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Food for Thought

Dewey and Darwin

Tim Madigan on how Darwin influenced the Pragmatist.

“Darwin… offered us a new account of ourselves. He has argued that human beings, along with the rest of nature, need to be understood as the product of completely natural forces. And his theory asserts not only the natural origin of our bodies, but also the natural origin and development of our mental powers and our moral sense. To this extent, I suggest, his views have a singular significance for philosophy.”

Suzanne Cunningham, Philosophy and the Darwinian Legacy(1996), p.7.

Suzanne Cunningham makes an excellent point regarding the relevance of Darwin’s work to philosophy. But the title of her book is slightly misleading, as she shows how for the vast majority of philosophers in the Twentieth Century Darwin was mostly evaded! For all their differences, the two seminal traditions of analytic philosophy and phenomenology continued to pursue the Cartesian dream of certain knowledge grounded in unchanging metaphysical truths.

The main exception to this was John Dewey (1859-1952). America’s public philosopher for most of his long career, he had a profound influence on fields such as education, politics, ethical theory and aesthetics. Interestingly, Dewey was born the same year On the Origin of Species was published. He lived through momentous changes – from the U.S. Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement. But most importantly, Dewey was a philosopher of change, who consistently sought to apply Darwin’s evolutionary theories to all areas of philosophy.

Dewey argued that all knowledge is derived from experience, and that ‘ideas must be referred to their consequences’ – it is important to distinguish between theories and their applications. The name of the movement with which he is identified, Pragmatism, comes from the Greek word meaning ‘action’. In this practical spirit, for Dewey, philosophy’s main role is to assimilate the impact of science on human life. Dewey was therefore one of the first philosophers to take Darwin seriously. Unlike the many philosophers discussed in Cunningham’s book, including G.E. Moore, Bertrand Russell and Edmund Husserl, he did not evade the implications of evolution. Fifty years after On the Origin of Species was published, Dewey wrote an essay entitled ‘The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy’. In it he pointed out that the combination of the words ‘origin’ and ‘species’ embodied a wider intellectual revolt, not just a biological advance. Many previous thinkers had held that species were unchanging and eternal – fixed and final. Ever since Plato, philosophers have been in search of some sort of fixed eternal reality beyond the world of appearance. As Dewey points out, this leads to a ‘search for certainty’, immortal souls, unchanging knowledge, all-powerful Creators. The pursuit of wisdom was identified with eternal life and fixed ends. One end result was dualism – the belief that the mind and body are distinct – coupled with a belief that humans differ from animals in kind, not just in degree.

How to heal this split from the natural world? Darwin gave us the means. But Darwin was himself following in the footsteps of other scientific thinkers – empiricists like Francis Bacon and John Locke, who insisted that any theory must be supported by hard evidence and must have more than just explanatory power: the empirical school from which Darwin descended holds that the scientific method is our best road to knowledge, not speculation. “Without the methods of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, or their successors in astronomy, physics, and chemistry, Darwin would have been helpless in the organic sciences,” Dewey stated in ‘The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy’ (from The Essential Dewey Vol 1, eds Larry A. Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander, p.41).

What sort of bearing does Darwinist thinking have on philosophy, according to Dewey? “Philosophy” Dewey writes, “foreswears inquiry after absolute origins and absolute finalities in order to explore specific values and the specific conditions that generate them” (p.43). In other words, it acknowledges intellectual change and the need for scientific (physical) data. Intelligence itself is not some absolute power, but rather our species’ survival tool. Our intelligence has evolved and adapted itself over time. It is not a god-like substance or supernatural gift: other animals have forms of consciousness too, and examining the similarities as well as the differences between us can have fruitful results. Throughout his many writings, Dewey called for an empirical study of humanity’s place in nature.

Why is Darwin so controversial to philosophers? One reason is due to the fact that ideas give way slowly. Dewey also astutely pointed out in his essay the need for a Darwin of philosophy – for someone who can break down the hold of the past in philosophical matters much as Darwin did for biology. The time has come to clear away old ideas in philosophy.

This was partly to be achieved through Pragmatism. Pragmatism spelled out the view that modern science was changing our relationship with nature, by giving us a dynamic rather than a static model of existence – we can alter our environment. In conservative times change is feared, but we live in dynamic times, so change should be welcomed. Dewey was influenced here by Hegel and Positivism, but made it clear that he did not share their view that progress is inevitable. Darwin had shown that regression and catastrophe are also factors in the lives of species. Similarly, humans can give up on critical intelligence. Seeking certainty is one way of doing so, in that it is a fruitless hope for (intellectual) solid ground in a world where everything is in a state of flux. Likewise, there is no utopia – our achievements provide us with new problems to solve. This view is vitally connected with Dewey’s lifelong advocacy of universal education and of democracy – the form of government which allows for the most personal freedom and opportunity. Education should sharpen our intellectual facilities and give us the tools for dealing with our constantly changing environment. Like Darwin, Dewey studied the ways in which young animals struggle for survival, and thus he derived the need for experimental schools. Education may sharpen our instrument for survival – our intelligence – but the curriculum and the means to teach it are not set in stone.

Also like Darwin, albeit more explicitly, Dewey was critical of organized religions, especially of the ways in which they seek a timeless, perfect reality beyond. He was interested in the here and now, not the hereafter. If one can give up the quest for fixed certainty, one can relate better to the world as it is, not as we would have it to be.

Dewey also called for a re-examination of Darwin’s nuanced views on the evolution of the mind and ethics. Darwin was himself ambivalent about Herbert Spencer’s ethical views, and there was much difference between Darwin’s thinking and that of Henri Bergson or Karl Marx for example, regardless of how much Bergsonians and Marxists might seek to identify with Darwin. Dewey understood the dangers of crudely connecting Darwin’s biological theory with speculative philosophy, particularly when the latter is ungrounded scientifically. Even today, such fields as evolutionary psychology could still use a good dose of analytic rigor to avoid appearing as new speculative versions of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Just-So Stories’ in their explanations of why we act the way we do.

Nonetheless, Dewey made it clear that Darwin’s writings marked a pivotal change in how philosophy can and should be conducted. 2009 marks not only Darwin’s bicentennial but also Dewey’s 150th anniversary, as well as the 100th anniversary of the latter’s essay on the former – an essay that is perhaps as timeless as any work of philosophy can be.

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2009

Tim Madigan teaches philosophy at St John Fisher College, New York, and is a US editor of Philosophy Now. He is the editor of Paul Edwards’ posthumously published God and the Philosophers (Prometheus Books, 2009).

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