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  • Evolutionary Pragmatism and Ethics eds. by Beth L. Eddy
  • Joshua Daniel
Evolutionary Pragmatism and Ethics. Beth L. Eddy. Lanham: Lexington Books. 2015. 156 pp. $80 cloth.

Thank God someone wrote this book. This reviewer has often wondered why there hasn't been more scholarship on the relationship between evolutionary theory, particularly Charles Darwin, and the early pragmatists. Since thinkers like John Dewey and Jane Addams often use the language of evolutionary theory in suggestive ways when discussing social-ethical matters, without explicating precisely where they hew to and depart from the theory itself, it's incumbent on their readers to articulate these relations. Eddy proves an excellent guide through the diversity of evolutionary theory itself, and the diversity of responses to it, which serve as compelling intellectual groundwork for [End Page 98] highlighting Dewey's and Addams's participation in the discourse regarding the social and ethical implications of Darwin's work. Most fundamentally, the early Chicago pragmatists disputed the Social Darwinists' utilization of Darwin and offered an alternative. While the bulk of Eddy's book is intellectual-historical in character, with helpful conceptual reconstruction to fill in the gaps, her ultimate intention is normative. A full-blooded recognition of contingency as one of the most significant natural conditions of human life, such as the early Chicago pragmatists promoted by way of their engagement with evolutionary theory, is salutary to recover in a time of ecological degradation, social-economic distress and the fatalism that ensues from reducing human life to biological processes.

Eddy's book proceeds in six chapters. The first two set up the intellectual background for the early pragmatists. The first chapter describes the nineteenth-century intellectual scene surrounding the ethical and religious implications of Darwin's evolutionary theory, which contested natural teleology (the bedrock of natural theologies) and deflated human agency (the presumption of ethics). Eddy argues that Herbert Spencer's misconception of the "survival of the fittest" as a moral process led him to a teleological account of evolution as the natural progression, absent human effort, of altruism triumphing over egoism, which served as an apologia for laissez-faire economics. Spencer bequeathed to Social Darwinism the following equation: a naturalized version of the Augustinian phrase "whatever is, is good," plus the conviction "all's well that ends well," equals social and ethical complacency in the face of manifest inequality and injustice. This is the utilization of Darwin that the early Chicago pragmatists contest, by following Darwin's own emphasis on the contingency of natural selection, and articulating the significance of human agency insofar as it transforms its own environment. Part of the story Eddy tells here that is important for her normative purposes, is that disputes over the relationship between Darwin's work and theretofore traditional ethics and religion didn't simply distribute into theists against atheists, but rather fell between those who did and those who didn't think evolutionary theory could be reconciled with our cultural traditions. T. H. Huxley, the subject of chapter two, belongs to the latter group. While he accepted the Darwinian account of natural selection as working through the struggle for existence among organisms, he rejected any ethics based on it. Recognizing that "fit" was relative to environment and thereby nonmoral, Huxley argued that the natural world is characterized by suffering; the task of human ethics, then, as the minimization of suffering, is to combat the natural world by way of social artifice and civilization. On this view, "survival of the fittest" requires not complacency as for the Social Darwinists, but the intentional transformation of our natural environment so that as many survive as possible. [End Page 99]

The following three chapters focus on Dewey's and Addams's work against the intellectual background established in the first two. Chapter three places Dewey in this background by way of comparison with Huxley and George Santayana. Like Huxley, Dewey accepted Darwin's evolutionary theory but rejected Spencer's social-ethical utilization of it; the ethical task is to transform the environment to be conducive to human good. Unlike Huxley, Dewey rejected any dualism between natural evolution and human ethics. Dewey's eventual view, once he transitioned from Hegel to...


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