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History, Evolution, and The Darwin Debate

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An exchange on WHEE and Darwinism

October 27th, 2010 · No Comments

An email exchange on WHEE/4th and Darwinism
from: H-WORLD@H-NET.MSU.EDU
The Darwin debate is controversial, but times are changing, and a book such as Fodor’s What Darwin Got Wrong indicates a new wave of critiques of that theory.
My citation of the Darwin debate was to free the study of history from the evolutionary psychology nonsense that tends to lurk in the background of even those who never refer to it. Darwinism has distorted our views of history, that’s all. The latent Social Darwinism of such accounts is egregious and unnecessary. So let’s be rid of it.

My point here was simply to alert teachers of world history to a new way to approach all that with a unique blend of theory that doubles as practical periodization. Far away from religious and creationist critics of evolution. We also look at the Axial Age and its implications.
Actually, the method is to set theory to the background and proceed with a study outline of world history based on an empirical pattern visible since the invention of writing. The result is a useful historical chronicle, with, mirabile dictu, the theme of ‘evolution’ in a new sense lurking in the background.

The issue of Darwinism is simple in this case: we haven’t observed Darwinian evolution at close range (the level of centuries) while world history allows us to do just that. The result is a warning that whatever the case with deep time, history isn’t Darwinian, and, in any case, we don’t know yet how early man evolved, so why assume anything.
Biologists glibly assert how certain things happened in deep time, statements about intervals millions of years in length. I am not required by science to be certain such statements are scientific! Especially when history shows us things happening so fast, in mere centuries, as dynamics, that skepticism rises at once at biological speculation.
And world history shows few signs of natural selection producing advances. To the contrary, we must suspect that ‘survival of the fittest’ too often erases advances, and brings thugs to the fore. We should be entirely suspicious of demands to impose Darwin on history.

So let us see if world history can show us hints about the dynamics of evolution. In fact world history is rich in hidden structure.
The issues are more along the lines of the historicism critique of Karl Popper, the issue of ‘historical inevitability’ raised also by Isaiah Berlin. This is the old staple of historical theory, and the point was that historical chronicles can’t play at science, they must show the ‘chronicle’ to be one of free agents, or at least relatively free agents. The framework adopted is that of the philosophy of history in a Kantian sense (Kant was the original source of Popper’s critique, so to speak), where the issue of freedom and causality is handled with that useful adjunct to reductionist science called ‘transcendental idealism’ (i.e. Newtonianism plus free will in Kant’s formulation).
This framework is perfect for reconciling the classic historiography of ‘freedom’, free agents, and historical mechanics. As is visible from Kant’s stodgy classic essay on history.
The result I hope is useful as an organized and coherent outline of world history, with a postdarwinian flavor.
I hope in a final edition to make the book more accessible to ordinary readers of world history texts, as the theory work proceeds to the background.
Note: the question of punctuated equilibrium is confusing in the book. My point is that, Stephen Gould apart, the phrase he invented was so apt and useful as a metaphor of punctuations plus equilibrium that we might redefine it for other uses! Actually Gould spoiled his phrase by grafting it onto traditional Darwinism. But the idea endures as a key concept for other approaches to evolution.
The phrase is quite accessory to my account.

Tags: Booknotes · Evolution · Fourth Edition

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