Thursday, March 12, 2015

Platonic Biology

Theodosius Dhobzhansky famously wrote that “nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.”  I gather that Dhobzhansky, an Orthodox Christian, was arguing against creation scientists and other critics of Darwinian Theory.  I agree with him and will add one more step.  Nothing in Darwinian Theory makes sense except in light of Plato. 
Plato’s Socrates more famously advanced a theory of forms or ideas as a way of making sense of human perception and intelligence.  In a nutshell, the theory goes as follows.  When we perceive a physical object, say a tree, our perception only captures one possible perspective on that object.  Thus the tree looks small from a distance and large up close.  Likewise we see only one side of it at a time.  It is our intelligence, not our perceptions, that informs us that the tree is one object that has not changed as we approach it and circle around it.  That one tree is in fact invisible to the eye and visible only to the intelligence. 
We also notice that the tree itself does seem to change over time‑gray and leafless in November but green and flourishing in June.  Yet it is still this same tree: an object that is one thing and another as it extends across the dimension of time.  Likewise, we recognize this tree and another tree as one and the same kind of thing because our intelligence informs us of a pattern that is more persistent that any individual tree.  Plato (or his Socrates) supposed that the pattern was more real than the example because it was more persistent and more knowable. 
Plato’s many critics as well as his misguided disciples (Neoplatonists, for example) neglected to notice that Socrates usually qualified his speculations by saying that it is only “something like this”.  I think that it is indeed something like this and that a qualified but genuinely Platonic approach is necessary to make sense of Darwinian biology. 
I am working on revising a paper I presented last year in Montreal.  You can see critical comments on the paper by Scott James here and my reply to those excellent comments here.  Some sections of the paper and my argument can be found here, here, and here. 
In this post, I will present some examples of Darwinian ideas that are in fact Platonic ideas.  To begin with, consider this argument: if it’s a mammal, then it’s an animal; it’s a mammal, therefore it’s an animal.  That simple, biological modus ponens recognizes this here organism as an expression of a larger object that extends across time and space.  Individual mice and men come to be in dependence on larger forms that are more persistent across evolutionary time and more pervasive across evolutionary niches at any one time.  That is “something like” what Socrates had in mind. 
Evolutionary theory works exactly the same way that Plato’s theory worked: by recognizing that the caterpillar and the butterfly as well as the butterfly and the moth are, in a very real sense, the same things.  What is real is mostly invisible to the eye but visible indeed to the properly educated intelligence. 
To take another example, natural selection is a robust, Platonic idea.  Although we have no Platonic writings about mathematics, he clearly thought that training in math was essential for philosophy and regarded mathematical concepts as among the most important ideas.  Natural selection is a logical rather than strictly mathematical principle, but it works the same way as such explicit Platonic ideas as justice and the good.  Natural selection is the same thing whether it is shaping pathogens or pacifists, liver cells or lush barflies. 
I will close here with one final example: the pied flycatcher.  The male of this avian species attracts females with the implicit promise he will help provide for her and her young once they are hatched.  He often makes the same promise to a second female, but there is only some much time he can invest and the second female will find that she is cheated.  The female that he supports will spend more time warming eggs and chicks with a payoff of four or five healthy progeny.  The cheated female will be lucky if one or two survive.  The logic of fidelity and adultery are the same whether we are talking about avians or apes.  I am not sure whether Plato would be pleased to admit adultery among the ideas, but this Platonist has no problem. 
In my paper, I argue that political autonomy is another expression of biological autonomy.  All living organisms build walls between inside and outside, self and not-self, and maintain what is inside in resistance against what is outside.  Life is a Russian doll of coalitions, cells in organs, organs in bodies, individuals in tribes.  At every level, the Platonic idea of autonomy is expressed. 


  1. "In my paper, I argue that political autonomy is another expression of biological autonomy. All living organisms build walls between inside and outside, self and not-self, and maintain what is inside in resistance against what is outside. " I think you have got this soo right!
    Thanks bren

    1. Thank you Bren. Now: why have I got it right? Please let me know what you think about this.