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JohnDewey:An Anti-Darwinian


Inspiteof Himself


I)r. Rarnes
August15 12000

WasJohnDewey,ashe himselfbelieved,simplytransportingthe naturalimplicationsof

Darwin'stheoryof evolutioninto the disciplineof psychology,or washe transformingDarwin

to suchan extentin the processthat it is misleadingto associateDewey'spsychological
'functionalism'with Darwin?(Thisis thequestionthatthis essaywill address
andin theprocess,
I will attemptto persuade
thereadernotonlythatit is importantfor thesakeofunderstanding

bothDarwinandDeweyproperly,to disassociate onewith theother,but

tha! whenthereasonfor this is madeclear,a legitimateclaimcanbemadethatDarwins'
," k
theoriesreallymaketheirmostfaithfirllyrefleotiveappearance in theUuitedStateswith br? 1''
,, . t i ! t / n , 1 , 0 n t lljvEO I a n \ t
functionalism'shegemonicsuccessor-behavio,r.4{.*. 1t'' t-' r' I )' 6\tttn-
Theargument is r.nore'Darwinian'thanis Dewey's(andthatof William
James's)ftmctionalismis a bold asslrtion for it is in the nameof organism/ environment

of whatwouldbecomethecenral mechanism

andwhatwereatthetimecental concepts
bebaviorolism, psycholory-
in physiological

- in his 1896article,"TheReflexArc Conceptin Psycholog5r."
stimulusandresponse In this

essay,Deweymocksattemptsto constructmodelsofelaborateformsofhumanbehaviorby

puttingtogetherincre,asingly skeinsof simple,moreor lessmechanical
complicated stimulus
responseconnections.Stimuli, accordingto Dewey, areneverconstan{J[nassertionhe believed

by Darwin's accountof evolutioninvolvingrandom,but consistentandinevitable

changein all speciesacrosstime. To be an elementalistaccordingto Dewey,to believein

consistentatomicelements,is to not be a faithful studentof Darwin.

Deweyis conecthere. For Darwin all is flrx; but with onevery importantexception:

Darwin's accountof the processof naturalselectionis unvarying: It is the environment,

personified which shapes,and it is the organismthat is shaped.The environmentdetermines

which offspringsurvive;the speciessimply surviveor they die. In contrast,Dewey'saccountof

the reflex arc with its attentionandemphasison the activity of the organism( in particularthe

of meaningto any gtvenstimulus),its own shapingof the

environmentwhich also shapesit, allows for a moretwo-way,complexrelationshipbetweenthe ryT
environmentandan organismwhich really is not especiallv Dawinian
1 fg
A reflex arc, accordingto Dewey,is not a simplemechanicalbody reaction. Referringto a

casefamouslyemployedby William James,of a child attractedby the light reachingtoward a

candleflame,beingburned,andflinching away,Deweystatesthatthe child's reactionis a

reactionwhosepoint is to avoidthe candleassomethingburning. Oncethe child canusea

candleto providelight, sheis not torn betweenavoidanceof andattractionto the candle;she

lights the candleto provideherselfwith light andkeepsher handawayfrom the flame to avoid

beingburned. The natureof the stimuluschangesasthe child learnsfrom her experiencewith

the flame, andusesthe experienceto adap her own environmentfor her own purposes.The

child is not simply a spectator.Deweydid not denythat the child wasa creatureof her

environment,but he wasconcernedto addthat it shapedher becausesheactedon it; shelearned

aboutit only by actingon it, doingthingsto it andwith it.

Dewey's conceptionof humansin the macrocosmicenvironment,the world, retainsthe

essenceof his accountof the child andthe encounterwith the candlethat lights but alsoburns.

Our environment,ow world, onein which thereare"singularities,ambiguities,uncertain

possibilities"is a world in which existenceis problematic,hazardous,

Deweyassertsthat o'weare free in the degreein which we act knowing what we areabout."2

Knowing, thinking, is itself a naturaleventwhich arisesin responseto the hazardousand

problematicnatureof the world. It seeksto apprehendwhat is necessary,

in nattneso asto overcomethe dangersanddifficulties generatedby the factor of contingency.

Tbroughanexperimental of "tlrerecurrentandstable,of faotsandlaws,"n * ,,
and | | .,-
possiblefor hummintelligenceto minimizethenegativeeffectof theunpredictable
IlIICOIlUOllA{rI€ in
uncontrollable ln nature
nAIUTE and U) regulate
ano to Icgutll]E and
UIlq direct
qlrtiQl the consequences
Urt, r,rutr$x{tr{t ur processes
;lts of as yet
Prrx tnsEl as ysl |I (Y

indeterminat€.3With suchknowledge,choicebecomesintelligenceandreal freedomis


What Deweyhasdoneis to amendDarwin's naturalselectionsothat effort, endeavor,

purpose,havesomethingto do with biological evolution. Humanbeingslive in a changingand

openbut problematicworld, full of possibilitiesfor goodandfor ill. In sucha world human

knowledgeandchoicecanmakea critical difference. Knowledge,which apprehendsthe causal

connectionbtween things,hasan instrumentalfiurction andmay be usedto confrol the

changingworld of natureandto guidethe interactionsthat constitutehumanexperienceto

immediateexperiencesthat are realizationsof the ideal possibilitiesof nature- consummatory

in which life finds fulfillment.
experiences v,-
It is remarkablehow little of Darwin thereis in anyof this. Darwinismis not aboutfree will - ,f ,il't'
i tA''
organismspurposelychangingin responseto a changingenvironmentis a Lamarckiantheme,
6J ( uF-
not a Darwinian one. Darwin maintainedthat evenmen are creaturesof instincts,and instincts
arechangedto meeta changingenvironmentonly throughnaturalselection. Morality is not 6:ll,r
evidenceof purposefulhumanchoice,but rathera rationalizationof social instinctsevolving 'u':
within any speciesthat lived in socialgroups. Deweysaysthat manmay makehis environment Tv' .houq

into a home,and so subduenature.On the contrary,Darwin contrastsnature'spowerswith those

of mankind,stressinghow much more effectivewill be the serutinyof nature. He pointsout that

naturalselectionactsonly to improvethe organisms'ability to copewith their environmentand

of naturalselectiorqwe
thustries to persuadehis readers,that whateverthe apparentharshness

Y1!"itv \
Whenwe reflect on this struggle,we may consoleourselveswith the / I
thatno fearis ftlt,'rhat <
firli beiief,thatths war tif natureis ntit incessant,
deathis generallyprompt,andthat the vigorous,the healthy,andthe
happ-v- surv'iveandnrultiPiy.a

PeterBowler, in CharlesDarwin: thEMpn andhis Influenc.E,believesthat like Dewey,

Darwin did not want to take a macroscopicview of evolution,sincehis theorywascreatedfrom

the studyof small-scalechangesin the modernworld. Bowler believesthat Darwin's theory

that still affect everyliving thing, not on the
concentratedon explainingthe actualprocesses

reconstnrctionof long-pastevolutionarylinks.s But thesesmallscalechanges(noteagainthat it

which affect the living things andnot vice versa) are importantonly because
is the proaesses

eventually,over eonsof time, they amountto largescalestructuralchanges,like changesfrom

to another.If Daruin hashiseyesonthepreseirtin orderto understand
onespecies largcrtime \ll,@
il is thepresentin whichwe fvJ-oewey notonly
scales,Deweyfocusedontheprcs€ntbecause ,l|n'
emphasized couldoccurin onelifetime,but in continuously
changes 'l'
N" ,
emphasizing to a societyor species
changes or a
formoforganization,andin framingexistence

gavevalueto the life of oneindividualnot becauseit survives,but becauseit exists. For

Darwin, the actuallife of an organismis only importantas a kind of test to seeif the variationsit

wasborn with areunfit or fit for the environmentit will be subjectedto.

If what I am saylngsoundslike Darwinism asan ideologymay be dehumanizingenoughthat

its fimctional legitimacyfor humanbeingsmay be in question,then I havesucceededin leading

towardsthe centralreasonwhy Deweypossiblycomescloserto beingan anti-Darwinianthan he

doesa Darwinian:Dewey'sfirnctionalismis not sufficientlydefinedasan emphasison an

organism'srelationshipwith its environment,but is more sharplydefinedby emphasizinghis

centralconceptionof a decisionmaking,willful, humanorganism.True,Darwin emphasized

changeandcomplexity,a themewhich DeweyandJamesgrabbedonto andbelieveda measure

disciplines.But DeweyoverlookedDarwin's
of their differencefrorn otherpsychologrcal

essentiallydeterministic,mechanisticconceptionof naturalselection,which left all purposeful

activity during the lifespanof an organismto the environment.An organismsurvives;its most

assertiveact being its creationof mutationsin its offspring - an act which is uninfluencedby the

experiencesof an organismduring its life spanotherthan the fact that it survivedto give birth.

BecauseDarwin imagineda kind of processwhich is oppositeto that of Dewey,althoughDewey

rnayof thoughthimself asa Darwinian,Darwin shouldnot be thoughtof asthe predecessor

functionalist thought.

morecloselyalignedto Dewey'sconceptionof an activeorganismwould be
A predecessor

Kant with his schemaswhich reachout andseizeexperiencein certainkinds of ways. A

morecloselyalignedto DarwirUin this light, would be JohnWatson,or B.F.Skinner

who imagineda passivesubjectsimplyrespondingin predictablewaysto
andthe behavioralists,
its tue, Aiafo"* ootl practicalimplicationsof theirtheoriesto
stimuli. Behaviouratists,

improvepeoplcs'liveswithinthEirlifetimes,but in positinga mecbanistic ofpeople

ouropimistic self+stimation.Accordingto the

b€haviorists, onlyreflexactivitiesbased

principlesof stimulusandresponse.Ou privatepenonhoodwanantedlifile

andonthebehaviorof anorganism;

Darwinfocusedonthebiologicalmuationsandontheir survivability.Bothschoolsofthough[,

urcreequallyhostileto humanfirllillment withinourlifetimes,anefrortthat
it canbeargued"

Deweywasworkingto sustainthoughhisworts. Dervey'seffod washumaoe;futher pnoof,at

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1. JohnDewey,Ouestfor Certqinfy,h
tflinois:southernilrinoisr@r qg.
2, Ibid.,p.199.

3' JohnDewey,EmeJience
andNature(NewYork w.WNorton andcompany,hc.), p.54.
4' charlesDarwin'TheoriEnglspies (Philadelphia:
univenity of philadelphiapress),

Bowler,Peter.thnrles Pqrwin:thqlvlqgfr+dtJisInfhlEncp.Orford:BasilBlackrrell,1990.

Darwirl Charles.TheOriginof SpEcieS. Philadelphia:
cd M. Peckham. Universtf of
PhiladElphiaPreri$,I 959.

Inc., 1929.
Nature.NewYork W.W.NortonandCompany,
Dewey,John Exngrienre.and

Dewey,John Th,eInfluqncegf DarwinonPhilosophy.
NewYork HerrryHolt andCompany,

De*ry, John OuestfQ, LatgrWorksqf JohnDgwey,1925-1939,
vol. 4,
Carh,ondalelllinois. Southernlllinois Llnivsrsity llress, I97I .

of JohnDewey,
Dewey,John "TheReflexArc Conceptin Psychologf',in Eaily.!.Vo,rts
1895-1898, lllinois:Southern
vol.5,Carbondale lllinoisUniversily Press,1972.