Re-thinking What it Means We Evolved: Shaun Johnston

How can I have the nerve to put my own book atop this list of classic texts? Because it demonstrates how the meaning of us having evolved may be probed through what Henri Bergson called "intuition." Bergson sensed intuition to be a source of profound wisdom about self and life that we had evolved in us, that he experienced occasionally breaking through into consciousness. In the course of writing a couple of novels it occurred to me that intuition could be harnessed through art and creativity. Could creative artists and members of the humanities, through informed and disciplined creativity, tap into intuition on demand? "Re-thinking..." consists of a train of thought developed through an alternation of essays and stories, each essay raising a question that the following story explores, a process perhaps similar to dream analysis or historians' analytical narrative.

I maintain this webite as a resource for artists and humanists to help others wishing to undertake such a study of evolution, as well as to establish that such a study is needed. Since the early 1930s the study of evolution through intuition has been branded "vitalism" and "creationism" by the scientific establishment and actively suppressed, to the point that academics of all stripes fear losing tenure if they rebel (Holbrook).  But scientific study inspired by the "modern synthesis," today's scientific theory of evolution, has shown itself to be something of a scandal, its roots in Fisher's population statistics of doubtful validity. Evolutionists accuse creationists of seducing the public away from a due concern with evolution, but more probably it is the aridity of the scientific theory and dark clouds of determinism implied by purely physical world views that make the public welcome any alternative. 

"Re-thinking..." is simply and non-technically written, 180 pages, intended for the general reader. 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. 

Ideas developed in “Re-thinking What it Means We Evolved”

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 forming, in effect, neural networks akin to those in today's artificial intelligence.

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.

Kirkus review.


Evolution, by the Ancient World: Review

Recommended Readings:

Anthony Gottlieb, “The Dream of Reason.” Easiest to read.

Joseph Cotton, “Knowledge, Nature, and the Good.” Best on the Stoics.

Michael Ruse, “On Purpose.” Recently published, and relating specifically to evolution.

Julian Jaynes, “Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.”

As real reviews of Ancient World thinking I recommend the books listed above. What follows—my attempt to identify in the Ancient World the traditions leading up to the classic texts reviewed on this site—is my lay-person’s top-of-head gloss on the subject.

I’m inspired to undertake this by two thinkers. From Noam Chomsky I’ve come by the belief that we acquired language in two stages: first, we had to evolve a raw capacity for language, only then could individuals collaborate to construct actual languages. From Henri Bergson I’ve come to believe that whatever is distinctive about our thinking involved similar steps: first a capacity for it had to evolve in us, then that evolved capacity had to surface in consciousness, only after that, drawing on their awareness of that raw capacity, could individuals build the tools we actually think with. And since language appears to be the material those tools had to be created out of, particularly written language, much of the creation of those tools must have happened as recently as historical time.

Inadequate as my layman’s effort must be—I do urge you to read the books above—I feel impelled to round out this site’s reviews of “classic” texts on evolution with this introduction, a tracing back to their origins in evolved capabilities of the two main traditions I see leading up to and inspiring the writing of those texts. This itself I see as an integral part of the process of evolution, how these capacities evolved in us perhaps only a dozen or so centuries ago. Our conception of evolution would encompass both the evolution of species of living creatures and whatever we discover about the evolution of the contents of human consciousness.

Of these two traditions, one I see running through Plato, the Stoics and Christianity; it informed Enlightenment thinking about evolution as Deism, belief in a creative World Spirit. The other tradition I see originating in the paradoxes of Parmenides and Zeno, inspiring both Aristotle’s logic and atomism which in combination provided the foundations of modern science and today's "modern synthesis."

For these two evolved capabilities to be made into tools for thinking I’ve assumed they must first have surfaced in consciousness. Julian Jaynes has consciousness like ours arising around the beginning of the first millennium BC; he finds it missing in the Iliad but present in the Odyssey, he plots its emergence over the course of composition of the books of the Old Testament. A few centuries later the invention of alphabetic writing allows trains of thought to be transcribed as they would be spoken—whatever you could think you could record. A few further centuries later we have the axial period and the great flowering of philosophy in Greece.

Part of Henri Bergson’s genius was being able to intuit how the evolved capabilities behind these two traditions would have first registered in consciousness. One he thought had evolved in us as wisdom helping us deal with the living environment and apprehend our own nature; that he experienced as flashes of “intuition.” These consisted of intense illuminations about the nature of life, both his own, that of our species, and of evolution itself, his “élan vital.” In Plato this would emerge as a World Spirit, that the Stoics would re-name Zeus, a fifth element they thought suffused throughout the other four, responsible for maintaining order throughout the world, for the growth of living creatures and the creation of all novelty. This tradition Christianity first ransacked for whatever it needed to glorify its own god and then suppressed, only for it to resurface in the Enlightenment as the prime agent in Deism, the offices of a benign but distant god who created the world, including all living creatures, but who now declines to interfere in earthly affairs. Deism is the passion inspiring William Paley’s “Natural Theology,” his recital of the many wonders of the human body that no atheism, he assured us, could ever account for. The tradition continues in Robert Chamber’s “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation,” a frankly Christian account of evolution, and Samuel Butler’s failed attempt, in “Life and Habit,” to rebut Darwin’s account of human origins, and finally in a flurry of thinkers early in the 20th century such as Whitehead and Bergson associated with terms such as “process” and “holism.” At this point it is once again suppressed, this time by the other tradition in evolutionary thinking, in which condition, damned as “vitalism” and “creationism,” it remains today.

Bergson saw the other tradition as having evolved in animals to equip them for mobility and action in the physical environment. It first registers in human consciousness as three dimensions of space by reference to which we could identify and learn to avoid physical objects, plus time, and reason. By reference to the dimension of time we could plot the order events came in. Through reason we could suppose that events connected somehow in those dimensions were caused by those happening nearby and coming earlier in time, and generalize from them to predict future events. Bergson’s inference is, we cannot assume this shows us reality, it may be no more than an illusion evolved in animals to help them to become mobile.

We can sense what early consciousness of time and space must have felt like through what was apparently common sense to the early Greeks. They seem to have experienced space and time as lumpy. The dimension of time, for example, consisted for them simply of a succession of events. I think we can tell this by how the paradoxes propounded by Parmenides and Zeno confounded their contemporaries. In these paradoxes time as experienced by intuition conflicts with time as measured by events. We know that an arrow aimed at a target will reach it quite quickly. But with time registered as successive events in which the arrow covers half the distance to the target, then half the remaining distance, and then half of that and so on, the arrow will never hit the target. That could have been a puzzle only if Greeks then had yet to construct even the most primitive tools for thinking about time. Pythagoras was celebrated for demonstrating that harmonious tones were produced by lengths of a vibrating string related by whole numbers. The discovery of non-whole number relationships in nature plunged his school into confusion. Again, this seems possible only if the dimensions of space too were experienced as lumpy.

The Greek’s response to these paradoxes was development of the second tradition, that includes Euclid’s geometry, Aristotle’s physics and logic, atomism, and skepticism. Suppressed at first it was gradually incorporated into Christianity, maturing into modern science until in the mid 19th century it supplants its host as our primary account of reality and sets out on its own. In Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection characteristics serve as atoms by which individual humans vary, humans themselves serve as atoms in a process of selection for the fitness to survive and send progeny on to the next generation. Other notables in this tradition are Ronald Fisher, Richard Dawkins and, today, such physicalists as Sean Carroll.

Two figures participate in both traditions. One is Alfred Wallace, co-discover with Charles Darwin of natural selection who, a few years later, became convinced that such a mechanism could not account for the evolution of human capabilities, and began searching for the missing principle in spiritualism. The other is Charles’ grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, master of both traditions, called by some the last great thinker of the Enlightenment. In 1794 Erasmus published “Zoonomia,” the first modern-times account of evolution, a book of over 100 pages that, being bound together with an innovative 100-page classification of diseases, put all of Europe on notice that a major new account of human nature had to be taken into account. Erasmus started precisely where Aristotle left off, with male semen acting as the principal template for each new life, a belief reinforced I’m sure by microscope views of wriggling spermatozoa. ”Living filaments,” he called them, a remarkable prefiguring of what we think of as the genome. Could not all living creatures have over time come from such a filament, he wondered. At the same time, as a good Deist, he credits the World Spirit with providing the necessary initial impulse to life and maintaining order within it. He then goes on to outline in essence each theory of evolution that will be proposed in the following century, those of Lamarck, of Robert Chambers, and even of his grandson Charles. The course of evolutionary theory starts with its greatest and boldest thinker, from then on it all feels to me like anti-climax.

Where should evolutionary theory go from here? Bergson suggested one path. What the early Greeks did with their clumsy common-sense notions of lumpy dimensions of space and time, setting it on the path to becoming today’s science, we could do with what Bergson referred to as intuition. He clearly believed that the sources of wisdom available to us lie in capabilities already evolved in us, such as intuition, language and reason. There may be further wisdom latent in them. They may be the only sources available to an evolved creature like us.

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.


Creative Evolution, by Henri Bergson

Sampling Bergson many years ago I found his writing impossibly flowery and obscure. Reading him now I realize I have since then become a Bergsonist. He now strikes me as the thinker most relevant to the mission of this site: coming up with alternatives to science as windows onto the meaning of evolution.

if you approach “Creative Evolution” expecting to find in it a mechanism, or even a theory, of evolution, you’ll be disappointed. Instead Bergson’s primary concern is merely how best to think about it. Of the ways available to us he settles on two: our rational intelligence, and intuition. He devotes the book almost entirely to telling us why, if we limit ourselves to rational intelligence, we’re bound to fail, and why intuition is the better choice.

What impresses me most about Bergson, besides his evident brilliance, is that he appears to experience evolution from the inside, as his primary reality. Rational intelligence he assesses as if he’s viewing it from a great distance, as if recording the resources of an alien creature. While it’s rational intelligence that seems native to us, it’s intuition he identifies with, that for him mirrors the impulse behind evolution. No one else I’ve come across appears as well qualified to tell us how to get there from here.

This will be more of an introduction than a review. One of Bergson’s greatest talents was finding metaphors to help us understand his meanings. But what he most wanted to convey, in 1907 when this book was published, was what intuition and evolution meant to him, and for that an appropriate metaphor has only in our time come into existence—"artificial intelligence.” Just as Darwin could use “artificial selection” as a metaphor to help people understand “natural selection,” I’m going to use “artificial Intelligence” as a metaphor to help us understand what I’m going to call “natural intelligence,” what I think Bergson meant by intuition and evolution. That’s as opposed to how we usually think, that I’ve already referred to as “rational intelligence.” Two kinds of intelligence, one rational, one natural.

What is artificial intelligence? Banks have simple machines that takes loose change in at the top and delivers them sorted into separate streams of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters at the bottom. Coins run down a chute where they encounter a series of obstacles, or switches, that divert them into different channels depending on how big they are, whether they’re magnetic and so on, intelligently distinguishing them from one another by their properties.

Now imagine a machine that you feed coins into, in a stream one after another, a much more complex machine consisting of successive banks of switches of various kinds that keep varying their settings. At the bottom each switch in the final bank delivers the coins passing through it into a chute of its own. Suppose as the switches keep varying their settings the machine begins delivering only pennies into one particular chute. All the switches those pennies passed through in successive banks you make sticky, so they keep the same settings and keep delivering pennies. If in another chute nickels start accumulating you make those switches involved sticky too, so they tend to stay the same and keep delivering nickels. As this happens for dimes and quarters too, you end up with a machine just as capable of sorting coins as the machine in your bank. Now, if you made the machine itself register when just one kind of coin was dropping into one chute it could make the switches involved sticky, all by itself. In other words, it could train itself to intelligently sort coins into their different kinds.

Now imagine a machine of many more banks, each of many more switches, able to tell what’s coming out of each chute, and knowing all the switches each item passed through so they can all be made sticky. That machine could do much more complicated recognition and sorting. Multiply that by a thousand or two, feed it photos at random, make sticky all the switches involved when photos of cats are selected, and you could end up with a machine able to tell which photos show cats. Or which x-rays show cancers. Then it's become artificial intelligence.

Now imagine life starting on Earth and taking the form of banks of switches like this, in creatures passing through successive generations, with the survival of creatures in each generation reinforcing the stickiness of switches within them in following generations. And imagine that set of switches being able to grow new switches, those banks of switches growing new banks of switches, and you can imagine over thousands of generations this intelligence growing without limit. That's what I propose as a metaphor for  Bergson's insight into evolution, what I’m referring to as natural intelligence. 

I picked up a term from Gregory Bateson, that I suspect originated with his father, the eminent biologist William Bateson, that helps me think about this—patterns of connection. What’s distinctive in living creatures, and I believe in how they evolved, is selection through generations not of individual characteristics or genes but entire patterns of connection. What I’m calling natural intelligence can learn to distinguish, and create, entire new patterns of connections. This property of being able to create new patterns of connection may correspond to what Bergson calls the impulse behind evolution, his élan vital.

Now it’s patterns of connection that evolve. How can we account for something like that? For example, suppose at one time we had in our retinas only two pigments sensitive to light, leading to our sensations respectively of green and blue. Now let’s suppose, as I believe did happen, that our retinas evolved to embody a third light-sensitive pigment, giving us the experience of red. When I consider what this involved, I see that what had to evolve was two entire patterns of connection. One pattern of connections would be needed for us to inherit cones containing this new pigment in our retinas and connections back into the brain where red light could register as signals similar to those corresponding to the other two pigments. However, that pattern of connections alone would be valueless without a second pattern of connection leading from electrical signals in our brains to our conscious sensation of red.

A hard-nosed neo-Darwinist could claim that coincident patterns of connection like these could have arisen in concert one small change at a time through natural selection, every step resulting in a significant benefit. Even just that, I think, is hard to accept. But note this—along with the sensation of red from stimulation of the new pigment, a combination red and green light together give us the entirely new sensation of yellow. The pattern of connection leading to the sensation of yellow evolved in us without need for acquisition of a new light sensitive pigment. Accounting for this imposes demands on our explanatory system that surely the modern synthesis cannot satisfy.

Note: Bergson does not say that the reports of intuition, what I’m referring to as natural intelligence, are true. He explicitly claims only that, of the resources available to us, it has the greatest likelihood of making evolution more comprehensible. Where must these resources have come from? For Bergson it is obvious they must have evolved—how else could they have originated? And why would they have evolved? To aid our survival and success. What he calls just “intelligence” (as opposed to intuition), that I’m calling rational intelligence, he sees having evolved in animals to equip them to act in a physical world. It comes kitted out with conceptions of three linear dimensions of space and one of time, along which we learn to allocate the physical entities of our world, and their parts. We need those conceptions, or perceptions, so we can distinguish these entities and their parts from one another. Allocating physical events along a linear dimension of time helps us appreciate how they lead to one another, from one moment to the next, and plan future actions involving our physical movement among physical objects. All the causation involved in what happens one moment exists entire in the moment before. An advanced-enough science, the summit of rational intelligence, could predict the future.

Our conscious experience of a physical world spread out in space and time is indeed a dazzling creation of the evolutionary impulse, Bergson agrees, but being an evolved capability it has no greater claim to being the truth than does our sense of intuition. For us to experience intuition it too must have evolved to become accessible to consciousness, and it could have done so only if it too gave us information helping us survive and succeed. And what will that information be about? This time, about the living world, Bergson assumes.

What does his intuition tell Bergson? That the same impulse that runs through generations to result in species evolving, that in embryos directs their growth into adults with trillions of cells, in individual creatures propels them through the passages that punctuate a lifetime, and that makes each of us free to consciously direct our own attention and our decision-making.

Is that just wishful thinking? Let’s look again at what’s involved in artificial intelligence. Programmers setting up their banks of switches frequently report that they have no idea how those machines do their thinking. In fact, the only way they’ve found is to employ another similar machine to study the first and translate its operations into something a human can understand. Perhaps that’s what our intuition is, a complex pattern of connection evolved in us through which we can intuit how to deal with challenges in the living world around us.

Bergson is particularly acute about this. What’s most significant about the living world, how it emerges from enormously complex patterns of connections accumulated over millennia, you just cannot analyze in terms of linear dimensions of space and time. In science’s linear dimension of time, each successive moment contains all the information you’d need to predict the next, it can be imagined running in reverse. That’s inconceivable in the living world where what a creature does today can be the outcome of astronomically vast patterns of connection reaching forward into the present from millennia ago. Not only is it inherently far too complicated, but in the course of evolution properties can have emerged that science has no way of detecting, perhaps even consciousness.

Overriding all my other impressions of Bergson are his brilliance and passion. I trust his judgment. In his text he does not refer to evolution as creative, as the title would suggest. For him I’m sure that would have seemed a tautology. Of course if evolution is driven by impulses surging up through vast patterns of connection it will seem creative. But what interests him is what else it can be, that we’ve not yet any idea of. How else might we come to find evolution meaningful if we see it primarily as the product of patterns of connections among living creatures? Bergson goes no further than merely raising and trying to answer that question. He doesn’t explicitly endorse vitalism, he merely provides a philosophical argument sympathetic to it.

As Bergson tries to communicate the reach of intuition, stretches of many pages at a time can be relentlessly obscure. Through this introduction I’ve wanted to craft an alternative account that will make wading through those passages unnecessary. In other places, however, Bergson’s writing, even in the 1911 translation, can be admirably clear. Below, in (edited) extracts taken from it, I sum up his introduction.

[Rational intelligence is the ability] to think matter. The human intellect feels at home among inanimate objects, more especially among solids, where our action finds its fulcrum and our industry its tools; that our concepts have been formed on the model of solids; that our logic is, pre-eminently, the logic of solids; that, consequently, our intellect triumphs in geometry, wherein is revealed the kinship of logical thought with unorganized matter, and where the intellect has only to follow its natural movement, after the lightest possible contact with experience, in order to go from discovery to discovery, sure that experience is following behind it and will justify it invariably.

But from this it must also follow that our thought, in its purely logical form, is incapable of presenting the true nature of life, the full meaning of the evolutionary movement. Created by life, in definite circumstances, to act on definite things, how can it embrace life, of which it is only an emanation or an aspect? Deposited by the evolutionary movement in the course of its way, how can it be applied to the evolutionary movement itself? As well contend that the part is equal to the whole, that the effect can reabsorb its cause, or that the pebble left on the beach displays the form of the wave that brought it there. [Please note this splendid metaphor.]

Yet evolutionist philosophy does not hesitate to extend to the things of life the same methods of explanation which have succeeded in the case of unorganized matter. It begins by showing us in the intellect a local effect of evolution, a flame, perhaps accidental, which lights up the coming and going of living beings in the narrow passage open to their action; and lo! it makes of this lantern glimmering in a tunnel a Sun which can illuminate the world.

Must we then give up fathoming the depths of life?… We should have to do so, indeed, if life had employed all the psychical potentialities it possesses in producing pure understandings—that is to say, in making geometricians. But the line of evolution that ends in man is not the only one. On other paths, divergent from it, other forms of consciousness have been developed, which… also express something that is immanent and essential in the evolutionary movement. Suppose these other forms of consciousness brought together and amalgamated with intellect: would not the result be a consciousness as wide as life? And such a consciousness, turning around suddenly against the push of life which it feels behind, would have a vision of life complete—would it not?—even though the vision were fleeting. [This corresponds to how Bergson described his experiences of intuition.]

A philosophy of this kind will not be made in a day. Unlike the philosophical systems properly so called, each of which was the individual work of a man of genius and sprang up as a whole, to be taken or left, it will only be built up by the collective and progressive effort of many thinkers, of many observers also, completing, correcting and improving one another. So the present essay does not aim at resolving at once the greatest problems. It simply desires to define the method and to permit a glimpse, on some essential points, of the possibility of its application.

This review/introduction is based on reading Bergson, Henri. "Creative Evolution" (Annotated). Solis Press. Kindle Edition.

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.