Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Biology and Philosophy

How Biology Shapes Philosophy: New Foundations for Naturalism. David Livingstone Smith, ed. Cambridge: CUP, 2017. ISBN: 9781107055834. Hardcover. 364 pages. $99.99US

How Biology Shapes Philosophy is an excellent example of truly interdisciplinary work. These are not philosophers talking about literature or art; rather, these are philosophers who grapple with some of the hard problems of science. The verb shapes in the title is key: to make or create. Biology does not merely inform philosophical thought but forms it in some way. The collection confirms that we are biological, evolved creatures who like to speculate about our behaviors. In 1959 C.P. Snow erroneously and infamously wrote how his idea of “The Two Cultures,” the sciences versus the arts/humanities, could not communicate with each other. Snow has since been proven wrong, and David Livingstone Smith’s impeccable collection featuring a stellar line-up of top-notch scholars clearly demonstrates how biology and philosophy are parts of the same whole working together.

If you are a philosopher, I’d recommend you purchase this book for your department. If you are a biologist, you might be pleasantly interested to see how philosophy is reading and interpreting your work. Philosophers need to see the conversation they should be having, and not the barriers some maintain, between them and their colleagues in the sciences. For those of us who are not scientists, we don’t do “research” – we analyze texts, like those produced by natural and social scientists. But an excellent example of disciplines as seemingly divergent as biology and philosophy need to forge a closer working relationship now more than ever.

In addition to an Introduction by Professor Smith, there are thirteen chapters that cover a range of subjects, from neurophilosophy, teleosemantics, rationality, ethics, human nature, and gender, to name only a few. The contributors are philosophers but, almost without exception, exhibit a deep knowledge and deft handling of the sciences. In many cases, I was happy to see, aspects of evolution are pretty much treated with care and accuracy.

Although I’m neither a philosopher nor a biologist, allow me to comment on the merits of Professor Smith’s endeavor. I’m happy to say that except for two chapters I found difficult and one that seemed outright skeptical of an evolutionary biological approach, all of these authors take complex ideas from two disciplines and express them simply and directly. Daniel Dennett, for example, beautifully expresses how it’s essentially incorrect to force species into categories where there are and should be, according to evolutionary theory, gaps. Over essentialism we need to highlight the gradual change in great time of all living things, the gradations of phenomena like consciousness. Of course essence (if there is even such a reality) is microscopic, e.g., chemical microstructures that make iron what it is. At any rate, in Dennett’s metaphorical prose, the project now is “to reconstruct the most elevated philosophical concepts from modest ingredients” (22). Likewise, Alexander Rosenberg says philosophical naturalism is philosophy drawing from Darwinian ideas. Evolutionary forces affect adaptive outcomes like beliefs. Following Dennett, Rosenberg asks philosophers to consider why and for what in terms of evolution. If there’s any “purpose” (a debatable word) it comes from the three pillars established by Darwin: variation, competition, and inheritance.

Echoing the work of Todd Feinberg and Jon Mallet on the origins of consciousness (reviewed on these ASEBL pages), Peter Godfrey-Smith notes how, after Thomas Nagel’s question about what is it like to be a bat?, qualia and consciousness are now treated equally. There was, in very ancient prehistoric times, a rise of subjective experience in an environment of minds beginning somewhere in the Cambrian explosion. Simple cognition (not felt) appeared first (and is still with us), followed later by subjectivity (which some organisms do feel).

From my perspective, I’d like to see more collaboration between scientists and philosophers or scientists and artists. One fine example is in Patricia Churchland who, in her chapter, asserts there is no mind/brain split in spite of right/left brain hemisphere research. All the medical evidence (in brain, psychological, and pharmaceutical studies) shows that mentality derives from brain matter. Like Dennett, Churchland discourages philosophy from looking to or using words like soul or élan vital. Coming back to Nagel, and now adding David Chalmers, Churchland says contrary to some of their beliefs there is no “extraphysical” consciousness. In fact, Churchland’s essay is an excellent example of my point: she notes how Chalmers and Nagel philosophize abstractly without conscientiously relying on the research experiments science provides. Since consciousness is biological, scientific data needs to be used, as Churchland does, to explain it – indeed, to explain many of our behaviors. This is not to discredit philosophy but to highlight its importance in delineating larger and more enduring questions fundamental to scientific inquiry (e.g., bioethics).

I found the chapters on teleosemantics challenging (David Papineau) and dense (Karen Neander). The fault might be mine. What’s useful here is how, in line with teleosemantics, information received by an organism, and not necessarily the maker’s situation, determines its truth condition. As an example, Papineau offers the now famous illustrations of vervet monkey calls that represent, for the hearer, the location and type of predator. That is, the representation is true because it fulfills a biological function (101). This is more to functional biology and not evolution, and I note that Papineau cites Alvin Plantinga. Maybe this is justified here in that natural selection works on the evolution of beneficial behaviors and not on particular beliefs. Teleosemantics deals exactly with behavior and is, therefore, oriented to outcome content (109). In this way, most human representations are species conducted.
Parts of the book, especially here, were written for certain classes of philosophers. Not to be unfair, but at times I thought the book’s version of biology might be a handmaid to philosophy. That is not necessarily a criticism, though; it might be an operation of how these two disciplines work together. On a similar score, I’ve read books by neuroscientists and primatologists who bandy about philosophical ideas as labels. My point is that in terms of readability, parts of the collection were hard to grasp.

On a related note, I thought Ronald De Sousa’s chapter was skeptical concerning how biology can inform human knowledge about self-identity. Maybe so. It seems in a small space De Sousa tries to get to the question of human nature and says nature has intentions – see the fixity of species. But Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin demonstrated, later confirmed, that species are not fixed. I know that previously De Sousa has written against any evolutionary approach to the arts [2004. “Is Art an Adaptation? Prospects for an Evolutionary Perspective on Beauty.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 62.2. 109-118.]. In this essay he proclaims, talking about the human, female orgasm, “Some of the best things in life are spandrels” (148). From here he seems against any natural law theory based in biology. For instance, he says that any preference for “nice people over nasty ones” does not need to rely on evolutionary theory (150). I don’t know that the cultural anthropologist Christopher Boehm, to name one, would agree. Next, we read that “evolutionary ethics is “unconvincing” (150). I’m not sure that Dennis Krebs, to name one, would agree. With statements like these De Sousa is coming close to how T.H. Huxley denied any evolutionary component to morality, that it was entirely a human, cultural creation. It is not. We see many examples, to name one species, of caring and punishment in chimpanzees. De Sousa says that just because a behavior is frequent does not make it “good” (150). As far as I know, an evolutionary biologist would not say that either; traits and characteristics that contribute to survival and reproduction get passed on. It’s not a question of good or bad. A male chimpanzee understands and exercises self-control, and if he castigates another too much, the group will howl disapproval. This is not good/bad behavior, per se but is a clue to what in the human realm we declare as right/wrong. 

On the top of page 151, contrary to some of the other authors in the collection, it seems to me De Sousa makes the mistake of suggesting human uniqueness over other species. This is based on how we alone have “speech” (151). This is not true if we consider the range of vocalizations across species, how many (and not just us) have the FOXP2 gene for vocal learning, like song birds and dolphins. Consider, too, how chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans have been taught to communicate with sign language, granted some better than others. True, our speech enables a greater value system; but this overlooks how other species have survived longer without such values. Homo erectus, who probably had some type of proto-language, was around longer than (so far) us, and probably because its values were kinship with the environment and other species. Some of our “values” are actually destructive. We overproduce, overconsume, and waste resources. Yet H. erectus, among others in the hominin radiation, bequeathed to us the very emotions (shared with apes) De Sousa claims are harmful. Another slip De Sousa makes is to assume, as he seems to believe, that evolution is based on survival of the fittest (154). In the first edition of On the Origin of Species Darwin does not use this phrase (which came from Herbert Spencer) and regrets using it in later editions. The fit do not survive; traits and characters, no matter how small – jealousy or a fear response – survive because they have benefited the species.  

Samir Okasha covers a theory of rationality, distinguishing between epistemology, which evaluates how a belief is rational, and practical philosophy, which evaluates how any action is rational (161). Mirroring an extended evolutionary synthesis, Okasha sees choice, or a type of rationality, in response to an environment so as to modify behavior.

In terms of morality, Philip Kitcher follows Darwin in The Descent of Man regarding a moral sense evolving across species, a genealogical method. This approach leans more to species connections and continuities and less to natural selection. Like Okasha and others in the collection, Kitcher is aware that evolution comes in various dimensions, first outlined in Evolution in Four Dimensions by Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb and more recently by work of Kevin Laland, to name a few. Kitcher makes the valid point that philosophers need to be in contact with the phenomena they discuss, otherwise the argument becomes irrelevantly abstract. I once had a philosopher insist that Bergson’s Creative Evolution is real science and that morality comes from above, not below. Closer to the truth would be an examination of kin selection, group interactions, retribution, reciprocity, and altruism in nonhuman primates and even other species. In his books, primatologist Frans de Waal has plenty of examples of empathy in nonhuman primates. Kitcher believes in “moral progress” (195), which also makes me think of how Huxley separated human morality from anything natural. On its face this is anti-evolutionary, teleological. Similarly, nature has no purpose. But Kitcher’s qualification is that any such progress is not “toward” but “away from” (195). In other words, our ancestors learned from and corrected their mistakes. That type of progress I can live with. I know Kitcher is aware of the hominin lineage and our continuities with nonhuman primates, but perhaps space restricted his reference to them. Instead, he seems to deal with periods only around the time fully modern humans began to establish agriculture and cities.

All of which brings us to the question of “human nature” discussed by Edouard Machery. People are extraordinarily different but yet all part of the human race. Note: there are wide variations of personality across great apes, too. Human nature is, then, descriptive only. What are the constituents of a human nature? A moral sense? Speech? Bipedalism? Machery says, rightly, we need to see those constituents in action; they are not instilled by a supreme power (208). While the arts and humanities seem to manifest some of our human qualities, Machery says that science “holds the keys of human nature” (208). The arts and humanities are good indicators of our imaginative and creative predispositions since they evolve with us. Machery’s point is that any so-called human nature (I’d prefer the expression human tendencies) is the result of evolution in its multiple dimensions. This approach, too, correctly accommodates the extended evolutionary synthesis. Machery questions the view of human uniqueness that says a function of human nature is “to draw a line between human beings and other animals” (211). We could say each species, certainly, is unique and fills its own evolutionary niche. In other words, there is no human essentialism. As an example, Machery says we are not bipedal because we are human but that bipedalism is the result of evolutionary forces and selection pressures on australopiths, our distant ancestors. There are practical and moral considerations here, since it is difficult to modify traits that are supposedly and only distinctly human.

Taking us further in this realm of plasticity and away from ancient and medieval notions of fixity, is John Dupré, who writes about sex and gender not only from a biological angle but also from an ontological one. Like Machery’s question concerning human nature, Dupré asks about the “divisions” in nature; is there an essence, and if so is it on the atomic or genomic level (230)? As we know, many organisms are asexual and have been for eons. Dupré notes that among sexed organisms, “sex can be fluid” (231), and he provides examples. I recall, too, reading once about an organism that is asexual but under survival pressures will become sexual to diversify its gene pool. What this means is that for biologically sophisticated creatures sex has to be considered on a developmental plane where genes interact with the environment. Biology is a process of change, not a predetermined fixity. For instance, Dupré cites this example. We know a male has XX chromosomes and that a female has XY. But there are variants of XYY (male) and XXY and XO (female) breaking this paradigm. Even with the variants, Dupré seems to question the sex attributions. There is a false dichotomy established by culture, not by nature; and, in development, chromosomes might not ultimately matter.

Not to get off track, but I’d be interested to know Dupré’s take on the famous David Reimer case. The boy was born male but, because of tragic circumstances after his birth, was raised female on the advice of Dr. John Money (at Johns Hopkins) circa 1967. Money was convinced because of his research that gender was completely constructed, so while “Bruce” was raised as a girl, “Brenda,” and was anatomically on the outside “corrected” in that way, his internal mechanisms (chromosomes, hormones, body chemicals) were all male, and at some point he came to realize he was a man. No one, least of all me, would discount the tremendous impact of parents, peers, and culture, but the Bruce/Brenda case raises questions about what we might otherwise call plasticity. I don’t know for sure, but here’s a good example where biology and philosophy should meet.

I think Dupré stresses, more, the plasticity of the chromosomes which, in turn, can be dramatically affected by developmental influencers. That is, there are tendencies and not necessarily determinants in genes; no one gene acts alone, and many factors can influence if genes are turned on/off. The genome sequence might be static, but the genome is not fixed (242).

Luc Faucher, drawing from some extent on Machery (and providing a nice complement to Dupré), writes about the biophilosophy of race. There is not all that much genetic variability between “racial” groups (more within a group), so that someone in group A over here might actually be more genetically similar to an outsider in group D over there. These scientific facts fly in the face of those who tried to establish racial essences. So Faucher makes the nice distinction between the truth of scientific “race,” which finds variability within a group and not outside of it, and folk ideas concerning race, which are culturally constructed and might have some basis in evolutionary psychology. The concept of race has its roots in local identity and distinguishing oneself and his/her group from the others. Can cultural time change one’s perception of others? Maybe, but Faucher seems skeptical since ethnic distinctions served our ancestors and are to some degree built in us. There might have been an evolutionary advantage (e.g., control of resources) to generalize about others, emotionally, but of course that led to typecasting, a downside. We can see some of this developmentally: children make very few distinctions about “race” and only do so later because of information or instruction from adults.

Finally, Richard Boyd promotes the antireductionist idea that complexity might be an aggregation of other complexes, e.g., species. His chapter is, albeit difficult, a fitting conclusion. He tries to get us to the non-reductionist from the reductionist. In other words, biology teaches us that phenomena are processes of other operations. I’ve heard philosophers complain that “science” is reductive. Is it? Rather, it seems to burst open possibilities. Think how, relatively speaking, nature was fixed before Darwin; but with is ideas, and that one simple graph in On the Origin of Species of speciation as a branching tree, the notion of fluid change in fits and starts and interchange mixing and matching traits among organisms came about. A common, popular cultural misconception, for instance, is that human beings evolved in a linear fashion. You have, no doubt, seen the silhouette “progression” of an ape walking to be a human. Nothing could be further from the truth, since we are a composite of many hominin species long gone who, in turn, shared a common ancestor with great apes. Are we closer to chimpanzees or bonobos? We share characteristics of both, and yet they are very distant from us in evolutionary time.

As I was finishing my reading of Professor Smith’s book, news broke that paleoanthropologists Jean-Jacques Hublin and Daniel Richter and their teams dated hominin fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco to at least 300kya. These are virtually anatomically modern humans and strikingly show that our species of Homo sapiens evolved from many others and not a few coming only out of East Africa. What were these people’s thoughts and habits and do their artifacts reveal how much like us they were? I don’t think only paleoanthropologists need to be involved in answering such questions that crucially impact on our history. If not established already, places of learning (i.e., colleges) should launch interdisciplinary centers that encourage conversations, like those in Professor Smith’s book, between the sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanistic disciplines.


- Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D. St. Francis College. Author of Making Mind: Moral Sense and Consciousness (Rodopi 2014) and Evolution and Human Culture (Brill 2016).

Copyright c. Gregory F. Tague 2017 All Rights Reserved

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