It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Darwin’s account of speciation is the most revolutionary idea in the last two hundred years. In claiming this, I am not original, for this is also the thesis of Dennett in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. I will never have words fine enough to capture the greatness of Darwin, but nonetheless it is important to at least attempt the articulation of what is so revolutionary in his thought. And if this task is so important, then it is because so little of Darwin has yet filtered into the humanities and social sciences. Oh to be sure we find discussions of him here and there as in the case of Dennett and the generally execrable evolutionary psychologists and sociologists. Yet few of us, including myself, have really managed to rise to the fundamental reorientation of thought the Darwinian hypothesis requires of us.
Darwin’s revolution is not restricted to biology. While his account of how species are formed is indeed magnificent, it is my view that his real contribution lies elsewhere. What Darwin proposes is not simply a reorientation of how we think “the origin of species”. No. Darwin’s hypothesis has implications well beyond the domain of biology, transforming our concept of nature and being (for me the two terms are synonyms). Like any great thinker, much of what Darwin thought was foreshadowed in the work of earlier thinkers, but it is his greater honor to have pulled it all together in a revolutionary conception of being. Here, then, are eight Darwinian theses that are particularly important to my own thought:
1) Nature is not supposed to be something. The great and most fundamental Darwinian ontological thesis is that nature is without teleology. In this declaration Darwin continues a long tradition characterized by thinkers such as Democritus, Leucippus, Epicurus, Lucretius, and Spinoza. All of these thinkers, each in their own way, declare that nature is without purpose.
In the academic world and, above all, in popular culture, few have yet caught up to this thesis. Two conceptions of nature persist that could not be more opposed to one another. The first conception is that of the old medieval, theological idea of nature that still dominates academic thought and popular culture, even where it is not registered as such. We here this conception of nature at work when opponents of marriage equality refer to homosexuality as “unnatural”, but also when intellectuals evoke a fundamental difference between nature and culture. The claim that homosexuality is unnatural is the claim that over and above individual organisms there are forms or species functioning as norms that govern and measure what an organism ought to be and what it ought not be. We are saying that there is some sort of teleology defining what entities should be. Similarly, we are doing exactly the same thing when we suggest that a human being that has been modified by some sort of prosthesis– say a computer chip in the brain –is “unnatural” or a deviation. The arguments are the same.
Likewise, when we claim that there are things that are so “by nature” and things that are so “by culture”, we are again slipping teleology in through the back door. What we are in effect claiming is that there are properties and qualities that arise from within the thing itself and that are therefore genuine and authentic (Nature), and that there are properties and qualities that are fabricated and therefore non-genuine. Again, we are saying that there are genuine teleologies (Nature) and artificial teleologies (Culture).
With Darwin this conception of nature as Nature is thoroughly abandoned. There is no way things are supposed to be, there is only the way things are and the way things are becoming. Species are no longer norms measuring the degree to which an individual entity approximates or deviates from that ideal form. To be sure, in a Darwinian universe there are regularities shared by members of a population in a “species”, but these regularities are no longer norms defining what these members ought to be. Rather, they are concentrations of similarities in a population not unlike a piece of land that happens to have a particularly high concentration of granite. Those individuals that depart from these similarities are no longer monsters, deviants, freaks, or “abominations of nature”, but are rather just different entities. Here the term “Nature” can no longer be used as a cudgel to beat those entities that fail to live up to a norm. Norms in nature are just statistical probabilities in a population, nothing more.
It’s notable that this point applies equally to much environmental thought. Often it seems that environmentalists are evoking the old theological and teleological conception of Nature when they decry technology, changes in ecosystems such as the appearance of zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, genetic modifications of various plants and animals, etc. All too often such arguments are premised on the illicit ontological argument that nature is supposed to be some way. The point is not that we shouldn’t prefer assemblages to be one way rather than another way, that we shouldn’t prefer certain ecosystems to be preserved, that we shouldn’t recognize that the destruction of these ecosystems might very well mean our own destruction. These judgments are perfectly legitimate. But such judgments are grounded in our preferences and values, not some teologically governed and designed Nature with a capital “n”. Nature is indifferent. There is simply how things are and how they become.
Moreover, the collapse of teleology also signifies the collapse of the Nature/Culture divide. The collapse of the Nature/Culture divide does not signify that all is Culture, but rather that all is nature, including culture. There is only nature and nothing else. Where species as eternally existing forms have been abandoned, where every “species” is the result of a fabrication, invention, becoming, or genesis, the distinction between Nature and Culture can no longer be sustained. In the old framework Culture was understood as that which was artificially fabricated while Nature was understood as the unfabricated, the original, that which arises from itself. Yet Darwin teaches us that all “natural” organisms are fabricated. Within this framework, the only difference between a cane toad and a cell phone is duration it required for each respective “type” to be fabricated. In the grand scheme of things, cell phones were invented in a fairly short duration. Cane toads took thousands and millions of years to be invented. But they were both invented. It is only a teleological and temporal prejudice that would treat the cell phone as somehow artificial while treating the cane toad as somehow authentic. If, by artificial, we mean “fabricated”, one of Darwin’s central revolutions was to declare that all organisms are artificial. As Deleuze puts it, Darwin showed us that all organisms are simulacra; which is to say that all organisms are copies without originals.
2) Difference is creative, not deviant. In the old Platonic-Aristotlean-Thomist model of nature, difference was seen as a deviation from form or essence. Organisms were measured or evaluated in terms of how closely they approximated an ideal form of what organisms are supposed to be. Thus, for example, a human that had the body of Brad Pitt coupled with the reason/intellect of Einstein would be considered more genuine and real than a human that had the body of Socrates and the intellect of Forrest Gump. Differences that did not approximate the essential features of the form were seen as deviations falling out of “true being” and even as potential monstrosities (and here, it bears noting that with Darwin the concept of monstrosity disappears as an ontological category, instead becoming a subjective category).
With Darwin all this changes. Far from being a deviation from “nature”, difference is now the motor, the engine, by which nature creates. The three pillars of speciation in Darwin are random variation (difference), heritability (the transport of difference across generations), and natural selection (the selection of differences carried on). It is now difference, not God, that creates. And the differences through which this creation and invention take place are without intention and purpose: they are random. “Random” does not mean that they are without “cause” (they are caused in all sorts of ways), but rather “without intention” or macro-scale predictability.
But there’s more to it than this. It’s not simply that there are random variations in nature, it’s that all replication (reproduction/copying) produces slight differences from the previous entity from which it is copied. In the Darwinian universe there are no perfect copies, only simulacra that deviate, ever so slightly, from the entity from which they were copied. In the old theological Nature, difference was seen as an abomination contaminating the purity of essence, form, the identical, and the same. With Darwin difference becomes the essence of nature. In Deleuze’s words, repetition is always repetition with a difference. As a consequence,
3) Nature is creative. In the old theological universe, Nature was sterile. Creation was reserved for, on the one hand, God that created all the essences or forms in one fell swoop, and humans, on the other hand, that created in the form of the fine and technical arts. However, this conception of Nature as sterile is not restricted to the theologically minded. We also find the thesis that Nature is sterile among the mechanical materialists of the 17th and 18th centuries (Diderot, Laplace, etc). There, matter was conceived as composed of indestructible corpuscles, hard atoms, that simply bumped into one another. It was impossible to see how self-regulating and enduring pattern (i.e., living organisms) might come into existence from such matter. To many philosophers– both those who defend and reject materialism –continue to defend this 18th century conception of matter.
Apparently these defenders and detractors have not kept up with advances in the physical sciences. We now know that matter is capable of generating pattern, of self-organizing, of maintaining pattern across time, and so on. Matter is not simply billiard balls bumping into one another on a pool table, it is not simply “stuff”, but is also energy, forces, flows of energy through systems and all the rest… And it is all this without need of recourse to vitalistic and animistic hypotheses. At the core of Darwin’s thought is the thesis that matter has the capacity to self-organize, to form pattern, to generate life.
4) Design without a designer. At the center of Darwinian thought is the daring hypothesis of design without a designer. Paraphrasing Cantor, we can say that nothing can dislodge us Darwinians from the conceptual paradise of design without a designer. Old theological thought is modeled on the work of artisans fabricating tools (and a mistaken conception of what takes place in production, at that). First, they say, there is the blueprint or model of the thing to be made in the mind of the artisan. Then there is unformed matter laying there in wait. The artisan then takes this matter up and forms it according to the blueprint he has in his mind. All of nature comes to be conceived in these anthropomorphic and analogical terms, treating God as an artisan that imposes form on unformed and passive matter. Forms are treated as ready-made and pre-existent in the mind of a creator (whether God or an artisan) and matter is treated as awaiting form by virtue of being unformed. Such is the thesis of “hylomorphism” which conceived substance (individuals) as resulting from ideal forms being imposed on passive matters through the agency of an artisan or God.
Darwin’s daring hypothesis– as Dennett puts it –is that design, well engineered and adapted entities, takes place without need of recourse to any Demiurge, Artisan, Architect, or God whatsoever. It is this that his three pillars of evolutionary theory are mobilized to conceptualize. What we thus get are form-generating processes that take place immanent to nature without being guided by any teleology to guide them. Pattern is something that emerges from blind and stupid processes, not something that is directed by any aim at the outset. It is for this reason that nature is not supposed to be any particular thing. There is no aim that directs these processes, no God that “selects” and “arranges”, for example, “eternal objects” or “potentialities” for the sake of “intensifying” being.
Many philosophers that ought to know better still carry vestiges of this hylomorphic theory of pattern and form. Thus, for example, in their analysis of mind and language, Fodor and Chomsky conceive mind as populated by a priori forms or structures that enable cognition and language. Now if this were just the innocent thesis that minds such as ours have evolved these sorts of structures from non-directed, self-organizing processes, this would be no problem. Yet insofar as they make a transcendental argument for the necessity of these structures, they foreclose this genetic/developmental perspective. Yet why should the development of brains be any different than the development of organisms? Why should we posit pre-existent forms in the mind, where we don’t posit them in organisms? Why not instead approach the development of mind-bodies as an undirected, non-teleological process where form/pattern is understood to be an outcome, a product of development, rather than a condition of development?
Too often we continue to look for a designer behind “design”. We explain social formations as arising from ideas (ideology) in the minds of persons (and certainly this is a part of why societies take the form they take, but only a part). We treat large scale institutions like corporations and their behaviors as resulting from leaders and CEOs. We explain the behaviors of governments by reference to leaders and presidents. Etc., etc., etc. Darwin invites us to abandon all of this and analyze the form or pattern assemblages come to embody as the result of processes of design without a designer: as self-organizing and aleatory results of blind and stupid processes.
5) Humans are animals. Darwin’s most controversial and (for some) disturbing thesis is, of course, that humans are animals. In the old theological model of Nature humans were conceived as sovereigns (or in kinder versions “stewards”) of Nature. Divinely created, we were understood to stand at the top of creation as that being closest to God and as that being for which all other being was created. Darwin thoroughly abandons this thesis. Insofar as being is without teleology or aim, humans are, like all other creatures, an accident. If the evolutionary processes that led to us were rewound and started all over again, it’s entirely probable that we wouldn’t come to be. Likewise, as the becoming of being continues apace– as it always and unceasingly does –humans will at some point pass out of existence either through being destroyed as a result of our own agency or the agency of some other cause or we will evolve into something else.
It is sometimes suggested that there is no conflict between theism and evolution. After all, the theist will say, who’s to say how God creates? But this misses the core of the Darwinian hypothesis: evolution is without any aim, goal, purpose, or design. It is design without a designer. Those theistic positions that strive to reconcile Darwin and theism still see humanity as an ordained and intended outcome of evolutionary processes. But first, there are no final outcomes of evolution. Second, there are no purposes in evolutionary processes. There’s only what comes to be and what doesn’t. There can be no compromise on this point. Humans are just one more animal among others. We are certainly important to ourselves and would like to preserve ourselves, but we hold no privileged place in nature. We certainly have our own unique capacities, but so does every other organism. We are not, above all, sovereigns of being. Right now, on our planet, that dubious honor continues to belong to bacteria, not humans. Indeed, 90% of our very own bodies is composed of microorganisms. We aren’t even ourselves.
A thoroughgoing posthumanism ought to be Darwinian. On the one hand, this entails overcoming humanistic/theological assumptions that continue to haunt contemporary thought. Such assumptions– often unconscious –are those that imply that there can only be design with a designer, that we can speak of a priorisms as in the case of Chomsky without discussing the genetic/developmental processes that generate forms, patterns, or regularities, that Nature and Culture are entirely distinct, and that there is purposiveness in nature such that there is a way things ought to be. A child’s pacemaker is no more artificial than a hermit crab’s shell. It is perfectly legitimate for us to judge that certain ecosystems should be preserved, that they shouldn’t be destroyed, that we should protect certain species, etc. What is illegitimate is the suggestion that these normative judgments belong to nature itself. 90% of species on this planet that have ever existed are extinct. There have been many different ecosystems (in the precambrian era, for example, the atmosphere was hypersaturated with oxygen, causing great fires during thunder storms and giant insects to evolve). Nature has no preference for Earth and its rich ecosystem over Mars and its desolate wasteland. Nature just is what it does… Including what it does through us and our technologies (we’re just more complicated beavers).
But above all, a thoroughgoing posthumanism is one that dislodges humans from being treated as privileged, special, unchanging sovereigns within being. This doesn’t mean denigrating humans or asserting the rights of everything else over humans. It means recognizing that we’re beings among beings that came into being like other beings and that will pass away. Posthumanism is not a focus on our cyborg nature, nor a focus on animals; though these are certainly interesting posthumanist themes. No, posthumanism is the recognition that we are not sovereign beings within existence, that we aren’t those beings to whom being is given, that we aren’t the cosmic stewards of beings, but that we are beings among minerals, stars, planets, neutrinos, bacteria, viruses, plants, animals, fungi, technologies, and much else besides. Posthumanism is the recognition that there’s far more to being than us.