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Essay/Term paper: The effects of aristotelian teleological thought on darwin's mechanistic views of evolution

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The Effects of Aristotelian Teleological Thought on Darwin's Mechanistic Views of

Jordan Hoffman

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
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

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.

Moore, Ruth. Evolution. Time-life books. Alexandria, Virginia. 1980.

Simpson, George The Meaning of Evolution. Yale University Press. New Haven
and London. 1949.


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