Platonic and non-Platonic Evolution

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Mon, 9 Jun 1997 11:29:50 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Mon, 9 Jun 1997 11:29:50 -0500
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: Platonic and non-Platonic Evolution

>> Timothy/Martha ask, picking up on the end of a post of mine
>> >>They replicate through phemotypes which include
>> >language, rituals, and various cultural artefacts. Most books are probably
>> >better thought of as phemotype than memotype.
>> How does such a view differ from Platonic idealism? I asked this before,
>> to deafening silence as an answer, but sooner or later the issue must be
>> addressed: what do you mean when you, or any memeticist, says that a meme
>> "replicates" and that it "induces" structures of thought, perception, and
>> behavior?<
Hans-Cees Speel>
>In my view platonic ldealism is the opposite of memetics in a way. If
>you see memetics as an evolutionary field, as I do, then it is
>opposite to idealism as Ernst Mayr has noted in his work.
>While idealism sees things as having some 'pure' or 'ideal' core,
>evolutionary approaches (or population thought as Myr calls it)
> notice the variety, and explain from there.
>So all organisms a species in biology would for idealism be referred
>to as variety around an ideal (a key specimen that is kept to record
>a species in museums for instance), while evolutionary theory would
>look at the variety, and try to explain that, seeing the ideal idea
>as nonsense.
>maybe this can help in the discussion on Platonic idealism

TP: Hans-Cees is raising an important issue at the heart of taxonomy. It
is between typological (or "realist") taxonomy and population-based (or
"nominalist") taxonomy on the other. As I understand it, the terms
"realist" and "nominalist" come from Medieval scholasticism and debates
about the nature of genera vs. species, not of living organisms, but of
nouns. Thus, is the word "dog" only a human name ("nomina") for a
collection of individual dogs, or is it the real category (for the
scholastics, a category which existed in the mind of God), of which the
dogs we see are mere copies (or "instances")?

The argument is neither as silly nor as futile as it sounds. For one
thing, the answer tells us what we ought to be studying -- should we be
trying to infer the nature of the "real" Dog and variations on this theme,
or should we see categories (like "dog") as existing only in the human
mind? (I will not discuss theology here, and I set aside what may or may
not exist in the mind of God.) Later, these questions created two sorts
of anatomy, one dealing with "ideal morphology" and the other with
anomalies and variations. You can still find the first in most anatomy
textbooks when they speak of "human" anatomy (meaning the anatomy of a
generic human being, a "type"). Genetics, however, began with nominalism,
and from the very start studied *variation.*

For Darwin, the existence of variation among individuals led to the
postulate of differential survival and reproduction of such variants, and
therefore Darwin saw the driving engines of evolution in a kind of
nominalism (again, the word says that the generic type is only a name, and
that only individuals exist).

However, the evolutionary concept is NOT limited to nominalism. Between
roughly 1880 and 1930, a number of biological writers -- Haeckel among
them, and the last was perhaps William King Gregory in the 1930s --
accepted the "realist" vision. They spoke of the evolution of the "type"
and saw evolution as moving towards the "progressive" improvement of the
type. They also saw, they thought, the "degeneration" of the type in the
simplification and loss of characteristics, e.g., in parasitic animals that
lack many organ systems or have them only in rudimentary form. They also
developed concepts of "orthogenesis" and "telogenesis," referring,
respectively, to the ideas that evolution proceeds across geological time
in straight lines (ortho = straight) or towards an end or goal (telos =
far, meaning a goal far away in future time).

My impression is that these views were held more commonly by
paleontologists and comparative anatomists than by geneticists. Certainly,
the *geneticists* who looked at evolution held a very different view.
These were writers like Sewall Wright and Ronald Fisher, who spent much
time demonstrating mathematically that a *population* of genes will undergo
selection, with gradual changes in *population* level adaptation, but
without any postulate of an "ideal type." (The stress on population is a
marker for their loyalty to the nominalist position.)

When, today, we glibly speak of "neosynthetic" evolutionary theory, we mean
a synthesis of (a) population genetics with its nominalism and (b) the
observed or inferred changes in anatomy and physiology that are the
hallmark of comparative anatomy and the fossil record. The idea is that
such changes are the *result* of gradual and slow selection among small
variations caused by genetic differences. This idea is NOT Darwin's -- he
had no concept of modern genetics, let alone modern poplation genetics --
but arose from writers like Ernst Mayr, Theodosius Dobzhansky, George
Gaylord Simpson, Julian Huxley, and others.

In many ways, the writers of the neosynthetic school have won the day, even
though other views still exist. For example, one could argue that the
current (hot and heavy) debate in evolutionary biology about
"adaptationism" and "stochasticism" reflects the older debate between
realism and nominalism. Adaptationism still carries with it the undertone
of realism in its emphasis on how a population will achieve a single or
predominant "adaptive" peak, and stochasticism still emphasizes that chance
and emergence undermine any effort to speak in purely realist and
adaptationist terms.

Where does Platonism fit in? Realists tend to be Platonists, finding in
Plato a clear expression of the idea that there exists such a thing as The
Dog, from which actual dogs are but deviations. However, as I mentioned,
realism is not incompatible with evolution (although I happen not to be of
that school of thought). It is *perfectly* compatible with Platonism to
assume that the _ideaos_ of The Dog is attracting all real dogs towards
itself across time.

In this view -- which is close to what Teilhard de Chardin held -- the
Platonic ideal is not realized or instantiated in any actual dog, but
represents a sort of magnet towards which the *evolution* of all dogs is
drawn. And as population after population of dogs comes closer and closer
to that ideal, then individual dogs resemble it more and more, with the
result that they will vary less and less from the ideal. (If I understand
Teilhard's terminology, the end-point of perfection is called the "omega.")

If -- note that, IF -- we analogize memetics to population genetics, and
speak of memetics as offering a theory of cultural evolution, then one has
a similar set of choices to make. My own view is strongly nominalist
(whaddya expect? I'm a geneticist) and I tend to see memes as existing in
a population of memes, undergoing various (analogies to) differential
reproduction and survival, with the result that the "meme pool" changes
with time.

However, by NO MEANS is that the only way one can speak of memes and
evolution. Thus, one can postulate a concept of *progress*, and see the
meme pool as moving, unsteadily perhaps but nonetheless moving, towards
certain goals or ends. Now comes a tricky business indeed.

Biologists have rejected the notion of "progress" (= movement towards a
foreordained goal) as involving unacceptable notions of motivation and
purpose. Those seem anthropomorphic.

However, when we speak of memes and human beings who hold them, then we can
legitimately speak of goals, purposes, plans, and progress. The reason is
that human behavior often *does* have goals and purposes. We therefore
cannot reject "progressivism" in memetic evolution in the way biologists
reject it for biological evolution. Indeed, if the memes of progress --
those which say we can and should progress -- exist, then human cultural
evolution is at least in part goal-oriented.

Now, who sets the goal? If we say that the goal is Platonic -- that is,
exists only as an ideal -- then no one can deny that human behavior is,
sometimes, motivated by a desire to achieve ideals. So the Platonic meme
itself is extremely powerful.

Is there a domain *outside* the mind in which such ideals exist as a kind
on non-human higher reality? Personally, I doubt it, but I do not know.
However, it is quite clear that the *meme* of progress makes cultural
evolution appear goal-directed.

The religious individual will (or may) argue that such a meme comes from
God, placed in our minds to draw us to the foreordained goal. But another
individual might hold that the memes of progress are *human* inventions,
and that we direct our own evolution all by ourselves. These, it seems to
me, are quite different visions.

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