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Notes on novelty 2: Historical considerations – before and after evolution

Last updated on 22 Jun 2018

From Singer

Notes on Novelty series:
1. Introduction
2. Historical considerations – before and after evolution
3: The meaning of evolutionary novelty
4: Examples – the beetle’s horns and the turtle’s shell
5: Evolutionary radiations and individuation
6: Levels of description
7: Surprise!

8: Conclusion – Post evo-devo

The roots of novelty in biology are very deep. They go back at least to Aristotle’s book De Anima (in Greek, ΠΕΡΙ ΨΥΧΗΣ), or as we know it in English, On the Soul (a readable version is this edition). Aristotle posited four grades of “soul” (a better term might be “motivating force”; it has very little to do with the Christian notion of a soul): vegetative (self-nutrition), sensitive or perceptual (sensation), motile (movement), and rational. These were arrayed in that order from most simple to most sophisticated (figure at right from Singer 1931). This led to what came in the late middle ages and early Renaissance as the scala naturae, the great chain of being. The least complex organisms merely grew. More complex ones responded to their environment. Even more complex ones moved about. Finally, one species was rational.

Fig5  BonnetChain

The great chain was tied up in kabbalistic thinking, alchemy, and the neo-Platonism that preceded and in many ways triggered the scientific revolution. Everybody assumed there were higher organisms and lower, and that plants were the simplest, as while they had parts and organs (were organ-ised, hence later, “organisms”), they lacked senses and motion. In 1745, Charles Bonnet tried to formalise what everybody knew in a single diagram (right) – the very act of doing so caused the project to crumble, although it took a while, and I would argue is still with us. Old ideas, as Dewey said, fade away, but they sometimes die hard.

But the great chain caused no problems of novelty, because it was static. The array of forms and functions was what it was because God had made it so. Since it was the consensus that novelty of design came from a designer (Sedley 2007), there was no problem of novelty except to those theologians who thought God was simple. God’s mind captured all possibilities, and so he chose the special functions of each kind of organism.

The problem of novelty arose when the scala naturae was temporised; when functions were acquired and complex structures developed over time. However, there were several solutions to this. One was entelechy – an internal disposition of stuff to become more complex, usually because God made it for that purpose (this view can be traced back to Augustine). Another is the view that Lamarck is widely, and unfairly, known for formally stating (but which he did not invent): organisms acquire functions from the environment and geography as adults, and pass them on to their offspring. These both involved what theologians called “secondary causes”, by natural law and causation. Occasionalists thought that God intervened providentially at each juncture (Wilkins In press).

Lamarck, and his immediate earlier predecessor Erasmus Darwin, however, held to material causes for evolution, and so the solution to the problem of novelty had to be equally material. For Lamarck there was a feu ethere or subtle fire that drove things to become more complex. Again, this could be understood as built into the universe by God, and hence a secondary cause. Later thinkers like Herbert Spencer had similar views: the universe was just such that it got more complex over time.

Charles Darwin, however, set the cat among the pigeons. Natural selection was an unguided process that generated novelty without a plan of any kind, and indeed, as I show in the Zygon paper, God was thought not to be able to guide evolution by natural selection without undermining the entire notion of doing science. If we allow some occasionalism, as Darwin’s friend and advocate Asa Gray did, where do we stop?

In the 1930s, a movement began that talked about a new concept: emergence. The underlying ideas were older, of course, and went back to the 19th century with John Stuart Mill, but began to attract attention with C. D. Broad [chapter 2]Samuel Alexander, Jan Smuts and C. Lloyd Morgan. In recent years, much has been made of emergent properties in the philosophy of mind, as a way to avoid dualism but avoiding physicalist reductionism.

Emergence is variously defined, but it broadly means that a qualitatively new property arises out of the whole system of physical interactions in ways that cannot be reduced to statements about the components of the system. It has become popular since the 1970s to claim that there are evolutionary properties that are not something one can reduce to statements about genes, cells or even the properties of individual organisms.

For many years this played out in the philosophy of mind, including the development of the notion of supervenience by Jaegwon Kim, and which was applied to evolution first by Elliot Sober I think. In recent years, emergence has also been applied to evolution again. Now it is tied into the idea that evolution undergoes “major transitions”. In the modern synthesis, the idea of an “adaptive novelty” leading to “evolutionary radiations”, was widespread. Here the novelty opened up ecological niches not available before it.

With the major transitions literature, however, the novelty was of a particular kind: it was information transmission. Now it was information that was the emergent novel property, and the major transitions were advances in the transmission machinery:

major transitions
[Maynard Smith and Szathmáry 1995:5]

In a more recent work, the differentiae are clearly informational: Jablonka and Lamb 2005 argue that there are four dimensions of information transmission – genetic, epigenetic, behavioural and symbolic. Each of these represents a source of evolutionary novelty.

What is most salient about these lists is how much they resemble Aristotelian ladders. It is not that any of them are unreal; clearly compartmentalisation, chromosomal packaging, epigenetic mechanisms and so on all did evolve. The real question is why they, and not some other set of properties to do with, for example, energy efficiency (such as the evolution of mitochondrial phosphorylation or chloroplast photosynthesis), are the major transitions. It looks, for all the world, that out of the diversity of evolutionary novelties we have chosen as our “major” transitions those features that matter most to us as symbolic language users. In short, this looks like anthropomorphism.

In the next post in this series I will discuss the definitions given of evolutionary novelty.



Bonnet, Charles. 1745. Traité d’Insectologie ou observations sur les Pucerons. Vol. 2. Paris: Durand.

Jablonka, Eva, and Marion J. Lamb. 2005. Evolution in four dimensions: genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic variation in the history of life, Life and mind. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Maynard Smith, John, and Eörs Szathmáry. 1995. The major transitions in evolution. Oxford, New York and Heidelberg: WH Freeman/Spektrum.

Sedley, David N. 2007. Creationism and its critics in antiquity, Sather classical lectures. Berkeley, CA; London: University of California Press.

Singer, Charles Joseph. 1931. A short history of biology: a general introduction to the study of living things. London: Abelard-Schuman.

Wilkins, John S. In press. Could God Create Darwinian Accidents? Zygon.



  1. there was no problem of novelty except to those theologians who thought God was simple

    I’d say it’s the norm among modern thoughtful Christians to regard God as simple in principle, in the sense that all his attributes are supposed to follow inevitably from the formula BE PERFECT, but complex in practise because mortals are incapable of grasping the implications of that formula. God is supposed to be like the mandelbrot set in that sense: perfectly simple if you know the code, infinitely complex if you don’t. (This is certainly how I saw it when I was a theist.)

    But I’m not sure what this has to do with a problem of novelty.

  2. Increasingly, it looks as if both novelty and phenotypic stabilization in evolution are managed by way of the same mechanisms that manage these processes in ontogeny, or development. This is the picture that emerges from evo-devo, epigenetics, comparative genomics, and other developments that feed what some researchers are calling the Extended Synthesis of evolution theory. The neatness of the fit among the puzzle pieces is illustrated here:

  3. The article doesn’t mention Aristotle’s partition of the human soul into two parts – intellectus agens and intellectus possibilis . According to scholastics the second one is eternal.
    Now the concept of entelechy can be traced not to Augustine, but back to Aristotle as well. Aristotle’s entelechy was revived by German biologist, philosopher and vitalist Hans Driesch.

    It might be of interest that Heidegger criticized Driesch’s concept a bit. Needless to say that Heidegger dismissed Darwinian biological speculations as well. You have to read Heidegger to understand the deep gap between animals and humans. From such a perspective you might better understand the articles like this one. Endeavour to underpin Neodarwinism by using Aristotle or Scholastics ideas taken out of their own context (Darwinists call it “quote mining”) might seem at first glance interesting and persuasive, but is actually against their spirit.

    • I have enormous respect for the scholastics and Aristotle (and have defended both here before) but that doesn’t mean I think they were right. I have enormous respect for Kant too, but I think he’s wrong in a few key places. I did read Heidegger (in English; the German was too opaque), and I must say that stripped of the verbiage I got the impression that he began with human qualitative uniqueness, rather than arguing to it. That sort of human inflation is unseemly in a philosopher.

      • I would say that reading Heidegger in German is inevitable to understand him correctly. He is much easier than Kant btw. German words, grammar and sentence structure is somehow peculiar and probably suitable for philosophical thinking and translating him you may lose the gist. Btw. I am not claiming that my mother language of Slavonic group is better for translating German thinkers.

        Actually the whole book “Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik” is devoted to the special position of man in the realm of being. Heidegger claims that the concept of human as animal rationale is a misrepresentation of man with deep historical roots. Starting from human boredom through “Bennomenheit” of animals he claims that the copula “is” is actually a metaphysical concept. I must say that it is a great pleasure to read such original thoughts about such simple things as the sentence “The table is black” and what copula “is” actually means in the sentence. From this explanation of logos apofantikos he circles around the problem of Being and its openness towards man. Something what is beyond the possibility of animals to approach to. It is not the language that makes the difference – actually the language is secondary and derived from the basal interconnection between man and Being.
        And last but not at least – even Marxists (taking it from Hegel) considered the gap between animals and humans as a change of quality.

  4. Energy efficiency is not part of the Darwinian process, whether you formulate it in terms of replicators and interactors or in terms of information transmission with variation and selection. But information is. I’d call the major transitions neo-Darwinian. Okay, they are anthropocentric as well, but so are physicists’ models that leave large chunks of parameter space out of consideration, because their model universes need to allow for life to evolve.

    • Joe, I think that’s just begging the question. Darwin never mentioned information, and he clearly thought of fitness as ability to gather resources. In modern terms, and post-Boltzmann, we can equally say energy efficiency is as much Darwinian as information, possibly moreso. They may not be neo-Darwinian, sure, but that is rather my point.

      As to simplification and parameterisation, you have some point there, but no physicist denies those possible universes are possible or important in general terms. In fact, Max Tegmark makes them a key part of his argument against the Anthropic Principle.

      In my opinion, information is the latest incarnation of Aristotelian Form. But that’s for another day/post.

      • It should be possible to work around the term information, which you so dislike, and still see major differences between heritable variation and selection in bacteria, eukaryotes, and humans. I do not share your inclination towards energy efficiency. My hunch is that indiviudals as well as ecosystems can be very wasteful. A new way to gain resources is not necessarily more energy efficient. On the contrary, an organism may even waste more energy, be less efficient, but gain more absolutely and thus increase its fitness.

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