I have just finished reading Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, by my old friend and one-time student, Thomas Nagel. I am sorry to say that I did not find it an illuminating or persuasive book, for a variety of reasons. In this brief discussion, I should like to focus on just one, which I think has relevance for a certain kind of philosophy in general, and not just for Tom's book.
Let me begin, somewhat implausibly, by quoting a thirty-year old story from my autobiography about the famous biologist and founder of Sociobiology, E. O. Wilson [pp. 537-540]. I have edited it down a bit.
"A Canadian philosopher, Michael Ruse, asked whether I would like to meet E. O. Wilson. I said sure, and Ruse set it up. It was agreed that I would spend an afternoon in his office, which doubled as his laboratory. In advance of the rendezvous, we exchanged gifts. I sent him, through Michael, a copy of The Poverty of Liberalism, and he sent back a copy of his latest book, Promethean Fire, co-authored by Wilson and Charles Lumsden. The volume, which sits on my shelves today, is inscribed "For Robert Paul Wolff, with warm regards, Edward O. Wilson, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard U., January 25, 1984."
We met in Wilson's office in the Museum. After the usual greetings, he showed me the centerpiece of the office, a large table on which, under a Plexiglas dome, was a bustling, complex ant colony. Wilson banged the side of the table, which set the ants scurrying, and as they poured out of the anthill he pointed out the soldier ants, worker ants, and so forth. I didn't have much in the way of conversation. What can you say about an anthill, after all? So, casting about for something to say, I mused aloud, "I wonder how many ants there are in the entire colony." "Fifteen thousand," Wilson replied. "How can you be sure?" I asked. "I counted them," he said.There are moments in life when the scales fall from your eyes and you suddenly see clearly something that has hitherto been obscured from view. This was one of those moments. I had from time to time reflected on how different the workaday lives are of people in different corners of the Academy, even though we all call ourselves "Professor." Here was E. O. Wilson, the creator of Sociobiology, who thought nothing at all about counting fifteen thousand ants. Had anyone asked me to figure out the number of ants in an anthill, the farthest I would have gone was watching eight or ten walk by and then guesstimating the rest.
To be sure, philosophers sometimes descend to the level of the particular. But our tendency is to go in somewhat the opposite direction. Confronted with the real world, the reflex reaction of philosophers is to ask about possible worlds. It was clear to me that although we were both professors and authors, Wilson and I led lives so utterly different that no real mutual understanding was likely. It was also clear that however much the world might think of Wilson as the tendentious, controversial author of Sociobiology, his real interest was in those ants.When our conversation about the anthill began to drag, Wilson took me into a nearby room in which there were rows of file cabinets. He pulled out a drawer at random to show me a card on which was impaled an ant. The card identified the ant as belonging to one of the more than twenty thousand species of ants that are estimated to exist somewhere or other on the face of the earth. A second éclaircissement illuminated my mind. I had a vision of thousands of English curates and amateur entomologists, each of whom had devoted much of his or her life to searching for, identifying, catching, impaling, and thus nailing down for all time one of those ant species. Here again, I saw clearly how different my field was from Wilson's. Philosophy does not advance by the taking of thousands of tiny steps, assuming for the sake of argument that it advances at all. Instead, ages pass during which little or nothing happens, although thousands of philosophers are doing their best. Then, there is a moment of transformation -- fourth century B. C,. in Greece, or the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Western Europe. Suddenly, the subject leaps forward, changing forever the way we think. But Entomology is not like that at all. Every one of those file cards was the evidence of a worthwhile piece of work, undertaken, completed, and added to our knowledge of the ant. I was properly humbled. After we parted, I reflected that Wilson probably had learned nothing at all from meeting me, but I felt that I had learned a good deal from meeting him."
In the past several years, guided by my sister, Barbara, I have read a number of books on the latest advances in evolutionary biology and molecular biology. The work I have found reported there is truly astounding, both in its detail, in its penetration down to the molecular level, and in its breadth and imagination. Thousands upon thousands of scientists have devoted their lives to studying innumerable species -- their habits, their morphology, their DNA, and such crucially important but obscure matters as the processes inside their cells by which energy is generated and passed along "an energy gradient" to other parts of the cell. One chapter-long discussion that I especially recall concerned the molecular interactions that take place every time a muscle contracts. The process takes pages and pages to describe even in terms suitable for a lay reader like myself, and yet that process is repeated thousands of times a second whenever a muscle, any muscle, contracts [as, for example, when a suite of muscles contract so that I can type these words.]These scientific examinations have been carried out not merely for the human species, but for countless species of spiders, clams, worms, algae, plants, bacteria, fruit flies, fish, and mammals. We -- which is to say the collective scientific community -- now know so much more than we knew even a few years ago, and will know so much more in a few more years, that simply keeping up as an interested lay person requires constant study. My sister, who teaches extraordinary courses on this field in an adult education program in Washington D. C., is forced to assign new books almost every year because a work even two or three years old is out of date.
Tom Nagel undertakes in his slender 128 page book to show that "the materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false," and yet in those pages, there is not a single chapter, a single paragraph, a single sentence, indeed not a single word about all of this extraordinary science. On the face of it, that just cannot be right. Surely one cannot engage with the "Neo-Darwinian conception of nature" without so much as relating a single bit of its substance."Not so," philosophers will reply. "We can examine the logical structure of arguments and grasp their validity or invalidity without imposing on ourselves the tedium of master all those details." Well, maybe so, but I have my doubts. Consider a different example, this one from the medical field of neurology. One of the bits of philosophy put forward back in the day when I was actually reading philosophy was the notion of "contrast terms." It was said that pairs of terms such as "left/right" or "up/down" were defined in relation to one another in such a manner that it was impossible to understand one without understanding the other. Nobody offered any evidence for this claim. Its truth was taken as self-evident. Well, along comes the wonderful neurologist Oliver Sacks, who reports the case of a woman who, having suffered a massive cerebral stroke, lost all understanding of the concept "left" while retaining a complete understanding of the concept "right." She ate only the food on the right half of her plate and complained that the portions were too small. When she made herself up, she only put lipstick on the right half of her lips.
It just seems to me that before Tom Nagel announces that the Neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false, it behooves him to spend a good deal of time immersed in the substance of that conception. Tom makes a good deal of the fact of consciousness [to which he devotes one of his five chapters,] claiming, as you might expect, that consciousness is utterly different in kind from the neurological condition of non-conscious life forms. But he does not talk at all about all the work that has been done tracing, step by step, the neurological development of species that appear to be located somewhere along the continuum between consciousness and non-consciousness. Perhaps had he done so, he would have concluded that his initial instinct was correct. But he does not do the work. And failing to do that work, he is, I think, dismissing and failing to pay attention to all the extraordinary research that is now being done.What then does Tom offer in place of this "almost certainly false" Neo-Darwinian conception? Aristotelian natural teleology! Tom is quite aware that his readers will roll their eyes at this suggestion, but mysteriously, he does not spend any time telling us what precisely he means by natural teleology. That just strikes me as philosophical malpractice. I mean, you cannot write a whole book modestly, tentatively, but nonetheless definitively trashing Neo-Darwinism, and then not even take a few pages to spell out exactly what your hesitantly offered alternative is.
One final point, called to my attention by my son, Patrick. The great philosophers of science in the past -- Aristotle, Leibniz, Descartes, Kant -- were all completely au courant with the latest scienc [and in many cases made important contributions to it]. None of them, I am convinced, would have undertaken to call into question some major theory of their day without discussing in detail the evidence for it.Meanwhile, at my sister's suggestion, I have ordered from Amazon The Art of Being a Parasite by Claude Combes. It is not scheduled to arrive for another two weeks, but when I have read it, I will report to you on what I have learned.