Monday, December 14, 2009

Mayr on Darwin's influence

I'm not sure how much longer Scientific American is going to make the article available (I would guess until the end of the year), so you might want to take advantage while you can and read the late Ernst Mayr's essay "Darwin's Influence on Modern Thought".

A 21st-century person looks at the world quite differently than a citizen of the Victorian era did. This shift had multiple sources, particularly the incredible advances in technology. But what is not at all appreciated is the great extent to which this shift in thinking indeed resulted from Darwin’s ideas.

Remember that in 1850 virtually all leading scientists and philosophers were Christian men. The world they inhabited had been created by God, and as the natural theologians claimed, He had instituted wise laws that brought about the perfect adaptation of all organisms to one another and to their environment. At the same time, the architects of the scientific revolution had constructed a worldview based on physicalism (a reduction to spatiotemporal things or events or their properties), teleology, determinism and other basic principles. Such was the thinking of Western man prior to the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species. The basic principles proposed by Darwin would stand in total conflict with these prevailing ideas.
And from the conclusion

[T]his is perhaps Darwin’s greatest contribution—he developed a set of new principles that influence the thinking of every person: the living world, through evolution, can be explained without recourse to supernaturalism; essentialism or typology is invalid, and we must adopt population thinking, in which all individuals are unique (vital for education and the refutation of racism); natural selection, applied to social groups, is indeed sufficient to account for the origin and maintenance of altruistic ethical systems; cosmic teleology, an intrinsic process leading life automatically to ever greater perfection, is fallacious, with all seemingly teleological phenomena explicable by purely material processes; and determinism is thus repudiated, which places our fate squarely in our own evolved hands.
Update: The article can also be viewed at Botany Online. (h/t Oscar)


Psyberian said...

It just so happens that I’ve been reading a book that includes the topic of Darwin’s work.

Mayr makes a parenthetical remark about this, but I think it’s interesting to see it from another viewpoint. Kenny argues that telos hasn’t really been dealt a death blow, it has merely transformed:

“What Darwin did was to make teleological explanations respectable by offering a general recipe for translating it into an explanation of a mechanistic form. His successors feel able freely to use such explanations, without offering more than a promissory note about how they are to be reduced to mechanism in any particular case. Once they have identified the benefit G, that an activity or structure confers on an organism, they feel entitled to say without further ado that ‘the organism evolved in such a way that G.’" [A New History of Western Philosopy – Vol. 4 – Philosophy in the Modern World by Anthony Kenny]

But I believe this argument is weak on two fronts. Telos used to be a grand design for the universe by God. If it has been shrunk all the way down to biologists talking of the purpose of organs or activities, so much the better!

Secondly, his criticism of how biologists currently use telos does has some merit, since I’m sure that mistakes will be made because of it. But let’s not through out the concept altogether – how can we think of an eye, for example, without supposing that it’s very reason for being has something to do with seeing?

Oscar said...

It might be worth noting that article is available on the University of Hamburg's Botany Online website as well, just in case the SciAm article does become restricted again.