And The Oedipus Effect
Notes Toward An Eonic Model

Home | Booknotes Archive | Darwiniana

World History 
And The Eonic Effect

Civilization, Darwinism,
And Theories of Evolution
2nd. Edition
By  John Landon

  Developing an Eonic Model



One of the liabilities of modern culture is the way in which theories proliferate to influence action in misleading ways, in the process disguising elements of ideology.  At one and the same time any project of Universal History is rejected, this itself often in the name of rejecting theories. Postmodern critiques of metanarratives are one source of this rejection.  The basic question is clear: we can't make a theory the basis of action, only the basis of science. This is an issue we can take up starting with Karl Popper's classic critique of historicism. But we will solve this problem of theory by adopting an new approach to the whole question of theories. The way we do that will be follow a strategy of Kant, the real source of Popper's critique, and, most of all, to do this in the context of the data of the eonic effect. The eonic effect suggests its own methodology. First we need to consider that data on its own and some awareness of the eonic effect will be the starting point, and a look at the tutorial series might be helpful since we won't linger on the details.

The Limits of Theory

Darwin's theory of evolution, based on the claims for natural selection, has provoked a nearly endless debate, and one reason for that is the faulty character of the theory itself, speaking in general terms about theories. Darwin worked at a time when scientific research began to spread into many fields, armed with a mindset inherited from physics. The positivistic and reductionist character of these initiatives contained a hidden methodological weakness, one that had been extensively addressed in many of the writings of German classical philosophy from the period of Kant onwards.

Despite the equal problems that arose in that philosophical world the distinction of the human and natural sciences was standard fare. But the tide of positivism bypassed this phase of critique and proceeded with a determination to learn nothing and make a series of classic mistakes all over again. It is worth considering this history whenever anyone in the field of biological theory starts claiming that natural selection can resolve the issue of ethics, or proposes a genetic basis for religion. The amnesia enforced by narrow science education is remarkable, and is an indication of the way the 'paradigm' phenomenon takes hold.

It is interesting to consider the influence of Herbert Spencer on evolutionary thought. Largely rejected now, he nonetheless approached questions of evolution in their essential difficulty, in the process no doubt seeding the field with the persistent confusions between social and biological evolution. He is often blamed for thinking that pervades Darwinian thought implicitly, unconsciously. In Spencer the issue of ideology becomes center stage, but the same, after a close look, is also true of the Darwinists. Spencer, at least, grappled head on with the issue of applying evolutionary thought to social systems, in the process provoking the hidden crisis of all such theories.

There is a kind of clumsiness about all these theories, because they make assumptions about the 'right way to do science' that end up the wrong way to do 'evolution'. We are left to ask the meaning of evolution, and the exact place of a science of evolution in the context of greater culture. It was Kant who suspected the limits of theory, and of theories of evolution. Is it really possible to produce a theory of evolution in closed form? It is taken for granted in a mood of naive scientism that the problem is not only solvable, but solved by Darwin's theory. The presumption is considerable, and the indelicate charge of propaganda haunts the whole field of evolutionary thought.

Historicism, and The Philosophy of History

Even as Darwinism began its illustrious career, notwithstanding its brief eclipse at the end of the nineteenth century, the legacy of the philosophy of history remained as a background challenge to the rise of positivistic thinking. Here the influence of Hegel, a world in itself, has been so dominant that the whole genre of the philosophy of history seems to ride on his system. But that is unfair, and in any case we tend to see Hegel through the lens of Marxism, to the extent Marxist thought still has credibility at all in contemporary cultural discourse. The famous critique of Marxism by Karl Popper in his The Poverty of Historicism contains a classic challenge to all philosophies of history, and expresses the crux of the problem that arises with theories cast in the scientific mould. Popper's use of the term 'historicism' is very idiosyncratic, but can be taken for our purposes as the critique of misapplied causal thinking seeping into the social sciences.

Marx, or at least the Marxism that passes under his name, was a victim of this kind of ambiguity, and yet his thinking contains at one and the same time important elements of the right approach to social theories, especially in so far as these tend to reflect social ideology. Marx exhibits the whole symptom set of period of Darwin, and shows in action the way in which the philosophy of history, behind the mask of scientism, remains alive and well in any attempt to approach issues of social evolution. It is little appreciated that Marx's critique of capitalist ideology and Popper's critique of Marxist ideology both share important features.

Popper's critique of historicism is one-sided in the sense that it makes the case against any form of Big History. The grand theme of the philosophers of history is seen to fail inherently, and there the question of 'historical laws', and their fallacies, are given center stage.

However, the key to our own approach is to embrace Popper's critique of historicism, but proceed to the observation that this critique was the original source of the whole subject in the work of Kant! Thus what Popper calls the flaw of historicism is for us the gateway to Big History done right.

A New Approach to Theory

Contemporary culture needs to be liberated from theories! Especially theories of evolution. Such theories blind us to the nature of social action, and inflict a false perspective that threatens the whole basis of secularism with religious reaction.  The reason for this is not hard to find. Religious, or at least monotheistic, thought conceals a disguised version of the philosophy of history in packaged form that automatically resolves, in however primitive a fashion, the contradictions of scientism applied to social discourse.  That's embarrassing but true. Religions don't promote theories, but projects of action. The answer lies in the original response to the contradictions in scientific methodology proposed by such figures as Kant. There the idea of freedom, to summarize a complex subject, is matched to the substrate of causal analysis in a way that can harmonize, or at least, conjoin as a working hybrid, the inherent contradictions generated in the wake of the rise of science.

The kind of model we will create will help us to find a practical way to combine systems thinking with the gist of the philosophy of history to produce a two-level construct that can finally show what's going on with Spencer and Darwin, and the reason they consistently get the question of theory all wrong.

Theories and The Oedipus Effect

The position of Popper is a misleading one in the context of modern science. His use of the term 'historicism' shows that his legacy is a hybrid of the human and social sciences, and that his eccentric definition of the term echoes the classic critique of scientism that we have indicated already. The history of the term 'historicism' is complex indeed, but it is useful to consider Popper's definition, which resembles the issues raised by Isaiah Berlin on 'historical inevitability'. 

I mean by ‘historicism’ an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their principal aim, and which assumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the ‘rhythms’ or the ‘patterns’, the ‘laws’ or the ‘trends’ that underlie the evolution of history.

Because this criticism was applied in a contentious ideological context to Marx's predictive theories of the inevitability of socialism we tend to forget its generality and conveniently forget the problem when a scientist declares the social sciences colonial terrain for next reductionist generalization. Scientists will not lightly give up the attempt to produce 'historical laws' with their inherent predictions, and the fate of Marx in this regard is apparently considered some vice of the revolutionary Left.

Popper also has a variant of this thinking in his description of what he calls the Oedipus Effect.

The idea that a prediction may have influence upon the predicted event is a very old one. Oedipus, in the legend, killed his father whom he had never seen before; and this was the direct result of the prophecy, which had caused his father to abandon him. This is why I suggest the name ‘Oedipus effect ’ for the influence of the prediction upon the predicted event.

This is the gist of the historical inevitability problem, where the freedom to choose a course of action conflicts with any claim on the future by a theory. This is no small matter, since the question of Oedipus Effects stalks Marxist theories of revolution and the stages of history. Early Marxists are on record confusing what they thought predicted by theories with what was really their own contingent strategies of action.

But this problem is pervasive in any theory that does not carefully delimit is field of action, the theory of Darwin being no exception. The historicist character of Darwinism is concealed behind its statistical mask, but the point is clear. Darwin's theory tends to declare itself tacitly a 'law of evolution', not often however in so many words, and it does this whenever it claims, directly or by innuendo,  that higher complexity, speciation, and all the features of organisms, etc, arise via selectionist adaptation. Darwinists also seem free of the fallacies of prediction. But the question is not so simple.

Here's the point: if you think natural selection is behind the evolution of the brain, for example, then, even if you make no explicit predictions about the future, you assume that 'this is the way things are', hence 'will be'. There's the hidden prediction. Either you think natural selection produced Big Brains or you don't. If you do, you implicitly assume that other explanations don't work, and that what was once the case would by the nature of things happen that way again in the future, other things being equal.

Once again this is no quibble. Almost immediately in the wake of Darwin (and Spencer) this 'Oedipus Effect' of the theory spawned the legacy of Social Darwinism. No use denying it. If you think survival of the fittest spawned Big Brains, the smart thing to do must be to compete and survive. This thinking was an underground fallacy of a whole generation of people, many of them dangerous politicians. So Darwin joins Marx in the theoretical lineup for proponents of botched theories.




Last modified: 08/31/2005