Three notes on evolution and natural selection

-Didn’t “natural selection” used to be nothing but boring, old fashioned “death”? Did we do that much more than recognize an interesting side effect of death? Include some mutations too, I guess. So death and freaks. “A closer look at death and freaks”, however, isn’t the name for a theory that could make anyone giddy with the idea that they’ve killed God, or overthrown everything once claimed about nature, or ushered in an absolutely different new era of human understanding.  

-While raising objections to his claim that nature acts for an end, Aristotle makes reference to how rain, if it fell for anything, would fall to make crops grow. But the rain falls just as well on, say,  growing grapes and drying grapes while making the former grow and the latter rot. St. Thomas responds to the argument by saying that the objection errs by comparing a universal cause to a particular effect. The cycle of the rains is not to be referred to any crop, but to generation and corruption as such- the goal of which seems to be the perpetual existence of nature (or something like this). When one tries to compare crops to the rainfall as such, he is stuck in the odd limbo of both knowing that the rain is essential to the crop, and at the same time knowing that there is no essential connection between rainfall and any one crop. Seen from the universal point of view of the hydrological cycle, any crop, or even the ensemble of all crops only arise by chance- for the rain will keep falling whether they are there or not, and whether the result is growth or rot. 

An identical argument to this one arises when people consider evolution or natural selection, considered as universal processes. One finds no connection between the process and the species that results, and concludes from this that there is no teleology, only “blind forces” (no one knows when the sentient powers of force failed, but it might be worth figuring out…) All the argument amounts to is a the mismatching of a universal cause with a particular effect, or ensemble of particular effects, considered as such. 

-I read Paul Churchland claim that we are physical because we arose from evolution, and might as well get used to it. Wouldn’t it be better to say we are physical because we were conceived, born, reared, etc? Why reach for evolution as the most concrete “physical” process?



  1. Mike Flynn said,

    May 30, 2009 at 5:34 am

    Churchland could have made no such claim. At best, some neurons in a brain caused Churchland to make sound-symbols that had the seeming of such a “claim.” If everything is “physical” then there are no “claims,” only sounds emitted by neurons.

  2. X-Cathedra said,

    June 3, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    I agree. What is most needed in discussions with radical materialists is a thorough analysis of language. First off, what is meant by “physical” in one’s rhetoric; secondly, what status can terms like “symbol,” information,” “seem,” “communicate,” etc. have when discussing a world that is “only” physical?

    The entire framework of the reductionisms seems to fall on its face: “feelings,” “thoughts,” “subjectivity,” etc. “JUST IS” neurons firing/subatomic particles clashing, etc. That seems to be rather like arguing about the ontological status of illusions with Parmenides. If Being is really a metaphysical seamless garment, then how can illusions even BE? How can we even be mistaken? How can we even ask the question?

    If all were brutely physical, analogous to a Parmenidean oneness, then the transcendental conditions for our being-mistaken about it (and the subsequent reductionisms) would not exist.


    Pax Christi,

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