ic Views ofEvolutionThe Effects of Aristotelian Teleological Thought on Darwin’s Mechanistic Views ofEvolutionJordan HoffmanThe need to understand organisms has been a much sought goal ofscience since its birth as biology.
History shows Aristotle and Charles Darwinas two of the most powerful biologists of all time. Aristotle’s teleologicalmethod was supported widely for over 2,000 years. One scientist remarks thatthe Aristotelian teleology “has been the ghost, the unexplained mystery whichhas haunted biology through its whole history” (Ayala, 10). If Aristotle’sapproach has frightened biology, then Darwin, who actually nicknamed himselfthe “Devils Chaplain,” and his idea of natural selection has virtually dissectedAristotle’s ghost. While Aristotle explained biology through a plan and apurpose, Darwin debated that randomness and chaos are responsible for theorganic world as we know it.
Guiseppe Montalenti, an Italian geneticist andphilosopher of biology, wrote that Darwin’s ideas were a rebellion againstthought in the Aristotelian-scholastic way (Ayala, 4). In order tounderstand how Darwinism can be considered a revolt against Aristotle, we mustfirst inspect Aristotle’s ideas and thoughts about biology. Aristotle used teleology to explain the harmony and final results of theearth. Teleology is the study of the purpose of nature. Aristotle believedthat scientists should follow the plan adopted by mathematicians in theirdemonstrations of astronomy, and after weighing the phenomena presented byanimals, and their several parts, follow consequently to understand the causesand the end results. Using this method, Aristotle constructed causes for bodyparts and processes of the human body, such as sundry types of teeth.
Aristotle elucidated on this topic: “When we have ascertained the thing’sexistence we inquire as to its naturewhen we know the fact we ask the reason”(Evans, 82). Despite Aristotle’s frequent teleological explanations, he did warnagainst teleology leading to misinterpretations of facts. In a short writing onthe reproduction of bees in Generation of Animals, Aristotle was troubled thatthere were insufficient observations on the subject, and warns that his theoryis dependent on facts supporting the theory. One twentieth century biologistbelieves that Aristotle did not often enough follow his own advice. Ayalaprinted that Aristotle’s “error was not that he used teleological explanationsin biology, but that he extended the concept of teleology to the non-livingworld. “(56)Some biologists say Aristotle used teleology so often because order andpurpose, both in the universe and life, were immensely important to him.
Aristotle thought it was both ridiculous and impossible that chance, which isnot linked with order, could be used to explain occurrences in biology. In oneof his writings, he criticized Empedocles for the use of chance to describebiology. Aristotle believed that Empedocles, then, was in error when he saidthat many of the characters presented by animals were only the results ofincidental occurrencesduring their evolutionary growth. As a vitalist,Aristotle’s philosophy also had a powerful influenceon what he wrote. His beliefs are described in On the Soul and On theGeneration of Animals. These thoughts can be epitomized into four main areasof Aristotle’s vitalistic belief:1.
He connects the life of an organism with its psyche. 2. He finds purposefulness and organic unity as the most significant sectionsof vitalism. 3. He debates that the entire body, rather than the parts, should be taken intoaccount. 4.
He emphasizes the soul as the final goal. Looking at these four traditions, it is not shocking that Aristotle thought thatsingle limbs, such as an arm, was a good description of organisms. This couldbe compared to a house being called bricks and mortar. Rather than concentrateon individual variability and individual pieces, Aristotle believed that it wasproper to concentrate on the “final cause” of the entire entity. Aristotleaccepted that the “soul” was probably the final cause, and his Parts of Animalssays “now it may be that the form of any living creature is soul, or some partof soul, or something that involves soul.
Aristotle’s ideas and traditions continued on their path long after hisphysical shell passed away. In the 12th and 13th century, Aristotle’sphilosophy was re-founded and incorporated into Christian philosophy by St. Thomas Aquinas. During the Renaissance, when the earth was discovered to nolonger be the center of the universe, Aristotle’s astronomical systems brokedown, but his biological theories remained intact. This does not mean allpeople accepted Aristotle’s theories during the Renaissance, however.
Onephilosopher from the twentieth century, Mayr, accuses Aristotle’s teleology ofthe non-organic world for the refutation of Aristotle by Descartes and Bacon. Both of these men criticized “the existence of a form-giving, finalisticprinciple in the universe” and believed this rejection demanded the removal ofall teleological useseven biology (Mayr, 38). Scientists were forced to look over the concept of living things againwhen time was discovered in the 18th century. With the exception of Heraclitusand Lucretius, most scientists had described a static world. Once Buffon remadethe geological structure of the earth, and put it into a series of stages, allscientists were forced to account for this new information that the world wasmuch older than originally thought. This formed the field of Paleontology.
Theinformation gained from paleontology and the “new” geology was necessary to theevolutionary argument. Deists, however, created another explanation for thecreation of the world; God created the world and then gave it a set of laws thatguided the world into perfection (Mayr, 57). The use of natural theology helped stabilize religion. By the mid 1850’s,the sciences of psychics and chemistry were used to explain the unknown forces,such as gravity, that were previously associated with religion.
The generalpopulation still felt safe with their beliefs because they agreed to the abovedeist explanation of the history of the earth and because biological functionswere continually explained in conjunction with a creator. Theology in theEnglish Protestant Church was documented through “Natural Theology,” the”demonstration of the goodness of god by the contemplation of nature and thebenevolent artifice which seemed everywhere to demonstrate” (Burrow, 17). Thechurch at this time, of the Victorian Era, was very dominating. The Christianheritage was flourishing in this epoch of regulation and purpose. The only dissension from the austere Victorian Era was from a man namedLamarck.
In 1809 he published Philosophie Zoolique, in which he intended toprove that organic structures gave rise to additional organs when needed andthat these new organs were passed onto their progeny (Ayala, 9). Lamarck’shypothesis of evolution embodied the two main standards to include: 1) there isan inherent drive towards progress; and 2) that there is a birthright of traitsthat are acquired characteristics (Simpson, 266). For some reason, the study of natural history became immensely popularin the early nineteenth century. Exploring nature was seen as a way to exploreGod and natural theology. Because such exploration was easy to accomplish,unlike astronomy (which required mathematics) things like trees and birds werestudied by common folk as well as scientists. This popularity was proven whenthe initial 1,250 copies of Darwin’s Origin of the Species sold out in one day(Burrow, 19).
Charles Darwin was one of history’s most knowledgeable biologists andranks with some of the greatest intellectual heroes of mankind (Simpson, 268). After several career changes, Darwin became a naturalist. In 1831, he began aposition as a naturalist on the H. M. S.
Beagle, an exploration vessel that neededa naturalist to keep a record of the ship’s biological discoveries (Moore, 9). When Darwin began this trip, he shared the popular belief that every organismwas created to suit its environment and that there was order and harmony innature. When Darwin returned to England five years later, he still believedthere was harmony in nature but now doubted in perfect adaptation. Instead, hebelieved in transmutation of the species (each species is a descendent of anearlier species and that the traits are inherited) (Moore, 10). Darwin’s metamorphosis occurred during a time when many naturalists werebeginning to reject the teleological approach to explaining biological shapes.
One biologist, Sir Thomas Henry Huxley, felt the renewed inspection ofevolution was going to be the extinction of teleology. Huxley said, “Thedoctrine of evolution is the most formidable opponent of all the common andcourser forms of TeleologyThe Teleology which supposes that the eye, such as wesee it in man or one of the higher vertebrate, was made with the precisestructure it exhibits, for the purpose of enabling the animals which possessesit to see, has undoubtedly received its death blow” (Ayala, 228). Darwin realized that with the teleological approach contrary to hisviews, he should attempt to shed doubt on the ideas of a fixed relationshipbetween an organism and its environment. One example of Darwin’s powerfuldebates against teleology includes winged yet flight-less beetles. In trying toprove that some organisms have extremities that are useless to them,Darwinsays “if simple creation, surely it would have been born without them thewings” (Ospovat, 26).
Even though Darwin rejected the idea of teleology, he still very muchrespected its “creator,” Aristotle. Darwin appreciates Aristotle’s contributionto biology so much that he is mentioned in the opening paragraph of Origin ofthe Species. Darwin also praises his pioneering work, and recognizes his rolein knowledge now common, but to have discovered and theorized such principles inAristotle’s time, Darwin considers an amazing discovery. In 1860 Darwin wroteAsa Gray, “I cannot think the world as we see it is the result of chance; andyet I cannot look at each separated thing as the result of DesignI am, andshall ever remain, in a hopeless muddle. ” According to Ayala, this thoughtshows that while Darwin has a mechanistic viewpoint, he is never truly denyingany sort of evolutionary viewpoint to its fullest; he is simply stating thatwhich he believes in(225). However much confused about teleology, Darwin did not think the worldshould be explained in terms of its purpose in the universe.
Once, Darwin askedthe question, “What would the astronomer say to the doctrine that the planetsmoved not according to the laws of gravitation, but from the creator havingwilled each separate planet to move in its particular orbit?” (Burrow, 48). Darwin is referring to the breakdown between astronomy and religion, physics andchemistry that happened during the Renaissance period. Darwin suggested theinclusion of biology as a hard science so that other sciences like physics andchemistry would not be unfairly built on the organization of knowledge, based ontestable, working hypotheses. The theory of evolution was not formed by Darwin. Ideas of manprogressing from smaller life existed even in Ancient Greece.
Empedocles’evolution theory involved “the coming together of limbs,” while Xenophanesthought that humans came into existence “from earth and water. “Darwin’sbeginning to the Origin of the Species is mostly a listing of antecedents tophilosophers of evolution, and what views they held. One of these predecessorswas Darwin’s grandfather, Eramus Darwin. Why Charles Darwin was more “powerful” than the other evolutionaryscientists was his theory of natural selection as the vehicle of evolution. Darwin credits the inspiration of his natural selection theory to reading T. R.
Malthus’ Essay on Population (1798). In this essay, Malthus tried to show anequilibrium viewpointunless checked by famine, disease or voluntary restraint,population growth will outrun food supply. Darwin’s theory was finished by thetime he wrote the “sketch of 1842” but he did not release it for twenty yearsbecause he wanted to produce a large work with both his own evidence for hisideas, and evidence of other naturalists (Ospovat, 1). Darwin was made topublish his own theory earlier than planned, when he learned that anothernaturalist was planning to publish a similar one. (Coincidentally, the othernaturalist, Alfred Wallace, was inspired by the same essay).
Darwin’s theory completely changed biological philosophy. With histheory came the recognition that the self(individual) is the most vital unit ofbiological change, and that this polymorph happens due to total chance. In histheory, Charles Darwin suggested that there is a “Struggle for existence. ” This”struggle” was later put into use for support within several arguments.
BritishImperialists attempted to rationalize their operations by arguing that Darwinismsuggested the strong must overpower the weak. In the late 19th century,”Passionate Nationalism” caused members of each nationality to trust that theirnation was the most powerful. And, in the early 20th century, Hitler and otherNazi party members used Darwin’s work to suggest the “biological necessity” forwar and survival of the fittestIn this case, Hitler was referring to the Aryans. Such controversies could not be upheld using biological ideas ofAristotle, since his conception of species included the abstraction that allindividuals were alike. Distinct differences, like eye color, areinconsequential because they are not promoted by a conclusive objective. However, individual contrarieties are the cornerstone of evolution throughnatural selection.
Without these differences, evolution could not come to pass. For this reason, individuality is seen by biologists as the most meaningfultrait of biological organisms. A few scientists try to describe evolutionteleologically. This proof, of course, is not possible, as evolution throughnatural selection cannot be described as goal-oriented since it happens due toprevious events or transformations, not in anticipation of coming events.
If wewere goal-oriented, natural selection would not be supple enough to be useful inrapidly changing environments (Mayr, 43). ReferencesAristotle. The Works of Aristotle, Encyclopedia Britannica. New York, 1952Ayala, F. J.
and Tobzharsky, T. Studies in the Philosophy of Biology. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1974. Burrow, John.
Editor introduction to Charles Darwin’s Origin of the SpeciesPenguin books. England, 1968. Evans, G. The Physical Philosophy of Aristotle.
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The Presocratic Philosophers. CambridgeUniversity Press. Cambridge. 1983. Mayr, Ernst. Toward a New Philosophy of Biology.
Harvard University Press. 1988. Moore, Ruth. Evolution. Time-life books.
Alexandria, Virginia. 1980. Simpson, George The Meaning of Evolution. Yale University Press. New Havenand London. 1949.