Inarguably, Charles Robert Darwin was a brilliant investigator in the fields of biology and geology. But was he also a philosopher? The eminent Darwinist, Ernst Mayr says Darwin, “was clearly one of the greatest philosophers of all times.” However, I will show to the contrary that Mayr’s claim is completely unfounded, and that Darwin was not a philosopher at all.
First, let us look at Mayr’s statement. In This is Biology he says,
“Scores of philosophers have endeavored to formulate principles by which our understanding of the world could be advanced (or, as it was often said, how truth could be found). Among those usually listed are Descartes, Leibnitz, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hershel, Whewell, Mill, Jevons, Mach, Russell, and Popper. Curiously, the name of Darwin is rarely included in such a list, even though he was clearly one of the greatest philosophers of all times. In fact, to a large extent the modern philosophy of biology was founded by Darwin.”(1)
The idea that Darwin “was clearly one of the greatest philosophers of all times” ought to give pause to anyone who understands the differences between philosophy and the natural sciences. That the usual lists of philosophers omit Darwin is not the result of historical oversight, but of philosophical insight.(2) Historian of science, Dr. Charles Singer says, “Darwin was an investigator of the very first rank, but he was inexpert in the exact use of language, and had little philosophical insight.”
Let us consider the only statement Mayr offers in support of his claim: “[T]o a large extent the modern philosophy of biology was founded by Darwin.” There are a few problems with Mayr’s statement. First, there is an ambiguity in Mayr’s use of the singular: “the modern philosophy of biology”. Does he recognize only one modern philosophy of biology? Whatever Mayr intends, the fact that a philosophy of biology is “modern” or allegedly “founded by Darwin” is no guarantee of its truth, logical consistency and explanatory power. The great influence of Darwin’s ideas and their truth are independent values. But this is a different argument.
More to the present point, any philosophy that is a philosophy of biology only, and founded primarily on Darwinism, is not a universal philosophy, but one that risks, rather, being a limited, ad hoc system that sees reality piecemeal. We can better grasp the nature of this problem by contrasting the idea of a well-seasoned, universal philosophical system capable of incorporating sound evolutionary concepts as consistent with its metaphysical principles, and contributing, as well, to their fuller explanation.
Third, from the assertion, “modern philosophy of biology was founded by Darwin”, it does not necessarily follow that Darwin was a philosopher. Though Darwin interprets nature through a philosophical materialism, his works are primarily scientific. His theory of evolution is philosophical just as is any theory that connects facts over great distances and periods of time. This kind of vision, according to Darwin’s colleague T.H. Huxley, is a metaphysical vision, a “sort of philosophic faith”. If Darwin had been philosophically inclined he would have appreciated Huxley’s valid insight.(3)
Historian of philosophy Frederick Copleston says, “Charles Robert Darwin (1809-82) was a naturalist, not a philosopher…Being a naturalist, Darwin was sparing of philosophical speculation and devoted himself primarily to working out a theory of evolution based on the available empirical evidence.”(4)
Copleston distinguishes between a professional philosopher who makes excursions into science, and the professional scientist who makes excursions into philosophy. For example, Herbert Spencer was a philosopher, not a scientist, who made excursion into science. Thomas Huxley was a professional scientist who made excursions into philosophy. Darwin was a naturalist without any philosophical undertakings.
Historian of science, Benjamin Farrington exposes Darwin’s lack of philosophical ability. Farrington shows the defects in Darwin’s treatment of the human mind, culture and morality, concluding, “[I]t is well to remember that knowledge cannot be advanced merely by observation. The most brilliant observer still needs to have a mental grasp of the subject of his investigations. This Darwin had in a unique degree in the geological and biological sphere: he was a superb naturalist. But it deserted him in the human sphere. He was a poor philosopher.”(5)
Darwin put his faith in philosophical materialism and consistently applied his ideology to the interpretation of all phenomena of life, including the human mind. However, since he did not think out his materialist views, they were laden with insuperable contradictions. For example, in one of his early transmutation Notebooks, he wrote,
“Love of the deity of organization, oh you materialist!...Why is thought being a secretion of brain, more wonderful than gravity a property of matter? It is our arrogance, our admiration of ourselves.”(6)
Here we see Darwin’s crude materialism rent with the irony of using mind to emasculate the mind itself and thereby reduce man to his physical nature. If thought is a merely a “secretion of brain”, Darwin probably never wondered how it is that the brain secretes Greek in Athens and French in Paris. With Darwin, this is as good as philosophy gets.
Darwin was on a self-appointed mission to bring the human mind into a continuum with the other animals. In one of his early Notebooks he says,
“To study Metaphysics…appears to me to be like puzzling at Astronomy without Mechanics. – Experience shows [that] the problem of the mind cannot be solved by attacking the citadel [the mind] itself. – the mind is a function of the body. – we must bring some stable foundation to argue from.”
The Descent of Man was that foundation with which Darwin attempted to show the existence of a mental continuum between man and the anthropoid apes.(7) One can see why Darwin tended to slight metaphysics. A realistic metaphysics of nature that treats man as a rational animal would pose serious obstacles to Darwin’s characterization of man as a brute animal. Darwin’s early Notebooks contain deprecating remarks about metaphysics. For example, he says, “He who understands baboon would do more toward metaphysics than Locke.”
Darwin’s assumption of a phylogenetic continuity between man and the higher animals has a history in the works of Buffon, Bonnet, Soame Jenyns, and especially Robinet. This principle of unbroken continuity allows for a difference in degree only between man and the anthropomorphous apes and higher animals. We can accurately characterize Darwin’s continuum as a conversion of the Leibnizian principle of continuity into a temporal law of biological development. A true philosopher would at least attempt to address the metaphysical dilemmas resulting from a biological continuum of this sort.
Two of Darwin’s notable contemporaries, Alfred Russell Wallace and St-George Mivart prudently refused to follow Darwin into his philosophical morass about the human mind. In addition, the eminent geologist, Charles Lyell revealed to Darwin his justifiable reservations, “struggling to rationalize immortal man’s origin from the beast. Was kinship limited to ‘the animal nature of man,’ with his ‘Moral & Intellectual & Creative part’ created unique?” Lyell wanted “a ‘moral’ flash at the birth of the species; a sacred instant when the gift of immortality was bestowed.”(8)
Most significantly, the foregoing controversy serves to lay bare the fact that Darwin lacked “even a modest amount of clarity about the limits of the validity of the scientific method.”(9) Unrestrained by any sense of the proper scope and competence of biology, Darwin conflated his materialist ideology with evolutionary science. The following statement from leading Darwinist, the late Stephen J. Gould, makes this point obvious:
“I believe that the stumbling block to [the acceptance of Darwinian evolution] does not lie in any scientific difficulty, but rather in the philosophical content of Darwin’s message – in its challenge to a set of entrenched Western attitudes that we are not yet ready to abandon. First, Darwin argues that evolution has no purpose. Individuals struggle to increase the representation of their genes in future generations, and that is all…second, Darwin maintained that evolution has no direction; it does not lead inevitably to higher things. Organisms become better adapted to their local environments, and that is all. The “degeneracy” of a parasite is as perfect as the gait of the gazelle. Third, Darwin applied a consistent philosophy of materialism to his interpretation of nature. Matter is the ground of all existence; mind, spirit and God as well, are just words that express the wondrous results of neuronal complexity.”(10)
Despite Mayr’s enthusiasm for Darwinian ideology, the mere bias of interpreting the processes of nature through the lens of a simplistic and mechanistic (Cartesian) materialism does not make one a philosopher. Darwin’s failure to understand the epistemological limits of the scientific method suggests he lacked any metaphysical perspective on the natural sciences.
In addition, that Darwin considered Herbert Spencer to be one of the greatest philosophers of all times reveals a deficiency in philosophical understanding.(11) Spencerian philosophy enjoyed a relatively extensive yet transient popularity. Spencer was in no sense a great philosopher. Considerably more influential today than the works of Herbert Spencer are the philosophical writings of another Englishman, John Stuart Mill.(12)
Most importantly, the Origin of Species reveals Darwin’s interminable confusion regarding species. Darwin was, as it appears from his works, unaware of the plentiful philosophical discussions throughout history about universals, particulars, and species. Despite such critical distinctions disappearing into the Darwinian flux, the philosophical problems remain. A contemporary of Darwin, the eminent naturalist at Harvard, Louis Agassiz, perceived the species problem following publication of the Origin of Species:
“If species do not exist at all, as the supporters of the transmutation theory maintain, how can they vary? And if individuals alone exist, how can the differences which may be observed among them prove the variability of species?”(13) The problems Agassiz called attention to are not adequately resolved by Darwinists and the “modern philosophy of biology.”
I doubt that Darwin would have agreed to anyone labeling him a philosopher. He realized that abstract thinking was not one of his strong points: “My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited; and therefore I could never have succeeded with metaphysics or mathematics.”(14)
Again, in a letter to Miss Julia Wedgwood (July 11, 1681), Darwin makes the following comment:
“Some one has sent us Macmillan, and I must tell you how much I admire your Article, though at the same time I must confess that I could not clearly follow you in some parts, which probably is in the main part due to my not being at all accustomed to metaphysical trains of thought.”(15)
In summary, Darwin was not “accustomed to metaphysical trains of thought”; he was “sparing of philosophical speculation” and produced no works of philosophy. Hence, no historian of philosophy of any repute would elevate Darwin to the pantheon of philosophers. It should be clear that Darwin was a great naturalist, but in no sense a philosopher.
1) 1997, p. 46.
2) Those familiar with the history of philosophy, including the philosophy of science, will recognize the obvious atypical character of Mayr’s “usual list of philosophers”. Mayr has stacked to support his argument.
3) See “Biogenesis and Abiogenesis” in Discourses: Biological and Geological, T. H. Huxley. I first learned of Huxley’s insightful comments from Stanley Jaki’s works.
4) A History of Philosophy, Vol. VIII, Bentham to Russell.
5) What Darwin Really Said; Schocken Books, 1966.
6) Cited by Richard Dawkins.
7) Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, Desmond & Moore; Warner Books; 1991, p. 268-269.
8) Desmond & Moore, p. 472.
9) The Savior of Science, Stanley L. Jaki; Regnery Gateway, 1988, p. 7.
10) Ever Since Darwin; Norton, 1977, p. 12-13.
11) E.g., in the Descent of Man (chap. IV) Darwin refers to Spencer as “Our great philosopher”.
12) See F. Copleston.
13) Quoted by S. L. Jaki.
14) The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Edited by Francis Darwin; Prometheus Books, 2000, p. 55. Note: first philosophy or metaphysics, the primary discipline of the true philosopher, involves intellectual abstraction of the highest order.
15) Autobiography, p. 66.