Professor of Biology Judy Stone spoke with exuberance and engagement about “The Unfinished Business of the Darwinian Revolution.” Though I was out of town during the last lecture on the ever intriguing Darwin, I heard only extraordinary things. And as I sat in Lovejoy 100, colorful pens in hand, eager to jot down notes from slides and thoughts from minds, I realized how much I wish I had been able to attend that lecture. The Darwinian Revolution is one that has been highly popularized and taught throughout the American education system. The ramifications of this particular revolution have been felt all over the world as the ideas behind evolution, natural selection, and the tree of life have permeated Western philosophy since the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1854. I found great pleasure in Stone’s deconstruction of the common depictions of evolution and the dangers of typological thinking. As an anthropology major, I am forever reading about the actions built upon the faulty foundational belief that race is genetic. Stone agrees, clearly, that race is constructed. It was such a relief to hear from an evolutionary geneticist that we seemed to be on the same page.
Moreover, I loved learning more about Darwin and evolutionary genetics, as it is not something I regularly study. When she spoke about the pre-Darwinian view of evolution (the ladder-like scheme/Great Chain of Being), I was actually reminded of the famous utilitarian philosopher, Peter Singer, and his ladder-like scheme of consciousness and preference. In it, he argues that some beings have more important interests than others. In effect, most Western philosophy would argue that killing a beetle is nothing in comparison to killing a human. To some extent, I disagree with Singer’s claims and find them to lead to rather dangerous thinking. In the same vein, this Great Chain of Being certainly bore a hierarchy of humanity that lives on in our modern culture. While Stone and others clarify that the Great Chain of Being has been toppled over by the Darwinian Theory of Evolution, I think it is safe to say that this thinking has influenced modern day discourse, such as that with philosopher Peter Singer. Hitherto, I want to emphasize, just as Stone does as well, that typological thinking will have a long lasting impact, too.
I left the talk with several questions. Firstly, I wonder about the Theory of Forms that Stone reviewed. When Plato claimed that every object or quality has an idealized essence was he claiming that they are universally idealized? Because what is seen as “perfect” or “ideal” in one culture may be separate from what another culture sees as “perfect” or “ideal.” Time and space contort the idealized essence so that it cannot be universal. Stone spent little time on this topic, but I wish she had lingered. It is, I presume, at least partially the foundation for the typological categorization of species, and this search for perfect specimen is perhaps even more dangerous than the effects of the Great Chain of Being.