Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Our Pets as NeoDarwinian Theorists

Commenting on this post, in which I speculated on what it is like to be a cat, a commenter responds:

"The cat sounds like it's merely trying to survive so it will be able to breed more kittens and pass its genes onto the next generation."

I could not have imagined: My cat knows about genes, which we humans hadn't discovered until the 19th century, and furthermore she is worried about passing them on! But, as bright as she is, apparently she isn't aware of the import of that little operation she had a few years ago.

From the perspective of NeoDarwinian theory, we may interpret the cat's actions in the way this commenter did: I have no problem with that. But to posit that that is what my cat, from her own point of view, is "trying" to do, is ludicrous. Whatever in the world is going on from her perspective -- as I noted, I was merely speculating -- it most certainly is not a concern about "passing on genes"!

I don't post this to mock the commenter -- who, after all, is only making a mistake that we are all prone to make -- but to note once again how easy it is to confuse the map (our abstract theories) with the territory (the real world).

UPDATE: Consider this situation: Joe runs across Mary, whom he finds irresistible. Therefore, he tries to seduce her. Let us further suppose that Mary is 60, and Joe knows she is well past child-bearing age. Now, if an evolutionary theorist wants to say, "Well, Joe has this urge because his evolutionary past has programmed him with such desires, since they enable him to pass on his genes," I won't accuse him of absurdity: perhaps that is what is going on. But if the theorist instead says "Joe is trying to pass on his genes," then I will so accuse him. Because, no, what Joe is trying to do is to seduce Mary. What produced that urge in him is one thing; what Joe is attempting, in light of having that urge, is quite another. The language of "trying" has no place in an evolutionary account; rather, it is part of a universe of discourse that deals with an agent's choices. As Donald Davidson would put it, we haven't explained what Joe is trying to do by talking evolution; no, what we have done is to change the subject.


  1. this just seems. . .aprapos


    and thank you for reminding me of Mr Korzybski!

  2. You've proved your point well. It seems obvious now, but I wasn't really thinking about how pets are normally neutered or spayed and I also didn't realize the implications of inserting a word like "trying" into a statement and how that could potentially change the meaning of what I was trying to convey. I was thinking much more about cats and other animals in the wild rather than domesticated pets. It isn't difficult to commit such a logical fallacy without realizing it. I also wasn't trying to say that the cat itself knows about its genetic makeup. That would have been a pretty absurd statement.

    Overall, I have a lot that I still need to learn, especially at the age of 18, but I will be much more careful next time with how I word things.

    1. And Roberto, believe what I said: I was not trying to mock you: it is, as you say, a mistake we all can easily fall into! It just was an illustrative example of that mistake.


Current review queue

Pearce: British Journal for the History of Philosophy Deneen: The American Conservative Chao-Reiss: Computing Reviews