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…

Below, microdata:

Evolution for the Humanities
Monad to Man evolution

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 .


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

The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins

What a misfortune, for all concerned! I recently adopted the skeptical stance of refusing to believe anything I needed maths to understand. And now, just a few weeks later, I undertake to review Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene”! Dawkins and his primary sources, his “Bad Boys,” George Williams, W. D. Hamilton, John Maynard Smith and Robert Trivers all follow in the tradition of the statistician Ronald Fisher, and the master of them all, Darwin himself. This is maths septupled! Dawkins: “So long as it is formulated only in words, we cannot be sure whether it will work or not. We get a better idea of how feasible such a theory is when it is rephrased in terms of a mathematical model.”

Since I can’t critique the maths, or simply accept what it’s supposed to mean, I can only critique the assumptions, expressed in Dawkins’ words, that the maths incorporates. The overarching assumption, that the Bad Boys inherited from Darwin, is that evolution requires there to be competition for survival--whatever makes the victors victorious will get represented in the gene pool as often and for as long as possible. Here’s how Dawkins and his Bad Boys elaborate on that assumption: “The critical question is which level in the hierarchy of life will turn out to be the inevitably ‘selfish’ level, at which natural selection acts?” To answer this question, “we begin by identifying the properties that a successful unit of natural selection must have. In the terms of the last chapter, these are longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity…. What I have done is to define a gene as a unit which, to a high degree, approaches the ideal of indivisible particulateness… define the gene in such a way that I cannot really help being right!”

That’s the assumption Dawkins’ Bad Boys express in mathematical form. Dawkins contribution was to inform us that the process of evolution had been subject to a more penetrating analysis and given more elegant form, and tell us what the maths implied. Turns out, not surprisingly, the implications Dawkins drew out of the maths are pretty much the same as the assumption that went in. What natural selection works on is not individual living creatures but their genes. So it’s genes that evolve. And they evolve to favor their own representation in the gene pool, not ours. So when there’s a clash between their interests and ours, the genes have evolved to put themselves first. If my home is threatened I may sacrifice myself to save my family, but this won’t be selfless altruism on my part, it will be my genes demanding I sacrifice myself to save my genes’ greater representation in all the rest of my family members. “… individuals in a Darwinian world are assumed to be making an as-if calculation of what would be best for their genes…. The minimum requirement for a suicidal altruistic gene to be successful is that it should save more than two siblings (or children or parents), or more than four half-siblings (or uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, grandparents, grandchildren), or more than eight first cousins, etc. Such a gene, on average, tends to live on in the bodies of enough individuals saved by the altruist to compensate for the death of the altruist itself.”

This new insight is summed up in two new terms—replicators, and vehicles. “Replicator” stands for whatever it is natural selection works on to drive evolution. Vehicles are what house the replicators. “A body, then, is not a replicator; it is a vehicle. I must emphasize this, since the point has been misunderstood. Vehicles don’t replicate themselves; they work to propagate their replicators.” Vehicles are whatever the replicators reside in. Us, for example. In a single generation what natural selection selects for is the more successful individuals, but over vast numbers of generations it is the replicators within us, that account for our success, that natural selection picks out and judges for success in replicating. The replicators in living creatures will be various forms of a gene, alleles, they may be clusters of genes that work together, or even parts of genes. They are whatever it is that natural selection can most clearly distinguish as a successful competitor in comparison with other potential replicators. “‘Good’ genes are blindly selected as those that survive in the gene pool. This is not a theory; it is not even an observed fact: it is a tautology.”

Does Dawkins make a value-judgment between replicators and vehicles? “…when you are actually challenged to think of pre-Darwinian answers to the questions ‘What is man?’ ‘Is there a meaning to life?’ ‘What are we for?’, can you, as a matter of fact, think of any that are not now worthless except for their (considerable) historic interest? There is such a thing as being just plain wrong, and that is what, before 1859, all answers to those questions were…. It requires a deliberate mental effort to turn biology the right way up again, and remind ourselves that the replicators come first, in importance as well as in history…. Their preservation is the ultimate rationale of our existence.”

If what needs critiquing is not the maths but the assumption behind them, going back to Darwin himself, where can we find a source of alternative assumptions to compare it to? I find that source in an alternative fount of wisdom, Roman Stoicism. Stoics believed in an “element,” conscious, intelligent, creative and volitional, that pervaded and maintained the natural order. Let’s restrict this element to everything with genomes in it, even consider genomes as serving as brains to support this intelligence. In a Stoic theory of evolution it would be this intelligence that created all living creatures, including us. It’s from this element that we’d get our mental powers, though on a smaller scale. We are, as it is, persons. Our relation to it is not as its atoms, but as related persons, microcosm to  macrocosm.

According to this updating of Stoicism, evolution has nothing to do with us competing to pass on our genes. Natural selection will figure only as a tool this element might or might not employ. The point of existence is, at a first approximation, existence itself. There just is a natural world, of species, groups, individuals, genes, all playing their parts, whatever those parts are in such a natural order, without distinction between replicators and vehicles. No part of the Dawkins’ Bad Boys’ assumption apply to life seen through this glass.

Who is right? Dawkins is confident: “What I am always trying to get over is something about the fundamental properties that must lie at the heart of any good theory of the origin of life on any planet, notably the idea of self-replicating genetic entities.” “…no sane person thinks DNA molecules have conscious personalities, and no sensible reader would impute such a delusion to an author.” Does the strength of his convictions give Dawkins’ interpretation priority over Stoic wisdom? 

That depends on where Dawkins get his wisdom from. It turns out to come from the other great tradition of wisdom in the ancient world, Epicureanism or, as we are more familiar with it, atomism. Revived and given mathematical form it became the primary form of explanation in the scientific revolution four centuries ago. It consists of accounting for something complex or mysterious in terms of simple atoms, each with a few properties you could give numerical values to, that you supposed the complex thing to consist of. Then you came up with maths “explaining” the complex thing in terms of your simple atoms. It didn’t matter if your atoms were real, just being able to model something in mathematical form meant you “understood” it. Newton “explained” the colors of a rainbow by supposing light to consist of particles, different-weight particles being bent at different angles. Not true, but now you felt you “understand” the rainbow. 

Darwin got his atomic theory from Thomas Malthus. Malthus “explained” why charity was pointless by defining individual city residents as atoms, each taking up so-much space and needing so-much food.  Extra food could be obtained only at the city’s boundary while space needed for extra residents increased in proportion to the square of the boundary. So cities were always straining against limits to growth; saving one person meant someone else had to die. Darwin adopted this atomic model and turned it into natural selection: since in every generation more creatures of a species were born than its environment could support, only the most fit would survive, passing their values for the species’ characteristics on to future generations. Now everyone could “understand” how evolution worked, provided you regarded individual living creatures as atoms with a few characteristics that varied only in numerical value.

From there on, progress in evolutionary theory consisted of breaking how creatures varied into smaller and smaller atoms, rather as physicists have done in theorizing about fundamental particles. For Darwin, creatures just came varied. Ronald Fisher broke variation down into how individual genes varied--atoms of “mutation.” Then Dawkins’ Bad Boys broke down what mutated into just those fragments of genes that survived in our chromosomes over evolutionary-time.

“The gene’s-eye view of Darwinism is implicit in the writings of R. A. Fisher and the other great pioneers of neo-Darwinism in the early thirties, but was made explicit by W. D. Hamilton and G. C. Williams in the sixties. For me their insight had a visionary quality…. Meanwhile the theory had been extended, notably by John Maynard Smith and Robert Trivers. I now see that it was one of those mysterious periods in which new ideas are hovering in the air. I wrote The Selfish Gene in something resembling a fever of excitement.” For those enchanted by the dance of atoms, "The Selfish Gene” has the power of revelation--Dawkins’ account must be true because his Bad Boys have accounted for evolution in terms of even smaller atoms, each with even fewer characteristics and variants, or alleles.

What do you choose? Do you choose to think of yourself as a person, or an atom? Here’s a sample of how we appear to our genes: “A decision to bear a new child is usually followed by a decision to care for it. It is because bearing and caring so often go together in practice that people have muddled the two things up. But from the point of view of the selfish genes there is, as we have seen, no distinction in principle between caring for a baby brother and caring for a baby son.” 

Truth is, we don’t have a referee qualified to decide this contest for us, our science is still dominated by the atomic model. But Stoicism underwent development from the time of Aristotle well into the Christian era, for just as long as the atomic philosophy, far longer than modern science has existed. We don’t have any authority sufficiently qualified to declare either invalid. So maybe we have to choose from what Dawkins says in his book. 

Some quotes:

The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes…. We are survival machines— robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes…. the human importance of this subject is obvious. It touches every aspect of our social lives, our loving and hating, fighting and cooperating, giving and stealing, our greed and our generosity.

Natural selection has built us, and it is natural selection we must understand if we are to comprehend our own identities…. If you look at the way natural selection works, it seems to follow that anything that has evolved by natural selection should be selfish. Therefore we must expect that when we go and look at the behaviour of baboons, humans, and all other living creatures, we shall find it to be selfish…. I think ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ sums up our modern understanding of natural selection admirably…. My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true. 

My purpose is to examine the biology of selfishness and altruism…. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense…. To a survival machine, another survival machine (which is not its own child or another close relative) is part of its environment, like a rock or a river or a lump of food. It is something that gets in the way, or something that can be exploited…. The logical policy for a survival machine might therefore seem to be to murder its rivals, and then, preferably, to eat them. 

Dawkins does concede that we can challenge our genes. “Throughout this book, I have emphasized that we must not think of genes as conscious, purposeful agents. Blind natural selection, however, makes them behave rather as if they were purposeful, and it has been convenient, as a shorthand, to refer to genes in the language of purpose.” But “we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” We don’t learn from him where we get those powers from, if not from our genes—without that I found his reassurances unconvincing.  

For brevity we shall again use the convention of thinking of the individual as though it had a conscious purpose. As before, we shall hold in the back of our mind that this is just a figure of speech. A body is really a machine blindly programmed by its selfish genes.

Now I remember what made me skeptical about anything you needed maths to understand! Reading the text of Ronald Fisher’s “Genetical Theory of Natural Selection” I found he omitted a key equation, one that summed up the negative contributions to fitness of masses of harmful mutations and the positive contributions of occasional beneficial mutations and showed the result to be positive. Only such an equation could “prove” natural selection worked. Then he goes on to use his “population statistics” to make a case for eugenics. Hmmm! It does pay to check the maths.

This review is of the Kindle Edition of the 30th Anniversary edition. Published by Oxford University Press.

Below, microdata:

Evolution for the Humanities
The Selfish Gene evolution


Re-thinking What it Means We Evolved, by Shaun Johnston

As compensation for maintaining this site I am adding my own account of evolution to the site's “Classic Reviews” section.

"Re-thinking..." lays down a trail of ideas leading to an alternative natural philosophy for our time. It's simply and non-technically written, 180 pages, intended for the general reader. It might also serve as a challenge to critical thinking for students in both the sciences and the humanities. It's based on the following assumptions:

What I want to account for primarily is my own species' evolution. 

Crucial to that are accounting for us being able to think, and our awareness of being conscious.

I can be consciously creative at will, which tells me I'm free to some extent of physical determinism.

Evolution is creative, and made us, so I can assume it's similarly free of physical determinism.

These assumption incline me away from physicalism to a mind/matter dualism. Physicalism--belief the world is purely physical--is supported only by science's failure to identify anything that's non-physical, but that insensitivity to anything non-physical is built into the scientific method. So for my "research" I employ methods of the humanities such as logic, history and storytelling, One story involves time travel, another involves a gnome capable of magic. Through writing these stories, while I try to maintain some rational discipline, I prompt my imagination to come up with new ideas. Resources available to me include having studied biochemistry at University College London, a career as medical and scientific writer, wide reading on evolution, the writing of a play and two novels, and having maintained this site for half a dozen years. 

I appreciate that such a work is bound to appear crackpot. It introduces ideas not usually associated with evolution. The argument these ideas support is entirely unlike the modern scientific theory of evolution. Radical new thinking, as this claims to be, from outside the academy, I know is seldom worth slogging through. To help you judge whether in this case the slog would be worth while I list below the ideas involved, first in reverse order so you can judge the merits of the natural philosophy the ideas lead to, then in forward order so you can assess the logical progression and plausibilityof the argument. 

Ideas developed in “Re-thinking What it Means We Evolved,” in reverse order.

All our experience can be accounted for through a combination of:

- physical happenings

- things evolving--living creatures, and our thoughts.

We experience our thoughts evolving as consciousness.

Thinking is our thoughts evolving.

To enable us to think, the agent of evolution built the process of evolution into us.

Living creatures evolve when the agent of evolution recalls the ideas that define a species, rethinks them, and “remembers” them back as changes in those genes, or as new genes.  

Just as our ideas correspond to something physical in our brains, the genes strung along the genomes of living creatures correspond to ideas.

Communities of genomes thinking together are the primary agent of evolution.

Unlike us, genomes can read each other’s minds, and think communally and creatively, at every scale from single cells to entire kingdoms of living creatures.

Because the genome has a brain/mind combination like us, it cannot be denied mental qualities like ours—consciousness, creativity, free will--with a similar independence from physical determinism.

What we know about the genome qualifies it to be thought of as a combination of a brain, and a mind associated with that brain, too.

We know the genome has a vast information capacity, can direct the development of trillion-celled creatures like us, with brains, and that it’s been evolving continuously since life began.   

What makes us conscious, creative, with free will is our combination of brain and a mind supported by that brain.

We can be creative. We are also conscious and have free will. To be able to do that we must to some extent be independent of physical determinism

Evolution is extremely creative. It can turn microbes into elephants and whales.

This chain of ideas is how evolution might appear to us today if Charles Darwin had been informed about the genome as we are now and had not been inspired by August Comte's reductionist Posivist science. Comte himself warned that his principles should not be applied to anything involving "volition, either natural or supernatural," a warning Darwin ignored in applying reductionist principles to how we humans evolved. Run history through again, and a natural philosophy like mine might well have become orthodoxy.

I listed the ideas in "Re-thinking..." in reverse order above so you could judge how interesting the ideas in its final pages are, and sample the kinds of thinking those ideas rest on. Now I list those ideas in logical forward order, so you can assess how plausibly I connect those ideas. Remember, most of them come from stories included in the text.

Ideas developed in “Re-thinking What it Means We Evolved,” in logical forward order.

Evolution is extremely creative. It can turn microbes into elephants and whales.

We can be creative. Also we are  conscious and have free will. To have those capabilities we must to some extent be independent of physical determinism

What makes us conscious, creative, with free will is our combination of brain and a mind supported by that brain.

We know the genome has a vast information capacity, can direct the development of trillion-celled creatures like us, with brains, and that it’s been evolving continuously since life began.   

What we know about the genome qualifies it to be thought of a combination of a brain, and a mind associated with that brain, too.

Because the genome has a brain/mind combination like us, it cannot be denied mental qualities like ours—consciousness, creativity, free will--with a similar independence from physical determinism.

Unlike us, genomes can read each other’s minds, and think communally and creatively, at every scale from single cells to entire kingdoms of living creatures.

Communities of genomes thinking together are the primary agent of evolution.

Just as our ideas correspond to something in our brains, the genes strung along the genomes of living creatures correspond to ideas.

Living creatures evolve when a genome intelligence recalls the ideas that define a species, rethinks them, and “remembers” them back as changes in to those genes, or as new genes.  

To enable us to think, a genome intelligence built the process of evolution into us.

Thinking is our thoughts evolving.

We experience our thoughts evolving as consciousness.

All our experience can be accounted for through a combination of physical happenings and things evolving--living creatures and our thoughts.

I offer "Re-thinking..." as a demonstration that it is possible for those of us on the humanities side to account for human nature as we experience and celebrate it. Evolution is our new shared origin story, but what it means can be fought over. How we tell children about evolution in school matters. I urge members of the humanities to ignore the scientists' defense that any criticism of their theories aids creationists. No, those theories are worth opposing for the sake of the arts and the humanities. That's the impulse behind my writing of "Rethinking..." and this web site. 

Below, microdata:

Evolution for the Humanities
Re-thinking What it Means We Evolved evolution


Natural Theology, by William Paley

“Irreducible complexity” started as code for a Creationist strategy of selecting a specific wonder of nature that Darwinists were challenged to account for on purely physicalist principles. So successful have Darwinists been at meeting these challenges that they use “irreducible complexity” to refer to their inevitable success in accounting for such wonders. William Paley came up with a different strategy. Even as long ago as 1802 there were enough atheists denying the Creator credit for the wonders built into its creatures for William Paley to feel impelled to come up with an entire book-full of examples. The effect is mighty impressive and I think a lot harder to dismiss.

In over a dozen chapters with titles such as “Muscles,” “On the vessels of animal bodies,” Paley displays such a detailed understanding of  plant and animal anatomy and physiology that it is a surprise when, to illustrate the wonders of a bird’s feather, he points out the shaft comes robust enough for it to be the pen he writes with! Yes, 1802. Maybe not yet enough good steel to make pen nibs from! But plenty enough research done with microscopes to give his quill a good workout. His data does here and there fall short: “Ray likewise asserts, but I think without any grounds of exact computation, that the number of species of insects, reckoning all sorts of them, may not be short of ten thousand.”

Of course you want me to give you some examples. But I won’t. The whole point is not any one example being unusually apt but the sheer volume of examples. He takes the human body and reports, from the inside you might say, how it is marvelous from top to body, from skin to bowel. I felt my body being peeled apart, and I basked in him finding it totally marvelous. The overwhelming impression is of a numbing drumroll of hundreds of pages of marvels.

There is a crucial difference between an argument for irreducible complexity based on a single example and Paley’s roster of marvels. In “What is Life?”, where Erwin Schrodinger speculates about the properties of whatever chemical underlies inheritance, he hints at limits in how many characteristics natural selection can select for at a time—giving an example of an industry he suggests perhaps a dozen! In other words, as a master physicist/mathematician he can tell you how many features you can select for among so-many creatures reproducing over so-many generations, given a selection process of so-much efficiency. The number of features is not infinity. Yes, the evolution of any one instance such as the human eye or the motor of a protist cilia may be explicable if you imagine all the resources of natural selection being committed just to that. But to a thousand such instances? This is an altogether different challenge. At the Wistar Institute Symposium titled “Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Theory of Evolution” held in Philadelphia in April 1966, biologists’ cosy assumption of natural selection’s powers were found to lack basis, to put it mildly. 

So Paley's book stands as perhaps a unique collection of marvels defying easy accounting for along Darwinian lines.

Also a pleasure (if you like that sort of thing)  is Paley’s writing style. It is classic, more 18th century than 20th. Sentences are vast, with subordinate clauses galore, rolling on like music. Here is how he raises the Creationists’ challenge to account for the eye:

Were there no example in the world of contrivance except that of the eye, it would be alone sufficient to support the conclusion which we draw from it, as to the necessity of an intelligent Creator.

And then how he foretells how such single instances will not suffice:

For the sake of method, we have considered animal bodies under three divisions: their bones, their muscles, and their vessels; and we have stated our observations upon these parts separately. But this is to diminish the strength of the argument. The wisdom of the Creator is seen, not in their separate but their collective action; in their mutual subserviency and dependence; in their contributing together to one effect, and one use.

Here he points out that features cannot be constructed one by one, one gene mutation at a time as we would say, but material features and chemical features must evolve together—and control systems too, we would add: 

I have said, that chemistry and mechanism are here united: by which observation I meant, that all this machinery, would have been useless, telum imbelle, if a supply of poison, intense in quality, in proportion to the smallness of the drop, had not been furnished to it by the chemical elaboration which was carried on in the insect’s body; and that, on the other hand, the poison, the result of this process, could not have attained its effect, or reached its enemy, if, when it was collected at the extremity of the abdomen, it had not found there a machinery, fitted to conduct it to the external situations in which it was to operate, viz. an awl to bore a hole, and a syringe to inject the fluid. Yet these attributes, though combined in their action, are independent in their origin. The venom does not breed the sting; nor does the sting concoct the venom.

What atheistic doctrines does Paley think he is rebutting? I think it must be those of Lamarck. Though we are usually referred to Lamarck’s text of 1809 he was teaching his principle in Paris before that and Paley would have heard of them. Paley refers to these doctrines as “appetencies”:

the theory before us coincides with atheistic systems, viz. in that, in the formation of plants and animals, in the structure and use of their parts, it does away final causes. Instead of the parts of a plant or animal, or the particular structure of the parts, having been intended for the action or the use to which we see them applied, according to this theory, they have themselves grown out of that action, sprung from that use…. Now this extraordinary conformation is nothing more, say our philosophers, than the result of habit; not of the habit or effort of a single pelican, or of a single race of pelicans, but of a habit perpetuated through a long series of generations.

Paley titles his book “Natural Theology” and poses as an Enlightenment deist, using phrases such an “intelligent Creator.” To this Creator he attributes contrivance and design, mind and consciousness:

Wherever we see marks of contrivance, we are led for its cause to an intelligent author…. Now that which can contrive, which can design, must be a person. These capacities constitute personality, for they imply consciousness and thought. They require that which can perceive an end or purpose; as well as the power of providing means, and of directing them to their end.  The require a centre in which perceptions unite, and from which volitions flow; which is mind. The acts of a mind prove the existence of a mind; and in whatever a mind resides, is a person.

Only in the final chapters does he confess to being a Christian, and to having to written his book in defense of the Established Church. Of the reader he says:

His inward veneration of this great Being, will incline him to attend with the utmost seriousness, not only to all that can be discovered concerning him by researches into nature, but to all that is taught by a revelation, which gives reasonable proof of having proceeded from him.

Charles Darwin is said to have admired Paley’s book enormously and to have almost memorized it. But he notably differs from the view forced on Paley by his Christian belief that nature is benign

Contrivance proves design: and the predominant tendency of the contrivance indicates the disposition of the designer. The world abounds with contrivances: and all the contrivances which we are acquainted with, are directed to beneficial purposes.

IT is an immense conclusion, that there is a God; a perceiving, intelligent, designing Being; at the head of creation, and from whose will it proceeded…. It is a happy world after all. The air, the earth, the water, teem with delighted existence.

Paley subtitled his book “Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature.”

Below, microdata:

Evolution for the Humanities
Natural Theology intelligent design