Have any philosophers wrestled with this question or created terminology to help us differentiate between biological natural selection and cultural or technological natural selection?

A couple examples:

  1. If Stephen Hawking could have traveled back in time 10,000 years, he probably wouldn't have survived more than a day without special technology. Would you say he was biologically unfit, or would you say he was perfectly fit for a technologically advanced society?

  2. Imagine if we achieved a one-world government, and the plutocrats who run the government decided that every human who isn't white should be exterminated. Would you call that natural selection?

  • 1
    Define "natural". – MichaelK Mar 29 '18 at 5:56
  • @MichaelK - I guess that's part of the question (at least partially answered in some of the answers below). To me, "natural" signifies biological/evolutionary selection predating human technology (e.g. tools, weapons, science, etc.). – David Blomstrom Mar 29 '18 at 19:17

The limits of natural selection is nature; what you're describing in the two examples you propose is what we call artificial selection, not natural selection.

The difference? Two moths land on a white piece of granite. One is white, the other is black. A bird sees the black one and swoops down and eats it. That's natural selection, and most of the moths around white rocks will tend towards being white.

On the other hand, a small tribe of humans sits around their campfire at night, and it attracts wolves who can smell the meat cooking. Some of those wolves are friendly to the humans, and they feed them. Others are not, and get nothing. In time, humans restrict the breeding of wolves to those who are most friendly, instantly kill any animal that shows aggression in any form, and rewards actions like protecting the camp area from other animals, or alerting the humans to threats.

Dogs are born. From artificial selection, or selective breeding.

In the case of Stephen Hawking, his survival was as much a testament to his own will as modern technology. Most people with Motor Neuron Disease are lucky to survive 5 years after diagnosis, let alone close to fifty. But, to be fair, we as a species are artificially selecting ourselves as a whole, ensuring the survival of those nature would deem fit as well as (in many cases) those it would deem unfit. This is still a form of artificial selection because we choose to do it.

Your one-world government is doing exactly the same. They're selectively breeding the next generation, and that's artificial selection, not natural selection. There are those who argue that a version of this has already been done with humans, pointing to slave owners in the USA prior to the Civil War. They certainly rewarded size, strength, agility, and other physical traits by pairing up such people with their similar from the other gender, encouraging children. This was obviously not morally sound, but it is a clearly documented example of human selective breeding from our history.

Ultimately, the differentiation is intent, or lack thereof. There is material out there about the increasing divergence between egg chickens and meat chickens in terms of their unity as a species (I won't link it because it can cause distress) but this is yet another case of humans intentionally encouraging a specific trait in a specific set of animals. That, however, is not natural selection as the term was originally intended to be used by Darwin.

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  • Hmmm...that's pretty much the way I see it. There are some interesting comments on natural selection @ philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/50137/… and it made me realize that philosophers could interpret "natural selection" in different ways. – David Blomstrom Mar 29 '18 at 1:51
  • @DavidBlomstrom this is a good point, but scientists on the other hand have to apply a very specific interpretation. This is no different to the physics terms like power, work, energy, etc. which are often subject to much broader semantic evaluations among non-scientists. It could also be that for many philosophers, 'natural selection' has become a synonym of 'selection' and for the purposes of precision, I'm of the humble view that it's best to discourage this. – Tim B II Mar 29 '18 at 2:12
  • This makes me think if ants have selected aphid, is that selection natural? – rus9384 Mar 29 '18 at 7:48
  • @rus9384 interesting point. If you argue that a colony of ants has selectively 'bred' aphids for a specific trait, and there is diversity between domesticated aphids and aphids in the wild, this could easily be an example of artificial selection that has not involved humans. – Tim B II Mar 29 '18 at 23:32

I think the answer can actually be tackled from a purely linguistic process. Natural selection is called as such because the actions which cause it are "natural." Artificial selection is called as such because the actions which cause it are "artificial."

This quite obviously depends on two concepts. The first is causality, and the second is some meaningful distinction between "natural" causes and "artificial" causes. Thus the question is reduced to this division between natural and artificial causes. This is a topic which has been expounded upon by countless philosophers, too many to even begin to mention. Wherever we have the concept that a person comes into this world at birth, rather than coming out of it, we will find such a distinction.

As for your questions, fitness has always been with respect to an environment. No human today is fit for a life 1000m under the ocean waves. Stephen Hawking's fitness is clearly dependent on the environment around him. However, by typical evolutionary phrasings, I point out that he has 3 children (perhaps 1 is debated), so he has passed on his genes.

In your one-government world, I would call what they are doing to be artificial selection because traditionally speaking, breeding efforts done by humans have been deemed "artificial." However, it brings up an interesting possibility. If this one-government also has one-religion, it is plausible that nobody in that world would be aware of any other way of thinking. Thus they may consider this eugenic exercise to be "natural." The issue, of course, being a fundamental disagreement as to where to draw the line based on our disparate experiences.

Meanwhile, a Daoist would call all of it the will of the Dao, so maybe the division is not quite as useful as we think it is.

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