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The book "Mutual Aid" by Kropotkin bears on this question, because it counters the argument of the red-in-tooth-and-claw survival of the fittest.


Nature may very well favor charity, without needing God, though you could argue that God favors charity, and that is why He embedded the reward of it in nature itself.


Thanks for digging up that five-year-old post; these questions vex me now just as much as then.

On the subject of norms being "inscribed" in species -- you give the example of a deer with deformed limbs being a "bad" deer -- the Darwinian scientific materialist has a nominalistic way of looking at it that skirts the Aristotelian difficulties you explore in your post. Here's what one of them might say:

"We will all agree, I think, that the bodies of animals are exquisitely shaped in ways that allow them to perform various mechanical functions with high, or even optimal, efficacy. (I'm trying my best to avoid teleological language here, but it's tricky.) These physical features are not, however, found randomly scattered from individual to individual (this unique critter has wings and fangs and gills, while this one over here has claws, a silk-gland, and one webbed foot, etc.); it seems, rather, there there is a large, but finitely instantiated, collection of ensembles of features that, put together in the same animal, form a coherent system that causes it to survive well enough to reproduce. We might think of each of these ensembles as a kind of 'sweet spot' of mechanical operation, and when the process of mutation and selection hits on one of these collections of features it ends up, due to all that reproducing, being common enough in the world that we pick it out as a 'species'. (These "sweet spots" don't come from any Platonic ideal; they just emerge from the swirling chaos of the natural environment and the collisions of flora and fauna, and the conditions that favor them come and go over time.)

All that any of this means, though, is that there is in the world a collection of animals, each member of which is a twig on the kin-tree of animals that share this ensemble of features. It's quite obvious that a deformed wing will not allow its owner to fly, but it is only a projection of our minds, which clearly see that the wing is "for" flying (which of course it is, because it is the result of a process that has mindlessly selected, by differential reproduction, for more effective wings!) to imagine that it's a normatively "bad" wing, because it somehow lets down "the species". In the actual world, it's just a wing that doesn't fly, and the bird it's attached to will probably die.

In short, then, animals are clustered into various "islands" of body-types, which represent systems that reproduce well; we like to call these clusters "species", but really there are only individuals, some of which have fangs that deliver venom well, wings that beat the air effectively, etc., and some that don't.

So: the only telos in view -- and we probably shouldn't even call it that -- is the bottom-up process that winnows bodies by trial and death. When a body-type appears that survives well enough to reproduce, individuals with that sort of body become more numerous. But there's nothing magical, and arguably nothing even real, about a 'species'."

On a view like this, is there any footing in nature for normativity? If so, I can't see it.


The "coherent system" which, when instantiated, results in a viable organism is, in my understanding, what Platonists and Aristotelians mean by "species" - not the collection of organisms who instantiate it. And that some ensembles of features do form such coherent systems, while others don't, is not a mere projection of our minds into a chaotic world, but a mind-independent fact; the subject, indeed, of the science of biology. If such systems did not exist biology would be an empty field of study.

And there is space for normativity here. An organism that fails to instantiate any of those coherent systems cannot feed itself or reproduce, and is therefore bad as an organism, since to be organic just is to have a telos to sustain oneself and reproduce. An organ placed within an organism, where it needs to serve a specific function for that organism to instantiate a coherent system, is bad as an organ if it cannot serve that function - the deformed wing of that unfortunate bird.

That evolution finds the coherent systems called "species" by random processes is no argument against the existence of such systems as Platonic or Aristotelian forms. Thinking it does merely interprets final and formal causation as a variety of efficient causation - reading "wings are made for flight" as an explanation of how they came to be, instead of what they do.


You raise good points against the scientific-materialist view I presented (which was more or less my own view, until ten or fifteen years ago).

One objection that the Darwinist might raise is that the "sweet spots" we're talking about -- the peaks in "design space" that represent coherent systems with high fitness and a likelihood of success -- are not static over time, as one would expect Platonic forms to be; as I had my hypothetical Darwinist say in the comment above, "they just emerge from the swirling chaos of the natural environment and the collisions of flora and fauna, and the conditions that favor them come and go over time."

Most species that have ever existed (indeed, very nearly all) have gone extinct, as the niches they were optimized for have vanished. To the materialist this makes the idea of a "species" seem much more a temporary manifestation of continuously changing circumstances than anything ideal, abstract, and timeless.

That said, though, there are indeed aspects of biology (e.g., photosynthesis, cellular machinery, etc.) that are far more universal, and far more ancient, than this or that species.

Perhaps the way to square all this up from an Aristotelian perspective is to imagine that the pre-existing space of ideal species is very vast indeed -- vast enough that all the species that ever were, or ever could be, are "out there" somewhere, even if only a vanishingly small fraction of them will ever come into being.


A reply to that objection: it confuses "peaks in the fitness function" with "species". It would entail that the disappearance of a species' ecological niche just is the extinction of that species. For example, when the Chuxculub meteor fell and radically altered the Earth's environment, making it impossible for most dinosaurs to survive, we would have to say the dinosaur species immediately went extinct, although the dinosaurs themselves were (at first) still alive. But this is absurd.

An analogous argument would be: at some times a carpenter needs a hammer, and at other times he needs a saw. As the fitness of a hammer for use varies with the carpenter's intentions, therefore hammers are only hammers if nails are available, becoming mere random lumps of metal when there aren't any. Would even a materialist accept that argument?

Hi Michael,

Well, the nominalist would just say that what we like to call a "species" was a collection of individual animals, related by kinship, that have a distinct enough design (which reflects a temporary ecological niche defined by selection pressure) that we can parse the collection as a separate category. But even this is awfully vague at the edges.

If you will forgive me for linking this here, way back in 2006 (when many of my metaphysical views were quite different from what they are now), I wrote a couple of brief posts about this; the first of the two was about how species can make loops in both time and space, and the second was about the difficulties of discreteness in biology.

The first item looks at a curious fact about seagull species and their spatial distribution (in which two clearly distinct species fade and merge in different parts of the world), and I think it presents some difficulties for the idea of species-as-Platonic-forms.

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