1902 Encyclopedia > Evolution > Evolution in Philosophy: Definition.

(Part 4)


Definition.—The modern biological doctrine of evolu-tion, which regards the higher forms of life as gradually arising out of the lower, owes its chief philosophic signi-ficance to the fact that it renders definite and precise one part of a general theory of the world viewed as an orderly succession of events or as a process of be-coming. This theory is put forward as an answer to one of the two problems of philosophy conceived as an interpretation of real existence. The first of these problems concerns itself with what may be called the stati-cal aspect of the world, and inquires into the ultimate nature of all reality (matter and mind), viewed as coexistent and apart from time. The second problem treats of the dynamical aspect of the world, and has to do with the pro-cess by which the totality of things has come to be what it is, and is still being transformed. It is this latter problem which the various theories of evolution seek to solve.

The most general meaning of evolution may be defined as follows : Evolution includes all theories respecting the origin and order of the world which regard the higher or more complex forms of existence as following and depend-ing on the lower and simple forms, which represent the course of the world as a gradual transition from the inde-terminate to the determinate, from the uniform to the varied, and which assume the cause of this process to be immanent in the world itself that is thus transformed. All theories of evolution, properly so called, regard the physical world as a gradual progress from the simple to the complex, look upon the development of organic life as conditioned by that of the inorganic world, and view the course of mental life both of the individual and of the race as correlated with a material process. This definition covers roughly the principal historical systems bearing the name of evolution, as well as others which have hardly as yet been characterized by this title.

It is clear by this definition that we cannot now press the etymological force of the word. Evolution has no doubt often been conceived as an unfolding of something already contained in the original, and this view is still com-monly applied to organic evolution both of the individual and of the species. It will be found that certain metaphy-sical systems of evolution imply this idea of an unfolding of something existing in germ or at least potentially in the antecedent. On the other hand, the modern doctrine of evolution, with its ideas of elements which combine, and of causation as transformation of energy, does not necessarily imply this notion. It may be remarked that some of the arguments brought against the modern doctrine rest on the fallacious assumption that the word is still used in its ety-mological sense, and that consequently that which evolves must contain in some shape what is evolved inorganic matter must contain life and consciousness).

Evolution is thus almost synonymous with progress, though the latter term is usually confined to processes of development in the moral as distinguished from the physical world. Further, this idea, as Mr Spencer remarks, has rather a subjective than an objective source, since it points to an increased value in existence as judged by our feelings. At the same time, inasmuch as conscious and more particularly human life is looked on by the evolutionist as the highest phase of all development, and since man’s development is said to be an increased in well-being and happiness, we do not greatly err when we speak of evolution as a transition from the lower to the higher, from the worse to the better. An other respect in which the whole process of evolution may be said to be a progress is in its relation to our perceptions as aesthetic spectators, the higher phases of the process being the more varied, the fuller, and the more perfect. Apart from these subjective estimates, evolution is first of all as a whole a progress from the lower to the higher, in the sense that it is a substitution of a complex for a simple type of existence ; and it is such a progress, secondly, in the narrow sense of organic development if not in the wider sense of cosmic development, inasmuch as all advance implies a larger measure of adaptation and so of permanence.

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