Nautilus

The Neo-Platonic Argument for Evolution Couldn’t Be More Wrong

Is evolutionary biology about to prove a two-millennia old metaphysical speculation? Or is metaphysics about to fundamentally change the way we look at biology? Andreas Wagner, a developmental biologist at the University of Zurich, argues for both theses. I’m not convinced.

Just read the last two sentences of his 2014 book, Arrival of the Fittest: How Nature Innovates. They come in an epilogue, titled “Plato’s Cave.” “We are shedding new light on one of the most durable and fascinating subjects in all of philosophy,” he writes. “And we learn that life’s creativity draws from a source that is older than life, and perhaps older than time.” (Italics mine.) The source of this creativity, Wagner argues, is “nature’s libraries.” It’s a metaphor for an abstract storehouse of information that we can never physically encounter. “These libraries and texts,” he writes, “are concepts, mathematical concepts, touchable only by the mind’s eye.” This is Platonism, and Wagner’s not shy about admitting it. Are conceptual truths discovered, or invented? Platonists believe the former

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