Darwin's Evolution and Positivism

As Darwin's theory of evolution gained credence in the scientific world, philosophers and theorists began apply natural selection to other realms of thought. Among those particularly smitten with Darwin's theory was philosopher Auguste Comte. In his work, "A General View of Positivism," Comte proposed a brand of scientific philosophy that he called Positivism. For Comte, evolution was proof that man could know the mind of God. According to Positivism, the world was governed by natural laws, and if man could discover these laws, as he had discovered evolution, he would be able to predict all natural phenomena. All was predetermined, not by a literal higher power but by science.

Comte's friend and colleague, Herbert Spencer, was an ardent positivist.He believed that all behavior of life on earth could be explained by natural selection. In several essays extolling the virtues of physical beauty, Spencer writes that unattractive physical features are signs of more significant hereditary traits - stupidity, for example - hence their (to his mind) repulsive quality.

Comte's positivism was supported by the discovery of the chemical structure of DNA in 1953. The idea that a person was the sum of their DNA - a mass of pre-written and unchangeable code - was a highly deterministic one.

In 1990, the Human Genome Project challenged this way of thinking. It was found that different strands of DNA could be interpreted differently. An experiment was conducted in which sequences of firefly DNA were inserted into the genome of E. Coli. One sequence encoded a protein that would make the bacteria glow red; the other would make it glow green. Together, the two sequences ought to have made the E. Coli produce yellow light. For some individual bacteria, this was the case. But others produced orange light, and still others incandesced turquoise. The same gene sequence produced different effects. In humans, identical sequences of genes are expressed in varying ways. Blue eyes are not all the same shade of blue; twins are never perfectly identical. Organisms are more than their genetics.

A non-deterministic world means that we are not limited by our physiology. We are forever capable of change.

Works Cited

Lehrer, Jonah. Proust Was a Neuroscientist. New York: Mariner Books, 2008. Print.

Spencer, Herbert. First Principles. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1897. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.

Comte, Auguste. A General View of Positivism. New York: E.P Dutton & Co., 1848. Web. 10 Nov 2010.