[lit-ideas] Re: Why are the greatest composers all German?

  • From: Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Fri, 16 Jun 2006 22:35:55 +0100 (BST)

Like Lawrence I found the thread ?good? (perhaps better than good by any
reasonable standard). Unlike Lawrence I managed to get farther than the
?Dude? point and thought the contributions indicated what a potentially rich
seam this topic mines.

Some comments on:- ?understanding cultural evolution in specifically
Darwinian terms?.

This is problematic for many reasons of course; equally, of course, the
problematic character of such an understanding does not itself invalidate it
? even valid approaches to a problem will have their problems and thus be
         (Btw, it was delightful to see a reference to the late D.T.Campbell
in this regard ? his seminal paper ?Evolutionary Epistemology? can be found
in Popper?s Schilpp volume, as can Popper?s reply).

There are at least two potential and fundamental misunderstandings that might
be mentioned.

A.      The idea that a ?specifically Darwinian? understanding of cultural
evolution must depend on an analogy with the ?survival and reproduction?
aspects of Darwinism (such an understanding seems repeatedly at work in the

        Rather, what is central to organic evolution, and what ties it to
human cultural evolution, is not mere ?survival and reproduction? but the
?expansion of knowledge? ? and that, in both cases, such ?knowledge? is a
product of (Darwinian) selection not (Lamarckian) instruction. (To see this
we need a sense of ?knowledge? as dispositional states, including unconscious
states ? a sense where we might allow that a tree, that in a drought
[actively] extends its roots in search for water, is showing a ?knowledge?
that is lacking in a tree that does not but just [passively] ?hopes? for
      ?Survival and reproduction? may be seen as merely minimum requirements
for evolution (and even then survival is necessary only insofar as it is a
precondition of reproduction - a long-living non-reproducing organism is out
of contributing to the ?gene-pool? long before a short-lived reproducing
organism; hence it is not anti-Darwinian that some creatures sacrifice their
lives in order to reproduce). 

      But these minimum requirements do not explain the richness or
proliferation of evolutionary forms: this can only explained in terms of the
expansion of adaptive potentialities, and of the (unconscious) knowledge that
reflects this. [Though humans now over-populate the world, we do not
reproduce at the rate of bacteria ? in fact, we reproduce at a very slow and
cost-intensive rate, and our off-spring are born vulnerable for years, so
their rearing is cost-intensive: our ?survival and reproduction? are
minimally explanatory of this state-of-affairs]. 

       The explanation for the evolution of forms that struggle mightily to
survive and struggle to reproduce (to the point of being vulnerable to
extinction) can only be partial and lies in the ?logic of the situation? and
in the expansion (through genetic mutation and selective retention) of
adaptive potentialities and the expansion in ?knowledge? these represent. 

        The same is true for human cultural forms or artefacts. If these
disappear entirely ? take a Bach fugue, the only written copy of which is
destroyed ? they may make no further contribution to the cultural ?pool?. In
this way their ?survival and reproduction? is a minimal requirement for their
continuing cultural impact (they may even of course ?survive?, unknown to us,
by being encoded ? imagine we discover a manuscript of a hitherto unknown
Bach fugue). 

         But this does not mean we can further explain their cultural impact
in terms of their ?survival and reproduction?, or even in terms of
?qualities? that we might allege underpin their ?survival and reproduction?
(I can hum a trivial pop song much more easily, in the meme-like ?survival
and reproduction? way, than I can a Goldberg variation ? but the pop tune and
my humming cannot be given a higher ranking for cultural impact and
importance merely because of that; anymore than bacteria?s greater ?survival
and reproduction? rates means they are of greater evolutionary impact and
importance than humans).  
     Consider David Miller?s argument, from his paper ?DARWINISM IS THE
?In Unended Quest, section 37, we read: 'I do not think that Darwinism can
explain the origin of life.? But this does not affect the view of Darwinism
as situational logic, once life and its framework are assumed to constitute
our "situation". ? Indeed its [Darwinism's] close resemblance to situational
logic may account for its great success, in spite of the almost tautological
character inherent in the Darwinian formulation.' There is a closely similar
passage in Objective Knowledge, Chapter 2, section16 (written after Unended
Quest, but published two years before it): 'a considerable part of Darwinism
is not of the nature of an empirical theory, but is a logical truism? the
method of trial and of the elimination of errors ? can be said not to be an
empirical method but to belong to the logic of the situation. This, I think,
explains (perhaps a little too briefly) the logical or a priori components in
          Several authors have implicitly agreed with Popper that the
explanation given here is too brief, but no one I know of has defended the
idea that Darwinism is a form of situational logic. The present paper
initiates such a defence. To do this, we shall have to jettison the idea that
for an action to be appropriate or rational (in the weak sense enshrined in
the rationality principle), the agent must have a clear, though perhaps
hopelessly cock-eyed, appreciation of the situation in which he finds
himself. Likewise we shall have to weaken the commonly held view that the aim
of situational logic (or situational analysis) is to specify the agent's
situation so minutely that a unique course of action is seen to be
prescribed. My suggestion is that the typical agent is in a state neither of
total comprehension nor of total bewilderment, but somewhere between the two.
The closer he is to understanding his circumstances, however misguidedly, the
closer he is to the classical rational ideal. But to the extent that he is
perplexed by his predicament, rather than deluded about it, the appropriate
way to proceed is by the method of trial and (if he is lucky enough to
recognise it) error, by the method of blind variation and selective
retention. It is in this sense that Darwinism is the application of
situational logic to the state of ignorance. 
       This view of Darwinism allows us to deal with those objections to the
evolutionary approach to the theory of knowledge that dispute the
appositeness to distinctively human activities, especially science, art, and
morality, of crude concerns with survival and reproduction. For we badly
misread the theory of evolution if we restrict its compass to survival and
reproduction. It is the growth of knowledge (through active problem solving)
that is at the heart of evolutionary development. There is accordingly
nothing to stop us from giving evolutionary explanations, that is,
explanations using situational analysis, of our most dignified intellectual

B.      That ?evolutionary epistemology? is a philosophically united front and
that all so-called ?Darwinists? sing from the same or similar hymn-sheet: in
fact there are radical differences between soi-disant ?Darwinists? and these
are capable of misleading (think Gould vs. Dawkins). We might place Popper
and D.T.Campbell in one camp (whatever their differences, they place
themselves in the same camp for the purposes of the contrast drawn below);
but there are many in another camp which also styles itself as a ?Darwinian
evolutionary epistemology?. 

Consider the following from Peter Munz on ?POPPER?S DARWINISM?:-
?The term ?Darwinism? is used nowadays (when social Darwinism has disappeared
below the horizon) for at least two totally different paradigms of thought.
There is Popper?s Darwinism on one side; and the Darwinism of evolutionary
psychology and evolutionary epistemology, on the other. These two paradigms
have not only nothing to do with each other but are also diametrically
opposed to each other. The second paradigm is an ill-informed attempt to
rehabilitate some kind of induction as a justification of knowledge by
maintaining that knowledge is the end product of observations and/or
experiences. This Darwinism was started by Konrad Lorenz and, in a different
form, is enjoying a heyday in the voluminous, widely acclaimed writings of
Tooby and Cosmides.
           Darwin had dismissed Locke?s tabula rasa mind and radical
empiricism out of hand. But given the concept of adaptation, Lorenz and his
many followers began to argue that our sense organs , having been selected
must be adapted, i.e., are trustworthy sources of knowledge. This argument
has been taken to salvage Locke or, as one might say, Darwinise Locke. True,
our mind is not a tabula rasa, but it has evolved, thanks to natural
selection, complete with the ability to pick up correct information. As
Lorenz put it, our knowledge is phylogenetically a posteriori; but
ontogenetically a priori. In other words: our sense organs (Lorenz) or our
mental modules (Tooby and Cosmides), being the products of natural selection
, are adapted to get things right. While this argument has proved valid for
the kind of information paramecia and mallard ducklings come into the world
with, it is hopelessly ill-informed when applied to humans. Neuroscience has
shown that the human brain is not a single organ capable, with a few
exceptions, to respond unequivocally to stimuli. It registers
colour, position, size, time, location, shape etc of all inputs separately
and thus creates a binding problem which has to be solved before a single
representation can emerge. As Popper, anticipating this neuroscientific
evidence, put it, we cannot learn by simply staring at the world (Logic of
Scientific Discovery, V, 30). We first need a theory which has to be exposed
to falsification even as biological organisms are proposals made to the
environment and then exposed to natural selection.
          Popper?s Darwinism is therefore diametrically opposed to the
Darwinism of both evolutionary epistemology and evolutionary psychology.
Instead of Darwinising Locke, Popper took from Darwin the general idea that
in biological evolution there is chance mutation and selective retention and
applied it to the evolution of knowledge. His epoch making alternative to
conventional positivism consisted in the fact that he saw a complete
continuity from the amoeba to Einstein. It can be documented that Popper?s
?Darwinism?, unlike the other type, was initially developed without reference
to or reliance on Darwin.?

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