By Dr. Blake Hestir
The eccentric pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles of Acragas in the mid-Fifth Century B.C.E. heroically wrote in dactylic hexameter of the origin of animals:
By her [Love] many neckless faces sprouted,
And arms were wandering naked, bereft of shoulders,
And eyes were roaming alone, in need of foreheads. (Trans. McKirahan)
Many came into being with faces and chests on both sides,
Man-faced ox-progeny, and some to the contrary rose up
As ox-headed things with the form of men, compounded partly from men
And partly from women, fitted with shadowy parts.
Aside from an interest in surreal barnyard animals—and if sources are correct, a penchant for wearing purple robes, a gold crown, and bronze shoes—Empedocles was an avid intellectual whose poems were well stocked with philosophical insights about the nature of the cosmos and how one ought to live. One of his remarkable views suggests that the sundry species of living organisms did not come about for some natural purpose or end (telos), but because their parts randomly combined to form creatures that could survive and reproduce.
Empedocles thinks the cosmos consists of four elements or “roots,” earth, water, air, and fire, as well as two natural principles or forces, what he calls Love and Strife. By Love what is unlike is attracted to what is unlike, and by Strife like attracts like. Under the influence of these principles, the elements mix randomly over time to form compounds, eventually the parts of animals, which are “fitted together” into various configurations, some amusingly grotesque like the man-faced ox-progeny. Humans, other animals, and plants are those combinations that retained the ability to survive and reproduce due to the fortuitous arrangement of their parts.
Empedocles makes no mention of humans holding any special status over animals and plants, and in fact in his religious writings, he claims that humans return again as animals or plants:
For I have already once become a boy and a girl
And a bush and a bird and a [mute] fish [from the sea].
And further that justice is universal and extends to all living things:
But what is lawful for all extends far
Through the wide-ruling aither and through the immense glare.
There are accompanying prohibitions against eating meat and even some plants. Remarkably also, Empedocles’ view of the generation of animals looks something like a proto-evolutionary view (or perhaps de-evolutionary depending on whether the cosmos is moving towards a dominant period of Strife or Love) with some nod towards something vaguely similar to what we post-Darwinians have come to describe as natural selection. But it would be a long time before Darwin.
Why so long? One significant obstacle to the proliferation of the Empedoclean conception of biological development—aside from its poetic obscurity—was Aristotle, who in the Physics outwardly attacks the randomness at the heart of the Empedoclean cosmogony. Aristotle argues that the random “fitting together” of parts cannot account for the regularity and complexity of nature.
Aristotle replaces randomness or material “necessity”—that things are the way they are exclusively because of their material nature—with what he considers the more plausible and defensible explanation: nature is inherently purposive. Enter the Aristotelian teleological worldview.
In his biological work the Generation of Animals, Aristotle writes, “we must not say that each [of the products of nature] is of a certain quality because it becomes so, rather that they become so and so because they are so and so” (Gen. An. V.1). On Aristotle’s view, nature does not operate randomly as a series of “pushes” by material composition, but rather as a series of “pulls” by essence into proper form. Each type of living being is shaped by its characteristic essence that explains what it is and what it is for. For example, a human is essentially a rational bipedal animal. To reason is our natural purpose, the cause of our existence as human. We are pulled into our fully functional form by our natural telos.
An implication of the Aristotelian view is that although creatures such as humans, lions, dogs, fish, and birds, etc. share the feature of being animals, each species is essentially different from the other species. So, humans are essentially different from other animals—this biological difference amounts to a metaphysical difference. Moreover, Aristotle thinks that the rational faculty is the most divine of all, and so humans are naturally positioned above the other animals to the extent that all those creatures lack the rational faculty.
Aristotle’s response to the materialism of Empedocles, as well as that of the ancient Greek atomists, was important and influential. The strength of Aristotle’s position was due in large part to his rigorous methodological and systematic approach to science. Yet the dominance of the Aristotelian worldview perpetuated an unfortunate speciesist attitude toward animals. In the end, Aristotle’s teleology and accompanying view of animals was to win out over Empedocles’ man-faced ox-progeny, at least for a while. The resurgence of materialism and science during the Modern period marked the beginning of the end of the Aristotelian paradigm. Darwin would deliver the final blow.
Blake Hestir is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Texas Christian University.
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Aristotle. Generation of Animals. Intro., text, trans. A. L. Peck. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963. Print.
The Complete Works of Aristotle. Ed. J. Barnes. Princeton, NJ: PrincetonUniversity Press, 1984. Print.
Henry, D. “Generation of Animals.” A Companion to Aristotle. Ed. G. Anagnastopoulos. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 368–84. Print.
Johnson, M. Aristotle on Teleology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.
Kirk, G.S., J.E. Raven, and M. Schofield. The Presocratic Philosophers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957/1983. Print.
Lennox, J. Aristotle’s Philosophy of Biology: Studies in the Origins of Life Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.
McKirahan, R. Philosophy Before Socrates. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co.,Inc., 1994. Print.