A System of Synthetic Philosophy: Herbert Spencer

“Laws of the Knowable,” the second of the two first principles underlying his system, Spencer referred to as:

A statement of the ultimate principles discernible throughout all manifestations of the Absolute – those highest generalizations now being disclosed by Science which are severally true not of one class of phenomena but of all classes of phenomena; and which are thus the keys to all classes of phenomena

In other words, from his study of science he had arrived at generalizations capable of accounting for everything, even the Absolute. All the rest about Spencer is footnotes.

In his day Spencer was popularly acclaimed as the greatest living philosopher. He rose from humble origins to become England’s foremost explainer of the meaning of evolution. He was elected a corresponding member of the philosophical section of the French academy of moral and political sciences. New York’s business elite lionized him for identifying them as truly the masters of the universe, for their unwavering application in their business practices of the underlying laws of nature. His acclaim of evolution as one of those laws came a fews years prior to Darwin publishing his “Origins…” and under the catchphrase “survival of the fittest” Spencer went on to become evolution’s primary spokesperson.

Then, suddenly, around the turn from the 19th to the 20th centuries, his light went out and he remains today largely unknown. His System, that he published and updated from 1862-93, is entirely unreadable. I’ve borrowed most of this review from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP):

Spencer argued that all phenomena could be explained in terms of a lengthy process of evolution in things. This 'principle of continuity' was that homogeneous organisms are unstable, that organisms develop from simple to more complex and heterogeneous forms, and that such evolution constituted a norm of progress. This account of evolution provided a complete and 'predetermined' structure for the kind of variation noted by Darwin…

Again from the IEP:

The purpose of each science or field of investigation was to accumulate data and to derive from these phenomena the basic principles or laws or 'forces' which gave rise to them. To the extent that such principles conformed to the results of inquiries or experiments in the other sciences, one could have explanations that were of a high degree of certainty. Thus, Spencer was at pains to show how the evidence and conclusions of each of the sciences is relevant to, and materially affected by, the conclusions of the others.

Note that August Comte’s ordering of the sciences into a reductionist system, “higher” sciences being interpreted in terms of those more fundamental, had already been grinding on for a couple of decades before Spencer began publishing. Notably, though, Comte’s work does not appear to have been commented on in English until John Stewart Mill summarized it in the 1860s, and it’s still not available in English translation. Charles Darwin was dazzled by a review in English of an early volume of Comte’s work in the 1830s as he was embarking on his search for a mechanism for evolution, and Comte may have inspired him to come up with his reductionist account of the origins of species.

The second half of the 19th century saw the growth of two great contradictory principles. One was Spencer’s idea of Progress--it was according to laws basic to the universe that the simple would progress to the complex. The evolution of living creatures was merely one instance of this fundamental law. The other great principle lay in thermodynamics, which said exactly the opposite—the fundamental direction of things was to go from the more highly ordered to the less highly ordered. Spencer’s fall may be seen as simply the weight of scientific opinion tending towards that second principle.

My final judgment on Spencer: Comte and thermodynamics were the beginning and the end of him.


Biological Principles, by Woodger

Biological Principles: A Critical Study by Joseph Henry Woodger. The following brief review consists of lightly edited extracts from a much longer review “Rethinking Woodger's Legacy in the Philosophy of Biology,” Journal of the History of Biology (2014) 47:243–292 by Daniel J. Nicholson and Richard Gawne. We have Dr. Nicholson's permission to quote extensively from the article. Readers are urged to consult the original review which can be accessed here.

Biological Principles is a product of a time in the early 20th century distinguished by revolutionary developments taking place in physics. The mechanistic philosophy of classical physics, with its emphasis on reductionism, determinism, and machine thinking, was being challenged by the philosophical implications of relativity and quantum mechanics. Alfred North Whitehead claimed these developments would require a fundamental revision not only of the foundations of physics but of natural science in general. Such challenges triggered new ways of thinking about biology, such as doubting its reducibility to physics while retaining a common overarching view of nature. It was such an organicist philosophy of biology that Woodger conceived of. Writing to the University of London Registrar in 1930, he proposed for philosophers of biology the following daunting role:                                                       

…no one had attempted to do for biology anything analogous to what Galileo had done for physics, and Boyle had done for chemistry. No one, that is to say, had undertaken a systematic critical study of the fundamental properties and special requirements of this science in relation to the most advanced metaphysical, epistemological and logical notions of the day.

This role Woodger assumed for himself. Perhaps he aimed too high, for his own time and our own--he rarely gets a mention in the philosophy of biology. He undertook to re-examine the general framework upon which the data of natural science had been systematized, the mechanistic philosophy of nature of classical physics. In 1929 he published what he referred to as the “tentative results” of his research: a five-hundred page treatise entitled Biological Principles: A Critical Study. His book presents one of the first systematic treatments of the philosophical problems of modern biology in the English language, an attempt to refine the epistemological foundations of biological knowledge through the analysis of its central concepts.

In Part One of Biological Principles Woodger dealt with general epistemological problems involved in the systematization of data into scientific knowledge. A critical study of biology was needed, he said, because of how fragmented it had become. The process of subdivision into specialized branches that characterized progress in any science had not been supplemented, in the case of biology, by generalizations that knitted the findings of its various branches into a unified whole. Instead, it had spawned ever increasing divergences in theoretical outlook between exponents of the different branches.

Also in Part One are a detailed exposition and critique of phenomenalism, the radical form of empiricism which argues that physical objects cannot justifiably be said to exist in themselves, but only as perceptual phenomena or sensory stimuli. According to Woodger this invariably lead to a muddled understanding of the nature of scientific knowledge. He proposed a realist epistemological alternative that regarded perception as an interpretive process involving both sensing and thinking, and which by various modes of abstraction results in the perceptual objects of common-sense knowledge as well as the more abstract concepts and propositions of natural science. Following Whitehead, Woodger also analyzed the categories of substance and cause and argued that both of them give expression to our experience of permanence in nature; the former expresses the stability of spatial characterizations without (intrinsic) change, and the latter expresses regularity in the mode of change of our characterizations.

Woodger ended Part I with an examination of the subjective dimension of scientific thinking, which consists of a discussion of factors that are:

capable of “furnishing a motive for research,” are in some sense a priori, are liable to be used blindly and uncritically, and, as we shall see, are of great importance for the study of the biological antitheses.

These factors include the desire for monistic interpretations, the refusal of arbitrary breaks in nature, the attempt to reduce all science to physics, the demand for simplicity in explanation, the desire for atomistic interpretations, the demand for verification, the demand for predictability and unequivocal determination, and the postulate of the validity of inductive generalizations.

In Part Two Woodger identified six core biological “antitheses” that prevented the harmonization of the facts in biology. These were: mechanism versus vitalism; structure versus function; organism versus environment; preformation versus epigenesis; causation versus teleology; body versus mind. For Woodger, these antitheses were not really “out there” in nature, they were a reflection of the nature of biology as knowledge. Refer to Nicholson’s review for fascinating details about these antitheses.

Woodger viewed these subjective factors as conservative habits of scientific thought not primarily based on reason, but which induce scientists to persist in their adherence to existing explanatory frameworks instead of seeking to formulate new ones. He did not argue that we should reject these factors, but simply that we should recognize their influence as unacknowledged intellectual convictions which may not be necessarily fit for the task of understanding the complexity of nature.

UCL celebrated the publication of Biological Principles by awarding Woodger a D.Sc. degree in the Principles, Methods, and History of Science. Overall Nicholson judges it to be a towering achievement, remarkable both for its breadth and for its depth, simultaneously a pioneering contribution to theoretical biology and to philosophy of biology. Its comprehensive treatment of the central philosophical problems of biology is replete with arguments that prefigure a number of recent debates, as well as containing insights that are surprisingly pertinent to current discussions.

Biological Principles gives us an interesting vantage point in the history of evolutionary theory, roughly halfway back from today to Charles Darwin’s first ruminations on evolution’s mechanism in the late 1830s and publication a few years later of Robert Chambers’ “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.” Woodger’s book therefore predates the incorporation of genetic mutation into the modern synthesis. 100 pages are taken up with the “antithesis” between preformationism and epigenesis, which modern genetics makes irrelevant.

Woodger’s writing style can be judged from the following extract. He is comparing mechanism to vitalism, with whether  the organism is a machine (albeit a very complex one) fully explainable in mechanistic terms, or a different kind of system altogether, requiring different modes of explanation.

Both parties have made up their minds and decided the problem in advance, and there is no possibility of reconciliation between them. One of them is certainly wrong and both may be wrong. Each party will, of course, profess to base its claim on experience. The mechanist will be able to point to a long series of triumphs in the past and to the short period during which active research on his lines has been pursued. Being a firm believer in the “uniformity of nature” his final success will seem to him to be a foregone conclusion. He will wonder how any reasonable man can possibly fail to share his opinions and will conclude that his opponents cannot be reasonable men. He will accuse them of being the victims of prejudice and other “subjective factors,” never dreaming that he may also be a victim of them himself. The dogmatic vitalist, on the other hand, will contend that living things, since they are not yet explicable in mechanistic terms, and since they exhibit peculiarities which are not encountered in the inorganic world, belong to a different order of being. His faith is not shaken by his opponent’s success because he has long and complicated arguments which (in his opinion) place those successes in their proper perspective. But his opponent’s faith is equally unshaken by such replies, chiefly because he does not read or understand them. Thus the vitalist concludes that his opponent is a man of crude sensibilities and inferior intellect, and the dead-lock is complete.

Joseph Henry Woodger graduated with honors in Zoology and Comparative Anatomy from University College, London (UCL) in 1914, taking embryology as a special subject and physiology as a subsidiary subject. His academic performance earned him the College prize in Zoology, as well as the Derby research scholarship. Following the First World War and his discharge from the military in 1919 Woodger returned to UCL where he conducted embryological research and cytological studies. In 1922, he left to take the new Readership in Biology at Middlesex Hospital Medical School (now UCL Medical School), where he remained until his retirement in 1959. Born in 1894, he died in 1981.


Lamarck, from Michael Ruse's "Monad to Man"

This account of Lamarck's work, particularly his Philosophie zoologique, 1809, is taken from Michael Ruse's Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology (reproduced with permission). To aid coherence, some paragraphs have been moved out of sequence, and cross heads have been added. References have been replaced with ellipses (…) to suggest the scholarly thoroughness of the original without impeding the flow of Ruse's highly accessible writing for non-scholarly readers.

It is important not to approach Lamarck too directly through ideas familiar to us today. To use a term which did not come into general modern use until the second half of the nineteenth century, there is little question that Lamarck was an "evolutionist," unambiguously so. He believed that all organisms living today came gradually, by law-bound processes, from forms widely different. He believed, indeed, that all organisms come from the same kinds of most primitive forms. But here--starting to move now from the notion of evolution as fact to that of evolution as path--the kinship with modern thought ends. We, influenced by Darwin's theory in the Origin of Species, tend to think of evolution as a branching path, with all organisms descended from (in Darwin's words) "one or a few forms." Lamarck… planted his thinking firmly in the Chain of Being tradition, believing evolution to be a climb up a main path, in animals from monad (the most primitive form) to man. "One can therefore truly say that there exists for each kingdom of living beings a unique and gradual series in the range of sizes, corresponding to the known degree of organization, rising, in the kingdom of animals, from the most simple 'animalcules' to the most perfect animals"… More than this, Lamarck thought that new forms are being spontaneously created (by the powers of electricity and heat and the like) all of the time. Thus, new organisms are forever getting on the bottom of the Chain--which then carries them up.

In fact, as we move now toward evolution as theory, we find even more complexity in Lamarck, quite apart from the fact that he believed in a separate chain for plants. Lamarck even denied "vitalism”—the notion that there is a kind of force which directs life, a view to be found in Aristotle. He rather thought of himself as a mechanist and spoke of nature as this "blind force"… which for all its results has "however neither goal nor intention, able to do only that which it does, and is itself only a collection of limited causes, and not a particular being"… Nevertheless, it is capable of driving the path of organisms upward. At the more immediate level, Lamarck argued that organisms experience "needs" (besoins). These needs, brought about by changes in the environment, then trigger subtle fluids (like electricity) which, circulating in the body, enlarge or develop the appropriate organs. In higher animals, a crucial causal factor is the "inner consciousness"(sentiment intérieur), which makes parts respond and develop: "it is the impetus of all the actions of the individual, that which directs all the movements it can make, and inasmuch as an individual is capable of intelligent thought, is again that alone which guides the actions"…

Then, overlaid on top of this upward drive, Lamarck located a secondary mechanism, the one everyone knows of and which now indeed carries his name, "Lamarckism": the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Although this was not in fact an original idea with Lamarck (it occurs in Buffon and others), initially he may have seen it as the primary mechanism of change, and there are some suggestive passages hinting that he may have bound the idea up with an embryological analogy… By the time of the Philosophic zoologique, all of this seems somewhat downgraded, but the effect was still sufficiently powerful to spoil the beauty of the scale of nature, for Lamarck believed that the inheritance of acquired characters brings about all kinds of side effects, leading various organisms off on tangents. Although his own diagram was inverted, he was on the way to making the tree metaphor become inseparable from the history of evolutionism.

Yet, do not be misled. In Lamarck's mind, all diversions were always tangents, however much they may complicate the overall picture. Essentially, evolution involves an upward climb, from monad to orangutan, and then on to our own species. And this was the position to which he stuck for the rest of his life. 

Lamarck and progress in nature

Can we say something about the connection (assuming there is one) between evolution and Progress? It has to be admitted that there is something very suggestive about the timing. For two thousand years there is stasis on the organic origins front--both Progressionism and evolutionism were blocked by Greek thought and Christian theology. Then, just at the point (and in the place) where people start to preach the virtues and inevitability of upward social change, biologists start to talk about the virtues and inevitability of upward organic change. But suggestiveness is not enough. We must dig more deeply, using criteria suggested at the end of the last chapter: a theme of progress, a belief in Progress, and a move beyond the evidence.  

The story of [Lamarck’s] life provides lots of straw for our bricks. Politically, Lamarck was forward-looking, endorsing moderate change and reform and optimistic about the possibility of Progress in improving social and political conditions. A politic philosophy during the Revolution, given his birth. Certainly his personal life confirms that Lamarck hardly fitted a conventional, conservative mold: by one of his three or four wives he fathered six children, though he married her only on her deathbed. For this reason alone it is well that Lamarck had little empathy for traditional Christian beliefs; he was quite open in his "de- ism," the philosophy that God stands at a distance, letting all happen according to His (or Its) unbroken law.

Lamarck and the idea of “Progress”

Lamarck believed that humans are improvable, especially through the inheritance of acquired characteristics; that ultimately this capacity for positive change aims at social improvement, in the sense of harmony and balance between people, and between society and nature; and that the intellect seems to be the key. Indeed, Lamarck went so far as to suggest that what we need are a few philosopher-kings running the state, with scientists and science occupying a prominent place. It will come as no surprise to learn that Lamarck linked his position with views about the natural superiority of Europeans. Apparently, they have been in existence longer than other races of humans, and they have therefore had more opportunity to move up the scale of perfection… Note the contrast with Buffon, who saw Europeans as the original best stock and others falling away, thanks to alien climates.

Of course, at a point like this, Lamarck's progressionism and his belief in Progress really collapse into one--as they do also when he talks of the human propensity to form groups and the consequent needs which (natu- ralistically) trigger the evolution of language. Apparently, inferior animals can get by with sighs. We, however, have a great number of diverse needs, multiplied proportionately to our ideas, and hence "it is necessary to use more complex methods to communicate with one's fellows"… Furthermore, intellectual achievements become increasingly complex as civilization advances: "In considering each society with respect to its degree of civilization, one might say that there is a direct proportion between the sophistication of science required for its members' well-being and the needs that they express”… Savages are simple folk, with simple needs. We Europeans, on the other hand,...!

Lamarck was committed to Progress. Further, this commitment did not come from thin air. He was identified with the idéologues and their predecessors and friends, those who supported and preached Progress, specifically Condillac, Helvétius, and Condorcet. Lamarck's beliefs about the genesis of language point to a firm link with the group, given the way that the idéologues stressed the significance of speech in the development of reason. Moreover--and here comes the key point--we know that Lamarck himself saw his work in biology as directed by and backing up the philosophical thesis about Progress. A good half of the Philosophie zoologique deals with "the physical causes of sentience"--that is, with the development of and reasons behind the nervous system generally and the brain and thought in particular. Explicitly, Lamarck tells us that he sees the non-human world through the lens of the human world, and inversely he thinks the non-human world a key to understanding ourselves. Change in the human world echoes change elsewhere, and vice versa.

Specifically following another ideologue, Cabanis, Lamarck located physical and moral attributes of individual human beings in the organization of their social world and argued that using this perspective to view the lower world tells us much about ourselves. Indeed, what he writes could as well have been written by Cabanis--the author most often referred to in the Philosophie zoologique, a man who believed not only in spontaneous generation but a limited form of evolution, and one sufficiently committed to the philosophy of Progress that it was he who sheltered Condorcet in the Terror:

Without doubt, it is possible, by a plan of life, wisely conceived and faithfully followed, to alter the very habits of our constitution to an appreciable degree. It is thus possible to improve the particular nature of each individual; and this goal, so worthy of the attention of moralists and philanthropists, requires that all the discoveries of the physiologist and physician be considered. But if we are able usefully to modify each temperament, one at a time, then we can influence, extensively and profoundly, the character of the species, and can produce an effect, systematically and continuously, on succeeding generations. (Cabanis 1802, 434; quoted in Richards 1987, 28-29)   

The associationism of Condorcet, Cabanas, and Lamarck--the belief that through experience one can pile up information which can then be transmitted wholesale, whether culturally or biologically--may be traced to Condillac's seminal work of 1754, Traits des sensations. In this treatise Condillac tried to meet the challenge of Berkeleian idealism while build- ing on John Locke's attack on innate ideas and arguing that all knowledge could come from sensory experience and habit.

Association with Lamarck brands evolution as pseudoscience

Finally, in our quest to link Progress and evolution, we have the third point: the gap, and its extent, between theory and evidence… Nor should we think that things were much different for Lamarck, however we today might revere him as a major figure in our history. Whatever the cause of conversion, once he became an evolutionist Lamarck's attitude to the evidence--real or apparent--was positively cavalier. Most obviously, if one were going to build a case for progressionism, at least with respect to evolutionary paths, one would show some interest in the fossil record. This Lamarck singularly failed to do. He postulated progression right up to humankind, and that is it. His only worry was that of fitting all living organisms into the picture. There is a chasm here between belief and evidence and--given the background belief in the Chain of Being--it is Progress which provides the bridge we are seeking.

The three possible levels of evidence concur. The case is made for the connection between the philosophical thesis about Progress and the be-ginnings of organic evolutionism in France in the second half of the eighteenth century. Particularly for Lamarck, the form of evolutionism he proposed--deeply progressionist--reflects the form of Progressionism the philosophers promoted. The French view of culture posited a kind of upward movement fueled by the development of ideas, as needs arise, and by their subsequent direct transmission. It is precisely the biological equivalent of this view that Lamarck proposed. It is often said today that cultural evolution is "Lamarckian," meaning that it centers on the spread of acquired ideas. Such a truth is hardly contingent. Culture is Lamarckian because Lamarck was cultural…

In respects, Lamarck… was--and was regarded by his contemporaries--a real Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the professional/popular division. Some of his work was praised by all as precisely that which one expects of a professional scientist focusing on organisms. It was careful, it was descriptive, it was repeatable, it was useful. It was acknowledged as being of the best quality. I refer specifically to Lamarck's taxonomic labors, including (before he became an evolutionist) his work in botany and (after he became an evolutionist) his massive treatise on the invertebrates… But there was another side to Lamarck, and here he developed a reputation for being very unsound--with good reason, for he was wildly speculative, flew in the face of solid empirical evidence, and predicted in ways that were not simply wrong but embarrassingly so. In chemistry, Lamarck adopted the pre-Lavoisier theory of four elements--earth, air, water, and fire--and persisted through his career in using them to explain everything, from sound to magnetism, from color to organisms, despite nigh definitive evidence as to the untenability of his initial premises… In meteorology--where Lamarck really thought he was a founding genius--he speculated on the influence of the moon and made proclamations that truly must be judged pseudo-predictions, the inadequacy of which became apparent to all (including an irate Napoleon) after much state expenditure… And in geology likewise, Lamarck was much given to wild speculation: again the moon was a key operative factor, this time in swirling water around the globe, thus causing mountains to be built from the precipitates of organic remains within the waters…

Lamarck's evolutionism fell firmly into the speculative branch of his labors and was seen as such by his contemporaries, who (as professionals) responded (for many years) with (at the Institute) professional silence and (at the College de France) public scorn. They regarded his evolutionism as being in major respects part and parcel of his ridiculous chemistry and geology and more--which it was. To suppose spontaneous generation was to fly against both conventional biology and conventional chemistry. To suppose that all change comes through needs and environmental pressures is to suppose an ongoing changing earth, as predicted by Lamarck's geology. To suppose ... Unfortunately to suppose evolution after the fashion of Lamarck was simply not to suppose professional science.

Lamarck’s life

Born into the minor nobility, he enrolled in the army but was soon forced by injury to seek a less active life. This he found in Paris, gaining status among the capital's scientists, as well as the patronage of Buffon, for producing the first definitive French Flora (Flore frangoise, 1778). Later Lamarck moved from botany to zoology, studying those lowly animals which include the insects and the worms. It was Lamarck himself who was to invent the term invertebrate for this hotch-potch group, and in the course of his long career he was to produce a major study of this field--one on which his contemporary reputation was to rest… Interested in just about every branch of science, the young Lamarck was strongly opposed to evolutionary ideas--apart from anything else, they would play havoc with botanical classification. But, starting cautiously in 1800, Lamarck became more and more sympathetic to beliefs about organic change, and he produced his best-known discussion, the Philosophic zoologique, in 1809…


Social Environment and Moral Progress: Alfred Wallace

Background: Alfred Wallace was co-proposer along with Charles Darwin of natural selection being the primary mechanism driving evolution. In fact Wallace submitted the idea for publication first but graciously shared the credit with Darwin and referred to the mechanism throughout his life as Darwin's discovery. His studies began with collecting fossils and specimens of exotic living creatures in South America and Indonesia, among whose people he lived for many years far beyond the reach of Western civilization. Wallace was notable for his mildness of character combined with a fierce insistance on human dignity. "Social Environment and Moral Progress" was published in 1913.

For me Wallace remains highly relevant. Over a century ago he foresaw opportunities open to us to apply what we know about evolution to today's problems. He foresaw current interest in the idea of states providing every citizen with a basic income. "I have shown that the well-established laws of evolution as they really apply to mankind are all favorable to the advance of true civilization and of morality. Our existing competitive and antagonistic social system alone neutralizes their beneficent operation. That system must therefore be radically changed into one of brotherly co-operation and co-ordination for the equal good of all."

He was strongly opposed to the supposedly evolution-based claims of the eugenecists. He quotes examples:

If it be true that reason must direct the course of human evolution, and if it be also true that selection of the fittest is the only method available for that purpose; then, if we are to have any race-improvement at all, the dreadful law of destruction of the weak and helpless must, with Spartan firmness, be carried out voluntarily and deliberately. Against such a course all that is best in us revolts. [Professor Joseph Le Conte, in The Monist, Vol. I., p. 334.]

The immediate effect upon character [of the compensation to workmen for accident] is to save the careless, thoughtless and incompetent from the results of their faults; this at once reduces largely the weeding and educational effects of the bad qualities. [Janus in Modern Life. By W. M. Flinders Petrie, D.C.L., F.R.S.]

Convinced of the incalculable worth of every human being Wallace  was implacably opposed to committees assuming natural selection's role of deciding whose progeny would be most fit. "I trust that all my readers will oppose any legislation on this subject by a chance body of elected persons who are totally unfitted to deal with far less complex problems than this one, and as to which they are sure to bungle disastrously." Wallace instead recommended the setting up of a universal basic income. This would moderate population growth much more effectively, in several ways. Taking his lead from Darwin's writing on sexual selection rather than on natural selection, he recommended leaving the job of deciding who could reproduce to women who, as he pointed out, in choosing mates already fulfill and always have fulfilled this function. With a basic income women could embrace motherhood only when it suited them. For some women that is likely to be never, giving other women greater choice over who would be the fathers of their offspring.

A basic income, besides helping relieve every citizen of crushing anxiety, would also allow them to aspire to a greater level of fulfillment. More educated parents do not have large families, the most rapid increase occurs in those classes which are engaged in healthy manual labor. "We may therefore feel certain that as the intellectual level of the whole race is raised by general culture and physical health, the law of diminishing fertility will act, and will tend in the remote future to bring about an exact balance between the rate of increase and that of mortality."

"When poverty is abolished and neither economic nor social advantages will be gained by early marriage, there can be no doubt it will be generally deferred to a later age... If we compare women married at twenty with those at twenty-nine, the comparative fertility is as 8 to 5." But this does not represent the whole effect on increase of population. When marriage is delayed, the time between successive generations is correspondingly increased; and yet another effect in the same direction is produced by the fact that the greater the average age of marriage the fewer generations are alive at the same time. It is the combined effect of these three factors that determines the actual increase of the population due to this cause.

Implementing a universal basic income would work towards Wallace's goal of advancing true civilization and morality.

When men and women are, for the first time in the course of civilization, alike free to follow their best impulses; when idleness and vicious or hurtful luxury on the one hand, oppressive labor and the dread of starvation on the other, are alike unknown; when all receive the best and broadest education that the state of civilization and knowledge will admit; when the standard of public opinion is set by the wisest and the best among us, and that standard is systematically inculcated on the young; then we shall find that a system of truly natural selection will come spontaneously into action which will steadily tend to eliminate the lower, the less developed, or in any way defective types of men, and will thus continuously raise the physical, moral, and intellectual standard of the race.

Social Environment and Moral Progress was the last book Wallace wrote. From it we can learn what evolution meant to one of its most thoughtful students. The meanings he found in it contrast nicely with the conservative meanings given it by Herbert Spencer ("Social Darwinsm"). To Wallace the meaning of us having evolved lead to socialism. He became a fierce critic of contemporary society. Through his years of living far from Western civilization both in South America and Indonesia he was familiar with an unusually wide variety of human societies. From his experiences he judged "It is not too much to say that our whole system of society is rotten from top to bottom, and the Social Environment as a whole, in relation to our possibilities and our claims, is the worst that the world has ever seen." He devoted several chapters to the awful conditions prevailing in Britain in his lifetime, then makes an empassioned case for a universal basic income:

I have given in briefest outline a summary of the growth during the nineteenth century of the actual social environment in the midst of which we live. We see a continuous advance of man's power to utilize the forces of Nature, to an extent which surpasses everything he had been able to do during all the preceding centuries of his recorded history.

We also see that the result of this vast economic revolution has been almost wholly evil. We see that this hundredfold increase of wealth, amply sufficient to provide necessaries, comforts, and all beneficial refinement, and luxuries for our whole population, has been distributed with such gross injustice that the actual condition of those who produce all this wealth has become worse and worse, no efficient arrangements having been made that from the overflowing abundance produced all should receive the mere essentials of a healthy and happy existence...

Yet our Governments, selected from among the most educated, the most talented, the wealthiest of the country, with absolute power to make what laws and regulations they please, and an overflowing fund of accumulated wealth to draw upon, do nothing, although more people die annually of want than are killed in a great war, and more children than could be slaughtered by many Herods.

Now for some of Wallace's other opinions about human evolution.

The theory of natural selection as expounded by Darwin was so completely successful in explaining the origin of the almost infinitely varied forms of the organic world... that it was naturally supposed to be equally applicable to mankind... But so soon as man appeared upon the earth, even in the earliest periods at which we have any proofs of his existence, or in the lowest state of barbarism in which we are now able to study him, we find him able to use and act upon the forces of Nature, and to modify his environment, both inorganic and organic, in ways which formed a completely new departure in the entire organic world.

[Eg., through mind.] If we recognize the brain as the organ of the mind, and give due weight to the complete distinctness and enormous superiority of the mind of man as compared with that of all other mammals, we may... realize the enormous effect his mind has produced, in modifying and almost neutralizing the action of that great law of natural selection which has held supreme sway in every other portion of the organic world

[Mutual aid is one example of] the enormous effect his mind has produced, in modifying and almost neutralizing the action of that great law of natural selection which has held supreme sway in every other portion of the organic world. The less fit are therefore not eliminated as among all other animals; and we behold, for the first time in the history of the world, the great law of natural selection by the survival only of "the fittest" to some extent neutralized.

But this is only the first and least important of the effects produced by the superior faculties of man. In the whole animal world, as we have seen, every species is preserved in harmony with the slowly changing environment by modifications of its own organs or faculties, thus gradually leading to the production of new species equally adapted to the new environment as its ancestor was before the change occurred.

In the case of man, however, such bodily adaptations were unnecessary, because his greatly superior mind enabled him to meet all such difficulties in a new and different way. As soon as his specially human faculties were developed (and we have as yet no knowledge of him in any earlier condition), he would cease to be influenced by natural selection in his physical form and structure. Looked at as a mere animal he would remain almost stationary, the changes in the surrounding universe ceasing to produce in him that powerful modifying effect which they exercise over all other members of the entire organic world.

We see, then, that with the advent of Man there had come into existence a being in whom that subtle force we term mind became of far more importance than mere bodily structure... Though less capable than most other animals of living on the herbs and the fruits that unaided Nature supplies, this wonderful faculty taught him to govern and direct Nature to his own benefit, and compelled her to produce food for him almost where and when he pleased. From the moment when the first skin was used as a covering, when the first rude spear was formed to assist him in the chase, when fire was first used to cook his food, when the first seed was sown or shoot planted, a grand revolution was effected in Nature--a revolution which in all previous ages of the earth's history had had no parallel. A being had arisen who was no longer subject to bodily change with changes of the physical universe--a being who was in some degree superior to Nature, inasmuch as he knew how to control and regulate her action, and could keep himself in harmony with her, not through any change in his body, but by means of his vast superiority in mind.

How did such creatures originate? Quite early, and abruptly. Above I quoted him as saying, "As soon as his specially human faculties were developed (and we have as yet no knowledge of him in any earlier condition)..." And here from someone with almost unparalelled field exerience: "Affection, sympathy, compassion form as essential a part of human nature as do the higher intellectual and moral faculties; that in the very earliest periods of history and among the very lowest of existing savages they are fully manifested, not merely between the members of the same family, but throughout the whole tribe, and also in most cases to every stranger who is not a known or imagined enemy." For Wallace humans seem to have sprung miraculously into existence with all their mental powers fully formed.

The conclusion reached in the earlier portion of this volume, that the higher intellectual and moral nature of man has been approximately stationary during the whole period of human history, and that the cause of the phenomenon has been the absence of any selective agency adequate to increase it, renders it necessary to give some further explanation as to the probable or possible origin of this higher nature, and also of that admirable human body which also appears to have reached a condition of permanent stability.

What explanation does Wallace come up with? Not a Lamarckian inheriting of acquired characteristics, he argues against that at length. In its place he upholds an old-fashioned theism. "To myself, there seems only one explanation of the very remarkable and almost incredible results just stated. It is, that the Divine nature in us--that portion of our higher nature which raises us above the brutes, and the influx of which makes us men--cannot be lost, cannot even be permanently deteriorated by conditions however adverse, by training however senseless and bad. It ever remains in us, the central and essential portion of our human nature, ready to respond to every favorable opportunity that arises, to grasp and hold firm every fragment of high thought or noble action that has been brought to its notice, to oppose even to the death every falsehood in teaching, every tyranny in action."

What I have here termed the Divine influx, which at some definite epoch in his evolution at once raised man above the rest of the animals, creating as it were a new being with a continuous spiritual existence in a world or worlds where eternal progress was possible for him. To prepare him for this progress with ever-increasing diversity, faculties of enormous range were required, and these needed development in every direction which earthly conditions rendered possible. In order that this extreme diversity of character should be brought about, a great space of time, as measured by successive generations, was necessary, though utterly insignificant as compared with the preceding duration of organic life on the earth, and still more insignificant as compared with the spirit-life to succeed it.

I admire Wallace. Though he insisted natural selection accounted for all other aspects of life, reason drove him to conclude that it failed in respect of human evolution. In his other writings he points out that talents that appeared full-blown with the advent of civilzation, such as logic and mathematics, even singing, even if generated by natural station originally, would have been lost through disuse by the time civilization arose. For what was special about humans he invoked the term "Divine." But he was no creationist, no closet Christian as we think of that today. Instead, applying rationalty to the search for this agent, he began frequenting spiritualism sessions. For this he was roundly mocked, but he persisted, perhaps seeing no more likely source of enlightenment in the London of his time. I applaud that judgment, and that persistence, even if in retrospect it seems misguided. I see no one else having pursued the logic of evolution so remorselessly.


The Big Picture: Sean Carroll

big picture smallIncluded in this review:

Book: The Big Picture:
On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself .

Interview: www.closertotruth.com/series/physics-free-will

I include Carroll’s book in my list of “Classic Texts” because it may be taken as the standard account, for non-specialists, of what naturalism/physicalism means for moral philosophy and the challenge it poses to traditional values. It's an impressive summary of physicalist principles. To paraphrase Neil deGrasse Tyson’s blurb, through its 450 pages Carroll weaves threads of astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and philosophy into a seamless