Darwin on Aristotle

Journal of the History of Biology 32 (1):3-30 (1999)
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Charles Darwin's famous 1882 letter, in response to a gift by his friend, William Ogle of Ogle's recent translation of Aristotle's "Parts of Animals," in which Darwin remarks that his "two gods," Linnaeus and Cuvier, were "mere school-boys to old Aristotle," has been though to be only an extravagantly worded gesture of politeness. However, a close examination of this and other Darwin letters, and of references to Aristotle in Darwin's earlier work, shows that the famous letter was written several weeks after a first, polite letter of thanks, and was carefully formulated and literally meant. Indeed, it reflected an authentic, and substantial, increase in Darwin's already high respect for Aristotle, as a result of a careful reading both of Ogle's Introduction and of more or less the portion of Ogle's translation which Darwin says he has read. Aristotle's promotion to the pantheon, as an examination of the basis for Darwin's admiration of Linnaeus and Cuvier suggests, was most likely the result specifically of Darwin's late discovery that the man he already knew as "one of the greatest... observers that ever lived" was also the ancient equivalent both of the great modern systematist and of the great modern advocate of comparative functional explanation. It may also have reflected some real insight on Darwin's part into the teleological aspect of Aristotle's thought, indeed more insight than Ogle himself had achieved, as a portion of their correspondence reveals



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