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BBTC, Chapter 7
Goal-Causation and Natural Selection
by Will Thomas

Date: 18 Apr 1995
Forum: Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy
Copyright: Will Thomas

In his seventh Chapter, Binswanger completes the presentation of his theory of teleological explanations. After noting that the nature of life is conditional (no news to Objectivists), he proceeds to argue that only survival-value can be a true and proper "goal" as required by his theory of goal-directed action, presented in earlier chapters. The chapter is then concerned with elucidating this argument and addressing the connection between Binswanger's view of teleology and the findings of evolutionary science.

"An action that has been naturally selected is one whose re-occurrence is due to its past success in contributing to the survival of the organism." (P.91)

There are two distinct ways in which this "past success" can causally affect the present mechanisms and actions of an organism. In the first case, which Binswanger terms "ontogenetic selection," the performance of actions by the organism itself affects the organism's ability to survive and repeat those actions. This seems fairly straightforward to me. The second case is "genetic selection," in which the effect of certain actions on the ability of the organism's ancestors to reproduce is deemed to thereby have contributed to the existence (and thus survival) of the present organism.

Binswanger is making a heroic attempt to place the survival of the individual unequivocally at the center of all accounts of teleology and natural value. By making "ontogenetic" and "genetic" selection two species of natural selection as defined above, Binswanger is attempting to secure Ayn Rand's claim that all value must be understood as relating to the survival of the individual. Since most evolutionary theory takes it for granted that the propagation of the species or the gene is the effective goal of natural selection, it is surprising how successful Binswanger is in this regard. He is certainly right to insist that any improvement in reproductive fitness must also manifest itself in the existence (and thus survival) of individual offspring, and thus a methodological individualism of evolutionary biology is not only possible, but to be expected.

Still, one must wonder how far this attempt can succeed. While I accept that most organisms embody a pattern of programmed action that must ensure successful reproduction in order for the new generation to survive, I also find that this brings some apparent contradictions into view. Consider, for example that most organisms are created with a "programmed" obsolescence built in (amoeba and, I hear from a friend, lobsters, are exceptional in this regard, I take it). When this obsolescence, i.e. aging, sets in, the self-repairing mechanisms of the body are induced to cease functioning. This always occurs after reproduction has been possible, and the explanation for this behavior seems to be that it prevents the previous generation from competing for resources with the new one. Is this behavior necessary to reproduction? Amoeba and lobsters? reproduce without it. It appears that a selection between the survival of one generation and the survival of the next has been made, and it will at least take some explaining to show how this squares with Binswanger's view of natural selection. I'm not saying it can't square (in fact, I hope it can), but rather that the task appears daunting.

List members have often debated whether or not teleological causation is fully reducible to Physics and Chemistry. It is plain in this chapter that in a certain sense Binswanger believes it is not. For example, on p. 97 we have: "In giving a causal account of the continued existence of the mitochondria we MUST make reference to the survival contribution made by the ATP produced in past instances of the functioning of the mitochondria." This doesn't imply that with full knowledge we cannot run a computer model of a bacterium in a model environment using the laws of physics and chemistry, but rather that if we did so the persistence of the structure called "bacterium" would still be a fact demanding some kind of higher-level account.

In conclusion, Binswanger presents his "causal spiral" diagram of teleological causation, often foreshortened as:

... action1 -> goal1 -> survival1 -> action2 -> goal2...

I bring this up because Binswanger has been accused in some quarters of giving away too much to Mr. Hume, and it seems to me that in fact this formalization is a useful and essentially unobjectionable perspective. Binswanger is here characterizing the causation of a pattern of action taken by some organism, he is not taking actions as primary. Furthermore, since in this case the cause and the ultimate effect are usually separated in time, this sequential account of causation has every practical utility. I also hope it plain by now that Binswanger believes that it is the survival value of the goal that causes the organism to seek new instances of the goal. See, e.g., p. 117: "A `goal-directed action' is a self-generated action caused by the survival value of past instances of its goal." I think any Objectivist account of teleology and value must be in essential agreement with this view.

There are many issues raised in the chapter, particularly the applications of the theory to the cases of ATP, phototropism, and the heartbeat, which demand further consideration. But as this is at the limit of my opinions and competency at the moment, I hope other list members will be able to fill us in on this score.

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