Swenson: Advances in Human Ecology, Vol. 6, 1997
Wittgenstein took this latent idea of cultural Cartesianism, and made it more explicit. The epistemic dimension of the world, rather than constituted through the self-referential circular relations of the individual human mind as it was for Descartes, was constituted through the intersubjective circular relations of humans within a cultural system. Meanings, said Wittgenstein, are formulated and stated in "language games" consisting of a set of rules that constitute closed circles of meanings. There are no individual meanings because there is no individual language, and because such systems are closed circles there can be no ostensive pointing or reference to anything outside the system (i.e., an objective "world"). What is more, because meaning is entirely relative to the rules of each system, and thus meaning invariance across cultural systems is denied, such circles of meaning are incommensurable with respect to each other. Truth thus varies from one closed circle to the next, and can only be measured with respect to the rules, or authority, of a particular community.
In the influential history and philosophy of science of Kuhn, Wittgenstein's closed-circle language games were turned into paradigms, and the history of science seen as the shift from one paradigm to another (scientific revolutions). Because reality is taken to be the ideal construction of human cognizers operating under particular paradigms, and since paradigms as closed circles are incommensurable with each other, there is no way to talk of progress in science, a direction in time, or advancement from one paradigm shift or revolution to the next. Without meaning invariance there is no way to make a comparison. On this view, Einstein's physics, for example, does not subsume or explain Newton's but is simply different. Neither one is "truer" than the other‹they are simply incommensurable. The post modern structuralism of Foucault, Derrida, and the post-modern pragmatism of Rorty, which uses Foucault, in effect, to justify Wittgenstein (Munz, 1987), are all closed circle theories that share the common premises of the relativity of meaning to circularly closed systems, and the incommensurability of such systems with respect to each other and an external world. Closed-circle theory carries forward the anti-realist position of positivism, but at the same time challenges its rationality.
While closed-circle theory is often given as a kind of enlightened alternative to modernism, it is itself modernism carried to a certain post-Humean, post-Kantian, extremized conclusion‹the Cartesian core is still there only wrapped in sociological packaging, and regressed from the individual to cultural level. The most severe problems fall into three main areas:

1) Closed-Circle Theory Is Anti-Evolutionary

The first main problem area concerns the fact that because closed circles are incommensurable with respect to each other there is no way to assert that they are part of an evolutionary process, or that any such process even exists. There is no way to provide an ordinal measure with respect to time. Closed-circle theory is time-symmetric. From the view of closed-circle theory, Einstein's theory could just have well have preceded Newton's, the theory of oxygen could have preceded the theory of phlogistan, the theory of heat, and the conservation of energy could have preceded the caloric, and the periodic table of elements might just as well have come before the theory that earth, fire, air, and water constituted the basic elements. Closed-circle theory thus fails to recognize, or account for evolutionary dynamics (or cares too), and this includes the active, and expansive nature of the epistemic act, or epistemic dimension, itself. This anti-evolutionary foundation is underpinned by the intersubjective idealism of closed-circle theory which extends, and extremizes the Cartesian-Kantian anti-ecological tradition of effectively putting humans at the center of the universe.

2) Closed-Circle Theory Invokes An Illegitimate Teleology

The second main problem area is the illegitimate teleology at the core of closed-circle theory. Closed-circle theory, including its functionalist ancestors, by making the fundamental reality the circular relations that define a cultural system, substitute formal causality (the form, or shape of a thing, in this case the circular relations) for the usual efficient cause that constitutes the usual notion of causality in modern science (e.g., such as that found in various bottom-up rationalist schemes such as "psychologism", or in billiard-ball mechanical models in physics). Cultural systems, are seen to be self-organizing systems of sorts, that function, in the production of their components or component relations towards their own ends, which, in particular, is to maintain themselves. This takes causality beyond the simple efficient causes of mechanical reductionism (it adds a kind of formal causality), but from the ground of modern science from which it starts, and for which no replacement theory is offered, there is no principled basis provided for where such ends or end-directed behavior can come from. The ends simply point back to themselves, and this is precisely the problem that discredited virtually every one of closed-circle theory's functionalist ancestor's before it (Swenson, 1990; Turner and Maryanski, 1979). The teleology of closed-circle theory is thus more of a kind of religious than scientific assertion. It requires defeating some widely held scientific assumptions, but provides no principled basis for doing so.
In particular, downward causality has traditionally been rejected by biology, on the one hand, because it does not fit into the explanatory framework of natural selection, which, as will be discussed more fully below, does not include populations of one, and by physics, on the other, because downward causality constitutes macroscopic ordering in a world which according to the received view of thermodynamics, should be collapsing to microscopic disorder. In addition, no matter how it is assumed closed-circles get ordered in the first place, the fact that they remain so sui generis, or without outside relations or ostensive pointing, makes them perpetual motion machines of the second kind, a flight in the face of what many (e.g., Eddington, 1958) have called the most fundamental and unbreakable of all the laws of physics.

3) The Intersubjectivity At The Core Of Closed-Circle Theory Begs The Old Cartesian Questions And Doubles The Problem

The third main problem area is that the intersubjectivity at the core of closed-circle theory begs the old Cartesian questions, and simply regresses, or doubles, the problem. Briefly put, meanings for the closed circle theorist exist in the persistent and invariant relations constituted through the intersubjective relations that define the closed circle. To each individual, however, this requires persistent and invariant relations with a world outside herself or himself, and this requires a non-Cartesian theory of perception. In short, the intersubjectivity of closed-circle theory requires breaking the Cartesian circle at the individual level since the individual mind is no longer simply perceiving itself, but something external in relation to which it comes to be determined or defined, and this requires a commensurability between knower and known which undercuts the ground of closed-circle theory. Once the individual Cartesian circle is broken, there is no principled basis to maintain the cultural one (viz., one has admitted the fundamental existence of a self-other relation, there is no principled basis to confine this only to other humans).


The Second Postulate of Incommensurability

Cartesian metaphysics, as noted above, came full-blown into modern biology with Kant who argued correctly that the active striving of living things could not be fathomed as part of a dead, reversible mechanical world. Rather than questioning the impoverished physics, however, he called for a second major dualism, the dualism between biology and physics, or between living things and their environments (call this the "second postulate of incommensurability" [Swenson, 1996]). The argument, grounded on the view of the incommensurability between the active, striving, intentional dynamics of living things and their "dead" environments, is still promoted today by leading proponents of Darwinian theory (e.g., Mayr, 1985). Boltzmann's interpretation or hypothesis of the second law of thermodynamics has played a crucial role, as already noted, in giving apparent legitimacy to the view that physics has nothing to say to biology, its principles being not simply foreign, but hostile to it. Darwinian theory, from its beginning with Darwin had little use for physics in its theory. Darwin, in Lewontin's (1992, p. 108) "completely rejected [the] world view...that what was outside and what was inside were part of the same whole system..." thereby carrying the anti-ecological Cartesian-Kantian postulates directly into evolutionary theory, and making it as inimical to ecological science as its ancestral relatives.
Evolutionary epistemologists, as noted in the preceding section, have a view almost directly opposite to that of the closed-circle theorists (e.g., see Callebaut & Pinxten, 1987; Radnitzky & Bartley, 1987). Whereas closed-circle theorists such as Wittgenstein and Kuhn are arch anti-evolutionists, evolutionary epistemologists look to evolutionary theory, in particular, Darwinian theory, to provide an account of the epistemic dimension. Evolution, on this view, is taken to be a continuous, and progressive knowledge acquisition process, in Popper's words, "from amoeba to man" following from natural selection. Every living thing, according to this view, has knowledge in the expectations on which its intentional behavior depends, and this knowledge, as a consequence of natural selection, is taken to be true (hypothetically) since if not, to put it simply, the living thing in question would be dead. While true knowledge to the closed-circle theorist follows from cultural authority under a particular paradigm, to the evolutionary epistemologist it is determined with respect to the performance of an epistemic agent in the world. Scientific knowledge is seen to be continuous with evolution by natural selection since it too involves a trial and error process of selection through the proposal and refutation of falsifiable hypotheses (Campbell, 1987).
The problem with evolutionary epistemology is its reliance on Darwinian theory. Darwinism's Cartesian postulates eliminate it a priori from the task that evolutionary epistemologists would like to have it perform. More specifically, two immediate problems, either of which by itself would be sufficient to disqualify Darwinian theory with respect to providing an account of the epistemic dimension can be quickly given. They will only be mentioned here, but will be discussed in more detail with the other "big" problems of evolution below. The first is that Darwinian theory assumes intentional dynamics to begin with, and this puts an explanation of intentional dynamics outside its theory. The second, is that the claim that evolution is a progressive knowledge acquisition process is an assertion that can neither be made nor explained from the ground of Darwinian theory because the relevant observable (fitness) is relativized to members of breeding populations. These and the other problems below can all be seen to follow from the position evolutionary theory has backed itself into as a consequence of the Cartesian postulates at its core.

General Versus Specific Theories Of Evolution

The dream of uniting the two apparently opposing rivers, it should be noted, did not escape Fisher (1930/1958, p. 39), who imagined that the two apparently opposing directions of biology and physics "may ultimately be absorbed by a more general principle." Lorenz (1973, p. 20), one of the founders of evolutionary epistemology wrote that the aspect of life "most in need of explanation, is that, in apparent contradiction to the laws of probability, it seems to develop from ...the more probable to the less probable, from systems of lower order to systems of higher order." For Spencer (e.g., 1857/1892, 1862), who defined the term "evolution", and popularized the idea in numerous best-selling books prior to Darwin, biological evolution was part of a more general universal process of evolution. He defined evolution as a process of the transformation of less ordered to more ordered states following from natural law (the "law of evolution"). Although Spencer was never able to supply the physical basis for his law of evolution, as a consequence of its asserted, if not demonstrated, nomological continuity (viz., biological ordering was seen as a special case of universal ordering), his general theory of evolution, an early statement of evolution as a law-based self-organizing process, was at least an attempt at a commensurable rather than incommensurable theory.
It was with the ascendancy of Darwinism that evolution was taken out of its universal context, and the meaning of the term reduced to biological evolution alone (see also Swenson, 1991b, 1992, 1996, in press-a, in press-b). According to Mayr (1980, p. 12), the "almost universally adopted definition of evolution [today] is a change of gene frequencies" following from natural selection, the "final implementation" of the basic Darwinian concept except that the focus was shifted by neo-Darwinism from organisms to genes. It was with the reduction of the meaning of the term evolution from a universal to a biological process that the Cartesian-Kantian postulates were built into the core of evolutionary discourse, and with them the major anomalies of Darwinian theory. These are not simply the problems of evolution, but true anomalies with respect to Darwinian theory because, as will be seen, they are problems that its core postulates preclude it from answering.

The Problem(s) With Darwinism As The Theory of Evolution

Six main problems are as follows:

1) Natural Selection Requires The Intentional Dynamics Of Living Things In Order To Work, And This Puts The Intentional Dynamics Of Living Things Outside The Explanatory Framework Of Darwinian Theory.

The core explanatory concept of Darwinian theory in all its various forms is natural selection (Depew and Weber, 1995). Evolution, according to Darwinism, follows from natural selection and natural selection is entailed by a situational logic (Popper, 1985)‹if certain conditions hold then natural selection will necessarily follow. These conditions are heritable variation, finite resources and the fecundity principle, a biological extremum principle that captures the active striving of living things. Natural selection, said Darwin (1959/1937, p. 152), follows from a population of replicating or reproducing entities with variation "striving to seize on every unoccupied or less well occupied space in the economy of nature". Because "every organic being," he said (Darwin, 1959/1937, p. 266), is "striving its utmost to increase, there is therefore the strongest possible power tending to make each site support as much life as possible." Paraphrasing Darwin, in Schweber's (1985, p. 38) words, the fecundity principle, which refers to the intentional dynamics of living things, thus says that nature acts to "maximizes the amount of life per unit area" given the constraints. But notice that the situational logic from which natural selection follows makes natural selection dependent on the intentional dynamics of living things‹natural selection does not explain the intentional dynamics of living things, it is a consequence of them, and this puts intentional dynamics outside the explanatory framework of Darwinian theory.

2) Darwinism Has No Observables By Which It Can Address Or Account For The Directed Nature Of Evolution

That evolution is a progressive or directed process (meaning going in a direction) is seen in the cited statements of Fisher, Lorenz, and is evident to anyone who looks at the planetary evolutionary record (e.g., see Figure 1). It is a core idea for evolutionary epistemology which sees evolution as a progressive knowledge acquisition process, per Popper, from "amoeba to Einstein" where the knowledge of a thing has is measured by its "fitness". But Darwinism, which, in effect, is a time-symmetric theory, has no observables that can be used to measure the direction of evolution at all, and this, in particular, includes fitness. Because fitness is relativized to members of breeding populations, the fitnesses of different kinds of things, as in the case with closed circles in closed-circle theory, are incommensurable with respect to each other, and cannot be compared (e.g., Fisher, 1930/1958; Sober, 1984). A zebra who runs faster than another zebra, avoids predators better, and thus produces more offspring, can be said to be more fit than the slower zebra, but a zebra can not be compared on the same basis to a mouse, or an amoeba. Mice can only be judged more or less fit than other mice, and amoebas with respect to other amoebas, and this makes fitness an incommensurable observable with respect to evolution writ large. Darwinian theory has no ground from which to measure, or account for, the directed nature of evolution, and no ground, in particular, for evolutionary epistemology to claim evolution as a progressive knowledge acquisition process. To justify this claim would require evolution to be about something other than fitness.

3) Because Natural Selection Works On A Competitive Population Of Many, And The Earth, As A Planetary System Evolves As A Population Of One, Darwinian Theory Can Neither Recognize Nor Address This Planetary Evolution

One of the most important empirical facts that has come to be recognized in recent decades is that the Earth at the planetary level evolves as a single global entity (e.g., Cloud, 1988; Margulis & Lovelock, 1974; Schwartzman, et al., 1994; Swenson & Turvey, 1991; Vernadsky, 1986/1929), and the present oxygen rich atmosphere, put in place and maintained by life over geological time, is perhaps the most obvious prima facie evidence for the existence and persistence of it (see Figure 1). With the shift of the Earth's redox state from reducing to oxidative some two billion years ago evolution undeniably became a coherent planetary process. Because the evolution, development, and persistence of all higher-order life has depended and continues to depend on the prior existence and persistence of evolution at the planetary level, this single planetary system may well be considered the fundamental unit of terrestrial evolution. Without question an understanding of planetary evolution is fundamental to evolutionary theory, to ecological science, and to a theory of cultural evolution and human ecology. Yet this poses a major problem for Darwinian theory because the planetary system as a whole cannot, by definition, be considered a unit of Darwinian evolution (Dawkins, 1982; Maynard-Smith, 1988). Darwinian theory, which defines evolution as the consequence of natural selection acting on a competitive replicating or reproducing population of many cannot address or even recognize planetary evolution because there is no replicating or reproducing population of competing Earth systems on which natural selection can act. The Earth evolves as a population of one. Natural selection is seen to be a process internal to the evolution of the planetary system, and thus rather than explaining terrestrial evolution, it awaits an explanation of planetary evolution by which it, as a manifestation, might be explained (Swenson, 1991a).

4) Darwinian Theory Has No Account Of The Insensitivity To Initial Conditions (Like Consequents From Unlike Antecedents) Required To Account For The Reliability Of Intentional Dynamics Or The Evolutionary Record Writ Large

Contemporary Darwinian theory is characterized by a commitment to the assumptions of gradualism, continuous change, reductionism, and efficient, or mechanical cause. The dynamics of its theory are based on the difficult (if not impossible) marriage of a kind of Laplacean determinism, namely, that like antecedents produce like consequents‹that, for example, if the initial conditions or microconditions are changed the macroscopic dynamics will be different, and the belief, at the same time, that there exists a certain amount of microscopic randomness, variation, or "error" in the world. The latter is supported by the most widely held views of quantum mechanics (viz., that probability is, in fact, objective). The consequence of these assumptions, for example, with respect to terrestrial evolution writ large is that it is seen as a process where, in effect, "anything goes", and that, given the fact of microscopic randomness, if one rewound the tape of evolutionary history back to some point in the distant past and played it again, it would turn out "entirely different" every time one rewound the tape (e.g., Gould, 1989; Williams, 1992, p. 3). Yet if such a micro-macro relation were true, if living things were sensitive to initial conditions in this way, the characteristic properties of terrestrial evolution writ large, and, in particular the intentional dynamics of living things, would be inconceivable. Real-world systems of this kind show a remarkable insensitivity to initial conditions‹they are "end-specific" not "start-specific" to use Dyke's (this volume) felicitous terms. They repeatedly produce the same end states from different initial conditions, and they are required to do so in order to survive because, regardless of the ultimate facts of quantum mechanics, real-world initial conditions are never the same twice. This remarkable insensitivity to initial conditions on which terrestrial evolution as we know it depends is unrecognized and unaccounted for by Darwinian theory.

5) The Incommensurability Between Biology And Physics Assumed By Darwinian Theory Provides No Basis Within The Theory According To Which Epistemic Or Meaningful Relations Between Living Things And Their Environments Can Take Place

The fecundity principle on which evolution on the Darwinian view crucially depends assumes the active intentional dynamics of living things‹it assumes the meaningful determination of the end-directed behavior of living things. Given the Cartesian psychology or theory of perception at the core of Darwinian theory, however‹the rejection by Darwinism that what is inside and what is outside are part of the same whole system (Lewontin, 1992), there is no principled basis for meaningful relations to take place. The outside or physical world is a world of extension, while the inside world, the biological or psychological part of the world is a world of intension, and this re-creates the Cartesian problem of dualist interactionism. An ecological science requires an ecological evolutionary theory, and such a theory requires a non-Cartesian theory of perception, or an ecological psychology, that shows a principled basis according to which meaningful relations can take place. A theory such as Darwinism that holds biology and physics or living things and their environments to be incommensurable cannot provide a principled basis for meaningful relations, and, because the evolution of life is distinguished by intentional dynamics or meaningful relations, such a theory is not only deficient with respect an evolutionary epistemology, and an ecological science, but as a theory of evolution in general too.

6) Evolution According To Darwinism Is Defined As a Change In Gene Frequencies, And This Puts Cultural Evolution Outside The Reach Of Darwinian Theory

Clearly cultural evolution, as a consequence of the rate at which it is transforming the planet, is of great interest to those interested in terrestrial evolution in general, as well as ecological science in particular. For evolutionary epistemologists cultural evolution is part of a continuous process of knowledge acquisition, and for human ecology cultural evolution is clearly central to its subject matter. By defining evolution as a change in gene frequencies, however, Darwinian theory can have little to say about cultural evolution at all, which "is not really evolution at all" (Dawkins, 1986, p. 216) under this definition. This is not a mere technical point. The interests of genes, and the interests of "memes" (roughly speaking the ideas that are replicated by cultural systems as their principle hereditary component [Dawkins, 1986; Dennett, 1995]) are incommensurable, and so are biological, and cultural evolution on this view.