The Best Mistakes to Learn From Are Those of Others, Jamming, 23/07/2013

There’ll be more fights with Hegel in the future. Today, I’m working on a proposal for a post-doctoral grant that I discovered this week, adapting some aspects of my ecophilosophy project to a perspective more purely of philosophy of biology. Writing about it here isn’t going to get into the details of the project, but I do want to explain how I became interested in this issue and why I think it’s important.

Last year, Thomas Nagel wrote what was probably the shittiest book of his career, Mind and Cosmos. It’s a critique of orthodox evolutionary theory on the grounds that the slow, gradual pace of evolution by natural selection couldn’t have accounted for all the radical changes of species in the relatively short amount of time animal, plant, and fungoid life has existed on Earth. Taking this at face value, he has a point. Natural selection is such a slow and dicey process that it can’t work for major changes. Not only that, but species change is often the result of environmental changes, which can happen remarkably quickly. But natural selection is a slow process of incremental change over many generations. If an ecological niche disappears or radically changes in a generation or two, the pace of natural selection can’t keep up with that kind of change. Instead of a species transforming through the pressure of ecological niche changes, it becomes extinct. So there has to be another method of evolutionary development.

While I don't always admire Nagel's work, I
do admire his hair.
Fine and dandy. Then Nagel screws everything up, including what chance he might have had for a successful career in his old age. Because he says the only alternative to the orthodox Darwinian point of view is a creationist perspective, or at least a weird kind of teleology where mind or some mind-like force directs the evolution of life. This man is a living legend in philosophy, and this is where he ends up? A lot of the, shall we say, informally written reviews of the book I read online in the months after its release dismissed and insulted Nagel: I’ve read words like senile, ridiculous, moronic, wasteful, and downright dangerous. He writes in a country, the United States of America, where a significant number of politicians are actively working to destroy all science education in the name of their dogmatic and oppressive religion, the Biblical literalism of aggressive evangelical Christianity. Frankly, it’s impossible to write anything publicly about evolution in the United States and avoid politics. Closed-minded evangelical Christians are setting up conditions where, in a generation or two, there will be no more young scientists coming from huge swaths of the United States, simply because there will be millions of people for whom their only science textbook was the Bible.

One idea this research project would involve is giving Nagel the benefit of the doubt, while at least acknowledging the disastrous effects of a philosopher of his stature giving his weight to the political programs of Christian authoritarians who want to create an American population of dutiful sheep who submit themselves completely to their control and their religious dogma. Because there’s a growing literature of evolutionary scientists who critique orthodox Darwinism and the principle of gradualism in species development from within the science itself. Christian de Duve, Harold Morowitz, Robert Hazen, and Simon Conway Morris all write scientifically rigorous work that provides a detailed theoretical framework for there being some kind of directionality or converging set of tendencies in biological evolution, while keeping anti-scientific creationists in the backwoods where they belong. And a lot of this work was anticipated by Stephen Jay Gould. A great review of Mind and Cosmos is here, and the author calls out Nagel better than I can for now.

That’s how I became interested in the subject: wondering how someone like Nagel, whose work from the 1970s I admire so much,* could have fallen so far from the pinnacle of his thought. There would be two pillars to this project: examining the actual alternatives to orthodox Darwinism within respectable evolutionary biology, and examining why Nagel (and quite possibly a substantial mainstream in evolutionary biology itself) ignores this alternative work, and acts as if one either accepts a too-rigid dogma of evolution by gradual natural selection or escapes science altogether. It would combine my skills in philosophy of science with what I’ve learned from social science about examining intellectual influences, heritages, and citation networks.

* Sometimes, I think everything but the computer technology was better in the 1970s. This was the prime of American cinema, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, gay culture exploding into the open, punk, funk, disco, and the very first house music coming out of Detroit. Then I remember this was the decade of Derrida’s worst books, and I realize that nothing is ever perfect. Also, it’s just more of the too-easy romanticism of the past: I was born in 1983, so I don’t have to remember the shitty parts of the 1970s if I don’t feel like it.

The goal is using Nagel as a case of a larger tendency to polarize debates about evolution, diagnosing why this polarization exists, how it creates its most destructive effects on the disciplines of evolutionary biology and the philosophy thereof, and figuring out solutions and paths out of the morass.


  1. Interesting project you're pitching, and good luck with the grant.

    This definitely resonates with your interests in intuition and teleology as two plagued philosophical concepts that keep seeming to trip otherwise highly disciplined thinkers. At this point I'd like to point out that a) not all great thinkers follow philosophical rules of analysis and engagement, b) there's plenty of difficulty in ascertaining communicable truths of any sort, so there doesn't seem to me to be a need to claim that these guys are failures, just that they abandon a grand project to which they have dedicated their lives.

    That being said, I think the two parts are in tension and while that may be productive for you, I thought I'd offer some thoughts on separating them a bit to get two distinct projects.

    The first part seems to me to be about the gap between philosophical process and scientific presupposition. Who decides what makes an alternative position respectable? I guess that's a case of intuition -- you know a crackpot theory when you see it. Ideally, we'd like to imagine that rules of analysis should separate the wheat from the chaff, but I imagine in highly specialistic scientific discourses, there's little opportunity for the sort of painstaking presuppositional excavation that's needed to test an entire theoretical tradition. The question here seems to me to be: what is the field of theories explaining evolution that exist within the academy? How are they legible to one another? What sorts of hierarchies exist? What are the common stereotypes they hold about each other? How is the border between acceptable (if not highly respected) theories and unacceptable, outsider theories policed? What effects do outsider challenges (e.g. Nagel's) have on the field? Sociologists see conflict as both destructive and productive, strengthening internal bonds, establishing inside-outside rules of behavior etc, so Nagel's wild attack may well be helpful in various ways.

    My guess with people like Nagel is that while he's a smart guy, he has probably grown a little bit arrogant and a little bit lazy. He looks at evolutionary theories, digs in a bit, identifies patterns of category mistake, fallacies, redundancies etc in various articles. An insider would move on to the next dominant theory and see if that holds together a bit better, but the better-selling book would be a criticism of evolution, so he's ready do go. He is thus armed for an attack on that field and draws on the things he knows as ad hoc and intuitively satisfying alternatives in his hastily written last few chapters -- e.g. how about a Spinicist defense of mind? how about a non-scientific but loosely rationalistic alternative? Just a guess, of course, and a cynical one at that. It might be interesting to see how much he sticks to his guns in defending the later parts of his book.

    Anyway, I think there's a lot to learn on this point and it is very relevant and important (at least in the US!) to gain a clearer understanding of the difference.

    The second part seems to be an intellectual history, but I wonder if you might not gain more leverage by turning this into more of a comparative analysis of a class of people, namely philosophy's disciplinary old-age heretics -- I'm thinking here of Rorty, Bhaskar, maybe Wittgenstein, and others who break with their colleagues in folding into their analysis non-philosophical conceptual schemas. It seems to me that this is a well-worn path that top philosophers sometimes go down. It would be great if you could find more people in Nagel's network who did the same, and also perhaps trace the members of his cohort who didn't achieve his success and still toil for the bitch goddess philosophy (to paraphrase the bard).

    1. The way the proposed project is shaping up, Nagel is something of a beacon for a wider problem, rather than a particular problem for analysis. His book was dismissed as poppycock (and worse terms) when it came out. And it didn't help that it followed by only two years an even worse book about evolutionary science by Jerry Fodor that actually has ruined Fodor's reputation. Nagel just critiques ultra-orthodox Darwinism and doesn't pay attention to the critiques of ultra-orthodox Darwinism from inside evolutionary science itself. Fodor actually argued that evolutionary biology wasn't really a science because it can only tell us what traits are evolutionarily optimal in the context of a concrete environment, not what traits are optimal in general. I'm not making that up. Nagel seems to have priorities in his evolutionary theory that developed from his theories of mind. Fodor exposed himself as a fraud who's written very convincing straw man arguments until 2010.

      But the basic point of this project is to use Nagel as a starting test case to explore the boundaries between orthodox evolutionary biology, critical evolutionary biology, philosophy of evolution, and what philosophy of biology has to say about these divisions. It isn't about Nagel so much as Nagel makes its sad first example, the project's Tyrone Slothrop.

      And let Philip know I wouldn't mind talking about his work sometime. My new approach to some of my social philosophy of science ideas regarding climate change is investigating how the actual complexities of scientific practice feed into grade school education. His ideas may help.

      "Toil for the bitch goddess philosophy (to paraphrase the bard)." Which Bowie song is that line from, again?

    2. Oh, an obscure B-side, I'm sure you'll come across it somewhere.

  2. Sorry for the long response. Just my attempt to sociologize your philosophical project, as always, but this is not to say that what you propose wouldn't make for a great and much more tractable project!

    Ps One of my advisors, Philip Smith, has been working on a cultural sociology of climate change for a while now. Might be a productive avenue for you to explore and I would be happy to put you in touch.