Monday, September 09, 2013

The Biological Teleology of Natural Right: Aristotle, Darwin, Strauss, and Rand

My argument for Darwinian natural right originated as a response to what Leo Strauss had said in his Introduction to Natural Right and History.  Strauss explained: "natural right in its classic form is connected with a teleological view of the universe.  All natural beings have a natural end, a natural destiny, which determines what kind of operation is good for them."  This dependence of natural right on a teleological view of the universe was clearly seen by Aristotle, Strauss explained.  The "problem of natural right" today is that "modern natural science seems to have refuted teleology."

I agreed with Roger Masters that Strauss was wrong to suggest that the question of teleology depended on physics or astronomy, because Aristotle's teleology was primarily biological, and so the question was whether teleology is necessary for explaining living nature, and whether modern Darwinian biology supports such a teleological explanation of organisms.

My answer to this question was that Darwinian biology really does support Aristotelian teleology.  My thinking here was decisively influenced by my reading of Allan Gotthelf's dissertation at Columbia University--"Aristotle's Conception of Final Causality" (1975)--and some of his other writing (see my Darwinian Natural Right, 238-43).  I was persuaded by Gotthelf that Aristotle's final causality is best interpreted as living nature's irreducible potential for form: the development, structure, and functioning of a living organism manifest the actualization of its potential for organic form, an actualization that depends on, but is not reducible to, the natural potentialities of its material elements.  Moreover, far from refuting Aristotle's teleology, modern Darwinian biology provides an evolutionary explanation for living nature's irreducible potential for form.

I was pleased, therefore, to see that Oxford University Press has recently published a collection of Gotthelf's papers on Aristotle's biology--Teleology, First Principles, and Scientific Method in Aristotle's Biology (2012).  Although I have read most of these papers in their earlier versions as articles, I had not read the two papers at the end of the book--"Darwin on Aristotle" and "Aristotle as Scientist: A Proper Verdict."  These remarkably brilliant papers reinforce my response to Strauss by showing that Aristotle's teleological biology was an empirically based science, and that this teleological science is deepened by modern Darwinian science.  For me, this provides the biological solution to Strauss's "problem of natural right."

But while my motivation for formulating the idea of Darwinian natural right came mostly from my reading of Strauss, Gotthelf's motivation came from the influence of Ayn Rand.  As a college student, he came under the spell of Rand from reading Atlas Shrugged.   He met and talked with Rand, and he shared her enthusiasm for Aristotle as the greatest philosopher for explaining the rational basis of human existence as part of the natural world, without any need for a Platonic transcendence of nature.

As an epigram for his new book, Gotthelf quotes the following passage from Rand's review of John Herman Randall's Aristotle (1962):
"For Aristotle, life is not an inexplicable, supernatural mystery, but a fact of nature.  And consciousness is a natural attribute of certain living entities, their natural power, their specific mode of action--not an unaccountable element in a mechanistic universe, to be explained away somehow in terms of inanimate matter, nor a mystic miracle incompatible with physical reality, to be attributed to some occult source in another dimension.  For Aristotle, 'living' and 'knowing' are facts of reality; man's mind is neither unnatural nor supernatural, but natural--and this is the root of Aristotle's greatness, of the immeasurable distance that separates him from other thinkers.
"Life--and its highest form, man's life--is the central fact in Aristotle's view of reality.  The best way to describe it is to say that Aristotle's philosophy is 'biocentric.'
"This is the source of Aristotle's intense concern with the study of living entities, the source of the enormously 'pro-life' attitude that dominates his thinking."
This points to Rand's biocentric conception of ethics--that value exists only for living organisms, because it is only for living entities that existence is an achievement--an end or goal--that requires securing the conditions for one's existence and avoiding the threats to one's existence.  Only for living organisms does it makes sense to say that some things are good for them and other things bad for them.  Thus it is that we can speak of what is naturally right or desirable for human beings as that which conforms to their nature in securing the conditions for their life.

Wanting to understand this Aristotelian and Randian conception of biological teleology, Gotthelf decided to study under Randall at Columbia University, where he could write his dissertation on Aristotle's biology, while being close to Rand in New York City.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, John Dewey delivered a lecture on "The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy," in which he argued that Darwin exerted his greatest influence on philosophy by refuting Aristotelian biology.  But on the centennial anniversary of Darwin's Origin, Randall delivered a lecture on "The Changing Impact of Darwin on Philosophy."  Contrary to Dewey, Randall concluded that, as a result of Darwin's influence, "nature is once more for us, as for the Greeks, full of implicit ends and ideals."  Randall argued, "When Darwin led men to take biology seriously once more, they had to reintroduce these functional concepts that physicists had forgotten--means and ends, function, teleology, and time."

Gotthelf elaborated Randall's thought in a long intellectual career devoted to studying Aristotle's philosophy of biology.  Along with David Balme, James Lennox, and a few other scholars, Gotthelf has stirred a renewed interest in Aristotle's biology.

The intellectual fruitfulness of this research is illustrated in the last two papers at the end of his new book.  In "Darwin on Aristotle," Gotthelf shows how Darwin recognized Aristotle's greatness as a biological scientist, and perhaps, in particular, Darwin recognized some anticipation of his own understanding of biological teleology in Aristotle's writings.

A few months before his death in 1882, Darwin received from William Ogle a copy of his new translation of Aristotle's Parts of Animals.  As early as 1838, Darwin had written in a notebook a list of things "to be read," which included "Read Aristotle to see whether any my views very ancient."  Many years later, in a letter dated February 12, 1879, he confessed his shame that he had never read Aristotle, but he wrote: "From extracts, which I have seen, I have an unbounded respect for him, as one of the greatest, if not the greatest observers, that ever lived."  And, indeed, as Gotthelf indicates, many of the books Darwin read contained references to and quotations from Aristotle's biological works.  But it was not until he received Ogle's translation that Darwin read Aristotle for himself. 

One month after receiving Ogle's translation, Darwin wrote the following letter to Ogle (on February 22, 1882):
"You must let me thank you for the pleasure which the Introduction to the Aristotle book has given me.  I have rarely read anything which has interested me more; though I have not read as yet more than a quarter of the book proper.  From quotations which I had seen I had a high notion of Aristotle's merits, but I had not the most remote notion what a wonderful man he was.  Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods, though in very different ways, but they were mere school-boys to old Aristotle.--How curious, also, his ignorance on some points as on muscles as the means of movement--I am glad that you have explained in so probable a manner some of the grossest mistakes attributed to him--I never realized before reading your book to what an enormous summation of labour we owe even our common knowledge.  I wish old Aristotle could know what a grand Defender of the Faith he had found in you."

Unfortunately, Darwin died two months later (April 19), without leaving any evidence that he had read more of the book or any explanation of what exactly he found so exciting in what he had read.  Gotthelf points out, however, that if Darwin read "a quarter of the book proper," that would include Ogle's Introduction and the first book of the Parts of Animals, in which Aristotle writes about his teleological explanation of animal parts and animal classification.

Gotthelf speculates that what excited Darwin in his reading of Aristotle was seeing that he and Aristotle were in basic agreement about biological teleology.  If so, this would contradict Ogle's understanding of the question of teleology.  In his Introduction to his book and in an earlier letter that he had written to Darwin, Ogle set up a fundamental contrast between teleology and mechanism, with Aristotle and Plato on the side of teleology and Democritus and Darwin on the side of mechanism.  In his Introduction, Ogle wrote: "One group of philosophers there was, who fancied that they found an adequate cause in the necessary operations of the inherent properties of matter; while another sought a solution in the intelligent action of a benevolent and foreseeing agent, whom they called God, or Nature, as the case might be."

Gotthelf argues persuasively that Ogle has misinterpreted both Aristotle and Darwin:
"But, contrary to Ogle's sentiment, Aristotle's natures are not literally intelligent, not literally planners, and arguably the philosopher's genius lies in plotting a third course between these two pictures, and defending it as scientifically legitimate.  This third course involves the postulation not of an 'intelligent Nature' but of inherent natures--that is, of natural capacities (in Greek, dunameis) directed at form, irreducible to the capacities for the production of a living organism of a particular type that are irreducible to the capacities of the elements that constitute such an organism.  From that perspective the isomorphism with Darwin becomes clear, and there is some evidence that Darwin himself saw it" (367).
Darwin seemed to recognize the teleological character of his evolutionary science.  In an article in Nature, Asa Gray wrote: "let us recognize Darwin's great service to Natural Science in bringing back to it Teleology; so that instead of Morphology versus Teleology, we shall have Morphology wedded to Teleology."  In response to this, Darwin wrote to Gray (June 5, 1874): "What you say about Teleology pleases me especially and I do not think anyone else has ever noted that."  So, we can infer, Gotthelf suggests, that when Darwin read Aristotle's explanation of biological teleology, he saw that he really was bringing back into science a teleological conception of living nature that was originally formulated by Aristotle.

Gotthelf's account of the common ground between Aristotle, Darwin, and modern biology on the question of teleology is what I have found most insightful.  For Aristotle, the directiveness and adaptiveness of organisms are basic, irreducible facts about nature.  For modern biology, the directiveness of organisms comes from the DNA program, and the adaptiveness of organisms comes from natural selection (368-69, 389-91).  As an empirical scientist, Aristotle would be open to the modern biological explanations, Gotthelf argues, because for Aristotle determining the most basic level of explanation is an empirical question.  Gotthelf writes:
"These are the conclusions of a theoretical scientist, a student of nature.  Were Aristotle to reappear tomorrow and be presented with the results of the last several hundred years of biochemistry and evolutionary theory, including the evidence with grounds them, my view is that (after recovering from the most awe-filled experience of his life) he would surely retreat from his insistence that the directiveness in nature is a primitive directiveness and the adaptiveness in nature a basic fact.  Facts they would remain, but they would, for him, as for us, no longer be basic.  The determination of what the basic level of explanation is, is for Aristotle ultimately an empirical or scientific matter" (392).
Here then is the solution to Strauss's "problem of natural right":  modern natural science has not refuted natural teleology, because, on the contrary, modern Darwinian biology provides the ultimate explanation for the goal-directed nature of organisms, including human beings, which thus sustains the teleological ground for the idea of natural right.

Some of these points are elaborated in some previous posts that can be found herehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here 

I was saddened to learn, shortly after writing this post, that Gotthelf died a few days ago.  I did not know him personally.  But I will remember him for a body of intellectual work that has helped me think through some of the deep questions indicated in this post.


Anonymous said...

But you're late to the party. It was Millikan who did the work of tying Darwin to teleology way back in 1984. And any discussion of Darwinain teleology without mentioning her is intellectual negligence.

Anonymous said...

Leo Strauss was an anti-white / anti-western neocon. Who cares what he thought about anything....

It's the neocons who are fronting organizations to ban Darwinism: