International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 175 8th October 2012


I. 'Elective Affinities: Heidegger and Adorno on Nature' by Michael Kilivris

II. 'An Ontological Problem with the Selfish Gene' by Michael Uhall

III. 'Possible World Machine Revisited' by Geoffrey Klempner



The first article in this issue, by Dr Michael Kilivris from Hunter College, City University of New York, rehearses the arguments for different approaches to environmental ethics -- the 'deep ecology' of Arne Naess, versus the 'social ecology' of Murray Bookchin -- from the perspective of the clash between the views on nature of Heidegger and Adorno. In the opinion of the Board of the ISFP this is a well researched piece, useful as a starting point for students exploring this controversial and highly topical issue.

In his second article for Philosophy Pathways, Michael Uhall raises a question about the identity and individuation of genes. The Quine/ Strawson slogan, 'no entity without identity' applies no less in biology than it does in metaphysics (for example, to the identity and individuation of the Cartesian 'soul'). The logical problem Uhall highlights applies to any area of research where a theoretical entity is identified from the point of view of a very specific function, as is the case with the notion of a 'gene' in biology.

I am starting a new Pathways distribution list specifically for students taking Introduction to Philosophy The Possible World Machine. The aim is to provide students with further stimulus as well as giving me the chance to write more material along the same lines -- viz. science fiction stories designed to get you thinking. These are short and sweet, all less than 1000 words, so there is no danger of spoiling your philosophical appetite. We also have a book for review, which includes one of my short stories, Doing Philosophy: An Introduction Through Thought Experiments 5th Ed. by Lewis Schick and Theodore Vaughn. More below!

Geoffrey Klempner



In spite of their historical, geographical, and intellectual proximity, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) never entered into dialogue with one another. Heidegger claimed not to have read Adorno, while the latter wrote only polemically on the former. Yet over the past thirty years, scholars have discovered a number of affinities between the two in areas ranging from epistemology to aesthetics.[1] To date, however, no research has been done on the compelling similarities between Heidegger and Adorno on the specific topic of nature.[2] This is a loss not only for broader comparative studies of Heidegger and Adorno, but also for contemporary environmental philosophy and ethics.

In this article I aim to redress this shortcoming by showing how an examination of Heidegger and Adorno in connection with nature reveals their deeper convergences and divergences, the stakes of which continue to frame debates within contemporary ecological theory. To this end I start by showing how each figure sees nature as increasingly threatened by the worst aspects of modernity, which Heidegger explains through his notion of 'enframing' and Adorno conceives of in terms of 'domination' and exploitation. Next I provide a comparison of the theories of enframing and domination, locating their differences in Heidegger's and Adorno's distinctive philosophical approaches. To conclude I offer a short section on the appropriation of Heidegger and Adorno by the contemporary theories of deep ecology and social ecology, respectively, emphasizing how these schools differ for reasons similar to those distinguishing Heidegger and Adorno.[3]

I. Modernity's Destructiveness: The Enframing and Domination of Nature

Heidegger's Critique of the Enframing of Nature[4]

In 'The Question Concerning Technology,' Heidegger seeks to provide a novel theory of the 'essence' of modern technology. He starts by addressing the most prevalent account of technology, which he calls the 'instrumental view' (not to be confused with Adorno's notion of instrumental reason). From this perspective, technology is fundamentally an instrument or means to some desired end, as when we think of a smart phone as an instrument for communication. While Heidegger concedes that this viewpoint is in a certain sense accurate -- 'Who would ever deny that it is correct?' -- he claims that it does not fully capture the truth of the essence of modern technology.[5] This is not only because truth, for Heidegger, entails 'uncovering' rather than correspondence, but also because the essence of modern technology, he proposes, is 'not anything technological.' Thus to properly discern the essence of modern technology, Heidegger must uncover what exactly it is, without falling back on the conventional wisdom about technology.

He does this mainly by examining the way in which modern technology approaches nature. 'Everywhere,' Heidegger writes, 'everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering.'[6] He uses a number of examples to illustrate this, such as how coal is on call for mining districts, the sun's heat is 'ordered' to create steam to run factories, rivers are 'water power supplier[s]' for hydroelectric plants, and forests are 'available on demand' for the lumber and newspaper industries. Elsewhere, he states, 'Air is now set upon to yield nitrogen, the earth to yield ore, ore to yield uranium... uranium is set upon to yield atomic energy, which can be released either for destruction or peaceful use.'[7] This relation of modern technology to nature is unprecedented, Heidegger contends, in that it 'puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy that can be extracted and stored as such.'[8] Whereas the technology of pre-modern societies, he notes, simply sought to work with the earth to ensure sustenance, today's technology subjects nature to a constant 'unlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and switching about' with the sole intent of 'regulating and securing' it.[9]

In viewing nature as a source of energy for human use, modern technology shows itself to be above all a way of revealing, according to Heidegger: 'Technology is therefore no mere means. Technology is a way of revealing. If we give heed to this, then another whole realm for the essence of technology will open itself up to us. It is the realm of revealing, i.e., of truth.'[10] Seeing technology as a revealing is an improvement upon the instrumental view, Heidegger suggests, because only the former uncovers technology's basic role in bringing the 'concealed' into 'unconcealment,' which he holds is itself where truth 'happens.' Yet while the technology of previous eras also revealed or unconcealed, Heidegger proposes that modern technology is distinctive insofar as its revealing is also a 'challenging-forth,' 'setting-upon' and 'ordering': 'The revealing that rules in modern technology is a challenging.'[11] In particular, this revealing is a challenging or setting-upon of nature specifically such that it is always thought to be on call or stand by, thus rendering nature 'the chief storehouse of the standing energy reserve.'[12]

The challenging revealing of nature as 'standing-reserve' is what Heidegger terms enframing. The true essence of modern technology, enframing is the 'gathering together of that setting upon which sets upon man, i.e., challenges him forth, to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve.'[13] As such, enframing is not simply the manner in which human beings 'represent' or view nature. In addition, Heidegger argues that such representations are the result of enframing, which he also thinks of as a destining or 'sending' of Being itself that 'holds complete sway over man.'[14] Thus according to Heidegger, modern humans regard nature as standing-reserve only because enframing has already 'claimed' them to do so. As he explains, 'when man, investigating, observing, ensnares nature as an area of his own conceiving, he has already been claimed by a way of revealing that challenges him to approach nature as an object of research, until even the object disappears into the objectlessness of standing-reserve.'[15] This of course means that enframing comes about independently of 'human doing' and 'human willing,' or does not 'happen exclusively in man, or decisively through man.'[16]

But if enframing occurs in part outside of human agency, then what can be done by humanity to alter or stop it? Heidegger regards enframing as the 'supreme danger' and 'threat to man,' yet he holds that there can be no 'mastering' it, as 'Human activity can never directly counter this danger. Human achievement alone can never banish it.'[17] The implication of this is that we can only wait for a new, hopefully less antagonistic, 'destining of revealing.' However, citing the Romantic poet Holderlin's claim that 'But where danger is, grows/The saving power also,'[18] Heidegger suggests that there may be some part humans can play, however limited, in countering the dominance of enframing. This would require a rekindling of the relationship technology once shared with art. As Heidegger points out, for the ancient Greeks 'the bringing-forth of the true into the beautiful was called techne. And the poi?sis of the fine arts also was called techne.'[19] The implication here is that if the revealing of nature by technology approximated the revealing of nature by art, which lacks the challenging-forth of the former, then nature could be seen for its beauty more so than its utility.

Adorno's Critique of the Domination of Nature

In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer aim to expose the self-destructive character of enlightenment, as both a recurring phenomenon throughout human history and a specific period within modernity. As regards the latter, they write, 'the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.'[20] Their emphasis on the earth or nature here has a dual purpose. Not only is it meant to reference the escalation of World War II, which threatened to destroy much of humanity and nature (they wrote these words in the early 1940s), but also it calls attention to the domination of nature in the more literal sense. Enlightenment terminates in these two disasters, they argue, because it 'disenchants' the world, stripping humans and nature of all inherent value. Crucially, Adorno and Horkheimer do not thereby reject enlightenment or modernity as such, but rather offer a determinate negation of its 'entanglement in blind domination.'

Indeed in the wake of enlightenment, they assert, 'nature is broken.' Now 'disqualified,' it amounts to nothing more than an object to be dominated and exploited: 'Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator toward men.'[21] While Adorno and Horkheimer admit that humanity has always in some sense 'dominated' nature in order to ensure its survival, they see the Enlightenment as unique in that it made nature's subjugation 'the absolute purpose of life within and without.'[22] Thus by the domination of nature they mean the suppression not only of non-human nature, or 'external nature' (also referred to as 'first nature'), but also of human or 'internal' nature, which they define primarily in Freudian terms as tracking the pleasure principle. Moreover, they see these two aspects of domination as mutually reinforcing. On the one hand the subjection of external nature necessary for self-preservation to some extent requires the denial of internal nature. As an example of this Adorno and Horkheimer discuss Odysseus' refusal to be steered off course by the Sirens' song, illustrating how 'the adventuring self loses itself in order to preserve itself.'[23] On the other hand this denial of internal nature tends to lead to a forgetfulness of humanity's dependence on external nature, thus intensifies the drive to dominate it.

The domination of external nature in particular is facilitated by what Adorno and Horkheimer call 'instrumental reason.' The prevailing form of rationality in the Enlightenment and arguably still today, instrumental reason attends strictly to means, neglecting consideration of larger ends such as autonomy and happiness, with the obvious exception of self-preservation. In doing so it approaches nature as a site of 'computation and utility': 'What men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order to wholly dominate it and other men.'[24] Thus instrumental reason has a direct connection with disenchantment. The latter occurs through a process of abstraction, the principal 'tool of enlightenment,' whereby nature is 'represented' in unifying concepts that not only ignore its vast diversity, but also banish notions of nature's intrinsic worth to the discredited realm of 'animism' or 'anthropomorphism.' The result is a demotion of nature to the status of 'meaningless object' over against which humanity can have its way. This 'distancing' of humanity from nature is simultaneously the impetus for and result of instrumental reason. Instrumental reason so disenchants nature the better to control it, and once disenchanted, sees no problem in further exploiting it. Tragically, instrumental reason operates in this manner with little to no awareness, having 'lost the element of self-reflection.'[25]

Thus instrumental reason constitutes a representation or view of nature for Adorno and Horkheimer, but one which ultimately derives from a material or practical engagement with nature in the struggle for self-preservation. As Kevin Deluca argues, instrumental reason is at once 'epistemology and practice.'[26] In discussing the origin or original purpose of reason, Adorno and Horkheimer contend that it arose as a kind of survival weapon in response to fearsome aspects of nature such as physically stronger animals. As Deborah Cook explains, 'reason played a crucial role in the evolution of our species as 'an instrument of adaptation' to the environing world. Reason can be compared to teeth on a bear since both serve the same purpose; reason just serves the purpose of adaptation more effectively, turning human beings into 'animals with more far-reaching powers'.'[27] While humanity has since learned how to survive in nature and even 'master' it with relative success, Adorno and Horkheimer claim that the 'mythic fear' of nature remains. To quote Cook again, 'Even today, our attempts to subsume nature under concepts for the purpose of controlling, manipulating and exploiting it, reveal that nature continues to inspire fear, dread, even terror.'[28]

As a corrective to this fear of nature, upon which rests our domineering relation to it, Adorno and Horkheimer propose the 'remembrance of nature in the subject.'[29] In the idea of the greatest good, on the problem of human destiny, and on the way of realization of ultimate goals' (Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason, (New York: Continuum, 2004), p. 4). In general this would involve a collective reckoning with humanity's ultimate origin in and fundamental dependence on nature, such that nature would no longer appear as the alien and hostile Other. While Adorno maintains that humanity and nature are 'non-identical,' he takes pains to undermine the modern dualistic view that they are altogether different and independent from one another. Recognizing this partial identity, Adorno and Horkheimer suggest, could lead to a quasi-reconciliation between humanity and nature by, as Cook describes it, initiating the process of denaturalizing humanity and dehumanizing nature.[30] Of course, such a transition would entail a shift not only in our view of nature, but also in our material engagement with it, particularly at the socioeconomic level. Thus in addition to the remembrance of nature, or as an essential element of it, Adorno calls for a transfiguration of social conditions, or 'second nature,' that would relinquish 'first nature' from its status as mere means.

II. What Differentiates the Theories of Enframing and Domination: Ontology v. Dialectics, Anti-Humanism v. Humanism

The foregoing section has highlighted several of the main insights of Heidegger's and Adorno's respective accounts of modernity's destructive relation to nature. In doing so it has also pointed to possible affinities between them. The most obvious similarity lies in the very observation of each that modernity marks a new and problematic relationship between humanity and nature. Additionally, they seem to theorize this relation in parallel ways; Heidegger in terms of modern technology's enframing of nature as always on standby, and Adorno in terms of humanity's instrumental view of nature as an object to be dominated and exploited. These resemblances have not gone unnoticed, admittedly. As Espen Hammer notes, both Heidegger and Adorno show how in 'enlightened modernity... nature becomes a resource to be exploited by humans; thus nothing -- no animal, no environment, no eco-system -- counts as intrinsically valuable or worthy of protection.'[31] Upon closer examination, however, the apparent connections between Heidegger and Adorno vis-a-vis nature are complicated by deeper, perhaps irreconcilable, differences. In this section I identify some of the key sources of these differences by looking to Heidegger's and Adorno's larger philosophical commitments: ontology and anti-humanism in the case of Heidegger, and dialectics and humanism in that of Adorno.

Heidegger and Adorno indeed converge in regarding modernity as characterized by a unique and worrying view of nature as standing-reserve and means, respectively. Yet for Heidegger enframing is to be explained ontologically as a misunderstanding of Being in general and nature in particular, while Adorno sees the instrumental view of nature dialectically, as both the cause and effect of humanity's domination of nature. Though in some ways overlapping, these perspectives bring into relief Heidegger's and Adorno's more foundational positions, which are otherwise at odds. In keeping with his basic project of 'fundamental ontology,' concerned with the meaning of Being as such, Heidegger critiques the enframing of nature primarily on the grounds that its way of revealing 'blocks' nature and Being, both of which he describes in terms of the ancient Greek term physis, meaning 'self-presencing.' For Heidegger, by viewing nature as standing reserve for human usage we wrongly challenge nature forth rather than, as he elsewhere states, letting nature be.[32] By contrast Adorno takes a dialectical approach to the instrumental view of nature, holding that though it is indeed an erroneous representation of nature, it arises not out of a misconception of Being but from humanity's material struggle for self-preservation. In keeping with his overall position that nature 'preponderates,' or has historical and ontological primacy over humans and their representations, Adorno sees the problem of the domination of nature as ultimately grounded in our material relationship with it.

Adorno's prioritizing of nature underscores as well his materialism, which marks another major difference between Heidegger's ontological perspective and Adorno's dialectical view. Adorno concedes that an 'ontological moment is needed' in philosophy, however he sees Heidegger's fundamental ontology as pseudo-concrete, that is, as nominally concerned with Being, but in actuality far removed from some of the main aspects of existence, namely social conditions and their impact on individuals and nature.[33] For Adorno, an ontology worthy of the name would have to attend to the dialectical interplay between society and nature in way that Heidegger's thought neglects. Hence as Cook explains, Adorno adheres to 'two types of materialism' or ontology: 'a social type, which focuses on society and its preponderance over individuals, and a scientific one, which focuses on the preponderance of nature.'[34] The latter type is what allows Adorno to regard the instrumental view of nature as, unlike Heidegger, principally based in the drive for self-preservation, while the former type accounts for why he, also unlike Heidegger, calls for a social transformation that would displace instrumental reason.

Perhaps the most fundamental difference between Heidegger and Adorno on the topic of nature and otherwise, however, involves Heidegger's anti-humanism and Adorno's commitment to Enlightenment values of which humanism was central. As seen above, Heidegger argues that enframing is not simply the view of nature taken by human beings, but one that ultimately comes from Being itself. Thus according to Heidegger, humans are only partially responsible for the enframing of nature, and therefore have insufficient power to overcome it. This position reflects Heidegger's larger stance against humanism, which he considers to be a problematic residue of metaphysics that fails to appreciate the truth about Being and human being, namely that the latter takes precedence over the former.[35] While Heidegger does not thereby dismiss the 'dignity of man,' and while Adorno is no less suspicious of the metaphysics of modern subjectivity, in the case of the domination of nature Adorno holds that it comes from nowhere but humanity itself. Though he sees nature and humanity as dialectically intertwined, with nature having priority, instrumental reason emerges in and by humans and can only be assuaged if humanity both remembers the nature within and works to develop social conditions less antagonistic to humans and nature. To do so would be to realize the full potential of the Enlightenment, for Adorno, of which humanism is one of the crowning achievements.

III. Conclusion: Heidegger, Adorno, and Contemporary Ecological Theory

Thus the affinities between Heidegger's and Adorno's critiques of modernity's destructive relation to nature finally give way to fundamental, perhaps unbridgeable differences. These divergences can be attributed to underlying philosophical positions that are all but antithetical: ontology and anti-humanism in the case of Heidegger, and dialectics and humanism in that of Adorno. Interestingly, the differences that separate Heidegger and Adorno in connection with nature also divide two of the major schools of contemporary ecological theory, deep ecology and social ecology, each of which has drawn on the thought of Heidegger and Adorno, respectively.

As opposed to the 'shallow' ecology of mainstream environmentalism, deep ecology aims to offer more penetrating diagnoses of as well as solutions to our environmental ills. In doing so it takes issue primarily with humanity's views of nature, for example anthropocentrism or speciesism, the position that humans are the superior life-form on earth. Thus several deep ecologists, including its founder Arne Naess, have appropriated parts of Heidegger's philosophy, particularly its ontological perspective, anti-dualism, and anti-humanism. Along with a number of other philosophers and religious thinkers, Naess has cited Heidegger as a possible source of inspiration for deep ecology's 'platform principles.'[36] For example, Heidegger's claim that 'Man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of Being,'[37] can be called upon to support the principle of 'biospherical egalitarianism,' which Naess formulated as a foil to anthropocentrism and speciesism.[38]

Like deep ecology, social ecology seeks to go beyond mainstream environmentalism. However, in doing so it pays close attention to the societal, specifically economic, underpinnings of our environmental crises. This makes it a rival of deep ecology, which tends to focus on the 'spiritual' sources of the destruction of nature (i.e., anthropocentrism, speciesism), according to social ecology's originator Murray Bookchin. In addition Bookchin also opposes the anti-humanism of deep ecology's principle of biospherical egalitarianism, which he refers to as a 'Malthusian doctrine.'[39] Hence Bookchin has referenced the Frankfurt School in general, and Adorno in particular as among his influences.[40] Specifically, Adorno's emphasis on the precedence of nature and society and his commitment to humanism are the foremost aspects of his thought that lend themselves to social ecology. Interestingly, Bookchin also cites Adorno's critique of positivism as crucial in challenging the Heideggerian 'mysticism' found in deep ecology.[41]

Thus, deep ecology and social ecology differ for reasons similar to those dividing Heidegger and Adorno on the topic of nature. Though deep ecology and social ecology both oppose the destruction of nature, just as Heidegger and Adorno both critique the enframing and domination of nature, deep ecology, like Heidegger, focuses on our representations of nature and takes an anti-humanist perspective, whereas social ecology, as does Adorno, attends to the material basis of these representations and remains loyal to humanism. While these positions appear to set up a Kierkegaardian either/or when it comes to choosing which to adopt, perhaps there is a way take the best of both worlds, as it were, since each side has its merits. Such a stance would see the destruction of nature as stemming from both a representation problem and a societal problem, and thus would correct the worst aspects of humanity so as to promote the well-being of all life.


1. See Hermann Morchen, Adorno und Heidegger: Untersuchung einer philosophischen Kommunikationsverweigerung (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1981); Fred Dallmayr, Between Freiburg and Frankfurt: Toward a Critical Ontology (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1991); Adorno and Heidegger: Philosophical Questions, ed. Iain Macdonald and Krzysztof Ziarek (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008).

2. A possible exception is Ute Guzzoni's essay, 'Were speculations about the state of things permissible...': Reflections on the Relation Between Human Beings and Things in Adorno and Heidegger,' in Adorno and Heidegger: Philosophical Questions, pp. 124-137. However, as the title indicates, Guzzoni is concerned with things in general, not natural things in particular.

3. I leave aside in this discussion the question of Heidegger's and Adorno's concepts of nature itself, as this would require its own article. Instead I take their uses of the term 'nature' for granted as meaning non-human nature conventionally understood.

4. Adorno claims that critique 'has no place in Heidegger's philosophy' (Theodor W. Adorno, Ontologie und Dialektik, ed. Rolf Tiedmann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2002), p. 117). While Adorno is mostly correct that Heidegger has no explicit social critique, here I follow Krzysztof Ziarek's suggestion that Heidegger can be read as 'critical otherwise' (Ziarek, 'Beyond Critique? Art and Power, in Adorno and Heidegger: Philosophical Questions, p. 112). The alternative critique offered by Heidegger's thinking is ontological, concerned with our understanding and oft times misunderstanding of Being.

5. Martin Heidegger, 'The Question Concerning Technology,' in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 5.

6. Ibid., p. 17.

7. Ibid., p. 15.

8. Ibid., p. 14.

9. Ibid., p. 16.

10. Ibid., p. 12.

11. Ibid., p. 14.

12. Ibid., p. 21.

13. Ibid., p. 20.

14. Ibid., p. 25.

15. Ibid., p. 19.

16. Ibid., p. 24.

17. Ibid., p. 33.

18. Interestingly, Adorno and Horkheimer quote this exact line in Dialectic of Enlightenment, when discussing how Odysseus 'loses himself in order to find himself' (Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1989), pp. 47-48). Their point is that the adventures to which Odysseus surrenders himself serve to 'strengthen' his subjectivity.

19. Heidegger, 'The Question Concerning Technology,' p. 34.

20. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 3.

21. Ibid., p. 9.

22. Ibid., p. 32.

23. Ibid., p. 49.

24. Ibid., p. 4.

25. Ibid., p. 37.

26. Kevin DeLuca, 'Rethinking Critical Theory: Instrumental Reason, Judgment, and the Environmental Crisis,' Environmental Ethics 23 (2001): pp. 307-326.

27. Deborah Cook, Adorno on Nature (Durham: Acumen, 2011), p. 65.

28. Ibid., p. 45.

29. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 40. Elsewhere Horkheimer himself suggests an 'objective reason,' which does 'not focus on the co-ordination of behavior and aim, but on concepts... on

30. More precisely, Cook argues that 'Adorno's goal is to encourage the partial transcendence of nature by human beings, and of human beings by nature. Even as we come to terms with our affinity with nature, this affinity should not blind us to the non-identity of nature and human history' (Cook, Adorno on Nature, 23).

31. Espen Hammer, Adorno and the Political (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 172.

32. See Martin Heidegger, 'Letter on Humanism,' in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, ed. David Krell (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993).

33. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (New York: Continuum, 1973), pp. 185.

34. Cook, Adorno on Nature, pp. 13-14.

35. See Heidegger, 'Letter on Humanism,' which is partly a critique of Sartre's notion of existential freedom.

36. 'The sources of philosophic inspirations are many: the works of Aristotle, Spinoza, Bergson, Heidegger, Whitehead, to name a few' (Arne Naess 'Spinoza and the Deep Ecology Movement,' in The Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Naess, (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2008), p. 234.).

37. Martin Heidegger, 'Letter on Humanism,' p. 245.

38. Arne Naess, 'The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement: A Summary, in The Deep Ecology Movement: An Introductory Anthology, ed. Alan Drengson and Yuichi Inoue (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1995), 3. Alarmingly, some deep ecologists have taken anti-anthropocentrism to the extreme, inviting criticisms of neo-Malthusianism and even eco-fascism. Of course, that Heidegger was involved with National Socialism calls into question his anti-humanism and those who endorse it. For a key discussion on this topic, see Michael E. Zimmerman, 'Martin Heidegger: Antinaturalistic Critic of Technological Modernity,' in Minding Nature: The Philosophers of Ecology, ed. David Macauley (New York: The Guilford Press, 1996), pp. 59-81.

39. Murray Bookchin, 'Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology: A Challenge for the Ecology Movement,' Left Green Perspectives, 4-5 (1987).

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid.

(c) Michael Kilivris 2012




In the following essay, I will detail the selfish gene thesis, and then I will examine three specific arguments given in support of it. While examining these arguments, I will discuss the impact that the thesis would have upon various evolutionary occurrences and processes, if it were the case. After providing these arguments, I will discuss what appears to be a deeper problem with the selfish gene thesis. Then I will provide two possible alternative understandings of evolutionary processes -- group selectionism and multi-level selectionism. Finally, I will conclude that the selfish gene thesis can, in fact, be successfully challenged -- with the caveat that it is a potentially progressive research program that could fit into a multi-level selection model.

The selfish gene thesis is, in short, the thesis that evolution consists of two processes -- interaction and replication -- and that it is the role of interactors to carry on replicators into future generations. The first process -- interaction -- exists 'between organisms and their environment... [and it] biases the copying process and causes differential copying from one generation to the next' (Sterelny and Griffiths, 55). The second process -- replication -- is 'the process of copying from generation to generation, ensuring that successive generations are similar enough for selection to be cumulative' (55). As such, there are two types of entities, according to the selfish gene thesis. There are interactors, which 'exist in each generation of a copying cycle and interact... with the environment,' and there are replicators, which 'are copied into the next generation,' forming 'lineages of things with the same structure' (55). As such, it is only the replicator -- the 'selfish gene'[1] -- that is heritable; and, therefore, it is the gene that is the fundamental unit of selection in evolution.

There are three specific arguments for the selfish gene thesis that I want to examine, the argument from preservation in selection, the argument against the problem of taking the individual as a natural kind, and the bookkeeping argument. In the bookkeeping argument, I want to pay special attention to the explanation of altruism that the selfish gene thesis provides, but first, let me explain the argument from preservation in selection.

The argument from preservation in selection maintains that the selfish gene thesis clarifies precisely what is the unit of selection, something that has long been and continues to be a contentious issue in evolutionary biology. On the selfish gene account, what get selected are genes and only genes. In other words, genes are the only elements that pass from one generation to another. As such, they form lineages that terminate or become increasingly bushy, and this provides an account of evolutionary processes. This relates directly to the second argument, which eliminates problems with defining the individual as a 'natural kind.' Since there is no standardized definition of what an 'individual' is (are bacteria colonies, clonal populations, or slime molds collectives or individuals?), using the individual as the unit of selection makes the selection process strikingly fuzzy. According to the selfish gene thesis, individuals are mere interactors which serve as a sort of epiphenomena for the genes that they contain. In other words, individuals, on this account, are reduced to 'vehicles' (more precisely, vehicular manifestations) for the true units of selection, i.e., the genes themselves. The question 'What is an individual?' becomes irrelevant to questions about natural selection.

Finally, there is the bookkeeping argument, which holds that the selfish gene thesis 'gives us a common currency for representing, comparing, and explaining evolutionary changes' (66). In other words, since evolution is a process that solely acts on genes, evolutionary processes can be explained using the same terminology, and problems that need explanation are reduced to the same level of explanation. If all 'selection is selection for genes by virtue of their phenotypic powers,' then all questions about evolution can be answered in terms of genes and their phenotypic 'powers' (66). So, for example, genes on this account allow speciation to be described as the barriers to gene flow and evolution itself to be described merely as the change of gene frequency in a population. The explanation for altruism is more specific. According to the selfish gene thesis, altruism is a self-sacrificial behavior that is extended to those with whom the altruist shares genes -- in other words, it results from the sharing of genes between two vehicles and from the preference given to like-gened vehicles.

There appears, however, to be an ontological problem with the selfish gene thesis. This problem concerns the identity of the gene itself. Usually, 'a gene is thought of as a functional unit of some kind' (78). According to the selfish gene thesis, however, genes are redefined as 'any reasonably short sequence of DNA on a chromosome' (78). This is problematic, though, because if the gene is defined as such, 'then most of them will have no more systematic relation to the phenotype than an arbitrary string of letters has to the meaning of a book' (79). As defined, this 'evolutionary gene' would become 'invisible' to selection much like any arbitrarily grouped sequence of letters in this paper would become 'invisible.' But the aforementioned ontological problem concerns the idea that there is such a thing as a single, unchanging entity -- which we call the gene -- that passes from generation to generation. Certain findings in molecular genetics seem to challenge this idea.

Instead of being discrete entities, genes seem to be functional packages that change the role they play depending on their positioning. For example, where in an embryo a gene is activated will determine what characteristics of the embryo will emerge as it is exposed to environmental influences. So it becomes apparent that the 'same' gene can show completely different functions based on its sequencing. Yet there also seem to be instances where genes that are identical sequentially can fulfill different functions. This leads to the conclusion that, as an entity, the gene is not well-defined. Due to the apparently high volume of counter-examples to simplistic definitions of the gene, I would conclude that the gene, rather than being an ontologically discrete entity, is instead a family of concepts. As such, it is the context of discussion that will determine what aspect of the gene-concept is being discussed when the topic arises.

There are alternative understandings of evolutionary processes, two of which will be discussed briefly below -- group selectionism and multi-level selectionism. Group selectionism is the thesis that allelic frequencies will vary due to the advantages or disadvantages that the alleles confer on the group to which the allele's carrier belongs -- regardless of the effect that the alleles have upon the fitness of the carrier. According to this understanding, something like altruism is explained as a group property; if a group's survivability increases with the number of altruists it contains, then groups with more altruists will have a higher collective fitness. Group selectionism has, however, been traditionally controversial. There is another model, championed by David Sloan Wilson and Elliot Sober, which they call multi-level selection. In this model, there are multiple levels on which natural selection can act. So, potentially, on this account, natural selection could act at the level of the cell, the individual, or the group. It is even possible that genes can be units of selection, since according to the multi-level selection model, there need not be one single unit of selection. As such, it seems possible that the selfish gene thesis could be a progressive research program, especially if it is so modified as to be successfully installed in a wider program of multi-level selection research.


1. Andrew Brown, in an article about The Selfish Gene for Salon, wrote, ''Selfish', when applied to genes, doesn't mean 'selfish' at all. It means, instead, an extremely important quality for which there is no good word in the English language: 'the quality of being copied by a Darwinian selection process.''

Works Cited

Griffiths, Paul and Sterelny, Kim. Sex and Death: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Biology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Rosenberg, Alex and McShea, Daniel. Philosophy of Biology: A Contemporary Introduction. New York, NY: Routledge, 2008.

Sloan, David Wilson and Sober, Elliott. Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. Cambridge, MA: University of Harvard Press, 1998.

(c) Michael Uhall 2011




Earlier this year in March, out of the blue, I heard that McGraw-Hill Ryerson had selected one of my short science fiction stories for the 5th edition of their text book Doing Philosophy: An introduction through thought experiments by Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn.[1]

The selected story, 'The Black Box' was one of fifteen science fiction short stories written for Pathways Program A. Introduction to Philosophy 'The Possible World Machine'.[2] The story is a cautionary tale about a man who is given a 'black box' that predicts the future by a mysterious hooded stranger. What would become of our free will if everything that was going to happen could be predicted in advance? Is that even possible? If not, why not?

The story dates back to 1990-1, long before the idea of Pathways was conceived. Originally, there were just ten stories which I read to a Workers Educational Association philosophy evening class in Sheffield. As I describe in my 1999 talk 'Can Philosophy Be Taught?',

     ... how do you present the problems so that people will be
     gripped by them? The standard text books didn't do a very
     good job, I felt. So I had the idea of writing science
     fiction stories. I called them 'thought experiments'. (The
     idea had been tried before, in a book by Miller and Smith
     called Thought Probes Prentice Hall, which used the work of
     famous science fiction writers such as Arthur C. Clarke,
     Robert Heinlein, Roger Zelazny and Frederik Pohl.) The
     stories were fun to write, and provided a perfect launch
     pad for the discussion of the problems of philosophy. My
     audience was soon hooked.[3]

A further five stories were written after the launch of the Pathways to Philosophy distance learning program, during 1995-6.

The fifteen short stories from 'Possible World Machine', together with introductions are available for free download from the Pathways web site.[4] The PDF text represents about 40 per cent of the complete Pathways Introduction to Philosophy program.

Apart from McGraw-Hill, the only other publisher to take an interest in my interest in science fiction was Benbella, who in asked me to write the Afterword to the new edition of David Gerrold's classic sci-fi time travel novel, 'The Man Who Folded Himself'.[5][6]

Over the last 15 years or so, I have been too busy running the Pathways School of Philosophy to consider writing fiction, let alone science fiction. However, the unexpected news from McGraw-Hill started a train of thought. What if... ? There are two possible worlds: the possible world in which I just carried on as I have been doing, or the possible world where I tried something new...

... Why not?

You never really know until you try.

So at the beginning of September, after lengthy (too lengthy) deliberation, I decided to have a go. I've written ten stories to date:

     1. A Better Ray Gun
     2. I Love Your Waspish Waist
     3. A Million Dark Years
     4. The Last... What?
     5. Alien Baby
     6. Perfect Day
     7. Hare and Hounds
     8. Hold That Sucker Down
     9. Go Deep
     10. That Feeling When

All the new stories are less than 1000 words, a genre which is termed 'flash fiction'. Because these are intended for publication, they will not be available online. Instead, I am starting a limited email distribution list.

Anyone who has taken or is in the process of taking Pathways Program A. Introduction to Philosophy 'The Possible World Machine' is invited to join the Pathways sci-fi list.

Apart from the need to make the stories gripping -- which applies to all fiction -- with science fiction it is the ideas that are the most important thing. There is philosophy in here, but not in the up front, didactic way of the original stories from Possible World Machine. The reactions I have received so far encourage me that I am not wasting my time on some vain pursuit.

If would like to join the new Pathways sci-fi list, please email The stories are delivered as individual email messages. So the first mail out will consist of a compendium of all the stories penned to date. After that, stories will go out at irregular intervals when I can find the time to write or when the inspiration takes me.

I look forward to hearing from you!

One more thing:

I have a copy of Doing Philosophy: An introduction to philosophy through thought experiments available for review. It is long. The 647 pages are jam packed with philosophical ideas, designed to provoke active engagement with the text. Very much a book to work through rather than just read in the comfort of an arm chair. I am looking for a sufficiently energetic and knowledgeable reviewer to write a full review for a future issue of Philosophy Pathways.

-- Any takers?


1. Doing Philosophy: An introduction through thought experiments 5th edition 2013 Featured at:

2. Pathways to Philosophy: The six Pathways

3. 'Can Philosophy Be Taught? (3)'

4. Pathways downloads page

5. The Man Who Folded Himself (ppbk edition 2003) m=product_detail&p=618

6. 'Afterword to The Man Who Folded Himself'

(c) Geoffrey Klempner 2012


© Geoffrey Klempner 2002–2020