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Marcy Brown Marsden Darwin 26 February 2008 Charles Darwin’s Un-Aristotelian Archaeological Exploration In Chapter Seven of The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin travels through the Pampas of Brazil, intent on studying the abundance of fossils in the area and hypothesizing what creatures stalked those wilds in millennia past. His labors are fruitful, his observations keen, his insights enlightening, and his debt to Aristotle non-existent. Through what Darwin focuses on and what findings especially excite him, the reader can discern the immense differences between him and “the philosopher,” Aristotle (Birx 43). Their differences are numerous, as we will see in first closely examining this chapter, and then by comparing it to H. James Birx’s exploration of Aristotle’s ideas on the fossil record and changes in the world. Darwin begins by locating a river where past archeological finds have been made, such as “the case of a giant armadillo” (124), but discovers nothing of note in this riverbed besides a tooth which has significance in a later chapter. Hearing of a site more profuse with bones, Darwin arrives at another location, but the bones are too decayed to excavate successfully. He notes, though, his native guides’ theory on how the bones of the animal came to be so far underground (in this case they were revealed by a river cutting through the earth): they were sure it must have been a “burrowing animal” (124). Darwin is able, however, to draw more logical conclusions from his observations than his guides’ theories: “[I] employed myself in examining the geology of the surrounding country, which was
Brown 2 very interesting. We here see beds of sand, clay, and limestone, containing sea-shells and sharks' teeth, passing above into an indurated marl, and from that into the red clayey earth of the Pampas, with its calcareous concretions and the bones of terrestrial animals.” (126) He consequently deduces that: “This vertical section clearly tells us, of a large bay of pure salt-water, gradually encroached on, and at last becoming the bed of a muddy estuary, into which floating carcasses swept.” (126) At this site he finds a large section of an ancient armadillo-like case, a mastodon's molar tooth, and a multitude of rotten bones that were "as soft as clay" (126). But more importantly, he happens on the tooth of a horse, and on the grounds of its geological position, concludes that a “horse […] lived as a contemporary with the various great monsters that formerly inhabited South America” (126). By juxtaposing this and a Mastodon's tooth, found in such close proximity, and condition, Darwin ponders thus: “No sensible difference in their state of decay could be perceived; they were both tender and partially stained red. If the horse did not coexist with the Toxodon, the tooth must by some accident, not very easily understood, have been embedded within the last three centuries, with the remains of those animals, which ages since perished, when the Pampas was covered by the waters of the sea. Now, I may ask, will any one credit that two teeth of nearly equal size, buried in the same substance close together, after a period of so vast an inequality, could exist in the same condition of decay? We must conclude otherwise.” (127) Darwin concludes that horses must have been contemporaneous with the Mastodons—horses similar enough to the horses that he was familiar with to have indistinguishable teeth.
Brown 3 Even in locations far from South America, Darwin uses the presence of bones in distinct places to make judgments on the geological shifts that might account for the similarity of fossil record. He notes how the “remains of the elephant and of the ox have been found on the banks of the Anadir” near the American coast, and also on the opposite shores of the strait, and concludes that the separation “of the Asiatic and American zoological provinces appears formerly to have been less perfect than at present” (128). But Darwin claims fossils of the mastodon found in South America are “much more remarkable” even than the evidence of cross-Siberian-Straits population, because the distance of the mastodons' Northern origin is farther than the distance across the strait (128). This supports the idea of continental shift and connectedness, a revolutionary concept for his time. That Darwin was convinced of a crucial link between biology and geology is apparent, especially in his belief that past geological shifts account for the line of division of species across mid-Mexico: “The geologist who believes in considerable oscillations of level in the crust of the globe within recent periods, will not fear to speculate either on the elevation of the Mexican platform, as a cause of the distinction, or on the submergence of land in the West Indian seas, – a circumstance which is perhaps indicated by the zoology of those islands.” (131) The two, biology and geology, are irrevocably linked, and the each can be used to understand and imply things about the other. A “gran seco” (devastating drought) had preceded Darwin in the area by only three years (134). On hearing firsthand accounts, Darwin considers that such droughts probably occurred regularly in the past. Floods followed the drought, in such force that the masses of skeletons accumulated by the drought were congregated by the thousands in lowlands. Darwin took the
Brown 4 recent news of the floods and applied it to past droughts, thus postulating the reason for all these skeletons found in one place. Darwin believed the Pampas was a great repository of bones, but not a graveyard. Rather, he thought, few, if any, of the animals he found there actually died there. The location served, rather, as a "sepulchre," where the bones washed by rivers were deposited (131). Darwin understood there is repetitive cycle of events that endures throughout time: “The Parana is full of islands, which undergo a constant round of decay and renovation.” And native memory recalled that “several large ones had disappeared, and other again had been formed and protected by vegetation” (134). He saw the dynamism of nature, as well as its familiarity and predictability. Similarly, the revolution that impedes Darwin's travels at the end of the chapter only intensifies the sense that relatively immediate change is common in all parts of life, from politics, to biology, to geology. On first inspection, this material seems logical; Darwin does not any concoct obscure hypotheses, nor does he fabricate his facts. Yet, reading Aristotle’s regard for some of these methods, one is led to believe that he would reject most, if not all, of Darwin’s findings, on a couple of fundamental presuppositions. Aristotle was convinced of a “Great Chain of Being” that was extensive, but static. If asked, “Does life on earth change,” Aristotle would have answered, “definitely not.” He believed that “every plant and animal form is eternally fixed in its natural place within the great chain of being or static hierarchy of organic nature” (Birx 26). The idolizing moniker applied to Aristotle, “the father of science” as well as biology, seems seriously threatened, in this context. Perhaps unintentionally, Darwin may very well be challenging Aristotle for heroic status in the world of biology. Already—even before Darwin, Aristotle’s notion of spontaneous generation was destroyed, most definitively with Louis Pasteur.
Brown 5 Certain ideas of Aristotle’s have been scientifically proven wrong, but the question remains: what Aristotelian concepts are conducive to Darwin’s study, meshing with his findings and theories? Has the son truly replaced the “father”? The convergence of thought is certainly not in the realm of fossils. H. James Birx concisely relates Aristotle's regard for fossils: “Aristotle’s natural philosophy rejected creation, extinction, the significance of fossils, and therefore organic evolution [...] Aristotle ignored those implications of the paleontological record by claiming fossils to be merely chance aberrations in rock strata. He even claimed that no form of life had ever become extinct. Likewise, Aristotle ignored the implications of comparative morphology that suggest a common ancestry for similar forms.” (43) One is left to wonder exactly how Aristotle accounted for the findings of fossils. Birx answers that Aristotle claimed fossils were “merely chance aberrations in rock strata” (43). Birx is perhaps too condemning of Aristotle on these grounds, claiming, “he never contributed even an anticipatory foreshadowing of the theory of evolution” (43). Many of Aristotle's modes of thought support some of the ideas fundamental to evolution. Aristotle's “Great Chain of Being” can be likened to the great tree of ancestry that is the basic of evolution. Aristotle fell short, though, in his fundamentalist clinging to the “immutability of biological types” and rejection of any change whatsoever in species (43). Aristotle cannot plead ignorance, because the presocratic philosophers that preceded him by a century were well on their way to investigating the natural origin of the world and species. Xenophanes, precursor of Darwin by a century, recognized “both the biological and historical significance of fossils” (Birx 42). Likewise, Empedocles “actually glimpsed in a general way, the
Brown 6 Darwin/Wallace explanatory mechanism of natural selection that Herbert Spencer extended to the human realm in his own biosocial concept of the survival of the fittest” (42). And Birx regards Anaximander as the “founder of comparative anatomy” (42). Considering the great progress made by these predecessors of Aristotle, his stubborn rejection to delve into these matters jeopardizes his reputation, at least in terms of truths revealed in the physical world. An important basic fact to note here is that “[Aristotle] did not concern himself with creation, history, or extinction of things” (Birx 26), which explains his apathy and disregard for such things as fossils or the seeds of evolution that the presocratic thinkers had unearthed. But this seems like a vital question, especially for a man adorned with such a prodigious position of paternity, of both biology and science itself. It is not as if Darwin set about trying to revolutionize the public conception of who created the world. Especially on his travels, his findings stared him in the face, and he dealt with the question of the origin of species because it is pertinent, not least because it might explain the origins of man. For example, many of the bones Darwin observes are “projecting from the side of a bank” (126). For him, this is a question that merits investigation, and potentially an eventual answer. Thus he travels, observes, and makes sensible hypotheses based on the facts of the natural order and evidence of change found in fossils. Aristotle’s mindset was simply not oriented to the nature of species. Explaining Aristotle’s dismissiveness toward exploring the origin of the world, Birx states: “[He] claimed that teleological (purposeful) development from potentiality to actuality is ultimately caused by the mere existence of an eternal and perfect unmoved mover as pure thought thinking only about itself beyond the fixed ceiling of stars.” (26) Aristotle did not think like a Darwinist, certainly; considering Darwin’s credibility and method of
Brown 7 analyzing facts, it is hard to say whether he thought like a biologist. For example, on Aristotle’s hierarchy of all things, humans fall “midway between an ape and the moon” (43). The concept of speciation that Darwin difficultly came to was likely elusive because of the Aristotelian insistence on the constancy of species. Ernst Mayr explains speciation as “the change of a phyletic lineage over time” (31). Aristotle was not familiar with phyletic lineages, per se, but he would have rejected such fundamental changes. However, Darwin was able to escape the Aristotelian view, and found “that species not only change over time but also multiply” (31). This “speciation” is fundamental to a sensible theory of evolution, and is converse to Aristotle’s static view of species. Yet, elsewhere, Mayr presents a less critical view of Aristotle than Birx, using the concept of continuity that was important to both Darwin and Aristotle: “The occurrence of continuity had been stressed by some authors as far back as Aristotle, with his principle of plenitude” (44). This is apparent in Darwin’s adherence to a theory of gradualism in no little way, though perhaps indirectly. Aristotle was not expressly against many of Darwin’s core concepts, but Aristotle’s few unempirical presuppositions concerning biology have likely misled biologists more often than they have guided them. It remains to wonder, however, had Aristotle continued in presocratic methods or not dominated “science, philosophy, and theology” for the following two millennia, how much more quickly might a Darwin have arisen and threatened the monopoly that Christianity possessed of the key to the origin of the world? Birx laments the pervasiveness of Aristotle’s ideas: “It is unfortunate that the followers of this Aristotelian worldview dogmatically accepted its rigid ideas rather than encouraging the inductive method of scientific inquiry” (43). Ultimately, Birx concludes, “[I]n the final analysis, Darwinian science and Aristotelian philosophy do not mix”
Brown 8 (43). Only through the laborious efforts of progressivists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Maupertius, Leibniz, Linnaeus, Lamarck, etc., to overcome Aristotle’s ideas, did Charles Darwin finally succeed in escaping the Aristotelian mode of thought in order to discover a lasting theory of evolution.
Works Cited Birx, H. James. Interpreting Evolution: Darwin & Teilhard de Chardin. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991. Darwin, Charles. Voyage of the Beagle. New York: Penguin Books, 1989. Mayr, Ernst. One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U P, 1991.
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