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

Friday, January 07, 2005

Midgley and the evils of Spencer

While we're on the subject of Spencer, it's worth noting that Mary Midgley has fingered him as the culprit for the fundamentalist reaction against individualism in the United States, in a recent article in New Scientist (25 December 2004-1 January 2005, p. 29) entitled "On the origin of creationism".

After noting the strong Old Testament influence on early American settlers (a point first discussed, if I recall aright, at some length by Dietrich Bonhoeffer during his tour of the US in the 1930s, before the Nazis had taken full control over Germany. Bonhoeffer was later hung by the SS for his involvement in the plot to kill Hitler), Midgley then says
A second, less well-known ingredient is the peculiar form in which evolutionary theory reached the American public. In the 1880s, the biologist and philosopher Herbert Spencer toured the US to immense acclaim, indefatigably preaching a doctrine that he claimed was Darwin's. It was actually social Darwinism, a crude application to human life of the "survival of the fittest" principle, amounting to "devil take the hindmost". Spencer regarded this principle as the driving force of evolution and hence the true guide for morals. After the tour, his works outsold those of all other philosophers in the US for a decade, and his simple-minded, competitive individualism has remained powerful there ever since.
I am a bit nonplussed at this. Recently I picked up another of Spencer's works on politics - The Man versus the State (1881, I have the 1969 Penguin edition), and it seemed to me he was neither simple minded, nor entirely individualistic, in his critique of English politics. He was clearly a Whig, or Liberal (a term Americans seem to have redefined to mean something very different than Mill or Spencer thought it meant), yes, and a laisse faire economist. And there is an element of individualism in Spencer's ideas. But I wonder if it is true or fair to say either that he was a social Darwinian in the way Midgley suggests, or that he was as influential as all that in firming up the United States' urban economic ideals.

America was the land of the rugged individual long before Spencer. In fact, it is arguable that there ever even was a social Darwinian movement as such. Certainly historian Robert Bannister argued that the similarity was more apparent than real and that those who are called social Darwinians are ususally just being chastised for not agreeing with the one doing the labeling. There was a social Darwinian in my view - just one, named William Graham Sumner, an economist and political theorist at Yale, already in the US. Social Darwinism seems to be a home-grown American philosophy, which might explain why Spencer's rather less harsh philosophy was both received well there, and preferred over the local product. Sumner had a "devil take the hindmost" philosophy. Spencer did not.

And is it really the case that this is what caused creationism and Christian fundamentalism, as Midgley claims? Not according to those who deal with creationism, it isn't. Ronald Numbers, in his books The Creationists and Darwinism Comes to America discusses the actual causes. One major figure who contributed to the rise of fundamentalism, George Wright, is likely, thinks Numbers, to have become a fundamentalist because he was reacting to the rise of Higher Criticism, a movement that did come from England to America (although of course it was a European, largely German, invention). Similarly, fundamentalism arises in the South more than the North, and it appears to have a single major feature - a reaction against the modern world.

You don't need to posit a special influence from Darwinism (social or otherwise) or any other single aspect of the modern world - it is modernism itself for which literalism and fundamentalism are invented to deal with.

A friend, Mike Syvanen, once suggested that the reason cults share such obviously false ideas is that they insulate the followers against the rest of the world. Creationists can only talk to other creationists, and so it reinforces the solidarity of the community. In terms of the social evolution I favour, creationism is a fitter belief in the density-dependent selection of ideas than openness to science. this makes a kind of sense, I think - given the use of ideas to generate social identity, and the fact that a certain percentage of folks are going to be less adaptable to changes in society than others, something like antimodernism is going to generate things like creationism without any boost from a specific source like Spencer.

Bannister, Robert C. 1988. Social Darwinism: science and myth in Anglo-American social thought, American civilization. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Original edition, 1979.

Numbers, Ronald L. 1992. The creationists. New York: A. A. Knopf.

Numbers, Ronald L. 1998. Darwinism comes to America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Spencer, Herbert, and Donald Gunn MacRae. 1969. The man versus the state: with four essays on politics and society. Harmondsworth,: Penguin.

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...

Disanalogies between cultural and biological evolution

Clifford, in a recent comment, suggested that cultural evolution and biological evolution are different kinds of processes. This is a common claim. There are several reasons why people think it.

1. Culture is thought to change through predetermined stages, from primitive hunter-gatherer to urban industrial.

2. Culture is thought to develop through planning and foresight, particularly in the sciences and technologies.

3. Culture involves, it is said, the inheritance of acquired characters.

All three are supposed to be non-Darwinian. Indeed, they are, except for the last, but that doesn't cause my claim that culture is darwinian any grief, because they are false.

Claim 1 is that of August Comte's, and it is the sense in which early twentieth century anthropologists discussed "cultural evolution". As a result, the demolition of this view by Franz Boas and his students led to the longer-term disfavour of seeing evolution in culture. They had, quite simply, the wrong view of evolution. Now, I don't know what the relation between Comte's positivism and Lamarck's evolutionism was, but this is Lamarckian evolution, in the first sense. Lamarck thought that evolution moved through one of a few series of potential improvements from primitive to complex. The way Herbert Spencer, whose ideas directly influenced the cultural evolutionists Boaz attacked, treated evolution, he, too, was Lamarckian in this regard.

Culture does not always, or necessarily even often, improve. When it does, the improvements can sometimes only exist for a short while. Culture is often accretive, in that it builds on the past ("shoulders of giants"), but equally it can lose technologies, sciences and ideas. We naively think of culture as a march of progress, but really, as a good many folk have noted, each generation has to fight to retain the gains its predecessors made.

Claim 2 is negated by Hume's Problem of Induction. We may plan ahead, of course we do, but if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride, and economists would be benign Lord Chancellors. Adam Smith showed that large ensembles engaged in economic trade generate outcomes (he wrongly thought stable positive equilibria) that nobody has planned. What some are pleased to call the Law of Unintended Consequences means that we simply cannot predict how complex and chaotic systems will behave even if we did happen to know all there is about them. We just don't have the time to make the calculations. But we don't know all the facts about anything cultural.

Hume's Problem is that we can only assume consistency with the past in which we learned what we know. But inductions based on the past (the only kind of inferences that enable us to make predictions) cannot by definition take into account the unknown. Things can change that throw our expectations out of whack. This is true in "simple" cases like biology. Culture is more complex (as it includes the biology of the cultural actors).

Claim 3 is a more complicated matter. Yes, the actors in culture inherit characters that were acquired by their parents and others. That's what education and socialisation are all about. But the evolving entities in culture aren't the agents. Human agency remains now pretty much what it always has been. If it evolves, it does so biologically. What evolves are the things that are transmitted in culture, what Lumsden and Wilson called "culturgens", and more recently (a bit), Dawkins called "memes". And the "environment" to which they are adapted, the economic interaction domain of memes, includes those agents, and a whole lot more.

Darwin was, in this respect, something of a Lamarckian (we don't want to overstate the matter - his "Lamarckism" was restricted to claiming that a trait that was used would be more strongly inherited than a trait that was not. The origin of the trait itself was not Lamarckian). If characters were acquired, darwinian evolution would be faster, but it would still be darwinian in a deep formal sense.

I have discussed these ideas in more detail in my "Appearance of Lamarckism in the Evolution of Culture", which can be found on my website.

On cultural evolution in anthropology, there's a good book by Bee called Patterns and processes.

Bee, R. (1974). Patterns and processes: an introduction to anthropological strategies for the study of sociocultural change. New York, Free Press/Macmillan.

Wilkins, J. S. (2001). The appearance of Lamarckism in the evolution of culture. Darwinism and evolutionary economics. eds J. Laurent and J. Nightingale. Cheltenham UK, Edward Elgar: 160-183.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Science education is worthwhile

This is why we need to teach good science. It has implications. A young Surrey girl named Tilly Smith had been taught a fortnight before the recent tsunami that the sea recedes 5 to 10 minutes before a tsunami hits, in her geography class. She told her mum and the resort evacuated all people on that beach. Nobody was killed there - her education saved 100 lives. Bravo to her.

We can't predict what we will need to know in life or society, and the best way is to teach what we do know. Evolutionary biology is implicated in conservation, disease control, social upheaval and so forth, and if we have an educated population, we might be able to turn our knowledge to good use.

Evolving Morality

When people say that if morals evolved there are no morals, what do they mean? What is bothering them about this? I, for example, believe it is wrong to do a host of things, and yet I believe that these moral judgments or principles evolved both biologically and culturally. Isn't that enough? Obviously not. Without firm principles based on something objective, say the critics, everything is permitted, as Dostoevsky didn't say.

So, this argument seems to depend on the nature of moral judgments and systems. How can I say that "X is wrong" if another moral system, equally evolved, says "X is right"? The answer, I believe, is two-fold. First, the standard argument against using evolutionary history to bolster moral judgments is that of George E. Moore, in his famous Principia Ethica (1903), Chapter II. Against Herbert Spencer's claim that some ethics were "more highly evolved" than others, a claim based more on August Comte's positivism and progressivism than on anything Darwin ever wrote, Moore pointed out that everything is equally evolved, and in any case the Good is not something that can be identified with any natural property (including, thus, evolvedness). This is, of course, the famous Naturalistic Fallacy.

The Naturalistic Fallacy is committed when something such as a species-wide behavior that is adaptive (say, in ants) is taken to be a moral reality for that species. It may be, for example, that all humans are hard-wired to behave with reciprocal altruism to other humans in certain circumstances. This does not make it right that they do so, any more than our species-wide propensity to fall when unsupported makes broken bones a right thing. Hence, it is claimed, there is no moral foundation provided by evolution.

This is true. But this is not the same as saying that moral foundations cannot evolve. I can know the history of a moral claim (say, the duty to protect children) without thereby claiming that it is an arbitrary choice on the part of my society. To argue this is to commit the fallacy known as the Genetic Fallacy - something is made right or wrong in virtue of its historical origins. It's like saying that a dollar bill that was once used to buy a slave is worth less than a dollar bill that has only ever been used to buy domestic goods. The value is independent on the past of that bill, because its worth depends on how it is appraised now in this economy.

The Genetic Fallacy (which has little to do with genetics, sensu biology) is committed by those who think that it is only right not to murder if a God or Moral Authority has so decreed. Why it is right if God says so, and not if no God was involved in how we developed it is unclear to me. Surely, if killing five year olds is wrong when God says so, it is equally wrong if God does not. This forms the foundation for an unsolved problem known as the Euthyphro Dilemma, in which the divine command theory of morality is shown to imply unwanted facts about God.

Okay, this much is the standard fare of undergraduate ethics classes. But there is something more interesting to me. That is the nature of moral justification. A little background if I may. According to Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations (1953), language is composed of language games that derive their meaning from the ways in which language is used by broader or more specialized communities. Moral justification is a kind of language game. Wittgenstein did not mean to denigrate language games - they were, he thought, the foundation for all meaning. Instead, to say that the meaning of a word (and by extension, a sentence, or a rule) is the way it is used by a community (a "language community") is just to give all the meaning it has.

Now what is going on when we say some act is wrong? We are, I think, attempting to justify our rejection of it. Likewise, or contrariwise, with praise. Acts and rules are justified, or literally, made right.

It seems to some that to justify X, you must do so in terms of Y. Y then stands in need of justification by some other claim Z. This sets up a regress that either goes to infinity (a bad thing according to some), or is circular (you end up getting back to X), or you get to a foundational claim that cannot be further challenged ("God said so" being one of them). The last two alternatives are respectively called coherentism and foundationalism.

Now circularity is only a problem when it is tautological. We commonly refer to arguments being "viciously" circular or "virtuously" circular. The former is defined, by the ancient logic texts I love, as when a definition uses the same terms in the definiens as in the definiendum. But if meaning comes from a language community as a whole, then the definitional side of the equals sign includes more than just the same terms, but the practices of a whole community. Information is added in a virtuous definition.

I want to go even further. A regress is only set up on the assumption that justification is fully transitive. If, on the other hand, justification is not fully transitive - that is, if Y justifies X and Z justifies Y but Z is not a full justification of X - then justification, as a language game, is a very localised affair. And this means that the argument from justificatory regress fails to take hold.

In short, if we justify only a few statements at a time contextually, then it is OK for someone to say "X is morally acceptable because Y" and to leave it there, or a few steps further on.

This means that if moral values (the "Y"s) evolve (including rules for moral justification), we still get fully justified claims at some point in the community's lifespan, for that is just what justification is. And so the claim that we need a moral authority, other than the evolving society, fails.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Danea and I agree!

It seems that Danae, of Non Sequitur reads my blog, right?