Darwin, Aristotle, and Dante “on the origin of species”

Charles Lincon
5 min readMay 29, 2020
“Dante shown holding a copy of the Divine Comedy, next to the entrance to Hell, the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory and the city of Florence, with the spheres of Heaven above, in Michelino’s fresco” Description and image from Wikipedia. I claim no copyright.

Many of the ideas for this article came while I was at the University of Amsterdam Library near Singel Canal. As said at the one of the gates of my first university, “In memory of dear old times,” thus, equally applies to Amsterdam and the Singel Canal.

If we have a goal — or common goal — as humanity, I think the topic below about Darwin, Aristotle, teleology that one may say if for immaterial and irrelevant topics is really for the purpose of all topics, including politics, because without it, we aren’t going anywhere substantively.

“Aristotle by Francesco Hayez. Oil on canvas, 1811" Description and image from Wikipedia. I claim no copyright.

As a corollary, I think the author is saying that Dante suggests there is a fine line between humanity, being “godlike”, and animal behavior. This is very much in line with Aristotle’s view of the soul (Greek Περὶ Ψυχῆς, Perì Psūchês; Latin De Anima). Aristotle divides the soul into three parts: The vegetative aspect of the soul where reproduction and growth occur (markedly in plants; the sensitive (I like locomotive better as a translation) for mobility and sensation markedly present in animals; and the rational aspect of the soul whereby there is found logic, thought, reflection, etc. markedly found in humans. Each line is not clearly delineated. Indeed, there are mammalian animals that exhibit human like attributes of thought, reflection, learning, such as the Japanese macaque monkey to name one (where the new generations learn from the former generations.

Perhaps Darwinian science has over passed all this, and Aristotle is outdated and not relevant. I agree that sometimes bringing about teleology, science, capitalism, evolution, Darwin, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and a few other things can be a tricky confluence. But I think it’s fair to ask about the teleological aspects of Darwin’s work — or what the teleological aspects are.

“Darwin pictured shortly before publication Henry Maull (1829–1914) and John Fox (1832–1907) (Maull & Fox)[1] — University College London Digital Collection (18869) This photo has been published in Karl Pearson, The Life, Letters, and Labours of Francis Galton (1914).” Description and image from Wikipedia. I claim no copyright.

You say, we are missing some key goals as humans. But speaking about goals in life and the existence of humans, is there a goal? Or should I say is there a telos? Aristotle and Plato seemed to think so, but Darwin using Bacon’s inductive reasoning method (also described as extrapolating generalizations from specific observable instances) seems to derive something different. From an empirical standpoint — Marx, Levi-Strauss, Freud, Jung, Darwin and others for example seem to be going at — what is the goal of human activity? Not asking necessarily in a teleological sense, but what do you think? Is self-preservation Darwin’s teleology?

One could argue Darwin wanted to account for the seemingly perfect structure that implied design. He suggested that natural selection has been the major means, but does not say the only means. In Origin of Species, he begins with a powerful rhetorical strategy of showing how human artfulness in animal breeding is used as the mystery-solving analogy for the craftsmanship of nature. Variation gives plants and animals advantages, because the whole population won’t be killed if one defect is found. Consider the uniformity of corn fields and how the DNA is becoming the same…. Again, is that a teleological goal to evolution?

Also the desire of living things to stay alive and increase their numbers. Why is that? Why should a non-teleological nature generate and sustain teleological beings? Natural selection tells us we are all here by accident and we have come and gone by going aimlessly; proceeded by chance. Do you think that’s reasonable to say?

Still, I think we need another look at Darwin. That’s why I think the progression of Aristotle’s soul is illuminating. Life progresses like the stages of his aspects of the soul in its hierarchy: nutritive 1 sensitivity 2 locomotion and with it desire 3 speech and intellect the rational soul (as I had described above). Perhaps fulfilling the needs or aspects of the soul is the telos, perhaps through education, and we fulfill our soul and reach happiness or eudomia.

If one considers the words, “On Origin of species” literally translated to Greek is “Peri genesis ton edionPeri=around or about genesis=genesis/origin ton=the/article eidion=form/species (but used in Plato to indicate an everlasting form that never changes…

“The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, 1512.” Description and image from Wikipedia. I claim no copyright.

As a side note, I think it’s interesting how the Book of Genesis shows that the Moon and the stars are not Gods in the Bible. The first chapter of Genesis argues against that nature needs to be worshiped. Then, from this perspective, science and religion, at least the Bible, are on the same page. This of course is not a full account of the first chapter of Genesis…. But… an interesting thought…

The translation of Darwin’s On Origin of Species into Greek is quite illuminating. And the translation re-translated into English is “On the Genesis of the Forms” provides other food-for-thought. Which presents two problems (1) Genesis has a different implication of origin and not akin to evolution. Moreover it has a Biblical reference in our modern parlance. (2) Forms in Greek is a concept that Plato used for the everlasting concept of something. Is there a form to a tree or a chair? That form is the never changing essence of that thing and is not suspect to evolution. This is in contrast to species and how we realize that certain species have evolved over time.

I guess the counter argument might be that the species as you go up through phylum, class, kingdom, etc. could represent some level of form. Would that be a relevant argument? But I guess if a species goes up to the top of the chain then, you might reach “life” and I suppose life is a representation of some sort of Platonic form.

© Charles Edward Andrew Lincoln IV

In mid-July 1837 Darwin started his “B” notebook on Transmutation of Species, and on page 36 wrote “I think” above his first evolutionary tree. Charles Darwin — Page 36 of Notebook B: [Transmutation of species (1837–1838)]. ‘commenced. . . July 1837’; from Darwin Online Charles Darwin’s 1837 sketch, his first diagram of an evolutionary tree from his First Notebook on Transmutation of Species (1837). Interpretation of handwriting: “I think case must be that one generation should have as many living as now. To do this and to have as many species in same genus (as is) requires extinction . Thus between A + B the immense gap of relation. C + B the finest gradation. B+D rather greater distinction. Thus genera would be formed. Bearing relation” (next page begins) “to ancient types with several extinct forms”Description and image from Wikipedia. I claim no copyright.
Texas A&M University Graduation 2016 — Receiving an award for the most pro bono awards of any student that graduating class from Texas A&M Law in 2016. https://law.tamu.edu/media/news-media-resources/story/spring-2016-hooding-and-commencement-ceremony “The Equal Justice Award was presented to Charles Lincoln as the graduate who has performed pro bono legal services in an extraordinary way and contributed the greatest number of hours of public service pro bono work with 674.5 hours, exemplifying the Aggie core value of selfless service. Lincoln has worked with Catholic Charities, the Texas 13th Court of Appeals, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Texas Attorney General’s Office and U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffery Manske of the Western District of Texas.” [Charles Edward Andrew Lincoln IV]

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Charles Lincon

Renaissance literature, Shakespeare, Hegelian dialectics, Attic Greek, masters University of Amsterdam.