Tim Ingold’s paper, “An Anthropologist Looks at Biology,” offers an excellent critique of neo-Darwinian biological approaches which, he claims, actually ignore the organism. Neo-Darwinian biology considers the organism to be determined by its genes or genotype which can never be influenced retroactively by the phenotype or the life experience and traits which are uniquely expressed through interaction with the environment. It is viewed as a closed system. However, as Ingold argues, organisms are necessarily open systems. Evolution is simply tracking which genetic mutations happened to be beneficial to a species so they were passed on rather than actually telling us anything about the nature of life. Ingold provides three reasons for why Neo-Darwinism cannot explain life.
First, he claims Neo-Darwinism is only concerned with events rather than processes. Evolution looks at the events of genes passing from one generation to the next which may include mutations, but it fails to consider the importance of the variation in how these genes are expressed and lived by the organism. Second, it ignores the interconnectedness of organisms and their worlds. Third, organisms and their environments assumed to evolve separately rather than in tandem.
As an anthropologist, Ingold’s purpose in critiquing this biological approach is to provide an alternative which recognizes humanity, culture, and society as continuous with nature. He condemns the standard paradigm by stating, “In short, the human being is represented not as a specific manifestation of animality, but as the manifestation of a specific human essence superimposed upon a generalized animal substrate.” (P. 210) The legacy of Descartes is the separation of mind and world which implies a separation between human beings and nature. Ingold stresses that the study of persons is a study of organisms. Rather than focusing on genetic or cultural determination, understanding life depends upon evaluating relationships. We must consider the evolution of relationships between individuals, groups, various species, and the environment.
This assertion that human beings are continuous with nature and not in any way separate is also put forward by Merleau-Ponty. He states, “…consciousness itself (is) a project of the world, meant for a world which it neither embraces nor possesses, but towards which it is perpetually directed—and the world as this pre-objective individual whose imperious unity decrees what knowledge shall take as its goal”. (xx) What does it mean for consciousness to be a project of this world? Even if we deny the ‘specialness’ of human beings, the only option open to Neo-Darwinism is that consciousness is a complete fluke down to a series of genetic mutations which happened to be beneficial in an environment assumed to be separate from, and not changed by the organisms which inhabit it. Consciousness would not be a project of the world, but rather an unexpected and unintended symptom of it.
In Ingold’s view, there is nothing which exists which is ‘unnatural’. Skyscrapers and gummy bears are as organic as trees and zebras. Even if things like language and reasoning are unique to humanity, this does not mean we should look outside of nature and evolution for their origin. Rather, by re-conceptualizing the key elements of evolution to be organisms and the relationships between them and the environment, we might obtain insights into the development of consciousness that remain hidden to the study of genetics alone. Consciousness is a project of this world in the sense that it arose in this world, through this world, and for this world.
Ingold, T. (1990) “An Anthropologist Looks at Biology”, Man, 25 (2), pp. 208–229.
Merleau-Ponty, M. ‘Preface’ Phenomenology of Perception, trans., Colin Smith, London and New York: Routledge, 1962.