ?

The Problem of Consciousness:

Given that we are conscious then what is consciousness ?

The Problem of Evolution:

Given that we have evolved then what is evolution ?

Natural Philosophy

Is the idea of evolution more significant than the reality ?

Is evolution a theory, or a philosophy, and not a fact ? (What, for that matter, is a theory, a philosophy, a fact ?)

Do we have anything more than pointers to theoretic evolutionary origins given by empirical scientific disciplines eg palaeontology ?

How important are such other disciplines?

Does Darwinism satisfy the claims of evolution, or are there other mechanisms such as genetics and sociobiology in play ?

If so then are these other mechanisms more basic or more important than evolution and natural selection ?

Can thinking about evolution be applied to the traditional problems of philosophy, as set out by, for example, ontology, epistemology, and ethics ?

? If 'Yes' then do philosophical problems reduce to evolutionary explanations, see Herbert Spencer.

? If 'No' then are philosophical problems and scientific explanations mutually exclusive, and if so then are evolutionary explanations only pseudo-scientific, see Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Can evolution, in any way, be brought to work in conjunction with traditional philosophy to answer traditional philosophical problems ?

Evolutionary Ontology

Evolutionary ontology rests and relies on the biological sciences namely current Neo-Darwinism.

Neo-Darwinism - natural selection and heritable variation deliver the relevant account.

It has led to Ultra-Darwinism.

Ultra-Darwinism natural selection and genetics deliver a complete explanation.

Evolutionary Epistemology

The idea that humans are the end-product of a natural process of evolution must be a significant factor in the ways humans know and understand the world.

Evolutionary epistemology is part of a naturalised epistemology. It takes two forms:

a) Growth of knowledge is akin to the evolution of organisms.

There is a flux continuously moving towards some new level.

As there is a struggle for existence in the organic world, so there is a struggle in the world of knowledge, of beliefs, of concepts.

However, genetic chances and mutations are random; research programmes and discoveries are directed. But what of (higher-level) biological changes ?

b) All knowledge is shaped and informed by certain innate principles. These are selected into human thought due to their adaptive value. These principles may:

i) represent the necessary conditions of rational (synthetic a priori) thought; or

ii) they may be contingent and non-unique. They could have been quite different - Logic on Mars could be different from logic on Earth !

The former, i), develops a philosophy pointing to knowledge as a faithful, reliable mapping of a real world; a correspondence theory of truth.

The latter, ii), develops a philosophy pointing to knowledge as a sort of pragmatic labelling or nominalism; a coherence theory of truth.

Philosophical Questions: Widening the debate

Evolutionary Ethics

Evolutionary ethics locates moral institutions within mainstream evolutionary biology. It derives values from facts about human nature.

We value persons and things in accord with their capacity to sustain and maintain survival set in evolutionary terms eg friendship insulates individuals from violence.

Does this over-simplify the issues ? In particular, is there more to ethics and morality than this approach allows ?

Does it clash with other survival strategies ? isn't it true that a good practice in one environment may easily be a bad strategy in another environment eg calling out versus staying silent ?

Can questions of value ever be decided by facts, even perhaps by biological facts alone ?

Is it true that only human states of mind possess intrinsic value ?

The Evolutionist Objection (to the non-biological nature of our values) states that:

? Our values, our decisions about values, are not wholly intuitive. They are, rather, guided by influences, some biological, some social that have imposed themselves upon us.

Evolution thus offers a biological ethic in the form of an imperative to increase variety, to conserve life and to create new ways in which life may continue.

Can we flesh this out into a substantive evolutionary, bio-based ethics? Must all ethics be like this ?

See GE Moore Principia Ethica, 1903
See P Singer Practical Ethics, 1979

Evolutionary Issues in the Philosophy of Mind


The Problem of Evolution:

Given that we have evolved then what is evolution ?

The Problem of Thought:

Given that we think then what is thinking ?

The Problem of Consciousness:

Given that we are conscious then what is consciousness ?


How are we to understand the relationship between Evolution, Thinking and Consciousness ?

If we are to explain this in terms of the mind then how are we to account for the evolution of the mind ?


1) The Biological Approach - see Dawkins
2) The Scientific Approach - see the Churchlands
3) The Computational Approach - see Dennett
4) The Psychological Approach - see Fodor
5) The Ecological Approach - see Gibson
6) Alternative Approaches

What are they ? May we, for instance, adopt a combination of positions ?

Areas of Debate

Empirical Science and Philosophy;
What is the relationship between them ? see Searle

Empirical Science and Psychology;
What is the relationship between them ? see Fodor

Psychology and Philosophy;
What is the relationship between them ? see Block (editor)

Philosophy and Biological Science;
So, what is the relationship between them ? see Reed

Quantative measurements and Qualitative aspects;
What is the relationship between them ? Are they incompatible or are they otherwise ?

Evolution and Natural Selection;
What is the true relationship between them ? Are they truly compatible ?

Genes and Genetics;
What is the relationship between them ?

Memes and Upbringing;
Is the notion of memes coherent ? Is there a coherent notion by which upbringing can 'do it all' ?

Sociobiology and Sociogenetics;
Are these notions coherent ? How far can they go and still be coherent and respectable ?

Reductionism and Irreducibility;
Are these notions coherent ?

Supervenience and Emergence;
Are these the only proper notions of reductionism and irreducibility ? see Rose

Other factors
Are our explanations complete ?
Has anything been omitted ?

Topics for Discussion:

Evolution and Philosophy

A) General questions

Outline what is meant by evolution ?
What is the role of natural selection ?
What is the function of genes ?
What is the purpose of genetics ?
What is the function of memes ? Is this justified ?
What are the philosophical consequences of evolution ?
Is there progress in evolution ? Need there be ?

B) Discussions

The purpose of evolution is shown through the fact that organisms demonstrate choice. This implies that their actions are directed toward ends. 'Aim' and 'end' may however be reserved for something sought consciously. Discuss.

Organisms act to stay alive. This is their aim. Concomitantly, our wants, needs, desires and ambitions are taken as existing to guide us. They advise us as to what is worthwhile for us to do, and what is not. is this true ?

The facts of evolution are taken to show that evolution has a direction, that life progresses, that there is a purpose to existence. Is this justified ? Furthermore, does this or any other factor mean that evolution implies an increase of order ? Must it ? Need it ?

"Darwin's theory has no more to do with philosophy than any other hypothesis in natural science"- L Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 4.1122. Discuss this statement. What are its implications ?

"Food comes first, then morals" - Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera. Discuss this statement. What are its implications ?

Given the discussion so far, what are we to say about the relationships between empirical science, evolution (and neo-Darwinism) and philosophy ?

Consciousness and Evolution

You may wish to discuss, note and comment on the following:

Animal minds
Black box theory
Brain science

Reading List

C Allen and M Bekoff Species of Mind, MIT, 1997
M Bavidge and I Ground - Can We Understand Animal Minds ?, BCP, 1994.
S Blackburn 'I rather think I am a Darwinian', Philosophy, 71, 1996, pp 605 616.
N Block (editor) - Readings in the Philosophy of Psychology, Volume I, Methuen, 1980.
D Braddon-Mitchell and F Jackson - Philosophy of Mind and Cognition, Blackwell, 1996.
W Calvin - How Brains Think, Phoenix, 1997.
J Campbell - Past, Space and Self, MIT, 1994.
R Carter - Mapping the Mind, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1998.
D Chalmers - The Conscious Mind, OUP, 1996.
W Child - Causality, Interpretation and the Mind, OUP, 1994.
P Churchland - Matter and Consciousness, MIT, 1985.
P Churchland - The Engine of Reason, The Seat of the Soul, MIT, 1995.
P Smith Churchland - Neurophilosophy, MIT, 1986.
A Costall and A Still (editors) - Cognitive Psychology In Question, LEA, 1987.
D Cummins and C Allen (editors) The Evolution of Mind, Oxford, 1998.
R Dawkins - The Selfish Gene, Paladin, 1978.
D Dennett - Kinds of Minds, Phoenix, 1996.
D Dennett - Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Penguin, 1995.
JE Dowling - Creating Mind: How the Brain Works, Norton, 1999.
A Flew Darwinian Evolution, Paladin, 1984
J Fodor - "Special Sciences", Synthese, 1974 and in Block (ed).
J Fodor - The Modularity of Mind, MIT, 1983.
N Gershenfeld - When Things Start to Think, Hodder, 1999.
JJ Gibson - The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, LEA, 1979.
I Lakatos and E Zahar - "Why Copernicus' Programme Superseded Ptolemy's" in J Worrall and G Currie (editors), The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, CUP, 1978.
J McDowell - Mind and World, Harvard, 1994.
M Midgley - Beast & Man, Methuen, 1979.
J Miles 'Unnatural Selection', Philosophy, 73, 1998, pp 593 608.
R Millikan - Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories, MIT, 1984.
R Millikan - White Queen Psychology, MIT, 1993.
T Nagel - Mortal Questions, CUP, 1979.
T Nagel - The View from Nowhere, OUP, 1986.
A Panchen - Evolution, BCP, 1993.
S Pinker - How The Mind Works, Allen Lane, 1998.
H Plotkin - Evolution in Mind, Penguin, 1997.
Z Pylyshyn - Computation and Cognition, 1984.
E Reed Encountering the World, OUP, 1996.
E Reed From Soul to Mind, Yale, 1997.
G Rey - Contemporary Philosophy of Mind, Blackwell, 1997.
R Richards - The Meaning of Evolution, Chicago, 1991.
S Rose - Molecules and Minds, Open UP, 1987.
S Rose - Lifelines, Penguin, 1997.
S Rose (editor) - From Brains to Consciousness, Penguin, 1998.
J Searle - Minds, Brains and Science, BBC, 1984.
J Searle - The Rediscovery of the Mind, MIT, 1992.
J Searle - 'How to Study Consciousness Scientifically', Brain Research Reviews, 26, 1998.
JM Smith - Did Darwin get it Right ?, Penguin, 1989.
D Stove 'So you think you are a Darwinian ?', Philosophy, 69, 1994, pp 267 - 277
I Tattersall - Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness, OUP, 1999.
M Velman (ed) - The Science of Consciousness, Routledge, 1996.
AR Wallace Darwinism, Macmillan, 1912.
J. Weiner Time, Love, Memory, Faber, 1999.
EO Wilson Sociobiology, Penguin, 1973
EO Wilson - On Human Nature, Penguin, 1978.
P Winch - 'Darwin, Genesis and Contradiction' in Trying to Make Sense, Blackwell, 1987.
L Wittgenstein - Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell, 1953.
J Young - Philosophy and the Brain, OUP, 1987.

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