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Darwin: The Philosopher?

Tara Raju's picture
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Tara Raju

The Story of Evolution

Professor Dalke

February 13, 2009

Hegel and Darwin…Not So Different After All

The Origin of Darwin, the Philosopher

 “After the ‘Origin’, all organisms became connected, part of the same, profoundly ancient, family tree. Similarities and differences became comprehensible and explicable. In short, Darwin gave us a framework for asking questions about the natural world, and about ourselves”, says Olivia Judson of Charles Darwin  CITATION Jud09 \l 1033 (Judson, 2009). Darwin did not offer pure, unadulterated scientific conclusions but rather, like Judson asserts, supported a framework of thought that was applicable on a broader scale; thus, Darwin’s legacy should include his scientific contributions as well as include the contributions that the development of his theory made in the philosophical arena.

            The parallel attributes of both science and literature, and essentially all humanities foster include that they are “stories” that are “works in progress” and are meant to be “made use of” instead of being used as a “belief structure”. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is a text that meets all of the mentioned criteria. Additionally, the text harbors many similarities to views that are held by famous philosophers.

Foremost, philosopher G.W.F. Hegel asserts that “humanity…has an actual capacity for change and change for the better… [fostering] a drive towards perfectibility” (Hegel 57). Hegel is talking of the change that individuals have the ability to make in order to better understand themselves and the society that envelopes them while Darwin talks of the phenotypic and genotypic changes that occur in individuals to allow the survival of the fittest. The idea that humanity is trying to attain something more “perfect” is a concept explored by the renowned philosopher as well as Darwin, who has been classified, by many on first glance, as only a scientist.

Moreover, Hegel also provides for different methods of gathering history including “original”, “reflective” and “philosophical” (Hegel 3). In Darwin’s own way, he gathers science in an “original” way, employing the use of his observations and constructing a summary that unifies them. Hegel defines the “reflective” method as a summary that allows for additional observations and interpretations in hopes of gaining insight into the matter in question. Darwin most certainly utilizes this method of gathering knowledge as he takes the story that “species were immutable productions, and had been separately created” and makes observations that countered the traditional thinking that dominated the field and made interpretations of his observations that allowed for the story of evolution (Darwin 79).

The parallels between Hegel and Darwin are many illuminating the misconception that philosophy, along with other humanities are distinct and seize to coincide. Darwin was a just as much of a philosopher as he was a scientist. He attempted, as the definition of philosophy reveals, to “study the general problems concerning matters of existence, knowledge, truth, beauty, justice, validity, mind and language” by the application of a “critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on reasoned argument”  CITATION Phi09 \l 1033 (Philosophy, 2009). Furthermore, a component of Darwin’s concept of evolution, the notion that only the strongest to survive, has been applied in a broader sense to daily social interactions that individuals have among each other.

It seems with an increasingly diagnostic approach to exploring the conclusions that Darwin made while exploring the conclusions that philosophers, namely Hegel, has made about the development of a subject matter, the commonalities are impossible to ignore. So why as a society are we so hell bent on classifying certain individuals into certain categories? With increased investigation, even Darwin admits that “it is interesting to contemplate…and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other, in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us” (Darwin 398). Is he talking about ideas? Is he talking of how all different subject matters ultimately mesh together in order to create an image more perfect than the last? Is the reason why we specialize in different subjects so when we all ultimately come together we have something more to offer to the big picture? Was Darwin simply offering us one take on the process of gaining perfectibility in hopes that others would follow suit and offer their own idea?

With every story that is developed, there are questions that are formed, and from those questions, more questions and stories. Darwin has offered the global community a story, with both philosophical and scientific components that provide for more questions and more stories to be formed in the hopes of ultimately getting the story more right- a story that will be, in a true sense, survival of the fittest.





Works Cited

 BIBLIOGRAPHY Hegel, G. (1831). Introduction to The Philosophy of History. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Judson, O. (2009). The Origin of Darwin. The New York Times , A35.

Philosophy. (2009, February 12). Retrieved February 2009, 2009, from Wikipedia:





Tim Ackerman's picture

Hegel & Darwin

The isomorphism of the 2 systems, evolution and dialectic are undeniable. Did you ever find out if there was a lineal or causal connection between the two?

They were both certainly a product of 19th century idealism which views basically everything as process rather that static "creation". Arguably this view has been integrated into today's "Weltanschaung" to the the degree that it is virtually a seamless part of contemporary thought. We seem to be able to do without the apotheosis or "perfection" part of the argument as inviduals such as Steven J. Gould have shown us that things are much less linear and tidy than some would have liked to have believed.

The discovery and elucidation of the DNA mechanism seems, if anything to add force to the "progressivism" concept (even though decadence and retrograde movement are also possible).

Please let me know if you have any insight as to whether there was any specific or direct influential connection between thse two great minds.

Tim Ackerman - Haverford '68, UCSC History of Consciousness '70

Anne Dalke's picture


You step off of the binary which structures this course—science “vs” literature—to consider the degree to which Darwin might be considered a philosopher. You argue for his inclusion in the “category philosopher” based on his similarities to Hegel….

So my first question has to do with your mode of argumentation: this is categorization based not on common descent (they are not writing in reference to the same previous writers?) but on shared characteristics/claims? Is your argument then essentialist?

My second question is a historical one: when did Hegel write? When did Darwin? Would one have been aware of the work of the other? Is there any record? Are there any influence studies? Mightn’t they share a commonality that comes from age, geography, religion, temperament, or any one of another range of factors, rather than discipline? How to distinguish the various possible sources of overlap and influence?

The philosopher-scientist Paul Grobstein and the philosopher Daniel Dennett both treat Darwin as an empiricist who didn’t philosophize, but your paper works as a good introduction to the next section of the course, in which Dennett will lead us into a contemplation of the philosophical implications of Darwin’s ideas. How much of that is embedded in Darwin’s own prose, rather than speculations which followed from it, is a nice question indeed.