• Kenneth Jacobs

Evolutionism in Pragmatism: Darwin's Influence on Philosophy

Updated: May 9, 2020

Charles Darwin is best known for his theory of natural selection and its significant influence on the biological sciences. Perhaps lesser known, though, is the influence of Darwinism pointed up by John Dewey in The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy:

"The influence of Darwin upon philosophy resides in his having conquered the phenomena of life for the principle of transition, and thereby freed the new logic for application to mind and morals and life. When he said of species what Galileo had said of the earth, e pur se muove, he emancipated, once for all, genetic and experimental ideas as an organon of asking questions and looking for explanations" (pp. 8-9).

According to Dewey, Darwin's The Origin of Species had done for philosophy what Galileo had done for science. The "new logic" that Darwin had freed was the observation that life changes through variation and selection, rather than through a fixed and first cause that results in a thing's unfolding toward its ultimate and final form. For instance, there is no transcendent or eternal form toward which the seed of a plant "unfolds." Instead, a plant presents in its current form because of constant variations selected through survival and reproduction. The implications of this new logic was that life itself was not fixed, it varied. And so, philosophers could investigate the variations in behavior, thought, and morals that could be changed (for better or worse) because they were neither fixed nor transcendental.

"E pur se muove" means "And yet it moves", which Galileo reportedly spoke after having to walk back his claim that the earth moves around the sun. For Darwin it was a species that moves in terms of variations, and those variations were susceptible to inquiry through observation and experimentation. Organon is defined as an "instrument for acquiring knowledge," and that is precisely what the theory of natural selection is used for when we inquire about our ancestors, our health, our behaviors, and our traditions. What makes us move––as living, breathing, and changing organisms––is a question about specific conditions that can be answered:

“...if insight into specific conditions of value and into specific consequences of ideas is possible, philosophy must in time become a method of locating and interpreting the more serious of the conflicts that occur in life, and a method of projecting ways for dealing with them: a method of moral and political diagnosis and prognosis” (p. 17).

Variation––in genetics, behavior, and culture––means that people, their actions, and cultural practices can be changed. A "method of moral and political diagnosis and prognosis" is possible thanks to the insight that species vary. Today, philosophy has become the method envisioned by Dewey, as the theory of natural selection is the organon of many scientific disciplines. David Sloan Wilson is a modern day evolutionist who has realized Dewey's vision by harnessing evolutionary science as "a method of locating and interpreting the more serious of the conflicts that occur in life." In the article Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change, Wilson and company say this:

"Left unmanaged, evolutionary processes often take us where we would prefer not to go. The only solution to this problem is to become wise managers of evolutionary processes" (p. 2).

Wilson and colleagues are wise managers in that they use Darwin's new logic along with the instruments of science that follow from it. There is pragmatism in being wise managers of evolutionary processes, as Dewey had noted when he said:

"...a philosophy that humbles its pretensions to the work of projecting hypotheses for the education and conduct of mind, individual and social, is thereby subjected to test by the way in which the ideas it propounds work out in practice" (p. 18).

Dewey's statement is a variation on Peirce's pragmatic maxim: "Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object" (p. 371). The hypotheses we project––with the object of Darwin's new logic––are conceived with practical bearings in mind. Real world problems in education, mind, and society can be solved with an evolutionary eye toward what is adaptive and functional in practice. The object of Darwin's conception (i.e., natural selection), and the object of Dewey's conception (i.e., pragmatism), are complementary in that they both resolve to variation and selection in nature and in practice respectively. The test of a hypothesis is borne out in practice, as are the variations in a species.

Pragmatism appears to be evolutionism's natural extension into the everyday lives of humans; to procure the means-ends that are the livelihood of the human species and its individual members. Darwin's new logic made that procurement identifiable, with variation in ideas as its means and selection in practice as its ends.

Darwinism is at once, a dissolvent of old ideas that do not work and precipitant of new ones that do:

“Doubtless the greatest dissolvent in contemporary thought of old questions, the greatest precipitant of new methods, new intentions, new problems, is the one effected by the scientific revolution that found its climax in the 'Origin of Species'” (Dewey, 1910, p. 19).

Learn more about today's wise managers of evolutionary processes at The Evolution Institute.