O’Hear’s Tensions

Posted on February 17, 2010


As I’ve mentioned in a couple of posts, I attended a conference toward the end of last year during which Anthony O’Hear presented a paper. Afterwards, I wrote a lengthy paper, “Evolution, cognition, value: the ingredients for a naturalist philosophy”, critiquing his views and putting forward an alternative, naturalist view. The paper will probably be published in a collection of articles that will come out of the conference, alongside O’Hear’s much shorter contribution. I’m making available the draft version of this article. Please do not cite it without prior permission as there may still be changes before the final version. The first part of the article is below the fold.

This article is written in response to Anthony O’Hear’s “Darwinian Tensions”. However, it goes beyond responding to that article in attempting to present some of the main aspects of a robust naturalism which finds its basis in evolutionary theory. Central to it is a naturalist account of cognition based upon an investigation of the deep analogies between cognition and evolution.

In many ways O’Hear’s article provides a fine foil for such an account.  In his paper, he manages to touch on many of the issues that help to differentiate naturalised philosophy from its antinaturalist predecessors. That he does so in the context of Darwin’s theory of natural selection is particularly useful given that evolutionary theory has come to play a central role within naturalised philosophy. For these reasons, my paper follows the structure of O’Hear’s article. Thus, in the first section I will discuss the question of whether the notion of universal progress is part of evolutionary theory, showing that O’Hear’s assertion to the affirmative is incorrect. In the second section, I consider the use of anthropomorphic language in talking about evolution and show how it is best explained as an effect of the human mind having evolved to deal with the social environment, rather than being explainable in terms of Darwin writing under the influence of a pseudo-theistic atavism. The third section is the longest, as in it I deal with the question of how evolutionary theory can explain the human ability to use our reason to deal with profoundly novel situations. This requires that I pursue the similarities between evolutionary and cognitive processes; both being open-ended yet, at all times, bounded. The fourth section turns to a discussion of the ethical implications of evolutionary theory, and argues that to think that there are any is to commit the naturalist fallacy. As I show in the final, fifth, section, the strong anthropic principle provides no alternative to the view presented herein, leaving us very much in the position that O’Hear finds clearly daunting but which to others, including myself, is bracing.

Unfortunately, at the same time as O’Hear’s article is a useful foil it is plagued with just the kinds of tensions that he unsuccessfully searches for within Darwin.

Firstly, he states that he is merely aiming to point out some unresolved tensions in Darwin’s writings and that he will not discuss their significance to modern evolutionary thought. This makes it sound like he is about to present an essay in the history of science. If so, the fact that his article concludes with an argument for taking seriously the strong anthropic principle – a conclusion he makes no reference to in his introduction – is quite surprising. Are we to understand that he thinks this principle a viable alternative to the views presented by Darwin over one hundred and fifty years ago or that it is a viable alternative to modern evolutionary theory? If the first is true, hardly any modern scientist would be concerned, even if O’Hear’s argument were sound. Though Darwin is greatly respected, just as Newton or even Archimedes, science does not move forward by defending the views of great scientists but by improving upon them. For this reason, biologists do not read The Origin of the Species in the same way that philosophers may read The Critique of Pure Reason – it is a historical text rather than one to have an ongoing debate with. So, a biologist could accept this reading of O’Hear’s argument and simply respond that it shows another problem with Darwin’s original formulation of the theory of evolution. However, what if, by “leaving it up to the readers to draw their own conclusions” O’Hear means to claim that the strong anthropic principle provides something of an alternative to modern evolutionary theory, as many of his statements suggest. In that case, his argument seems, at best, enthymematic at the very point it needs to be most explicit.  To make it more than that it would be necessary for O’Hear to show that the aspects of Darwin’s thinking that O’Hear discusses are essential to modern evolutionary theory rather than, for example, mistaken representations of it in popular culture. One basic way in which O’Hear might attempt to do this is by showing that biologists do seem to exhibit a particular allegiance to Darwin. To do that, however, would be to misunderstand the nature of this allegiance in that it is based upon a respect for Darwin’s achievements and a feeling of shared goals rather than a faithful adherence to Darwin’s views. As such, if O’Hear’s aim was to say something of relevance to modern evolutionary theory he should have aimed his arguments at its real, contemporary, empirical basis. What might have been an appropriate critique of a philosophical tradition is seriously wrongheaded when aimed against a scientific theory. Unfortunately, in so far as O’Hear appears to read Darwin as a philosopher rather than a biologist, he does appear to be falling into the genetic fallacy.

Secondly, O’Hear is very clear in denying that he is rejecting biological evolution and claims to be merely pointing out some shortcomings of one way of understanding evolution. It is as well that O’Hear does this as many of the arguments he presents are stable fare for creationists. Drawing attention to this fact comes close to an ad hominem response, except that it is important to recognise that, due to the notoriety of the creationists, these arguments have been looked at in detail by many scientists and philosophers. Unfortunately, O’Hear makes no effort to take into account or even acknowledge those criticisms (SkepticWiki.org provides a useful introduction to these). This is particularly problematic given that the criticisms are compelling, to say the least. Although O’Hear never does present his alternative understanding of evolution, present throughout the paper is the suggestion that a more ‘positive, optimistic’ alternative is in the offing. Given what O’Hear writes, it seems reasonable to conclude that the alternative he has in mind is what is known as theistic or guided evolution – the view that evolution has taken place but that, instead of being a completely natural process, it has been interfered with by God. It is arguable whether this is still biological evolution, given its necessary supernatural baggage. More importantly, however, similarly to creationist positions, this view has been thoroughly critiqued by biologists and been found lacking in the empirical evidence that is essential for any scientific claim, as well as having been critiqued by philosophers and been found to offer no real explanation (Dawkins 1986, Dennett 1995).

O’Hear’s desire for an ‘optimistic’ alternative leads to the final, and most troubling, tension in his work. He is very critical of the belief in universal progress that he perceives in Darwin’s account of evolution. Yet, he himself would wish to believe that the universe was fine tuned to make possible intelligent life. If that were the case, the whole history of the universe would be that of the progress toward this goal and the resultant notion of evolution would be profoundly progressivist. If that is so, however, O’Hear ends up arguing for a view of evolution that has the worst problems that he thinks Darwin is weighed down by, including “race and species progressivism.”