Eros and Evolution

The cumulative case establishing the fact of evolution by natural selection is overwhelmingly persuasive and has been for decades. Full disclosure: I don’t just think it is true but  also want it to be true. What other theory can claim to explain more with a simpler and more intelligible account?

But to take evolution by selection as a fact does not mean we see the basis of this fact (if there is one). One of the basic facts of Natural selection is that there is a connection between the desire for survival and reproduction, but a clarification of this fact gives interesting results. Notice that the individual animal or living thing doesn’t enhance its chances for survival in any way by reproducing. It’s not as if I expected to add any years to my life by having kids. The desire for survival and reproduction therefore cannot be linked together in the individual living thing. Now the response to this has been known for millennia: it’s not the individual that survives by reproduction, but the species. But here is where the question gets interesting, since by introducing evolution into descent, the species is just as much destroyed by reproduction as it is preserved (which is just as much true as any part of the individual or species, say, a gene). If reproduction were an activity that promised the survival of your species or its genetic code, then evolution would be impossible.

And so if we want to establish a per se connection between survival and reproduction as an explanatory principle of evolution, it seems we have to introduce life itself as the point of connection between the them. But this is the same as to introduce existence as such as the point of contact (since, for the living thing, to exist is to live). Notice, however, that is not existence pure and simple that we must introduce here but existence so far as it is being sought after (for reproduction perpetuates existence by seeking after it), which means we must introduce existence as convertible with the good. Seen from this perspective, evolution by natural selection relativizes the species that Aristotle took as absolute and replaces them, even within the biological order, with Plato’s understanding of the good itself. Eros (i.e. the desire to reproduce) is not explained by reference to a species (as Aristotle claims in De Anima 2.4)but by an interaction between the individual and the good itself (as Plato claims in Symposium). Reproduction is a result of the participation of the individual with the good itself, and this participation has both a positive  connection that makes the good itself the per se motive of reproduction  but also an insurmountable division that makes reproduction a substitute for attaining the good itself as opposed to being a means to attaining it.




  1. Heuristics said,

    February 6, 2013 at 7:10 am

    “the fact of evolution by natural selection is overwhelmingly persuasive”

    The amount of mechanisms that have been found that play a role in evolution is constantly growing. Why would the case be cumulative for the mechanism of natural selection in particular?

    • February 6, 2013 at 1:49 pm

      There is evidence for mechanisms other than selection too. But the sentence you quoted is a claim about evidence for selection.

      • February 6, 2013 at 2:12 pm

        Let me clarify my meaning.

        There is a claim: “the fact of evolution by natural selection is overwhelmingly persuasive”

        As a critique I ask the question: How can we know that the evidence we have is evidence for this particular mechanism over another mechanism? We did not have a video camera or any other measurement device pointed at the genetic code so as to observe the movements of the changes in the genetic code as they happened. What is the way in which we connect the observation with the particular mechanism?

        It appears to me to be in principle impossible to know what particular mechanism the evidence we have supports in any individual case of change.

        And if it is the case that we cannot say what evidence goes with what mechanism then we cannot talk so simply about the whole process of evolution as people normally do. To talk in that way is to talk as if there has been no scientific advances since Darwin.

      • February 6, 2013 at 7:15 pm

        It appears to me to be in principle impossible to know what particular mechanism the evidence we have supports in any individual case of change.

        Doesn’t this go too far? What about Kettlewell’s moths? Resistance to antibiotics? Darwin’s finches?

        There is no doubt that there are other factors at play, like drift or the factors of Neutral theory, but there are still important reasons for a non-specialist like me to think that selection is still a major factor

        1.) Selection is adaptive whereas drift is not, and so it is still the simplest way to account for adaptive changes.
        2.) One subset of selection, sexual selection, works off a mechanism that any warm-blooded man can understand.
        3.) Selection has too much simplicity and explanatory power not to be true.
        4.) While I recognize that Dawkins has an ax to grind, he still makes a compelling case for selection, even if I understand the complaints that he makes it too simple.

        But those are all the reasons I got. As you can tell, I’m really not the guy to make the case.

  2. Kristor said,

    February 6, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    I’ve been saying for years that selection occurs across a population of agents that are each seeking some good or other, and either succeeding or failing thereat. The fact that selection occurs can’t explain either the population or the seeking or the goods sought, each of which are presupposed by the process of selection.

  3. Mike Flynn said,

    February 19, 2013 at 4:40 pm

    What nature “selects” for depends largely on what the organism is trying to do. As Kristor said “each seeking some good or other.” A given mutation may be bad news for some good but beneficial for an other. That is, the direction of the evolution may be due not so much to the environment selecting the organism as to the organism selecting the environment.

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