Miscellany: On teleology and evolutionary theory, the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, and other topics

On teleology and evolutionary theory:

There is an extremely significant point to consider in respect to the premise that the genome is conserved through an individual organism’s interaction with its environment while the epigenome can undergo changes brought about directly by that organism’s action and interaction with(in). This is a straightforward and uncontroversial characterisation of these terms. To this it can be added that the given potentialities for behaviour that any organism possesses will determine its “fitness” in respect to a given environment. “Adapt and breed, or die and perish.” This principle of “natural selection” is understood to be the primary factor responsible for evolution of that organism’s genome according to the so-called “Neo-Darwinian synthesis” view. In other words, if we ask where the genome comes from, the answer is that it is the heritage from the reproductively successful members of the prior generation. Again, the reproductively successful members of a given generation, from which the genome of the next generation are inherited, are those members which are assumed to have been able to draw on potentialities of behaviour best-suited to their environment, broadly construed. And yet, at the same time, the epigenome—operating within the comparatively broad constraints of the given genome—is the primary factor responsible for the given potentialities of behaviour that that organism possesses. Genes only code for proteins if they are active and the genome does not code for activity of itself. Instead the epigenome serves this role of determining the activity or latency of given genes. This suggests a reciprocal interaction of the genome and epigenome. Behavior determines and provides for reproductive fitness which determines the genome which is modulated by the epigenome which is established by behavior. Notice this series ends where it begins. This connection reveals the active role that an organism contributes in shaping the evolution of its own species and further establishes the necessity of including epigenetics in any accurate concept of evolution. 


I never doubted that evolutionary theory could account for any given phenomenon in biology. And psychology. And sociology, and politics etc. In a rudimentary sense, it can account for everything that exists, like planets and nebulae, by saying that “only what has avoided non-existence has been capable of propagation through time.” In any case, that evolutionary theory can explain any biological phenomenon is not special with that theory; in principle, any theory has to be able to account for observed phenomena. The result is that most theories are magnificently plastic. (I don’t mean to deride Darwinism by calling it a “theory.” Instead, I understand it as a way of ordering observations into intelligible perceptions. The theory allows for the recognition of a “signal” amidst the “noise.”) 

I think people like Talbott are responding to the sense that scientists are methodologically isolating one aspect of phenomena and then retroactively extrapolating this model back onto their perception and conception of the world as such. This is certainly how I see it. Why do you think teleology is wrong, in principle, anyway? It seems like a strange move to invoke Occam’s Razor in a situation where you, and just about everyone else, concedes that life seems purposeful. Somehow you would have to know a priori that teloi did not exist to be able to resist the inclination to accept believing their apparent a posteriori appearance in every living thing.

Anyway, I’m not sure if you want anything from me. Again, I appreciate the time you took to craft such a response. It has not changed my mind in any fundamental way any more than it would if someone told me the colour yellow did not really exist merely because I needed eyes to see it. Scientists have been saying this since at least Galileo, Descartes, and Locke, and I think they have been wrong about it since they started saying it.


The sequence you described of Darwin’s progression from observation, to evidence, to theory is clearly in line with the empirical ideal of science and I think it is partly accurate. At the same time, we have to wonder: how did Darwin know what to observe in the first place, and how did he recognise which of these observations constituted evidence, if not for the guidance of the theory, which in your description, was the outcome of these processes and not their guide? What is evidence for other than for a theory? It makes little sense to think of evidence in abstracto. The term is always correlative to some theory just like “outside” implies “inside.” The manner in which theory conditions observation just as much as observation supports theory is something I have been trying to emphasise in this course. Darwin himself remarked in his autobiography, “All observation must be for or against a point of view.”


In respect to where the purposes are coming from: that question allows itself to be distinguished from the question of whether they are there altogether. Teloi (plural of telos) seem self-evident in living things and proponents of teleology argue that they are. Again, recall Aristotle’s illustration of teleology in the acorn, which does not transform “by chance” or “by random evolution,” but rather according to a very distinct and intelligible series of stages that is clearly ordered to some end or telos (i.e. the oak). 


Appealing to unfathomable amounts of time is a cop-out because, without teleology, whether immanent or transcendent, there is nothing to initiate, nor provide the conditions for, the process of evolution in the first place. Monkeys will not type Hamlet, especially if they don’t exist yet.

Contrary to popular scientific trends, I don’t think “models” are interchangeable with “evidence.” The computer simulations show what they are designed to show according to the inputs, variables, and functions, etc.

Whether evolution is a theory: I think you are differentiating “theory” from “fact” but I don’t think that makes any sense. Steiner does a good job outlining this in his epistemological words under the rubric of “concept” and “percept.” Darwin himself observed that ““All observation must be for or against a point of view,” as I think you are aware. The point of view is the theory or concept that provides for the recognition of evidence as such. Otherwise you have only “noise” with no criterion to differentiate it from “signal.”

It is an open question to what degree observations from virology can be extrapolated to other entities, especially given that viruses are not ordinarily classified as living things at all. But supposing this were true: we have still not really observed evolution, which is to say, the emergence of new life forms out of pre-existing ones. The same distinction between micro-evolution, which is well-documented both by observation and by fossil record, and macro-evolution, which is not and yet which must be presumed as a fundamental tenet of evolutionary theory. 

The loftiest words have the farthest to fall:

“Realism,” for instance, once referred to the reality of ideas and now it means the reverse of this. “Nature” once meant both “birth” or “origin” and “essence” and now means “the outcome of blind processes of selection in respect to reproductive fitness.” “Enlightenment” once referred to a spiritual illumination while the historical epoch with which it has been affiliated was one of the most superficial and scientistic periods in history and as a result the term has inverted its meaning into almost the opposite.

“Your glory, O Israel, lies slain on your heights. How the mighty have fallen!” (2 Samuel 1:19)

On God and objectivity:

As a passing remark, I can’t help but be struck by the oddity of the times in which we find ourselves. That you presage your statement about God, who is understood by any thinking person to be the cause and standard of both objectivity and subjectivity alike, by indicating that what follows will be “a personal note,” reminds me of the moment in Book VII of Plato’s Republic in which Socrates has just set the scene for the famous Allegory of the Cave and one of his interlocutors (Glaucon) exclaims, “what a strange image! And what strange prisoners!”

“Like ourselves,” Socrates replies.

People that cannot see the continuity between the Good of Plato, the One of the Neo-Platonists, and God of the Christians are blinded and people who deny the reality of any—and by the same token, all—of these are blind. 

De utilitatem mortis:

I wonder if death serves a function in respect to our consciousness analogous to that which a screen plays in respect to a cinema projector or opaque matter in the universe plays in respect to light. Namely, the former provides a “screen” by which the latter is displayed or made manifest. Light, for example, only becomes visible when it encounters “resistance” in the form of opaque matter. If this were not the case, the night sky would be shining brighter than a thousand suns. Perhaps we could not have experience if it were not bounded and thereby “mirrored” back to us from our final end. 

On the second paragraph in Declaration of Independence:

I think you offered a very lucid analysis of the term “equality” in the context of the Declaration of Independence. It has been my observation that many people find it difficult to arrive at the understanding that you appear to have achieved so effortlessly. I think it is very challenging for people today to think in terms of principles. In the absence of principles, measurement is employed to stand in as a kind of “crutch.” As far as I can tell, this way of thinking about the notion of equality always tends to lead to envy and thence to conflict.


From a certain standpoint, The Declaration of Independence enshrines a sort of psychological curse by promulgating the “inalienable right to…the pursuit of happiness.” I have in mind a critique similar to the one that Plato levies against all desires in the absence of wisdom to order them towards their proper ends. The result is that people will inevitably chase after what merely seems good rather than what is good. One manner in which these two ends can be distinguished is that what merely seems to be good will ensure that the pursuit of happiness will always fail to result in enduring fulfilment or eudaimonia and thus will continue interminably with no real terminus ad quem. Nietzsche has a very funny way of putting it:

“What the English call ‘comfortable’ is something endless and inexhaustible. Every condition of comfort reveals in turn its discomfort, and these discoveries go on for ever. Hence the new want is not so much a want of those who have it directly, but is created by those who hope to make profit from it.”


You rightly observed that the scope of the Founder’s intention with the phrase “all men are created equal” was severely limited by our standards and has since been expanded to encompass demographics that were formerly excluded. The so-called “Three-fifths Compromise” was not written in the Declaration, which was directed towards England, but in the Constitution, which was published amongst the former colonies and henceforth “United States.” Aside from the fact that it would have been irrelevant to outline prospective legislations that the colonies intended to establish to the country from which they were seceding, I think this is also fortunate because, given that the Three-fifths Compromise was written in the Constitution, it was also subject to amendment in virtue of being part of that document. And indeed it was overturned with the 14th Amendment. You opined that teasing people with the promise of “equality” made them more tractable and susceptible to manipulation. I see where you are coming from here but I am also left to wonder whether it is not far more significant that this famous statement actually provided something like a “North Star” towards which to orient future social and political development. It is not at all clear to me that something like the Three-fifths Compromise would ever have been overturned if not for precisely this same promise of equality that you seem to have categorically interpreted as a subterfuge. I think the same goes for all of the great civil rights victories in the history of this country. Every civil rights leader has been able to appeal to principles established by this country which the same country is not living up to and this lends both a moral and political force to the movements. Can you see what I am getting at here? I would like to hear your response and please correct me if I have failed to follow your line of argument.

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