publisher colophon
Reviewed by:
  • Evolutionary Pragmatism and Ethics eds. by Beth L. Eddy
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 Darwin, was that humans are an integral, organic part of the natural whole, meaning that the social selections or cultural changes affected by ethics should be understood as occurring within—not against—processes of natural selection. What Eddy accomplishes by bringing Santayana into this conversation is to highlight the ambiguous extent of Dewey's naturalist turn. From a "Santayanan" perspective, Dewey privileges the human social environment (e.g., education) over the natural environment (e.g., sun death) in his discussions of ethical transformation, thereby leaving room for historical teleology and progressivism a la Hegel to taint his recognition of contingency. Eddy concludes that we "need to think about specific values and specific conditions and quit looking for origins and ends to bestow all meanings in media res" (52).

Chapters four and five mark a turn to one of the book's most important contributions: the inclusion of Addams in the early pragmatist canon. With both chapters, Eddy not only places Addams in the evolution and ethics conversation but also introduces readers to this figure's life, thought, and distinct contributions as a pragmatist. By the end of these chapters, Addams turns out to be an exemplary figure to recover for today's social-ethical and economic challenges. Chapter four effects a comparison between Addams and the anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin to highlight the issue of the character of nature. Both thinkers reject a characterization, like Huxley's, of nature as a world of struggle, insisting that mutual, cooperative relations are more paradigmatic of natural processes—hence, nature can be an attractive model for human behavior (pace Huxley) but without promoting the social-ethical complacency of laissez-faire economics (pace Spencer). Chapter five brings Dewey into this conversation, after discussing Comte's influence on Addams and her own emphasis on individuality as a contributor to social change. Eddy traces how Addams and Dewey aligned with cooperative and competitive models, respectively, of social life, though each drew the other to appreciate aspects of the opposed model, with Dewey articulating a form of antagonistic cooperation, and Addams recognizing, if not embracing (cf. the Pullman strike), the role of conflict. The later part of the chapter turns to another debate regarding evolutionary theory's implications for social life, the character of change as either gradual [End Page 100] or erratic. The issue lurking behind this is the relation between teleology and ethics. In their early thought, Dewey and Addams accepted a gradualist account of evolutionary change that dovetailed with the idealist progressivism of Hegelian teleology. The work of geneticists like Gregor Mendel and Hugo DeVries provided an erratic, discontinuous account of evolutionary change that emphasized contingency; this enabled the early pragmatists to embrace a moral meliorism independent of teleology. Pragmatist ethics is thus local and retail in focus, eschewing guarantees and embracing responsibility.

The final chapter brings this intellectual history downstream to contemporary scientific debates, arguing that Stephen Jay Gould's work in natural history is pragmatist in spirit, and serves as a compelling rejoinder to the biological reductionism of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. For Eddy, the stakes of these debates are moral and existential, and the opposing sides regard ultimate human attitudes, not theism vs. atheism. While Dennett and Dawkins embrace a form of metaphysical comfort that emphasizes human predictability and control of the natural world, Gould promotes the moral anxiety that attends the acknowledgment of contingency and funds a humble moral meliorism that hopes to make local, retail changes for the better. Ultimately, Eddy supports the "tolerance of moderate meaninglessness in the world"; the world is meaningless because natural processes run on contingency rather than purpose, but only moderately meaningless because humans are "able to act meaningfully in order to hope," to intervene in their natural and social environments in order to improve the conditions of human life (119–20). This reviewer enjoyed this final chapter, but wished that Eddy had given herself a full chapter to articulate the ethical vision she was occasionally gleaning throughout the book's intellectual history. Because this normative vision is the stated point of the intellectual history, it would have been nice for the reader to get a portable articulation of it to think with going forward. Of course, this is all by way of saying: what's in the book is so compelling, now I want more.

Speaking of contingency, for those of us still coming to grips with what the outcome of the 2016 United States presidential election says about the state of our nation, Eddy's book, fittingly to its own argument, provides no consolation that this some necessary step to greater racial justice, gender equality, etc. Indeed, Eddy's argument might even reveal that those of us who couldn't even imagine the election of Trump were, or still are, unknowingly beholden to the sort of progressivist teleological vision of human history belied by evolutionary theory. Thankfully, and beyond the question of scholarship (though there's no question it's superb), Eddy has reminded us that there's still ethical work to be done—there's always ethics work to be done, regardless of election outcomes—and that we're the only ones to do it. [End Page 101]

Joshua Daniel
University of Chicago

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.