Hegel and Evolution

Source: An Introduction to Hegel, Freedom, Truth and History. Stephen Houlgate, Blackwell 2005, pp. 173-4, reproduced here under Fair Use provisions.

Hegel has a profound interest in the way in which human consciousness develops through history. In his philosophy of nature, however, his focus on the logical connection between stages in nature goes hand in hand with a lack of interest in attempts to explain how natural phenomena emerge in time. As I argued in chapter 5, he leaves it to natural science to shed light on the natural history of the solar system or on the origin of life. In one case, though, he is not just indifferent but actively hostile to the idea that there is a natural history to be uncovered. To the discomfort of many who are otherwise persuaded by his philosophy, Hegel rejects outright the doctrine of the evolution of species. I do not propose here to provide a detailed study of Hegel’s views on evolution or of the compatibility between his philosophy of nature and Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. A few words on these two topics are, however, necessary.

Hegel, of course, knew nothing of Darwin’s theory: he died twenty-eight years before The Origin of Species was published in 1859. He would have been familiar, however, with the evolutionary theory of Lamarck, who assumed that lower organisms were generated spontaneously and that higher organisms then gradually developed from them (through, for example, the transmission of acquired characteristics). Hegel makes his hostility to evolutionary theory clear at the beginning and towards the end of the Philosophy of Nature. In the Introduction, for example, he states that ‘it is a completely empty thought to represent species as developing successively, one after the other, in time.... The land animal did not develop naturally out of the aquatic animal, nor did it fly into the air on leaving the water.’ In his discussion of geology in the section on organics he admits that the earth has a history during which life itself emerged, but he repeats his rejection of the idea that living species evolve into one another:

“even if the earth was once in a state where it had no living things but only the chemical process, and so on, yet the moment the lightning of life strikes into matter, at once there is present a determinate, complete creature, as Minerva fully armed springs forth from the head of Jupiter.... Man has not developed himself out of the animal, nor the animal out of the plant; each is at a single stroke what it is.”

Hegel’s anti-evolutionary stance obviously has its source in his philosophical interest in the logical rather than temporal relations between phenomena in nature. What he seeks to understand is not the historical process whereby phenomena in nature have come to be the way they are, but the logic that requires nature to have the structure that it now has: ‘the point of interest is not to determine how things were millions of years ago ... the interest is confined to what is there before us’ and to recognize in the present character of nature ‘the characteristics of the Concept’.” Hegel’s philosophical interest in the logical relations between natural phenomena leads him to place a special value on the science of comparative anatomy whose ‘great founder’ was Cuvier. Unlike evolutionary theory, in Hegel’s view, Cuvier’s science works towards the same systematic comprehension of nature as speculative philosophy, because it provides the empirical information that enables thought to discern rational, structural distinctions between animal species that now exist.

Given Hegel’s commitment to a synchronic rather than diachronic understanding of nature and life, it is clear that he would have had no greater interest in the Darwinian theory of evolution than in the Lamarckian theory. Pace Findlay, Hegel in the Philosophy of Nature is not ‘a philosopher of evolution’. There is a difference, however, between a lack of interest in something and outright hostility to it, and I see nothing in the very idea of speculative philosophy that justifies Hegel in rejecting, rather than simply being indifferent to, the idea of the evolution of species. It is quite possible to focus one’s own philosophical attention on the logical, structural differences between species, but also to allow other scientists to study the process whereby such species emerged in time (just as it is possible to let scientists study the origins of the solar system and of life). In my view, therefore, Hegel’s philosophy of nature is not in principle incompatible with either the general idea of the evolution of species or Darwin’s particular theory of evolution by natural selection.

There is one aspect of Darwinian theory, however, that might appear to set it at odds with Hegel’s speculative philosophy: the emphasis placed by Darwinians on chance and contingency. According to modern Darwinian theory, accidental or ‘random’ mutations occur in organisms (due to errors in DNA replication) that can enable them to adapt to a changing environment better than other organisms. The organisms with advantageous mutations then survive and reproduce more successively than others, leading to the emergence of new varieties and eventually new species.” For the modern Darwinian, the emergence of higher forms of life, including human beings, is thus to a considerable degree, if not completely, a matter of chance. As Vittorio Hösle reminds us, however, Hegel himself accords ‘contingency’ a significant role in nature. For Hegel, there is a rational tendency towards life and consciousness in nature, but where and when they will emerge depends on circumstances that, from a philosophical point of view, are contingent. Furthermore, Hegel accepts that contingency plays a role in determining the different animal species that exist on earth.

Reason requires that life take the form not just of plant life but also of animal life, since only animal life is truly organic. There are also rational, structural differences between different kinds of animal (such as insects, fish, birds and mammals). Hegel acknowledges, however, that the element in or over which the animal moves – water, air or land – as well as the local geography co-determine the character of different animal species: animals are always suited to a specific environment. He also notes that ‘the species of animals are exposed to contingency’: hence the myriad of transitional forms that one finds in the animal world, such as mammals that fly and birds that don’t. For Hegel, therefore, reason, geography and contingency work together to create the species that populate the earth.

Hegel believes – contra Darwin – that species emerge fully formed and fixed. In my view, however, Hegel’s systematic philosophical interest in rational distinctions between animal species (and in comparative anatomy) does not justify this anti-evolutionary position, but is in fact quite compatible with the idea that species evolved from one another. Furthermore, Hegel’s recognition of the fact that contingency has a necessary place in nature suggests that his philosophy of nature may, indeed, be able to coexist with the Darwinian theory of evolution through natural selection. It is possible, of course, that ‘contingency’ does not mean exactly the same thing to Hegel and to Darwinians. In that case, much more work would need to be done to establish whether their respective views are compatible.

Further exploration of the relation between Hegel’s speculative philosophy of nature and Darwinian evolutionary theory must, however, await another occasion.

Text of Philosophy of Nature - Houlgate on Philosophy of Nature

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