Peirce, Lamarck and Evolutionary Love

Peirce, Lamarck and Evolutionary Love

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Ralph Waldo Emerson once remarked that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.   Well, I admit it.   I’m spooked.

The problem of how one can consistently maintain a hope in a benevolent metaphysical reality while simultaneously accepting the accumulated evidence for a Darwinian model of organic evolution is not, I suppose, a simple matter of contradiction or non-contradiction.   But, then again, maybe this was Emerson’s point.   There are human questions of such difficulty and such vagueness that a quest for a tidy logical consistency seems downright obsessive.   When we address the problem of reconciling Darwin with theism, any number of possible avenues of inquiry are available.   Some find the very idea of the evolution of species to be itself a threat to theism, either because it undermines our capacity for belief in an immortal soul or because it seems to put the authority of certain religious texts in doubt.   Without implying that these concerns are, in Emerson’s words, foolish, I would like to suggest that they are the sort of difficulties that we are likely to have created for ourselves.   They tend to be dependent upon, or one step removed from, special doctrinal commitments, and they are, I think, likely to fade as these doctrinal commitments themselves evolve or simply disappear.[1]

A question that arises at a less local and idiosyncratic level is the question of what our vague religious sentiments have to say about natural selection.   The religious sentiment, as best I can tell, expresses a fundamental hope that reality, at its most basic level, is beneficent.   I’m not sure what could be more essential to the idea of the Western God, in fact, than the feeling that deep down reality is somehow on our side.   This sentiment is simple and vague.   It is not universal, to be sure, but it is considerably less local, considerably less idiosyncratic, than a particular hermeneutics or a developed theological metaphysics.   The contradictions that appear at this level cannot be easily dismissed as the perils of doctrinal commitments.   The problem, at this more general level, is that a natural world that evolves through the process of natural selection seems to be about as strong of an argument against a Beneficent Reality as one could ask for.   As Darwin himself wrote, “from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.”[2]  Nature evolves and progresses through an outright blood-letting.   This is in contradiction not with a specific theology, but with the religious sentiment.   This is not a new problem.   It was recognized as a problem by Darwin himself.   But it is, I would suggest, a fundamental problem.   One needs no traditionally religious faith at all to find the contradiction between the religious sentiment and natural selection to be more than trivial.

This is the problem Charles Peirce addressed in his 1893 essay “Evolutionary Love.”  “Evolutionary Love” is the final installment of his 1890-93 Monist series on the evolution of the cosmos, and Peirce’s interest is in both cosmic and organic evolution.   In Peirce’s intellectual context, Darwinian models of evolution had been applied well beyond the sphere of the biological.   Peirce saw Darwin as part of a cultural trend that was larger than Darwin himself, that stretched back at least to the nineteenth-century political economists that did indeed influence Darwin.   This trend–which took progress and evolution, organic and otherwise, to be the result of selfishness and competition–had become dogma for many inside and outside of the sciences.   It had become gospel.   Peirce referred to this, in fact, as the “Gospel of Greed,” and his main positive objection to this Gospel was that it violated the religious and moral sentiments that had been given expression in the better-known Gospel.   “Evolutionary Love,” in other words, is Peirce’s attempt to deal with the fundamental contradiction we have outlined above.   Darwin and Darwinian models of progress, Peirce thought, violated our religious and moral sentiments.

What makes Peirce of particular interest is that Peirce, a trained scientist, chooses sentiment over Darwin.   Although he is best known as a philosopher–as the inventor of pragmatism and as a contributor to the logic of relatives–Peirce prided himself as a “laboratory-trained thinker” and he had little patience for theology, deductive metaphysics or rationalism..   Charles received the first bachelors of science degree (summa cum laude) from the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University.   He served on the Coast Survey for much of his adult life.   He was the first American delegate to an international scientific association.   And yet despite Peirce’s commitments to the scientific community and method, in “Evolutionary Love” we find Peirce defending religious sentiment over the Darwinism of his contemporaries.   Readers familiar with Peirce will recall his conviction that a natural logical instinct for hypothesis plays an essential role in scientific method.

Peirce was fond, for example, of citing Galileo’s reliance on il lume naturale in hypothesis formation.   But in “Evolutionary Love” Peirce takes a more perilous step.   Not merely our logical instincts, but our deepest human sentiments, are to be given some authority in our choice of scientific hypothesis.   Both before and after “Evolutionary Love” Peirce almost always insisted that sentiment should not interfere with theoretical or scientific pursuits.   But in this 1893 essay Peirce grants sentiment access to the laboratory.   “[T]he strong feeling is in itself,” Peirce suggests, “an argument of some weight .  .  .  .”[3]  “Sentimentalism” becomes an epistemological doctrine, the claim that “great respect should be paid to the natural judgements of the sensible heart.”[4]  Peirce’s response to our fundamental contradiction was to give sentiment the benefit of the doubt and then see if he could figure out a way to make the sentimentally inspired hypothesis scientifically respectable.   What follows is an explanation of his experiment and a brief commentary on its value.

Love as an Evolutionary Power

As an alternative to the “Gospel of Greed” Peirce presents an evolutionary scheme inspired by the Gospel of John.   In “Evolutionary Love” Peirce offers an alternative to Darwin’s hypothesis by making a case for agape–Christian love–as the driving power of evolution, organic and otherwise.   This is a scientific hypothesis inspired by religious sentiment.

Peirce’s first task is to show how the very idea of agape could be understood to imply an evolutionary “formula” at all.   He begins making his case by pointing out the implied association between growth and agape in the writings of John.   His exegesis is a bit hasty, but his general conclusion is pretty much on the mark.   Agape, in fact, is the derivative of a verb–agapan–which was probably associated with growth (in the Greek vernacular) well before its usage in Christian or even Jewish (Septuagint) texts.   And, indeed, in the Christian tradition we find this love functioning as a transformative power.   In the simplest terms, it is the agape of the Christian God that transforms the sinner into a person who is herself capable of agape.   Anders Nygren, in his monumental Agape and Eros, writes:  “[T]he full depth of Divine agape is not seen until it appears in ‘the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’.   Here God’s love is displayed in the redemption of lost sinful men, who not only could not save themselves from sin and death, but deserved the very opposite of salvation…”[5]  As grace, agape transforms the sinner.   It brings the sinner into fellowship with God.   Agape fosters a spiritual evolution.

What, then, are the general features of this evolutionary model?  Peirce offers what he believes to be the implied teleological structure of “agapic” evolution.   Essential to agapic growth, Peirce claims, are both the freedom of the beloved to deny God’s love and the power of agape to influence this free choice.   On the one hand, God’s love does not force the beloved to accept it.   As Nygren writes: “Grace does not destroy free will, but simply gives it a new object and so a new direction and aim.”[6]  The beloved is free to deny God and to remain a sinner.  And yet, on the other hand, God’s love does exercise some constraint.   God’s love is a gentle power which has a decided tendency to affect the sort of choices the beloved makes.   God’s love has the power to transform the beloved from her life of sin into a life of fellowship with God.   The beloved has a tendency to herself become agapic.   And so the love of the Christian God for the sinner ideally–though not necessarily–transforms the human being.   Just as the Christian God loves the sinner, so does the transformed human being become capable of loving his enemy.   Christian agape, in sum, implies a model of evolution in which growth is directed but not determined.   In technical terms, we might say that agape cannot be reduced to efficient causation–to coercion or force.   But though agape does not use force it is not without power.   It fosters a spiritual evolution through the power of final causation.   The choice of ends, the very essence of the evolutionary process for the human spirit, is affected by the teleological sway of God’s love.   In agape, final causality exercises some influence on free choice.

By drawing out the specifics of a teleological model implied by the idea of Christian agape, Peirce tries to clarify the vague sentimentalist hypothesis that reality is fundamentally beneficent.  Peirce tries to remain within the realm of scientific respectability, in other words, by deducing some empirically verifiable consequences from his hypothesis.   Pragmatism, invented by Peirce, is the doctrine that the meaning of an idea is equivalent to our conception of its sensible effects.   The pragmatic clarification of an idea is the second, deductive, step of scientific method as Peirce understood it.   It now remains to be seen if this hypothesis, inspired by sentiment, and clarified by the pragmatic method can withstand what Peirce considered the final, inductive stage .  Is there any reason to believe something like this teleological model is actually at work in the cosmos or, for our purposes, in nature?  To make his best case, Peirce appealed to the work of Jean Baptiste Lamarck.

Love and Lamarckian Evolution

Lamarck’s Zoological Philosophy was published in 1809.   It is now common to consider Lamarck a significant figure in the history of evolutionary thought, and it is therefore easy to overlook the fact that Lamarck was not influential in his own lifetime.  By the late-nineteenth century, however, intellectuals were searching for theories of evolution which might serve as alternatives to Darwin, and Lamarck’s work enjoyed a newfound interest.  Lamarck is best known for his theory that acquired characteristics are heritable.  This theory is only a small part of his theory of evolution, but it is the part that was considered by many to be a palatable alternative to the action of natural selection.  In Peirce’s context Lamarck represented a genuine alternative toDarwin, and Peirce saw Lamarck as providing a scientific theory of organic evolution which could potentially provide support for his sentimentalist hypothesis.

Lamarck argued that evolution was governed by two “Laws of Nature”:  The “Principle of Use and Disuse” and “The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics.”  The former states that the frequent use of an organ will gradually strengthen it whereas the infrequent use of an organ will gradually weaken it.  For organisms not beyond the years of their physical development, the felt needs of the organism therefore cause certain traits to develop and others to decline.  In other words, the ends of the organism in its environment affect which traits develop and which atrophy.  The principle of use and disuse is hardly controversial in itself.  It is obvious that organisms acquire characteristics through use and exercise, for example.  What makes Lamarck’s theory a theory of evolution, however, is the second principle, “The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics,” which states that the effects of use and disuse are passed on through reproduction to succeeding generations.  Evolution therefore occurs as traits with adaptive value acquired during the life cycle are passed on through reproduction.  Organisms sense the needs of their environments, respond through the gradual modification of their own features, and pass these features on to their offspring.  The inner striving of the organism to achieve a better adaptation to its environment thus, in contemporary terminology, alters not only its phenotype, but also its genotype, thereby making possible the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Peirce makes the connection between Lamarck and agape by suggesting that they share a basic teleological structure.  On the one hand, Peirce thought that Lamarckian growth could not be reduced the action of pure efficient causation.  End-directed behavior in an organism or elsewhere, Peirce thought, required a freedom from necessity.  This, Peirce implied, was an essential difference between the Lamarckian model and orthogenesis.

On the other hand, while some freedom from necessity seemed like a necessary condition of Lamarckian growth, it was also obvious to Peirce that the new traits which arise for the organism are not random.  The new adaptive features which bring about the evolution of the species arise in the context of the ends of the organism.  They are affected, in other words, by some final cause.  In the Darwinian model variation is random, random in the sense of being completely independent from potential adaptive value.  The genetic mutations which make evolution possible are in no way affected by final cause, and this is why some second orienting factor is necessary to direct evolution.  It is natural selection per se that gives the process direction.  Whether or not natural selection is to be called a teleological process because it does, after all, produce adaptive features with a statistically disproportionate frequency is less important for us than the fact that it is not teleological in the Lamarckian sense.  In Lamarck’s model the new variations are not random.  The character of the variations is influenced by the ends of the organism.  This is why the Lamarckian model requires no second orienting factor.  Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics requires only that the effects of final causality be sustained through reproduction.

With this understanding of Lamarckian teleology in mind, we can see why Peirce might have speculated that Lamarckianism provided some inductive support for his sentimentalist hypothesis.  In Lamarckian evolution Peirce saw a teleology at work that was at least analogous to the teleology of agape.  The Christian God does not transform his creatures by forcing them to choose the good.  The human being has a genuine freedom.  Likewise, the new features of the organism in Lamarckian evolution are not necessitated; they cannot be reduced to blind efficient causation.  Neither of these end-driven processes, in other words, can be explained by pure necessity.  But in both of these teleologies, the new possibilities that do arise are not random.  In agapic evolution, God affects the free choices of the beloved.  The power of love is a gentle tendency which tends to affect our moral choices.  Likewise, variations in the Lamarckian model are not random.  They are affected by the purposes of the organism.  The evolutionary tendency, in both cases, is not the result of some second orienting factor; it is the result of what Peirce calls a “genuine sympathy” between the more and less general ends.  This genuine sympathy is the power of final causality.  In sum, both agapic and Lamarckian evolution bring about progress that is neither determined nor random.  Seizing on this similarity, Peirce could then claim that “this account of Lamarckian evolution coincides with the general description of the action of love.”[7]  Peirce saw Lamarckian evolution as a possible way of supplying inductive evidence to the sentimentalist hypothesis that the cosmos was fundamentally beneficent.  Lamarckian evolution would become the derivative, in the organic realm, of cosmic agape.  This, in a nutshell, is the argument of Peirce’s “Evolutionary Love.”

Sentiment and Science

Does an appeal to the work of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck render Peirce’s experiment an obvious failure?  Although what is referred to as Lamarckianism has enjoyed a number of periods of relative interest since 1809, it seems doubtful that an appeal to Lamarck as inductive support for Peirce’s hypothesis will satisfy most contemporary scientists or theorists.  Does Peirce’s work, then, stimulate anything more than an historical interest?  I think that there are three reasonable ways of assessing the value of “Evolutionary Love.”  Two of them would take Peirce’s experiment to be more than a historical oddity.

One could interpret “Evolutionary Love” as one more concrete example of why sentiment has no place in formation of scientific hypothesis.  One could, in other words, look back on this essay, as many Peirce scholars have, and see it as an excellent illustration of the precise sort of mistakes one is likely to make once sentiment interferes with science.  Our deepest hopes about the fundamental nature of reality have no place in our scientific hypotheses about this reality.  This, recall, is not equivalent to denying a place to scientific intuition.  Peirce was consistent in his commitment to the reality of a logical instinct, an instinct for hypothesis that the scientist cannot do without.  But the introduction of religious and moral sentiment was a step that Peirce–far more often than not–warned against.  And so we could look back to “Evolutionary Love” and find a Peirce who marred his legacy by a desperate and awkward attempt to do “hard” empirical justice to his religious sentiments.  This would be Peirce at his worst, Peirce betraying his own admonitions that scientific theory must be kept separate from both sentiment and practice.  “Evolutionary Love” and Peirce’s “agapastic” cosmology become, in the words of one scholar, the “black sheep” of his corpus.  He knew better.  And now we see what an awful embarrassment the whole endeavor really was.

While this is not an unfair or unreasonable criticism, it does of course leave us back where we were in the first paragraphs.  If one does possess the religious sentiment, a feeling that there is some beneficent reality beyond or beneath or within the physical, then one is caught in something that is more than a foolish inconsistency.  To the extent that people do not possess this sentiment, of course, the difficulty disappears.  Indeed, we must admit that each person who does not possess the religious instinct is himself one small argument against its epistemological significance.  This reaction to Peirce is a fair assessment of the value of sentiment from a strictly scientific point of view.  It would be foolish to suppose that this reaction to Peirce’s “Evolutionary Love” is unreasonable.

A second, less obvious, response is to hold out hope that future advances in evolutionary theory will suggest that Peirce wasn’t quite as wrong as he might have seemed in the recent past.  We could say, in other words, that Peirce’s project must for the moment be considered a failure, but may, in the future, be vindicated.  As Steve Jones noted in his recently published Darwin’s Ghost, “The idea that a character acquired in an animal’s lifetime can be handed on was once anathema, dismissed…the first lecture of every genetics course.  It is now common place, but the notion is a detail on the edifice of genetics and not its foundation.”[8]  Perhaps, in other words, we are not in a position to cast a final verdict against the inheritance of acquired characteristics, a process of evolution that seems to be in harmony with the teleology implied by religious sentiment.

This is a less obvious response, but it is not, I would suggest, unreasonable.  The beauty and strength of the Darwinian model is that it is a theory.  Some would of course try to use this word “theory” against Darwinism, but we know better.  We know that what makes Darwinism so powerful, such an awesome accomplishment–an accomplishment over one-hundred-and-fifty years in the making–is that it is a theory, a theory that is neither static nor final nor perfect, but, at least, a theory.  This distinguishes it from a mere hope, a religious dogma, or a deductive metaphysical system.  But this also means that it is not certain knowledge.  In light of the absolute mass of empirical evidence we posses for Darwinism, it would seem that the basics of contemporary evolutionary theory–family quarrels notwithstanding–are about as true as true gets.  And they are.  The problem is that “true,” for the human being, only gets so true.  There is always the possibility that some more general theory may eventually come along and make contemporary neo-Darwinism a corollary.  To deny this, I think, would be a very historically common mistake.  In short, our second option is to admit that sentimentalism is a tentative failure and to continue to pursuing science in the hope that we shall, quite independently of any sentimentalist hypothesis, come upon conclusions consistent with a sentimentally inspired hypothesis.

A final option is to admit the failure of Peirce’s appeal to Lamarck and to still see his essay as a standing success.  This is the perhaps the least obvious option.  In what sense could we consider “Evolutionary Love” a success?

For one, it is an absolutely exemplary essay if one wishes to understand how vague sentimental beliefs might be clarified in such a way that they can be tested.  Peirce has attempted to put the religious sentiment–or at least one version of it–into empirically verifiable or falsifiable terms.  This is pragmatism at its best.  Surely one success of “Evolutionary Love” is that Peirce has offered a reasonable translation of the religious sentiment into an empirically falsifiable teleology.  This in itself is a significant accomplishment.  But how could we consider the essay as a whole a success when the pragmatically clarified sentimentalist hypothesis seems to fail?

Perhaps the real success of “Evolutionary Love” is that his hypothesis does fail.  The hypothesis failed, and so the method worked.  This reading of “Evolutionary Love” would suggest that we have no reason to fear the place of sentiment in science because all sentiment can ever do is offer a hypothesis.  Sentiment is not its own verification.  Peirce shows us how we can pursue a sentimentalist hypothesis without compromising scientific method.  Surely the fact that sentiment might tempt us to compromise our scientific integrity is no argument against sentiment itself, no more than the existence of private financial interest in research is an argument against the scientific method itself.  This third response, I would suggest, cannot be considered unreasonable.

The response any one of us has to Peirce’s “Evolutionary Love” may have much to do with whether or not the religious hypothesis is for us–in William James words–a “live” hypothesis.  If this sentiment exists for us and if this sentiment is in a fundamental contradiction with our current scientific knowledge, we have the option of living with this fundamental disharmony or pursuing hypotheses that do justice to the sentiment.  It is not, after all, impossible that our sentiments and our science should someday harmonize.  It seems to me that to deny the pursuit of this ideal, to deny that this is at least a reasonable position–it need not be the correct one–is dogmatism.  It is to deny the very experimentalist spirit that one would ostensibly defend.


1 It is now commonplace to note, for example, that the doctrine of fixed species had no special relationship with Christianity until the rediscovery of Aristotle in the middle ages.  We now see an irony of St.  Augustine’s appeal to the Stoic doctrine of rationes seminales in his attempt to defend a sort of evolutionism he thought was actually implied by scripture.

2 Darwin, On the Origin of Species.  New York:Mentor Books: 1958, p. 450.

3 Charles Peirce, “Evolutionary Love,” p. 357.  The most commonly referenced scholarly edition of Peirce’s work is still the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vols. 1-8, Harvard University Press, 1960-66.  A Chronological Edition of Peirce’s work is slowly taking its place.  References to Peirce’s work below will be from the somewhat more accessible The Essential Peirce, Indiana University Press, 1992, Vol. 1.

4 Ibid., p. 356.

5 Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros.  New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1969, p. xii.

6 Ibid., p. 103.

7 Charles Peirce, “Evolutionary Love,” p. 361.

8 Steve Jones, Darwin‘s Ghost.  New York: Random House: 1999, p. 104.