Natural responsibilities: philosophy, biology, and ethics in Ernst Mayr and Hans Jonas.
These were memorable words for me. Hans Jonas had been my mentor in graduate school, and I was becoming increasingly interested in the writings of Mayr. I felt a pull toward both thinkers. But personal loyalties aside, Mayr's suggestion opens up a bold and important exploration. Mayr and Jonas both recognize the importance of coherently yoking together long-term and intertwined responsibilities to human communities and natural ecosystems and landscapes. This challenge is rapidly becoming perhaps the moral and civic issue of our times.
"Humans and nature" problems press in upon us from all sides. We are all becoming--or should be becoming--more cognizant of global warming; ecologically unsustainable cities and agricultural practices; the overuse of antibiotics in our health care systems and on our factory farms; the global crash of ocean fisheries; a human population and use of natural resources that is squeezing out other forms of life; the pollution and degradation of our air, soil, and water. (Fire seems to be doing okay.) On a less grand scale, consider the resort golfing communities in Hilton Head Island and Beaufort County, South Carolina, that are running roughshod over traditional, including Gullah, communities, and so polluting coastal waters as to render local oysters, shrimp, and other seafood inedible. Or consider the demise of wild salmon rivers in Canada's eastern provinces thanks to the clearcutting of the rivers' headwater forests. Or the sterilizing effects of the acid rain wafting east from the North American West. Or crashing ocean fisheries.
As my daughter Inanna would say, "Dad, wake up and smell the coffee." We have urgent humans and nature problems on our hands. But these problems are not only practical, moral, and civic. They are also theoretical and conceptual. We need to get our heads screwed on right. Specifically, we need to explore the complex interactions and mutual influences of philosophy, evolutionary biology, ethics--conceptual enterprises all--and our primary interactions and encounters with humans and nature in everyday life. Ernst Mayr, evolutionary biologist and philosopher of biology, and Hans Jonas, philosopher of organic life and ethicist, provide an opportunity to compare, perhaps refine, perhaps build upon two approaches to the master problem--our practical responsibilities to the human and natural world.
Ernst Mayr considers the Darwinian revolution in biology so profound and far-reaching that it moves beyond scientific theory and constitutes a shift in philosophic and moral outlook, a new world view--whether or not most of us have made this shift or adequately fleshed out its implications.
Mayr's claim is that Darwin's theory of the evolution of all life by common descent, behavioral and genetic variation, and natural selection challenges central Western cultural and intellectual traditions that trace their roots to Plato, the Presocratics, and beyond. In Mayr's interpretation of Darwinian thought, evolution is an eminently natural process, marked by historical dynamism, causal contexts, and contingencies, as well as by the particularity and uniqueness of biological entities. The first philosophic pillar of Western tradition to fall is the vision of cosmic teleology, nature conceived as the Grand Design of a Grand Designer. (1) Rather, nature in passing engenders its own forms of organic order--genetic, organismal, populational, communal, ecosystemic, bioregional, and biospheric. There is an ever-recurring, evolutionary two-step, genetic variation (accomplished by genetic mutation and sexual recombination) and natural selection (as well as sexual selection), which favors those who can survive to reproduce (by whatever means, adaptive advantage, luck, or other) (pp. 46, 68ff). The evolutionary two-step directly challenges central Judeo-Christian traditions and theologies in which creation of the world is intelligently and purposively directed.
Perhaps less conspicuously, modern Galilean-Cartesian-Newtonian science, with its reductive analyses and hegemony of material efficient causes--"billiard balls-in-motion" determinism or physicalism--is similarly challenged (pp. 40, 48). According to Mayr, the biological realm is a much more complex, historically contingent, probabilistic, and stochastic affair than the early modern physical sciences would have it. In animate nature, there are always multiple causes at work on multiple spatial and temporal scales--a hierarchy of causes or influences only to be recognized by a systems thinking that transcends mere linear strands of efficient causation. Moreover, and equally as telling, Darwinian biologists confront a material unrecognized by old-time physicalist scientists--DNA, with its programmatic (informational) instructions for organisms' phenotypical development and life, somatic (bodily) and behavioral (pp. 108ff, 132ff). Mayr claims that this curious, historically engendered material breaks the bounds of traditional materialist and deterministic science. There are not only the traditional "proximate" causes, amenable to reductive analysis in terms of physical and chemical reactions. There are also "ultimate" causes, here understood as the historical evolution--the coming into being--of particular genomes, the ongoing interplay of genetic and phenotypic variation and environmental pressures (p. 52). The form-giving or -directing potentialities of historically engendered DNA are an enigma or "black box" to classical materialist science, which in principle cannot capture, let alone rigorously predict, the complex and concrete interactions of organisms and their environments.
Mayr points to a third philosophic pillar of the Western tradition that is brought down: essentialist or typological thinking. Its demise is perhaps the most crucial of all (p. 40). The time-honored species-types "dog," "cat," "rose," "human being"--with all individuals considered essentially the same and plagued only by accidental variations--are creatures of outmoded biological, philosophical, and theological conceptions and world views. Enter populational thinking at the core of evolutionary biology's explanations and explorations (pp. 41ff). With rare exceptions, all organisms are genetically and phenotypically unique, different from all others. Species of organisms are now commonly understood as potentially or actually interbreeding populations of these organic individuals. The populations themselves are also considered to be concrete historical individuals, constituted by their individual organisms. Contra essentialist modes of thought, the variation among organisms is the very warp and woof of animate life on earth. Without genetic and phenotypical variation, there would be nothing for natural selection to select. Life could not adaptively evolve. What was peripheral to traditional world views is at the core of Mayr's new Darwinian world view--a crucial shift in world view perspective (pp. 26ff).
Individual and World
The biological conception of an individual as a "populational being" initiates a sea change in philosophic thinking. An essentialist conception of an individual--that is, thinking of an individual either as an instance of a species-type or as a being with its own unique and unchanging essence or character--easily lends itself to atomistic thinking. The individual is conceived as essentially unrelated to the world, alone by itself, in need of no other. (This is Descartes's definition of a substance). Not so with a populational individual, an organism, which is fundamentally and necessarily tied to the historical world and a life carried out among others. There is a history behind the individual's nature, its life in the world, and its genome, which must interact with its environment if its nature is to emerge. Moreover, an individual must wade into the world to sustain itself and to reproduce.
Mayr's own philosophic world view and commitments here come to the fore. Mayr is enamored with the diversity of life on individual, population, species, ecosystemic, and bioregional levels, and in life's history, present, and future. In biological explanation, philosophic interpretation, and moral reflection, he characteristically keeps a focused eye on particular, unique, individual organisms, always enmeshed within interacting populations and wider communities of life. He is fascinated by the plural and diverse ways that "tinkering" with animate nature purposelessly pulls off its evolutionary twists and turns. He celebrates life's particularities, contingencies, messiness, and openness to unplanned novelty.
In all this, Mayr remains a naturalist, materialist, empiricist, and pragmatist. He will accept only naturalist (and historical culturalist) explanations, no matter how conjectural or open-ended. He holds philosophic and theological rationalists--all a priori reasoners--at bay. They are at bottom essentialists, believers in eternal and unchanging forms of reality, ill-begotten children of Plato. Yet he equally staves off old-time crude reductionists, physicalists, and determinists (whose reality "at bottom" is nothing but the billiard-balls-in-motion) and insists on the central and ongoing importance of scientific and philosophic speculation-hypothesis-making--held ever open to empirical refutation. (There are no guarantees of truth.)
Finally, he insists on the importance of conceptual clarification in exploring the complex, fundamental facts of worldly life. For example, he draws a sharp distinction between cosmic teleology and "teleonomy," the informational programs of DNA that play a crucial role in organic development and behavior (p. 67). These genetic programs can be either closed--hard-wired--or open-ended--amenable to modification through environmental interactions. Mayr thereby repudiates cosmic goal-directedness while leaving open the possibility, if not necessarily the empirical reality, of a naturally circumscribed goal-directedness--potential free will and responsibility--for individual human beings (pp. 154ff).
This is not to say that Mayr's evolutionary perspective escapes all philosophic riddles. How to think together material reality and human freedom has always plagued philosophers, prompting speculative flights that Mayr dismisses. Here remains a genuine philosophic aporia. Whether or not Mayr's new informational matter, DNA, and the natural world of which it is a part can support a genuine if circumscribed human freedom as traditionally conceived is a question we should leave open. But at least Mayr has jogged our minds and refocused the terms of the argument and the framework of thinking from which we can retackle the issue. This is the philosophic bequest of Mayr's interpretation of the Darwinian revolution. With the philosophic demise of cosmic teleology, classical determinism, and essentialism, and in its stead the emergence of populational, evolutionary, and ecological thinking, we are offered a new opportunity for reapproaching the perennial question of human freedom and responsibility, a question directly germane to our concrete worldly obligations to humans and nature.
The Evolutionary Orchestra
The novel implications of Mayr's philosophic world view are crucial. Consider his claim of the autonomy of the biological sciences and evolutionary biology, ecology, and ethology in particular. (2) Mayr's nature is a dynamic, Heraclitian realm including the central reality of DNA, genes, and genomes. This newly conceived nature involves complex, developmentally and behaviorally related, teleonomic programs that emerge from and within a 3.8-billion-year history. These historical dimensions supplement the atemporal laws and discoveries of the physical and chemical sciences. Biology in this sense "transcends" physics and chemistry.
Secondly, the presence of informational matter forces a reconceptualization of our understanding of causation. In Mayr's world view causation is multileveled, comprising both proximate, physical-chemical and ultimate, informational-programmatic causes. The billiard balls-in-motion model of causation--blindly running physical antecedents determining physical consequents, with no brooking interferences--is out (pp. 66ff). "Orchestral causation" is in (pp. 151-74). Mayr would have us imagine music performed by an orchestra. Who or what is the cause? The individual instruments severally, the interactions of the composer's programmed score, the players, the conductor, the sounds, the acoustics of the concert hall, and much more, including the differing "musical ears" of the audience. No single and singly sufficient causes are to be picked out. The result is unique, its character in principle unpredictable. It is a novel emergence from the interactions. Emergent properties issuing from the systemic interactions of worldly interactors, and the hierarchies of objects and emerging entities that such interactions engender--cells, organs, organisms, communities, and ecosystems--is a key concept for Mayr. The concept of emergence also signals the break from the old hegemony of physics and chemistry in science.
The concept of emergence raises once again the question of the nature of an individual organism or self--a favorite and central topic of Jonas. For Mayr, the individual, the phenotype that we encounter in everyday experience, is apparently an emergence"--ongoingly until it dies. It emerges from the interactions of genetic information, the cellular and bodily environment, and the wider ecosystemic, worldly environment (along with the organism's own history, if any). We have come a long way from Descartes' substantial, aworldly, and unchanging soul or mind.
The individual becomes one of the interactors in the process of generating the future. But, again, we are enjoined to keep in mind the centrality of "emergence." Organic, including human, individuality and worldly interaction go hand in hand. (Spinoza, in his critique of Descartes's notion of substance, had said as much.) Individuality conjoined with worldly interaction constitutes a gestalt shift, a conceptual reconfiguration, a moving beyond the traditional modes of thought. Again, note the possibility and the reality of ever more complex emerging individuals with open-ended (versus closed) teleonomic programs, up to and including our human selves. Note further that these fundamental themes of interaction and emergence rule out in principle any strict or reductive genetic or environmental "billiard balls-in-motion" determinism. Conceptual room is left for contingency and chance, as well as for reflective, intentional, and responsible action.
Hans Jonas provides his own non-Darwinian critique of the Western philosophic and scientific tradition. In The Phenomenon of Life, Philosophic Essays, The Imperative of Responsibility, and elsewhere, Jonas fastens on Descartes's original, rigid ontological dualism of mind and matter, existing in splendid isolation from one another. Cartesian dualism leaves no room for an adequate philosophic interpretation of organic individuals, identity, and bodily liveliness, human or other. (3) It writes out of the picture real, psychophysical individuals who must make their precarious way in the world.
Jonas levels equally searing and telling critiques on the historical derivatives of dualism, idealism (the claim that all reality is essentially experience or mental functioning) and materialism (the counterclaim that all reality is essentially matter or physical functionings). Dismissing idealism as a self-congratulatory, non-serious story of the presence of mind and psychic phenomena in the world, Jonas focuses his critical attention on classical Newtonian materialism and its correlative epiphenomenalist thesis of mind and subjectivity. And unlike Mayr, Jonas ranges biology with the deterministic sciences (pp. 38ff). Here might be one reason Mayr considers Jonas wrong. For Mayr, Jonas does not plumb the depths of the Darwinian revolution and the philosophic implications of historical genomes and "ultimate causation."
I point out only a few highlights of Jonas's critique. (4) Physicalism is premised on strict causal determinism, in which consequents are solely determined by antecedents, with no room for contingency, chance, or interventions from the psychic or mental realm. Only thus, it is claimed, are the laws of nature upheld. The epiphenomenalist theory of mind claims that all subjectivity is the reflection and idle sport of matter--a sport with no energy expenditure, no purpose, and no efficacy in the real, physical realm.
Jonas relishes the absurdity of this philosophic nightmare. A non-efficacious subject is no subjective agent or "actor" at all. Moreover, we have no legitimate reason to take seriously the arguments of an epiphenomenalist materialist, since he or she can claim no rational mind or human subjectivity in the normal sense. Under their own rules, the materialists cannot get mind into the world, and neither therefore rational argument. Why should we listen to self-canceling thinkers? Finally, nature is philosophically scandalized. Already rendered valueless by Descartes original bifurcation of mind and (purposeless) matter, nature now creates the illusion of purpose in us. Absurd.
Jonas claims that science need not have gotten itself into this embarrassing philosophic cul de sac. The physicalist hopes for a causal knowledge of nature. Such knowledge requires that the laws of nature hold constant, which requires a working hypothesis of strict determinism. So far so good, as a methodological ploy. But then the physicalists take their fateful misstep. They confuse methodology with metaphysics and claim that all things really are physically determined and that knowledge of physically determined causes and effects is the only kind of knowledge that we humans can have.
This imperceptible slip plunges them into the philosophic quagmire. Physicalists commit what Alfred North Whitehead has termed the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness, mistaking abstractions and partial truths or aspects of things for concrete reality and the whole truth. Jonas admonishes physicalists to stick to science and leave philosophers to pursue disciplined speculations or interpretations of what might be the wider truth of things.
Jonas credits the self-evidence of subjectivity, individual agency, and effective purpose that we find in ourselves. As against the reductionist methodology of the physical sciences, Jonas employs a philosophic "regressivist" method in which he starts with human experience and works backwards or down into the full realm of organic being. He accepts Darwin and the evolutionary story, which places us in lines of common descent from all sorts of life forms. Rather than blanch, Jonas embraces this fact. If we are related to all forms of earthly life, and if we find subjectivity, individual agency, and effective purpose within ourselves, then we can legitimately expect to find them in organic, biological others, in other species, no matter how attenuated. The method underpins his philosophic, phenomenological, and speculative interpretation of organic life. (5)
Starting with the basic phenomenon of metabolism, Jonas interprets organic life and individual organisms in terms that transcend both Cartesian dualism and its derivatives. For Jonas, organisms' metabolic mode of existence speaks for a freedom from the world within a wider dependence upon the natural, material world. Organisms enjoy an ontological status that he terms needful freedom. An organism and its identity are constituted by a living form existing beyond and through its passing material constituents. (This is the aboriginal instance and form of "needful freedom".) An organism's mode of existence requires the being of an active agent, a self-feeling subject, purposively concerned with itself and its very being. The living individual form, the organic self or individual, embodies an active "no to non-being, to the deadness and valuelessness of inorganic nature. According to Jonas, organic life is an ontological revolution in the history of matter, a radical change in matter's mode of being. Life involves an aboriginal introduction of value into the world, the reallity of purposive being and the advent of the ontological and cosmological status of needful freedom, which establishes itself with metabolic existence. Our modes of philosophic thinking must register this shift or revolution in reality's being.
Jonas traces various dimensions of needful freedom from unicellular organisms through floral existence to animal being and human cultural existence. Through evolutionary history, ever more complex forms and capacities have emerged, each involving both new independence from and dependence on the world. New capacities of motility, emotion, perception, practical thinking, and theoretical speculation are introduced into worldly being and must then be used to pursue the newly capacitated existence. Organisms on all levels, their necessarily precarious lives, their value achievements and failures--these mortal, finite, and vulnerable ones--are thus given their philosophic due. Animate nature is philosophically rehabilitated, and human beings are naturalized.
Plainly Jonas emphatically accepts Darwinism and uses it for his own philosophic purposes. He is philosophically an organicist and naturalist, though not a scientific organicist. Yet he makes rather sparing use of Darwinian biology, especially of the role of genetic information. Darwin is characteristically in the background, assigned to footnotes, rarely the focus of central philosophic attention. Jonas is relatively uninterested in the grand evolutionary and ecological story, Mayr's natural symphony. Rather, he is attentive to the existential drama, the inner life and worldly adventures of individual organisms.
Here might be both a singular strength and lingering weakness of Jonas's philosophy. Its strength is in giving an internalist, phenomenological account of life--what it is and feels like to be an organism. Such an analysis complements Mayr's scientifically biological, "objective," more externalist account of life. But Jonas may miss or overlook the full sweep, grandeur, and value-laden nuances of the natural and historical drama: that earthly nature's constituents, biotic and abiotic, have coevolved; that life's forms, capacities, and individuals arise in communities interactively--biotic variation, diversity, and selection constantly at work. Jonas may undervalue the significance for ethics of the communal, cooperative, symbiotic, as well as competitive, aspects of pre-human, and human, evolutionary and ecosystemic life.
More than critical questions of philosophic adequacy seem at work here. Rival world views are at stake. Jonas is decidedly more the moral existentialist than Mayr. He has the more searching and wary ethical eye, seeking out not only the reprehensible and outrageous but also the laudable and noble. Though he had a connoisseur's appreciation of such philosophers as Heraclitus, Aristotle, and Spinoza, he did not share their, and Mayr's, serene cosmological, naturalists' exhilaration over the natural world. He had human historical scores to settle and pressing worldly responsibilities to champion.
Nowhere can the differences and contrasts in world views be better seen than in Mayr's and Jonas's accounts of morality and contemporary ethical responsibilities. Both Mayr and Jonas consider themselves enlightened, post-Darwinian anthropocentrists, with responsibilities to humankind foremost, intrinsically conjoined with responsibilities to nature both for its own sake and because of our intricate implication in and dependence on a well-functioning, flourishing nature. However, the two arrive at this moral Rome by decidedly different ethical roads.
Mayr traces the roots of our moral life back to evolutionary processes that include, of course, evolved genetic programs and their interactions with somatic and worldly environments. (6) These genetic programs, Mayr recurrently insists, are often open-ended. We humans, thanks to our time-honed genetic backing, can learn from experience, enter into and creatively evolve human cultures, and decide things for ourselves, freely and responsibly, within worldly (including genetic) constraints and opportunities. There is in Mayr no genetic, environmental, or cultural determinism, bane of the cruder forms of behaviorism and sociobiology. (Remember Jonas's epiphenomenalists.) The future is open, undecided, in principle unpredictable, and we have become increasingly significant actors in it, often for the worse.
Characteristically, Mayr's ethical interests and reflections are also centrally informed by evolutionary biology and ecology. If we are truly to live up to culturally honored democratic ideals and strive for equal opportunity for all, for example, Mayr insists that we must devise plural modes of education for our citizens, young and old. We do not all have the same capacities or learn in the same way. There is much human biodiversity amidst human commonalties. Mayr's moral pluralism is undergirded by his populational thinking, by his recognition of individual differences.
Further, Mayr is centrally exercised over our biologically ill-informed emphases on individual interests and freedoms at the expense of communal and systemic needs. The latter must be seriously and adequately addressed if we are to flourish in the future. Mayr joins Aldo Leopold and other conservationists in the call to responsibility for nature's future well-being.
Jonas likewise champions our worldly responsibilities for the human and natural future. This is the heart and soul of The Imperative of Responsibility. He similarly traces the full reaches of human morality and responsibility back to natural, organic origins--but to the human parent-child relation, to the natural feeling and unchosen responsibility for the utterly needy and vulnerable, but intrinsically valuable infant, with all its promise. (7) Jonas does not trace moral capacities back further into natural time, a la Mayr. Rather he takes a characteristic metaphysical and existentialist turn (pp. 46ff, 79ff). The intrinsic or fundamental value of all animate life and organic beings originates in the aboriginal ontological revolution--the purposive "no to non-being," the active individual assertion of the worldly self, the precarious and ultimately futile staving off of death. The more complexly active and capacitated the effort, the weightier or higher the moral stakes. When life's capacities include moral responsibility itself, as with humankind, we come upon an absolute moral threshold and an ultimate categorical imperative, ontological as well as moral: humankind, and the nature so necessary to humankind and to a morally responsible life, "ought to be." Over this imperative, we have no freedom to choose. Moral responsibility, in potentiality and actuality, harbored in human beings and being human, is for Jonas the ultimate good in itself.
In the main, Mayr would agree with the conclusions, but perhaps not with the philosophy. Though Jonas in The Imperative of Responsibility explicitly and critically supercedes Kant's "here and now" categorical imperatives, Jonas's moral arguments retain an unmistakable Kantian ring, a sense of transcendent absoluteness (p. 11). "Humanity and nature ought to be." "Never put humankind at risk" (pp. 38fl, 43). What are we to make of this Kantian legacy? Has Jonas fully left traditional essentialism behind? Has he adequately superceded Newtonian physicalism and determinism? With his "Nature Purposive," has he fully abandoned cosmic teleology? (At one point, Jonas speculatively finds an aboriginal purposive striving (non-conscious and subjectless) behind the advent of organisms and ever more complex organisms or individual subjects.) Did Jonas want to join Mayr's naturalist, Darwinian revolution? Indeed, Jonas might not have intended to use philosophic strategies to elaborate a full allegiance to a naturalist's or philosophic evolutionary biological point of view.
Jonas intended his Kantian, absolutist ring, adjusted to the realities he deemed disclosed by evolutionary biology and which he accepted and endorsed. Mayr might retort that, willfully or not, Jonas missed the full import for practical ethical responsibility of the centrality of emergent organic properties, "orchestral causation," and genomes. And in the end, Mayr might be right. Jonas may not have exploited the full philosophic fruits of the Darwinian revolution. Of course, truth be told, we are all more or less in the same boat. We are still largely ignoramuses, peering through a glass darkly, a mystery to ourselves. But recognizing Jonas's possible bias toward the traditional Western philosophical canon does not mean we do not need both Jonas and Mayr in our philosophic arsenal.
Organic Life, Worldly Interaction, Ethical Responsibility
Mayr and Jonas have moved us beyond the old philosophic cosmology of Descartes, Newton, and their heirs. The new philosophic cosmologies of Mayr and Jonas, meant explicitly to interpret or further the understanding of organic life, are both centrally "interactionist" in character: they emphasize the essential dynamic relatedness of individual organisms and populations of organisms, humans included, to the historical, temporally deep world. This worldly "interactionist" insight also illuminates how Mayr and Jonas arrived at their respective world views, and how we may make the best use of them.
In considering any one thinker, there is a mutual interaction between the individual's philosophic world view, scientific understandings, ethical convictions, and personal engagement with the world. These various dimensions of experience mutually inform one another without being reducible to one another. In particular, when it comes to deeply felt, compelling ethical demands, our primary interactions with the world have the final, if not also the first, word. Our past experiences, including our philosophic, scientific, and ethical training and reflections no doubt pour into our present selves, out of which all our personal worldly future must proceed. (Yet, certain rationalist philosophers notwithstanding, it is in the primary encounters and interactions with the world that we first experience and respond to ethical obligations, no matter how "informed" we are by prior conceptual, intellectual, and cultural adventures. The experience of ethical oughts or obligations, while nurtured and prepared by natural and cultural evolution, is an aboriginal existential, organismal response to the world, characterized by a "moral" emotional hue (the feeling of obligation). We have other, similar aboriginal existential and organismal responses--aesthetic, religious, and other. These are the emotion-laden, value dimensions of our primary encounters with the world. Here is the worldly setting of our human freedom and responsibility.
This interactionist perspective directly confronts the nagging charge that moral and philosophic naturalists commit the "naturalistic fallacy" of trying to derive "ought" from "is"--of trying to get moral obligations from facts about the world. Consider the "interactionist" alternative. Are my philosophic, scientific, and ethical reflections influenced or informed by my experiences of "what is," my ongoing primary experiences or interactions with the world? Most certainly. Are my ethical obligations logically or rationally derived from "what is" (worldly reality) or from what I take to be worldly reality? No. The mutual interactions of philosophy, science, ethics, and primary worldly experience do not seem to be rationally or logically connected in this sense. The process of mutual informing or influencing is not one of logical deduction. New naturalist or organicist world views do not bow to the hegemony of deductive mathematical or logical reasoning--a bad model for philosophy, according to Whitehead. (Note how tight logical reasoning of the mind mirrors strict causal determinism of the body in Cartesian-inspired world views. Spinoza's Ethics is the unsurpassed example.) Wanting our ethical life to be deeply informed by what we take to be worldly reality, its vulnerabilities to harm and its opportunities for realizing multiple goods, is not to commit the rational blunder of the naturalistic fallacy. It is an attempt to be humanly intelligent, realistically coherent, and deeply responsible to what is and what can be.
This squaring of accounts with the philosophic tradition leads immediately back to Mayr and Jonas. Their final philosophic visions may be in tension with one another, and we may consider that one is more scientifically informed than the other. But this does not mean that one or the other speculative philosophic and ethical world view is less relevant or adequate to our primary encounters with the world. They may fasten upon and articulate different features of primary and interactive worldly experience, which need not be incompatible with one another.
The inexhaustible richness or complexity of the world as experienced by us humans is not to be captured in any one philosophic, scientific, or ethical world view. (Most of us have already given up this old rationalist dream.) And the fact of theoretical finitude suggests that a plurality of significant, more or less adequate world views is a boon, rather than a curse, in helping further disclose the fullness of our ethical responsibilities to the world, to nature, and ourselves.
Mayr is the philosopher and ethical champion of natural and human becoming--of natural and cultural processes, systems, and forms in all their glorious, worldly diversity. Mayr would have us ensure that this grand human and natural show flourishes indefinitely.
Jonas is the philosopher and ethical champion of organic and human being. He is less stunned by the innumerable material forms and processes of life than by the very fact of life itself and especially organic life's capacity for moral responsibility, evidenced in human beings. That in a vast universe characterized largely by inorganic, dead matter, there has emerged animate and moral being as a revolt against death and valuelessness--these are the realities above all that Jonas enjoins us to protect into the indefinite future.
Both Mayr and Jonas not only write about but themselves exemplify the interaction of philosophy, biology, ethics, and primary experience, although the interaction plays out differently for the two. Jonas, veteran of twentieth century wars and witness of their atrocities, stares modern life and technology in the face and calls for new philosophic and ethical reflection and vision: the centrality of ethical responsibility to the long-term human and natural future, backed by corresponding philosophic and metaphysical reflection. He incorporates what evolutionary biology he deems necessary into his philosophy and ethics.
Mayr incorporates those philosophic conceptions that serve his biological explorations and critical reflections. His moral life and commitments are significantly (though not exclusively) informed by his knowledge of and his passion for nature. Whatever the overlap, the accents of the organist philosopher Jonas and the philosophic biologist Mayr are markedly different, thanks to their primary worldly experiences, interests, and passions.
Now remember South Carolina's Beaufort County golfing resorts and coastal ecosystems, or Eastern Canada's salmon rivers, Alaska's wilderness harboring oil for our SUVs, global warming, the crash of ocean fisheries, the blighting of traditional communities and cultures, and the degradation of soil, water, and air. These events or realities engender in us responsibilities, responsibilities pressed upon us by the historical course of things that need no logical deduction for their recognition, despite our seeming inability to face their compelling call. Are we, for example, really going to let coevolved species, perhaps including ourselves, go into the night of extinction?
It is good to have Mayr and Jonas, with their singular and differing visions, to help us explore, articulate, and act upon these responsibilities. Sometimes it will be Mayr's naturalist's vision of becoming that will better help us to see our duties and moral failures. Sometimes it will be Jonas's ethics of natural and moral being that may better move us into doing what we know, however imperfectly, is right. We need all the help we can get, from whatever quarter.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in the New School University's Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 23, no. 1 (2001).
(1.) E. Mayr, One Long Argument (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991): 50.
(2.) E. Mayr, This is Biology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997): xiii, 30.
(3.) H. Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1966),: 56, 58 ff.
(4.) H. Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984): 205 ff.
(5.) Jonas, 1966 The Phenomenon of Life, 23 ff.; S. Donnelley, "Hans Jonas, the Philosophy of Nature, and the Ethics of Responsibility," Social Research 56, no. 3 (1989): 64. For treatment of Jonas's philosophy of organism in detail, see S. Donnelley, "Bioethical Troubles: Animal Individuals and Human Organisms" in "The Legacy of Hans Jonas," Hastings Center Report 25, no. 7 (1995): 22 ff.
(6.) Mayr, This is Biology, 1997: 250 ff.
(7.) Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility, 1984: 130 ff.
Strachan Donnelley, "Natural Responsibilities: Philosophy, Biology, and. Ethics in Ernst Mayr and Hans Jonas," Hastings Center Report 32, no. 4 (2002): 36-43.
Strachan Donnelley is director of the Humans and Nature Program at The Hastings Center.
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|Publication:||The Hastings Center Report|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2002|
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