Consciousness and Paleobiological Laws: E. D. Cope as Philosopher

Guest blogger Trevor Pearce writes...

Most readers of Extinct have probably heard of American paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope, storied veteran of the Bone Wars and prolific describer of animal species—including this charming anuran, which I noticed during a visit to our local nature center:

Cope’s gray tree frog (Hyla chrysoscelis) at Discovery Place Nature

Cope’s gray tree frog (Hyla chrysoscelis) at Discovery Place Nature

(Like many American geologists and paleontologists at the time—see Joseph LeConte and Nathaniel Shaler—Cope was also a horrible racist, but that’s a story for another day.)

But beyond “Cope’s Rule,” which postulates that individuals in a lineage tend to get bigger over evolutionary time—and which ironically was never stated or endorsed by Cope—biologists and philosophers know little about his evolutionary views. Extinct readers who remember Derek’s brief account of Cope’s “law of the unspecialized” are practically experts!

Cope is unquestionably and rightly remembered for his scientific achievements. I’m going to suggest that we should also remember him as a philosopher. Despite being virtually ignored by historians of philosophy (Herbert Schneider, writing in 1946, is one of the exceptions), Cope played a role in the history of philosophy of biology: not only was he a regular contributor to early philosophy of science periodicals such as Open Court and The Monist, he even influenced the evolutionary metaphysics of Charles Sanders Peirce. Recalling Cope and his contributions demonstrates that biologists and philosophers at the end of the nineteenth century were engaging in what amounted to collaborative research, producing innovative (and bizarre) theories of consciousness and evolution.

Cope was one of a number of late-nineteenth-century biologists searching for laws of variation. Following the Duke of Argyll among others, he argued in 1871 that Darwin’s theory of evolution was incomplete:

Darwin assumes a “tendency to variation” in nature, and it is plainly necessary to do this, in order that materials for the exercise of a selection should exist. Darwin’s and Wallace’s law is, then, only restrictive, directive, conservative, or destructive of something already created. I propose then to seek for the originative laws by which these subjects are furnished—in other words, for the causes of the origin of the fittest.

(see Cope 1871)

Variation and plasticity were often treated together, just as in more recent debates. Thus later in the same essay, Cope presented an explanation of his law of the unspecialized, which says that specialized types in a given geological period are derived from the unspecialized types of earlier geological periods (Cope 1896):

The extinction of highly specialized types, which has closed so many lines of animal types, will be accounted for by their less degree of plasticity and want of capacity for change under such changed circumstances. . . . The less developed forms would be most likely to experience modification of structure under a new order of things, and palaeontology teaches that the predecessors of the characteristic types of one period were of the less specialized forms of that which went before.

(see Cope 1871)

This point inspired the geologist Clarence King (a fascinating fellow and one of Peirce’s drinking buddies) to suggest that evolutionary dynamics were different during catastrophes such as “sudden climatic changes,” partly anticipating recent work on mass extinctions by David Jablonski and others:

When catastrophic change burst in upon the ages of uniformity, and sounded in the ear of every living thing the words “change or die,” plasticity became the sole principle of salvation. Plasticity, then, is that quality which, in suddenly enforced physical change, is the key to survival and prosperity. . . . And the survival of the plastic, that is of the rapidly and healthily modifiable during periods when terrestrial revolution offers to species the rigorous dilemma of prodigious change or certain death, is a widely different principle from the survival of the fittest in a general biological battle during terrestrial uniformity.

(see King 1877)

Plasticity and adaptability, according to King and Cope, are what allow certain species to survive across dramatic geological shifts.

E. D. Cope, contemplating catastrophes, circa 1889

E. D. Cope, contemplating catastrophes, circa 1889

More generally, Cope thought that plasticity and a lack of specialization were essential to evolvability, and he also believed that the broader trajectory of evolution was toward greater specialization and automatism. But his key move was to place consciousness at the beginning of evolution. He justified this by linking consciousness to flexibility, and treating it as the polar opposite of automatism—think of behavior that is habitual or automatic as opposed to that governed by conscious choice (Cope 1875). Now you might be thinking, didn’t consciousness slowly evolve through evolutionary history? That’s what William James argued a few years later, and it’s pretty much the opposite of Cope’s view. But Cope presented evidence of consciousness very early in evolution: in the behavior of Rhizopods, aquatic amoeboid organisms that were trendy among philosophically inclined biologists at the time (Schloegel & Schmidgen 2002; Reynolds 2008). The simplest Rhizopods are basically little blobs of jelly—Schleimklümpchen, in Ernst Haeckel’s delightful moniker—that nevertheless possess feeling, or must have in the past:

The structureless jelly of Rhizopods, such as Amoebas, Gromias, etc., evidently selects its food with regard to its nutritious qualities, in most instances preferring diatoms and desmids to sand and other innutritious substances. Its acquisitions in knowledge of articles of food can only be accounted for on the hypothesis of original, pleasurable or painful, consciousness of the effects of external and internal contact with these substances, and retention of the impression in unconsciousness.

(see Cope 1875)

I’m sure we can all think of a fully unconscious process that could result in such selectivity, but for Cope this was evidence of at least ancestral consciousness in primitive organisms. (Did I mention that Cope may have gotten interested in these little amoeboids because of research by Joseph Leidy, yet another paleontologist? Science wasn’t as siloed back then.)

Gromia and its thread-like pseudopodia (nos. 1–4 only), as pictured in Leidy (1879)

Gromia and its thread-like pseudopodia (nos. 1–4 only), as pictured in Leidy (1879)

In a nice example of intellectual parallelism, Cope and Haeckel came up with the whole “bits of protoplasm might be conscious” idea independently in the mid-1870s (for more, see Pearce, forthcoming; on nineteenth-century “protoplasmania,” see Brain 2015; for a philosophically rich analysis of scientific interest in protoplasm, see Liu, forthcoming).

What about the Peirce connection? Peirce wrote a whole article on protoplasm in 1892, only a few years after Cope’s papers were collected in The Origin of the Fittest—a book Peirce called “famous” in 1890. But although they both argued that “protoplasm feels,” the parallels between their broader evolutionary worldviews are even more striking. In 1882, Cope coined the term ‘archaesthetism’ (from the Greek archē, beginning, and aisthēsis, sensation) for the view that evolution tends from consciousness to automatism. He had already extended this to physics and cosmology, suggesting that “we are at liberty to search for the origin of the physical forces in consciousness, as well as the vital; their present unconscious condition being possibly due, as in the case of the vital, to automatism” (Cope 1875). Peirce began to develop a similar view in 1884, asking, “May not the laws of physics be habits gradually acquired by systems?” (Peirce 1992, p. 223). By the early 1890s, after reading Cope, he was bringing habit, evolution, and protoplasm together in a series of articles in The Monist, the first of which contains one of my all-time favorite passages:

In the beginning,—infinitely remote,—there was a chaos of unpersonalised feeling, which being without connection or regularity would properly be without existence. This feeling, sporting here and there in pure arbitrariness, would have started the germ of a generalising tendency. Its other sportings would be evanescent, but this would have a growing virtue. Thus, the tendency to habit would be started; and from this with the other principles of evolution all the regularities of the universe would be evolved. At any time, however, an element of pure chance survives and will remain until the world becomes an absolutely perfect, rational, and symmetrical system, in which mind is at last crystallised in the infinitely distant future.

(see Peirce 1891)

So evolution starts with feeling and ends with regularity—sound familiar? Although Peirce officially traces his view back to F. W. J. Schelling’s claim that matter is “extinct mind,” I think he’s not telling us the whole story. My juiciest bit of evidence: it turns out that Peirce wrote the entry for ‘archesthetism’ for an 1889 volume of The Century Dictionary! The parallel between their views was also spotted at the time by Edmund Montgomery and Josiah Royce, and I won’t even get into their shared Neo-Lamarckism (which I’m currently writing about).

C. S. Peirce, looking into the infinitely distant future, circa 1891

C. S. Peirce, looking into the infinitely distant future, circa 1891

Okay, so maybe I’ve convinced you that Peirce’s weird evolutionary views were indebted to Cope’s weird evolutionary views (although as a referee for my forthcoming HOPOS paper on this topic pointed out, these weird views are still around). But why should anyone care? As I say in the introduction to the HOPOS piece, I think the upshot—if you’re not already interested in Peirce or the history of philosophy of biology—is primarily historiographical: we should embrace Sarah Hutton’s “conversation model” of the history of philosophy, in which we look at all of the actors involved in public debates, networks of correspondence, etc., irrespective of whether they talk or look like our present idea of the philosopher. In this case, Hutton’s approach leads us to take conversations between philosophers and scientists more seriously, and to pay attention to venues like Open Court and The Monist, the first American periodicals devoted to philosophical reflection on science. It also has the nice side-effect of bringing together historians of science, historians of philosophy, and philosophers of science, as all of these scholarly literatures are relevant to what was going on in a journal like The Monist. Plus did I mention that you get to read articles with titles like “Five Souls with But a Single Thought: The Psychological Life of the Star-Fish”? ‘Nuff said.

(If you want to read more about Cope, unfortunately there isn’t much out there beyond H. F. Osborn’s 1931 biography and some old dissertations. But he’s discussed in James Moore’s monumental The Post-Darwinian Controversies and Peter Bowler’s classic The Eclipse of Darwinism, and there’s also a 1997 biography called The Bone Sharp. The most recent HPS work I know of is Mark Ulett’s “Making the Case for Orthogenesis.” Last but not least, thanks to Paul Brinkman we now know that Cope used to get into fistfights outside the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.)