J. Ronald Munson
Richard Charles York
Philosophy of Biology
Britannica 2003 Ultimate Reference Suite
The sharp increase in man's understanding of biological processes that has occurred in recent years has stimulated philosophical interest in biology to an extent unprecedented since the development of evolutionary theory in the 19th century. Biologists and philosophers alike have devoted much attention to a variety of issues regarding the subject matter and the methodology of biology, resulting in a sizable output of written material, formulating philosophical questions that are still arising and framing answers to acknowledged difficulties. Most of the problems of the philosophy of biology are old questions now being investigated afresh in the light of biological advances and new standards of philosophical rigour. In this account contemporary questions will be stressed.
An investigation of recent writings in biophilosophy reveals a continued preoccupation with unanswered - some say unanswerable - questions about evolutionary theory and a growing concern for a critical reappraisal of the question of whether biology is an autonomous discipline unamenable to reduction to mere physical and chemical underpinnings. Until the mid-20th century the biological sciences suffered from a lack of attention by philosophers; the principles that were generated were far less rigorously examined than were those of the physical sciences. There is now renewed hope, however, for a fresh approach to the age-old puzzles regarding life and its raison d'être. This hope rests on the recrudescence of interest in all biological matters as a direct result of an increased understanding of biological processes, of the changing quality of life, of the growing awareness of man's stewardship of the Earth, and of the exploration of space. Biology has just begun to make the sort of impact that the physical sciences have already made. It has generated a life technology with genetic engineering, organ transplants, and artificial organs. Each innovation, each technical masterstroke, each conceptual knot united emphasizes the need for a definitive philosophy of biology, and developments toward this goal are now under way. Good biological work has been accomplished by investigators with varied philosophical outlooks ranging from Neo-Thomism to skeptical naturalism. No inevitable metaphysics evolves from the study of biology or any other natural science; nevertheless, some of the general conclusions of biology have a philosophical interest, defining the limits of reasonable belief about the nature of the living world.
Categorical discontinuities that are recognized for the purpose of scientific methodology often seem impossible to justify as “natural” distinctions. Many biologists have noted, for example, that it is easier to study life than it is to define it. Properties such as metabolism and reproduction undeniably characterize organisms and might be said to define them, yet such a definition is arbitrary to the extent that such properties are logically independent. What is true of all life forms today may not have been true of the very earliest ones and, what is more, might not be true of extra-terrestrial ones that might be encountered in the future. There is not as yet a set of nonarbitrary characteristics that mark the distinction between living and nonliving systems. Moreover, in the course of analysis, it becomes necessary to arrange all of the phenomena of nature in a more or less linear, continuous sequence of classes and then to describe events occurring in the class of more complex phenomena in terms of events in the classes of less complex phenomena (principle of hierarchical continuity). Within each class, however, there are numerous interrelations observed between events of the same order of complexity. It is thus possible to recognize a number of more or less autonomous disciplines, each permitting generalization, but ordered so that the more complex events treated by one discipline can also be analyzed in terms of less complex events treated by another discipline. It is possible, for example, to establish a body of generalizations about human society independent of the behaviour of individual persons; a number of generalizations about individual behaviour without consideration of the physiology of the sensory, conductor, and effector mechanisms involved; and a large body of generalizations about muscle or nerve physiology without considering the molecular mechanisms involved. A particularly striking feature of the hierarchy is that an increase in complexity is coupled with the emergence of new characteristics. The origin and development of life from small systems that synthesized biochemicals to organisms that perform highly complicated functions suggests that the hierarchical arrangement of nature and the sciences is correlated with the temporal order of evolution. The maintenance of a steady state by metabolism, reproduction, responsiveness, modification of response by experience, tradition, and social phenomena are just some of the more dramatic examples of emergent phenomena. The emergence of new qualities as evolution proceeds might generally characterize the universe.
Moreover, photosynthesis, on the one hand, and reproduction followed by natural selection, on the other, provide a mechanism by which physically less probable systems can emerge locally from physically more probable ones. Though it frequently has been supposed that physical evolution is at an end, there is no reason to suppose that this is true of social development, for which Sir Julian Huxley, a biologist, philosopher, and educator, provided an evolutionary context. In his Romanes Lectures, published in 1943, Huxley wrote:
It is only through social evolution that the world-stuff can now realize radically new possibilities. Mechanical interaction and natural selection still operate, but have become of secondary importance. For good or evil, the mechanism of evolution has in the main been transferred [in man] onto the social or conscious level.... The slow methods of variation and heredity are outstripped by the speedier processes of acquiring and transmitting experience...
And in so far as the mechanism of evolution ceases to be blind and automatic and becomes conscious, ethics can be injected into the evolutionary process. Before man that process was merely amoral. After his emergence onto life's stage it became possible to introduce faith, courage, love of truth, goodness - in a word moral purpose - into evolution. It became possible, but the possibility has been and is often unrealized.
It may well be that social evolution is only in its early stages. These stages, moreover, have for the most part taken place in a period during which systematic knowledge was undeveloped. A Russian mineralogist, Vladimir Vernadsky, the founder of biogeochemistry, regarded the envelope of the Earth as passing from a stage determined primarily by biological processes to one determined by conscious human effort. He called this layer of consciousness the noösphere. The concept was later extended, notably by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French priest and paleontologist, who began the building of a new philosophic bridge between biology and religion.
Questions about the character of biological systems and of the biological world merge with those about the concepts and methods required for their understanding. Although the two cannot be wholly separated, in this account those matters most clearly related to the substantive philosophical aspects of biology will be stressed. Methodological issues will be touched on in respect to the concepts being elucidated.
Space exploration has directly influenced the development of life-detecting devices. This technological need spurred intensive study regarding the kinds of evidence living things display reflecting their aliveness. In his Chance and Necessity (1972) Jacques Monod, a biologist, deals with the invariance of genetic endowment, morphological autonomy, reproductive invariance, and teleonomy (the tendency to have a purpose or project written into their molecules) as the major properties of living systems; he considers that they involve the chance and necessity that determine the course and character of the entire biological world.
Philosophers have long deliberated over the definitive features of living systems. The distinction between living and nonliving, which was widely discussed at the turn of the 20th century, has lost much of its interest for current biology. A growing conviction, intuitively felt by many biologists, is that no clear line can be drawn between the living and the nonliving. The bridge between what is and is not obviously alive consists of a range of problematic agents, including viruses and genes, which appear to be living at times and nonliving at other times.
Basically and traditionally, there are three distinct philosophical stands regarding the biological nature of life: vitalism, mechanism, and organicism.
Essentially, vitalism holds that there exists in all living things an intrinsic factor - elusive, inestimable, and unmeasurable - that activates life. In its classic form, as espoused by many biologists at the turn of the 20th century - in particular, by Hans Driesch, a German biologist and philosopher - it has suffered severe criticism. Ernest Nagel, a philosopher of science, rang its death knell in 1951, when he wrote in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (11:327 ff.):
Vitalism of the substantival type... is now a dead issue... less, perhaps, because of the methodological and philosophical criticism that has been leveled against the doctrine than because of the infertility of vitalism as a guide in biological research and because of the superior heuristic value of alternative approaches.
And whereas most biologists concur in renouncing this so-called naïve vitalism, some continue to espouse a so-called critical vitalism, perhaps indistinguishable from organicism (see below).
Simply stated, the view of the mechanists is that organisms are no different from subtle machines: the whole is the sum of its parts, which are arranged in such a way that an internal energy source can move them in accordance with a built-in program of purposeful action. In the mechanist's view, advances in molecular biology corroborate this claim and demonstrate that in principle organisms are no more than complicated physical systems. This is, in essence, the reductionist position, which states that biological principles can be reduced to physical and chemical laws. Antireductionists, of course, contend that molecular biology cannot explain all aspects of living forms.
It has often been said that, whereas biologists may think as vitalists - and hold the conviction that organisms are more than just complex machines - they perforce become practicing mechanists in the laboratory, required by the demands of scientific inquiry to view their experiments in terms of the measurable parameters of physics and chemistry. K.F. Schaffner, an American philosopher, suggested in 1967 that, even though reductionism may be correct, a better strategy may be to strive toward an independent biology.
The basic claim of organicism is that organisms must be interpreted as functioning wholes and cannot be understood by means of physics and chemistry alone. Few scientists today call themselves organismic biologists or endorse the doctrines put forward by such organismic theorists as Ludwig von Bertalanffy and Edward Stuart Russell. Nevertheless, most antireductionists subscribe at least to part of the organismic doctrine, in particular to its wholistic claim. Russell, a foremost proponent of organicism, stated in his work The Interpretation of Development and Heredity (1930):
Any action of the whole organism would appear then to be susceptible of analysis to an indefinite degree - and this is in general the aim of the physiologist, to analyze, to decompose into their elementary processes the broad activities and functions of the organism. But... by such a procedure something is lost, for the action of the whole has a certain unifiedness and completeness which is left out of account in the process of analysis... In our conception of the organism we must... take account of the unifiedness and wholeness of its activities... since... the activities of the organism all have reference to one or other of three great ends, and that both the past and the future enter into their determination... Bio-chemistry studies essentially the conditions of action of cells and organisms, while organismal biology attempts to study the actual modes of action of whole organisms, regarded as conditioned by, but irreducible to, the modes of action of lower unities.
In some special sense, then, an organism is regarded as being more than a simple sum of its parts; an additional “something” has accrued to it as a result of the unique arrangement of its components. As Morton O. Beckner, a philosopher of biology, asserted in an article in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (5:549):
In the history of biology it is difficult to disentangle vitalistic and organismic strands, since both schools are concerned with the same sorts of problems and speak the same sort of language. The distinction between them was drawn clearly only in the twentieth century. Organismic biology may be described as an attempt to achieve the aims of the murky organismic-vitalistic tradition, without appeal to vital entities.
Further (p. 551):
Organismic biology is to be interpreted as a series of methodological proposals, based on certain very general features of the organism - namely, the existence in the organism of levels of organization with the biological ends of maintenance and reproduction. These features are sufficient to justify “a free, autonomous biology, with concepts and laws of its own,” whether or not the higher levels are ultimately reducible to the lower ones.
The concept of an organism as a cybernetic, or automatic-control, system is currently influential in biology.
The holistic concept of an organism - i.e., the theory that the determining factors in biology are its irreducible wholes - owes its success primarily to the existence of control and regulation mechanisms operating at the molecular level that determine development and behaviour. The character of such systems at all levels of analysis - molecular through total organism - is nothing other than a sophisticated kind of cybernetics. Holism and reductionism are similar in this respect. Closely allied to organicism is the old problem of emergent properties dealt with earlier: at each successive level of organization, qualities emerge that cannot be anticipated by the components and that confer an added dimension to each hierarchical level in the biological world.
A theoretical and methodological program called general systems theory - presented in its fullest and most persuasive form by Bertalanffy - is an extension of the tenets of organismic biology. It is an attempt to provide a common methodological approach for all of the sciences, based upon the idea that systems of any kind - physical, biological, psychological, and social - operate in accordance with the same fundamental principles. Ideally, it should be possible to deduce the principles applying to a particular sort of system from the more general ones. This approach is one still very much in need of development.
Attributions of purpose (teleology) appear frequently in biological writing. Not only do biologists say that parts of organisms have a purpose with respect to the whole, but some hold that life itself is inherently purposive. But the term purpose is both vague and ambiguous. That every biological system - from self-replicating molecules (DNA) to biotic communities - involves specific and identifiable functions is undeniable. But whether, or in what way, functional ends like the reproduction of a cell resemble human intentions or purposes is a matter of some controversy. Even if this matter were settled, a larger question would still remain, viz., whether a biological system as a whole can have a goal that is in some way similar to a human goal - i.e., whether it is programmed with an ultimate purpose. Although resolution of this matter has long been and will continue to be a critical point in the philosophy of biology, much has been done to clarify the issues involved.
Vitalists and those who subscribe to a Lamarckian view of evolution involving the inheritance of acquired characteristics claim that evolution involves a deterministic finalism, or directedness toward an end. Most evolutionists - among them George Gaylord Simpson - reject that claim and hold that natural selection is the non-random element in evolution, that which gives evolution direction. Other evolutionists - among them Theodosius Dobzhansky - argue that the chance factors in mutation and selection, in addition to the unpredictability of environmental change, make it impossible to formulate deterministic laws even in experimental populations, let alone in natural populations. Similar considerations by others have led to the claim that evolutionary biology is a paradigm of an after-the-fact exploratory science and that the course of evolution can never be predicted.
Whether biological species can be said to have a real existence in the world is a question that has been receiving much consideration. The issue may be posed in the words of Benjamin Burma, a paleontologist, who, writing in Evolution (3:369), asked:
What, then, is a species? It would seem thus far to be the whole of any one series of breeding populations… [But the] definition as it stands unfortunately puts all living and fossil animals in one species, since there is a continuity of germ-plasm back from John [an individual animal] to the original primordial cell, and from it forward to every living animal (not to mention plant). Thus, if we ignore time, we end up with only one species....
The temporal difficulty, however, is not the only stumbling block to the question of species reality; for, if the species is redefined as the whole of any one series of breeding populations as it exists at any one time, then there is an infinity of species, since time itself is infinitely divisible. On the basis of these and other objections, some biologists have concluded that species have only a subjective existence merely as convenient labels for arbitrary assemblages and have only a minimum of biological significance. On the other hand, there are proponents of the idea that species have an objective reality. Ernst Mayr, a U.S. evolutionist representing the latter group, has written - also in Evolution (3:372):
In all multidimensional situations an inference has to be made (Simpson, 1943) on the basis of the objective species of the non-dimensional system. The subjectivity of this expanded species concept by no means invalidates the species concept per se. The species of the local naturalist or of the paleontologist within a given horizon is clearly delimited against other species and can thus be considered as having objective reality.
Although the controversy is confused by semantic difficulties, one of the chief contributions of the philosophy of biology has, in fact, been to separate mere linguistic puzzles from matters of substance. Many taxonomists are guilty of ambiguity of reference; they often fail to distinguish their entities clearly, with the result that there is widespread befuddlement over just what stand is held by whom. The problems are now clearer than they have ever been, and with few exceptions biologists and philosophers tend to agree about the nature of biological species and the definition of the species category.
Although most of the issues connected with evolution as a theory are methodological ones, two issues go beyond the limits of logic. Some philosophers have tried to demonstrate, for example, that evolutionary theory is circular and offers no real understanding of the process of evolution. Others have argued that the notions of types of organisms must be used to understand evolution and that evolutionary change takes place when a new type emerges.
Two clear viewpoints regarding evolutionary theory have come to the fore since 1950. One is expressed in detail by George Gaylord Simpson, in his work The Major Features of Evolution (1953), and the other is put forward by a paleontologist, Otto Schindewolf, in his Grundfragen der Paläontologie (1950). In 1959, Marjorie Grene, a philosopher of biology, writing in the British Journal of the Philosophy of Science (9:11 ff.), summarized their positions as follows:
Professor Simpson is the principal American spokesman of neo-Darwinism…. He sees evolution as a continuous series of minute changes in innumerable directions, in which all alterations of any significance, larger as well as smaller, quicker as well as slower, are determined by the great cooperating “pressures” of mutation, geographical isolation, and selection, with adaptation as the universal effect, and criterion, of systematic change. The basic concept, ultimately is variation in the occurrence of genes; out of such variations all the systematic relations of living things have been gradually evolved. Schindewolf's principles are simpler. He sees typical shapes, and sees again and again what appear to be new shapes. Therefore he assumes that living things are able to originate novel types. Mutation, he agrees, must have been the mechanism by which they originated; but the adaptive control of mutation occurs only within, not between types. The basic pattern is of change from type to type, and always, as we have seen, with the more general appearing before its specialised subdivisions.
The controversy between these two opposing viewpoints is a complex one filled with both philosophical and scientific issues. In the opinion of most biologists, Schindewolf's view is persuasive only with respect to the paleontological evidence and is not supported by the experimental study of evolution in current organisms. Most of them thus tend to accept the synthetic theory in more or less the form expressed by Simpson. It remains possible, however, that the process that Schindewolf is talking about is fundamentally different from that explored in population genetics and that typostrophic mutations are so rare, on the time scale of man, as to be beyond hope of detection in the laboratory.
Very few attempts have been made in the 20th century to employ the concept of evolution as a scheme for viewing all knowledge and experience. Sir Julian Huxley, who was one of the best representatives of such an effort, claimed that the entire universe is in a process of evolution, which, however, has different aspects, viz., physical, biological, and social. Life and nonlife alike must be understood as part of the process of cosmic evolution, and from this follows a host of metaphysical and ethical implications. The other chief representative of this viewpoint was the evolutionist priest Teilhard de Chardin, who wove into the fabric of cosmic evolution the panoply of a Christocentric religion that sees the perfection of all things in an “Omega” point toward which evolution is moving.
Metaphysics of the more piecemeal kind - exploring the implications that biological knowledge has on beliefs and attitudes - has been fostered by Simpson, a consistent antagonist of Huxley and Chardin. Simpson suggests, for instance, that knowledge of man's origins and of the process that has brought him to his current state in no way threatens belief in his own uniqueness. Man is an animal, but a very special sort of animal. Other matters of a similar kind - purpose in nature and man's evolutionary future - are considerations that constitute the implications of biology in general and of evolutionary biology in particular.
One of the best known issues threatening accepted beliefs about moral responsibility is probably that raised by the proponents of the theory of innate aggression, in particular by such spokesmen as Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian student of animal behaviour, and Robert Ardrey, a U.S. writer. If there is an instinct for aggressiveness, then the notion that it is acceptable to blame individuals and society for outbreaks of violence or war loses its validity. The thrust must then be elsewhere: not in faultfinding but in shoring up against what is felt to be pedestrian and inevitable. As Ardrey puts the theory in his African Genesis (1961):
But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.
Raymond Dart, a South African anatomist and anthropologist, in an article entitled “The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man,” published in the International Anthropological and Linguistic Review (1:201-208), expressed the thesis of innate depravity on which Ardrey's more popular presentation is based.
Another aspect of the innate aggression inherited from man's primate forebears is militant enthusiasm, which Lorenz described in Das sogenanannte Böse: zur Naturgeschichte der Aggression (1963; Eng. trans., On Aggression, 1966):
In reality, militant enthusiasm is a specialized form of communal aggression, clearly distinct from and yet functionally related to the more primitive forms of petty individual aggression. Every man of normally strong emotions knows, from his own experience, the subjective phenomena that go hand in hand with the response of militant enthusiasm. A shiver runs down the back and, as more exact observation shows, along the outside of both arms. One soars elated, above all the ties of everyday life, one is ready to abandon all for the call of what, in the moment of this specific emotion, seems to be a sacred duty. All obstacles in its path become unimportant; the instinctive inhibitions against hurting or killing one's fellows lose, unfortunately, much of their power. Rational considerations, criticism, and all reasonable arguments against the behavior dictated by militant enthusiasm are silenced by an amazing reversal of all values, making them appear not only untenable but base and dishonorable. Men may enjoy the feeling of absolute righteousness even while they commit atrocities. Conceptual thought and moral responsibility are at their lowest ebb. As a Ukrainian proverb says: “When the banner is unfurled, all reason is in the trumpet.”
Equally notable opponents of the theory of innate aggression see it much as M.F. Ashley Montagu, a British-U.S. anthropologist, does, as “original sin revisited,” and deplore the tendency to neglect authoritative studies in favour of simplistic popularization. In Man and Aggression (1968), he writes:
While the findings of these disciplines [anthropology and the behavioral sciences] are wholly opposed to the deeply entrenched view that man is an innately aggressive creature, most people tend to dismiss these findings out of hand or ridicule them as a rather eccentric idealistic heterodoxy, which do not deserve to become generally known. In preference to examining the scientific findings they choose to cast their lot with such “authorities” as William Golding who, in his novel Lord of the Flies, offers a colorful account of the allegedly innate nastiness of human nature, and Robert Ardrey who, in African Genesis and more recently in The Territorial Imperative, similarly seeks to show that man is an innately aggressive creature...
... when through the distorting glass of his prejudgments he looks at a tool it becomes not simply a scraper but a weapon, a knife becomes a dagger, and even a large canine tooth becomes “the natural dagger that is the hallmark of all hunting animals,” while in “the armed hunting primate” it becomes “a redundant instrument.” “With the advent of the lethal weapon natural selection turned from the armament of the jaw to the armament of the hand.” But the teeth are no more an armament than is the hand, and it is entirely to beg the question to call them so. Virtually all the members of the order of primates, other than man, have large canine teeth, and these animals, with the exception of the baboons, are predominantly vegetarians,... that such teeth may, on occasion, serve a protective purpose is entirely secondary to their main function, which is to rip and shred the hard outer coverings of plant foods.
Further responses to Ardrey's and Lorenz' thesis are the interpretations of field studies of primate groups, such as those on the gorilla, chimpanzee, and orangutan. These researches suggest that the majority of such groups are singularly free of belligerence. According to Montagu,
The myth of the ferocity of “wild animals” constitutes one of Western man's supreme rationalizations, for it not only has served to “explain” to him the origins of his own aggressiveness, but also to relieve him of the responsibility for it - for since it is “innate,” derived from his early apelike ancestors, he can hardly, so he rationalizes, be blamed for it! And some have gone so far as to add that nothing can be done about it, and that therefore wars and juvenile delinquents, as Mr. Ardrey among others tells us, will always be with us! From one not-so-minor error to another Mr. Ardrey sweeps on to the grand fallacy.
The matter remains moot; but there appears to be a growing consensus that, given a certain genetic constitution - and within the bounds of that endowment - whatever man is, he learns to be, especially in respect to values, morality, and customs. Baser appetitive needs, however, may have a genetic component that is greater than an environmental one.
New understanding of environmental factors and the consequences of man's actions with respect to them has made it clear that man has acquired responsibilities that he did not recognize before. It has become increasingly accepted that standards and values with respect to the environment must be established; this is perhaps the most dramatic case in which recent biological knowledge has generated a crisis of a moral kind. The classic work Science and Survival (1966) by a biologist, Barry Commoner, is particularly noteworthy in connecting theoretical and philosophical issues about reductionism and holism to practical matters of environmental understanding and problem solving.
The metaphysical issue of man's place in nature is now being construed as one that requires that man make value decisions, assign responsibilities, and plan for the future of his planet. Environmental problems have become intertwined with problems of social planning, racial tension, transportation and housing crises, genetic engineering, and a host of other current concerns.
The question of whether nature provides guides to the actions of humankind has held a fascination for many biologists. Those who call themselves evolutionary ethicists say that it does. The defenders of evolutionary ethics contend that external moral standards exist in the facts and process of evolution.
Toward the end of the 19th century, Herbert Spencer, in England, and others advanced a series of principles that came to be called Social Darwinism. It espoused such ideas as the inevitability of progress, survival of the fittest, and the struggle for existence, expressions that have become bywords although they have since been discredited in their original sense, as applied to social phenomena. Social Darwinism, as C.H. Waddington, a biologist, explains in his book The Ethical Animal (1960, has been superseded by
... the more recent phase of evolutionary ethical thought beginning in the early 1940s, [which] comprises a number of rather different methods of approach. At one extreme we have discussions framed in terms of extremely wide scope, which treat of evolution not only in the animal world but throughout the cosmos, and attempt to relate such broad concepts to man's religious and spiritual life. The pre-eminent example of this tendency in recent years is Teilhard de Chardin, but a rather similar approach can be found in the works of several biologists, such as Conklin, Holmes, and Huxley. The opposite tendency, which of course is also found expressed to various extents in these authors, particularly in Julian Huxley, is the attempt to demonstrate, in a logically coherent argument, a real connection between evolutionary processes and man's ethical feelings.
Some biologists continue to insist, therefore, that biological facts can provide a yardstick by which to measure the morality of a given course of action. Julian Huxley, for one, has long claimed that moral principles can be found in nature and in the evolutionary process in particular:
When we look at evolution as a whole, we find, among the many directions which it has taken, one which is characterized by introducing the evolving world-stuff to progressively higher levels of organization and so to new possibilities of being, action, and experience. This direction has culminated in the attainment of a state where the world-stuff (now moulded into human shape) finds that it experiences some of the new possibilities as having value in or for themselves; and further that among these it assigns higher and lower degrees of value, the higher values being those which are more intrinsically or more permanently satisfying, or involve a greater degree of perfection.
Huxley further asserts that, although the Golden Rule, the policy of action based on sympathy - doing as one would be done to by others - may be an immediate good, it ultimately leads to the suppression of those qualities most needed for survival and the continuation of a species. Rather, he argues:
The facts of nature, as demonstrated in evolution, give us assurance that knowledge, love, beauty, selfless morality, and firm purpose are ethically good… In the broadest possible terms evolutionary ethics must be based on a combination of a few main principles: that it is right to realize ever new possibilities in evolution, notably those which are valued for their own sake; that it is right both to respect human individuality and to encourage its fullest development; that it is right to construct a mechanism for further social evolution which shall satisfy these prior conditions as fully, efficiently, and as rapidly as possible.
Simpson, however, contends, in the article “Biological Sciences,” in The Great Ideas Today (1965):
The facts and the processes of evolution are neither ethical nor unethical. The questions of good or bad are simply irrelevant to this field, with the important reservation that evolution has produced a species, Homo sapiens, concerned with ethics. Denial of man's naturalistic origin and animal nature is flatly false, and any ethic based on such denial is invalid. Evolution controverts primitive creation myths, but it is consistent with higher values in the Judeo-Christian tradition and those in most now-current religions and philosophical systems. One need only think of the brotherhood of mankind - a biological fact, not only an ethical idea.
Beyond such considerations as those, efforts to combine science and religion may be noble in intention but usually end up distorting or stultifying both. One of the most striking examples at present is the cult, as it may fairly be called, of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He preaches - necessarily posthumously, for the Roman Catholic Church suppressed his views during his life - a mystical Christianity ostensibly derived from evolutionary principles. But since the mysticism is primary, the evolutionary principles are distorted and downright falsified for seeming coherence with the nonscientific, nonnaturalistic premises. In turn, the mystical views advanced as having that false basis are thereby vitiated. The result (in my opinion) has been a disservice to true religion and to true science.
At the same time, no one can deny the purity of Father Teilhard's intentions or the correctness of his view that evolution and religious feeling should be considered congruent aspects of the nature of man. It is almost as irrational to deny evolution as to deny gravity. The management of life and the goals of aspiration, to be sane, must take account of all such truths of nature. They need not thereby become brutal or earthbound.
J. Ronald Munson
Richard Charles York