Thursday, July 24, 2008

What is "Darwinism"?

Now that I'm wading into the intelligent design/evolution controversy, I want to say something about how I position myself, terminologically.

There's some debate about the meaning of terms such as "evolution," "evolutionary biology," "Darwinism," "neo-Darwinism," etc. I would distinguish between weak Darwinism and strong Darwinism.

"Weak Darwinism" is best characterized through a quote by the philosopher Richard Rorty:

as good Darwinians, we want to introduce as few discontinuities as possible into the story of how we got from the apes to the Enlightenment.


This basic idea -- telling a story that goes from Miocene apes who were the ancestors of both us and chimpanzees, through Pliocene hominids to the emergence of Homo sapiens, and from the rudimentary cultures and forgotten myths of the Upper Pleistocene through to mythologies of ancient Greece and Israel and beyond that to the Enlightenment (along with the immanent critique of the Enlightenment of Nietzsche, Adorno, Dewey, and Foucault) -- that insistence on continuity is what I call weak Darwinism, and I'm proud to consider myself a "weak Darwinian" or a "Darwinian in the weak sense."

It is "weak" because it is not committed to any position about the empirically detectable mechanisms through which these events unfolded.

By contrast, I would call "strong Darwinism" the position that unpredictable mutations and natural selection are individually necessary and jointly sufficient in explaining biological change, including cognitive change. Richard Dawkins is certainly a "strong Darwinian" in this sense.

I am not a "strong Darwinian," because I think -- from my very amateur position! -- that neo-Darwinism must be supplemented with a theory of form. The best candidates for such a theory today, from what I can tell, lie in the sciences of self-organizing systems and what is called "autopoeisis." Recently I have encountered the idea of an "Extended Evolutionary Synthesis" (PDF). I doubt that an EES is the complete theory, either, but I would regard it as a helpful step in the right direction of getting us closer to being able to tell a story, with fewer discontinuities, that runs from the apes to the Enlightenment -- and beyond.

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