Why matters

I’ll just get straight into it.

“… and I endorse this message”

Yes, philosophers, I have read Aristotle. I know there are four causes. This is the way to explain it that works when teaching science, in order to specify that scientific thinking is associated with (or simply is) a particular complex of two or three of his causes, and definitely does not include one of them. I don’t care that his “total knowledge” is thus not satisfied. I will bust out the David Hume if need be.

Confusingly, some bio writers have taken to using Aristotle’s proximate/ultimate terminology as evolutionary, selective concepts, in that the biomechanics of teeth and jaws are supposed to be proximate, and the historical reproductive advantage of some particular conformation is supposed to be ultimate. This is wrong and forces the same writers to wiggle backwards for the rest of their argument to keep clarifying that their ultimate is supposed to be retrospective and causal, isolated to this species, et cetera. I tried these terms in class like this for a while until I realized it puzzled the dickens out of the students, and that they were right to be puzzled. Better to acknowledge that all material inquiry is conducted absent of concern regarding ultimate cause, and to be happy about it.

I’m not talking about “balance” or a little-of-this, little-of-that. I’m saying, keep your gorgeously-constructed metaphysics out of my physics, dammit, and quit looking at my physics to find your airy-fairy “meanings” for things.

That’d be fine – and would only irritate dedicated metaphysicians, which is also fine – if this whole thing didn’t crop up all over the place using lots and lots of other language from other topics. It does. The first one that probably comes to mind is religious language, particularly when it’s marshaled against scientific discussions. Note my phrasing carefully – I’m saying marshaled against for a reason.

I hear you out there! But science refutes the freaking stupid miracle stories! Stay with me. I’m saying I don’t have to refute miracles or other spiritual-affects-the-material claims with science. Such claims are struck from discussion from the get-go because they jumped the tracks I’m describing already. But to explain this properly, I need to lead up to this level of comprehension with a little bit of history, both big-H biological and little-h personal.

John Abernethy

It’s the 18-teens, and over in Britain, William Lawrence is tearing up the Royal College of Surgeons with his lectures on treating life (and people) as a chemical, physical phenomenon, even giving this notion a name, “biology.” Meanwhile in the audience, his former mentor and sponsor for his current elevated position is turning purple with rage. That’s John Abernethy, a staunch proponent of such things as magnetism, electricity, and other less-named things as super-added forces that impart life to matter. He associates such forces with everything that is good and special about human beings, and marshals the intelligentsia – particularly opinion-making editorial writers – against Lawrence’s unacceptable proposals.

Vitalism grades very swiftly into magical thinking. Its terminology entered immediately into pseudo-medicine, which has all too obviously persisted into the present day. The estimable Orac discusses this issue periodically, e.g. here.

On reflection, I struggle to find a point to historical vitalism which is wholly, i.e., legitimately, within the story-purpose-thematic Why at all. I rudely suggest that it was proposed and advocated solely for zipping over into category error. If that’s the case, then bluntly, vitalism is tagged as a broken concept from the start and should be, if you’ll excuse the expression, shitcanned instantly.

Now for my own witness to a truly surgical takedown of Abernethy. (Clarity check: Valdosta the community included just under 50,000 people when I lived there; the school served about 14,000 students.)

The classroom anecdote offers the perfect example of why there’s not a “balance” or a “blend” or even “tolerance” between the two Whys. The student didn’t have to semi-believe that there isn’t a God, or acknowledge that there might not be; I didn’t have to semi-believe that there is, or acknowledge that there might be. This isn’t about “meeting in the middle.”

The student spotted that the problem lay not in some debate between the two Whys, but in the categorical error of miracles already present in one of them – it was jumpin’ over into the realm of physical cause with its themes and meanings and purposes before any such debate began. His view is that those features of Genesis made sense to him in terms of themes and meanings and purposes, and can be read and celebrated that way, but did not work or make sense as a physical history, and should instantly vanish from discussions of that history.

He was right and every religion-evolution scrum you ever saw online is wrong.

It may seem to you that I’m jumpin’ around myself in a way, talking first about this vitalism thing and now religion … but I’m not. I’m saying all of these are mere vocabulary-sets, place-holders, which are being seized upon for the real issue, which is the complete irrelevance of each of the two Whys to one another. I don’t care what you call it: superadded forces, spirituality, magic, metaphysics, capital-N Nature, or what. I’m saying magical thinking (metaphysics affects physics) doesn’t belong in Lawrence’s biology, no matter what it’s called.

The part that some readers are suffering over, I bet, is that material thinking doesn’t go back on over there into metaphysics to kick ass and take names either. I don’t care if you want it to. When you forget that – when incensed by the, yes, unwarranted intrusion, you invade in retaliation – you’re committing the same error. Boy are you not gonna like this … but in this context, the celebrity-author New Atheist and the veriest Dispensationalist political candidate are the same person. Two seconds’ reflection shows that nothing is dumber than “no God because evolution” vs. “no evolution because God,” because each is inadmissible for the same reason right out of the gate, before ever being juxtaposed with the other.

And this is me saying that, a guy who literally does not care about any single thing you can name in that metaphysical, purpose-oriented Why. I think metaphysicians are cuckoo – but that doesn’t also mean I think when I do biology, that it has something to do with their cuckoo thing.

I’m hitting it again: if you’re furiously trying to combat the one you don’t like with the one you do, then I’m willing to bet you’re responding to a existing category error, which means you should be calling it out as such, case closed, end of argument, and not combating it. Doing so drags you into the category-error world yourself, which is exactly where its perpetrator wants you, because you will never refute them that way.

When it comes to the so-called “evolution vs. religion” debate or Creationism or any such construct, I submit that the real concern is one of policy, not combative intellectual debate. The meaningful response is therefore effective political action rather than expostulating about how wrong they are, or at least not in that fashion.

It is not insulting or reductionist to call the behavior we most like and enjoy biology.

If you define sociobiology et al. in technical terms, especially as questions, then I’m a sociobiologist, because I think that asking “what kind of animal are we” is both a real and relevant topic, and I think social behavior is something we do. And I’m not interested in magic no matter if you call it “culture.” I’m interested in culture as a real-world thing.

If you define it/them as a fixed set of conclusions, a precise set of texts, a specific history of experimentation, and as a particular array of evolutionary approaches, then I’m not, or at most, reluctantly so. I don’t think the framing of the questions, the experimental contributions, and the intellectual rigor regarding evolutionary theory have been very good, with only a few (outstanding) exceptions.

If you define it as a professional cabal including specific persons and specific political ties, then I’m avowedly not, and I’ll also cop to wanting to wrench the topic from any such group’s grasp and back into the realm of rigorous, real-biology discussion. Rehabilitating the question of “what is the human animal, socially speaking,” is something we all ought to be doing – from the perspective of mammalogy, systematics, ecological morphology, Evo Devo, biopsychology, and a careful, not overly-experimental bit of behavioral ecology. I have some ideas along these lines to present in later posts.

Emotions and thinking … boy is that terminology a mess. A lot of what we call thinking is better described as talking, whether to others or internally – usually “acting the part” of the character called you in your cognitive map. Most of what we do with our filtering of input, memories, associations, and responses has nothing to do with such talking, meaning, (i) most of our thinking occurs without us being able to do anything but retool it into a story later, and (ii) most of it is certainly homologous with the thinking being done by any number of other species. At that level, I’m not even sure there’s a difference between feeling and thinking.

So much work on neurobiology has boomed in the past two decades but I am pretty sure I haven’t yet heard new ideas about what a “thought” is, physiologically and behaviorally. It would also be nice to see more neurobio/behavioral ecology crossover.

I also feel a post coming on about such outrageous nonsense as “reptile brain,” the popular distortions of left/right brain function, and whatever percentage of the squishy mass that someone says we don’t use.

Illustration by Mike Hoffman

Illustration by Mike Hoffman

I’ve mentioned before that I think The Island of Doctor Moreau features four protagonists who were not born human. I wrote about M’Ling in All too human and the Hyena-Swine in The Other, and here’s where the Puma Woman gets at least an introduction.

This is the character who arrives on the island when Prendick does and then spends about seven weeks in surgery. Her voice changes to be indistinguishable from that of a human’s during the first few days, and even her body undergoes rapid change under the knife, such that Prendick thinks Moreau is operating on a human when he barges into the lab. Moreau speaks with great intensity regarding his work on her brain, particularly those features he associates with regulating one’s emotions, and his high hopes that she will be his breakthrough. And as I see it, given the few but terrifyingly precise details of the account at the beginning of chapter 17, I think he’s absolutely right.

That’s one thing I’ll give the filmmakers credit for: they knew an under-utilized character when they saw one.

Exercise 1: Contrast Moreau’s purported material ambitions – “to seek the limits of the plasticity of the flesh” with his vitalist one – to “burn out all the animal and make a rational creature of my own.” Are they complementary or contradictory?

Exercise 2: Write the chapters of the novel featuring the puma entirely from her point of view. Use in-text justifiers for how cognitively human-like or human she is at any given point – you won’t have to guess, they are right there to be seen.

Early and very closely-related H. sapiens – when did that “uniquely-unique” humanity kick in, again?

Always keep an eye out for moving goalposts. Regarding our species history, sometimes the search for capital-H, metaphysically significant Humanity relies on ancestor revisionism, trying to push it as early as possible to include as many genera in Homo as possible. Other times, it’s “just us our lonely heroic selves,” trying to isolate it to H. sapiens as much as possible. The latter trend is a little more common lately, mucking about in the 200,000 thousand years ago range, probably because the evidence for anyone besides our species using interesting widgets has been evaporating faster with each new review, but I don’t really care when. It’s the shifting of the goal with no change to its ineffability whenever the data-based context changes, that interests me.

You see what’s up with this, right? The whole hunt for capital-H Humanity in paleontological human origins is the same 18-teens’ dustup, changing only in venue. The paleontology has often sought not a history of diverse speciation for this kind of mammal, but a moment when superadded forces’ impact became apparent in one species or its direct ancestors – really, not too much different from the rhetoric of Intelligent Design. It doesn’t matter that the purported event is “natural,” as the term “evolutionary” had by the early 1900s acquired a “naturalness” positively bursting with cosmically-smug purpose neatly transferred over from vitalist rhetoric. And just as with vitalism, such forces’ presence are instantly – if not logically – taken to indicate a certain role and significance for being human. Abernethy would have been all about it.

I know what the Puma Woman has to say about that, as with any form of human exceptionalism, and I agree with her.

Next: Squick


11 thoughts on “Why matters

  1. Some random responses?

    Do any clever clogs throw philosophy of science around in your classes? Anyone bring in Thomist/Aristotelian teleological/final cause thinking picked up in parochial school? References to Popper, Feyerabend, Kuhn?

    Some folks with an anti-evolution bias throw out an invidious pseudo-Popperian distinction between “real science” and mere reconstructions of past events like those produced by archaeologists, paleontologists, and even astronomers. This could be disparaged as a mere weaponizing of philosophy of science for rhetorical battles. But some critics of Popper have said that his falsificationism doesn’t do justice to the real relationships that are traced in the physical sciences but to any robust realist thinking about history and society.

    (This MA thesis has a bibliography with some major realist critics of Popper. It leaves out Margaret Archer and Rom Harre from the social & psychological sciences, and Marxian Critical Realists Roy Bhaskar — later to take a religious turn — and Alex Callinicos: http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/available/etd-070199-112441/unrestricted/dearlyetd.pdf)

    You make a glancing reference to Hume: there are some “metaphysicians” (logicians, really) starting with Russell who question whether “rigorous recording of constant conjuctions of sense impressions” of bog-standard empiricism gets to the essence of what allows science to be done or questions of “why?” to be thought. Russel ends up supporting something like Feynman’s “shut up and calculate” attitude decades before the physicist. A researcher should produce precise functions for expressing the relations and operations studied, and leave aside all dubious metaphysics of laws, and even of “cause.”


    • The only person who quotes (and assigns) Kuhn in any class I’ve taught has been me. From what I’ve encountered elsewhere, I also suspect there’s been a plague similar to Latour, perpetuating the academic telephone game rather than actually reading his work.

      I don’t claim to be an expert re: Popper. My only readings have led me to think he didn’t do much science with scientists. I tend to think the same of C. P. Snow. You’ll be seeing some examples of what I consider excellent experimentation later, as well as the intellectual framework I think makes most sense.

      I’m not seeing a question about Hume. My time at the U of Chicago has left me unresponsive when people say “So-and-so says [insert whatever they said]” and then look at me expectantly, as if that were my problem. My answer is “Do you think that makes sense, and why? How does it relate to my point?”


  2. I find myself wanting to push back against pieces of this, but the reasons that doing so would be substantive (and thus worth detail-haggling) are highly dependent on context. For e.g., I have great appreciation for the Pragmatist argument against (usually described as opposed to a Positivist belief in) the possibility of “not doing metaphysics” (which I’ll equate with the idea that you can intentionally, absolutely succeed at avoiding category error as discussed here). But that doesn’t seem particularly relevant in the context of this blog – even if I insist that saying “material inquiry is conducted absent of concern regarding ultimate cause” is in some sense taking a metaphysical position (one I rather like, as it turns out), I’m not gonna insist it’s in the same metaphysical category as, say, requiring vitalism-explanations for everything. Sharing some qualities doesn’t mean you have to share a core identity. Plus, while I’ve had spurts of interest/reading, I’m really an absolute amateur in philosophy, so …

    I’m particularly interested in the “few (outstanding) exceptions” in sociobiology-or-whatever-we-should-call-it. I’d look forward to posts about those, for sure!


    • I’m a little confused about the pushback, because your brief description of Pragmatism is essentially what I’m advocating. I’m OK with “taking a metaphysical position” just as you describe.


      • The pushback would be saying that, since your position IS (ultimately) a metaphysical one, you’re wrong to claim that you’re avoiding category error. I sympathize with that pushback (i.e., I agree with it, recognizing that I’ve surely only scratched the surface of understanding it) in some situations, but matters at hand (biology and this blog) don’t seem like one of ’em. Still, that sympathy made my brain itch, and I have a few similar itches, all of which I suspect also amount to nothing important.

        Your “I’m OK with …” definitively scratches the itch away for me, here. I’d call myself out for “whataboutery”, except that it really was a (slight) barrier for me to the subject at hand, and I’ll entertain the possibility that it could be for others, too.

        And the request for an alert to posts about the “few (outstanding) exceptions” was by no means a throwaway!


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  5. I’m swinging by on one of the pingback threads. I don’t expect my views to carry any persuasive weight. But the more I got into math & science as an (atheist) undergraduate, the more amazed I was at the beauty and grandeur of the cosmos. And I’m sure that amazement is far deeper, the deeper one progresses into the sciences. Whether it’s the double-slit experiment, or special relativity, or Goedel’s Theorem, it feels to me that there’s consistently a sublime quality everywhere you look, if you look hard enough.

    Obviously that’s not saying “Science proves God exists” or “Science proves God is unnecessary.” But I do think that the experience overwhelming awe isn’t confined to religion or spirituality. (With the recognition that religion is about more than just a feeling of awe.)


    • You’re in good company, including Charles Darwin’s famous line, “There is grandeur in this view of life,” and Stephen Jay Gould, especially in a key essay which elaborates on that line. I happen to be a grimmer soul – for which, see Huxley’s views in the 1890s vs. his earlier karma-ish view of naturalism/morality – but I don’t think this difference in position is a matter of opposition.


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