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American Annals of the Deaf

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Genetics, Disability, and Deafness

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James was a Darwinian, but he was not a Darwinist, exactly. What he admired about the theory of natural selection was that it did not attempt to ignore the eccentricities of the world, as taxonomical biologists and creationists had tried to do, but built its theory up from them. “It is one of the fortunate points of the general theory which bears [Darwin’s] name,” James wrote when he was a young man, “that the more idiosyncrasies are found, the more the probabilities in its favor grow,” since idiosyncrasies in nature are evidence of the existence of chance variation.11

But James thought that people took the wrong lesson from On the Origin of Species. This is the belief that we see today in popularized evolutionary psychology, the belief that evolutionary science can lay a foundation for norms, that natural selection serves as a kind of “bottom-line” arbiter of merit. This makes the logic of evolution the logic of human values: it suggests that we should pursue policies and honor behavior that are consistent with the survival of characteristics understood to be “adaptive,” and it justifies, as “natural,” certain kinds of coercion. It is therefore a scientific theory for winners: it ratifies every triumphant outcome by explaining it as the result of natural selection. It is a free-market philosophy for organisms.

James believed that scientific inquiry, like any other form of inquiry, is an activity inspired and informed by our tastes, values, and hopes. But this did not, in his view, confer any special authority on the conclusions it reaches. On the contrary: it obligates us to regard those conclusions as provisional and partial, since it was for provisional and partial reasons that we undertook to find them. The mistake is not simply endowing science with an authority it does not merit. It is turning one belief into a trump card over alternative beliefs. It is ruling out the possibility of other ways of considering the case. James believed that the theory of natural selection should be regarded like any other idea—as a hypothesis, good in some situations, not so good in others. It should not be regarded as a basis for values. Natural selection is, after all, a chance process. The bird with the better-adapted beak isn’t smarter or nobler than the other birds; it just lucked out. A characteristic that helps an organism survive may be completely undesirable from every other point of view, and survival in one season can mean extinction in the next. The real lesson of On the Origin of Species for James—the lesson on which he based his own major work, The Principles of Psychology, published in 1890—is that natural selection has produced, in human beings, organisms gifted with the capacity to make choices incompatible with “the survival of the fittest.” There is intelligence in the universe. It is ours. It was our good luck that, somewhere along the way, we acquired minds. They released us from the prison of biology.

After James changed fields from psychology to philosophy, he began developing his idea of pragmatism. In 1907, he published a book with that title, presenting his philosophy to the world. He dedicated it to the British philosopher John Stuart Mill, who, James said, “my fancy likes to picture as our leader, were he alive today.” Mill had died in 1873. A year after his death, one of his last essays was published. It is called “On Nature,” and I close by quoting from the ending of it.

“The word ‘nature,’” Mill wrote, “has two principal meanings: it either denotes the entire system of things, with the aggregates of all their properties, or it denotes things as they would be, apart from human intervention. In the first of these senses, the doctrine that man ought to follow nature is unmeaning; since man has no power to do anything else than follow nature; all his actions are done through, and in obedience to, some one or many of nature’s physical or mental laws. In the other sense of the term, the doctrine that man ought to follow nature, or, in other words, ought to make the spontaneous course of things the model of his voluntary actions, is equally irrational and immoral. Irrational, because all human action whatever consists in altering, and all useful action in improving, the spontaneous course of nature. Immoral, because the course of natural phenomena being replete with everything which when committed by human beings is most worthy of abhorrence, any one who endeavored in his actions to imitate the natural course of things would be universally seen and acknowledged to be the wickedest of men. The scheme of Nature, regarded in its whole extent, cannot have had, for its sole or even principal object, the good of human or other sentient beings. What good it brings to them is mostly the result of their own exertions. Whatsoever, in nature, gives indication of beneficent design proves this beneficence to be armed only with limited power; and the duty of man is to cooperate with the beneficent powers, not by imitating, but by perpetually striving to amend, the course of nature—and bringing that part of it over which we can exercise control more nearly into conformity with a high standard of justice and goodness.”12

These are wise words still.

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