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  • Evolution's First Philosopher:John Dewey and the Continuity of Nature
  • Deborah L. Seltzer-Kelly (bio)
Jerome A. Popp, Evolution's First Philosopher: John Dewey and the Continuity of Nature. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007. 155 pp. ISBN 0791469606, $18.95 (pbk.)

Jerome Popp's monograph is a part of the SUNY series in philosophy and biology, and accordingly is narrowly focused upon discussion of an evolutionary model of value theory. As Popp explains at the outset, Daniel Dennett—among others—has proposed that any naturalized moral theory must provide a naturalized account for its own existence. Popp's thesis for this work is that, in conjunction with his longoverlooked insight into the significance of Darwin's thought to the area of epistemology generally, Dewey solved this philosophic problem long ago. This emphasis upon reconciling Dewey's work with Dennett's thought is reiterated in Popp's conclusion that "It is remarkable how Dewey's use of evolution in his arguments has been vindicated by the current thinking in evolutionary theory and by Dennett's philosophic arguments" (140). In other words, the major thrust of Popp's analysis is toward demonstrating the coherence between the thought of Dennett and other contemporary evolutionary theorists and that of Dewey.

To establish the scientific background upon which his analysis builds, Popp devotes chapters 2 through 4 to a review of evolutionary theory generally, including a discussion of the grounding of cognitive theory in understandings of the evolution of the mind, incorporating the works of Dawkins, Dennett, and others. This section provides interesting reading and an insightful synthesis of the areas of evolutionary theory and genetics, ranging from historic sources such as Lamarck's [End Page 104] thought to recent works in the area of genetics and natural selection, including works of popular science by Matt Ridley.

As Popp explains in chapter 3, "preparedness versus plasticity," has generally replaced the "nature versus nurture" dialectic in the field. Plasticity, the quality of being able to learn from experience, is a concept that to at least some degree informs the entire discussion that follows. Here, as in many other areas, as Popp demonstrates, Dewey's understanding of cognition holds up well in conjunction with more recent developments. Dewey posited "habits" as the outcome of "unlearned activities," and accounted for the development of socially constructed meanings as an overlay to innate tendencies. In short, Dewey understood human growth and cognitive development as an evolutionary process, even while he lacked the current understanding of DNA.

In chapter 4, Popp continues to develop Dewey's thought in relation to current theorizing on the evolution of consciousness and human culture, although the majority of the discussion is still devoted to contemporary works. Popp reviews Dawkins's ideas about memes ("catchy" ideas such as tunes, phrases, and fashions that propagate readily through social contact) and their social function. He then clarifies that Dewey's notion of consciousness is active rather than passive—focused upon the deliberate and purposeful pursuit of some goal. For Dewey, according to Popp, "philosophy emerged when thinking became conscious of itself, which means that at some point humans became conscious of their thinking and began to think about their thinking" (66). This accumulation of cultural content, and especially the development of language, may, in the current view, explain the need for the relatively large human brain, along with the emergence of the human mind.

With chapter 5, "Can Evolution Tell Us What to Do?," Popp begins his analysis of the implications for human decision making, including how Dewey's ideas work in relation to the preceding framework. With regard to the so-called "problem of the normative" for humankind—the ability, and thus the tendency, to evaluate that which surrounds us in terms of right and wrong—Popp argues that Dewey solved this long ago, but that his solution has been overlooked and misunderstood. Dewey's position, per Popp, is that the only standard for judging the "goodness" of growth for the human mind is in its capacity for continued growth.

At this point, Popp reintroduces what I view as his secondary—and from my educational perspective, potentially more compelling—thesis: that Dewey...


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