Darwin in "Major Issues in Philosophy"

Professor of Philosophy
Baruch College and the Graduate Center, CUNY

I most often teach Philosophy 2000, "Major Issues in Philosophy," which is meant as a first course (and is probably for many students the last course) in philosophy. I don't have a unit (or module) on Darwin and the theory of evolution, but especially since our faculty seminar, I have been able to use Darwin in a number of ways. Here, I'll just list three.

  1. Inference to the best explanation. This kind of explanation is important because it's the most powerful one in favor of a basically realistic view of things. We should believe there is a world independent of our experience (and not be solipsists or idealists) because an independent world best explains the character of our experience. Similarly, we should believe the theory of evolution because it best explains the number and distribution of fossils as well as the diversity (and patterns of similarity and dissimilarity) of living beings. Evolution can best explain, to cite an example much in the news lately, why there are so many kinds of beetles.

  2. Design. There is always some discussion, in an introductory philosophy course, of the existence of God and arguments for the existence of God. One of the most popular, in the minds of students is the argument from design which rests upon the assumption that objects that manifest design, that appear artfully arranged to serve a purpose or fulfill a function, must have a designer. On this view, the human eye proves the existence of God. The theory of evolution allows one to challenge the basic assumption of the argument from design.

  3. Intellectual Authority. This is, in a way, the most experimental topic and possibly one that is controversial. Enlightened people often have the idea that all proposals, views, theories, claims, should be considered on their merits and accepted or rejected after an examination which has nothing to do with who put them forward. This sounds nice but is impossible. We need, instead, to work out a policy of whom to believe or at least that allows us, short of complete examination (which time never permits), to decide whose views are worthy of consideration. Working on this topic, one can get students to consider who believes the theory of evolution is correct and who doesn't. Do the people who believe in the theory of evolution know more about biology than those who don't. Some people believe Elvis lives. Some people don't. Are there characteristics of either group that might be relevant to an assessment of cognitive reliability.

One great advantage the theory of evolution has, for classroom use, is that it can be presented relatively quickly and without a lot of mathematics.

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Last updated 8 September 1998 (WJE/JHW)