Thursday, October 8, 2009


I suppose because of Darwin's 200th birthday, I'm starting to be asked to speak to general audiences about how philosophers think of evolution by natural selection. It makes me think about the various audiences we speak to. I think it is tough enough to speak to our own kind (given the liveliness of the debates). But, what to do when the audience is of general philosophers, some of which are skeptical about whether we are "doing philosophy" at all? And, what about a general audience (from elementary school kids to retirees)?

Any thoughts?


  1. Evolution in philosophical terms helps to explain various fundamental desires that humankind has been fighting and indulging constantly. Our ability to fight these innate desires has evolved along the way too, religion being a stop gap along the way. Now we have a social moral compass due to political and financial imperatives, and science has proven that we are animals evolved from other animals, not "Created".

    I'm of the opinion that now we know where our desires come from, such as for food, love, companionship, respect, etc; we should be more able to control them and not have them influence our decision making process as much.

  2. For general philosophers, I think a focus on the contributions philosophy of biology has made to philosophy of mind and epistemology is a good way to go. If the audience is full of philosophers who are close enough to philosophers of biology, teleosemantics encompasses a variety of interests. If the audience is full of more general philosophers, a talk on the impact of Darwin on teleology in biology, and how evolution by natural selection altered the way we think about teleology in nature, might be appropriate.

    For a general audience, matters teleological might seem a little obscure. In that case, if you wanted to skip past talking about creationism debates, I would still think digging up a general talk on the impact of Darwin's work on philosophy of nature would reach a broad audience. What does natural selection add to our picture of the world? What challenges does it pose for a conventional understanding of nature?

  3. for general audiences, probably the notion of relatedness across the organic world is deeply important; and if we're trying to show NS/evolution to be important by showing how it influenced other disciplines, then of course the way evolutionary thought (or the understanding of selection and development) has shaped the understanding of psychology (learning), the growth of knowledge, economics, and various (cough) social views.

  4. Very good suggestions! Clarifying natural selection's role in other disciplines is crucially important. That's supposed to be the work of philosophers and historians. If not us, who else? I also like the idea of skipping past the creationist "debate" (unless that's one's interest).

    This thread reminds me of Keith Lehrer's (epistemologist philosopher) advice to me "as a young man". He said that a lot of philosophers outside of biology are wanting clarity on natural selection--especially how it affects their philosophical disciplines. So, no matter what the central argument one is proposing, other philosophers will skim it, looking for insights on what they care about.

    I've been complacent on this calling because I rely so much on the work of my mentors--Elliott Sober and Richard Lewontin. But, if we don't revise and expand, other philosophers will do the work for us. Case in point--Fodor! Oh no!

    Thanks for your comments.