Darwin, mechanism and anthropology

indexCharles Darwin (1809 – 1882) was an English scientist best known for his particular theory of special evolution involving common descent and natural selection. Darwin initially found fame for his work in the field of geology and the popular journal of his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle. It was during this time that Darwin first became fascinated by the manner in which the diversification of species seemed to follow a geographical pattern. It was not until 1858 that Darwin published a joint paper outlining his evolutionary theory.

In a way, Darwin’s theorising is the perfect modern archetype. Platonic philosophies outright rejected change in the immutable world of the forms (which includes forms of the species), and for Aristotle whilst there was a gradation in the complexity of living things (inorganic < vegetable < animal < rational) the difference between these categories was clearly defined and not a matter of degree. The most important thing to note is that for Aristotle and Plato the information of matter to a various species takes part as a teleological process. For Plato it is the will of the demiurge and for Aristotle his Divine being of pure actuality.

There was nothing novel, or even modern, in Darwin’s rejection of teleology. After all, prior to Aristotle Leucippus the Atomist had asserted that “nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use”. Following the work of Newton and Descartes, mechanical explanations of natural phenomena had begun to displace classical and medieval dualistic views. However, while Newton and Descartes seemed to favour natural laws as manifestations of divine will, Darwin favoured Schopenhauer’s view that life is imbued with a will that manifests itself as a struggle to survive.

Darwin’s novel insight was not that one species was generated from another, but rather that the method for this generation was natural selection. In this way, Darwin provided a way to account for the diversity of species (and the origin of man himself) in a purely mechanistic manner. Darwin’s theory radicalised not only biology, but also anthropology – as before the Aristotelian hierarchy had rendered man wholly other to the animal kingdom. Now with Darwinian evolution, man was only different from animal and vegetable life by degree.


4 responses to this post.

  1. […] « Darwin, mechanism and anthropology […]


  2. […] upon the issue of religion and the divine, there lies a fascinating intersection of modern ideas. While Charles Darwin had provided the scientific theory of the mechanistic origin of man from simple…, Freud’s great contribution to the Enlightenment secular edifice was to psychologise […]


  3. Posted by James Taddeo on 07/27/2015 at 4:58 am

    Dear Brady,
    I am doing some independent research into the relationship between Medieval Philosophy and Darwinian critiques and I’ve read some of your writing in this area and it fascinates me; I am wondering if you might have the time to add some perspective to a couple of questions I have? Let me know at james_taddeo@yahoo.com


    James Taddeo


  4. […] rationalist will insist on the necessity of non-physical innate ideas, Chomsky rather turns to the modern theory of evolution and inheritable genetics. That is to say, Chomsky’s innate linguistics (to whatever capacity […]


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