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From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution Paperback – 1 Sep 2009

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52 of 53 people found the following review helpful
Harmonizing Teleology and Evolution? 30 May 2010
By G. Kyle Essary - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is both brilliant and difficult.

The most glaring issue seems to stem from the translation. The work does not flow well, and the wordings are often obtuse, when more common philosophical terms could have been used for an easier read.

Translation aside, there are three things that I dislike about the book:

1. Originally written at the onset of our current post-secular age, Gilson was still required to write according to a mythical neutrality and with even a notion of scorn towards his fellow Christian scholars. Forty years later, the secularists remain among the loudest in the public square, but few academics continue to persist in the old myth of a secular neutrality, nor that we should hide our most cherished values in order to play according to unproven rules of this equally biased perspective. Thus, many words are wasted in arguing that teleology does not necessarily imply theism so as to appease the arbitrarily enforced secular worldview of the academy in his day.

2. As Christoph Schornborn mentions in the foreword, Gilson has an awkward relationship with formal causes. Unfortunately, due to my previous point, it is difficult to tell whether this is due to a philosophical reason or simply as a means to appease the secular worldview and appear more "neutral."

3. Gilson furthers the myth that Darwin lost his faith as a direct result of his scientific findings. Historians of Darwin continue to argue against this myth, although some have championed the propogation of this myth in order to further their own metaphysical perspectives. Nick Spencer's Darwin and God has shown the complexity of Darwins move from a deistic Christian position to an adamant agnosticism.

Despite these three negatives, I still give the book a worthy five stars.

It should be noted from the onset that this book is not arguing against evolution, or the "limits" of evolutionary science or anything similar. The author intends to show instead that current evolutionary thinking lends itself naturally to Aristotelean philosophy.

The book begins with a basic introduction to Aristotle's thinking in regards to mechanism and finalism. It then proceeds into an analysis of the key figures leading up to Darwin's theory. He discusses Lamarck, Wallace, Gray and especially Spencer as well as others. He also discusses how F. Darwin and Huxley continued a variation of Darwin's argument after his death. His concern was not the science, but the underlying metaphysical assumptions of each of these contributors to the discussion. Gilson's concern is to show that they had radically different metaphysical assumptions that led to conflicts in telling the story of evolution. Instead of resolving the difficulties, evolutionary thinking simply tried to exclude the metaphysical from the discussion and continue to progress based on the usefulness of its ideas in hopes that the distinct metaphysical disjunction could be hidden under the rug. Gilson quips, "The root of the difficulties is the fundamental indetermination of the notion of evolution. The notion signified something supposedly enveloped, but Spencer popularized the word in another sense which no one could exactly define."

For many of these scientists of a previous age, the observation of clear teleology means they are now in the realm of physics and teleology may lead to theology and scientists are not equipped to adequately discuss either of these fields. Somehow this admitted humility in regards to other spheres of knowledge led to an exclusion of other forms of knowledge, and as the scientific world rapidly progressed through the functionality and usefulness of their products, they began to present themselves as the only sphere of actual knowledge. Unfortunately, this move happened only as the result of a willful exclusion (in partiality as we will see) of the teleological and not as a result of scientific endeavor.

Gilson, after discussing this progression and showing along the way the constant reliance on teleological thinking says, "The long detour in which we have been involved with evolutionism will not have been useless. It allows us to see in the first place that the problem of final causality is just as unavoidable in the perspective of the evolution of species as in that of their creation" (i.e. Creationism). Strangely enough, Darwin and many of his contemporaries were thrilled by the fact that he had reunited teleology with their mechanistic view of the world. For instance, when Asa Gray thanked Darwin for restoring the role of the teleological to scientific thinking, Darwin responded, "What you say about teleology pleases me especially." It is no surprise that even after the neo-Darwinian synthesis, today many scientists constantly rely on teleological language and processes in order to make their determinations. Any time a scientist mentions the evolutionary "struggle" for survival they are inevitably resorting to an idea that species intentionally move toward and end. Any time they discuss the evolutionary "purpose" of some feature of a species they are likewise invoking teleology.

It would be fair to note at this point that Gilson would have no time for Intelligent Design (ID). Unsurprisingly, he reserves harsh criticism for some of the ideas underlying the grandfather of ID, William Paley. Whether correct or incorrect, he would see ID theorists as embracing the mechanistic worldview that he resists.

The final two chapters of Gilson's work are on the limits of mechanism and the constants of biophilosophy. This is where his argument takes off and shows that despite the desire of Bacon to separate certain philosophical notions in order to promote utility, these notions cannot be excluded. In a discussion of quantum realities and more contemporary biology, he comes back to Aristotle. As he says, "The facts that Aristotle's biology wished to explain are still there...up to the present no one has explained them any better. Mechanist interpretations of these facts, which Aristotle formerly said had failed, have not ever been satisfactory; they have only displayed more and more the inevitability of the notions of organization and order to explain the existence of mechanistic structures of which science is the study." He makes the brilliant distinction early on in these chapters between how a mechanistic philosophy must exclude final causes a priori, often against common sense and empirical reasons, yet how a finalist philosophy can completely embrace the very mechanism at the heart of the other philosophy while giving a more complete explanation for things that mechanistic philosophy cannot per definition. He even suggests that whereas science may have no need for final causes to progress in its utilitarian endeavor for knowledge, they still exist in reality. There is a distinct difference between a methodological abstraction (or exclusion) and a real elimination and the constant reliance of science upon teleological language and methods only proves this point.

This review is already long, but gives the underlying ideas in this work. Whereas my explanation thus far is surely inadequate, if one takes the time to work through this book giving ample thought to what is being said, one will be rewarded with seeing the inevitability of complete explanations resorting to teleology. As Gilson concludes, if teleology so annoyingly continues to refuse to go away from the sciences, simply excluding it a prior only leaves it as an unexplained fact of nature. Let us instead seek to pursue knowledge from every angle, even if it means that we once again take up Aristotle and consider that after all these years, it may have been we who went astray.
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Good book, though primarily a historical examination. 19 Jun. 2010
By Alfredo Watkins - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I've always been interested in biology. It is my absolute favorite natural science. When I saw this book by Etienne Gilson relating the thought of Aristotle to evolutionary theory I bought it as soon as I could.

The preface by Cardinal Schonborn is good. He basically contrasts materialistic philosophy with genuine metaphysics, and exposes some of the assumptions upon which an entirely naturalistic and scientific worldview is based. While certainly not disparaging science, he does show that it is not the "be all and end all" of truth.

The first chapter basically describes the Aristotelian understanding of biology and how final causality fits into this. Chapter 2, "The Mechanist Objection" shows from whence comes the usual mechanistic understanding of all things, especially biological organisms. Chapter 3 is by far the largest chapter. Here Gilson talks about the "fixist" understanding of biology, that all species are fixed. He goes on to talk about early theories of evolution, evolutionary theories that are not necessarily concerned with simple biology, and finally Darwin's thought and the thought of his successors. Throughout all this, Gilson shows what people thought of teleology and how it fit into their theories. The author then talks about Bergson, a famous philosopher in the stream of vitalist thought. He shows where this is similar to the teleology of Aristotle, and where it is different. In the last two chapters, we are told why mechanism cannot account for everything and why teleology is an indispensable part of understanding the facts of biology and the facts of life.

With that rather long summary of the book, I have to say that while I was really looking forward to this book, I was slightly disappointed. I thought that the book would mainly apply Aristotelian thought to current biology, with examples, explanations, etc. While it may be partly the fault of the translator, it seems that the author is not entirely clear in describing what teleology is, what final causality is, how it relates to evolution and natural selection, and to what end all organisms point. In short, this is not exactly an in-depth look at what finality is with lots of examples in biology, but rather a history of the thought and a short argument against the opposite position.

While it seems I'm only being critical, still, it's wonderful for history, and for somebody willing to take the time to read through it all it is worth it. There is some genuine argument against mechanistic interpretation and for teleology, I only think that the definitions and conclusions we should come off with from this discovery are not entirely stated. This book deserves four stars.

Edit: Since reading this book, I was tempted to search for more in-depth answers. Gilson's book would be a good intro. However, for those interested in more comprehensive discussions of Aristotle's though and its relation to modern biology, I recommend "Real Essentialism" by David Oderberg and "Aristotle's Philosophy of Biology" by James Lennox. These are both available on Amazon. You can also find free articles by them by typing their names in google and going to their websites.
33 of 36 people found the following review helpful
Ancient Work too Often Left Behind 27 Nov. 2009
By Mike Robinson - Published on
Format: Paperback
How have modern Darwinian scientists handled Aristotle's rational achievements? Largely by ignoring his notions on causality and teleology. Etienne Gilson, as a philosopher, reveals the weakness of the theory of evolution's explanatory power regarding teleology.

The back cover notes: "The overreaching of many scientists into matters beyond self-imposed limits of scientific method is perhaps explained in part by the loss of two important ideas in modern thinking: final causality or purpose and formal causality."

This historian of philosophy in this volume provides chapters on:

- Aristotle
- The Mechanistic Objection
- Finality and Evolution
- The Constants of Biophilosophy

Christoph Schonborn writes a thought-provoking foreword. 240 pages.

The author proves that "organization and teleology invoked by Aristotle in order to explain the existence of mechanistic structures" remain satisfying and convincing.
Truth, Knowledge and the Reason for God: The Defense of the Rational Assurance of Christianity
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Not for everyone, but useful for those with a deep interest in the project of science 25 Sept. 2011
By Peter S. Bradley - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is a lot like physical exercise; difficult, occasionally enjoyable, often a slog, but worthwhile after the fact.

Gilson's book is not facially anti-Darwinian. Gilson's real concern is in defending the idea of final cause or teleology in biology from those who would say that such an idea has been disproven by science. Final cause, or teleology, is the idea that things are directed towards some end, either by something external to themselves or by their own internal existence. Gilson's argument is that Darwinism either doesn't disprove teleology because Darwin's method of science isn't interested in final causes or that Darwinism actually incorporated a kind of teleology when it adopted Herbert Spencer's language of "evolution."

Gilson is primarily writing as a historian of science and philosopher. Consequently, is method of analysis is historical. He reviews the history of ideas, rather than criticizing evolution or Darwin on a scientific basis. On the whole, Gilson appears to be quite sympathetic to Darwin as a person and a scientist.

Gilson's first chapter is on the "Aristotelian prologue." Gilson examines Aristotle's idea of final cause, and how Aristotle responded to those who would deny final cause. Gilson points out that Aristotle's interest in biology led him to conclude that there was clear and convincing evidence of final cause in the biological world. This evidence grew out of Aristotle's observations that natural things developed regularly and orderly in the direction of an end, e.g., calves grew up to be cows and seed grew up to be plants. Moreover, things in nature develop to a "limit." Calves grow up to be cows, and then develop no more, which implies a limit or an end toward their development. Aristotle's observations - based as they were on truth - carried the day, and from Aristotle onward, any person who sought to examine nature was compelled to include in their description some idea of final cause.

Gilson's next chapter is on the "Mechanist Objection." In a nutshell, that objection, formulated by Rene Descarte and Francis Bacon, was that science ought to be useful, and that final cause was not useful. Gilson observes that the Aristotelian approach found its end in the "contemplation" of nature, and that "contemplation" was tied up with appreciating "final cause." Gilson notes that for scientists, the appreciation for the truth of a theory is often related to an appreciation of the beauty of a theory, which is itself tied up in the wonder of "final cause." However, a scientific approach that incorporates final cause may find that science is being "retarded" in its ability to produce practical results as scientists become "critics" of nature, rather than "mechanics."

So, for Bacon and Descarte, "final cause" had to go, not because it was wrong, but because it was either not useful, or it was retarding scientists from focusing on the useful.

After clearing the ground, Gilson then addresses the history of the idea of evolution. Gilson's argument here seems to be that neither "fixism" - the idea that species were fixed from the beginning - and "transformism" - the idea that species change over time - is conceptually opposed to the idea of final cause. In fact, it seems that Darwin was not opposed to the idea of final cause, but on one occasion accepted the congratulations of a friend that he had restored final cause to science.

The truth appears to be that Darwin simply wasn't concerned with final cause. Being nurtured in an understanding of science that had developed after Bacon, final cause simply wasn't a thing that Darwin was concerned about.

Darwin's big target was the idea of "special creation." Gilson argues that when Darwin felt that his observations disproved special creation, it meant that the Bible could not be trusted by itself as an accurate description of truth. From that point on, it seems, Darwin made common cause with those "partisans" who opposed "special creation," whether or not they accepted Darwin's notion of natural selection, or its chief competitor, Lamarckianism.

One of the partisans who came into Darwin's camp, even though Darwin did not like him personally, was Herbert Spencer. It was Spencer who popularized the notion of "evolution," not Darwin. According to Gilson, in his first editions of the Origin of the Species, Darwin did not use evolution, rather he spoke of "transformation." It was Spencer who spoke of "evolution," but in Spencer's usage evolution had a clear teleology in that their was an internal dynamic by which things progressed from the simple to the complex. Eventually, Darwin began to speak of his theory as "evolution," but by doing so he incorporated, sotto voce, Spencer's teleology.

Gilson discusses other contributors to Darwinism. His take-down of Parson Thomas Malthus is a must-read masterpiece of the art of ironically damning someone with faint praise.

So, Darwinism, or "evolution", did not eliminate the notion of final cause, and how could it if final cause is true? Rather, Darwinism is either irrelevant to the notion of final cause or it incorporates that notion without explicitly acknowledging that it does.

Gilson ends his book by explaining why we ought to continue to think that final cause is necessary for our understanding of truth. That reason primarily is that we see it all around us, even if we don't have a mechanistic explanation for it. Gilson notes, for example, that one of the things that we see in evolutionary development is a progress toward individuation: slime mold is less individual than plants which are less individual than bees which are less individual than cows which are less individual than lions which are less individual than human beings, who have a mind and self-awareness. Is this observation wrong? No. Can it be explained mechanistically? No. Does this teleology, showing a development toward limits, exist? Yes.

Is this science? Probaby not, but it seems to be "common sense" as that term was classically understood as meaning a first order inference from undisputed facts and ideas. To paraphrase a source quoted by Gilson, scientists need to be careful in ruling out "common sense" because where the results of a scientific inquiry conflict too strongly with common sense, it may not be common sense that is wrong.

Gilson concludes by pointing out that final cause may not be scientifically useful, but it is a necessary concept for understanding reality, and it is attested to by numerous real world examples. Its truth may not be scientifically verifiable, but many things we take for granted are not scientifically verifiable. The meaning of ideas, for example, is not scientifically verifiable. We hear words, but the meanings behind the sounds and symbols that are words cannot be measured. Meanings are sense independent, and, in fact, immaterial. Does that mean that meanings don't exist?

Likewise, science relies a variety of theoretical principles to reach its conclusions, including Occam's razor, the principle of least action, etc. Why are those things any more true and real than final cause? Gilson concludes with the following:

"Compared to generalizations such as the principle of least action, economy of thought, and other similar ones, the notion of natural teleology cuts a modest figure. It can be reproached for being anthropomorphic, but in a science which is the work of man, what is not? Furthermore, the important thing is to know whether or not it expresses a fact given in nature for if we object to final causality as an explanation, it remains as a fact to be explained."

Gilson's book is difficult, but I think that on reflection - and reflection is required to put together Gilson's arguments - it pays dividends.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
I don't really get it 31 Dec. 2013
By Bobby Bambino - Published on
Format: Paperback
Several people have written some very positive reviews of this book, and I hope that I'm missing something, but I really did not get this book at all. From the descriptions of the book and what I know about Gilson and his defense of Thomisim, I would have expected this nook to be a full blown defense of final causality against mechanism as well as the harmonization between final causality and Darwinian (biological) evolution. However, on my reading, only the first and last chapters of this book seem to directly touch on these issues, and not in a terribly deep way (although they are certainly not trivial). Most of the book is spent discussing very subtle historical nuances concerning Darwin, his writings, his contemporaries, letters between them, editions of "The Origin of the Species", and many other historical details. Now there is nothing wrong with a detailed discussion of history. But in the context of this book, I see two problems with this. 1) The history is the majority of the book and as such, it takes away from the detailed philosophical arguments and discussions that I was hoping to see but worse 2) Gilson seems to be trying to make an argument from history. In other words, he seems to me to be using what happened historically to prove his philosophical points. Obviously this is not a very good way to do philosophy. So for most of the book, I was confused and uninterested, as I really don't care that the word "evolution" didn't appear in "The Origin of the Species" until the 7th edition. I'm just not sure how that argues for or against the existence of final causality.

Of course, this does not make it all bad. I didn't get what I expected from this book, but I did get some things out of it. For example, he does make some good arguments in the chapter on the limits of mechanism to say why mechanism is problematic. He discusses how form is needed to differentiate living from non-living matter. He also points out the fact that unlike artifiacts, the substance in question (like a person or animals) exists first, and then the "parts" begin to form and exist for the purpose of sustaining that substance. This is in contrast to artifacts which are built out of parts i.e. an artifact does not exist until all the parts are put together, but with a substance, this exists first and then the parts are formed. This was a good insight.

So perhaps this book just wasn't for me. Clearly it has helped many others, but with the long digression into the minutiae of the history surrounding Darwin, I just didn't feel that this book really delivered what I hoped it would. It would be worth skimming and reading the first and last chapter. Otherwise, I wouldn't really recommend the book. Time would be better spent reading Garrigou-Lagrange or Ed Feser, in mu opinion.
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