Go home, Philosophy. Evolution has got this.

Posted on March 28, 2016

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Blue and BrutalI have no memory of a time when I didn’t believe in evolution.

Of course, that can’t actually be the case.

I was raised, at first, in a bland non-denominational Christianity. Then, after my parents separated, I was immersed whole hog into Catholicism. It seems likely, at some point, I believed in some version of Creationism. Even so, if I had a conversion moment — not on the road to Damascus, as it were — I don’t remember it.

I do, however, remember when I first started to understand the full implications of the theory. It was when I taught this essay by John Dewey, as part of an introductory course on human nature. I had, of course, read and studied the essay before I taught it, but it was only when I taught it that its message really hit home.

The message is simple, if you are ready to hear it.

Evolution elegantly explains the variety of species. It is also an explanation that offers no guarantees. Broadly-speaking, any outcome for any species is possible. The only condition is that the outcome is always going to be the result of a reproductive advantage.

That’s it.  

That conclusion may seem pretty innocuous these days. We live, after all, in the worldview that was shaped by evolution’s discovery. It is, nevertheless, a pretty earth-shattering conclusion for a vain little species like us.

Evolution tells us we aren’t special. We weren’t preordained. We weren’t a necessary outcome. We aren’t the best or even the fittest. The only claim that we can make is that our ancestors reproduced more successfully than their competitors. Who knows? Maybe some prettier, smarter, and stronger version of us decided having kids wasn’t worth the effort.

And, having thought about the implications of evolution for many years, I am also now inclined to think evolution answers – in broad terms – almost all the fundamental questions of philosophy. What are we? Why are we here? What is morality? Why are we moral? What is thinking? Why do we think? What is knowledge? What is beauty? Essentially, any question that can be transmogrified to the question, “why are we the way we are,” is best explained by evolution.

Of course, that means the only questions evolution can’t directly answer are metaphysical – but even now I’m wondering if an evolutionary lens might be usefully focused on these kinds of questions. Evolution, nevertheless, has an indirect answer to metaphysical questions. We ask metaphysical questions because we evolved to think about and understand the universe in these ways. Conceivably, we might never have evolved to ask and answer these kinds of questions. The planet is filled, after all, with very many successful species that aren’t particularly smart, reflective, or concerned about the nature of the universe.  

There are, of course, many smaller, more focused questions worth asking and pursuing, but, as far as the big “why, oh, why?” questions, it seems to me evolution will be the ultimate and fundamental explanation for all those kinds of questions about us. Physics and cosmology will, of course, take care of all the metaphysical questions.

Which is to say, I suppose, that Hawking is essentially right. Philosophy, as a discipline, is dead. Philosophy, thought of as an outlook or way of thinking, should and, of course, will continue. It should, however, be a kind of thinking done within an empirically grounded discipline rather than being a discipline onto itself. The notion that philosophy is a distinct discipline should go quietly into that good night. 

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Posted in: Identity, Philosophy