The Evolution of Evolution: Darwin’s philosophical forebears

Mosaic portrait of Charles Darwin (c) Charis Tsevis/Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Mosaic portrait of Charles Darwin
(c) Charis Tsevis/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Charles Darwin (born on 12th February, 1809) famously developed the idea of evolution by natural selection outlined in Origin of the Species (1859). Though still controversial, to some today it seems such an obvious idea it is surprising it took so long to emerge.

Evolutionary ideas had had a long pedigree, appearing as early as the Greek philosopher Anaximander. The problem with them all was there seemed to be only two possible mechanisms available to make creatures – deliberate design or blind chance. This was the great innovation of Darwin: not evolution but the theory of natural selection which gave a plausible account of how radical changes could appear by chance, yet appear designed.

That theory did not arise in a vacuum. Stephen J. Gould (1985) has written about the important insights Darwin obtained from Richard Owen (a vertebrate palaeontologist) and John Gould (an ornithologist) after they examined his Galapagos specimens.

Darwin also had intellectual forebears, most famously Lamarck, de Buffon, Lyell and Hutton. Even Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, had written on evolutionary theory. In addition he was influenced by more conceptual work outside biology and geology. This post (indebted to Gould, 1993) will concentrate on two streams which both happen to cross over in the work of an Irish philosopher.

One stream was that which culminated in William Paley. Paley in his famous Natural Theology gave numerous examples of how well designed organisms are. He looked at two possible explanations for this beside design by a deity: blind good luck as suggested by the Greeks (which failed to account for complex organisms with multiple parts working together in harmony) and building adaptations bit by bit as suggested by Lamarck (against which he gives good factual and theoretical arguments, such as querying how a creature in the process of developing a trait can survive.) He gets tantalisingly close to the idea of natural selection but fails to make the necessary conceptual leap.

Natural Theology is part of a tradition arguing for the existence of God based on features of the natural work dating back to the start of the Enlightenment. The most popular example used was the workings of the universe as compared to a mechanism such as a watch, a metaphor Paley adopted. However examples relating to the design of organisms are found in the work of John Ray (1691), William Derham (1711) and Bernard Nieuwentyt (1750).

Another author Paley read expressing similar sentiments was Francis Hutcheson. Paley was a theological utilitarian and though he had important areas of disagreement with Hutcheson, they both “sought in ethics what they detected in God’s creation” (Le Mahieu).

In his “An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue” (1726), Hutcheson describes beauty in plants and animals as an instance of “Uniformity amidst Variety”, and remarking on the similarity of animals within a species says (I, V, XV):

Now this may sufficiently shew us the Absurdity of the Cartesian or Epicurean Hypothesis [organisms coming together by chance], even granting their Postulatum of undirected Force impress’d on infinite Matter; and seems almost a Demonstration of Design in the Universe.

Hutcheson’s cautious “almost” was justified by later events. Such apparent design could arise through organisms struggling to survive, with those slightly less effective at surviving dying or failing to reproduce, leaving only the “well-designed”. This insight came via the work of two economists, Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus.

Paley’s An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) argues that population will always outstrip food production. From this book Darwin received the insight that there was a “struggle for existence” between members of a species.

Paley was an economist in the Smithian mould, and the model he developed can be seen as a pessimistic version of Smith’s (Smith also suggested that people would “insist on breeding up to the minimum of subsistence”, Rothbard).

Smith also had a more direct influence on natural selection. Smith’s fundamental economic insight was that allowing people to compete in the market place allows the inefficient to be weeded out and the best outcomes to arise for all. However these best outcomes cannot be said to have been designed or planned in any meaningful way. There is an obvious parallel between this concept and that of natural selection.”Individuals are struggling for reproductive success, the natural analogue of profit” (Gould, p. 93). In both the appearance of order is actually the result of blind competition.

Adam Smith’s theory was derived from Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees (orginally, The Grumbling Hive, 1705), where the private vices of the bees perversely produced wealth for all. He was taught about this work by Francis Hutcheson, who according to the Smith biographer, Nicholas Phillipson was obsessed with Mandeville.

Hutcheson had argued fiercely against Mandeville, not on the basis that the best outcome in markets does not arise or is unplanned, but against the assertion that people’s acting in their self-interest was always and only could be vice. His first published work, the Inquiry, was designed as a response to Mandeville’s arguments against Shaftesbury’s moral theories in Fable of the Bees.

The key conceptual insights which Darwin drew on to develop his theory of evolution by natural selection were developed over the full length of the eighteenth century. The fact Alfred Russel Wallace (and Patrick Matthew) arrived at the theory around the same time as Darwin suggests it was an idea whose time had come. Until the concepts existed of animals being well suited to their environment, a system producing best outcomes without design and the struggle for existence it is difficult to see how a theory of natural selection could come about. In the development of those concepts Francis Hutcheson played a part, though not by design.

There is one last parallel. In Darwin’s follow-up book, The Descent of Man, Darwin writes of the sociality of the human species and the evolution of the moral sense. The theory Hutcheson developed in the 18th century was paralleled by Darwin in the 19th.

References and Further reading

Stephen J. Gould (1985) “Darwin at Sea – and the Virtues of Port” in The Flamingo’s Smile, pp. 347-359.

Stephen J. Gould (1993) “Darwin and Paley meet the Invisible Hand” in Eight Little Piggies, pp. 138-152.

What’s in John’s Freezer: Owing Owen a blog post on Robert Owen.

IEP: History of Evolution

Liberty Fund: Francis Hutcheson, An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue [1726]

Liberty Fund: D. L. Le Mahiew, Foreword to Paley’s The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (2002).

International Business Times Darwin Day 2015: Alfred Russel Wallace, the forgotten evolutionist overshadowed by Charles Darwin

Evolution Talk (podcast) The Case of Patrick Matthew

Philosophy Now: Darwin on Moral Intelligence.

Rafe McGregor, ‘I See Bad People’: Is the Sixth Sense a Moral Sense? (on Hutcheson’s moral theory, touching also on Darwin.) Youtube, 47 mins.

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