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.