Darwin and the Illusion of Separate Species

The American Pragmatists were all profoundly influenced by Darwin’s publication of “On the Origin of Species.” The originators of Pragmatism, including Charles Sanders Peirce who coined the term and William James who popularized it, were all part of an intellectual circle called The Metaphysical Club. This discussion group met for a short while during the 1870’s and Darwin’s conception of evolution was definitely one of the defining elements of their conversations.

In my last few posts I have stated that the idea of continuity was central and essential to the thinking of the Pragmatists. And that core of thought can be seen in Darwin’s conception of species transmutation. Darwin, in studying species of birds on the Galapagos Islands, noticed that the distinction between one species and another were at times nearly impossible to make. In “On the Origin” he writes that after studying bird species closely he was “much struck by how entirely vague and arbitrary is the distinction between species and varieties.” He goes on to say that “the term species thus becomes a mere useless abstraction, implying and assuming a separate act of creation.”

What Darwin recognized was that we think of species as well defined separate life forms with clear boundaries between them, but in fact the line that separates one species from the next is often blurry and at times arbitrary. A species is really an abstract idea constructed from an imagined set of characteristics that often don’t appear in reality as distinctly as we imagine them to be.

Darwin began to see that animal species fall in a continuum. That one species seemed to blur into the next. And he realized – although found it difficult to accept at first – that each species was not created independently. They developed one into the next in a chain of development called Evolution. Coupled with his theory of Natural Selection, which explained how this change could occur without a God to guide it, made this a revolutionary idea to rival Copernicus’s discovery that the Earth revolved around the Sun.  

The idea that species evolved was embraced wholeheartedly by the early Pragmatic thinkers. It fit perfectly with their modernist mentality that was passionate about progress and development. They applied this same conception of development to the realm of ideas. Their insistence that the truth of an idea was not a characteristic of the idea in itself, but had to be proven by putting the idea into action, was in a sense a way of applying the law of natural selection to thinking. Only those ideas that proved fittest would survive.

Darwin realized that a species was really an abstract conception for a collection of characteristics. Similarly John Dewey in the reflex arc article that has been the topic of my last two posts, realized that the terms “stimulus” and “response” were abstract conceptions for collections of characteristics.

Darwin in biology and the Pragmatists in philosophy were beginning to see through the illusion of absolute distinction between objects and revealing a deeper fluidity to reality.  They were thrilled to see one continuous universe constantly unfolding into the future, developing as it went along. And they were determined to understand the mechanisms of that unfolding so that they could apply it to support the future progress of humanity.