Blogs > Liberty and Power > Darwin/Spencer/Hayek

Apr 3, 2005 1:08 pm


I have posted a reply to those who urged me to reconsider my views on Herbert Spencer. It may be read here (scroll down). The short verdict: He seems to offer a lot of good, but also one very serious mistake.

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Roderick T. Long - 4/28/2005

So, just to disambiguate:

Teleology can be divided into purposive and non-purposive (or not-necessarily-purposive).

Non-purposive telelogy can be divided into progressive and non-progressive (or not-necessarily-progressive).

Non-progressive non-purposive teleology just explains what licenses saying that X is for the sake of Y. This is what philosophers of biology generally mean by teleology, and it's generally taken, pretty uncontroversially I think, to be compatible with Darwinism. And Darwin himself so took it, quite explicitly.

Progressive non-purposive telelogy is what Spencer is advocating. This I claim is compatible with Darwinism too, though this is more controversial. This is the claim that one can predict some very general features of the likely future course of evolution.

Roderick T. Long - 4/28/2005

> to suggest that a prior living organism of
> certain properties tends to cause subsequent
> living organisms with other properties that are
> extensions of the former ones is not a valid > formulation of evolution

Certainly, I agree; which makes me suspect we must be talking past each other again. I'm not talking about properties that are "extensions of" previous properties, I'm just talking about the same old properties. The fact that my ancestors' eyes enabled them to see explains why I have eyes -- not improved versions of eyes, just plain old eyes.

Maybe you thought I was offering the "To say that X exists/occurs for the sake of Y is to say that X's existence/occurrence can be explained by the fact that X's tend to cause Y's" definition as a defense of Spencer's view that evolution proceeds in a certain direction. I wasn't; I was just giving an example of how philosophers often define teleology. No direction involved; indeed this definition applies just as much to steady-state maintenance as to evolution.

I think Spencer's evolution-in-a-direction is compatible with Darwinism too, but mere teleology doesn't imply anything as fancy as that. Spencer's version is, however, less like predicting a specific product and more like predicting "the market will probably produce some better treatments for some disease or other over the next 30 years."

Jason Kuznicki - 4/28/2005

I agree that teleology need not imply conscious purpose, but to suggest that a prior living organism of certain properties tends to cause subsequent living organisms with other properties that are extensions of the former ones is not a valid formulation of evolution. The theory does not attempt to make such connections--not any more than a theory of the market would presume to pronounce Coca-Cola an inevitable development.

The difference in my understanding of evolution and yours seems to have narrowed, but it has also sharpened somewhat, and I do think that in the form in which it is presently encountered, evolution aims to do away with teleology in the sense we are discussing. I'm thinking mostly of the work of Dawkins and Dennett here if it helps the discussion. I would also like to say that until I read further in Spencer, I don't want to generalize much more.

Roderick T. Long - 4/27/2005

Well, the word "teleological" is ambiguous too. It's often thought to imply conscious purpose, but the paradigm case of a teleological theory in biology is Aristotle's, and Aristotle's account of biology is not purposive at all. Darwin himself said that he took his own theory of natural selection to be a vindication, rather than a refutation, of teleology in the Aristotelean sense.

Philosophers often analyze teleology in the following way: To say that X exists/occurs for the sake of Y is to say that X's existence/occurrence can be explained by the fact that X's tend to cause Y's. In that sense, Darwin's theory is thoroughly teleological: seeing is the function of my eyes because the best explanation of my having eyes appeals to the fact that porevious instances of eyes enabled previous possessors of eyes to see.

So I'm not sure what sort of telelology you have in mind that is a) non-purposive but b) still inconsistent with Darwinism.

Jason Kuznicki - 4/27/2005

I do think we are getting confused on the word "direction," which I have been taking to imply a teleology in Spencer's theory of evolution. Whether or not it indicates a guiding intelligence, a teleological account of natural change is usually regarded as improper in the sciences.

Now, a non-teleologcial account of evolution that nonetheless allows for the emergence of traits that are useful in a wide variety of circumstances is still possible, of course. I do not know whether Spencer held this position or not, and I would be very interested in your thoughts on this matter.

Roderick T. Long - 4/27/2005

I wonder whether the ambiguity of the word "direction" is getting us tripped up here. When I say that Spencer thought evolution had a direction, I'm using the word "direction" in the sense of "the wind is blowing in that direction" -- a non-purposive (though not necessarily random) sense. But maybe you're hearing "direction" as in "this project is under the direction of the project manager." Spencer didn't think evolution had a direction in the latter sense.

As for "progress," I don't see that Spencer's view is inconsistent with Darwinism. Spencer was well aware that different traits made for fitness relative to different environments; in fact he emphasizes just that fact, over and over. But how is that inconsistent with thinking that some traits will tend to be generally fitness-making across a wide variety of environments?

Also, of course, when Spencer talks about evolution he's not talking just about biological evolution; he's also talking about sociocultural evolution on the one hand and cosmological evolution on the other.

Jason Kuznicki - 4/27/2005

Spencer did think that there was a definite direction to evolution, at least so far as I can tell. I do plan to read further, but anyone who would theorize a "survival of the fittest" is actually quite far from Darwin, contrary to popular belief. In Darwinian thought, there is no such thing as "fittest" as an overall category; fitness is always in relation to something else, to the environment a creature happens to encounter, and thus many contradictory things can all be " the fittest," with none of them aiming at anything in arriving at where they were.

Spencer's belief that progress is real but not inevitable is thus excluded: Darwinism finds progress an unhelpful way of looking at the situation.

Roderick T. Long - 4/26/2005

Well, sure, but how is any of that a criticism of Spencer? He never claimed that evolution was guided by conscious intelligence (indeed he strenuously denied it), nor did he ever claim that its results were inevitably superior (it was Spencer, after all, who wrote: "the survival of the fittest is often not the survival of the best").

But he did think that more successful solutions were likely to out-compete less successful solutions in the long run, thanks both to biological and to sociocultural selection; and he did think that it was possible to identify some of the features that made some solutions more likely to be successful. This is very similar to Hayek's view that some cultural practices spread because societies that adopt them become more successful, even if their reasons for adopting them had nothing to do with their success.

As for progress having no definite meaning, Spencer explains pretty clearly what he means by progress, and he explains pretty clearly (whether rightly or wrongly) why he thinks such progress is likely in most circumstances, though not in all, to be furthered by evolution.

Jason Kuznicki - 4/26/2005

The trouble I have with all of this is that where the market allows us to watch as certain products prove themselves superior--often for reasons that we personally could not have guessed--the picture is much murkier in biology, and in it, new developments are never purposefully created.

When a new product appears, of course its manufacturer believes that this represents an improvement. All other things being equal, he soon discovers whether this belief is right or wrong.

But when a new species or variety of organism appears, there is no intentionality at all. Periods of "regression" are an illusion, because progress itself has no particular meaning; it refers to no deliberate act at all. All evolved creatures now living are equally "developed," which is to say that none of them are developed at all. There remain important similarities between these complex systems, but a unifying intelligence guiding either is not one of them. Even on the micro level, dealing with one good or species, there is intelligence only in the designer of a product.

Roderick T. Long - 4/26/2005

Gustave de Molinari, the first free-market anarchist, developed a Spencer-influenced "peace biology" theory in his 1898 book The Greatness and Decline of War, which I'm slowly translating into English. The table of contents gives a fairly clear picture of his argument.

Roderick T. Long - 4/26/2005

I've posted this on Jason's webpage but I'll post it here also:

It's true that Spencer did think evolution had a "direction," i.e., he thought the course of evolution -- both biological and sociocultural -- was likelier in the long run to favor the emergence and spread of some forms of ethical attitudes and social organizations over others. He wasn't fatalistic about it, he acknowledged that periods of regression could occur for various reasons, but he did think that some ways of acting would tend ceteris paribus to prevail over others in the long run because they work better. Whether Spencer was right or wrong about this, it wasn't an unthinking prejudice; he had detailed arguments -- volumes full -- for it. And of course Hayek thinks very much the same thing.

Robert L. Campbell - 4/3/2005


Mike Hawkins' book on Social Darwinism (see my comment on Jason's earlier post) also includes coverage of "peace biology."

Robert Campbell

Mark Brady - 4/3/2005

Several years ago I looked at but did not read D. P. Crook's Darwinism, War, and History: The Debate over the Biology of War from the "Origin of Species" to the First World War (Cambridge University Press, 1994). It struck me as a most interesting book and relevant to any serious discussion on Social Darwinism. The book "challenges the received view that Darwinism generated essentially aggressive and warlike social values and pugnacious images of humankind. Paul Crook reconstructs the influential discourse of 'peace biology', whose liberal vision was of a basically free humanity, not fettered by iron laws of biological necessity or governed by violent genes. By exploring a gamut of Darwinian readings of history and war, mainly in the English-speaking world to 1919, this study throws new light upon militarism, peace movements, the origins of World War I and British social thought." (I quote from the publisher description.)