Aristotle Vs Darwin Essay Research Paper The

Aristotle Vs. Darwin Essay, Research Paper The need to understand organisms has been a much sought goal of science since its birth as biology. History shows Aristotle and Charles Darwin as two of the most powerful biologists of all time. Aristotle s teleological method was supported widely for over 2,000 years.

Aristotle Vs. Darwin Essay, Research Paper

The need to understand organisms has been a much sought goal of science since its birth as biology. History shows Aristotle and Charles Darwin as two of the most powerful biologists of all time. Aristotle s teleological method was supported widely for over 2,000 years. One scientist remarks that the Aristotelian teleology “has been the ghost, the unexplained mystery which has haunted biology through its whole history” (Ayala, 10). If Aristotle s approach has frightened biology, then Darwin, who actually nicknamed himself the “Devils Chaplain,” and his idea of natural selection has virtually dissected Aristotle s ghost. While Aristotle explained biology through a plan and a purpose, Darwin debated that randomness and chaos are responsible for the organic world as we know it. Guiseppe Montalenti, an Italian geneticist and philosopher of biology, wrote that Darwin s ideas were a rebellion against thought in the Aristotelian-scholastic way (Ayala, 4). In order to understand how Darwinism can be considered a revolt against Aristotle, we must first inspect Aristotle s ideas and thoughts about biology.

Aristotle used teleology to explain the harmony and final results of the earth. Teleology is the study of the purpose of nature. Aristotle believed that scientists should follow the plan adopted by mathematicians in their demonstrations of astronomy, and after weighing the phenomena presented by animals, and their several parts, follow consequently to understand the causes and the end results. Using this method, Aristotle constructed causes for body parts and processes of the human body, such as sundry types of teeth. Aristotle elucidated on this topic: “When we have ascertained the thing s existence we inquire as to its nature when we know the fact we ask the reason” (Evans, 82).

Despite Aristotle s frequent teleological explanations, he did warn against teleology leading to misinterpretations of facts. In a short writing on the reproduction of bees in Generation of Animals, Aristotle was troubled that there were insufficient observations on the subject, and warns that his theory is dependent on facts supporting the theory. One twentieth century biologist believes that Aristotle did not often enough follow his own advice. Ayala printed that Aristotle s “error was not that he used teleological explanations in biology, but that he extended the concept of teleology to the non-living world.”(56)

Some biologists say Aristotle used teleology so often because order and purpose, both in the universe and life, were immensely important to him. Aristotle thought it was both ridiculous and impossible that chance, which is not linked with order, could be used to explain occurrences in biology. In one of his writings, he criticized Empedocles for the use of chance to describe biology. Aristotle believed that Empedocles, then, was in error when he said that many of the characters presented by animals were only the results of incidental occurrences during their evolutionary growth.

As a vitalist, Aristotle s philosophy also had a powerful influence on what he wrote. His beliefs are described in On the Soul and On the Generation of Animals. These thoughts can be epitomized into four main areas of 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 sections of vitalism.

3. He debates that the entire body, rather than the parts, should be taken into account.

4. He emphasizes the soul as the final goal.

Looking at these four traditions, it is not shocking that Aristotle thought that single limbs, such as an arm, was a good description of organisms. This could be compared to a house being called bricks and mortar. Rather than concentrate on individual variability and individual pieces, Aristotle believed that it was proper to concentrate on the “final cause” of the entire entity. Aristotle accepted that the “soul” was probably the final cause, and his Parts of Animals says “now it may be that the form of any living creature is soul, or some part of soul, or something that involves soul.

Aristotle s ideas and traditions continued on their path long after his physical shell passed away. In the 12th and 13th century, Aristotle s philosophy was re-founded and incorporated into Christian philosophy by St. Thomas Aquinas. During the Renaissance, when the earth was discovered to no longer be the center of the universe, Aristotle s astronomical systems broke down, but his biological theories remained intact. This does not mean all people accepted Aristotle s theories during the Renaissance, however. One philosopher from the twentieth century, Mayr, accuses Aristotle s teleology of the non-organic world for the refutation of Aristotle by Descartes and Bacon. Both of these men criticized “the existence of a form-giving, finalistic principle in the universe” and believed this rejection demanded the removal of all teleological uses even biology (Mayr, 38).

Scientists were forced to look over the concept of living things again when time was discovered in the 18th century. With the exception of Heraclitus and Lucretius, most scientists had described a static world. Once Buffon remade the geological structure of the earth, and put it into a series of stages, all scientists were forced to account for this new information that the world was much older than originally thought. This formed the field of Paleontology. The information gained from paleontology and the “new” geology was necessary to the evolutionary argument. Deists, however, created another explanation for the creation of the world; God created the world and then gave it a set of laws that guided 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 general population still felt safe with their beliefs because they agreed to the above deist explanation of the history of the earth and because biological functions were continually explained in conjunction with a creator. Theology in the English Protestant Church was documented through “Natural Theology,” the “demonstration of the goodness of god by the contemplation of nature and the benevolent artifice which seemed everywhere to demonstrate” (Burrow, 17). The church at this time, of the Victorian Era, was very dominating. The Christian heritage was flourishing in this epoch of regulation and purpose.

The only dissension from the austere Victorian Era was from a man named Lamarck. In 1809 he published Philosophie Zoolique, in which he intended to prove that organic structures gave rise to additional organs when needed and that these new organs were passed onto their progeny (Ayala, 9). Lamarck s hypothesis of evolution embodied the two main standards to include: 1) there is an inherent drive towards progress; and 2) that there is a birthright of traits that are acquired characteristics (Simpson, 266).

For some reason, the study of natural history became immensely popular in the early nineteenth century. Exploring nature was seen as a way to explore God and natural theology. Because such exploration was easy to accomplish, unlike astronomy (which required mathematics) things like trees and birds were studied by common folk as well as scientists. This popularity was proven when the 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 and ranks with some of the greatest intellectual heroes of mankind (Simpson, 268). After several career changes, Darwin became a naturalist. In 1831, he began a position as a naturalist on the H.M.S. Beagle, an exploration vessel that needed a 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 organism was created to suit its environment and that there was order and harmony in nature. When Darwin returned to England five years later, he still believed there was harmony in nature but now doubted in perfect adaptation. Instead, he believed in transmutation of the species (each species is a descendent of an earlier species and that the traits are inherited) (Moore, 10).

Darwin s metamorphosis occurred during a time when many naturalists were beginning to reject the teleological approach to explaining biological shapes. One biologist, Sir Thomas Henry Huxley, felt the renewed inspection of evolution was going to be the extinction of teleology. Huxley said, “The doctrine of evolution is the most formidable opponent of all the common and courser forms of Teleology The Teleology which supposes that the eye, such as we see it in man or one of the higher vertebrate, was made with the precise structure it exhibits, for the purpose of enabling the animals which possesses it to see, has undoubtedly received its death blow” (Ayala, 228).

Darwin realized that with the teleological approach contrary to his views, he should attempt to shed doubt on the ideas of a fixed relationship between an organism and its environment. One example of Darwin s powerful debates against teleology includes winged yet flight-less beetles. In trying to prove that some organisms have extremities that are useless to them, Darwin says “if simple creation, surely it would have [been] born without them [the wings]” (Ospovat, 26).

Even though Darwin rejected the idea of teleology, he still very much respected its “creator,” Aristotle. Darwin appreciates Aristotle s contribution to biology so much that he is mentioned in the opening paragraph of Origin of the Species. Darwin also praises his pioneering work, and recognizes his role in knowledge now common, but to have discovered and theorized such principles in Aristotle s time, Darwin considers an amazing discovery. In 1860 Darwin wrote Asa Gray, “I cannot think the world as we see it is the result of chance; and yet I cannot look at each separated thing as the result of Design I am, and shall ever remain, in a hopeless muddle.” According to Ayala, this thought shows that while Darwin has a mechanistic viewpoint, he is never truly denying any sort of evolutionary viewpoint to its fullest; he is simply stating that which he believes in (225).

However much confused about teleology, Darwin did not think the world should be explained in terms of its purpose in the universe. Once, Darwin asked the question, “What would the astronomer say to the doctrine that the planets moved not according to the laws of gravitation, but from the creator having willed each separate planet to move in its particular orbit?” (Burrow, 48). Darwin is referring to the breakdown between astronomy and religion, physics and chemistry that happened during the Renaissance period. Darwin suggested the inclusion of biology as a hard science so that other sciences like physics and chemistry would not be unfairly built on the organization of knowledge, based on testable, working hypotheses.

The theory of evolution was not formed by Darwin. Ideas of man progressing from smaller life existed even in Ancient Greece. Empedocles evolution theory involved “the coming together of limbs,” while Xenophanes thought that humans came into existence “from earth and water.” Darwin s beginning to the Origin of the Species is mostly a listing of antecedents to philosophers of evolution, and what views they held. One of these predecessors was Darwin s grandfather, Eramus Darwin.

Why Charles Darwin was more “powerful” than the other evolutionary scientists 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 an equilibrium viewpoint unless checked by famine, disease or voluntary restraint, population growth will outrun food supply. Darwin s theory was finished by the time he wrote the “sketch of 1842″ but he did not release it for twenty years because he wanted to produce a large work with both his own evidence for his ideas, and evidence of other naturalists (Ospovat, 1). Darwin was made to publish his own theory earlier than planned, when he learned that another naturalist was

planning to publish a similar one. (Coincidentally, the other naturalist, Alfred Wallace, was inspired by the same essay).

Darwin s theory completely changed biological philosophy. With his theory came the recognition that the self(individual) is the most vital unit of biological change, and that this polymorph happens due to total chance. In his theory, Charles Darwin suggested that there is a “Struggle for existence.” This “struggle” was later put into use for support within several arguments. British Imperialists attempted to rationalize their operations by arguing that Darwinism suggested the strong must overpower the weak. In the late 19th century, “Passionate Nationalism” caused members of each nationality to trust that their nation was the most powerful. And, in the early 20th century, Hitler and other Nazi party members used Darwin s work to suggest the “biological necessity” for war and survival of the fittest In this case, Hitler was referring to the Aryans.

Such controversies could not be upheld using biological ideas of Aristotle, since his conception of species included the abstraction that all individuals were alike. Distinct differences, like eye color, are inconsequential because they are not promoted by a conclusive objective. However, individual contrarieties are the cornerstone of evolution through natural selection. Without these differences, evolution could not come to pass. For this reason, individuality is seen by biologists as the most meaningful trait of biological organisms. A few scientists try to describe evolution teleologically. This proof, of course, is not possible, as evolution through natural selection cannot be described as goal-oriented since it happens due to previous events or transformations, not in anticipation of coming events. If we were goal-oriented, natural selection would not be supple enough to be useful in rapidly changing environments (Mayr, 43).


Aristotle. The Works of Aristotle, Encyclopedia Britannica. New York, 1952

Ayala, 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 Species Penguin books. England, 1968.

Evans, G. The Physical Philosophy of Aristotle. University of New Mexico Press. Albuquerque, 1964.

Kirk, G., Raven, J. and Schofield, M. The Presocratic Philosophers. Cambridge University 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 Haven and London. 1949.

The Effects of Aristotelian Teleological Thought on

Darwin s Mechanistic Views of Evolution

Jordan Hoffman+

Period 3

January 6, 1997