The Effects of Aristotelian Teleological Thought on Darwin's Mechanistic Views of Evolution
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. Giuseppe
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...
References: Aristotle. The Works of Aristotle, Encyclopedia Britannica. New York, 1952
University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1974.
Moore, Ruth. Evolution. Time-life books. Alexandria, Virginia. 1980.
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