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