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Darwin As Existentialist

March 7, 2013

I have been thinking about writing a post entitled “Darwin As Existentialist” for some time now, but have not figured how to develop the idea. Fortunately, on a blog ideas don’t have to be developed, in fact it is probably better if they are not. The sense of existentialism I have in mind is captured in Sartre’s slogan “existence precedes essence.” This just as well could have been a slogan for Darwin. He showed how the essences of organisms — the jellyfishness of a jellyfish, the mammalianism of mammals, the defining characteristics of a Lesser Black-Backed Gull or Blue-footed Booby — are the consequence of the cumulative adventures of successive individual organisms. If a booby, finding itself blue-footed, asks why, the only complete answer would be to point to its long chain of ancestors and their particular life-journeys. Those blue feet were earned the hard way, by the sustained moment-by-moment existence and reproduction of living things themselves. No essential force or principle was there to help them along or guide them on their way.

Fortunately for our understanding, if not for for that of the small-brained booby, patterns and tendencies can be found among the innumerable life-courses of organisms, allowing for generalizations, most particularly the great generalization of “adaptation.” But existence had to precede this essence. Every living thing has to face the question of existence, and evolution cannot answer that question for it.

Evolution is not what produces but what is produced.

So I am not sure exactly where I want to go with this or where it can take me. Darwin As Existentialist may not turn out to be a fruitful approach to the issue of evolution after all.  But I certainly do think that a lot of what passes for evolutionary thought these days is quite bad, and that a lot of what is wrong with it has to do with false essentialism. Darwin’s thought began in adventure. Not just the great adventure of The Beagle, but also the quieter adventures of solitary strolls through the English countryside, searching conversations with fellow naturalists, and long hours spent engrossed in books and specimens. Adventures of the mind. As we pursue this line of thought we should keep this adventurous spirit, and be generous enough to extend it to the subjects of our consideration, the organisms themselves. To appreciate their existential adventures. To appreciate them not as the pawns of evolution but its makers.

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