[lbo-talk] Evolutionary Biology and Historical Materialism From 1998

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Thu Oct 12 17:23:56 PDT 2017

Evolutionary Biology and Historical Materialism
>From 1998
-------------------------------------------- While belatedly reading the March-April issue of American Scientist I chanced upon a review of Ernst Mayr's This is Biology: The Science of the Living World. Much of the review focussed on Mayr's concept of organicism which he defines as "the belief that the unique characteristics of living organisms are not due to their composition but rather to their organization." The reviewer, Walter J. Bock, finds this definition to be inadequate as a representation of Mayr's views because while it covers many of his ideas it omits mention of the genetic program and of evolutionary explanations. The reviewer suggests that the definition of organicism ought to be expanded so as to encompass evolutionary history. And organicism will encompass a number though not all or even most functional explanations. The reviewer suggests that in the future biologists and philosophers will find the clarification of which functional explanations are included in organicism will constitute a major problem in elaborating the organicist paradigm.

The reviewer goes on to discuss Mayr's distinction between proximal and ultimate causation, that is functional versus evolutionary explanations in biological analysis. He goes on to suggest that it is a mistake to suppose that functional explanations versus evolutionary explanation are synonymous with nomological-deductive versus historical-narrative explanations. Instead the reviewer contends that while all functional explanations seem to deductive-nomological and all historical-narrative explanations appear to be evolutionary many kinds of evolutionary explanations are also deductive-nomological. However, the reviewer finds Mayr's discussions of functional explanations to be less than adequate. While no biological explanation can be considered complete without an evolutionary explanation it is in his opinion not the case that evolutionary explanations are necessary for functional explanations to make sense.

The question of the relationships between functional explanations and evolutionary explanations in Darwinian biology has close parallels in historical materialism. Indeed, it is my contention that G.A. Cohen's discussion of the nature of functional explanations in historical materialist theory can shed much insight on the nature of such explanations in biology. Cohen in his Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence argued that historical materialist explanations can be shown upon analysis to functional explanations. Like the reviewer in American Scientist Cohen stresses that functional explanations by themselves are quite adequate as explanations. However, if we want a more complete explanation we must turn to what Cohen calls elaborations. Elaborations provide fuller explanations and they locate the functional facts within longer stories that specify the explanatory roles of these facts more precisely. What Cohen calls elaborations closely correspond with what the biologist calls evolutionary explanations. Indeed, Cohen finds that in social theory elaborations fall into several categories including purposive elaborations, Darwinian elaborations, Lamarckian elaborations, and also what he calls self-deceptive elaborations in which the functional fact operates through the minds of agents but without their full conscious acknowledgement. In biology of course only what Cohen calls Darwinian elaborations would be recognized as being scientifically valid but in social theory the situation is more complicated and Cohen suggests that a full explanation of why a given functional fact is explanatory might require reference to two or more varieties of elaborations. Thus, we have here an interesting situation. Cohen's discussion of the role of functional explanations in historical materialism draws heavily upon analyses of such explanations by biologists and philosophers of science. Yet as I have hoped to have shown the kind of analysis that Cohen makes of such explanations in historical materialism can in turn shed light on this issue as it is faced by biologists. In other words, evolutionary biology can shed light upon historical materialist theory and vice versa. It is perhaps, therefore, not too surprising that one of the leading philosophical analysts of evolutionary biology Elliott Sober is also a Marxist.


Jim Farmelant http://independent.academia.edu/JimFarmelant http://www.foxymath.com Learn or Review Basic Math

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