By Liah Greenfeld
It is hard to exaggerate Darwin’s contribution to the understanding of the world around us. Biology, the science of life, came into existence solely thanks to his theory of evolution through natural selection. The interest in life is very old, of course, and many attempted to study organic phenomena, but their study produced nothing but typologies and classifications, i.e., systematic descriptions of their subject matter, without explaining anything about it: biology was not a science and, not being a science, it did not progress.
The main reason for this stagnation of knowledge about one of the most important aspects of our reality was that the philosophical assumptions underlying the view of life did not allow one to approach it as an autonomous subject–a reality of its own kind, functioning in accordance with its own set of laws. Instead, it was based on the traditional (two-and-a-half-thousand-years-old) metaphysics that presented all of reality as composed of two heterogeneous substances, matter and spirit, which were the ultimate causes of everything else. It was, therefore, believed that life either had material causes and was reducible to material elements explained by the laws of physics, or that it had spiritual causes and had to be explained by reference to transcendental (super-natural) forces. The two approaches were called, respectively, mechanism and vitalism, and people who studied life were divided between them. Both approaches, however, immediately led to dead ends: as to mechanism, there was no way, either empirically or logically, to reduce organic phenomena to material elements and explain it physically; and vitalism by definition denied all empirical access to the causes it presupposed.
Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection was a philosophical breakthrough: it postulated an empirically based form of causality specific to organic phenomena, in no way reducible to the laws of physics but logically consistent with them, and therefore transcended the psychophysical (matter vs. spirit) metaphysics and mechanism vs. vitalism debate. Life could be imagined as a separate, autonomous reality; biology got the green light to study its laws and became an independent science.
The revolutionary philosophical implications of Darwin’s theory were some time later recognized in the concept of emergent phenomenon, which was already discussed in this blog. It became possible to see reality not as eternally consisting of two heterogeneous substances (matter and spirit), but as historically constituted into layers, with the physical, i.e., material foundation, and on top of it historically added layer(s) of a different (not material) kind. The first such emergent layer is organic, the reality of life. Its laws are logically consistent with physical laws which govern material reality, because life exists within the boundary conditions of material reality and cannot exist without these conditions, but they are completely different from physical laws and irreducible to them. The emergence of life (its origins) cannot be explained by physical laws which govern material reality from which life emerges; in fact, it cannot be explained at all, because it is a result of an extremely improbable accident. The question of origins, therefore, as Darwin himself had pointed out, is not a scientific question and is irrelevant to biological research. Biology, which has progressed tremendously since the publication of The Origin of Species, does not study the origin of life, it studies life’s forms.
Now, nobody would deny that life is an empirical reality of stupendous importance, that it is much younger than its material conditions (which existed for millions of years before there was any life), that it is organic (i.e., of a different kind than) inorganic material reality studied by physics, and that it was not studied scientifically until the second half of the 19th century, but is so studied now. It is, therefore, possible for such formidable new realities to emerge; it is also possible not to recognize that such a formidable reality is, in fact, autonomous, and thus not being able to study it scientifically for a long, long time; but, when this is, at last, recognized, it is possible for a new kind of scientific study, a new kind of science to develop. It is the recognition of such possibility in regard to CULTURE and the SCIENCE OF CULTURE that I claim.
My claim is that culture, like life, is also an emergent empirical phenomenon, that it is the third layer added historically on top of the material foundation, studied by physics, and the organic layer, studied by biology. Like life, culture is an autonomous reality with causal laws specific to it, but logically consistent with biological and physical laws; like life, too, it is a result of a highly improbable accident, which cannot be explained, and for this reason, the science of culture, like biology, should not be preoccupied with the origins of culture, but, instead, should focus on its forms.
It is Darwin’s theory of evolution which allows us to recognize culture as an autonomous empirical reality, that can be scientifically studied, transcending the psychophysical (matter/spirit or mind/body in this case) philosophy. But precisely because Darwin’s theory of evolution allows us to recognize this, it also allows us to understand that culture is irreducible to our animal nature which is governed by biological laws, and that biology–including the theory of evolution–can contribute nothing to our understanding of culture.
It is culture that makes us human. Culture exists within the boundary conditions of our animal nature. But nothing that helps us to understand our animal nature can explain culture.
[Originally published on Psychology Today]