Social Construction and Biology – there are no species and everything is in flux – Phil of Sci # 5-3

This is the third part of the fifth instalment in the Philosophy of Science series. The previous entries can be found at the links below:


Of what are things made, and what is their nature? It is one of the oldest and most awe-inspiring questions there is. Although you might say it is the least practical, all people operate with an implicit understanding, and assumption of what is fundamentally real, what is composite, what is essential to something and what is not, and so on and so forth. For this reason, the conceptual scheme operating in the background makes a very practical difference in the lives of every person. It is framework setting, from which everything else flows.

Contemporary trends indicate the dominance of a view that takes key elements of all systems of classification and understanding of the world around us as socially constructed, whether they be natural entities, or social concepts alike. Taxonomies and systems of classification bear the mark of the social – the norms, habits and customs of those who think them up. Whatever may be that is real, is hidden behind a veil of constructs – intellectual, physical, and social that blind us from what may truly be.

How relativistic thinking about the nature of things is manifested in different domains

In the section on the intellectual history of various types of scepticism, we saw how major currents of thinking have influenced the dominant elements of the mainstream of thought and practical life in our contemporary world. The idea that conceptions of beauty, goodness, and truth are strongly ‘socially constructed’, that knowledge is relative and cannot be arrived at, or that they are expressions of subjectivity, are all common today. Ironically, by jettisoning a grounding in rigorous use of reason, logic, and tests of coherence at the philosophical level, the dominant interpretive frameworks in major disciplines bear the very features of social construction – partiality, falsity, contingency – in a strong sense, and do not hold water.

In the last instalment on physics, we saw how a failure to understand the nature of one’s terms led and continues to lead many scientists into unwieldy interpretations of their own theories, borrowing heavily from the worldviews most prevalent around them – scepticism about the reality of mind, the objectivity about concepts and normative reasoning, and relativistic thinking more broadly. We’ll continue to examine how these collections of ideas have woven their way into specific disciplines, and how our understanding of the world has changed dramatically as a result. The focus here is the ongoing development of the universe, through cosmology, astronomy and evolution.

Darwinism: there are no species, and everything is in flux

Evolutionary theory is the best explanation for the development of life over millions of years. Darwinism, its many variants and offshoots are philosophical interpretations of evolution. However, they are often conflated, the regnant view of evolutionary theory being that it disconfirms many things about the natural world that are associated with theism, realism about the nature of species, and of moral concepts.

The conditions required for natural selection to occur are: variation in traits among a population, their inheritability through successive generations, and survival and environmental pressures that ‘select’ for traits across generations.[1] This bare bones definition was all that Darwin had at first, prior to the first evolutionary synthesis with Mendelian genetics (the ‘modern synthesis’) in the early 20th century, propounded by the Czech friar Gregor Mendel.

Further elucidation of the mechanisms and processes through which inheritance occurs came through an understanding of DNA via Watson and Crick in the 50s, culminating more recently in the Human Genome Project. There has been much talk of further syntheses with psychology (E.O Wilson’s Sociobiology and more recently evolutionary psychology, for example), and the ‘Extended Synthesis,’ which incorporates epigenetics and developmental biology into its explanatory model.[2]

The interpretation of evolutionary theory that is common in the popular imagination is materialist, and Darwinian. Some of its main assumptions and interpretations – rather than scientific findings – include the idea that there are a small number of laws that produce variation and change in species, but that evolution is a random, chance process; that ‘species’ cannot be understood according to essential properties, but are instead clusters of similarly related members that are continuous with other life forms; and that the factors influencing the process of change over time are simply variation, inheritability, and selection pressures; and that parts, or traits of organisms do not have inherent functions or purposes, although this is much debated and contested. On the contrary, each of these interpretations is questionable.

Teleology in nature and in life forms

One common belief is that there are no discernible purposes in nature, toward which non-living and living entities tend, only that which survives and reproduces, descriptively speaking. There are basic laws of physics that govern the interaction of the micro and the macro alike, but the unfolding of the universe from the Big Bang onward is subject to chance, as are the life forms we see today, their natures, as well as our own. However, this begs the question of why certain structures, traits, etc., survive and others do not. It is insufficient to appeal simply to forces and abstract laws – which describe the patterns of regularity found in physical structures, not their physical characteristics – ignoring the physical properties of things, and the way those properties undergo substantial change with the novel configurations they can take.

The fundamental constants do not strictly determine, but circumscribe the range of possibility inherent in the dynamic, creative forces and substances in the known universe, so that novelty is ever-emerging; a novelty that is nonetheless highly patterned and intelligible.

Nature – at a physical level, and at the level of living systems – has a teleology, or directedness. From the broadest perspective, the initial conditions present at the beginning of the universe were such that life could develop. Were they to be off by a fraction of a percentage, there would be no life at all. That is to say, due to the laws of nature, fundamental forces in the universe and the properties of physical structures and given their environment and the history of development that precedes them, the universe, and all the things in it tend toward structures in a manner that is circumscribed within a range of possibility.

Through a view that seeks to synthesize understanding, looking for how findings from an array of fields cohere together, it is apparent that the evolution of life is predictable in hindsight.

In fact, rather than a haphazard outcome, the range of forms that life can take, and further adapt to follow pathways that have been circumscribed at every level of intelligible reality – that of physics, the chemical, genetic, and broader environmental systems. These pathways were largely “predetermined from the Big Bang.”[3]

This deeper structure is found in the nature of the fundamental constants – gravitation, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear interactions. They govern the interactions of the elementary particles, present at the beginning of the universe.

As the well-known ‘fine-tuning argument’ goes, were the initial conditions present at the Big Bang an infinitesimally small fraction off, life could not have developed.

One explanation, in line with, and long-held in various forms by the Christian church, is that this is further suggestive of the intelligent origins of the universe. Critics have proposed – largely due to prior commitments against theism, and to naturalism and atheism – that our universe is but one of many, and that we live in a multiverse. It is conceded by many, however, that this is not a scientifically-based inference.

The grounds for it are largely aesthetic difficulty with theism, rather than rational rejections of it. For example, a common argument is that there is no way to know – in the same way as in experimental and theoretical physics – what preceded the Big Bang. It is at least possible that there could be many other universes, which would then ‘explain’ the extremely improbable set of constants that make life possible in our own – their existence making the unlikelihood of the presence of conditions conducive to life seem less miraculous. Note, however, that the logical process here is backwards. In order to make the improbable seem probable, one postulates the existence of countless other universes. This explanation is ad hoc, and not based on any evidence, or reasons, other than the desire to avoid an explanation of a certain type, which is in fact entailed by strong reasoning.

Building on countless others in the Greek-influenced Jewish, Muslim and Christian philosophical traditions, Aquinas notes that every effect is preceded by a cause. Nothing can be its own efficient (agent) cause, because that would mean that it preceded itself, which is absurd.

When combined with the principle of sufficient reason (there is nothing that exists without a sufficient reason for it) and the principle of causation (nothing is made or begins to exist but by a cause), we see that an effect can never be greater than its cause. In other words, an effect cannot be greater – in complexity, or in terms of its quantity of physical matter/energy – than the prior set of causes that condition and give rise to it. These are truths that generalize to all of reality, yet also find their grounding in experience. Indeed, they are universally true because through all types of experience one can see evidence of this.

Understanding our universe as having grown from initial conditions and still expanding, we reason back to look for a first cause. The only thing that can cause initial physical conditions, and purely intelligible constants – which are thought to be abstract, and numerical in nature – is an immaterial intellect. This has always been thought of as God.

Returning again to the fundamental constants, they do not strictly determine, but circumscribe the range of possibility inherent in the dynamic, creative forces and substances in the universe, so that novelty is ever-emerging; a novelty that is nonetheless highly patterned and intelligible.

In order to understand how the patterned, intelligible activity operates at each level of reality, from that of physics, to chemistry, biology, ecology, weather, climate, and forms of social organization, it is crucial to be able to zoom in and out accordingly, looking for both the patterns and laws of interactions in the world, and the tangible physical elements, structures, and functional systems in which they inhere.

In the case of self-contained physical structures, this tending toward can be properly predicated of a particular entity or organism – and not external forces, or environment – and flows from the properties internal to it. They include its physical structure, the dispositional properties that flow from how its parts are put together in a functional way, and the stable powers that arise therefrom. It is not the case – as atomistic, and reductionist views suppose – that everything is comprised of the same basic ‘stuff,’ and that it is only how it is arranged that accounts for all the difference and variety that we see in the world.

From chemical compounds, all the way up to larger structures, unified objects possess properties that are more than the sum of their parts or inputs, prior to combination. The hydrogen and oxygen molecules that comprise water possess different traits individually, and behave in ways that are not simply a reflection of the addition of their prior properties and structure at a snapshot in time. Their combination brings out new ones that were previously latent, or unactualized.

This figure (adapted from The Modeling of Nature, by William A. Wallace) represents the powers that explain the activities and reactivities characteristic of unified substances. It provides an explanation of their unity and persistence over time and through non-substantial change. In this figure, the protomatter gives rise to the natural form of the inorganic substance. The powers operative in modern phyiscs are illustrated by each of the boxes within the circle. Each of the forces can be correlated with an activity or reactivity seen in substances. The concentric circles around the protomatter are the fields of activity and force – the natural form – through which the particular substance is specified and maintained over time and non-substantial change.[1]

[1] Image adapted from William A. Wallace, The Modeling of Nature: Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Nature in Synthesis (Washington, D.C, 1996), pg. 71.

For example, hydrogen and oxygen possess particular boiling points, which is a feature directly related to their essence as chemical elements. When they are combined into water, they lose these powers, and take on new ones. Quite literally, their properties that mark them out as the substantial unities that they once were are now present only virtually. When a higher order chemical compound breaks down again, the component parts – insofar as they are substantial forms with essences, and not accidental ones – regain their physical features and the powers that flow therefrom. This shows how the substantial form of a substance persists through certain types of change. It is this intrinsic unity that gives rise to the development and exhibition of different properties.[4]

On the model of physical reality in which everything is the result of the combination of a few basic elementary particles and fundamental laws, it is very difficult to account for the fact that properties of composite substances can go in and out of existence according to the nature of the structural form that their ‘parts’ can take. Indeed, it is something belied by experience, for we see that we don’t simply add up the powers and properties that smaller chemical, or physical compounds take, but that they go into remission, and take on new ones according to the stable, persistent unity that they achieve in a new form. These forms are called ‘substantial’ because they have an internal source of change and of stability. That is, they are organized and intrinsically ordered toward certain ends, where the directedness manifests itself through the operation of a thing’s causal powers.[5]

The best explanation of such stable, persistent unity of form over time and its changeable nature is that there is both physical matter, and immaterial energy, or prime matter, out of which novelty can emerge. Crucially, that prime matter has qualities that are akin to the mental, in their nature.

Contrary to an understanding of evolution as the random, directionless, and purely contingent development of life forms, and the natures they possess, species and life forms develop according to predictable patterns, have natures that can be identified according to the possession of certain essential and accidental (non-necessary) features. In turn, organisms can be identified and grouped as species according to essential features.

The Function of a trait as the causal process leading to its selection

Another common assumption is that the function of any given trait is simply identical to the causal process that led up to its selection. You will often hear of how a trait developed under certain circumstances, conferring an adaptive benefit to the organism, which later becomes prevalent in the population of the species as a whole. Therefore, it is argued, its function is more or less equal to that initial adaptivity. This is simply not the case.

The development of nuance in our range of emotional affectivity arose in particular circumstances, with an array of physiological traits and ecological niche that were different than they are today. Parts of our physiology, the propensity to anger and physical violence, sexual attraction, all developed by genetic variation and inheritance over time. They conferred adaptability to particular members, their offspring, and more and more homo sapiens through subsequent generations over time. The adaptability conferred is neither something neat and simple, identified with a behaviour that differentiated members of the same species, but is something that fits in, integrates, and develops with other aspects of the physiology of particular members of the species.

But on a materialist understanding of evolution, things just happen. The fact that a given trait developed in a particular way can have no bearing on anything like a ‘function,’ or that of the greater organism. Indeed, positing that a trait has a function, and so too the larger organism to which it belongs is something alien to this viewpoint. Given that, on this account evolution is a strictly random process, ‘functions’ that we may see in traits are not ‘real’ in any sense beyond naming a rough set of relations between arbitrarily connected parts. There is no value to a species, to the diversity and splendour of the environment, or appeals to its ‘naturalness’ – these ways of speaking are foreign to the purportedly ‘value free’ explanatory framework adopted by proponents of this way of thinking.

However, you’ll note that this does not stop biologists, popular scientists, or intellectuals of speaking of normative conclusions flowing from their understanding of evolutionary history. From the philosophy they espouse, this is incoherent. Though, it is undeniable, and indeed obvious. We cannot even speak intelligibly about things without ascribing to them unity, and speaking of them in terms of the way they are organized, and the tendencies they exhibit.

In claiming that the heart’s function is to supply oxygen to the organs of the body, one must have recourse to logic, to the recognition of tendencies inherent in many of the parts of the cardiovascular system, the way they cohere together with other systems in an organism, and so on. In other words, one needs to observe the whole.

But on the materialist view of evolution, all of these obvious, rational statements must be contorted into a language stripped of normative content. The heart happens to pump blood to the organs, the eye just so happens to have the function that it does, and so on and so forth. There are no deeper laws, holistic understanding of systems, larger wholes and the way they cohere (just piles of parts); there is no top-down exertion of causal force from a macro to a micro structure[6]; or a use of reason to discern the tendencies in a given organic or non-organic structure, inferred from its properties and interactions with other objects over time. All of these types of reason are used, inevitably, in everything from our day to day activities to formulating speculative scientific theories, so it is absurd to act and theorize as though they are invalid.

On the contrary, there is no function without that to which it moves towards. End-state directedness of an organism is not reducible to purposeless functions. For, any given function is itself defined by the system of which it is a part, and what it aims toward as a whole.

It is borne out by experience, common sense and speculative, philosophical reason alike that the intrinsic purpose, and tendency of a seed is to become a plant or a tree, and an egg or a sperm to become a new life form. You cannot speak of organisms having ‘functions’ without recognizing that there is a constrained set of ends toward which they are oriented.

The ‘Good’ as relative to that which is Adaptive, and Selected-for

It is also common to hear of the use of an evolutionary understanding of the nature of an organism to make claims for what is good for it, based on arguments that because some trait has proved adaptive over time, that this confers success for the organism. Or, that because of the possession of a trait that was selected in light of its fit with certain environmental pressures, that it can be inferred that it is good for the organism to do this.

One particular type of argument that often arises in this vein is the misanthropic argument, common among certain types of environmentalists. Making use of anthropological and evolutionary understanding of the environmental milieu in which some of our capacities and traits developed, they go on to argue that the environmental milieu of our distant ancestors and their way of living is more natural for us; that we are suited to it, and should return to something like it.

There are a few things to note. First, evolutionary development takes place over long stretches of time. Some things that were adaptive millennia ago for a range of purposes were developed out of smaller parts that exhibited functionality different than that which they later adapted. The appendix is a good example, now serving a different function than what it was once believed to have.

However, there is obviously something to the point that an understanding of evolutionary circumstances is highly relevant to recognizing the healthy functioning of our parts and the person as a whole. As as I’ve been arguing, we have discernible natures that can be grasped with the help of an understanding of how our various capacities developed over time. Yet we are – as is every other organism – adapted to adapt to our environment. Furthermore, with the development of rationality, language, and higher forms of cognition, sensation, and the use of our intellects, we have become adapted to use these capacities in understanding our own nature and the world around us. The proper use of these latter developments now condition the use of the rest of our bodily nature, and are the key factor in enabling the flourishing of any person.

Second, the evolutionary story of the development of a trait does not entail that the trait should be used that way, or not. For example, virtually all of our psychological traits can be used for good or for ill, even though they may have been selected-for, due to the particular advantages they conferred at a time. It may be that strong emotional responses such as anger, and aggression conferred numerous advantages, but that in no way means that it is our nature to be angry or aggressive, or to use the capacity in particular ways. We have the capacity, and when used correctly, that capacity is used for a purpose conducive to our well-being, but it isn’t the case that the story of how a trait came to be selected for tells us everything about how it should continue to be used, especially in light of other adaptations that change the nature of the whole organism, or person.

In other words, when assessing the functionality of traits, it cannot be done in isolation. One can answer the question – what were the conditions that likely led to the selection of this trait? – but that is not the same answer as what is the trait’s function when it developed, or at a later stage in the evolutionary process. Insights from biology and other sciences, and the use of logic, reason and experience are required to determine what activities lead to health and flourishing for any given class of organisms.

Photo by Soheb Zaidi on Unsplash

The ends or purposes of an organism result from the relationship between their parts and functions. Limits or bounds are placed on the range of what constitutes an organism’s healthy purpose by novel developments, as they occur and are integrated with the organism and the larger whole to which they belong. In humans, this is most importantly reason, and the intellect with its capacity of abstraction. Reason and the intellect order the other capacities. By their very presence, they give us awareness, and the ability to do otherwise.

In summary, contrary to an understanding of evolution as the random, directionless, and purely contingent development of life forms and the natures they possess, species and life forms develop according to predictable patterns and have natures that can be identified according to the possession of certain essential and accidental (non-necessary) features. The intrinsic unity of an organism circumscribes the range of actions that fulfill or complete its inherent tendencies, and contribute to its flourishing. The universe as a whole, and particular life forms alike continue to evolve and develop over time.

Extra Resources

Teleology in Physics and Biology conference (March 12th-13th, 2021) hosted by the Angelicum Thomistic Institute
Teleological notions in Biology – Stanford encyclopedia of Philosophy
The Human Genome Project
Between Philosophy & Biology – a Templeton Foundation project

[1] In the first four chapter of “The Origin of Species”, Darwin outlines the factors for evolution. Chapters 1&2 on variability, Chapter 3 on the “Struggle for Existence”, and Chapter 4 on Natural Selection. Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (Signet Classics, 2003), 1–128.

[2] In this later work, Wilson attempts to present a unified theory of knowledge in the reductionist manner. “I had experienced the Ionian enchantment…It means a belief in the unity of the sciences – a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws.” Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, 1st Vintage books Ed (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 4–5; Features of the Extended synthesis include epigenetics, the role of prior configurations and traits in the organism, multilevel selection (e.g., group selection), and niche construction. Massimo Pigliucci, Gerd Müller, and Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, eds., Evolution, the Extended Synthesis (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2010).

[3] From Simon Conway Morris, Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe, 4. print (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007), 310; For a comprehensive perspective on faith, science, and philosophy, see Christopher T Baglow, Faith, Science, & Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge, 2019.

[4] Example adapted from Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, Editiones Scholasticae 39 (Heusenstamm: Ed. Scholasticae, 2014), 198.

[5] Feser, 169.

[6] Nancey C. Murphy, ed., Downward Causation and the Neurobiology of Free Will, Understanding Complex Systems (Berlin Heidelberg: Springer, 2009); Moulay A. Aziz-Alaoui, ed., From System Complexity to Emergent Properties, Understanding Complex Systems (Berlin Heidelberg: Springer, 2009); Aziz-Alaoui.
Though many people implicitly think in bottom-up, part-to-whole causation, where the single cause precedes the effect directly in temporal sequence, and which is contiguous (touches it physically) to the effect, this is but one type of causation. Another example is threshold causation, where many small causes produce an effect when the balance of the system changes (such as in weather and climate dynamics); the cause-effect process is best understood as state transformation when a certain threshold is reached. Another is downward causation (sometimes called ‘top-down’, or emergent), wherein a functional whole – a complex substance, organism, or environmental state – exerts causal force back down on parts or external entities from a power that arises only as a part of the functional whole. These types of causation point not to a world understandable exclusively as mechanism, but a system of relations between functional wholes with dispositional properties, or latent powers that are actualized in certain circumstances. Like other types of reductionism that we have already encountered, the reduction of all the aforementioned types of causation to the ‘billiard-ball’ style is all too common. However, it is also unwarranted.

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