Teleology and Darwinism in William James


Although the general view of Darwinism is that it directly opposes the validity of final causation, which I, along with William James, Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, Thomas Nagel, and many other philosophers unequivocally assert, it seems unlikely that a mode of thought would attain the wide and lasting success that Darwinism has without containing some significant grain of truth. William James addresses this issue obliquely in a long passage from The Will to Believe (1897, 221-4), in an essay called “Great Men and Their Environment.” According to James, Darwin did not purport to explain the underlying cause of what he called “tendencies to spontaneous variation.” In fact, he “ignored them altogether,” as James puts it. What Darwin does seem to have explained rather convincingly, which James deems an instance of Darwin’s “triumphant originality,” is the way the traits produced by those “spontaneous variations” are preserved and passed on in relation to the environmental context through natural selection and sexual selection.

Charles Darwin states his hypothesis directly in the introduction to On the Origin of Species:

As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form (5).

If James is correct (and I believe he is correct about most things), then Darwin himself has very little to say about whether the underlying cause of the emergence of new traits is random chance or teleological tendencies in the nature of process. And as to the question of what Darwinists other than Darwin himself have believed about this issue, some of his followers appear to have understood him better than others, and many have asserted things that Darwin himself never asserted. To my mind, anyone who denies teleology, whether they call themselves Darwinists or not, are mistaken, as there is an undeniable trajectory visible in cosmic history towards the progressive emergence of novelty and consciousness, from nonlife, to life, to episodic mammalian consciousness, to the emergent human mind.

The two kinds of selection Darwin posits define the mechanism by which traits are preserved, whether they are caused by random chance or by teleology. It seems to me that this central point of Darwinism makes a positive, and rather large contribution to understanding how evolution occurs without denying any other theory, particularly final causation, even if the underlying cause of the variations remains a mystery for Darwin. Similarly, the idea of subtraction itself is a positive contribution to the total field of human knowledge, even though that operation itself is the mathematical embodiment of the negative.

James interprets Darwin’s citing of “accidental variation” as the cause of new traits to mean not that the underlying cause is necessarily random, but that these causes of variation are so complex, numerous, and deep that they are unknowable to the methods of empirical science. I remain agnostic on the quantitative measurability of teleology at the micro-scale of almost infinite complexity, the scale of the relations of individual molecules over billions of years. But it is clear that at the macro-scale, the evolution of species has consistently tended, over the course of those billions of years, towards the emergence of novel forms of life and consciousness. Judging from James, I do not believe that this supposition is incommensurable with the core assertion of Darwinism, which is the novel idea of selection, even though Darwin appears consciously to have stripped his work of reference to teleology, largely in relation to the Christian form of eschatological finalism prevalent in his historical milieu, as he apparently told botanist Asa Grey. Darwin seems not to have been interested in being in the business of tracing either first principles or final ends, even if some of his followers have been. Some thinkers have even argued that Darwin may in fact have given credence to teleology in some form, particularly James G. Lennox in his contribution to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Ultimately it seems unlikely that James would have so admired the work of Darwin if the latter’s theory had explicitly denied James’ belief in final causation, for as James writes in Pragmatism: “Everything makes strongly for the view that our world is incompletely unified teleologically and is still trying to get its unification better organized” (54).

I’ll give the last word to Darwin, who writes in On the Origin of Species: “I am well aware that scarcely a single point is discussed in this volume on which facts cannot be adduced, often apparently leading to conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived” (3). This statement seems an implicit recognition of the guiding principle of Jamesian pragmatism, of John Stuart Mill in his essay on Coleridge (which I’ve quoted often in earlier posts), of Hegel’s discussion of the negative in his dialectic, and of the work of many other philosophers, a principle by which I set my own course: Facts are often susceptible to incommensurable interpretations, so the most comprehensive approach is to see if opposed modes of thought can be reconciled by affirming the positive content of each mode and putting aside the negative content as historical contingency. In my experience, as with this brief study of the supposedly antithetical theories of Darwinism and teleology, both sides of any controversy that has persisted for generations almost always possess some validity within their respective domains of applicability.


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9 responses to “Teleology and Darwinism in William James

  1. Frank Morris

    Grant, this well written article expresses your (and James’) concepts quite well. I agree that there seem to be self-described Darwinists who assert many things that Darwin himself would not have agreed with.

    For example many people credit selection as a cause of evolution, which it can not be, nor did Darwin claim that. All selection does is what you said it does: Preserve things as they are, which is stasis, the opposite of evolution.

    Moreover, selection happens after the trait evolves so it is always a result, not a cause.

    I must say I see very little, if any, value in selection. Even the minimal credit I just agreed to is really just a misleading manner of speaking. Is there really a thing called “selection” that does something of value to preserve a trait or species? Or does the organism itself make its own way to survival and propagation? I say the latter supposition is valid and the former lacks logical cause-effect. I have to give all credit to the accomplishments of the organism and its abilities to adapt and really no credit to the environment “selecting” it.

    In any interaction of two agents, such as the environment and an organism, one must make informed deductions as to which agent is actively making the noteworthy change and which agent is passively affected. It would be silly to see a man with a pink palm print on his face from a slap and assume he threw his face against someone’s hand.

    Darwin’s awkward use of the word “selection” makes it sound like the active agent doing the work of evolution is the environment and that the organism is merely passively being selected by something. I find the workings of genetic engineering to be fascinating, ingenious and effective, but selection seems vapid, empty and useless to me.

    In fact it is tautological. To say things that are more fit to survive in their environment are more likely to survive or survive better, is to say nothing explanatory. It is mere circular logic with no value added.

    I do see value in organism-centric (correct active agent) sexual selection, but that is clearly teleological… organisms intelligently choosing with discretion… as evidence of that proclivity toward function that you discussed above.

  2. Frank Morris

    All modes of thought that have had wide and lasting success are not necessarily valid or else there would be no change. Geocentrism was presumed truth by scientists for centuries. Support for Darwinism, though, has never been as wide as James suggests and there has been no empirical nor mathematical success as of yet.

    Darwinism may seem to be more successful than it is because of various factors in play. Those espousing materialist beliefs, including extremist atheists, push Darwin and his theory very forcefully. There are parades, conventions and a shrine in his honor and Darwinists push for a national holiday on his birthday every year. So those who do support him, do so emphatically.

    Darwinism is also seen by many as the only alternative to Creationism, a falsehood perpetuated by the media who give a voice only to those two extremes for entertainment value. Unfortunately, this false dichotomy has caused the governments of most states to foolishly mandate the teaching of Darwinism in public schools. Darwin is also wrongly conflated with evolution itself, even as the term “Theory of Evolution” is defined as Darwin’s theory, so the uneducated layperson often equates any disagreement with Darwin as anti-evolution.

    Despite laws mandating the teaching of materialism, some 70% of science teachers refuse to teach it, and most of those who do teach it, only do so because they are required to.

    All mathematicians who have ever evaluated Darwinism have rejected it fully as hopelessly impossible. The Wistar conventions that began in the 1960’s used computers to calculate odds against accidental evolution. 6oo of the world’s premiere mathematicians, including the great Murray Eden, unanimously rejected Darwinism in the strongest of terms. Fred Hoyle, the mathematician / scientist who first calculated (and coined the term) the Big Bang, wrote two books repudiating Darwinism.

    In recent decades, as evidence mounts against Darwinism, the most prominent Biologists reject it in no uncertain terms. Nobel Prize and National Science Medal of Honor winners and authors such as Barbara McClintock, Lynn Margulis, Luc Montagnier, James Shapiro, John Cairnes and even Carl Woese firmly reject Darwinism. Woese, the founder of phylogenic marking and the discoverer of the third kingdom of life (archaea) says simply that there is “no use for selection”.

    Even the staunchly materialist NAS now admits that evolution does not happen by Darwinistic means, while still praising Darwin. This year’s Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have erased the word “random” from its section on mutations and says that “copy errors” are just one of three types of genetic changes, and no longer makes any claim that these errors can lead to function.

    Arguments from authority don’t go far pro or con, but although Darwinism does enjoy the support of the government and of atheist apologists, it has never had wide support and is failing badly in modern times.

  3. Hi Frank, thanks for bringing so much passion and knowledge to this issue. You make a lot of interesting points here about the institutional intricacies of Darwinism in current practice, and I think there’s a lot of value in what you’re saying. I would just make a few suggestions:

    You might consider the possibility that your need to debunk Darwinism is not very different from materialists who seek to debunk teleology. It is an intrinsically oppositional mode of thought that often seems to force the facts into a Procrustean bed, whether they all fit or not. You start from the perspective that Darwinism is all wrong, and then, to my mind, you misinterpret statements to support your single-minded agenda. I respect your dedication and the breadth of information you present, but I find your almost religiously zealous anti-Darwinism unconvincing, partially because it is so vociferous, and partially because you cavalierly gloss over what to me are the most important points.

    The central issue for me is one you cursorily brush past when you write: “All modes of thought that have had wide and lasting success are not necessarily valid or else there would be no change.” This is a drastic simplification and misrepresentation of my suggestion (and that of Hegel, James, Whitehead, Mill, and others in various valences), which is that all successful modes of thought contain some validity, even if their primary claims are negative and thus prove to be incorrect. For instance, the geocentric cosmology that was replaced by the heliocentric cosmology was partially an expression of the psychological centrality of humanity in the cosmos. I would argue that, in our mutual return to teleological thought, we have in a sense reembraced the geocentric idea on a less literal, more encompassing conceptual level, so that we can understand the human mind as the vanguard of the teleological ingression of novelty and consciousness into being. Thus, the essential kernel of truth, which was validly rejected by heliocentrism at the appropriate historical moment, can now be dialectically subsumed within a more expansive cosmology that can see the partial validity in an Earth-centered cosmos, particularly given the relativistic insight that “everything is at rest in its own rest frame.” This psychological truth of geocentrism was the primary reality for premodernity, and the actual physical relations of these objects was secondary, so that they found it necessary to deny the heliocentric idea to make their world view coherent. However, the integral mode of thought I espouse affirms both the physical reality of heliocentrism and the psychological reality of geocentrism, and these two realities are fully complementary and commensurable.

    Also, I think you misconstrue the role of “selection” in your discussion. The various kinds of selection are mechanisms by which new traits are preserved, so they do in fact preserve novelty, though they do not create it. But that certainly does not mean that selection is not a valid contribution to the forward movement of evolution, or to the intellectual understanding of that process. It just means that it is not the ultimate cause of evolution. But, as we seem to agree, Darwin never claimed that it was, so you seem yet again to be arguing not with me, but with people who badly misinterpret Darwin. Perhaps it might make more sense to focus your considerable intellectual vigor not on Darwinism in general, especially when it is defended by a fellow believer in teleology (I honestly never thought I would be in the position of defending Darwinism), but on bad Darwinists–those who extend Darwin’s ideas past their appropriate domain of applicability to bolster their reductive materialist dogmatism, where Darwin seems never to have intended them to go.

  4. By the way, Frank, have you published anything? I’d be interested to look at some of your research, and others may be interested as well.

  5. Frank Morris

    Grant, no I doubt anyone would want to publish anything I have to say. My major in college was Biology but it is not my vocation, just an ongoing passion. Perhaps, as you say, too much passion.

    I must agree that MOST modes of thought that have been widely accepted have borne out to be true or at least largely correct. It isn’t as if I could list as many exceptions as you could list examples of the norm. It is even more unlikely that public school systems would mandate teaching something that is demonstrably false, and there certainly is a general public perception that Darwin was right.

    Still, I am quite certain that Darwin was very wrong and I am not alone. It is an uphill battle due to extensive misunderstandings and misguided laws. Progress is steady but slow and painful.

    People are surprised to hear that scientists and methodologically supported facts are in support of teleology and against Darwinism and materialism. They are even more perplexed by the irony that the real battle between biologists and religious interests are caused by extremist atheists, much more than the Bible thumpers.

    Part of what makes this so interesting to me and others is the very fact that Darwinism and materialism are so entrenched in the power structure of academia, and are so popularized, yet they are so clearly false and rejected by a plurality – if not a majority – of scientists. This debate will only get more and more exciting as it intensifies.

  6. OK, Frank. It seems like you’re dead set on constructing the situation as Teleology = right, Darwinism = wrong, so I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree. I think that a more productive mode of thought is capable of seeing both sides of a debate in a nuanced and balanced way, of holding the pole of doubt within the encompassing circle of belief, but some people need to be against something, and that can be valid and productive at certain moments as well. Good luck with your endeavors.

  7. Frank Morris

    Grant, you do seem to have a more productive approach, as far as likelihood of making progress in common agreement. My rejection of Darwinism was gradual and through learning, not any constructed need to be oppositional, but if I have trouble discussing a topic with someone I mostly agree with, then something is wrong with my approach.

    The NGSS I mentioned above seems to be taking a similar approach to yours. It admits that genetics are non-random, yet it heavily promotes selection, perhaps as an olive branch to Darwinists.

    Although just once it would be nice to see an olive branch for teleology in academia, I still welcome the new science standards as a significant improvement. Still, any evidence of intelligence is banned from classroom discussion due to religious concerns, which is misleading to students who think they are hearing the whole story while unaware of the censorship.

    If more of the public understood selection as well as you do, I wouldn’t be so concerned. As you noted, selection pertains to the preservation of existing traits, not creation of novel traits. To avoid confusion, we have to be careful that we don’t mix causes of preservation with causes of novelty.

    Do you propose a new mode of thought that incorporates both teleology and selection? What would that look like? Would there still be “errors” leading to fortunate functional improvement? Or is it more of a preservation of cognitively created traits?

    I will take your constructive criticism with me but I hope to hear more from you as I like your clear writing style and, of course, the topic.

  8. Pingback: Quote From William James About Ideas | Consilient Interest

  9. Hi Frank, thanks for writing this. I’m really glad we seem to be seeing eye to eye on these issues. That’s interesting that the NGSS has taken a similar approach to the one I’m advocating. It does seem the most pragmatic way to go.

    My experience and my project are primarily philosophical, not scientific. To be honest, biology isn’t my particular area of expertise. I’m more interested in the method that reconciles apparently incommensurable opposites in general, which can be described as integral, though it’s also closely related to pragmatism and the Hegelian dialectic. However, I think this method is most clearly expressed by John Stuart Mill (to whom William James dedicated his “Pragmatism”) in his essay on Coleridge:

    “All students of man and society who possess that first requisite for so difficult a study, a due sense of its difficulties, are aware that the besetting danger is not so much of embracing falsehood for truth, as of mistaking part of the truth for the whole. It might be plausibly maintained that in almost every one of the leading controversies, past or present, in social philosophy, both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied; and that if either could have been made to take the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.”

    Perhaps you could make some suggestions as to how Darwinian selection and teleology might be reconciled? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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