Wednesday, July 13, 2016
Explanation and Teleolgy 1
I have been reading Mariska Leunissen’s Explanation and Teleology in Aristotle’s Science of Nature. I am just getting into it, but it looks to be the best book on the Philosopher I have read in years.
What got me thinking tonight is Leunissen’s discussion of the analogy between teleological explanations applied to natural and artificial production. An example of the former would be the production of an oak tree out of an acorn. An example of the latter, the production of a table out of oak boards. Leunissen points out three aspects of this analogy:
First, in both cases the means or intermediate steps are complementary and adjusted for the sake of producing the end product. The sprouting of the sapling and the planning of the wood are both guided by the end that the processes is aiming at.
Second, both are cases of specialization. Acorns produce oaks and not oats; wood wrights, acting in that capacity, may produce tables but not tablet computers.
Third, production is reliable in both cases. When supplied with all the necessary conditions (there is plenty of room for failure and accident), both the acorn and the wood wright will achieve their purposes.
What is most interesting to me in this is the second point, for it connects Aristotle’s understanding with the evolutionary account of the history of life. The diversity of life is largely a result of specialization of function. Indeed specialization is a synonym for adaptation in this case. Some creatures are very specialized. They can exist in only very specific environments and perhaps eat only one kind of food. Other creatures are extraordinarily flexible, able to respond in distinct and adaptive ways to a wide range of environments. Human beings are, very probably, on the extreme end of this scale.
It is probably the case that the earliest forms of life were very specialized. Each reproductive act resulted in an almost identical organism adapted to a very local environment. Such organisms could respond to changes in the environment or migrate to different environments only when their lineages diverged into new forms by means of mutation and natural selection. Organism A for environment A; organism B for environment B, etc. All organisms must be responsive to their environments; however, the only means such organisms as these had to test their forms was by life and death.
At some point organisms emerged that could alter their behavior and even their forms in more significant ways in response to changes in the environment. Such organisms could find the successful behavior by trial and error, rather than simply perishing or not. That means that they became capable of multiple specializations. I see the result of this in my backyard. When I walk out, a rabbit will respond first by freezing. That’s one specialization. If that doesn’t seem to work, she will run like Hell. That’s another.
I think that this allows us to place human arts within (or at one extreme of) the spectrum of evolutionary history. A wood wright specializes in wood work; however, he specializes in a lot of other things as well. He specializes in communication with other human beings, in living in a particular climate, etc. He may specialize in physical fitness if he spends a little time in the gym. We are generally good at specializing.
Natural reproduction is much more restricted. Human couples specialize in producing human infants more or less like themselves. To be sure, environmental factors will affect the offspring, even in the womb. Some of these responses may be adaptive, though most that we know of are not. For the most part, with respect to natural production, we are in the same boat as the Ur organisms: our offspring survive or they don’t.
The value of joining Aristotle’s approach with that of modern biology is that it breaks down the barrier between the arts and sciences and the flowering of natural organisms without reducing the one to the other. Culture and nature are not two distinct realms. Culture is a product of the human capacity for multiple specializations and that is the most remarkable result of the evolutionary expansion of organismal forms into the design space that was available for them. Aristotle’s analogy shows why we need not draw a wall of protection between the human things and nature.