Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol 5, No 2 (2009)

Font Size:  Small  Medium  Large

James Mark Baldwin with Alfred North Whitehead on Organic Selectivity: The “Novel” Factor in Evolution

Adam Christian Scarfe


The aim of this paper is to show how James Mark Baldwin’s theory of Organic Selection (also known as the “Baldwin effect”) can be fruitfully integrated with Alfred North Whitehead’s speculative philosophy, as part of the endeavor to develop a comprehensive process-relational evolutionary cosmology. In so doing, it provides an overview of the theory of Organic Selection and points to several concrete examples from the Galapagos Islands which elucidate Baldwin’s claim that organisms, through their selective activities and behavioral adjustments, play a causal role in directing evolutionary processes. I emphasize some of the affinities between Baldwin’s theory of Organic Selection and Whitehead’s theory of prehensions, especially focusing on the latter’s notion of “prehensive selectivity.” Overall, while Baldwin’s theory of Organic Selection provides a biological ground for a comprehensive process-relational evolutionary cosmology to be developed, illuminating the importance of Whitehead’s theory of prehensions for evolutionary theory, Whitehead’s overall speculative scheme can, in turn, strengthen the metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical foundations of Baldwin’s theory. In the course of merging the two views, I arrive at an enlarged conception of Organic Selection, placing it in context with Darwin’s principle of Natural Selection. At the end of the paper, I take up the resulting question of the ethics of selectivity in general, arguing that the merger of Baldwin’s and Whitehead’s ideas constitutes a “non-reductionistic critical pan-selectionism.” This position stands in contrast to the antagonistic standpoints of “Selectionism” and “Anti-Selectionism” in the ongoing debates over the ethical dimensions of evolution.

Full Text: PDF HTML