Pragmatism as a Response to Darwin

Pragmatism as a Response to Darwin, Lecture Mar 5, 2011

Recently I traveled to Atlanta Georgia where I had been invited to Oglethorpe University to speak about the relationship between the ideas of Charles Darwin and the American philosophy of Pragmatism. I used two ideas that were central to Darwin as the core of what I wanted to convey. Those ideas were “the continuity of species” and the theory of “natural selection.” These ideas captured the imaginations of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James who were the original founders of the Pragmatism.

The notion of the “continuity of species” rests on the recognition that there are no hard boundaries that divide one animal species from the next. We imagine that animals come in distinct types, but when we look closely all the individual members of a species are unique and if we look even more closely we find that it becomes exceedingly difficult to determine exactly where one species ends and the next begins. There always seems to be some individual examples of every organism that fall impossibly in between one species and another. What Darwin realized is that species do not come in discrete types. Rather, all species are part of a single fluid progression of life. Life itself is a flow and species are high points of concentration along that developmental chain.

Natural Selection is the theory that explains how these ‘high points’ come about. Random mutations, Darwin believed create unique individuals. Some of these individuals have characteristics that make them better adapted to survive. These individuals live longer and are more likely to pass on their traits to off spring. Eventually all of the individuals will have these new favorable traits and a new species – or ‘high point’ in the chain of life – is born.

The Pragmatists were completely captivated by this vision of a universe that was continuous and that evolved through a process of minute changes that propagate forward through time. In essence they saw all of reality as a continuous evolving flow that relentlessly self-generates through changes that carry on into the future. They wanted to take Darwin’s model of evolution and apply it to absolutely everything so that they could create a theory that could describe every aspect of the universe from the physical to the spiritual as a singular evolving event.

It seems that many of the students at Oglethorpe are studying Darwin this semester and so there were over 100 people in attendance – a strong showing for a small university. The talk I gave was well received by students, faculty and also interested individuals from the local community. The lecture itself was 45 minutes long and I am including it here for those of you who might want to listen to it.

Pragmatism a Response to Darwin