Holism in Evolution: Peter Corning & Robert Reid

I recently supposed (www.takeondarwin.com/index.php?option=co...modern&Itemid=14) one learns more about a theory of evolution by noting which partisan group a theorist belongs to than from the supposed theme of his or her theory. I'm going to illustrate my supposition by comparing treatments of the concept "holism" by Peter Corning and Robert Reid, particularly with reference to "Holistic Darwinism" by Corning and "Biological Emergencies" by Reid. Both contain 450 pages of text followed by another 100 or so pages of scholarly apparatus. Both were published within a couple of years of each other in the mid-2000s. Both are written in scholarly-article style. Both are clearly intent on establishing their scholarly bona-fides and impressing a point of view on their academic peers.

From their tables of contents both sound as if they've aiming for a similar high ground. In "Biological Emergencies" Reid's holism finds expression in detailed treatments of three forms of innovation that "are often sudden, and have new properties arising from new internal and external relationships. They are emergent." They are symbioses and other kinds of biological association; physiology and behavior; developmental or epigenetic evolution. Corning titles his introduction "The New Evolutionary Paradigm," his Part-themes are synergy, bioeconomics, thermoeconomics and control information, and evolution and ethics.

Compare how much that tells you in comparison to clues to their partisanship. Here's Corning defining holism: "The term [holistic Darwinism] was coined as a way of highlighting the paradox that selfish genes are, without exception, selected in the context of their functional consequences (if any) for various wholes. Holistic Darwinism is strictly Darwinian in its underlying assumptions about natural selection and the evolutionary process."

For Reid's definition of holism I go to a chapter titled "Holism and Biology" in his 1985 "Evolutionary Theory: The Unfinished Synthesis." "There have been as many versions of [holism's] history as there have been interested scholars." One aspect is "the ontological aspect: the unitary view of the self and cosmos that Leibnitz called the perennial philosophy.... One of the common aspects of such experience is a sense of the unity of nature and fusion of the observer with nature... A number of biologists and psychologists have taken the view that the sense of oneness and other aspects of religious experience have a materialistic basis, much in the way that Scrooge took Marley's ghost to be the manifestation of a piece of undigested cheese.... I am bound to ask if reductionism, as a view of reality, is not simply a refuge from a sense of terror or loathing that to holistic minds is mystery and wonder."

From "Biological Emergencies": "... emergentism proffers a holistic emphasis on the importance and connectedness of every aspect of life. For this a metaphysical yearning existed long before Darwin, and far beyond biology. Deeming it irrelevant, analytical selection theory has failed to satisfy that need."

For Corning holism means restructuring on neo-darwinian principles all the fields, such as symbiosis and altruism, from which objections to those principles tend to bubble up. Despite its apparent boldness Corning's work is part of a campaign to preserve Darwinism through a Procrustean approach to human nature. "The first and most important generalization about human nature is that each of us is defined, in considerable measure, by an array of basic needs elucidated in chapter 11. These needs are essential to our survival and reproductive success.... The performance of an organized society can be evaluated in terms of how it relates to, or impacts upon, the package of basic needs that define the parameters of the ongoing problems of survival and reproduction." For Corning the ultimate goals of human enterprise are sex and survival, as defined for us by our neo-Darwinian origin.

Corning and Reid clearly represent two very different partisan groups intent on embedding very different impulses within the evolutionary-theory community. In my terms Corning is a Positivist of a neo-darwinism persuasion, Reid is a Vitalist for psychological considerations. Where they most profoundly differ is in the visions of human nature their theories celebrate. To me that, not the supposed themes of their theories, is what matters. If writers on evolution would declare their partisanship upfront we would all be spared a lot of trouble.

Biological Emergencies - Holistic Darwinism

Below, microdata:

Evolution for the Humanities
Holism in Evolution evolution