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Darwin-L Message Log 5:189 (January 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.


<5:189>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Thu Jan 27 23:20:13 1994

Date: Fri, 28 Jan 1994 00:31:00 -0400 (EDT)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: "Adaptation" before 1800, and the direction of adaptation
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

Ron Amundson asks about uses of "adaptation" and cognates before 1800.  Here's
one example I just spotted that comes from David Hume's _Dialogues Concerning
Natural Religion_, published posthumously in 1779.  I found it in a textbook,
so can't give a better citation unfortunately.  Hume's aim is to attack the
argument from design, and in this passage he is stating that argument in order
to set it up for his attack.

  Look round the world: Contemplate the whole and every part of it: You will
  find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite
  number of lesser machines, which again admit of subdivisions to a degree
  beyond what human senses and faculties can trace and explain.  All these
  various machines, and even their most minute parts, are adjusted to each
  other with an accuracy which ravishes into admiration all men who have ever
  contemplated them.  The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all
  nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human
  contrivance -- of human design, thought, wisdom, and intelligence.

Certainly the general concept of adaptation -- the apparent fit between
organisms and their environments -- is as old as the argument from design,
which is pretty old.  How widely the word "adaptation" was used in the
early literature, though, I couldn't say.

Ron also writes:

>One of the points I'd planned to make is that Darwin gave the first
>principled argument by which the direction of adaptation (i.e. in an
>environment/organism adaptive fit, what was adapted to what?) could be
>finally determined.

This is an interesting point, I think.  I suspect that the word "direction"
here has historically been understood both temporally and also philosophically.
Natural theologians could possibly have said X is adapted to Y, even though
both X and Y were created at the same time.  The evolutionary innovation is
to say X is adapted to Y because Y existed first and X subsequently changed
in such a way as to be adapted to Y.  In one of my papers I distinguish what
I call "state explanations" from "change explanations", and claim that change
explanations become possible with temporal/evolutionary thinking, whereas
state explanations predominated in pre-evolutionary discussions of adaptation.
One of the interesting things, however, is that state explanations have
continued to be common in evolutionary biology.  In order to give good change
explanations (X is adapted to Y because Y existed first) you have to have a
well extablished chronicle of events: you have to know that Y did in fact
exist first, and that the putative adaptive change in X occurred at the time
when it became associated with Y.  One of the most significant consequences
of the development of cladistic systematics is that such chronicles can now
be provided, and so change explanations can be constructed with a degree of
precision never before possible.  This is having an enormous impact on studies
of ecology and behavior, and is virtually revolutionizing the study of
evolutionary adaptation.  Two extended treatments of the topic are:

Brooks, Daniel R., & Deborah A. McLennan.  1991.  _Phylogeny, Ecology, and
  Behavior: A Research Program in Comparative Biology_.  Chicago: University
  of Chicago Press.

Harvey, Paul H., & Mark D. Pagel.  1991.  _The Comparative Method in
  Evolutionary Biology_.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

But there are now dozens of short papers on the theory and practice of this
kind of work.  The paper of my own that distinguishes state explanations from
change explanations and talks about the importance of the event chronicle is:

O'Hara, Robert J.  1988.  Homage to Clio, or, toward an historical philosophy
  for evolutionary biology.  _Systematic Zoology_, 37:142-155.

Bob O'Hara, Darwin-L list owner

Robert J. O'Hara (darwin@iris.uncg.edu)
Center for Critical Inquiry and Department of Biology
100 Foust Building, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina 27412 U.S.A.

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