The Darwinian tension

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 53:53-61 (2015)
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There have been attempts to subsume Charles Darwin's theory of evolution under either one of two distinct intellectual traditions: early Victorian natural science and its descendants in political economy (as exemplified by Herschel, Lyell, or Malthus) and the romantic approach to art and science emanating from Germany (as exemplified by Humboldt and Goethe). In this paper, it will be shown how these traditions may have jointly contributed to the design of Darwin's theory. The hypothesis is that their encounter created a particular tension in the conception of his theory which first opened up its characteristic field and mode of explanation. On the one hand, the domain of the explanandum was conceived of under a holistic and aesthetic view of nature that, in its combination with refined techniques of observation, was deeply indebted to Humboldt in particular. On the other hand, Darwin fashioned explanations for natural phenomena, so conceived, in order to identify their proper causes in a Herschelian spirit. The particular interaction between these two traditions in Darwin, it is concluded, paved the way for a transfer of the idea of causal laws to animate nature while salvaging the romantic idea of a complex, teleological and harmonious order of nature. Copyright © 2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

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Hajo Greif
Warsaw University of Technology


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