Biology & Philosophy: How Our Culture Shapes Our Knowledge

This post was originally published in NY6 Connections. It is reposted here by permission.

By: Lily K Marks, NY6 ThinkTank Student Fellow

Science differs from arts and literature, in that the knowledge gathered would exist whether humans studied it or not. Paintings, music, and novels require artists. DNA replication, the succession of ecosystem, and the evolution of a species are automatic processes, more than capable of carrying on without human interference. All the same, few would argue against the usefulness of biology or chemistry as a field of study. Learning how our world works helps us live better within it. We can learn how to conserve limited resources, how to cure and treat disease, and how what we eat affects our bodies. But research alone does not dictate the path of scientific discovery. The philosophy and culture of a people shape what we know of the world, and how we know it.

Evolution, a process as old as life itself, truly broke into the public awareness in 1859, with Charles Darwin’s book, On The Origin of Species. The concept of a species changing over time had been introduced before this, but never with widespread acceptance. Presenting such new ideas, especially ones that could pose a potential threat to the church, was a risk to Darwin’s reputation within both the public and the scientific communities.

Evolution eventually would have been discovered even without Darwin, and several other scientists at the time were approaching similar findings. Yet, Darwin is the name we know. On the Origin of Species served as an entry point to evolution. The book was successful because, in addition to supporting his ideas with testable evidence, he also creates a cast of characters that structure his argument like a story. Darwin’s writing does not always flow gracefully, but it is effective. Rather than arranging ideas technically, he employs metaphors. For example, the “tree of life” illustrates the concept of growth and change stemming from a common origin. The book concludes with an image of the “tangled bank”, where a wide range of species interact. These images stuck with Darwin’s audience. The idea that species change over time could have created controversy (and certainly does within some groups even today). But at the time, the idea gained credence as a branching of the tree of life.

Overall, Darwin faced far less opposition than biologists with similar ideas. Darwin’s key advantage was understanding his audience. Metaphor and abstraction served as a cautious method of presenting ideas that had the potential to challenge so much of the public understanding of the world. Darwin’s presentation was distant enough to not appear radical, but illustrative enough to prove credible. Thanks to the success of this writing, the name Darwin has become nearly synonymous with evolution, despite the many other scientists who contributed to this field. Even modern-day creationists, who take the Bible so literally as to believe it incompatible with the well-supported theory of evolution, still reflect Darwin’s language and refer back to his own examples to in order to denounce it.

Despite the common misreading of Charles Darwin as antithetical to religion, Darwin’s writing style was likely shaped by his background in theology and philosophy. Like biology, religion and philosophy attempt to explain the world around us. However, the humanities use narrative to approach what science approaches through data. Darwin arrived at On the Origin of Species through both. He discovered evolution through careful observation, and spent years crafting the metaphors that filled his literature. The same patterns that structure countless origin myths permeate On the Origin of Species. Birth, death, and time are characters in their own right. Darwin writes again and again about “The Struggle for Existence”, the topic of all human narratives. Darwin does not just present facts; he tells a story. The interaction of philosophical narratives and a scientific framework makes Darwin’s theories feel relevant and familiar. “The tree of life” is an especially common motif in Christianity as well as the mythology of many ancient cultures. In evoking this image, Darwin found a culturally shared entry point from which to expand his theories. Without metaphor and abstraction drawn from philosophy, these ideas would not feel accessible to Darwin’s public.

Thanks to On the Origin of Species, Darwin’s discoveries eventually became common knowledge. The results extended far beyond the scientific community. The concepts revealed through Darwin are among other discoveries, like the shape of the Earth and solar system, that repositioned human’s assumed role among nature. What distinguishes any species from another if we all stemmed from common ancestors? Becoming more aware of the diverse biological interactions on Earth adds to our philosophical line of questions. For example, the idea that species could become extinct, and later information that humans could drive this process, forced humans to realize the potential permanence of human-driven changes. Does knowing this hold us to a higher level of accountability? If we can drive a species to extinction, are we morally obligated to conserve the environment? Changing social views have increased the desire to fund such efforts, and have increased the number of scientists researching animal and environmental conservation. Conversely, alternative values deplete this effort and funding. In a social climate where capitalism encourages us to prioritize financial gain, many businesses push back against the idea of decreasing our use of resources. From a capitalist perspective, using natural resources is acceptable if it is the most economically-beneficial option. The balance between a culture’s moral philosophy and political priorities will influence which research projects will receive funding.

Charles Darwin’s wide range of influence reflects the interaction between culture and research. The artistic and cultural response to the theory of evolution continues to be tremendous. Authors like Lewis Caroll, Alfred Tennyson, and Thomas Hardy drew on the themes presented in On the Origin of Species. Their literature continued to question our values in the wake of an ever-changing Earth. From 1859 until the present, Darwin’s concepts have been interpreted, reinterpreted, and very often misinterpreted. The idea of Darwinism and the survival of the fittest were often misused to justify acts of eugenics and even genocide. However, these interpretations do not reflect Darwin’s own intentions, and especially do not reflect evolutionary theory. Nature itself does not have moral perceptions of right or wrong. However, the scientists who approach the world undoubtedly do. When the social mores of a community are imbued with discriminatory ideals, science will be filtered through this lens. To study science without an awareness of one’s own culture and philosophy is only ignoring the relevance of science to human narrative. It is important for science to happen responsibly and ethically. Humanities training is one way to help this. A knowledge of history prevents repetition of the same mistakes, while a knowledge of current culture will assure that any knowledge or experiments would benefit rather than do harm.

Philosophy and Biology are two fields preoccupied with the same topics: life and death, the future state of humanity, and our role within our surroundings. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was successful because it married the narrative of philosophy and the testable evidence of biology. Written any other way, On the Origin of Species might not have been read and understood so widely, and might not have reached the hands of other influential scientists. At some point in time, we would have learned about evolution. But it would not have been from Charles Darwin in 1859. The dominating philosophy of a culture will control the science which we focus on. Even an individual’s chosen field of study depends upon cultural values. Without understanding our cultures, without using our languages, how would these ideas be shared? A work of art can be anything, while a testable scientific description is singular. But humanity is not singular. Humanity is made up of endless diverging narratives. Darwin told a story that appealed to this. What would our world look like if he hadn’t?

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