Essay: John Dewey When Charles Darwin First Published

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John Dewey

When Charles Darwin first published his On the Origin of Species in 1859 it immediately sparked a scientific and theological controversy with the intellectual world. But Darwin's theory of evolution did more than simply cause disagreements between intellectuals, it changed the very way that people think. Prior to Darwin's book, the human race lived in a secure world that was orderly and stable, one in which people generally believed that the universe, and everything in it, was part of a grand design. Everything had its place and there was a guiding principle behind the nature of the universe. However, with his theory of evolution, Charles Darwin introduced the concept of randomness, or chance, to the universe; and thus destroyed the idea that there was a guiding force behind everything. As the idea that the universe was based on a certain degree of random chance permeated the intellectual world, and the guiding principle behind the universe was destroyed, humankind began to explore possibilities of thought which human society had not considered before. And as people began to think in ways that they had never done before, to get beyond the structured, guided view of the universe, they began to see the universe for what it truly is. John Dewey, in his essay entitled The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy discussed how Charles Darwin's theory of evolution altered the way people began to view the universe, and how this change would help humanity understand the universe in a better way. Later, in his 1925 book, Experience and Nature, he discussed how this change in the way of thinking brought about by Darwinism had allowed scientists and philosophers to base the limit of their knowledge on what could be experienced by humanity.

It was the ancient Greeks who first attempted to explain nature as they actually observed it. When one observes nature, one will notice that it is in a constant state of change, but this change always seems to follow a distinct pattern. The changes in nature, to the ancient Greeks, seemed to be steps in the realization of some grand design. "Each successive stage, no matter how unlike its predecessor, preserves its net effect and also prepares the way for a fuller activity on the part of it successor." (Dewey, The Influence of Darwinism, 4) Change in nature was a process toward a completed, or perfect end. The changes in individuals were considered to be a fundamental part of the transformative process, and when different individuals followed the same pattern of change, even though separated by both time and space, and ended up with the same conclusion, or ending, then they were considered to be of the same "species."

The term "species" implies that there is a design in nature, a force so to speak, that keeps everything in a constant state of change but guides that change toward a purposeful goal. And it was not only living beings that were subject to this design but natural forces as well. Storms, weather, geography, the seasons, everything, was believed to be subject to this force of "grand design," and the universe came to be explained through the understanding of it. This was the dominant form of human understanding in the Western world for more than 2000 years, but beginning with the Renaissance, Western scientists began to take observe the universe and make conclusions based on those observations. At first it was scientific giants like Copernicus and Galileo who theorized based on observing the stars, but later Charles Darwin took this method of observation and applied it to living creatures, and came to the conclusion different species were the result of natural selection.

It was very difficult for Charles Darwin to accept his own conclusion that changes in individuals were the result of randomness. The idea of a guiding principle of the universe, or what Dewey calls a "purposive regulative principle," (Dewey, The Influence of Darwinism,10) was so ingrained in Western thought that even the person who discovered that it may not be true had difficulty accepting what his own eyes saw. Science at that time was based on the idea that there was a specific design to the universe, and the purpose of science was to discover that design. However, Darwin's natural selection undermined this idea by demonstrating that not all variations in species were beneficial and those that did not benefit the species were lost through "the stress of the conditions of struggle for existence" and therefore "the design argument as applied to living beings is unjustifiable." (Dewey, The Influence of Darwinism, 12) Darwin just could not answer why a grand design would need to produce useless variations in species?

In the old way of thinking philosophy was used as a means of understanding the "grand design" of the universe. However, as Darwin destroyed the idea that there could be an overriding purpose guiding the universe, philosophy was forced to accept this truth and alter itself. Philosophy no longer had to be confined by the limits of the "grand design" idea, it no longer had to look for answers from within a universe that was run by a "grand design," but could be approached in a new way. Observation and experience could be used to understand the universe from an objective point-of-view.

Using this philosophic ideal, John Dewey embarked on a creative explosion of philosophical thought applying the principles created by Darwin to the way that humans learn. He came to the conclusion that nature could be experienced by human beings, and that science assumes "that experience, controlled in specifiable ways, is the avenue that leads to the facts and laws of nature." (Dewey, Experience and Nature, 2) In other words, human experiences could serve as the basis of learning and knowledge about the universe. For instance, the changes that the ancient Greeks viewed as demonstrations of a "grand design" of the universe, were observed and experienced by scientists who could then see them for what they were: "contemporaneously occurring events in 'real' space." (Dewey, Experience and Nature, 318) And by studying a series of these "events," they could then observe a pattern of cause and effect; a pattern that was logical, understandable, and repeatable. These events, therefore, have "histories" which are a "continuity of change proceeding from beginnings to endings." (Dewey, Experience and Nature, v)

But even if two people share the same experience, there is no guarantee that their interpretations of what they experienced will be the same. It is up to human beings to develop the communication skills in order to create a uniform meaning to experiences in the scientific community. In that way, the process by which human beings experience nature in order to hypothesize will be uniform and easily communicated to others. This process is known as "science." With science, one can then experience the connection between experience and the physical body; or the acquisition of knowledge and certainty with observation and experimentation. But one of the most important aspects of the scientific method is the concept of "criticism." Criticism does not imply disbelief or disapproval, it is the questioning of oneself and the process by which one gains knowledge. It is by constant criticism that verification can be asserted through the scientific process.

In the decades since John Dewey theorized about how Darwinism would effect science and philosophy, the idea of that Charles Darwin would have a significant effect on humanity has come to fruition: science has become the ultimate authority on everything. The old idea that there is a "grand design" to the universe, while still embraced by some in society, has become the exception to the rule, and no longer the rule itself. Time has demonstrated that the scientific method of observing, or experiencing an event, theorizing, and experimenting, is an effective means of gathering knowledge. And this knowledge is provable, verifiable, and repeatable.

Charles Darwin did indeed usher in a new era of human thought, taking the human race from a period of limitation, to a period of unlimited freedom of thought. For centuries, human beings had observed the changes in the universe through the prism of a "grand design" theory; a theory that had as its underlying principle a strategy being implemented by an outside force. But when Charles Darwin published his On the Origins of Species he introduced the idea of randomness, or chance, to the order of the universe. Natural selection could not be part of a plan, but had to be the result of random chance. And because changes in the universe were the result of random chance, this in turn caused the destruction of the "grand design" idea as the design by definition could not be random. Once people embraced the idea that they were no longer constricted by the limitations of a universe operating under a "grand design," new possibilities came into existence.

One of these was the idea that human experiences could be the basis for knowledge and understanding. The universe could be… [END OF PREVIEW]

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John Dewey When Charles Darwin First Published.  (2011, September 12).  Retrieved May 24, 2019, from

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"John Dewey When Charles Darwin First Published."  September 12, 2011.  Accessed May 24, 2019.