Letitia Meynell
Dalhousie University
The basic thesis of Russell Powell’s Contingency and Convergence: Toward a Cosmic Biology of Body and Mind is that law-like evolutionary processes produce humanlike cognitive capacities, rendering such capacities common in the universe. There is an important caveat; key aspects of human cognition, those that undergird cumulative culture, are entirely contingent and likely very rare. To defend this thesis, Powell marshals a wealth of evidence from a variety of disciplines and develops some singular theoretical tools. Unfortunately, at a number of key points in the book Powell simply ignores contradicting evidence and other plausible approaches to thinking about the history of life on our planet. Thus Powell’s argument is, at best, a weak how possibly argument—another Just-So story mixing science with speculation. Nonetheless, the flaws in the book are instructive. They exemplify how a kind of anthropocentrism continues to shape the philosophy of biology and, arguably, biology itself, placing humans at the apex of evolution and demanding that the study of life must ultimately be about us. In effect, Powell offers a rationalization for why we can treat humans as the measure of all things, asserting our continuity with the rest of life on the planet, while at the same time maintaining our uniqueness. Interrogating his argument proves a useful exercise in identifying why this kind of anthropocentrism is implausible.
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