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Teleology and Darwinism in William James

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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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