Chapter 4: Emergence in Evolution: (Response to Birch and Dobzhansky) by Ann Plamondon

Mind in Nature: the Interface of Science and Philosophy
by John B. and David R. Griffin Cobb, Jr.

Chapter 4: Emergence in Evolution: (Response to Birch and Dobzhansky) by Ann Plamondon

Ann Plamondon teaches philosophy at Loyola University in New Orleans.

Charles Birch has explained Whitehead’s remark that

a thoroughgoing evolutionary philosophy is inconsistent with materialism. The aboriginal stuff, or material, from which a materialistic philosophy starts is incapable of evolution. . . (Whitehead 1925, p. 151)

as expressing the inconsistency of high-level orders such as self-determining organisms (possessing life and mentality) emerging from low-level orders of mechanically determined particles. I think that Birch’s setting of the problem is essentially correct and that his solution in terms of attributing subjectivity to all entities, even particles, does show a necessary condition for emergence in evolution. This comment, therefore, should be viewed as an addition to, rather than as a criticism of, Birch’s paper. The suggestion that I wish to add is that another metaphysical presupposition is necessary for emergence in evolution -- that of internal relations. It seems to me that understanding the role of this principle in emergence is extremely important for two reasons. First, to approach a more complete listing of the metaphysical presuppositions for such emergence. Second, to clarify an apparent disagreement between Birch and Dobzhansky with respect to the nature of emergence.


Whitehead maintained the necessity of a doctrine of internal relations for evolution in the continuation of the passage quoted by Birch:

This material is in itself the ultimate substance. Evolution, on the materialistic theory, is reduced to the role of being another word for the description of the changes of the external relations between portions of matter. There is nothing to evolve, because one set of external relations is as good as any other set of external relations. There can merely be change, purposeless and unprogressive. But the whole point of the modem doctrine is the evolution of the complex organisms from antecedent states of less complex organisms. The doctrine thus cries aloud for a conception of organism as fundamental for nature. It also requires an underlying activity -- a substantial activity -- expressing itself in achievements of organism (Whitehead 1925, pp. 151-152).

The full passage shows that Whitehead is basing his claim about the inconsistency of materialism and evolution on the grounds that materialism presupposes a doctrine of external relations and that this doctrine is inadequate to the development of more from less complex organisms. Consider the relationship of materialism and external relatedness. Materialism entails that what a thing (bit of material) is does not depend on its relationships to other things (bits of material); the relationships of a thing are not constitutive of it. (This is the doctrine of ‘simple location’; Whitehead 1925, pp. 69-70). The application of this doctrine to the formation of higher levels of order out of lower levels results in an aggregate view of the higher order. This means that when higher levels are formed out of lower levels of order there is no modification of the lower level to a pattern of the higher level. There is no modification of this kind because such modification requires that the relationships of the lower orders be constitutive of them. Materialism rules out the possibility of such internal relatedness. Yet increase in complexity depends upon such a modification. This is because there can be no real increase in complexity unless there is a new order brought about at the higher level. There can be no new order if what the lower orders are is independent of the relationships into which they enter. The formation of the higher order by their relationships does not bring about a new and independent order at all. The ‘higher order’ is, in a sense, a misnomer. It is an aggregate, and it cannot be said to be of greater complexity than its constituents.

The point I am attempting to make is that a necessary condition for evolution at all is an increase in complexity which cannot be accounted for on a materialistic view. This is an addition to the claim made by Birch (above, p. 14). I am claiming that the difficulty with most neo-Darwinian discussions of evolution is not merely that its mechanisms are inadequate to account for evolution’s ‘qualitative side’ but that these mechanisms will be inadequate so long as they are attached (ad hoc) to a materialistic philosophy. They will be inadequate because the meaning of evolution and the meaning of materialism are incompatible. That is, the difficulty to which I am referring is that the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, on the whole, has not disassociated itself from materialism.


The addition of the doctrine of internal relations as a necessary condition for evolution can clarify three arguments used by Birch to support his claim that low levels of order, such as particles, must have a subjective as well as a mechanical aspect. Consider the following restatements of these arguments in general terms.

1. If an explanation is to be given of actualized subjectivity in higher orders, then subjectivity must be potentially in the lower level constituents.

2. When higher levels of order exhibit properties not belonging to their lower-level constituents, the correct inference is not that something has been added to the lower-level constituents but, rather, that they exhibit different properties when they organize the higher-level order. We know more about the lower-level orders in the sense that we know more about their possibilities for modification when they are situated in different higher orders.

3. ‘Taking account’ belongs to all orders which exhibit such modification. Since this is the principal criterion for subjectivity in highly developed organisms, there is no warrant for refusing to attribute some sense of subjectivity to lower organisms, including the constituent particles.

It seems to me that when the arguments are expressed in this way they provide the core of an answer to Dobzhansky’s question as to the process involved in the realization of potentiality in evolutionary development. At the same time, they avoid the ‘snippet’ fallacy which Dobzhansky seems to accuse Birch of committing. They avoid this fallacy because emergence in evolution is put in the context of acting and not of containing.

These arguments refer to the modification of lower levels of order to the pattern of the higher level which they organize. Because there is an internal relatedness of the higher-level order and the constituent orders, there can be an emergence of new properties. The emergence arises in the act of modification. There is no question of ‘snippets.’ It is not the case with respect to a particular property of the higher-level order that it must have been contained in some sense in the lower-level constituent(s). Rather the property comes about in the act of relating in that particular situation.


Whitehead, A. N. 1925. Science and the Modern World. New York: Macmillan.