Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Needless Invocations of Evolution

Fred Reed's column in the latest American Conservative is right on the money.

Oh, the hope-draining, soul-crushing tiresomeness of it. I find in Psychology Today a piece called "Ten Politically Incorrect Truths about Human Nature," explaining various aspects of behavior in Darwinian terms. The smugness of that "politically incorrect"1 is characteristic of those who want a sense of adventure without risk. Nothing is more PC than an evolutionary explanation, unless it explains obvious racial differences that we aren't supposed to talk about.


To force mating into the mold of reductionist fitness-shopping, it is necessary to connect beauty and sexual attractiveness with fitness. This is easily done by making up stories. I can do it by the hour: Wide-set eyes improve depth perception and prevent death when jumping about on rocks. Even teeth cut food more efficiently, avoiding the metabolic burden of inefficient chewing which, in time of famine, would lead to starvation. Ready laughter clears the lungs and avoids pneumonia. Shiny blonde hair reflects sunlight better and makes it easier for men to find fertile women at a distance.

But it reeks of improvisation, of beginning with a conclusion and putty-knifing the logic.

The point here is not that this article shows evolution to be necessarily false. The point is that invoking the theory for such tenuous reasons is another example of how mindless its use has become—even among Ph.D.'s, whom one would hope would know better (but almost never do—it takes a lot of education to be truly stupid). Perhaps having cranks glob onto a theory is simply the hazard for the reigning paradigm—but it makes one wonder, since explanatory power is a confirmation of a theory, if this low quality of confirmation is largely what Darwin's theory rests on.

Furthermore, it's not clear what "natural selection" means in terms of human beings. Recall that Darwin called it "natural selection" to contrast it with artificial selection humans use to breed animals.2 The use of "natural selection" with regard to human mating patterns is completely illegitimate, unless we're going to claim that the human being who selects a mate for his dog is completely different from the human being who selects his own mate. Is the human soul utterly impotent against its "animal" urges? Is there truly no causal connection between a person's intellect and his actions, except in the case of dog breeding (and writing the theory of evolution)? These are all silly consequences of the Cartesian dualism that consummated its hold on our conception of natural world with Darwin's theory.


1. Talk about politically incorrect: check out his latest column on James Watson's recent "Freudian slip-up."

2. Stove, Darwinian Fairytales—I highly recommend this book.

Fred Reed, "Brown-Eyed Girl," The American Conservative (October 22, 2007), 35.

Alan S. Miller Ph.D., Satoshi Kanazawa Ph.D. "Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature," Psychology Today (July-August 2007).

David Stove, Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity, and Other Fables of Evolution (Encounter Books, 2007).

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Jonas on Philosophical Biology

Lately I've been reading a great book a friend recommended. It's called The Phenomenon of Life by Hans Jonas. It really is surperb, so I'm using some of his insights in a paper I'm now busily preparing for next week's American Maritain Association meeting (which will probably prevent me from posting next week).

I've typed out some selections from the main line of the book's argument below. But before presenting those, I thought I'd summarize that argument for you first.

One big thrust of the book is establishing the continuity of man with living things, not in a materialistic sense, but to show how man is not in some utterly different ontological category from the rest of the world. The thinking is that unless we want to bracket living things as somehow subject to wholly different natural laws, we need to establish man’s continuity with the whole of the material world.

Jonas identifies the origin of the distinctly human parallel capacities to recognize truth and to act freely in the unique distance or mediacy of the human being from the world. He traces the mediacy that culminates in human beings through its development in the vegetative and animal powers of living things. The increase in organisms’ powers from vegetative to sensitive to rational comes from increasing separation between an organism and its environment in parallel with a novel and more intimate connection or dependence on the environment. Metabolism allows and requires the constituents of the living thing to be constantly renewed while preserving the identity of the organism they form. An organism, by living, asserts an independence of identity from the matter that constitutes it, in parallel with a dependence on the matter to maintain itself; thus the organism separates itself from the world while taking on a new dependence or outward directedness to the world. This is the beginning of internality that is yet open to the environment, and that even needs its environment.

Whereas in plants, the environment is immediately present, the transition to animal life brings distance between the organism and its needs, a distance which sentience, emotion, and mobility must bridge. Again we see the organism’s separation from the world along with a stronger connection to it. The internality of the organism increases, as does its dependence on its environment.

In man, emotional mediacy grows into rational mediacy through his image-making ability. Whereas animals “recognize” objects by merely comparing present sense impressions to past, humans actually form an image of every object they encounter and in fact do not see anything except through an image. The image is either adequate to its object or it is not—either true or false—and implicit in any affirmation of truth is rejection of falsehood, which requires the freedom to say “no.”

Below are the quotations I picked out. Believe me, there is much more to this book worth reading. I highly recommend it.

Committed to itself, put at the mercy of its own performance, life must depend for it on conditions over which it has no control, and which may deny themselves at any time. Thus dependent on propitiousness or unpropitiousness of outer reality, it is exposed to the world from which it has seceded, and by means of which it must yet maintain itself. Opposing in its internal autonomy the entropy rule of general causality, it is yet subject to it. Emancipated from the identity with matter, it is yet in need of it: free, yet under the whip of necessity; isolated, yet in indispensable contact; seeking contact, yet in danger of being destroyed by it, and threatened no less by its want: imperiled thus from both sides, by importunity and aloofness of the world, and balanced on the narrow ridge between the two; in its process, which must no cease, liable to interference; in the straining of its temporality always facing the imminent no-more” thus does the living form carry on its separatist existence in matter—paradoxical, unstable, precarious, finite, and in intimate company with death. The fear of death with thich the hazard of this existence is charged is a never-ending comment on the audacity of the original venture upon which substance embarked in turning organic. (5)

In this process of self-sustained being, the relation of the organism to its material substance is of a double nature: the materials are essential to it specifically, accidental individually; it coincides with their actual collection at the instant, but is not bound to any one collection in the succession of instants, “riding” their change like the crest of a wave and bound only to their form of collection which endures as its own feat. Dependent on their availability as materials, it is independent of their samenss as these; its own, functional identity, passingly incorporating theirs, is of a different order. In a word, the organic form stands in dialectial relation of needful freedom to matter. (80)

[I]n order to change matter, the living form must have matter at its disposal, and it finds it outside itself, in the foreign “world.” Thereby life is turned outward and toward the world in a peculiar relatedness of dependence and possibility…. It is important to se that this “spatial” self-transcendence, opening into an environment, is grounded in the fundamental transcendence of organic form relative to its matter, for it is this which constitutionally refers it beyond its given material composition to foreign matter as needed and potentially its own. In other words, the self-transcendence of life in having a world, with all its promise of higher and more comprehensive stages, springs from the primary antinomy of freedom and necessity inherent in organism as such. (84)

It then also follows that with respect to the organic sphere, the external linear time-pattern of antecedent and sequent, involving the causal dominance of the past, is inadequate: while mere externality is, at least can be presented as, wholly determined by what it was, life is essentially also what it is going to be and just becoming: in its case, the extensive order of past and future is intensively reversed. This is the root of the teleological or finalistic nature of life: finalism is in the first place a dynamic character of a certain mode of existence, coincident with the freedom and identity of form in relation to matter, and only in the second place a fact of structure or physical organization, as exemplified in the relation of organic parts to the whole and in the functional fitness of organism generally. With this Aristotelian reminder we may return from analysis to discussion. (86)

Where, then does that [cybernetic] model fall short? The answer can be compressed into cone statement: living things are creatures of need. Only living things have needs and act on needs. Need is based both on the necessity for the continuous self-renewal of the organism by the metabolic process, and on the organism’s elemental urge thus precariously to continue itself. This basic self-concern of all life, in which necessity and will are bound together, manifests itself on the level of animality as appetite, fear, and all the rest of the emotions. The pang of hunger, the passion of the chase, the fury of combat, the anguish of flight, the lure of love—these, and not the data transmitted by the receptors, imbue objects with the character of goals, negative or positive, and make behavior purposive. The mere element of effort lifts bodily activity out of the class of mechanical performance, and the fact that movement requires effort means that an animal will move only under the incentive of an interest. (126)

From this point of view we see wherein the real advance of developed animality lies. Its mediacy of world-relation is an increase of the mediacy which is already peculiar to organic existence on the first (metabolizing) level, as compared to the immediate self-identity of inorganic matter. This increase mediacy buys greater scope, internal and external, at the price of greater hazard, internal and external. A more pronounced self is set over against a more pronounced world. The progressive nervous centralization of the animal organism emphasizes the former, while correspondingly the environment becomes open space in which the free-moving sentient has to fend for itself. (107)

The principle here involved on the part of the subject is the mental separation of form from matter. It is this that makes possible the vicarious presence of the physically absent at once with the self-effacement of the physically present. Here we have a specifically human fact, and the reason why we expect neither making nor understanding images from animals. The animal deals with the present object itself. If it is sufficiently like another object, it is an object of the same kind. The likeness aids the recognition of the object-kind, but is not itself the object of recognition. Recognized is the present object alone as “one such,” that is, as familiar in certain properties. These, spotlighted by activation of memory traces, call up in turn their former associates, which enter as expectations into the perceptual picture and , once recognition takes place, form part of the “presence” of the object. Nothing but this is present, standing entirely for itself, though imbued with past experience. Only reality counts, and reality knows no representation. In our search, there for, for the conditions of image-making we are referred from the faculty of perceiving likeness to the more fundamental one of separating eidos from concrete reality. (167)

For the animal mere similitude does not exist. Where we perceive it, the animal perceives either sameness or otherness, but not both in one, as we do in the apprehension of similitude. (166)

The sense in which one can speak of an experience of truth may be illustrated by the situation in which one feels moved to exclaim “So this is what it really is!”—such exclamation containing a submerged, if not explicit, “and not this!” The illustration is to convey the at once emphatic and antithetical character of the truth-experience, i.e., that it stands out from the normal flow of acceptance of phenomena and against the background of error and falsehood: this background being itself an “experience” only realized in the act of supersedure by its opposite. In short, we wish to indicate an element of negation. Hence follows, as a first proposition, that the capacity for truth presupposes the capacity to negate, and that therefore only a being that can entertain negativity, that can say “no,” can entertain truth. And since the power of negation is a part of freedom, indeed a defining ingredient of it, the proposition is that freedom is a prerequisite of truth, and that the experience of truth itself is the evidence and exercise of a certain kind of freedom. (175)

The distinction between truth and falsehood, and therefore the idea of knowledge, arises only where the “wrong” perception is not simply supplanted by the “right” one but survives to be confronted as falsified with the right one; or more generally, where two terms are available for comparison, and one of them is accepted as the standard by which the other is judged. (178)

But genuiness itself comes to be discovered only with the experience of its opposite, which furthermore must be retained in the mind for comparison and contrast: the mere “explosion” of an impression by a subsequent corrective impression is not enough. (180)

The new mediacy consists in the interposition of the abstracted and mentally manipulable eidos between sense and actual object, just as on the level of animal mediacy the perception of objects was interposed between the organism and its primary environment-relation. Imaging and speaking man ceases to see things directly: he sees them through the screen of representations of which he has become possessed by his own previous dealings with objects, and which are evoked by the present perceptual content, impregnating it with their symbolic charge, and added to by the new experience itself. (184–185)

Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2001/1966). —

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Greatness and History

I was talking to a friend the other day about the current trend among certain faithful Catholics to refer to the late Pope John Paul II as "John Paul the Great." There is even a "John Paul the Great University" that opened its doors this fall. It seems like an unwise trend to me and one characteristic of the narcissism of our society to pronounce on a matter better left to posterity.

Please don't get be wrong. I admire the late pontiff as much as anyone. Playing such a large role in bringing down communism might itself qualify someone as "great," but in addition John Paul II also left us with so many wonderful writings, not to mention the courageous example of his holy death.

The problem I see is that we really cannot fairly assess the value of a person's legacy for years—that is, until we really see the fruit of that legacy. To call someone "great" who is only a few years in the grave is to assume a power that lies beyond any single generation. But as self-involved as we are these days, we assume that anything that strikes us as great at this moment can only be great for all time. This is the same narcissistic age that arrogates to itself the power to name itself ("modern," "post-modern").

What's even more troubling is the undercurrent one senses among many "John Paul the Great" cheerleaders that faithful Catholics can only share their enthusiasm and that to do otherwise is to be less than faithful. It's almost as if they believe Christian orthodoxy requires the believer to surrender to the cult of personality that accreted around the late Pontiff (and that to a degree extends to his successor). Let's not take our eyes off the ball: the whole point of the Papacy is not the man who occupies the Chair of Peter, but the reverence due the office of Peter and its role in preserving the orthodoxy of the Catholic Faith.