Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Spencer and the Critics

I love old books, particularly philosophical books of the nineteenth century. When I can find them for a reasonable price, I buy them - I'm getting quite a collection (and quite a respect for the intelligence and learning of those supposedly out-of-date scholars of yore).

In a recent Usenet post, I mentioned poor old Herbert Spencer, the evolutionist philosopher whose ideas predated Darwin's by a small margin, but who forever lived in Darwin's shadow thereafter, despite enjoying considerable celebrity in his day (particularly in America).

Spencer wrote voluminously, in the course of which as the last systematic philosopher in English (Rescher doesn't count) he defined a "Law of Evolution". It was, I said in that post, rightly mocked by William James as

"Evolution is a change from a no-howish untalkaboutable all-alikeness by continous sticktogetheration and somethingelsification." - William James, 1880 (Lecture Notes 1880-1897).
Spencer's original, published in his First Principles in 1862, was:
"Evolution is a change from an indefinite, incoherent, homogeneity to a definite, coherent, heterogeneity, through continuous differentiations and integrations".
Ha ha. Silly old wordy Spencer. Clever succinct James. Let's leave such stupid philosophers to their scotch and scribbling, and get on with it.

Well this very evening, as I was going home, I dropped by my favourite second hand book store (Carlton Books, email me for details) and, as I always do, checked out the Biology, Philosophy of Science, Classics and Philosophy sections (in that order). Nothing worth jumping for joy in the first three, but there in Philosophy were a couple of grey spined illegibly titled books. Being an archaist, I immediately checked them out, and sure enough, Spencer's First Principles in two volumes, AUS$25 (pocket change in US dollars, millions in Turkish lira). Granted, it was the sixth edition and the fourth impression of 1900 (he sold big in his day), but just within the Golden Era.

So I started to leaf through it, as I always do, to see if he had something to add on species concepts (nope), and there, in an Appendix, was the crucial quip and Spencer's rebuttal. OK, let's see how he responded.

First of all, he notes that the definition changed in the second and subsequent editions. Fair comment. It's always easy to mock the first attempt to express something difficult. In the sixth edition it is a lot less arcane:
"Evolution is definable as a change from an incoherent homogeneity to a coherent heterogeneity, accompanying the dissipation of motion and the integration of matter", p. 291.
But the shock to me, was that William James did not come up with the quip at all. Instead, it was produced in a review by a mathematician, a Mr Kirkman, and reported by a Professor Tait, both of whom are so well known in their time that Spencer neglects to give first names to them.

That a mathematician would mock technical language is an irony. That a physicist would gleefully report it is doubly ironic. That it is remembered as a bon mot of a philosopher and psychologist, well... now that is interesting.

My guess as to why is that James is remembered as a no-nonsense American pragmatist and educational philosopher and psychologist, while Tait and Kirkman are, well, forgotten. The put-down of a wordy an out-of-fashion English philosopher (who is also blamed for "survival of the fittest", a phrase that led to the so-called tautology problem, and for social Darwinism, both rather unfairly) had to be due to James. But it's another case of the author not being famous enough to carry such a bon mot, like Oscar Wilde and James Whistler.

The rest is your standard memetic transmission, isn't it? Once it gets into the literature - somebody quotes James, and in turn gets quoted - it becomes established in the limited collective unconscious of the evolutionary history community of scholars and interested laity.

Incidentally, Spencer's actual writings, such as I have spent time reading them, strikes me as attempting to develop a way to discuss the same issues as Ilya Prigogine, the Nobel laureate physicist whose work in dissipative thermodynamics is crucial to today's understanding of biology, and Stuart Kauffman, who talks about the edge of chaos and connectivity of networks. Had Spencer access to modern network and thermodynamic theory, he might have seemed a lot less silly. Even so, he was a progressivist, and to an extent this informed his view on non-European cultures as being less "evolved", even if he was not the racist and heartless beast of mythology. Some of his confusions are with us still...