Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Aristotle (384-322 BCE) represent the greatest dichotomy of thought regarding the concept of time and its influence upon natural history (science) and philosophy. Separated by the vastness of time and intellectual advancements of their respective eras, the temporal concepts of finitude (infinity and the finite) are juxtaposed within both a cosmological and a human ontological and teleological framework. In the works of both thinkers, issues concerning the temporal nature of the universe, Earth, and humankind were explored for the ultimate understanding of both humanity and humankind’s place in nature. With the combination of both acute observations of the natural world and rational speculation, Darwin’s and Aristotle’s individual contributions marked a theoretical shift that brought about a conceptual revolution that still reverberates in the modern world. A diachronic perspective, as in this entry, affords a comparative view of the conflicting metaphysical basis of time and the human experience as understood by these two key figures.
Aristotle, father of biology, taxonomy, and logic, provided a comprehensive view of nature that was separate from prevalent or traditional mythology or superstition. Although some works survive only in fragmentary form, his noted works titled Physics and Metaphysics provided essential clues as to the conceptualization of time, being, and ontological fulfillment within a logical and categorical framework. In this framework, matter and form became united within a developing and finite ontology and finitely directed teleology of the underlying substance (essence). The implications for species’ ontogeny, especially with the human primate, become explicitly clear when examining the nature of change and humans’ relationship within the natural world.
The relationship between a geocentric universe and nature was depicted as a series of processed actualization, such as an ebbing flow of potentiality to actuality, within the backdrop of the eternal and finite universe. Individual development, initiated and sustained by the “four causes” of change, results in the actualization of being. Categorically, each being expresses the qualitative “soul” that is essential in the Form for that particular living thing, example, vegetative, sensitive, and rational. Expressions of the soul, driven by the final cause, manifest themselves in terms of motion (e.g., spatiotemporal measurement of physical growth and development). Although physical changes are expressed (e.g., ontogenetic development), the substance and incorporated soul of living things remains fixed. For Aristotle, species are fixed within nature. However, it is important to note that the cosmological aspect of all motion is eternal and originated from the Unmoved Mover. It is the form and substance of the universe expressing a final cause from an eternal logos, or nous. The eternal and infinite intelligibility of the world reflects both the infinite and the finite nature of humankind.
Aristotle’s depiction of humankind’s place in nature is anthropocentric, whereby humankind is placed at the earthly apex within the Great Chain of Being. This placement is directly related to the human species’ possession of a rational soul and the ever-present potentiality of reason with the possibility of actualization. In terms of the temporal nature of being human, Aristotle acknowledges the finite aspect of existence. The soul, by which existence is irrevocably linked to form, became viewed as temporally finite. Upon death, when animus ceases, the existence of matter and form are terminated in nonexistence. The psychological conception of time, on an individual level, is closely linked with the awareness of this mortality. In its totality, each species lives out its categorical existence within clearly defined teleological ends. For the human species, this Aristotelian perspective provides both psychological security and stability, that is, ontological and teleological justification for ethical and political structures. Furthermore, these ideas were later adopted and adapted for theological purposes by Saint Thomas Aquinas (12251274), whereby the conceptualization presented by Aristotle, along with scriptural interpretation and dogmatic thought, set the prevalent tone in the Western mind, in which the sciences operated. Nevertheless, changes in philosophical thought and the empirical sciences were established. The greatest divergence can be seen in the discoveries and theoretical perspectives of Darwin.
Charles Darwin, the renowned English naturalist, provided empirical evidence with rational speculation in support of a theory that was contrary to the established influences of Aristotelian thought within science and philosophy. Darwin’s perspective directly challenged the traditional concept of the temporality of the universe, Earth, and the nature of species. Along with explicit differences, such as in taxonomical relationships, there are implicit metaphysical implications that challenge the conceptual security of humankind and humanity. It was Darwin’s inquisitive mind and creativity that directed his early experiences as a naturalist on board the H.M.S. Beagle to postulate one of the most influential theories, the theory of organic evolution.
In the publications On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin presented the accumulation of empirical observations from the Galapagos archipelago and South America, with the contextual influences of Charles Lyell, Thomas Malthus, and Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck. This resulted in the dynamic assessment in the age of the earth in terms of millions of years, dynamics of populations, relations among species within an environment, and the mechanism for the appearance of new traits in a species. Together, the origin of species is not only rooted within the ancient natural history of the earth, geologically speaking, but also affected by the arbitrary pressures of natural selection. The process of natural selection, resulting in species’ proliferation or extinction, is temporally finite on an individual level and gradually finite on a species level, resulting in a gradual and nondirectional speciation. This illustrates the precarious nature of existence. The existence of each species enters into a spatiotemporal relationship that stresses not only the unity of life but also the common struggle for the continuity of existence as a species.
Contrary to Aristotle’s position, Darwin held that humankind was a gradual product of evolution. Darwin speculated that humans share an affinity with primates (differing in degree and not in kind), and thus humans could no longer be considered the apex of life; rather, the human species, according to Darwin, is one part of a nondirectional continuum that is subjected to adaptation and the possibility of extinction. The process of change through time, not fixed within time, is key to the human species’ origin, development, and future. Although Darwin did not explicitly comment on the human species’ mortality, the metaphysical implications become evident. Humans were neither created nor designed, there is no teleological end, and a shared common ancestry (temporal continuity) with primates topples the Great Chain of Being. Furthermore, the metaphysical implications for theology are certain. Not only is the concept of the eternal soul rejected but also the theological underpinning of redemption and salvation of humankind’s eternal existence in a destined afterlife (which also includes reincarnation). Aspects of ethics (morality) and beliefs (e.g., eternal soul) are psychological adaptations within the primate social structure.
Contrasting the views of Aristotle and Darwin shows that the influences of each thinker are extremely profound. The dichotomy of their thought, in each instance based on acute observation, illustrates not only the temporal nature of the human species but also the temporal nature of science. On an individual level, time is relative to human existence. Science, on the other hand, is relative to the precocious timing of scientific advancements set within a social framework. For the first time in human history, metaphysics and science intersect with the ability to direct the future and timing of human evolution. However, each instance of progress, with its metaphysical implication, is ultimately subjected to the pressures of natural selection within an evolutionary framework.
See also Aristotle; Darwin, Charles; Evolution, Organic
Aristotle. (1983). The complete works of Aristotle, Vols. 1 & 2 (J. Barnes, Ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Darwin, C. (1964). On the origin of species. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1859)
Darwin, C. (1998). The descent of man. New York: Prometheus. (Original work published 1871)
Darwin, C. (2000). The autobiography of Charles Darwin. New York: Prometheus. (Original work published 1887)