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Evolution's First Philosopher

John Dewey and the Continuity of Nature

Jerome A. Popp

Publication Year: 2007

John Dewey was the first philosopher to recognize that Darwin’s thesis about natural selection not only required us to change how we think about ourselves and the life forms around us, but also required a markedly different approach to philosophy. Evolution’s First Philosopher shows how Dewey’s arguments arose from his recognition of the continuity of natural selection and mindedness, from which he developed his concept of growth. Growth, for Dewey, has no end beyond itself and forms the basis of a naturalized theory of ethics. While other philosophers gave some attention to evolutionary theory, it was Dewey alone who saw that Darwinism provides the basis for a naturalized theory of meaning. This, in turn, portends a new account of knowledge, ethics, and democracy. To clarify evolution’s conception of natural selection, Jerome A. Popp looks at brain science and examines the relationship between the genome and experience in terms of the contemporary concepts of preparedness and plasticity. This research shows how comprehensive and penetrating Dewey’s thought was in terms of further consequences for the philosophical method entailed by Darwin’s thesis. Dewey’s foresight is further legitimated when Popp places his work within the context of the current thought of Daniel Dennett.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Series: SUNY series in Philosophy and Biology

Title Page

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pp. vii-ix

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Reading Guide

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pp. xi-xiii

John Dewey was the first philosopher to see in Darwin’s thesis the basis for developing a naturalistic theory of meaning, including a naturalized theory of value. Interpreters and critics alike see Dewey’s thought as a significant attempt at the development of a naturalized philosophy, but their lack of attention to evolutionary theory limits their understanding of how Dewey ...

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1. Evolution and Philosophy

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pp. 1-14

... reconsider the content and methods of traditional philosophy. Dewey argues that Darwin’s thesis shows us that the pre-Darwinian search for an adequate account of epistemology and ethics without regard for, or in the explicit rejection of, science is no longer acceptable philosophic practice. Dewey’s writings present the development and use of naturalized analytical methods to reconstruct ...


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2. What Is Darwinian Evolution?

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pp. 17-36

That we can never know for sure, but Darwin possessed an active and inquisitive mind, and one has to wonder whether he might not have found other provocative contexts that would have led him toward natural selection. Nevertheless, Nichols makes it clear that Darwin’s discussions with FitzRoy, a dyed-in-the-wool Creationist, while being in the context of new ...

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3. Preparedness versus Plasticity

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pp. 37-52

THE CENTURIES-OLD DEBATE over whether it is nature or nurture that is the more important factor in explaining behavior appears, from time to time, in philosophic discussions of evolution. For example, some of the marginal criticism of Dennett is that he is a determinist, because he puts any stock at all in the role of instinct or innate behavior in his explanations of human nature. ...

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4. Brain Development and the Emergence of the Mind

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pp. 53-72

PAUL MACLEAN’S BOOK Triune Brain in Evolution sets out a theory that the human brain can profitably be seen as having three basic parts that are distinguished on the basis of the brain’s evolution (McLean, 1991). If we think of the spinal cord as a walking stick, the earliest brain may be envisioned as the silver or brass knob on the end of the walking stick. This earliest brain is typically ...


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5. Can Evolution Tell Us What to Do?

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pp. 75-94

... problem for ethics is how we decide what conduct to embrace and what to reject. Furthermore, a naturalized ethics would seek to establish its conclusions about conduct based on what we know about our species, and from the previous discussions, one can see that we do know quite a lot. The question is, what have we learned about our species that can serve to enlighten our ...

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6. Democracy and the Baldwin Effect

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pp. 95-118

AS WE HAVE SEEN in the previous chapter, Dewey does establish a value— growth—that is the ultimate standard for all other valuing. In the period of philosophy concerned with language analysis, it was said that Dewey’s meaning for ‘growth’ was obviously value loaded but that he never made his valuational criteria explicit. This criticism fails to grasp the evolutionary context ...

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7. Evolution and Liberalism

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pp. 119-140

... envisioned in the pre-Darwinian period, which is now referred to as “classical liberalism.” As we will see, this pre-Darwinian liberalism grounded itself in natural rights and natural law. If we ask for the philosophic justification for claims about the existence of natural rights, we find that while they have morally superior consequences to those of the rights of monarchs, they are ...

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pp. 141-142

Or, will we become part of the fossil record because it turned out that we devised our own destruction? All life forms face uncertainty, but our minds can help us deal with the future, not because we have found an algorithmic solution to the problem of induction but because our minds give us an edge in the biological arms race. The more we understand about how we came to be, ...


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pp. 143-148


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pp. 149-155

E-ISBN-13: 9780791480786
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791469590
Print-ISBN-10: 079146959X

Page Count: 169
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: SUNY series in Philosophy and Biology