Solving Wallace’s Problem and Resolving Darwin’s Doubt

I want to consider, in light of fairly new philosophical and scientific research, two long-standing conceptual objections to evolutionary theory: Wallace’s Problem and Darwin’s Doubt.

It is well-recognized that Wallace saw the need for some supernatural intelligence in explaining human evolution, in contrast to Darwin’s naturalistic speculations in Descent of Man. What is less recognized is that Wallace was, in an important sense, right. He squarely faced the problem, “can natural selection alone account for the unique cognitive abilities of human beings, such as abstract thought, self-consciousness, radical reshaping of the environment (e.g. clothing, building), collective self-governance by ethical norms, and the symbolic activities of art, religion, philosophy, mathematics, logic, and science?”  Whereas Darwin thought there was continuity between humans and non-human animals, his evidence is primarily amount emotional displays, rather than the genuinely cognitive discontinuity.

A closely related problem, however, was squarely faced by Darwin: the question, nicely phrased in his famous letter to Asa Gray, as to whether it is plausible to think that natural selection can have equipped a creature with a capacity for arriving at any objective truths about the world.  (It is not often noted that in that letter, Darwin says that he believes in an intelligent creator — what is in doubt is whether natural selection gives him reasons to trust in his cognitive abilities.)

These two questions, Wallace’s Problem and Darwin’s Doubt, are two sides of the same coin: if natural selection (along with other biological processes) cannot account for the uniquely human ability to grasp objective truths about reality, then we must either reject naturalism (as Wallace did) or question our ability to grasp objective truths about reality (as Darwin did).

Call this the Cognitive Dilemma for Naturalism. Can it be solved? If so, how?


What I want to suggest is that we can solve Wallace’s Problem and resolve Darwin’s Doubt by assembling the following materials.

1. A philosophical revolution that I call “embodied discursive pragmatism”. Discursive pragmatism, in C. I. Lewis, W. Sellars, and Robert Brandom treats language as logically prior to thought, such that we can explain intentionality and semantic content in terms of language (rather than treating language as the mere vehicle by which logically independent thoughts are communicated). Language here is a kind of activity; languaging is something that we do, and we are enlanguaged beings because of what we have learned to do. To this, embodied discursive pragmatism stresses that language is itself a particular way of being an embodied being —  speech (and writing) are themselves ways of enacting an embodied way of life.

2. Recent work in niche construction theory, embodied-embedded cognitive science, comparative primatology, and paleoanthropology (none of which were available to Wallace or Darwin).

Assembling these philosophical and scientific resources allows us to understand how, in the first instance, many animals generally are able to arrive at a primitive kind of proto-objective (and proto-subjective) knowledge by being able to reliably track objects across space and time (even when not being perceived directly), recognize that co-occurent sensing through different sensory modalities can have the same spatio-temporally coextensive causes, correlate exteroceptive and interoceptive information (necessary for distinguishing movement-caused perceptual changes and perceptual changes not caused by the animal’s own movement), learn, predict, imagine, and infer.

In the second instance, the construction of a uniquely hominid niche involved obligate cooperative extractive foraging. While extractive foraging is common in primates, and many great apes use tools to extract foods from their environments, humans are cooperative in extractive foraging (and must be so). Adequate provisioning requires that everyone in the group who is able to contribute will in fact contribute to the provisioning of everyone else, through division of labor that involves hunting and scavenging; setting traps for small animals; gathering nuts, seeds, berries and herbs for foods and medicines; cleaning and cooking food, making clothing, weapons; transmitting to future generations the knowledge of how to do all these things through active teaching.

Obligate cooperative foraging involves two important cognitive transformations: displaced reference and joint intentionality. Displaced reference, which put hominids on the road to language, is the capacity to communicate about objects and events that are not perceptually present to (at least) the hearer. Joint intentionality is the ability for two creatures to take an object as their shared object of attention, to know of the other creature that it is also attending to that object and to want them to do so, so that the two creatures can coordinate their actions in order to succeed at a task that neither of them could accomplish alone (or which would take much more time or energy to do so).

Displaced reference as a communication system, whether vocal or gestural, puts hominids on the road to language. (The next major hurdle would the evolution of syntax.)  Joint intentionality puts hominids on the road to collective intentionality and thence to culture, art, religion, exchange of goods and services, and so on.

But once we see, with embodied discursive pragmatism, that all there is to be explained is our ability to play the socio-linguistic game of giving and asking for reasons as itself a particular form of animal embodiment, then we can see that there are no insurmountable obstacles to getting to that point from a sufficiently rich, empirically informed of animal cognition in general and of primate cognition in particular.

And thus we can solve Wallace’s Problem and resolve Darwin’s Doubt: we can explain our capacity for rational discourse and objective thought in naturalistic terms.

78 thoughts on “Solving Wallace’s Problem and Resolving Darwin’s Doubt

  1. John Harshman: Natural selection is measured neither by quality of life nor infant mortality, but by relative contribution to the next generation.

    How can this be known, other than what exists exists.

    How can you decide what the relative contribution is? More nonsense evolution speak.

  2. Gregory

    I’ve moved another of your comments to guano. Please make more effort to abide by the rules.

  3. Kantian Naturalist: So what’s needed here is an account of the selective pressures that drove the co-evolution of language and cognition, including the ability to engage in the kinds of speech acts that are central to reasoning.

    From the perspective of evolution, I think it is the evolution of eusociality that needs to be explained. Language and cognition exist because of their contribution to eusociality.

    And I do wonder whether there is analogous to language in naked mole rats.

  4. walto: FWIW, I also have a Ph.D. in philosophy (though no B.S. in bio), and I often don’t understand what you’re doing and why, but I don’t think it’s because of a caricature about what philosophy is and about the difference between philosophy and science.

    He’s doing pragmatism. It’s something extraordinary and amazing every time I see it. Always equally pointless too. Lack of sense of direction is definitional to it. And also lack of foundation. These features it shares with postmodernism. I always wondered how postmodernism became recognised as a philosophical school. It had to borrow from somewhere that had the same pretentions.

  5. Neil Rickert: From the perspective of evolution, I think it is the evolution of eusociality that needs to be explained. Language and cognition exist because of their contribution to eusociality.

    I think that’s right. Eusociality demands communication. Solitary organisms don’t need the baggage.

    And I do wonder whether there is analogous to language in naked mole rats.

    I think they say it in pheromone.

  6. Kantian Naturalist: Sure, co-evolution sounds great. That doesn’t remove to need to identify the selective pressures that drove the co-evolution of language and cognition.

    The lack of evidence means we can hypothesize freely! 🙂 We are here, what we are, and our ancestors branched off from our nearest shared ancestor with apes around six million years ago. The route from what I presume was a group of organisms fairly similar in cognitive capacity to modern chimps to where we humans are now is largely speculative. The greatest acceleration in cultural evolution takes place when, morphologically, our ancestors become indistinguishable from humans of today.

    And here the differences between language and ape communication are important, right? Here’s the thing: the vocalizations and gestures of great apes correspond to what we call, at the linguistic level, directive speech acts. They are ways of manipulating the behavior of others: begging for food, asking for grooming, initiating play or sex, challenging a rival, etc. And even apes that have been taught to sign almost never communicate anything besides directives.

    I think we are still learning how chimp society works. I’m not convinced that the signing experiments with Washoe and so on have enlightened us on how they think in wild social groups. I think Jane Goodall’s observations (especially how the chimp, Frodo, fared) have been more insightful.

    The significance of this should not be overlooked: great apes do not make assertions. They do not express something that they take to be true and which others can accept, endorse, challenge, criticize, etc. in short, they can’t play the game of giving and asking for reasons. That’s something that humans start acquiring at the age of three or four.

    Perhaps not, but it seems in social interactions, they can play the long game and plan for preferred outcomes.

    So what’s needed here is an account of the selective pressures that drove the co-evolution of language and cognition, including the ability to engage in the kinds of speech acts that are central to reasoning.

    I’m not disagreeing with you at all. What I am seeing is an interesting black hole from when all the morphological ducks are in a row, say 80,000 years or so ago and then the “dawning” of human civilization, which appears to kick in only 10,000 years or so ago.

  7. Kantian Naturalist:
    I sometimes worry that many people at TSZ don’t understand what I’m doing and why, and that’s largely because of a certain caricature about what philosophy is and about the difference between philosophy and science.

    Then again, some understand you a bit too well.

    Kantian Naturalist:
    I do not think that science could ever supersede the need for philosophy, nor do I think that philosophy investigates a different kind of reality than that of science, nor do I think that philosophy is superior to science or science to philosophy.

    This is unfair to both philosophy and science at the same time. Philosophy and science may be investigating the same reality, but they are not investigating it the same way, and the difference is important. Science even doesn’t have a concept of reality, but philosophy has.

    Compare math and biology. Yes, both investigate the same reality, inasmuch as math is investigating anything, but biology has the concepts of cellular life, reproduction, gene, etc. that math doesn’t have and cannot have. Actually it can use the same words, but as a matter of principle those words cannot denote the same things in math as they denote in biology.

    Or compare a hanky or a rock in your fist. You can deter a fly on somebody’s forehead using either one. Same result, so no matter which one you use, right? Well, even on this level, there’s somewhat of a difference.

    Similarly, there are important differences between philosophy and science. You are very unclear on those differences, as if making baby steps in discovering them, while ferociously fending off any guidance. Looks like that.

  8. Alan Fox: I think they say it in pheromone.

    And, indeed, they may be better in speaking pheromone than we are.

    We suck at it, apparently: expensive musk colognes, notwithstanding.

  9. Alan Fox: Social groups need to communicate. In a forest niche, vocal communication has advantages over visual communication and signalling.

    Tell us a story Alan. Please.

  10. Kantian Naturalist: I see philosophy and science are inter-dependent. We have no better way of discovering truths about the world than through science, but we also need philosophy to understand the concepts we use to interpret the world around us (and also, importantly, ourselves).

    Yes, there seems to be a great deal science cannot tell us about ourselves. One wonders then if it is also the case that there is a great deal that science cannot tell us about the world.

  11. Erik: He’s doing pragmatism. It’s something extraordinary and amazing every time I see it. Always equally pointless too. Lack of sense of direction is definitional to it. And also lack of foundation. These features it shares with postmodernism. I always wondered how postmodernism became recognised as a philosophical school. It had to borrow from somewhere that had the same pretentions.

    What you see as a mere “lack of foundations” is actually an explicit commitment to anti-foundationalism, because there aren’t any.

    And just for the record, in case anyone is interested, the link between pragmatism and postmodernism is a shared ancestry in Hegel.

    Pragmatism, somewhat in Peirce and emphatically in Dewey, takes as a point of departure Hegel’s criticism of Kant.

    Kant criticized both Lockean empiricism and Leibnizian rationalism for their failures to account for the cognitive grounds of the claims they made. But Kant thought that a pure a priori analysis of Reason could do what was necessary for “any metaphysics that is come forward as science” (to quote the subtitle of the Prolegomenon). But Hegel, following Hamann’s call for a “metacritique of pure reason”, understood that Reason could not play that role precisely because Reason has a developmental history of its own. The supposed “necessities” of reason are themselves really contingencies of history. Of course Hegel himself tries valiantly to rescue necessity by ascribing a necessity to the developmental history of Reason itself, but this solution quite nicely fails, because here we see that Hegel’s critique of Kant applies just as much to Hegel himself.

    Peirce once remarked that his version of pragmatism is pretty much what Hegel would have invented if he had been trained in a laboratory rather than a seminary. And Dewey’s debt to Hegel has been well-documented.

    The Hegelian ground of “postmodernism” is also nicely documented, though I find “postmodernism” a useless term to cover to very different and quite unique philosophers. But taking as a group Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze — leaving aside Lyotard and others — it is not hard to see how each of them takes up the French reception of Hegel, especially in Jean Hyppolite. The Hegel-Deleuze relationship is of particular interest to me.

    And there are aspects of both Dewey and Deleuze that find fascinating convergences with Adorno, who also has a complicated relationship with Hegel through his so-called “negative dialectics”.

    One of the big ideas I have taken from Adorno is the basically aesthetic dimension of all judgment. All judgment is aesthetic — or to use Kant’s term, “reflective” — meaning that in the act of judging, one seeks a equipoise or equilibrium between concept and object. It’s a matter of attending to the sensuous particularity of the object, not unreflectively subsuming it under a pre-existing concept, but rather — to put it metaphorically and perhaps unhelpfully — asking of the object what concept would be most adequate to it.

    The “non-identity” of concept and object for which Adorno is well-known arises, on my view, because of the “mismatch” between perceptual representations (which are action-guiding for the successful coping of the individual embodied/embedded cognitive agent) and linguistic representations (which are action-guiding for the success of cooperation actions in a linguistic species). And the “mismatch” can be explained in both evolutionary and neurological terms.

    I’m well-aware that Adorno would have a violent reaction to my attempt to synthesize his negative dialectical theory of cognition, which is completely embedded in the materialistic metacritique (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud) of German Idealism (Kant, Fichte, Hegel), with contemporary pragmatist embodied cognitive science. No doubt he would see as scientism of the vilest, basest sort!

    Nevertheless I’m convinced that not only is it possible and desirable to naturalize (in evolutionary and neurological terms) negative dialectics, but also that doing so will allow us to appreciate what is true and false in Adorno’s critique of ideology.

  12. These two questions, Wallace’s Problem and Darwin’s Doubt, are two sides of the same coin: if natural selection (along with other biological processes) cannot account for the uniquely human ability to grasp objective truths about reality, then we must either reject naturalism (as Wallace did) or question our ability to grasp objective truths about reality (as Darwin did).

    Call this the Cognitive Dilemma for Naturalism. Can it be solved? If so, how?

    The problem is that if you accepted these premises with respect to the peacock’s plumage, you’d have to reject “naturalism.” And some think that intelligence may be more the result of sexual selection than of natural selection. In truth, I suspect that it’s hard even to know if natural selection or sexual selection were more important, since even sexual selection for intelligence might be the result of natural selection pushing females to choose mates for more intelligent offspring.

    I suspect that many good questions await time machines before they can be definitively answered.

    Glen Davidson

  13. walto: FWIW, I also have a Ph.D. in philosophy (though no B.S. in bio), and I often don’t understand what you’re doing and why, but I don’t think it’s because of a caricature about what philosophy is and about the difference between philosophy and science.

    Oh, that’s because I’m not very good at it. Totally different issue.

  14. Erik: This is unfair to both philosophy and science at the same time. Philosophy and science may be investigating the same reality, but they are not investigating it the same way, and the difference is important. Science even doesn’t have a concept of reality, but philosophy has.

    At no point did I neglect the difference. I simply didn’t see the point of making it explicit, since I assumed everyone here understands the difference.

    As I see it, the difference is (roughly) as follows.

    In science, we construct testable models of underlying processes and relations — usually (but not always) models of causal processes and relations. These models are tested by being brought to bear against reality through experimentation and disciplined, constrained observation. Science is fundamentally in the explanation business.

    In philosophy, we don’t get explanations, but rather conceptual analyses and some degree of normative guidance. We reflect on the adequacy and inadequacy of conceptual frameworks — examining (for example) inconsistencies and incompatibilities between judgments and families of judgments.

    Science needs philosophy to avoid conceptual confusions, and philosophy needs science to be constrained by how the world really is (insofar as we have any grasp at all of how reality is) rather than by speculation, intuition, or prejudice.

  15. Kantian Naturalist: In philosophy, we don’t get explanations, but rather conceptual analyses and some degree of normative guidance.

    I think that philosophy ought to explain why/how it is that in philosophy we don’t get explanations but in science we do. 🙂

  16. Kantian Naturalist: I sometimes worry that many people at TSZ don’t understand what I’m doing and why, and that’s largely because of a certain caricature about what philosophy is and about the difference between philosophy and science.

    I shall put it as bluntly as I can: I see philosophy and science are inter-dependent. We have no better way of discovering truths about the world than through science, but we also need philosophy to understand the concepts we use to interpret the world around us (and also, importantly, ourselves).

    I do not think that science could ever supersede the need for philosophy, nor do I think that philosophy investigates a different kind of reality than that of science, nor do I think that philosophy is superior to science or science to philosophy.

    In the work I am currently doing, I am using a lot of recent stuff on neuroscience, comparative primate psychology, paleoanthropology, and niche construction theory in order to show how to naturalize rationality.

    Maybe you don’t care about whether rationality can be naturalized. That’s fine. I do.

    (Just to note, I have a BA in biology and a PhD in philosophy. I really do know what I’m talking about.)

    KN I don’t know if that was meant to be directed at me (whether directly or as part of a group), but I just want to say I didn’t mean my response to be denigrating towards philosophy. I was not arguing that philosophy does not have anything interesting or worthwhile to contribute to this discussion (or that it is somehow being superseded by science), but I was being quite literal in what I wrote.

    I’m very well aware of this very unfortunate stereotype of philosophy that has emerged in the last 10 years, at times advanced by people like Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, that philosophy is dead and has not contributed anything to modern science. I would even contend that to even say such a thing is nothing short of ignorant.

    Back on topic, I think it is possible to solve this problem by basically looking at things like energy requirements of information processing, survival and reproduction and cell+developmental biology.
    I would say that we don’t have to start talking about theories of cognition or language, to explain our “unique” cognitive abilities. Nor whether natural selection gives us reason to trust these more abstract kinds of reasoning as opposed to more direct spatio-temporal problem solving skills like reacting to sensory-input.

    My claim here would be that we can explain these things with common evolutionary and “materialist” causes and interactions. At the most basic level our abilities are due to more information processing tissue. So in so far as we accept that the brain is the reasoning organ, more organ means more reasoning, to put it very bluntly. That doesn’t mean we go straight from a chimpanzee-level intelligence to playing chess and making metal-tools. At a very long period before we start seeing technology in the fossil record, there must have been a time of our ancestors getting better at reasoning, foresight and planning. All of which aided survival and reproduction, without this necessarily being accompanied directly by tools.
    Planning is a form of abstract reasoning, planning aids survival and reproduction.

  17. Moved some comments to guano.

    @ Gregory

    I’ve asked you to abide by the rules. I’m now activating pre-moderation for your account. PM me if you want to discuss this.

  18. Mung: Tell us a story Alan. Please.

    Whilst there are only the bare bones to weave around that story of how evolution wrought the changes in a population of apes from six million years ago and on to arrive at us humans, I find it plausible. Can you tell a different story that fits the facts?

  19. Interesting, I just tried posting here, and MY comments are also being held up in moderation. What is that all about Alan?

  20. phoodoo,

    Moderation issues should be discussed in the appropriate thread. I have moved your comment to guano. You can re-post it in “moderation issues”.

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