Going overboard with Darwinian analogies


Today’s feedback answers a question by C.H. from the U.S., who wrote:

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I am a student at [a state university], and am currently enrolled in a course titled: "Contemporary Rhetorical Theory."

We spend most of our time analyzing the lives and theories of renowned rhetoricians from the 20th century, and their impact on our view of rhetoric.

We are discussing Stephen Toulmin and it is very interesting. He calls for the emancipation of Practical Argumentation and one of his ideas was to use evolutionary theory as his argument for such. He claimed something called, "conceptual evolution." Essentially, that our scientific views must "innovate", and "select", by adaptation and the strongest views, "survive." 

My question however, is what does this have to do with evolution? Evolution has much more to it than simple, adapting to your environment and innovation? 

Why are so many concepts being equated with or compared to biological evolution? It's like evolution has its hands in everyone's cookie jar, so to speak, even things like rhetoric.

CMI’s  responds:

Hi C.H.,

Yes, I understand that it can be frustrating to hear virtually any and every type of change treated as if it were analogous to biological (microbes-to-man) evolution. Darwinism wields a great deal of cultural influence, and so people often try to ride its coattails by applying associated concepts to other fields. So we hear about the ‘evolution’ of culture, fashion, technology, law, language, morality, religion—even the evolution of dance, and more.

Now, this isn’t necessarily inappropriate in every case, because the word ‘evolution’ can simply mean change, and sometimes there are genuine parallels with the ideas upon which neo-Darwinian evolution depends, like natural selection, etc. For instance, in your description of Toulmin’s ‘conceptual evolution’, the legitimate parallel is that no person is overseeing and orchestrating which ideas become accepted and flourish. It just happens organically as some ideas stick, because people tend to find them compelling, or for whatever reason.

However, one should not push the parallel too far, because it’s actually disanalogous in many respects. For one thing, ‘conceptual evolution’ is not a mindless process. People rationally deliberate (even if influenced by other factors) and ‘select’ those scientific ideas which they think are true. But Darwinian evolution is supposed to work without a mind at all. Also, scientific ideas don’t reproduce—at least not in the same sense that living things do. Richard Dawkins’ concept of the meme, for example, has been criticized along these lines because it depends too heavily on an imperfect analogy with genes.

A classic example of this kind of mistake was committed by evolutionist Tim Berra, in a book where he claimed that Corvettes provided an analogy for evolution, given how they gradually changed through the years. But Philip Johnson dubbed this ‘Berra’s Blunder’ since the changes in the Corvettes were due to the innovation of human designers, not reproduction and blind, goalless natural selection.

The worst offenders of this overreach, though, are those evolutionists for whom evolution is an all-encompassing explanation for every feature of the universe. For example, in Evolution: not just about biology, I quoted Julian Huxley’s declaration that

"all aspects of reality are subject to evolution, from atoms and stars to fish and flowers, from fish and flowers to human societies and values—indeed, … all reality is a single process of evolution.”

This isn’t a deduction from the scientific (or any other type of) evidence, but a religious dogma being imposed on the evidence. So, sometimes, the reason people see evolution everywhere is that they have a pre-commitment to explaining the world without reference to the Creator.

In any case, I’m glad you’re critically evaluating such things, and making distinctions where others are not as careful.

Published: 7 November 2015