From Darwin to Derrida: evolution as interpretation

Genes are the text, evolution is the reader

From Darwin to Derrida2

The standard view of evolution is that it’s a process guided by randomness, and hence its results, as amazing as they are, are meaningless. But if we think of our genes as a kind of text, then we can understand evolution as a process of interpretation, and reinterpretation. And interpretation implies meaning. Organisms and their development are guided not by chance, nor by a deterministic genetic code, but by the trickling down of experiences and memories and goals. This view allows us not only to find meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe but opens up the space for freedom and moral responsibility as the interpretation of the genetic text we’ve been given, argues David Haig.


One of the first commandments of my scientific education was ‘thou shalt not use teleological language.’ This was closely related to a second commandment ‘thou shalt not commit anthropomorphism’. It was permissible to compare a frog to a machine but not to a human being (unless one also compared the human being to a machine). Biology did not concern itself with questions of value, purpose, and meaning. These were the province of flakey disciplines such as the humanities, social science, or religion. Asking ‘why’ rather than ‘how’ was unscientific, perhaps even sinful. In my book Darwin to Derrida, I offer an extended defense of the use of teleological reasoning in biology. The physical universe is a world without values. But meaning and purpose are the defining features of living things, they do things for good reasons because there are things in the world that they value. Biologists should not be ashamed of the difference.

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Teleology comes from the Greek telos, something at the end, which was translated into Latin as causa finalis, and from thence into English as final cause. The final cause was that ‘for the sake of which’ an action was performed or ‘for the sake of which’ a thing existed. Final causes have been rejected as unscientific because a cause cannot come after its effect. But there is no backward causation when we act with intention. We form a plan which we attempt to implement. The intention comes before the fruition. There is no guarantee we will succeed. The outcome is not predestined. The same applies to the intentional actions of human beings. One of my favorite passages from Augustine is this:

“Would it not be a far more elegant way of interpreting the two-faced image, to say that Janus and Terminus are the same, and that the one face has reference to beginnings, the other to ends? For one who works ought to have respect to both. For he who in every forthputting of activity does not look back on the beginning, does not look forward to the end. Wherefore it is necessary that prospective intention be connected with retrospective memory. For how shall one find how to finish anything, if he has forgotten what it was which he had begun?”

How did free beings emerge from a world of fated things? In the beginning, things just happened. The world was without values. There were no things for which events could be good or bad. The origin of values was the origin of genetic inscription. In this hallowed beginning was the word. Genes are both actors and records of past actions. In Augustine’s words, they coupled retrospective memory to prospective intention. If a genetic variant was copied because of something it did, then this was something it was good at doing. The first time there was an inadvertent change to a genetic text, it was an accident, a mere slip of the pen, but if it made a difference in the world that caused its version of the text to be repeated, then the scriptural error had become an intended revision of the textual tradition. It is as simple as that.


Organisms evolved to do things that had worked in the past as the best guide for present action to achieve future ends. And what had worked in the past was responding innovatively to the unanticipated


There is more to a performance of Hamlet than words on a page, more to the performance of a lifetime than genes on a chromosome. All actors must improvise. All texts are interpreted in context. The interpretation of genetic texts undergoes constant revision. There is no original sense.

Final causes in the living world emerged from the coupling of retrospective memory with prospective intention. Organisms evolved to do things that had worked in the past as the best guide for present action to achieve future ends. And what had worked in the past was responding innovatively to the unanticipated. We weigh the evidence and when we encounter the never-before-encountered, we search for metaphors in what we already know.

Self-reflective organisms respond to their world with internal changes that rewire connections between inputs and outputs, learn from experience which inputs to attend to and which to ignore, perfect performance by practice with feedback from past actions, and possess rich memories to inform future choice. Highly sophisticated selves augment their behaviors by observation of what works for other actors, learn from the instruction of parents and other tutors, and choose principles by which to live in pursuit of self-chosen goals. These internal changes comprise an embodied memory of the self’s life-experience (the meaning of its life). This intricate and intimate private text, an interpretation intended to be self-interpreted, seamlessly melds ancient wisdom of genetic and cultural texts with news from the senses. It is responsive and responsible. It is the material and mortal soul that dies with the body.

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Psyche was the Greek word translated as anima in Latin and soul in English. Psyche was that which accounted for the difference between a living and a dead body. Anima was that which animated. From a Darwinian perspective, ‘the soul’ is the intricate organization of the living body. This soul determines who we are and has been shaped by our shared evolutionary past and unique personal past. None of us can change the past, but we can strive to do better. There are aspects of our souls we can change and aspects we cannot change. We can be persuaded but cannot be compelled. Here I stand. What shall I do next?

Moral codes and religions remodel souls. They are human inventions that form part of the evolving technology of the soul. More than one invention can serve similar ends. To recognize religions as human inventions is not to belittle them. Inventions have made a profound difference in how our lives are lived. But it is to say that moral codes are associated with trade-offs, design flaws, fads and fashions, like any other technology. Moral ‘absolutes’ of any moment in time are grounded in the relativism of cultural and evolutionary change.


There is more to a performance of Hamlet than words on a page, more to the performance of a lifetime than genes on a chromosome. All actors must improvise. All texts are interpreted in context. The interpretation of genetic texts undergoes constant revision


Ours is a morally indifferent universe in which we can choose to do good or evil. There are many voices, both external and internal, telling me what I should do. I am bombarded from without, by exhortations to do this or do that, by threats of punishment and promises of reward, by reasoned arguments and ecstatic visions, and I am beguiled from within, by reason, conscience, duty, honor, hopes, fears, contradictory passions, contradictory rules, and competing moral traditions. There are even silent voices of an unconscious self, working behind the scenes. But when a decision is made, I am responsible, as the arbiter among the stakeholders of the self.

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Dave Zimny 21 January 2023

Interesting application of Derrida's theories to evolution, but still logically deficient. First, evolution involves actual changes in a population's distribution of genes. Interpretation is applied to each text individually -- as a matter of fact, the uniqueness of each text is one of the tenets of Derrida's approach. Evolution would then be equivalent to simultaneous interpretation of many different individual texts fall at once, a task that Derrida would consider impossible. Second, since evolution involves actual change in a population's distribution of genes, genetic "interpretation" would have to be applied to a changing series of texts -- analogous to interpreting a written work some of whose words keep changing between readings. There's nothing wrong with applying a theory in one type of discourse to another type, but just like random mutations in a genome, most of these cross-cultural efforts will be on balance harmful to the organism and will soon disappear from the population. I'm afraid this effort is one of them. The more we try to find some sense or utility in Derrida's work, the more his career looks like a massive con job.