Lisa's post on evolution -Reply

Howie Chodos howie at
Wed Aug 2 22:38:06 MDT 1995

First, let me apologise in advance for the length of this post and the
extent of citation from three different posts.

>From Lisa's most recent post:

>Howie, it seems to me that you are talking about morality, but I
>wasn't.  Discussion of how genetic change occurs is a far cry from
>drawing any normative conclusions/implications.  I certainly haven't
>intended any so far, I'd be willing to discuss it, but I consider it
>a separate topic from genetic evolution per se.

I am glad you came back to our unfinished questions, even though I, too,
have felt that we were involved in talking past one another at times. Here
is a case in point, I think. Part of my argument is precisely that in
translating lessons gleaned from the study biological/genetic evolution to
the social domain we must take into account the causal efficacy of the moral
dimension. We act out of belief that some behaviours are better than others
for reasons that have little to do with individual reproductive success.

My starting point for this discusssion was your remark in your post to which
I was responding. You had written:


>doesn't distinguish between various causes of death, be it frostbite,
>warfare or predators.  Differential death can still result in genetic
>change, even if it is only in certain social environments.  (This is
>one of the reasons that I do not distiguish between
>material/social/environmental when talking about one's circumstances. <<<<<<

I was taking issue with the idea that one should not "distiguish between
material/social/environmental when talking about one's circumstances". In
order to explain why I disagreed with this formulation I have been trying to
show that there are differences between evolution in the human and non-human
worlds, in terms of the causes of death. My point is that once the issue of
"social" causes is raised one cannot avoid looking at moral questions.

Back now to your most recent post:

>I'm puzzled by your view that knoledge of "the location of the
>boundary" between modern humans and our ancesors "will tell us
>something about what it means to be human".  You mean location in
>time, I think?  IMO that is not what archeology/paleontology are for
>or about.  Perhaps you could give an example of "what it means to be
>human" ?
>Also, to me a transition is not a boundary, because a transition can
>take a very long time and it is easy to be in the middle of one and
>not know it.  Evol. transitions are only defined in hindsight, in
>relations to categories invented in hindsight.  "Transitions" can
>take longer than the before and after stages last.  Boundaries are
>more discrete, narow lines, and both are problematic to define.

I agree that there are no easy definitions here. Public fascination with
stories about the search for human origins in the fossil record says to me
that whether or not archaeology/paleontolgy intend to be about such
questions, they certainly are about them in the public mind. But, even
independently of the public interest, it seems to me to be one of the
concerns of these disciplines (from the vantage point of an outsider, to be
sure) is to try to answer the question of how the transition from hominid to
human took place, no matter over what time frame.

This again links back to previous discussions we've had about the concept of
qualitative change. What I mean by using the term boundary is that
regardless of how small the increments, there comes a moment when a
qualitative change takes place. (It makes no difference whether we only
become aware of this change having taken place after the fact). I think in
terms of the trivial example of water boiling, so maybe my whole argument is
trivial. A change occurs when it reaches its boiling point, which
qualitatively alters the substance in question and its relationship to its
environment. This does not have to mean that all the properties of a
substance are qualitatively transformed, just as the water molecules are not
qualitatively changed in the boiling water example.

If we can define the boundary between human and pre-human we define that
which distinguishes us from them. It certainly does not come about
overnight. "Lucy" is over 3 million years old and Homo Sapiens about
100,000, or something like that. I don't by any means think that I have a
complete answer to the question of what it means to be human. However, to
have the capacity to know that one is acting according to a conception of
the good is a feature that our species possesses that I cannot imagine
attributing to any other known species. I could probably be persuaded that
any act which involves this kind of second-order reasoning is uniquely
(given our present knowledge) human. If this is so, then to have the
capacity to engage in it is to be human. Whether this is sufficient to
define "human" I do not know, but it does seem to me to necessarily be part
of any such definition.

Once again from your most recent post:

>"Cultural selection" is not a "single explanation", it is proposed
>[not by me] as a *mechanism of cultural change [including zero
>change]*, which is the way in which [selective] causes are turned
>into [cultural] effect.  It allows for any number of "causes" to come
>into it, although translated into its own terms.  But when you talk
>about "good or bad causes" you really lose me.  And "good or bad
>reasons" for the same behavior - ?  Did you simply intend to change
>the subject - that's okay with me if so, it's just not clear to me
>how good or bad anything would enter a discussion of evolution.

It only enters if you accept my argument above that any notion of social (or
cultural) evolution must come to terms with the moral dimension of human
life. But I found it very hard to follow our discussion from the parts that
you quoted. I'm sorry for re-quoting, but as you point out it was a while
ago. I wrote back then (citing Lisa from a previous post in the first


>Some propose that cultural evolution works by group selection, while
>genetic evolution does not, and that this insight explains puzzling
>features of societies, such as conformity within groups and
>difference between groups.  I think there are easier, better
>explanations, so I don't quite buy it.  From what I've seen, I find
>it not contradictory with my own views, but unnecessary.

Are there single explanations for phenomena such as "conformity within
groups and differences between groups"? Is there not more than one plausible
reason for group conformity so that one can never be sure in advance whether
the underlying cause is a good or a bad thing? In some instances people will
conform for relatively good reasons, in others for relatively bad ones. And
this applies not only to moral judgments, but even if one defines good and
bad simply in terms of survival. Sometimes conformity will result in
survival, sometimes it will result in death. <<<<<<

My reference to "good and bad reasons" was in reference to your raising the
issue of the possibility of explaining conformity. I was trying to suggest
that there are different reasons for conforming and that some of them can
produce beneficial results and others not. An example of beneficial results
from conformity would be winning a strike because of the tight solidarity
mainted by the strikers. There are many examples of the reverse, from
acquiescing to immoral acts on the part of one's government, to closing
one's mind to potentially beneficial ideas on the grounds that they threaten
the beliefs of one's community.

I hope this at least clarifies some of the points that I thought I was
responding to, even if it wasn't what you ended up hearing.

Howie Chodos

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