Philosophy of Biology/Bio-Philosophy



A long erratic path has led me back to looking at biology and bio-philosophy as part of a book project on the relationship between German Romanticism/Naturphilosophie and French Structuralism and Materialism. Having read both analytic Philosophy of Biology (especially Grene and Depew) and various Bio-Philosophies (Bergson’s Creative Evolution, Canguilhem’s Knowledge of Life, various Deleuzian takes etc) it seems that there is not only the usual continental/analytic rift at work but a serious gap regarding the post-Darwinian pre-Modern synthesis story about the relation of philosophy and biology.

While some continental theorists touch up the neo-vitalists (such as Driesch) or celebrate the complexity of cell theorists (such as Deleuze on Weissman) little attention is paid to how the disagreement between Mendelians and Neo-Darwinians were shaped by previous debates as well as then contemporary worries about the status of biology as a science. Those who rediscovered the work of Mendel (such as de Vries) were generally seen as non-gradualist evolutionary theorists or mutationists (believing that the genes and alleles meant for the possibility of saltationism or evolution by jumps. This view which is often seen as fortified by William Bateson (father of the cybernetician/anthropologist Gregory Bateson) is opposed to the work of bio-statisticians or bio-metricists (such as Galton, Pearson, and Weldon) who used statistical methods to prove, in a somewhat reverse sense, the existence of natural selection.

The disagreement in part was about treating genes as a kind of force or driver for natural selection, as instigating morphological change at a pace rapider than Darwin predicted or whether changes in populations could be seen as natural selection looking at the movement between communities of breeders and how traits could develop depending on population distribution. These positions while opposed on their general view of Darwinism were synthesized since the metrics of the biostatisticians could be seen as measuring the patterns of tendencies of genes while emphasis on genes allowed one to explain how selective material was transmitted hereditarily.

The critique of many biophilosophers of these approaches (when they are addressed at all – instead often one simply looks at Darwin or Cuvier or Buffon) is that it does not account for the force of life or the source of creativity (this is part of Bergson’s critique of Darwin – that there is no real account of creativity). But Bergson ( who was actually better versed than many of his philosophical contemporaries in then current biology such as neo-Lamarckianism and neo-Darwinism of the late 19th century) of course would have rejected such mathematical approaches out of hand even though they, in essence, make the flow of genes and the organisms that bear them the force of creativity itself.

Thus after long skepticism not about evolution but about natural selection, many were looking for a simpler picture of evolution that did not appeal to a force of life or to recapitulation (in its various forms of ever more complex temporal manipulation to explain the repetition of phylogeny, or history, or memory). Many neo-Darwinians between 1860 and 1910s saw evolution and recapitulation as compatible or even necessarily linked. The methods of both statisticians and geneticists of the early 20th century (who were less opposed than the history suggests) were able to jump the positivist hurdle of how to bring deep time into the laboratory – the statistical measures of changing populations over time gave us a snapshot of the possibilities of evolutionary time. How to measure deep time of evolution – find a species with a very short lifespan (hence Morgan’s famous fly room experiments).

Corresponding with this post-Darwinian pre evolutionary dogma time was the rise of eugenics (especially in the Anglophone world prior to its metastization in Nazi Germany). Here there is a tendency to draw a straight line from eugenics to Darwin skipping over the biostatisticians and Mendelians. Or, like Foucault does in his later lecturers at the College de France, argue that biopolitics working on a population is in the 20th century a form mostly similar to that of sovereign power, i.e. the power to kill is moved from citizen subjects to members of a populace. But this seems to minimize how eugenics argued for its aggressive policies as well as how this attached itself to regimes beyond that of biology in the name of national protectionism rather than as a logical consequence of Darwin’s theories.

Populations subject to genetic drift, balance, and distribution are only crudely mapable onto the attempt to construct ‘scientific’ theories in the name of national hygiene. In terms of genetic flow for instance eugenics would lead to diversity loss. Or, as Thomas Hunt Morgan argued the traits which eugen-cists were trying to select or breed out could not be adequately defined and hence not statistically measured. Of course Darwin’s comments about the possibility of changing psychology via an understanding of evolution in The Descent of Man seemed

A consistent tendency of racist scientist is to accept a theory and then retro-project it from unrelated cases. One can think of phrenology or craniometry in that the capacity to measure and quantify certain aspects of human dimension allowed for prejudices based on comportment to be justified. This is arguably made worse by a theory such as Darwin’s due to how he presented the speculative aspects of natural selection. As Gillian Beer and many others have highlighted  Darwin utilizes analogy with human directed breeding in order to suggest that natural selection is nature’s more complex more temporally stretched articulation of breeding. Darwin of course did not mention humans to any real extent (saving that for The Descent of Man) but again it seems as if the door is open. Darwin also makes  racists comments less  in the language of evolution but in the language of development. Because of the gaps several scientists and policy makers could push him to mean that since humans evolved and technological development is part of that evolution then direction such methods and technologies to the breeding of humans could uncritically use cultural and class bias to make claims for less fit human beings to be restricted in their production of offspring.

But what is the status of Darwinian evolution here? While later evolutionary thinkers such as Sewall Wright utilized statistical methods he also advocated (against the more mechanical view of R.A. Fisher) against a dynamic understanding of fitness where part of the function of fitness isn’t only to adapt to a static environment but for adaptation to change the environment (thereby making static understandings  of fitness inadequate) based in part on an emphasis on genetic drift and bottlenecks in the evolutionary landscape.

It was Wright’s rival Fisher who more Darwinians globed on to as he, and his predecessors Galton, Pearson, and Weldon (all avid eugenicists though some Mendelians were as well such as Davenport), saw the data as confirming natural selection rather than complicating it via a dimensionalization into landscapes and pathways (perhaps carried to its extreme form wit CD Waddington and Rene Thom later in the 1970s). Thus the mechanization of selection only later comes to be synthesized with Mendelian genetics but in way that emphasizes the possibility of biological laws rather than a dynamics which might suggest a different set of epistemological theories.

But often Darwin is treated as doing more harm than simply leaving space for racist interpretations. Tarizzo in his Life: A Modern Invention attempts to extend Foucault’s critique of biopolitics to Darwin and Darwinian evolution. Tarizzo accuses Darwin of constructing a metaphysics of life and of race rather than merely introducing a different epistemological model for the biological sciences.

This speaks to the repeated mismatch between philosophy of biology/philosophy of science and continental philosophy and continental philosophy of science. No doubt this is due in part to the disappearance (at least explicitly) of philosophy in the sciences (according to the analytic picture) and the binding of rationality and science to the political disasters of the 20th century according to the continental portrait. This results not only in a metaphysical of biology on the side of the continental critiques but also ignores the late 19th and early 20th century developments in biology. Also, in attaching biology to an Adornian view of science (as evil instrumental rationality) it also erases the critiques of mechanism and rationalism from within biology (especially the reductionism that often accompanies using physics as the ultimate ground of all other sciences and of philosophy of science).

To be continued…


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