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William James on evolution

February 26, 2010

William James–has our continent produced a more sensitive philosophical mind?–made in 1880 an important point underappreciated even now, namely that Darwinism means you have to distinguish between why trait is preserved by the environment and how it was produced in the first place:

If we look at an animal or a human being, distinguished from the rest of his kind by the possession of some extraordinary peculiarity, good or bad, we shall be able to discriminate between the causes which originally produced the peculiarity in him and the causes that maintain it after it is produced; and we shall see, if the peculiarity be one that he was born with, that these two sets of causes belong to two such irrelevant cycles. It was the triumphant originality of Darwin to see this, and to act accordingly. Separating the causes of production under the title of ‘tendencies to spontaneous variation,’ and relegating them to a physiological cycle which he forthwith agreed to ignore altogether, he confined his attention to the causes of preservation, and under the names of natural selection and sexual selection studied them exclusively as functions of the cycle of the environment. (emphasis James’s)

(from ‘Great Men and Their Environment‘)

James’s distinction shows why it’s maximally misleading to speak, even semi-facetiously, of natural selection ‘designing’ or ‘wanting’ organisms to do things, a point I was trying to make in an earlier post, ‘The evolved mind.’ When you think of something as designed, even by a ‘blind watchmaker’, the distinction between production and maintenance doesn’t really arise: hammers are produced to pound nails and hammers are still around–we haven’t moved on to something else–because they really do pound nails. They are produced by an intention, namely nail-p0unding, and persist so long as they continue to fulfill that intention. Whether a hammer is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a simple matter: does it pound nails? It’s pretty easy, perhaps for evolutionary reasons, for us to wrap our minds around this. But inevitably, this means that talking about natural selection as, for example, ‘a blind watchmaker’, as Richard Dawkins does, triggers the thought that what goes for hammers goes for organisms: if not consciously designed, organisms are still produced in order to survive and procreate. From there it’s a small step to the conclusion that whether a trait is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is answered by the simple question of whether it furthers survival/procreation. But this line of thought is confused from the beginning. Traits are preserved because of their survival/procreation-value, not produced by it, even unconsciously.

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