Are Platonism and essentialism incompatible with evolution?

Are Platonism and essentialism incompatible with evolution?
odopoboqo
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Posted Apr 4, 2010 - 5:44 PM:
Subject: Are Platonism and essentialism incompatible with evolution?
Essentialism holds that for any specific kind of entity, there is a set of characteristics or properties all of which any entity of that kind must possess. Platonism holds that that these essential characteristics are exemplified by forms. So, for example, a Platonist might say that all rabbits have something in common, namely rabbitiness; every rabbit that exists is a shadow of the "ideal rabbit" that exists in the world of forms. Likewise every dog, or every human, etc. is a shadow of its ideal form.

But where do evolutionary intermediates fit in? I argue that they don't.

Biologists don't waste hours upon hours arguing, for example, whether intermediates like Archeopteryx have the form of a bird or the form of a reptile- they recognize that it is an intermediate and move on. Nor is there any point in claiming that Archeopterix has its own form, because then there would be intermediates between Archeopterix and reptiles and intermediates between Archeopterix and birds, thus repeating the problem (e.g. "do the intermediates have the form of an Archeopterix, or the form a bird?"). But the alternative that evolution offers-the idea that species change over time-is incompatible with the idea that organisms have eternal unchanging forms or characteristics.

The classification of animals in biology depends on ancestry and the ability to interbreed, not on whether a given animal is a shadow of a Platonic form, or has certain essential characteristics. At any given time the archetype of a given species is not a Platonic form, but a statistical average of the members of that species.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins seems to agree (and thinks that essentialism actually hindered the acceptance of evolution):


If there is a 'standard rabbit', the accolade denotes no more than the centre of a bell-shaped distribution of real, scurrying, leaping, variable bunnies. And the distribution shifts with time. As generations go by, there may gradually come a point, not clearly defined, when the norm of what we call rabbits will have departed so far as to deserve a different name. There is no permanent rabbitiness, no essence of rabbit hanging in the sky, just populations of furry, long-eared, coprophagous, whisker-twitching individuals, showing a statistical distribution in size, shape, colour and proclivities. What used to be the longer-eared end of the old distribution may find itself the centre of a new distribution later in geological time. Given a sufficiently large number of generations, there may be no overlap between ancestral and descendant distributions: the longest ears among the ancestors may be shorter than the shortest ears among the descendants. All is fluid, as another Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said; nothing fixed. After a hundred million years it may be hard to believe that the descendant animals ever had rabbits for ancestors. Yet in no generation during the evolutionary process was the predominant type in the population far from the modal type in the previous generation or the following generation. This way of thinking is what Mayr called population thinking. ...

For the mind encased in Platonic blinkers, a rabbit is a rabbit is a rabbit. To suggest that rabbitkind constitutes a kind of shifting cloud of statistical averages, or that today's typical rabbit might be different from the typical rabbit of a million years ago or the typical rabbit of a million years hence, seems to violate an internal taboo. Indeed, psychologists studying the development of language tell us that children are natural essentialists. Maybe they have to be if they are to remain sane while their developing minds divide things into discrete categories each entitled to a unique noun. It is no wonder that Adam's first task, in the Genesis myth, was to give all the animals names.

And it is no wonder, in Mayr's view, that we humans had to wait for our Darwin until well into the nineteenth century. To dramatize how very anti-essentialist evolution is, consider the following. On the 'population-thinking' evolutionary view, every animal is linked to every other animal, say rabbit to leopard, by a chain of intermediates, each so similar to the next that every link could in principle mate with its neighbors in the chain and produce fertile offspring. You can't violate the essentialist taboo more comprehensively than that. And this is not some vague thought experiment confined to the imagination. On the evolutionary view, there really is a series of intermediate animals connecting a rabbit to a leopard, every one of whom lived and breathed, every one of whom would have been placed in exactly the same species as its immediate neighbors on either side in the long, sliding continuum. Indeed, every one of the series was the child of its neighbor on one side and the parent of its neighbor on the other..
.


Unsurpisingly, one creationist critique of evolution stems from Platonism/essentialism- the claim that there are certain "kinds" (i.e. forms) of organisms, and that evolution occurs only within each "kind", but one "kind" of organism cannot evolve into another "kind". (also known as baraminology; "kinds" are not part of Evolutionary biology)

On a related note, a recent poll of philosophers showed that roughly 40% claimed to be platonists. However, only 13% of philosophers of biology were Platonists. Why is this? I suspect that it is because philosophers of biology are more intimately aware that evolution goes against a Platonic stance.

Are Richard Dawkins and I right? Does accepting Darwin amount to rejecting Plato?
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Posted Apr 4, 2010 - 7:16 PM:

The word "intermediate" seems to suffer from the same bias. It insists that there is some specific form and anything in-between is incomplete or imperfect example of that form. The definition of that form comes from a statistical categorization and separation from other forms. I think there is nothing of that concept in nature. You could say there is no intermediate, there is only the form-of-the-moment for each individual, (then "form" has no real meaning), or you can say everything is an intermediate to something else. The difference between a rabbit and a cow is only a psychological characterization. They are simply branches of mammals which are no longer able to share their genetic characteristics successfully, as could be said of two species of "rabbit".

This is probably one point that creationists can't consolidate. They often argue that the transition between species is impossible. I often have to point out that there was no transition between primate and man because man *is* a primate, by definition and categorization. We haven't branched off enough to merit a new category yet. Like Dawkins mentions, many species branch off, but are able to create viable cross-breeds long after speciation, showing that the transition isn't as clean as might be convenient.
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Posted Apr 4, 2010 - 7:19 PM:

"Rejecting Plato" is too strong a phrase. There is too much to Plato's philosophy to say that losing one part undermines the whole, especially since many claims are argued for in multiple ways. And when talking about Platonism, we need to ask: "Platonism about what?" We may want to be Platonists about some things and not others.

So are evolution and essentialism incompatible? It's a tricky question. The essentialist may just decide to multiply essences beyond what he previously thought existed, so that various intermediaries have their own (previously unrecognized) essences. Or he may keep the number of essences stable and insist that there is a dividing line, however difficult to see, that intermediaries eventually cross when they change essence. That is, the essence fixes the definition and the intermediaries stretch towards the boundaries until finally they fall outside of them and into some new category. If the intermediary stretches the definition of the next recognized essence too much, the essentialist may decide to borrow a page from the first strategy and add just a few extra essences to cover these weird spots. Finally, the essentialist could declare evolutionary intermediaries to be metaphysical bastards and say that a certain amount of stability is required for there to be an essence.

One might also point out that Plato never says that every single thing has a Form. In some places, he seems to be rather conservative about when a Form exists; in other places, he is much more liberal. And as he got older, Plato's views on the nature of Forms changed. So perhaps evolution wouldn't refute the theory of Forms so much as tell us one more thing that it doesn't apply to.
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Posted Apr 4, 2010 - 7:41 PM:

swstephe wrote:
The word "intermediate" seems to suffer from the same bias. It insists that there is some specific form and anything in-between is incomplete or imperfect example of that form. The definition of that form comes from a statistical categorization and separation from other forms. I think there is nothing of that concept in nature. You could say there is no intermediate, there is only the form-of-the-moment for each individual, (then "form" has no real meaning), or you can say everything is an intermediate to something else. The difference between a rabbit and a cow is only a psychological characterization. They are simply branches of mammals which are no longer able to share their genetic characteristics successfully, as could be said of two species of "rabbit".



I agree; I used the term intermediate merely as a rhetorical device to help get my ideas across. (Since many people think in terms of classifications of modern animals- e.g. birds, reptiles, etc., something like archaeopterix is thought of as being an intermediate.) But you're absolutely right- either everything is an intermediate or nothing is.


swstephe wrote:
This is probably one point that creationists can't consolidate. They often argue that the transition between species is impossible. I often have to point out that there was no transition between primate and man because man *is* a primate, by definition and categorization. We haven't branched off enough to merit a new category yet.


Yeah. I'd reiterate that whether or not an organism has branched off to merit a new category is ultimately a matter of judgement, since as you point out, it's a "psychological characterizaton", not a distinction that nature itself makes.

Edited by odopoboqo on Apr 4, 2010 - 8:01 PM
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Posted Apr 4, 2010 - 9:12 PM:

Fenchurch wrote:
"Rejecting Plato" is too strong a phrase. There is too much to Plato's philosophy to say that losing one part undermines the whole, especially since many claims are argued for in multiple ways. And when talking about Platonism, we need to ask: "Platonism about what?" We may want to be Platonists about some things and not others.
By "Plato" I really just meant the theory of forms.

Fenchurch wrote:
So are evolution and essentialism incompatible? It's a tricky question. The essentialist may just decide to multiply essences beyond what he previously thought existed, so that various intermediaries have their own (previously unrecognized) essences. Or he may keep the number of essences stable and insist that there is a dividing line, however difficult to see, that intermediaries eventually cross when they change essence. That is, the essence fixes the definition and the intermediaries stretch towards the boundaries until finally they fall outside of them and into some new category. If the intermediary stretches the definition of the next recognized essence too much, the essentialist may decide to borrow a page from the first strategy and add just a few extra essences to cover these weird spots.


If the boundaries between essences are real and not just an arbitrary judgement, then how do we know when the boundary has been crossed? And what difference does it make? The difficulty I see is that biology doesn't actually make a distinction between "intermediate" and "normal" organisms. Every organism is an intermediate, since,as Dawkins points out, every organism would be placed in exactly the same species as its parents and offspring.

Fenchurch wrote:
Finally, the essentialist could declare evolutionary intermediaries to be metaphysical bastards and say that a certain amount of stability is required for there to be an essence.
If this were the case, many of the most familiar animals (dogs, cats, rabbits, etc) would almost certainly be "bastards" since they are unstable and rapidly changing compared to, say, coelacanths.


Fenchurch wrote:
One might also point out that Plato never says that every single thing has a Form. In some places, he seems to be rather conservative about when a Form exists; in other places, he is much more liberal. And as he got older, Plato's views on the nature of Forms changed. So perhaps evolution wouldn't refute the theory of Forms so much as tell us one more thing that it doesn't apply to.
Perhaps, but Plato also thought that animals did have forms.
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Posted Apr 5, 2010 - 4:54 AM:

Building on what Fenchurch said, I would say a modern essentialist might either accept that there are as many essences as there are animals, or deny that animals have essences. I consider myself to be an essentialist of sorts, by the way, and would say that the latter route is the more natural one, especially since the existence of things like animals, tables and spoons is suspicious from a mereological perspecive as well.
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Posted Apr 5, 2010 - 5:59 PM:

odopoboqo wrote:
Essentialism holds that for any specific kind of entity, there is a set of characteristics or properties all of which any entity of that kind must possess. Platonism holds that that these essential characteristics are exemplified by forms. So, for example, a Platonist might say that all rabbits have something in common, namely rabbitiness; every rabbit that exists is a shadow of the "ideal rabbit" that exists in the world of forms. Likewise every dog, or every human, etc. is a shadow of its ideal form.

But where do evolutionary intermediates fit in? I argue that they don't.

Biologists don't waste hours upon hours arguing, for example, whether intermediates like Archeopteryx have the form of a bird or the form of a reptile- they recognize that it is an intermediate and move on. Nor is there any point in claiming that Archeopterix has its own form, because then there would be intermediates between Archeopterix and reptiles and intermediates between Archeopterix and birds, thus repeating the problem (e.g. "do the intermediates have the form of an Archeopterix, or the form a bird?"). But the alternative that evolution offers-the idea that species change over time-is incompatible with the idea that organisms have eternal unchanging forms or characteristics.

The classification of animals in biology depends on ancestry and the ability to interbreed, not on whether a given animal is a shadow of a Platonic form, or has certain essential characteristics. At any given time the archetype of a given species is not a Platonic form, but a statistical average of the members of that species.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins seems to agree (and thinks that essentialism actually hindered the acceptance of evolution):


If there is a 'standard rabbit', the accolade denotes no more than the centre of a bell-shaped distribution of real, scurrying, leaping, variable bunnies. And the distribution shifts with time. As generations go by, there may gradually come a point, not clearly defined, when the norm of what we call rabbits will have departed so far as to deserve a different name. There is no permanent rabbitiness, no essence of rabbit hanging in the sky, just populations of furry, long-eared, coprophagous, whisker-twitching individuals, showing a statistical distribution in size, shape, colour and proclivities. What used to be the longer-eared end of the old distribution may find itself the centre of a new distribution later in geological time. Given a sufficiently large number of generations, there may be no overlap between ancestral and descendant distributions: the longest ears among the ancestors may be shorter than the shortest ears among the descendants. All is fluid, as another Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said; nothing fixed. After a hundred million years it may be hard to believe that the descendant animals ever had rabbits for ancestors. Yet in no generation during the evolutionary process was the predominant type in the population far from the modal type in the previous generation or the following generation. This way of thinking is what Mayr called population thinking. ...

For the mind encased in Platonic blinkers, a rabbit is a rabbit is a rabbit. To suggest that rabbitkind constitutes a kind of shifting cloud of statistical averages, or that today's typical rabbit might be different from the typical rabbit of a million years ago or the typical rabbit of a million years hence, seems to violate an internal taboo. Indeed, psychologists studying the development of language tell us that children are natural essentialists. Maybe they have to be if they are to remain sane while their developing minds divide things into discrete categories each entitled to a unique noun. It is no wonder that Adam's first task, in the Genesis myth, was to give all the animals names.

And it is no wonder, in Mayr's view, that we humans had to wait for our Darwin until well into the nineteenth century. To dramatize how very anti-essentialist evolution is, consider the following. On the 'population-thinking' evolutionary view, every animal is linked to every other animal, say rabbit to leopard, by a chain of intermediates, each so similar to the next that every link could in principle mate with its neighbors in the chain and produce fertile offspring. You can't violate the essentialist taboo more comprehensively than that. And this is not some vague thought experiment confined to the imagination. On the evolutionary view, there really is a series of intermediate animals connecting a rabbit to a leopard, every one of whom lived and breathed, every one of whom would have been placed in exactly the same species as its immediate neighbors on either side in the long, sliding continuum. Indeed, every one of the series was the child of its neighbor on one side and the parent of its neighbor on the other...


Unsurpisingly, one creationist critique of evolution stems from Platonism/essentialism- the claim that there are certain "kinds" (i.e. forms) of organisms, and that evolution occurs only within each "kind", but one "kind" of organism cannot evolve into another "kind". (also known as baraminology; "kinds" are not part of Evolutionary biology)

On a related note, a recent poll of philosophers showed that roughly 40% claimed to be platonists. However, only 13% of philosophers of biology were Platonists. Why is this? I suspect that it is because philosophers of biology are more intimately aware that evolution goes against a Platonic stance.

Are Richard Dawkins and I right? Does accepting Darwin amount to rejecting Plato?




The trouble with people like Dawkins is that they don't realize that what they call evolution is really half of a cyclical process. They do not consider involution or creation as the process of creating diversity from unity along levels of reality. The cyclical process, well known in the East and Neo-Platonism, begins with involution or unity into diversity and completes through evolution which is the movement of spirit in matter from diversity into unity at higher levels of reality.

From this perspective intermediates are just steps along way to producing life forms that are capable of serving their purpose as part of the great living machine we call organic life on earth.

Where those like Dawkins are fixated with "results," understanding the universe requires appreciation of the process within which the purpose of the cycles of involution and evolution can become evident.


From this perspective, form and the actualization of forms on a lower level of reality as in our world is just involution and in no way contradicts evolution or Platonic ideas which are the return to the level of the form
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Posted Apr 5, 2010 - 6:51 PM:

There is something all rabbits share in common. They all have a particular type of DNA that makes them rabbits. If you don't have this DNA, then you're not a rabbit.
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Posted Apr 5, 2010 - 6:52 PM:

odopoboqo wrote:
I agree; I used the term intermediate merely as a rhetorical device to help get my ideas across. (Since many people think in terms of classifications of modern animals- e.g. birds, reptiles, etc., something like archaeopterix is thought of as being an intermediate.) But you're absolutely right- either everything is an intermediate or nothing is.


I once opened my step-son's biology book and saw it boldly declaring birds as a kind of reptile. I guess I missed the memo, but everywhere I look, it seems I was misinformed. Birds are now considered living dinosaurs. Here is a paragraph from the Wikipedia article on "birds":

Wikipedia wrote:
Based on fossil and biological evidence, most scientists accept that birds are a specialised sub-group of theropod dinosaurs. More specifically, they are members of Maniraptora, a group of theropods which includes dromaeosaurs and oviraptorids, among others. As scientists discover more non-avian theropods that are closely related to birds, the previously clear distinction between non-birds and birds has become blurred. Recent discoveries in the Liaoning Province of northeast China, which demonstrate that many small theropod dinosaurs had feathers, contribute to this ambiguity.


I thought of an experiment of sorts. Go around arbitrarily swapping the words "bird" and "dinosaur" and see how strong the psychological categorization is. "Complain about how all the dinosaurs seem to choose to poop on your car right after you wash it. How about some deep fried therapod for dinner tonight?".

odopoboqo wrote:
Yeah. I'd reiterate that whether or not an organism has branched off to merit a new category is ultimately a matter of judgement, since as you point out, it's a "psychological characterizaton", not a distinction that nature itself makes.


I'd be interested to see this used as defence against bestiality. Can someone marry a chimpanzee?
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Posted Apr 5, 2010 - 6:59 PM:

TecnoTut wrote:
There is something all rabbits share in common. They all have a particular type of DNA that makes them rabbits. If you don't have this DNA, then you're not a rabbit.


Yes, but there are subtleties here, like ring species and the like. Besides, no two copies of rabbit-type DNA are exactly alike, which would seem to preclude them having the same essence. Or would you consider changes in the DNA to be accidents? But this sounds too much like horodeictic virtues, as far as I'm concerned.
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