Human Origins & Philosophy

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Michael Ruse remarked that ‘unfortunately there is simply nothing in the literature by philosophers on human origins'. Explore how the data on human emergence can become an interesting way to approach a philosophical anthropology.

Since the time of Darwin it has been recognised that biological species are essential to the process of evolution. A species consists of a population rather than unconnected individuals. The population of any species is reproductively isolated from that of others because of the fertility criterion. This means that despite the cohabitation of similar species in a specific territory no interbreeding will occur. Mayr states that ‘Each species is a delicately integrated genetic system that has been selected through many generations to fit into a definite niche in its environment.' Palaeontology, according to Darwin, accounted for the formation of any new species through a gradual transformation of the ancestral population with large numbers of individuals in the inhabited territory. Eldredge and Gould later named this process phyletic gradualism. This phyletic gradualism, however, continued the tradition of extrapolation from local populations and also used the accepted model for adaptive geographical variation, namely the gradual substitution of genes directed by natural selection, as a paradigm for the origin of species . This theory, as Mayr argues, does not take into account the advantage of the isolate. Mayr recognised that speciation occurred more rapidly and more effectively in small, isolated populations. That is populations that have migrated from the larger ancestral population and therefore are isolated from the homogenizing effect of the gene flow. In this way successful speciation occurred due to the cumulative effects of small variations over a number of generations. This process is more commonly known as evolution.

Humans are social animals; we are better suited to live socially than to live in isolation or anarchy. ‘No denial to the reality of ethics, nothing offensive to its dignity, follows from accepting our evolutionary origin.' Human moral capacities are, in fact, exactly what can be expected when a highly social creature evolves sufficiently to develop intelligence and becomes aware of the conflicts of its own nature. Darwin's aim was not to produce the antidote to John Locke's conceptual paralysis or to realise the grand cosmological alternative that had eluded Hume. Although his theories did essentially achieve these results, Darwin began his research not to discover the meaning of life or its origins, but simply the origin of species. Darwin's theory of evolution, however, contains significant gaps, statements or assumptions never carried to their logical conclusion. The most important of these is the lack of a central concept, or more specifically the lack of a convincing mechanism of heredity to explain the adoption of the parents' traits while maintaining an underlying and unchanged identity. This problem was to be remedied initially by the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel in 1865 and was later secured by the works of Julian Huxley, Ernst Mayr and Theodosius Dobzhansky. ‘The fundamental core of contemporary Darwinism, the theory of DNA based reproduction and evolution, is now beyond dispute among scientists.' However, the fundamental core of human emergence, our evolution from that of animals, remains in dispute among philosophers.

G.L. Stebbins has shown that cultural evolution is much more rapid and effective than biological evolution. Cultural traits have been known to spread through large populations in less than a decade, whereas adaptations of human genes under selective pressure would take several hundred years . He also introduced the idea of templates, both biological and cultural. In biological evolution, DNA is the genetic template for the transmitting of hereditary biological capacities. In cultural evolution, cultural templates are ubiquitous.

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