Thursday, July 15, 2010

Darwin's Metaphor -- Straight From The Horse's Mouth™

Was Darwin's use of the powerful term "natural selection" derived from 19th cc. domestic breeders who engaged in purposeful, goal-oriented, intelligent selection?

I said it was. A blogger said I was nuts.

I said,

"The phrase natural selection was chosen to contrast purposeful human selection with a type of "artificial" selection by nature. It is almost as if nature has a mind -- and this was, in fact, a common idea circulating in Darwin's day."

PJ said,

"Huh? Selective breeding by humans was Darwin’s inspiration? Now you are just making things up. You really should read “On the Origin of Species”... If you are going to dismiss something as rubbish, you should probably read it first."

First, I have never dismissed Origin as rubbish. The Darwinian hypothesis has been useful in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. I am just certain that it has utterly failed to demonstrate that the wonderful adaptive/preservative mechanism we see at work in micro-evolution is capable of creating new species, and, especially, conscious, rational, moral, intuitive "us".  Nor do I uncritically buy-into the uniformitarian metaphysical assumptions upon which it is based.

As for making things up, I spent yesterday morning digging in the Quote Mine. Here's a few quotes Straight From The Horse's Mouth™:

"At the commencement of my observations it seemed to me probable that a careful study of domesticated animals and of cultivated plants would offer the best chance of making out this obscure problem. Nor have I been disappointed; in this and in all other perplexing cases I have invariably found that our knowledge, imperfect though it be, of variation under domestication, afforded the best and safest clue." -- Introduction to On the Origin of Species.

"I believe all these absurd views arise from no one having, as far as I know, approached the subject on the side of variation under domestication, and having studied all that is known about domestication."

"... I came to the conclusion that selection was the principle of change from the study of domesticated productions..."

The brilliance of Darwin's unscientific anthropomorphic metaphor -- for that is what it is -- is that "nature" is a mere modifier of the stronger word "selection", which implies intelligence and purpose (as in the case of domestic breeders).  It thus makes a naturalistic account of life comprehensible to those who intuitively understand that some kind of purposeful intelligence would be needed to produce all of life and us.   Nature thus functions as a small-c Creator-substitute.

This metaphor is perpetuated in (un)scientific descriptions of the way evolution works up unto the present day.  Evolution "selects", "tries", "chooses", "adapts" -- as if it were a conscious, purposeful agent.

That's one powerful metaphor!

For a readable, scholarly treatment, read Darwin's Metaphor: Nature's Place in Victorian Culture by Robert M. Young.  (Safari 5.0 users -- use the Reader function to the right side of your search bar -- you'll thank me!).

And that's the way the Ball bounces.

No comments:

"... nothing intellectually compelling or challenging.. bald assertions coupled to superstition... woefully pathetic"