Nature, Freedom, and Responsibility: Ernst Mayr and Isaiah Berlin – eminent scientists from early 20 century

Nature, Freedom, and Responsibility: Ernst Mayr and Isaiah Berlin – eminent scientists from early 20 century – Abstract

Strachan Donnelley

As moral beings, we humans are faced with an increasingly urgent theoretical and practical task for which we are singularly ill prepared: thoughtfully considering as one human communities, nature, and our long-term ethical responsibilities to the human and natural future. Sociobiology aside, for too long humans and wider animate nature have been examined apart from one another and not in their essential interactions, whether in the biological and ecological sciences, the social sciences, philosophy and ethics, theology, or practical policy and action. To counter this trend and squarely face the philosophical and moral challenge, I want to undertake a comparative study of Ernst Mayr and Isaiah Berlin.

Why bring together Ernst Mayr, the eminent twentieth-century evolutionary biologist and theorist, and Isaiah Berlin, the equally eminent political philosopher and historian of ideas? What might they jointly contribute to an articulation of a moral worldview for the future? More than we might expect, given that one is a professional naturalist, the other a “human culturalist”–two camps often, if not invariably, at loggerheads, the first mainly concerned with the natural evolution of organic life, the other with the expressions and social institutions of human beings. Yet if deep and fundamental analogies and commonalities–as well as differences–can be found in the thought of Mayr and Berlin, our philosophical and moral ears ought to prick up. Humans and nature are brought closer together in philosophical understanding and at least the outlines of a timely and comprehensive moral worldview may come into sight.

To start, Mayr and Berlin share certain biographical coincidences that are, in the end, significant. Both were born in Europe–the one a Christian (if not avowed atheist), the other a Jew. Both lived through most of the twentieth century, with its fateful and cataclysmic events, in Anglo-American countries: Mayr in the United States, Berlin in Great Britain. Both had European-style educations and sensibilities, particularly an authentic and central interest in the history of ideas, the one chiefly biological and philosophical, the other cultural and philosophical. And both, as their writings demonstrate, are convinced that ideas matter, whether in scientific exploration, human history, or everyday life.

Mayr and Berlin believe in the power and constitutive necessity of worldviews in human affairs. Mayr is straightforwardly concerned with developing and articulating a Darwinian worldview that comprehends not only animate nature but also human life, which, as a scientist and naturalist, he conceives to be carried out within evolutionary and ecological parameters. Berlin in his own more or less indirect or “fox-like” way explores the foundations or lineaments of a politically liberal worldview.

What is striking and important, as we shall see, is that Mayr and Berlin have common intellectual enemies or antagonists and are lured and animated by analogous features of natural and human reality. Both cast a relentlessly critical eye on all forms of cosmic teleology (purpose), crude determinism (scientific or other), and metaphysical mischief (simplistic forms of a priori, rationalistic thinking). Both focus their intellectual attention and ethical concern on fundamental themes of diversity, pluralism, community, and the significance, practically and morally, of individuals, human or other.

Ernst Mayr

We may begin with Ernst Mayr and the broad strokes of his account of the Darwinian revolution in biology, which he considers so profound and far reaching that it moves well beyond scientific theory and constitutes a genuine shift in philosophical and moral outlook, whether or not most of us have made this shift or adequately fleshed out its implications (Mayr, 1991: 101).

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 core Western cultural and intellectual traditions that trace their roots back to Plato, the pre-Socratics, and beyond, calling into question central and fundamental presuppositions.

According to Darwinian thought, evolution is an eminently natural process, marked fundamentally by historical dynamisms, causal contexts, contingencies, and the particularity and uniqueness of biological entities. The first great pillar of Western tradition to fall is cosmic teleology: nature conceived as the straightforward grand design of a grand divine designer (Mayr, 1991: 50). Rather, nature in passing engenders its own forms of organic order–genetic, organismal, communal (populational), ecosystemic, bioregional, and biospheric. There is a recurring evolutionary two-step–genetic variation (genetic mutation and sexual recombination) and natural (and sexual) selection–that favors those who can survive to reproduce (by whatever means: adaptive advantage, luck, or other; singly or in combination) (46, 68 ff.). The evolutionary two-step challenges, of course, central Judeo-Christian traditions and theologies in which creation of the world is intelligently (rationally) directed.

Perhaps less conspicuously, modern Galilean-Cartesian-Newtonian science, with its reductive analyses and hegemony of efficient causes–“billiard balls in motion”–is similarly challenged (1991: 40, 48). The biological realm is a much more complex, historically contingent, probabilistic, and stochastic affair than the traditional physical sciences would have it. In animate nature, multiple causes are always at work on multiple spatial and temporal scales–a hierarchy of causes or influences that can only be recognized by a systems thinking that transcends mere linear strands of efficient causation. Moreover, and equally as telling, Darwinian biologists confront a form of matter unknown to physical scientists–the “informational matter” of DNA, with its programmatic instructions for an organism’s phenotypic development, somatic and behavioral (108 ff., 132 ff.). This curious, historically engendered form of matter breaks the bounds of traditional materialist, physicalist, causally deterministic science. There are not only the “proximate” causes of organic phenomena, physiological or other, that may be explained or interpreted in terms of physical and chemical reactions but also “ultimate” causes: the historical story of the evolution (coming into being) of the particular genetic programs (genomes) themselves, the ongoing interplay of genetic and phenotypic variation and environmental pressures (natural selection) (52). The form-giving or form-directing potentialities of historically engendered informational DNA is an enigma or “black box” to classical materialist science, which cannot capture, let alone rigorously predict, the complex and concrete interactions of organisms and their environments. (Alfred North Whitehead and Hans Jonas, among others, have similarly and persuasively emphasized the inability of classical Newtonian sciences to deal with the phenomena of organic, including human, life.) (Whitehead, 1968;Jonas, 1984).

The third pillar of the Western tradition to fall is the most crucial and far reaching (Mayr, 1991: 40). This is essentialist or typological thinking. The species-type “dog,” “cat,” “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 worldviews. Enter populational thinking at the core of evolutionary biology’s explanations and explorations (41 ff.). With rare exceptions (cloning, identical twins), all organisms are genetically and phenotypically unique, different from all others. Species or taxa of organisms are now understood as potentially or actually interbreeding populations of these organic individuals. The taxa or populations themselves are considered concrete historical entities or individuals, with their own reality, as constituted by their interacting and finite (mortal) individual organisms. Moreover, the variation among organisms, their particular and unique individuality, is not inconsequential or merely adventitious. It is the very warp and woof of animate life on earth, a central feature of the historical, evolutionary drama. Without the requisite genetic and phenotypic variation provided by individual organisms, there would be nothing for natural selection to select. Life would and could not adaptively evolve within populational species or engender reproductively isolated populations (that is, new species). What was peripheral to traditional essentialist worldviews is at the core of the new Darwinian worldview–a crucial 180 [degrees] shift in perspective (26 ff.).

The conception of an individual as a “populational being” connotes a sea change in systematic philosophical thinking. An essentialist conception of an individual–conceived either as a species-type or an individually unique being–easily lends itself to atomistic thinking: the individual conceived as essentially unrelated to the world, alone by itself, in need of no other (Descartes’ definition of a substance). Not so with the concept of a populational individual, which is fundamentally and necessarily tied to the historical world and a life carried out among others. A particular world history lies behind the individual’s very uniqueness of being, in particular its genome (its historically engendered informational DNA), which must interact with its specific present environment, including individual organic others, if its particular phenotypic body and behavior are to emerge. Moreover, for fundamental metabolic reasons, such as energy capture, an individual organism (for example, an animal), must enter into and interact with the world, and if it is to play an ongoing if modest role in evolutionary and ecological history, that is, reproduce and pass on genetic information, it cannot remain isolated, alone by itself (unless it belongs to an asexual population). In short, populational individuals are not only biologically unique and particular but fundamentally related to the historical, temporal, ongoing world.

Mayr’s own philosophical worldview and world commitments here come to the fore. Mayr is fascinated with the diversity of individual populational species, ecosystemic and bioregional life; with life’s past history, present and future. In biological explanation, philosophical 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 a “tinkering” animate nature purposelessly pulls off its evolutionary twists and turns. He celebrates life’s particularities and contingencies, its messiness and openness to unplanned novelty.

In all this Mayr remains naturalist, materialist, empiricist, and pragmatist. He will accept only naturalist (and historical culturalist) explanations, no matter how conjectural or open ended. He holds philosophical and theological rationalists–all a priori reasoners–at bay. They are at bottom essentialists, ill-begotten children of Plato. Yet he equally staves off crude reductionists, materialists, and determinists and insists on the central and ongoing importance of scientific and philosophical speculation (hypothesis making) held 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 guide organic development and behavior (Mayr, 1991: 67). These genetic programs can be closed (hardwired) or open ended, that is, amenable to modification or learning through environmental, including cultural, interactions. He thereby blocks and repudiates cosmic teleology or goal directedness while leaving open the possibility, if not the empirical reality, of naturally circumscribed free will or choice (and thus responsibility) of organic individuals, including human beings with their historical communities and cultural information in particular (154 ff.).

This is not to say that Mayr’s evolutionary perspectives escape all philosophical problems and solve all riddles. How to think together natural reality, human freedom, and responsibility continues to plague philosophers and has historically prompted speculative philosophical flights that Mayr, the philosophical naturalist, dismisses. Here he may remain in a genuine philosophical aporia. As a naturalist and avowed materialist, he has an interesting new matter on his hands: “informational” DNA. Whether or not this new form of matter and the natural world of which it is a part can support a philosophical interpretation of genuine, even if circumscribed, human freedom and responsibility and escape determinism is an open question. But at least Mayr has significantly refocused the terms of the argument and the frame of thinking from which we can retackle the issue. This is the philosophical bequest of the Darwinian revolution, as interpreted by Mayr. The demise of cosmic teleology, classical determinism, and essentialism and its replacement by populational, evolutionary, and ecological thinking offers a new framework and opportunity for reapproaching the question of human freedom and responsibility.

Isaiah Berlin

It is with the questions of free will (choice) and human responsibility that we can usefully turn to Isaiah Berlin. Throughout his long intellectual career, Berlin was adamant that unless we can save genuine, if circumscribed, freedom of choice and human responsibility from the clutches of universal determinism (of whatever sort), then logically we must radically revise our understanding of the human, cultural, and moral landscape (Berlin, 1969:14 ff., 77 ff.). In everyday life, however, no one does this, which is evidence that in fact or practice, no one–or very few-genuinely believes in determinism. Berlin does not set out to prove conclusively (“for certain”) that determinism is false metaphysically or ontologically (he sees no a priori philosophically or epistemologically legitimate way to do this), but he suspects and is “morally” convinced that the thesis of strict determinism–that antecedents totally determine consequents, with no room for the spontaneity or responsibility of free choice (free will)–is a concatenation of overweening scientific, philosophical, and theological thinkers or ideologues. It is not a thesis of ordinary human life and everyday human beings–though the problem of free will is a genuine philosophical, perhaps unresolvable puzzle that recurrently plagues “the best and the brightest,” including Berlin himself.

Berlin firmly takes his philosophical stand in everyday life and with ordinary people and views the human, cultural, and moral landscape from this worldly vantage point, which throws an interesting light on major and variously motivated thinkers and on the cultural history of the Western tradition (1969: 69, 87 ff.). Berlin, like Mayr, is an empirical thinker: he will accept only the evidence of recurrent human experience and reflection. He casts a skeptical, suspicious, yet often generous and critically appreciative eye on all those great (and small) thinkers, systematic or not, who invariably “wildly exaggerate” and distort their genuine insights into human life. Such wild exaggeration strikes Berlin as a characteristic feature of the human landscape, itself worthy of critical interpretation.

Berlin is particularly interested in exaggerated claims of philosophical, theological, and metaphysical knowledge and all forms of deterministic theses scientific, philosophical, theological, or other (1969:41 ff., 118 ff.). The foremost deterministic threat of our day is, of course, the scientific determinism of the physical sciences and their sociological and psychological behavioristic brethren. Their fateful pronouncements and pronouncers are also Mayr’s targets of criticism, and it is curious and perhaps instructive that Berlin does not avail himself of the Darwinian naturalist’s critique of Newtonian physicalism or determinism. (Despite Berlin’s vast knowledge, how well did he know the field of evolutionary biology, particularly as interpreted by the naturalism? Do we have here another instance of a failure to think together humans and nature?) Nonetheless, Berlin, with or without this potent ally, will not accept the subterfuge of any form of determinism, “hard” or “soft.” My life may be ruled by the molecules of my body, or I may be free to choose courses of action, my choices themselves determined by causes independent of me, but the one is no better than the other. Genuine human agency and freedom (that is, self-initiated choice and action)–and thus genuine moral responsibility–are denied. Either we have genuine freedom of’ choice and bodily action, however circumscribed by natural, psychological, or sociological causes, or we do not (1969: xiii, 64 n.).

Berlin is convinced neither philosophically nor morally by the determinists, and his critiques are characteristically undergirded by one grand, overarching, “hedgehog” idea. Determinists of all stripes, agendas, and motivations try to smooth out a very messy human world. In the name of rational knowledge, the moral law, God, historical destiny, or some cosmic mystical force, these grand simplificateurs deny what is evident to any judicious empirical reading of human life and cultural history: that the ends (goals), values, and characters of human individuals, communities, and cultures are innumerable, often inherently in conflict with one another, and cannot be reconciled in theory or practice (1969: 45 ff., 169 ff.). (We should recall here the messy, dynamic diversity of Darwin’s and Mayr’s evolutionary and ecological nature.) Nevertheless, a dominant theme of traditional Western thought, whether scientific, philosophical, or theological, has been to deny this fundamental fact of human reality and cultural and political life. Ultimate truths, values, and goods, it is held, cannot clash among themselves. All “positive” realities must form a seamless harmonious whole, a “perfection”–at the beginning or end of history, in heaven, or in a Platonic realm of eternal forms–somewhere, lest human life and worldly reality make no final, intelligible sense (8 ff., 55 ff., 128 n., 145 ff., 167 ff.).

Berlin will have none of it. “The harmony of the spheres” (the perfection of all good things) may be a deep and incurable metaphysical need, but it is demonstrably at the heart of considerable metaphysical, theological, philosophical, scientific, political, and moral mischief as well as historical human tragedy, not the least in the twentieth century. In the name of human dignity, worth, and responsibility, Berlin would rather have us stare historical worldly reality squarely in the face and accept, affirm, and morally respond to human diversity and inevitable conflicts in all their individual, communal, and cultural guises. This is Berlin’s famous empirically and historically informed pluralism, his firm stand against all those past, present, and future who would try to straighten out the “crooked timber of humanity” and deny the inevitability of human mortality, finitude, vulnerability, conflict, and tragedy. Incurable metaphysical desires need not doom us to political and moral immaturity (1969:80 ff., 172). Rather, we ought to face responsibly the worldly life and human nature that we have been dealt by the actual historical course of things, human and natural.

Intersection and Overlap

Berlin’s radical suspicion of all doctrines that proclaim an ultimate harmony of all good things, in whatever human dimension, intersects and overlaps Mayr’s “Darwinian” critique of all forms of cosmic teleology, Newtonian determinism, and philosophical essentialism. What are we to make of this intersection and overlap, this emphatic return to the everyday world of human beings and broader organic life?

Berlin’s skepticism and pervasive critiques are aimed at saving the phenomena of ordinary historical and cultural human life–above all the freedom of choice and action and attendant responsibilities that determine the course of our lives and our futures individually, communally, and culturally. Mayr’s critical philosophical and scientific explorations characteristically are meant to appreciate, understand, and promote the diversity of organic life and historical evolutionary and ecological processes. These twin aims are correlative. Moreover, the striking analogies of Berlin’s and Mayr’s fundamental worldviews, when purged of inherited metaphysical pretensions, ideological agendas, and discernible conceptual errors, are philosophically and morally telling. Both Mayr and Berlin are left with a dynamic world of historical becoming, populated with diversely charactered individuals and communities, facing a future in principle unpredictable. Their worlds are different: the world of animate nature and evolutionary ecological life, and the world of human cultural activity, laced with human significance and meanings unknown for the most part to non-human nature. Nevertheless, the fundamental lineaments or basic ontological structures of these worlds are analogous, if not the same. This correspondence should not surprise us, once we have cleared our heads of inadequate worldviews. We humans are manifestly and undeniably natural organisms, historically and ecologically evolved, human organisms that have carved out and created our own cultural life while remaining within wider evolutionary and ecological nature and processes. On this, both Berlin and Mayr, I think, would agree.

The similarities and the analogies go further. Recall Mayr’s crucial move to populational thinking and populational individuals, particular and unique genetically and phenotypically, interconnected and interacting, the ultimate focus of evolutionary and ecological processes. Once Berlin has critically swept away the recurrent metaphysical conception and pretension of a divided human self, higher (true) and lower (worldly)–the higher self belonging to the harmony of all good things (reason, the moral law, God, historical destinies, etc.)–and once he returns to our ordinary, empirical, everyday selves, he finds similarly characterized individuals: diverse, particular, unique, interconnected and interacting, individuals whose sense of themselves as active, free, responsible human agents depends on how many opportunities and avenues of worldly action are open to them and how these opportunities and avenues are valued by their human, cultural milieu (1969:130 n., 131 ff., 154 ff.). In the background to this deeply social conception of individual human life are unmistakable echoes of Mayr’s biological individuals leading a natural, interconnected, communal and worldly life in particular ecological niches. The only difference is the “human difference”–an important difference indeed with respect to cultural capacities, realized achievements, and moral action–but a difference that does not change the basic ontological structures of individuals, community interactions, and the historical world.

The philosophical puzzles of free will and moral responsibility, along with the emergence of a fully human conscious, thinking, and valuing life, do not go away. But for Mayr, and I hazard Berlin, it is open-ended genetic programs that provide the naturally evolved capacities, or at least allow, for this human difference. The empirical, skeptical, antimetaphysical temper of both thinkers would not allow an agnosticism with respect to “the human difference” (human minds or selves): that they might arise from an ahistorical, platonic, or aworldly elsewhere. Both are too committed to this world and its historical processes, humans and natural. For such worldly committed thinkers, the solution to the enigma of free will and the human difference will be found in natural and cultural processes or not at all.

By jettisoning all presumptuous metaphysical, theological, and philosophically rationalist props, Berlin and Mayr are not left with a moral lacuna, floodgates open to radical relativism, the bete noir of traditional essentialists. Quite the opposite. Berlin speaks again and again of the “permanent interests of mankind” that have come into being over the course of human history and are now inherent in our idea of what it means to be human: equality, justice, solidarity, courage, compassion, self-direction, and more; above all, a space for uncoerced freedom of choice and action within which to become our own unique individual selves, with life plans of our own (“negative liberty”) (1969:94 ff., 165 ff.). These are ultimate plural values that may–indeed will–clash, but they are nonarbitrary “objective” human interests that must be taken into account, somehow coordinated, adjusted, or prioritized in any important moral and political decisions about the present and the future, whether individual, communal, or cultural. The more such ultimate, humanly satisfying, and important values and interests, the richer our lives, no matter the clashes and conflicts that must be adjudicated, both within and between ourselves and our communities.

Mayr could (and on occasion does) speak equally about the permanent interests of all living beings and natural evolutionary and ecological processes. He points to the conservative side of ever-changing evolution: to basic bauplans (bodily forms) and holistic, systemic genomes; to ongoing genetic, metabolic, physiological, ethological, ecosystemic, bioregional, and biospheric needs; and to plural practical and moral reasons for protecting biodiversity and the self-generative and recuperative capacities of evolutionary and ecological systems and processes (Mayr, 1991: 117 ff., 145 ff., 162; 1997:169 ff., 194-200). But the moral drama of humans and nature has just begun in earnest or, rather, begun anew. We must learn to yoke together the permanent interests of humankind and wider animate nature, whatever the inevitable conflicts and our considerable ignorance of how to deal with them. Human beings and nature must be not only protected and promoted; they must be protected and promoted together. Much morally and philosophically follows from considering together the thought of Ernst Mayr and Isaiah Berlin and their returning to us the blessings and burdens of freedom and responsibility for both humans and nature.

In sum, for Mayr and Berlin the worldly future is by necessity unpredictable and yet to be determined. This is the gift of historical becoming, of contingency and circumscribed human choice. In principle we cannot have prior moral answers for we know not what. However, the worldly future will emerge out of a historical past, with its evidence, more or less discernible, of the permanent interests of an evolving nature and humankind. Our freedom and responsibility, ever morally flexible, must ensure that these twin permanent interests survive and flourish together in the human and natural flux.

Moreover, it is significant in this convergence of philosophical thought that the moral centers of gravity of Berlin and Mayr mirror one another. Above all else, Berlin stands up for “negative liberty”: the requisite room for individuals by historical trial and error to become their unique, fully human selves, humanly free and responsible. Mayr has his own form of “negative liberty” at the center of his naturalistic moral universe. There must be enough biological diversity–unique individuals, populations, ecosystems, and bioregions–for evolutionary and ecological processes to flourish. All of life, human and other, needs room to become its particular self. Pluralistic variety and worldly responsibility set against monocultural straightjackets and simplistic answers are at the heart of both Berlin’s and Mayr’s calls to moral action. A road is open for bringing together humans and nature in a comprehensive moral worldview, no matter how much further we need to travel.

Nature, Freedom, and Responsibility Revisited

Up to this point I have stressed the commonalities, similarities, and convergences of the thought of Mayr and Berlin. What about their differences? Can the differences instruct us further in a philosophical interpretation of the interconnections of nature, freedom, and responsibility? I think they can.

I have already noted Berlin’s relative lack of attention to Darwinian evolutionary biology and natural science in general. They did not seem to fit the broad interests of Berlin the philosopher and the historian of ideas. Why? A clue, I think, can be found in Berlin’s attention to Vico and Herder, and Vicoian science in particular. For Vico, contra Descartes and Newton, we can only comprehend and empathetically understand the human, that which is made, accomplished, and suffered by human beings. Nature, the “billiard balls in motion” of Newton, must forever remain opaque and impenetrable to us. We can have only an “externalist” knowledge of nature, whereas we can have an “internalist” understanding of human affairs precisely because we ourselves are human and know what it is like to be human from the “inside” (Berlin, 1998: xxix, 340 ff.). Like knows like, and we have nothing in common with physicalist nature except our mechanistic, nonsubjective organic bodies. Broadly speaking, Berlin marches under this Vicoian banner, is intensely interested in all things human, and is only passingly interested in nature.

Mayr is centrally and deeply interested in nature and seems interested in things human primarily as they relate to the growth of science and biological thought in particular, as well as our moral and communal responsibilities to humans and nature as informed by evolutionary biology and ecology. Unlike Berlin, he seems serenely untroubled by the problem of free will and spends little or no time seeking its philosophical resolution. (Mayr does sketch the historical emergence, natural and cultural, of a Berlinian free will and responsibility, but the sketch betrays no philosophical anguish and is pursued under skies free from the menacing clouds of determinism.) (Mayr, 1997:248 ff.). Why?

I think the answer lies in the fact that Berlin and Mayr conceptually entertain two different “natures”: the classical physicalist nature of Newton and the modern biological nature of Darwin. Newton’s nature has nothing to do with us, save instrumentally (practical resources), theoretically (scientific exploration), and perhaps spiritually (God’s handiwork as disclosed by natural theology). Darwin’s nature, on the other hand, has everything to do with us, since all life, including human life, is commonly descended and follows common (if plural) evolutionary and ecological processes, which are not deterministic in the Newtonian sense. Moreover, in the new Darwinian context, Vicoian science must in principle be reconsidered and expanded. If “like knows like” in virtue of what is held in common, then we must be able to comprehend and empathetically understand other forms of animate organic life, no matter the difficulties spawned by species differences. We are animate organisms ourselves. We have the epistemic arsenal to understand the quick from the dead and life’s capacities, triumphs, and tragedies. Both philosophical logic and everyday experience attest to this fact of our human nature.

By emphatically recognizing ourselves as natural organisms, we in principle can know more than Vico and perhaps Berlin would explicitly claim. They were stopped in their tracks by Newton’s science of nature, which knows no organic life, but is confined to “dead nature.” (This in essence is Whitehead’s and Jonas’s critique.) We no longer need to be so stymied.

As noted, Mayr speaks of the natural evolution of open-ended genetic programs and the coevolution (natural and cultural) of brains, language, mind, and historical societies, all of which have allowed for the emergence of genuine circumscribed human freedom and responsibility in Berlin’s sense. But being a natural scientist comfortable with “black boxes” unnecessary to his explanations, Mayr’s reflections remain more or less philosophically relaxed and “externalist.” They leave us without an “internalist” insider’s rich understanding of how a morally inspired and responsible human animal comes about. Mayr carries us through kin and group selection for the requisite genetic propensity for altruistic, other-regarding moral capacities and character. He further claims that historical human cultural communities engender moral altruism (care for the other, the social community as a whole, the common good) (Mayr, 1991:154 ff.; 1997: 256). But can we not, at least in philosophical speculation, penetrate further? Can we not bring nature, freedom, and responsibility even more intimately and intelligibly together?

Acknowledging the need here for philosophical speculation, I want to exploit the fact that we are naturally evolved organisms with culturally, humanly derived capacities and information. Given our historical worldly situation, what does “like knowing like” mean theoretically and practically?

For a specific and revealing example, I want briefly to turn to Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949) and Leopold’s land ethic. The land ethic proposes that we humans should become plain members and citizens (not conquerors) of the land, upholding the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community or the “land” (all flora and fauna, including ourselves, and the supporting abiotic elements) (Leopold, 1949:203 ff.; Mayr, 1997: 268). How and from whence could he derive this novel ethic? According to A Sand County Almanac, the ethic emerged from Leopold’s firsthand experiences of nature, as informed by his personal, cultural, and scientific upbringing.

In “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Leopold tells of a mountain trip to eliminate wild predators for the sake of game populations (deer) and their human hunters. On the trip, one of Leopold’s party kills a she-wolf, and the fading of the “fierce green fire” in the wolf’s eyes prompts a radical conversion in Leopold’s way of thinking about the world, specifically the importance of top predators in maintaining robust ecological and evolutionary processes (1949:129 ff.). In a chapter entitled “Marshland Elegy,” Leopold ponders sandhill cranes, with their time-honed (evolutionary, ecological, and ethological) wisdom and beauty. The cranes carry him back to times immemorial, to natural and human origins, to an appreciation of the ecological role of cranes in building marshland reality and goodness past, present, and hopefully future (95 ff.). These are only two of countless such instances recounted in A Sand County Almanac that deliver Leopold’s substantive and normative land ethic.

Leopold’s ethic may strike us as coming dangerously close to deriving moral “oughts” from an “is,” a cardinal sin in traditional philosophical ethics. What is going on here?

In brief, we have the culturally informed human organism, Leopold, encountering other living organisms (animals) in their natural landscapes. With the interaction of the human experiencer (with a complex, historically and culturally engendered self) and the natural animate world encountered emerges an experience and an interpretation of the world rich with meaning, significance, and values, ascribed or ascribable to humans and nature. Are not such experiences the result of interactors and interactions within a worldly context, a biologist’s definition of an “emergent property” (Mayr, 1997: 19-20)? Who or what is responsible for Leopold’s experience and interpretations? Leopold the experiencer? The wolf and mountain, the cranes and marshland? Or both in their interactions? The most philosophically natural explanation is the latter. Leopold no doubt brings a culturally (humanly) learned Darwinian biological perspective to these worldly interactions, but the scientific perspective is “swept up” into the immediate, value-laden world experience prompted by the encounter and interaction. Moreover, such episodes of personal experience can make sense and have meaning only because Leopold is a naturally evolved organism himself. Like can only appreciatively know like. Our being natural worldly organisms and cultural interpreters of the natural and human world go hand in hand. (Here in a specific example is the epistemic expansion or broadening of Vico and Berlin). What else possibly could account for the kinship, solidarity, and other values that Leopold feels for flora and fauna?

The moral culmination of such episodes of culturally interpreted experience, the land ethic, no matter how much reflected on, seems “natural,” seems to fit

with Leopold’s value-laden experiences of the human and natural world, which moves him to promote its goodness. Has he fallen victim to the dreaded “naturalistic fallacy,” confounding the “is” and the “ought”? Yes and no. The felt or experienced goodness of reality that emerges from the interaction of the human (organic) experiencer and the world encountered accounts for the experiential roots or ground of substantive moral injunctions. But the emergence is an interpretation of reality’s character, significance, meaning, and goodness (or evil). It is not natural reality in its (unexperienced) starkers. Furthermore, the interpretation can be reflected on and checked against further encounters with the world, with their accompanying (and expanding) “interpretative emergences.” This may be as close as we can come to bringing together nature with genuine human freedom and responsibility, but it is getting very close indeed and we are the better for it. For this we have to thank not only our cultural and social inheritance and nurturing, but also and emphatically our natural status as animate, biological, mammalian, human organisms in the evolving ecosystemic world.

With these final philosophical reflections we have come a long way from Descartes, Newton, and even Vico. We have Darwin and his modern proponents and interpreters to thank, Ernst Mayr in particular, and his (perhaps unwitting) ally, Isaiah Berlin.


Berlin, Isaiah. Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

–. The Proper Study of Mankind. Eds. Henry Hardy and Roger Hansheer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Jonas, Hans. The Imperative of Responsibility. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949.

Mayr, Ernst. One Long Argument. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.

–. This is Biology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997. Whitehead, Alfred North. “Nature Lifeless” and “Nature Alive.” Modes of Thought. New York: Free Press, 1968.

Strachan Donnelley, Director of the Humans and Nature Program at the Hastings Center, is the author of Wolves and Human Communities (coeditor with Sharpe and Norton, 2000), and the article “Human Nature, Views of” in the Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics (1998). His current project is entitled “Ideas of Humans and Nature.”

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