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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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The Hegelian dialectic: A productive method of evolution?

Kate Shiner

Ernst Mayr pioneered the study of the history of biology and the philosophy of biology as a valid discipline. Furthermore, he is widely considered to be one of the most important architects of modern evolutionary theory since Charles Darwin. In his recent obituary in The New York Times, Carol Yoon describes Ernst Mayr as "a strong believer in the Hegelian dialectic as a way of advancing understanding." (1) What underlies the Hegelian dialetic is the assumption that a continual clash of opposites; the thesis and the antithesis, is required in order to generate a synthesis which advances beyond both. However, this model for the evolution of human understanding directly conflicts with the widely accepted variable population model Mayr supports in regard to biological evolution. Are biological and cultural evolution fundamentally opposed in this respect?

Following the Hegelian tradition Mayr was known make bold, inflammatory statements regarding his views on evolution, inviting rebuttal and debate. In the Preface to his book What Evolution Is, he writes, " account is directed to those creationists who want to know more about the current paradigm of evolutionary science, if for no other reason than to be able to better argue against it." (2) He then begins the first chapter by listing a number of "Anticreationist Books," and states that he considers creationist stories as opposed the "real truth" that only science (and presumably, his version of evolutionary theory) can provide.

However, in this same book Mayr emphasizes the historical importance of what he calls "population thinking" as opposed to "essentialism" in allowing for the modern understanding of biological evolution. He writes, "What we find among living organisms...are not constant classes (types), but variable populations...every individual is uniquely different from every other individual." He also states that this type of thinking "...favors the acceptance of gradualism." Mayr emphasizes that this shift in perspective is no small detail, and goes on to assert that "Population the foundation of modern evolutionary theory and one of the basic constituents of the philosophy of biology." It is apparent that Mayr fully accepts the concept of gradualism as a driving force behind biological evolution. Nevertheless, from his historical approach as well as his introductory comments it is also apparent that he believes an essentialist and brusque approach is the most productive way to drive the evolution of the scientific discipline.

Is the "population thinking" approach to biological evolution completely valid? I believe it is, with one important exception. It is conceivable to imagine how life may have evolved all the way back from the randomly vibrating particles produced after the big bang. Although all the details have not been worked out, scientists can imagine how natural (even randomly evolved) forces may have brought together the particles in certain ways to form elements, then stars and planets. We can also imagine how natural selection could begin to work on certain clusters of these randomly assembled particles to evolve into life. All of these processes fit into the variable population model of evolution.

However, before the big bang could occur all of the matter in the universe must have been collected together, and then expanded into empty space. This fundamental contrast between matter and the empty space it is in brings to mind the Hegelian dialectic. Here, it seems, thesis and antithesis must come together to create synthesis. The strict categories of matter and absence of matter are essentialist and typological. Therefore, although population thinking is a valid way to understand current biological evolution, essentialism in the form of thesis vs. antithesis cannot be completely dismissed from the process.

How productive is the Hegelian dialectic to the evolution of the scientific "story" or of stories in general? Could its function here be similar to that in biological evolution, a way to jumpstart the process but ultimately irrelevant or even destructive to progress? I believe this is precisely the case.

Studies done by Albert Rothenberg, a psychologist at Yale, suggest that personal creativity positively correlates with an "oppositional responding" style in free association tasks. (3) This style is defined by people who associate a word with its polar opposite. He suggests that people who are best able to process ideas of simultaneous opposition are often able to come up with new perspectives that integrate both points. In this way I believe the Hegelian dialectic does spur creative progress, because a "problem" must be defined before a new story to resolve it, or an answer, can be created.

However, I believe this approach does at some point lead to stagnation and even destruction. I think this is best illustrated by the fact that both Stalin and Hitler's regimes derived their principals from Hegel's philosophy. (4) The idea that a thesis and an antithesis must be reconciled after they are defined is very central. If one theory is consistently supported, as the theory of evolution is compared to the theory of creationism, then the previous antithesis is no longer promotes creativity. Mayr seemed to feel that creationism was still a formidable antithesis, even though he insisted that by his definitions it had been thoroughly disproven. This is where his approach was more inflammatory than constructive. It would seem that the only way his thesis could now evolve is from a population approach. Many scientists are now attempting to gradually refine and build upon the theory of evolution in this way. Some of them may be former creationists, or still define themselves as creationists but essentially support the theory of evolution. There is no way to know which from which unique perspective the next developments will come.


1) Yoon, Carol K. "Ernst Mayr, Pioneer in Tracing Geography's Role in the Origin of Species, Dies at 100." New York Times: 5 Feb. 2005.

2) Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York, NY: Basic Books. 2001.

3)"Contradictory Association." The Stress Doc website

4)"Sutton, Anthony. "'Left' versus 'Right' and the Hegelian dialectic in American politics." Prison Planet: 9 July 2003.

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